“Little America” is how alumnus Rory O’Neil (‘74) describes his former home in Shanzaihou, Yangmingshan, where he lived from 1967-69. These “Little Americas” are clusters of U.S. military housing built in the 50s for military personnel stationed in Taiwan at the height of the Cold War. However, his former community is slowly disappearing. Today, only half of the homes still stand due to deterioration and lack of maintenance by the Bank of Taiwan, which owns and leases the properties.
O’Neil recently became invested in efforts to preserve his former home after his daughter visited Shanzaihou in 2013 and brought back photographs. Though he is currently living in the U.S., he helps to preserve Shanzaihou’s unique history by documenting it. He says, “I seem to have found a niche in organizing former residents, with a passion for better documenting the details of our stay.”
O’Neil’s former home remains close to his heart even after so many years. As Taiwan was his first overseas experience, he says, “My initial impressions were a combination of both shock and awe!” O’Neil misses exploring the bamboo maze and the caves nearby, as well as sliding down the rock in the river (Huáng X?) at the base of Mt. Shamao. Every Saturday, he would receive $10 NT if he finished his chores; he would then walk to the corner store to buy gum, firecracker popper balls and a bottle of super carbonated [Heysong soda].”“For the first time in my life, I was no longer relying on following the trail of older siblings, and was forced to create my own,” he says.
O’Neil says that he is grateful for his unique cultural experience, as these “Little America” communities were rich in culture, with diverse individuals such as vendors on bicycles to Buddhist monks passing through the area. “Little America” was a slice of authentic American life transplanted to Taiwan, but with local Taiwanese culture mingling in the background.
Fortunately for him, his home was occupied soon after the U.S. military’s departure, so it still stands today. Other unoccupied homes are less fortunate, despite the efforts of cultural preservation organizations to prevent them from rotting away. O’Neil says, “I am not convinced the Bank of Taiwan is doing enough. They continue to ignore the unoccupied homes that have suffered decades of neglect.” After these homes are leased, the high costs fall solely on the lessee. “I fear these high costs are in favor of businesses, not residents, and might be driving out what few residents remain,” he says.
His worry is not unfounded: today, many businesses thrive in Shanzaihou, making it a hotspot for visitors on weekends. The businesses have adapted the American houses to suit their needs, turning them into idyllic restaurants and cafes while preserving the American-style exterior. O’Neil says that small businesses leasing and renovating these homes represents an “acceptable, workable, and progressive compromise” between complete destruction for high-end development and extreme preservation that loses their charm. Still, he questions how many more businesses the area can sustain with the increased traffic and congestion that begins to destroy it.
O’Neil concludes that the best sign of a healthy community is the smiles and laughter of children, a result of small businesses establishing themselves in Shanzaihou. He says, “Wherever the line is drawn, it must include children.”