“I am the Rainbow Grandpa and the only one in this world.”
Words — Jamie Christian Desplaces
While the pen may well be mightier than the sword, it turns out that the paintbrush is mightier than a bulldozer, as proved by senior citizen Huang Yung-fu, who set about redecorating his deserted Taiwanese hometown in a bid to save it from destruction, telling Agence France-Presse in 2008: “I was the only person left in the village and I was bored. The first thing I painted was a bird inside my house.”
The 97-year-old’s colourful creations attract more than one million visitors per year and have been listed in lonle, as well as a slew of ‘Most Instgrammable Places’ lists. Now simply known as ‘Rainbow Village’, it springs from a former military settlement in the city of Taichung whose population totals 2.8 million, while the village is home only to Huang and his wife—who he did not meet until 2013 (more on that later!). It is one of only 30 of the original 879 such villages in the country, and, according to the region’s tourist board, the elderly, self-taught artist “paints his dreams out of on the wall and brings new life to the military housing”.
As for Huang, well, his life has been as colourful as his tens of thousands of creations.
Born outside the Cantonese capital of Guangzhou in southern China, Huang remembers drawing with his father as a child, later learning lion dancing and martial arts. He was only around halfway through his teens when he joined the nationalist Kuomintang army, first fighting Japan during the second world war, then the communist army of Mao Zedong. Following Zedong’s victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Huang fled to Taiwan, part of a two million-strong exodus of military personal and their families led by Nationalist leader, Chiang Kaishek. It was this mass-influx that resulted in the creation of hundreds of military villages such as Huang’s now ‘Rainbow’ one. The settlements were supposed to be temporary, until the retaking of the mainland, but with the entrenchment of the People’s Republic of China, that final push from the Nationalists never materialised.
Nearly 30 years after his arrival, Huang retired from the military having been honoured with a gold medal for ‘defending Taiwan’. By then, many of the villages had fallen into states of disrepair and the Taiwanese government soon began campaigns of demolition and urban redevelopment in their place.
“Ten years ago, the government threatened to knock this village down,” Huang tells the BBC. “But I didn’t want to move. This is the only real home I’ve ever known in Taiwan, so I started painting.”
His cartoons and abstract and surreal murals soon attracted outside attention, first from the nearby Ling Tung University, then from the mayoral office, and then from the government, with citizens calling for the village to be legally protected. As news spread, Andrea Yi-Shan Yang, chief secretary of Taichung’s Cultural Affairs Bureau admits that it became a “national issue” with the man garnering “our entire society’s attention and compassion”. Hunag’s work has been compared to Spanish artist Joan Miró and animator Hayao Miyazaki, from Japan. His paintings now occasionally complemented by messages of support from visitors on designated walls.
Huang continues to personally greet as many tourists as he can, and, though he insists that his artistic endeavours help keep him young, recent years have unfortunately brought about a deterioration in his health. But like his home, a hospital visit arrived with a silver lining. Following a severe bout of pneumonia in 2013, Huang fell for his elderly nurse—and their marriage doubled the population of his whimsical Rainbow Village! Since meeting his wife, Huang admits that though his lungs still sometimes cause pain, “my heart is better”.
“I am the Rainbow Grandpa and the only one in this world,” he jokes with the South China Morning Post. “Let me return now or the tourists will be wondering where I’ve gone.”
Should you ever wish to venture to the Rainbow Village and congratulate its creator, look for the bungalow whose front door is adorned by a painting of a smiling soldier with a paintbrush in his hand.