US Military Housing in YangmingshanIn 2005, the Bank of Taiwan gradually began to plan auctioning the Shanzaihou Military Housing complex, giving rise to opposition among local residents, who then organized the Shanzaihou Cultural History Workshop. The workshop busily engaged in two efforts. The first was to seek identification and support from society at large, and the other was to look for help from the government in stopping the Bank’s plan to sell the area to financial interests and developers. If this land was opened to building villas and large buildings, in addition to damaging the environment, there would be water shortages, pollution, traffic problems and also the dissapearance of the deep historical value of these homes.

Because of the efforts of these people, the Taipei City Department of Culture announced in 2008 that the American military homes would be designated “Historical Architecture”, and that temporarily, the Bank of Taiwan would be unable to auction the homes, leaving the people familiar with his archicture an opportunity. Your writer is one of the beneficiaries, lucky to be able to go to this historical architecture, and look in the nooks and corners of Taiwan for hidden stories. I don’t believe the future of the housing is a decision that the Bank of Taiwan can decide itself. This is because this architecture has deep historical meaning, giving evidence to the role Taiwan performed during the Cold War. At the same time it has a unique characteristic, because it was a place where two different types of cultures interlaced to jointly produce a life experience. If the area was turned into a housing complex just for the benefit of a few people, that would certainly be a bitter loss. We should understand our own history, only then can we protect it and remember our past. This architecture is a good educational site.

If we want to understand the cultural value of the American military houses, we should grasp and adhere to history and life experiences. The author was lucky to interview Ms. Dong, who was a domestic worker (“ama”) for American military families from 1963 to 1975. For twenty years, he footsteps have almost covered each military housing district in Shanzaihou, and also the surrounding Qingshan Road, and assorted American homes on Zhongshan Road in Tianmu. This article hopes to take her experience and memories, and begin to describe the emotions and lives behind the scenes of this place. One hope of the author is that this exclusive history will not be forgotten. At the same time, it is hoped that these memories and emotions can endow this historical site with new life, and develop its cultural value.

In order to understand the military housing complex at Shanzaihou, we should first understand some basic information. The housing complex was divided by military rank. Each district does not have the same appearance. The presently existing C-1, C-2, F, H-1, H-2 districts not only differ in their appearance, but at the time housed officials of different rank. Of course, each district had its unique life experience. In this article, each district is separated as a way to organize Ms. Dong’s memories, and depict the history of the complex.

Memories from Behind the Scenes of an Historic Site-The story of an Ama at the Shanzaihou Military Complex (Wu Cheng Jin)

First, a simple introduction to Ms. Dong’s background. She was born in 1949. Her mother also worked as an ama in the housing complex. Because her mother has already passed away, we can only inquire into her memories of being a domestic worker from Ms. Dong. She started working after she graduated elementary school. In the 1960s, the remuneration for being a domestic servant for the Americans was comparatively generous. Therefore, she learned the content of domestic work from her mother, and at the same time, looked for her own contracts with American homes. She frankly explained the bitterness of those times. Ms. Dong did not have time to hang out at home, but rather slowly grope around for some English to say or Western food to cook. She had to quickly learn everything, and then go into the workplace to earn money for her household. At the time, she and her mother each had their own work. The first time she worked was when she was thirteen. Ms. Dong recalls that she learned most of her work from her mother, including how to cook western food, how to wash, starch and iron uniforms. She also learned some daily English, but most of it she still had to learn herself, and she had to learn fast if she wanted to secure work. The salary of a domestic worker was relatively generous, and at the age of 20, she was earning more than 8000 NT per month. At the age of 26, she went to work in the MAAG headquarters accounting office as a sales auditor. Once, she was responsible for auditing all the military housing complexes in Taiwan, including CCK in Taichung, Tainan and Zuoying in Kashiung. By this time, it was already the 1970s. Over 12 years, she had worked at homes all over Shanzaihou, from districts A to F, and nearby Qingshan Road and various parts of Tianmu. American military personnel were rotated every three years, so she would often work until her employers were transferred.

