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86-year-old painter saves neighborhood from demolition by turning it into a 'Rainbow Village'

'There are many things that I can't do anymore, but I can still paint. It keeps me healthy, and adding a little color can turn something old into something beautiful.'

86-year-old painter saves neighborhood from demolition by turning it into a 'Rainbow Village'
Cover Image Source: Rainbow Village

When faced with the possibility of losing the neighborhood he'd called home for decades, a military veteran did something he hadn't done since he was a schoolboy: he picked up a paintbrush. What began with a single hand-painted bird on Huang Yung-fu's bedroom wall years ago, has since exploded to cover every inch of concrete in a former Taiwanese military settlement that was set to be torn down by the government. "Ten years ago, the government threatened to knock this village down," the self-taught artist told BBC. "But I didn't want to move. This is the only real home I've ever known in Taiwan, so I started painting."


Today, the village's paint-splattered streets attract millions of visitors from across the world to experience its whimsical world of tiny tigers, whiskered kittens, wide-eyed pandas, peacocks, dancing samurais, floating astronauts and kissing sweethearts. Every corner of the former settlement—now known as the Rainbow Village—is a vivid dreamscape inspired by Huang's childhood memories and imagination. "People who come here sometimes compare his art to Spanish painter Joan Miró or Japanese animator and film director Hayao Miyazaki. He just paints what he feels and what he remembers," said Lin Young Kai, a staff member at Rainbow Village who helps the village's elderly artist and lone permanent resident, affectionately known as "Grandpa Rainbow."


Born outside Guangzhou, China, Huang still remembers drawing with his father at age five. He left home as a 15-year-old boy in 1937 to fight the Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War. After World War Two, Huang joined the fight against Mao Zedong's Communist government as the Chinese Civil War raged on back home. When the Nationalist Party was defeated in 1949 and Zedong created the People's Republic of China, Huang and two million other troops and their families followed its Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, to Taiwan. To accommodate this influx of refugees, the Taiwanese government housed retreating military families in hundreds of 'military dependents' villages' throughout the island.


Although these hastily built settlements were only meant to be a makeshift place for soldiers to lay low until the Nationalists could retake the mainland, that time never came. Over the years, the humble dwellings became home for their residents. When he finally retired from the military in 1978 with a gold medal for 'Defending Taiwan,' Huang too gathered his savings and moved into a bungalow in the village where he's lived happily for more than 40 years. However, as many military dependents abandoned their homes over the decades, the Taiwanese government launched an aggressive campaign in the 1980s and '90s to demolish the crumbling settlements and replace them with high-rise condominiums.


"When I came here, the village had 1,200 households and we'd all sit and talk like one big family," Huang said. "But then everyone moved away or passed away and I became lonely." By 2008, developers had snatched up all but 11 of the settlement's original 1,200 homes and soon Huang was the last resident left. But when he received a letter from the government, that summer, ordering him to vacate the village, he decided to defend his home with art. At the age of 86, Huang began painting his Taiwanese settlement into a real-life storybook featuring playful murals in kaleidoscopic colors.


One night in 2010, while decorating the drab cement walls, pavement and windows with his art, Huang caught the attention of a student from nearby Ling Tung University who was moved by his solitary battle to keep off the government's bulldozers, one brushstroke at a time. The student set up a fundraising campaign to purchase paint for Huang and launched a petition to protest the settlement's demolition. "People were amazed at this artist's passion and touched by students trying to help an old man," said Andrea Yi-Shan Yang, chief secretary of Taichung’s Cultural Affairs Bureau. "As news of 'Grandpa Rainbow' spread, it soon became a national issue. He had our entire society's attention and compassion." Soon, the city of Taichung's mayor was inundated by 80,000 emails urging him to preserve the settlement. Against all odds, the movement worked, and in October 2010, Taichung's mayor ordered the remaining 11 buildings, streets and surrounding areas to be preserved as a public park.


"It touches people's hearts looking at this man's work and hearing his story. It wasn't a violent protest. He wasn't asking for any help. He just loved his home," Yang said. Even after saving his neighborhood, Huang continues to paint. "There are many things that I can't do anymore, but I can still paint," he said. "It keeps me healthy, and adding a little color can turn something old into something beautiful." Although his health has deteriorated significantly in recent years, he is determined to take things one day at a time. "If I can get up and paint tomorrow, I will," he said, sitting back in his chair and watching the crowds pass. "If I can't, I will feel good knowing that this place will stay and make others happy."


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