Towards the Easternmost part of Neihu District 內湖區 in Taipei City 台北, lie the remains of the Grace Hill Wedding Complex 麗庭莊園 – a now crumbling post-apocalyptic, modernist, fairytale, concrete fortress that just a few years prior to my visit in August 2017, was a lavishly extravagant wedding venue, and the setting for the happiest day of many people’s lives.
I ended up approaching the complex from the rear, along a path full of leaves that leads to the back entrance, and now seems to be used by locals as a shortcut to the main street Grace Hill faces out onto, which houses offices and furniture stores. From the few photos I’d seen prior to my arrival, I expected the site to consist solely of the wedding chapel itself, with it’s distinctive, simplified concrete and glass design, which results in a kind of pastiche of traditional European Church architecture. I certainly didn’t expect the huge buildings flanking it on either side to be part of the business and equally as interesting.
Grace Hill was formed back in 2005 by the Zhǎngxìng Wedding Company 長興婚禮事業有限公司 as a means of bringing the ‘House Wedding’ concept that had been gaining traction in Japan for a decade or so, over to Taiwan, which at the time hadn’t really caught on to the idea. If you’re confused (like I was) here’s the gist of it:
A ‘House Wedding’ is essentially one that takes place at a residence (usually large, like a mansion) with scenic outdoor space (often extensive gardens) and the key idea is that you, as a couple, have exclusive use of the entire thing – you’re not sharing the space with any other couples or members of the public like you might in a hotel or resort. Their popularity arose in Japan in the wake of the ‘Lost Decade’ of economic stagnation, where young, mostly urban-dwelling Japanese were growing increasingly frustrated by the Wedding Hall venues available at the time which were run for conveyor-belt style efficiency, rather than for an actual, pleasurable experience; with tight time limits and both the ceremony and reception occupying the same room, sometimes even with other marriages taking place right next to your own. They began to crave something akin to the lavish, more personal affairs depicted in Hollywood movies, where the couple have free reign over a large mansion and it’s idyllic, extensive grounds and you have input on every aspect of the entire occasion. Thus a new section of the industry was born –
Grace Hill was purportedly the first venue of this kind in Taiwan.
Within the Halls, you’ll find toilets, a booth from which someone controlled all of the projectors/sound systems (one contained a calendar from 2013 – just before Grace Hill’s closure early the following year), a bridal room that I assume was used for convenient, last minute touch-ups; and staff supply rooms which were still fully stocked with tablecloths, salt/pepper shakers, uniforms, cutlery, place cards, other associated paraphernalia; everything branded with the Grace Hill logo – even the sugar sachets – just so you never forget where you are.
Heading up onto the roof presents a pretty nice view of Jinmian Mountain 金面山 in the distance and, well, a view at least of the slightly-less-scenic freeway in-between. It’s also one of the very few places on the site that’s been subject to graffiti – Taiwanese street artists seem to know when to leave things be!
Back on ground level, I ventured into the RING bar and restaurant (yes that was it’s name), which is nice and bright inside, on account of the huge floor to ceiling windows that encircle the space within. The marble flooring has lost something of it’s lustre, due to the thick layer of dust and debris carpeting most of it, but the original tables and chairs have been left, along with a great deal of glassware, crockery and cutlery. An old tree (which as fair as I can tell is real) adorned with Roses, basks in the sun by the front windows and it all feels impressively pleasant, considering the state of some parts of the property.
Above the restaurant, are the offices – Grace Hill’s nerve center, which house the huge whiteboards denoting wedding dates, along with some very disorganised desks and filing cabinets. Curiously, the whole room was filled with scattered fake US $100 bills. The bills are almost certainly ‘Ghost Money’, but what’s a little more uncertain is why they were left there. Previous explorers may have thought it an appropriate thing to leave at an abandoned site to mess with subsequent discoverer’s heads, it could have been used for ‘safe’ gambling purposes without needing a license, or even left to appease spirits if someone had died there. I’m leaning towards the gambling hypothesis – or of course it could be Ghost Money for a Ghost Marriage.
The central chapel that is the main focal point of the site seems to float in place when viewed from in front, thanks to some clever architecture creating an optical illusion. The large staircase masks the thinner, lower base section that the chapel itself sits on, which houses the wedding reception area and showroom. At one point this space would have served as the showcase of all the luxurious trappings the venue offered: Wedding dresses on display, expensive wine (some of which is still festering in the corner), and a million catalogues to allow you to construct your own bespoke wedding package. These days the thick marble wall tiles are all gradually disengaging from their adhesive mounts and lie smashed on the floor where they fall and empty chocolate boxes, fabrics, cartons of whisky, and yellowing promotional materials are liberally strewn throughout the place. The basement level, which seems to have been used for storage purposes, is now under a couple of feet of water, just like the underground car park and kitchens, and was not an eventuality I’d prepared for in terms of footwear so I wasn’t able to explore these. C’est la vie.