American military families employed several different types of people to do housework. One type did domestic work, professionally looking after things in the house, cooking three meals a day, washing clothes, sweeping the house, and looking after young children. Another type was called a “yard boy”, or “car boy”. This type of person helped manage things outside, such as cutting grass, trimming hedges, washing the car and similar work. Domestic helpers had to go to the employers’ house everyday to work, but the “yard boy” only needed to go 3 to 5 times a week, or at least once a week. Amas were always women, and the “yard boys”, as the name implies, were always men. There were also lots of Americans willing to spend more money ,and hire more people to come and split the work. For example, there might be a professional cook or nanny, and sometimes there was also a male called a “houseboy”. At that time, you could say MAAG created a large job market in Shanzaihou. Lots of residents, and even students of Chinese Cultural University, who washed cars part time. All served as domestic workers or yardboys. Ms. Dong’s father was also a yard boy, but he has already passed away.

Americans did not call their female domestic helpers “maids”, but rather a rather the localized name ama. When Americans at that time would introduce their domestic helpers, they would say “this is my ama”. Yes, this word comes from the Minnan word for “grandmother”, but the way the Americans used it, it was closer to “aunt” or “lady”. This is quite different from “grandmother”. Lots of the first domestic helpers were a little old, so calling them “ama” was correct. Ms. Dong, who started work at 14 was also called “ama”, but later took an English name, Jenny. Most younger domestic helpers took an English name, and often used this name during work, and sometimes their employers did not know their Chinese names. Older domestic helpers, for example Ms. Dong’s mother, did not use English names, and were always called “ama”.

There is a Catholic church located on the corner of Qinggang Road and Ai Fu Second Street. According to the priest, the Church was originally very small, and could not fit that many people. However, this area was part of a district prohibiting construction. After MAAG went through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Church obtained the right to develop the property and that is the origin the current church. At that time, MAAG only provided capital. The design and construct work was left to the Church. We can easily see that this church blends Midwestern culture, gold tiles, and a Chinese style roof. There are also two pottery lions next to the entrance. When you enter the place, it is an interesting kind of feeling. The priest recalls that at the time, Chinese mass was at eight and English mass was at nine. The American military officers were very involved. He remembers, that in the beginning, there was a Lt. General who during Mass, would personally carry around the collection basket.

US Military Housing in YangmingshanThe four photos on the right show Ai Fu Second Street in District F. “Ai Fu” is meant to mean “F”. In the 1960s, this street was narrower and did not have towering cement walls. The American style housing used only plant hedges to divide private and public space, and was surrounded by large lawns. According to Ms. Dong’s impression, the cement walls and garage roofs were not built until after the Bank of Taiwan started renting the homes to Taiwanese people. Up to this day, the structures of the homes are as stable as before. The streets between the modern buildings are both mysterious and unique. The glittering roof tiles and white-walled western homes makes people feel like it’s another country. District F was for colonels and junior officers. Compared to all the other homes, they are larger in size and so are the lawns.

US Military Housing in YangmingshanThe pictures on the left are District H-2. This district’s single family homes were for generals and flag officers. They occupied a larger area and had better maintained yards. According to Ms. Dong, these higher ranking officers were older and often could not bring their whole families. Therefore, they did not need to manage children and the amount of food required for breakfast, lunch and dinner was naturally less. But these homes located in Districts C-2, F and H-2 were much bigger, and required a lot of energy to clean. For example, the curtains, window sills and all the furniture had to be cleaned. It basically took more than half a day to clean the entire house. But the most tiring and demanding work was washing military uniforms. Washing and starching was a big process for the domestic workers. Ms. Dong says that ironing uniforms was a science. After washing the clothes and drying them in the sun, they would be as stiff as a wooden plank. You would then use a sprayer to lightly wet the clothes, and then wrap it up in a cloth for a brief moment of time, waiting until the clothes softened. After words, you would iron area by area. It took an hour and half to iron one set of clothes. After it was ironed, it could be laid on the ground. This kind of work would busy someone for a whole day, but there was still some time to relax. At this time, the domestic workers at each house would go around visiting and gossiping with each other. Of course, they were all mostly people who lived in Shanzaihou.

