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May 27, 2017

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Shilin Residence opens to the public

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Spanning over 1,300 square meters with a botanical wonder as its backdrop, the grayish blue mansion that served as former President Chiang Kai-shek's last residence was opened to the public on the second day of the new year.

"This historical ground was the place where the Honorable Chiang made several important decisions that altered the course of the Republic of China, such as the decision to hold Taiwan's first county-level election in 1950 and to redistribute land," said President Ma Ying-jeou at a ceremony officially unveiling the site.

Ma said the purpose of the NT$116 million (US$3.86 million) restoration project, which started in 2008, was to provide future generations the chance to learn "the real history" of the country.

"I have always insisted we must present history in the most authentic fashion so we can learn from the past by avoiding the mistakes and replicating the good decisions made by our forefathers," he added.

Admission will be free during the six month soft opening period from now through June but the number of daily visitors will be limited at 860. Online reservation is slated to be available next month.

Ma said Chiang, who ruled Taiwan with an authoritarian hand, was in position to make crucial decisions and "thus must be held at the highest level of accountability."

The two-story mansion was the last place where Chiang and his wife Chiang Soong Mei-ling resided for over 25 years from 1950 to 1975 before his death on April 5 of that year.

The picturesque estate situated in the Shilin District of Taipei City is considered the core of the site known as the Shilin Official Residence.

The surrounding garden and tree-lined roads have been a popular tourist destination since 1996, but the mansion was off-limits until Sunday.

According to Shao Ming-huang, head of the Kuomintang History Institute, the mansion also served as a formal reception hall for many distinguished foreign guests including former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

Eisenhower was the only incumbent U.S. president to visit Taiwan while the other two came while they were vice presidents, Shao said, noting that Nixon was the only foreign leader to spend the night twice in the residence.

"Many other foreign heads of state from places like Korea and Vietnam were also guests at the mansion. That period was truly the zenith of Taiwan's diplomacy," he said.

The rooms are elegantly decorated, mostly with Madame Chiang's own paintings. One of the rooms on the ground floor was used as a recreation room where the presidential couple watched movies, one of their favorite pastimes.

Besides hectares of flower gardens and several fish ponds, the compound also houses a chapel where the couple and other powerful political figures worshipped on Sundays.

Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-bin recalled the time when his father, a former general, lived in a green cottage behind the mansion when he was part of the presidential security detail.

A longtime Shilin resident who visited the historical site on Sunday described it as a window on Taiwan's history.

"Being in this place helps me to remember all the ups and downs this country has been through. It has not been such an easy feat for Taiwan to become what it is today," said 72-year-old Chang Dong.

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