The chapel itself almost looks ready to host another wedding – the chairs are all still neatly arranged in rows and, considering it’s had 3 years to be potentially vandalised and graffitied, it’s in remarkably decent shape. From the outside, I imagined that the interior would rely mostly on artificial light for illumination as the sides are solid concrete, however it’s brighter than you might expect, thanks in no small part, to the huge skylight built into the roof through which sunlight pours in. Dried flowers lay forgotten on the seating, along with a flimsy cardboard Cross covered in double sided sticky tape. Grace Hill had no religious leaning as it mentioned on it’s website – however that rarely stops the Christian iconography from being appropriated for being foreign and ‘cool’. In this case though, the cheap construction is rather at odds with the expensive and luxurious image Grace Hill tries hard to project, so my thoughts, are that it’s been left after a photography or video shoot that took place while it’s been abandoned. It wouldn’t be the first either – the picturesque setting of the Manor has been the backdrop for many productions while it was open, featuring in TV dramas such as 白色巨塔 and 天使情人 along with cookery shows, news segments, and music videos.
In 2007, the intriguingly named ‘Dears Brain’ company took over the running of Grace Hill at a cost of 80,000,000NT ($2,750,000 USD) in a bid to expand out of their native Japan, under an arrangement with the previous owners that seemed to also involve leasing the land on which it stands. Having already opened several branches across Japan at this point, they obviously (and wrongly) thought that now was the time for overseas expansion. Mere months after the takeover, there was already talk of opening a second branch in either Taichung or Kaohsiung, as well as other countries throughout Asia such as Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Malaysia which potentially gives us a little insight into one of two reasons that (in my opinion of course) caused them to fail: Over ambition. The other is almost certainly the deterioration of the relationship between Dears Brain, and the Zhǎngxìng Wedding Co which is mentioned in a 2009 blog post on their website. Apparently the two were engaged in a legal battle over payments relating to the lease of the site. Things evidently went further downhill from there as in 2013 (when I assume the contracted lease ended), Zhǎngxìng refused to renew it, resulting in the dereliction of the site as it stands today.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre things I dug up while researching this place, was this musical gem which was Grace Hill’s official ‘Theme Song’ that you could apparently get married to. This was originally available on their website circa 2006 for ‘Personal Use Only’, but I’m putting it up here for the historical record at least – certainly not the musical one. It’s oh-so-blatant Pachelbel’s Canon inspired General MIDI badness serve as a backdrop to some of the most saccharine lyrics your ears will hate you for ever hearing, and of course it’s in English too for bonus cringe points. I’ve made an effort to transcribe the lyrics below so you can sing along KTV style:
Grace Hill – “Shining Road”
How you feeling?
And did you sleep well?
I have never seen it feel so happy together
all the people here are happy together
the happiest celebration in the world!
Old age, so young
conscience in our lives
Cry together! Laugh together!
All the tears you’ve shed, and all the pains you’ve suffered
and all the fascinating memories
Today, the world is yours!
Oh, what a happy day today!
With two most beautiful words in the world
Happy smiles are everywhere, the sun is shining
It’s just the happiest place on Earth
One look at those gorgeous smiles on their faces
Living the most tryformalmative(?) lives
Happy to you! Come and join fill up with meal
A brighter future wager, with endless (i)maginations
Where nothing ever holds you back as long as those two hands are held
In this world, open the door
In this day a brand new life begins
Let us sing a special song made just for you*
*and everyone else who books a wedding with us.
Due to the recency of it’s dereliction and the comprehensive wedding video package services Grace Hill offered, there are hundreds of weddings you can watch on Youtube that were hosted by the venue. I’ve yet to find one that actually features this song – surprisingly most people didn’t seem to choose it for their ‘Happy Day’ – but I live in hope that there’s a masochistic couple out there who threw caution to the wind and just thought “to hell with it, it’ll do”.
The strangeness doesn’t end there though, there’s also this rather odd video seemingly produced by owners Dears Brain themselves, that I suspect was used for internal training purposes. It features a rather disaster prone wedding couple receiving the most attentive service despite all the odds and is better seen than explained, so here it is for your viewing ‘pleasure’:
And, yeah… I don’t think anything else needs to be said.
As of February 2018 while I write this, Dears Brain have zero overseas locations, although they seem to be doing pretty well in their home country, having last opened a venue within the famous Michelin Starred ‘Nakamurarō 中村楼’ restaurant based within Maruyama Park 円山公園 in central Kyoto 京都市 in late 2017, which I’m sure won’t have been cheap. As for the future of Grace Hill though, I can find no evidence that anyone is considering doing anything with the site at present. I definitely don’t think it’s beyond saving, the quirky architecture of the chapel would almost certainly attract buyers looking to draw attention to their business and the reception rooms are practically blank canvases that present a multitude of opportunities. Until that happens, I’ll leave you with this popular music video from 2006 that features the Grace Hill site in it’s former glory, and could very well serve as it’s swan song.
DT in the House!