In between Districts H-1 and H-2, the author found some homes that are stylistically unlike the western houses in the two districts (The two pictures below). These homes are not included as “existent” homes in the military district as defined by the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs. These homes are smaller, and were probably given to lower-ranking officers. Like the two photos at the top the page, these homes were divided by hollow cement walls, and were close to other apartments.

US Military Housing in YangmingshanMs. Dong said that these belonged to District E, and that most of them had been torn down, and turned into dorms for the Bank of Taiwan employee training center. It’s a great achievement that there are even these two houses left. In the beginning, the border between District E and District H was like a jigsaw, and therefore the houses are arranged as such. District E was for junior officers and non-commissioned officers. Ms. Dong has a very deep impression of this district. This is because when she was 15, she accepted a family that lived here that no one else was willing to accept. Why did no one want to work here? The family had 11 people. Besides the adults, there were children of every age group, the smallest could not even walk. It was really a tough job. She still remembers the daily routine.

She would start work every morning at seven. First she would prepare breakfast and lunch for everyone in the family. Military officers would often eat at work, but the wife would help them prepare food for the kids. Most military wives had part-time work, but some did not. After the adults went to work, and the children took their lunch boxes and got a truck to school, the ama would start to clean the house, wash clothes and look after the toddlers. This would last until evening. In the afternoon, the school bus would bring the children back. American elementary school students did not have homework, and would go out to play at this time. In the evening, the adults would return home, and the ama would work until after dinner. After she washed the dishes, she would go home around 7 or 8 PM. This was the normal situation. Military officers would sometimes have other activities like watching movies, bowling, dancing and so forth. In these situations, an ama had to look after the house until they came home. They would often not come home until after midnight. Ms. Dong’s mother would often not return home until one or two in the morning, and after a little sleep, get up again at four to wash her family’s clothes and go back to work at seven.

US Military Housing in YangmingshanOn the left is District C-1. At the time, it was for colonels and junior officers. This district has fallen into rather serious disrepair. After the cutting of ties between the ROC and the United States, it seems this area was not rented out by the Bank of Taiwan. This was the least developed district. We can still see the wooden constructions from the time, but most of them have been sealed off by the Bank of Taiwan. Only through the weeds can people get a glimpse of the old houses.

There is a very interesting rumor about District C-1. Ms. Dong says that it is widely rumored that the district is haunted. When she worked there, she looked after an infant who couldn’t walk yet. She remembers one night that she very clearly put the child to bed in its crib, but after doing something else discovered the infant lying on the living room sofa. She says that it was hair-raising to encounter such an incident in the middle of the night. The reason for these haunted rumors is probably because District C-1 was originally a large public graveyard. When the Bank of Taiwan acquired the land, they moved some of the graves a little far away to an area near Qingshan Road. The west side of district C-1 is still close to a public grave. In Taiwanese popular belief, “disturbing” dead people is prohibited. But the Americans did not consider respecting the taboos of thiUS Military Housing in Yangmingshans place other than standard diplomatic etiquette. .American children did not consider the dead to be feared counterparts. Ms. Dong once saw an American child take a dead person’s leg bone and play with it like a drumstick. Without saying any more, this was simply a great offense to this old woman. I believe cultural clashes like these were bound to often occur with domestic workers. Rumors of these kinds of haunting were very common, and actually have a long history. We should be able to see this was the kind of state of mind domestic helpers were in facing a culture clash.

Compared to the dilapidation of District C-1, C-2 looks bright, fresh and beautiful (The picture on the right). The district was built later, and each house is comparatively larger and open. Walking today through C-2, one still has the feeling of walking in another country. Passing through a shoulder high wall are flower beds belonging to Taiwanese. The houses tower across, and are very close. These two worlds are closely packed together in little Shanzaihou, interlaced to create a unique type of living style.

