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May 29, 2017

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A 'new'monument: Chungshan Great Hall

Until a few years ago, few places in Taiwan were as "off the beaten track" as Chungshan Great Hall(中山樓) in Yangmingshan(陽明山). And this despite the fact that it appears on the back of the NT$100 bill and is clearly visible from the main road between Taipei and Yangmingshan, on the right just before reaching the main bus terminus on the mountain.

Until the end of 2005, this was the site of National Assembly meetings and other high-level government events, national banquets and receptions for important foreign dignitaries, and was completely off-limits to the average citizen. Then, to everyone's surprise, the barrier swung open to accept pre-booked groups a year or so ago.

Now, although it's still not widely known, Chungshan Great Hall is open to individual visitors who turn up at the front barrier (just off the main road to Taipei). Walking past the guard hut, the wide approach road climbs gently beside a stream ducted through a concrete channel, carrying water from the hot spring in the grounds of the Great Hall.

The smell of sulfur already hangs in the air and becomes stronger as the huge edifice draws close. Finally the road widens into a parking area in front of the building itself, and steps lead up to the main entrance below the great dome. This place is huge!

Chungshan Great Hall, founded in 1965 to commemorate the centenary of Sun Yat-sen's birth, might not be an old building, but it's quite an astonishing one — in several ways. Firstly there's the little fact that it was completed in just thirteen months, by a taskforce of 1,200 retired soldiers who'd fled to Taiwan with the nationalist army in 1949.

Looking at the speed in which modern apartment blocks are built these days this might not seem especially eye-opening, but walk up the steps and enter this vast, palatial structure and it seems amazing it didn't take twice as long. Also, the architect was (extraordinarily for those days) a woman, Ms. Xiu Ze-lan(修澤蘭).

The location of the Great Hall, at the foot of Seven Star Mountain, was carefully selected for its exceptional feng shui. The fact that a sulfur well lies directly under the selected spot was no deterrent: the workers went ahead and built the hall right on top anyway, and the concrete was sealed with asphalt to protect it from the corrosive effects of the sulfur fumes.

To this day, the Great Hall remains one of very few buildings in the world built directly atop a sulfur vent. As if this wasn't enough, the ground on which the hall stands is half granite and half soft earth, which is prone to subsidence.

Tours of the hall's interior all stop at the visible line along the floor at the bottom of the stairs marking the boundary between the two, and docents point out that, even during the great earthquake of 1999, the Hall suffered no damage.

Entering the Great Hall (visitors actually get to use the main entrance), a statue of Sun Yat-sen stands in the middle of the circular entry hall, with one hundred steps ascending behind to the second floor.

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