RIP, Rainbow Grandpa

The artist and creator of Rainbow Village passed away today, aged ~101…

Rainbow Grandpa, Huang Yung-Fu, posing at Rainbow Village, Taiwan.
Rainbow Grandpa (Huang Yung-Fu; 黃永阜); born January 16, 1924; died January 23, 2024. Photo: Zhen-Kang.

Rainbow Grandpa made an extraordinary contribution to human happiness.

I met Rainbow Grandpa twice: on my first full day in Taiwan in 2018, and again one year later.

He inspires me. His art’s on my fridge and in my office.

Only last week, I saw Rainbow Village for the third time: on day 8 of my scooter ride around Taiwan.

Below, republished in memoriam, is what I wrote about visiting the village in 2018 and 2019.

December 31, 2018

Tai hao le!

Forty-five minutes from Taipei, the bullet train arrived at Taichung High Speed Rail Station. I wandered through the station and out to the taxi area, having forgotten to translate my destination in advance.

I was ushered into a cab before I reached for my phone to image search ‘rainbow village’. I showed the results to the driver. And around 15 minutes later, I was there.

As the story goes, a few years ago an elderly man was the last person in his village. A veteran of the Chinese civil war, he’d moved there after the army retreated from mainland China in 1949. But over time, everyone else in the village had left.

Finally, in 2010, the government earmarked his village for demolition.

Bored and alone, the old man had started painting to pass the time. His first painting was of a bird on an inside wall of his soon-to-be-demolished house.

He then painted the outside of his house before eventually, in protest, painting every house in the village.

He covered the buildings in vibrant, happy art. Then after painting all the houses, he painted the village walls and fences and footpaths. He painted every surface from the eaves down, and some of the rooftops as well.

University students discovered his work, and began a public campaign to save the village. The citizens of Taichung got behind the cause, and eventually the government decided his village should be preserved.

The old man—who still lives in the village he painted—is now known as Rainbow Grandpa, the father of Rainbow Village.

It’s a story that would make for an inspirational non-fiction children’s book.

I can’t remember how I learned of Rainbow Village, but it was a worthwhile day trip from Taipei, on my first full day in Taiwan, on 31 December 2018.

Outside the entrance to Rainbow Village in Taichung, Taiwan, a woman looks at the village sign.
The entrance to Rainbow Village.
The forecourt outside Rainbow Village in Taichung, Taiwan. The concrete ground is covered in colorful art, as are the buildings in the distance. The forecourt is crowded with people.
The village square. You could enter some of the houses. One had newspaper clippings about the village, and another was a mini cafe.
A house with street number 31 in Rainbow Village. The walls of the house, and the ground, are brightly painted with abstract art.
House #31.
People talking in front of a mural that covers the wall of a house of Rainbow Village, featuring a cartoonish happy bear.
Rainbow Bear.
A mural painted by Rainbow Grandpa featuring the Rainbow Village mascot, a Taiwan Leopard Cat.
Rainbow Leopard Cat.

Rainbow Grandpa

I actually met Rainbow Grandpa. He was sitting at a merchandise stall, beside a newspaper clipping about him and the village.

I loved his art, and bought what I thought was a plastic-wrapped print (to discover later, it’s actually a plastic-wrapped document sleeve).

Rainbow Grandpa showed me how what-I-thought-were-prints-but-were-actually-document-sleeves, placed side by side, formed a panoramic photo of one of the buildings.

I only know five phrases in Mandarin. One of them is tai hao le! (it’s great!). So I tai hao le’d Rainbow Grandpa. He kind-of ignored me, and again showed me the two-part pano. (Back in New Zealand, I later tested my tai hao le on Mandarin-speaking friends who say my pronunciation is incoherent.)

I also gave him a thumbs-up, which he seemed to understand.

A mother and daughter pose for photos outside a brightly-painted house in Rainbow Village, Taichung, Taiwan.
I didn’t get a photo of Rainbow Grandpa, who was sitting to the right of this house.

Flowers in the distance

It came time to head back to Taichung High Speed Rail Station. Using the Maps app, I showed a taxi driver the location and he offered me a set price by typing it into a calculator.

After a couple of minutes, we driving through rice fields. The taxi ride to Rainbow Village had been entirely urban, so being suddenly in the countryside, I nervously checked my position in the Maps app. It looked like a legit shortcut.

Then, the driver stopped in the middle of the road. Which again made me nervous, until he pointed at flowers in the distance, said “beautiful!”, and made a shutter-clicking gesture.

I got out my phone, photographed the flowers, and gave him an enthusiastic tai hao le!

A field of flowers in a rural area outside Taichung.

December 7, 2019

One of the happiest places on earth

I’d been looking forward to Rainbow Village. It’s under an hour from Taipei by bullet train, in the suburbs of Taichung.

On my first visit I’d awkwardly met Rainbow Grandpa—the elderly man who hand-painted the village in protest at its planned demolition. This time I learned he has a hearing impairment, which I choose to believe is why he previously ignored my attempts at Mandarin.

In any case, he was friendly (and camera-friendly) this time: out-posing me in half-a-dozen photos.

After a couple of hours tasting the Rainbow, we planned to head to the city center to visit a famous ice cream shop. But our taxi driver said traffic was bad and we couldn’t get there and back to the station in time. And so—as it was for me on 31 December 2018—my second visit to Taichung was limited to only exploring Rainbow Village.

Which was totally fine: it’s one of the happiest places on earth.

The entrance to Rainbow Village, Taichung, Taiwan, on a bright sunny day. People are posing for photos outside the brightly-painted buildings.
Arriving at Rainbow Village.
A Taiwan Leopard Cat mascot painted on the wall of a house in Rainbow Village. Next to the cat, the word LUCK is painted on the wall.
Luck on the inside. The mascot on this wall is a leopard cat, an endangered species in Taiwan. Just 500 remain.
People taking selfies outside the Rainbow Bar, a cafe at Rainbow Village, Taiwan.
‘Rainbow Bar’.
Colorful concentric circles painted on the concrete ground surface around a tree that is growing through a hold in the concrete.
Rainbow courtyard.
96-year-old Rainbow Grandpa, Huang Yung-Fu, posing at Rainbow Village, Taiwan in December 2019.
Rainbow Grandpa: the man who single-handedly painted Rainbow Village. Here, he’s 95 years old and posing like a pro.

Note: Age is sometimes counted differently in Taiwan. By Western criteria, he probably passed away at age 100.