In the picture on the bottom left, a prominent outhouse can be seen. Hot water for showers was provided by heating water with a coal furnace. Of course, today, water heaters are used, and the old equipment can no longer be seen. The picture on the bottom right shows an entrance courtyard, but the garage scaffolding was added by Taiwanese residents.US Military Housing in Yangmingshan

Every holiday, amas had to prepare seasonal foods. Over the course of 12 years, Ms. Dong learned how to make Easter turkeys and pumpkin pies. Amas often baked cookies and other western deserts. Sometimes, Ms. Dong would bake cookies with her mom in their house. Because amas worked for so long, they often cooked western food, and their Taiwanese cooking skills were not as good. Every time, they would make western food, older people in the house would make a face. Ms. Dong keeps lots of cookie recipes on hand, and a western cookbook. At that time, these cookbooks were often circulated between domestic workers. You could say these were like work manuals. Even though it has been many years, the smell of pies and cookies are still fresh in her memory. They are a warm and nice flavor. Ms. Dong’s house still has a second hand stove and oven she bought from an American military family, the kind with four burners on the top and an oven on the bottom.


Roast turkey and steak were the kinds of food the American military would eat for dinner. They would wrap up some to give to the domestic workers. This kind of behavior makes people feel that between the employers and the workers, in addition to a contractual relationship, there was also a feeling like that among family. I think that in researching this history, you can’t neglect this part. Taking food back home was very “hot”. Ms. Dong’s younger brother joked that at the time the family only ate apples because they did not have other fruit, and that they only ate steak and turkey because they did not buy pork. Of course, Ms. Dong’s grandparents did not eat beef, so it was a prerequisite not to tell them they were eating beef. He said that little children all knew this so they said it was beef, so they could eat a little more. But their grandparents would give them an ugly face.

The law said that domestic workers had to have a day off each week. Each house was different, and would occasionally change which day it was. From the perspective of the domestic workers, this meant one less day of salary. They therefore, would like wind, switch houses with each other for a short time in order to continue working and making money.

Near the MAAG headquarters was a store selling daily supplies to American military personnel. Because it did not have to pay taxes, the prices were cheap. Domestic workers sometimes asked Americans to help them buy some of these things, for example, apples (Americans also often gave them apples from their home use), but because spending by Americans was limited, there were not many opportunities. Most of the things like apples brought back were from the Americans’ household. Often, one apple was cut into 8 pieces, and given to three generations of grandparents and children. Sometimes, they were secretly sold to a nearby grocery story, but this kind of black market was dangerous, so it did not often happen.

US Military Housing in YangmingshanIt wasn’t just American holidays that were celebrated by domestic workers, Americans would also do something during the Chinese New Year. The picture on the left is an American one-dollar coin. It was a gift given to Ms.Dong’s family during Chinese New Year. Several decades later, this coin has become a special souvenir, evidencing those days living with Americans.

Only one ama has provided so much precious information and evidence of this Cold War era life history. This is the authentic life of Taiwan and America’s experience of interaction, and the international role Taiwan played under the American containment policy. The author has only written half of these memories, the other half are the American officials, and the dependents who accompanied them. If we can find these American memories and then collocate the two sides, it will certainly endow this architecture with new meaning, and more completely record how fifty years ago, Taiwan faced the world and vice versa. The background to every house in Shanzaihou carries this kind of vitality. These are not just old homes, but historical evidence. But these witnesses are dying off. While interviewing, the author cannot help but feel very sad and helpless, We should take the opportunity to interview these people and get their first hand memories. The urgency of doing this is no less than protecting the houses themselves.

At the same time, these homes should be jointly maintained by common people and academics, no matter whether they be architects, builders, urban people, country people, photographers, environmentalists or historians. I believe they can all find personal enrichment in this complex and give back to society. We need this kind of educational method, memory and reflection, and not, because of the business cycle, destroy old sites, forget history or destroy culture.