There was a time when former soldier Huang Yung-fu’s quaint, little village at the edge of Nantun district in Taiwan, bustled with life. Over 1,200 households, mostly comprising military veterans, lived like a large single family. As years rolled, the elders passed away, one after another, while the younger generation migrated out.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the Taiwanese government embarked on a drive to demolish the withering and dilapidated settlements in Nantun, once constructed hastily to accommodate the military families. Urban developers stepped into the scene, eyeing the area to construct deluxe housing estates and skyscrapers. Residents were offered hefty compensation of up to $61,000.
By 2008, it happened so that only 11 of the 1,200 houses in Yung-fu’s village were left behind and 86-year-old Yung-fu, an unmarried man with no family, was the sole resident.
Yung-fu took up a weapon to fight the government
Needless to say, the government ordered him to vacate the village immediately. But, Yung-fu had known no home in the past 37 years other than his village. The gritty octogenarian, who had one of Taiwan’s highest military valour medals to his name, refused to move out. He resolved to stop his government from bulldozing his hometown to rubble.
Yung-fu picked up his weapon – a paintbrush, dipped it in some vibrant colours and allowed his imagination to fly. Soon, a summer bird came to life on the walls of his shabby bungalow. That’s where the story begins.
The Rainbow Village
Over the next few years, the lone crusader has been painting his entire village with mesmerising artworks, which now adorn the walls of abandoned homes and streets where nobody walks anymore. Even today, he wakes up at sharp 4 AM every day and sets out with his brushes and paint cans.
Ranging from folk art and indigenous quotes to abstract murals of people, animals and elements of nature – Yung-fu’s art is a melting pot of a plethora of emotions. Each of his murals tells a different story where sprightly-coloured animals dance around with astronauts and samurais accompanying them.
Interestingly, Yung-fu has no formal training in art and had never painted in 70 years, after his childhood experiments with painting and sketching. Born in Hong Kong, his life had known only the sights and sounds of a battlefield, ever since he joined the army at 15, to fight in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937. He fled to Taiwan later in 1949. During his career as a soldier, he was severely wounded by bullets twice, but survived through both of them.
Grandpa Rainbow & his determination
Huang Yung-fu is now recognised worldwide as Grandpa Rainbow, the 96-year-old creator of Rainbow Village – which was once fading into oblivion, like thousands of other such settlements across the world.
Though he started painting in 2008, his efforts did not come to light until two years later in 2010, when a young university student from the next town Taichung discovered Yung-fu at work while passing by the deserted township. After interacting with him, the student spread the word and crowdfunded to support Yung-fu with barrels of paint and other art supplies.
In October 2010, after being flooded by emails and appeals from petitioning citizens to save ‘Rainbow Village’, Taichung’s Mayor passed the official order to preserve the village as a community park. At present, Rainbow Village witnesses millions of spellbound tourists every year, who are always greeted by Yung-fu outside his home.
Finding love at 89
Though Huang Yung-fu had stayed unmarried almost all his life, his heart found its true soulmate in 2013 at a hospital, where he was being treated for pneumonia. An aged nurse who was looking after him soon became the love of his life, and a little later, his wife.
Earlier, a small donation box was placed outside Yung-fu’s doors which used to cater to all the costs of his minimalistic yet ‘colourful’ lifestyle. Now, a group of young art enthusiasts market postcards and illustrations of his art and fund his needs. The surplus, as per his wish, is sent to local homes and organisations caregiving for the elderly.
– With inputs from Eliot Stein’s story for BBC Travel.