Around 10 years ago, Huang Yung-fu’s life turned upside down. After living more than 40 years in a village built for former soldiers, Huang had expected to live the rest of his life in a tiny village in Taichung, Taiwan.
Over the years, however, residents abandoned their homes, and many of the dwellings began to deteriorate. Considered prime real estate, the government planned to demolish Huang’s village to make way for high-rise condominiums.
Faced with the prospect of losing his home, Huang, despite his age, did something different. He picked up a brush, and painted a bird in his bedroom.
Cats, people, and airplanes followed. After painting his home, Huang moved on to the buildings and streets of the abandoned village.
Huang would paint for hours, and one night, a student from nearby Ling Tung University saw him and heard his story.
After taking pictures of Huang’s work, the student raised funds to buy paint for Huang, and started a petition against the settlement’s demolition.
With thousands of emails pouring into the office of Taichung’s mayor, the government relented and in October 2010, the mayor decreed that the remaining 11 buildings, streets, and surrounding areas of the village be preserved as a public park.
“The government has promised me they will keep this house and this village,” Huang said. “I was so happy and thankful.”
Born outside Guangzhou, China, Huang left home at 15 to fight the Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War.
After World War II, Huang sided with Chiang Kai-shek against Mao Zedong, and fled to Taiwan after the defeat of the Nationalist Party.
Huang was stationed in various airbases, then retired in 1978 with a gold medal for ‘Defending Taiwan’.
Huang’s was one of 879 villages built for military families that fled China. These makeshift dwellings were meant to be temporary, but soon became permanent as the opportunity for the Nationalists to retake mainland China never came. Only 30 of these villages remain.
Huang was offered money to move out, but he couldn’t bear to leave the only home he had ever known in Taiwan.
“When I came here, the village had 1,200 households and we’d all sit and talk like one big family. But then everyone moved away or passed away and I became lonely.”
By 2008, only 11 settlements remained while the rest had already been acquired by developers. Huang was unmarried, had no family, and had nowhere to go. So he stayed until he was also the only resident left.
Today, the village with buildings painted with rainbows has become a kaleidoscope of colors, filled with cartoons, abstracts, and surrealist art.
Dubbed the Rainbow Village, Huang is now affectionately known as Grandpa Rainbow. The art is inspired his childhood memories and imagination, with images of a puppy he had as a child, favorite teachers, as well as happier times with family in the countryside.
“There are many things that I can’t do anymore, but I can still paint,” Huang said. “It keeps me healthy, and adding a little color can turn something old into something beautiful.”
The settlement with colorful buildings has become a tourist attraction with more than a million visitors each year and widespread media attention from groups such as the BBC.
Volunteers help Huang sell postcards and illustrations of his work to pay for paint and living expenses. Part of the income also goes to local organizations that help the elderly.
To add to the happy ending, Huang’s story shows that it’s never to late for love. He found his Grandma Rainbow, an elderly nurse who cared for him after a severe bout of pneumonia in 2013.
They married, and now share Huang’s whimsical world. “Ever since I met her, only my lungs hurt,” he said. “My heart is better.”
Because of Huang’s age, there have been talks of expanding Rainbow Village into an arts school for children or turning Huang’s bungalow into a museum.
But Huang is taking things one day at a time. “If I can get up and paint tomorrow, I will,” he said. “If I can’t, I will feel good knowing that this place will stay and make others happy.”