It’s Monday morning during low season in Taiwan, but throngs of tourists are at this small village in the center of the island, wielding selfie sticks and cameras.
They move through the village, snapping away at the bright, colorful murals that adorn its houses and walkways. One couple has even come dressed in a wedding gown and tuxedo.
Initially a local gem, the Rainbow Village, as it is known, shot to fame after being featured in popular guidebooks such as Lonely Planet’s Secret Marvels of the World.
The village has since become an Instagram hotspot, even getting its own designated bus stop. It sees about 1.5 million visitors every year.
Part of the site’s popularity owes to its origin story. All the paintings were done by one main—97-year-old Huang Yung-fu—and they saved the village from being destroyed.
“I am the Rainbow Grandpa and the only one in the world,” says Huang, who has become a mascot for the site and nearly a victim of his own fame.
Last man standing
Originally from Hong Kong, Huang joined the army at age 17 and learned how to fly planes.
He was a member of the Nationalist army and fought against the Japanese during World War II.
Later, he fought against the Communists in the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan with other troops after the Nationalists’ defeat in 1949.
When the soldiers and their families landed on the island, they were housed in makeshift villages that were meant to be temporary. The Nationalists hoped they could still eventually retake mainland China.
As the prospects dimmed, the government in Taiwan gradually demolished the villages and moved the veterans to other apartments.
But Huang wanted to stay, and eight years ago, when his village was slated for demolition, he picked up the paintbrush and started painting on the walls of the remaining homes.
“I like to draw celebrities and sport stars,” says Huang, who has graced the walls with some of his era’s most well-known singers, including Fong Fei-fei and Pai Bing-bing.
The artwork caught the eye of students and staff at neighboring Ling Tung University. They started organizing social campaigns and successfully preserved part of the settlement in 2010.
Now, Huang and his wife are the only residents who remain.
Victim of his own fame
Huang’s work also began attracting the attention of agents who wanted a piece of the pie.
One agent, Lin Zhunan, tricked Huang into signing licensing contracts and sued Huang’s brother—who was the first to sign an agreement with Huang—for the copyright on his artwork in 2017.
Lin eventually lost the case, but he dragged Huang and his family through the mud by speaking to tabloids and painting Huang’s brother as a greedy, estranged sibling exploiting his brother’s newfound fame.
Rainbow Creative, the company that now runs the site, has taken care of Huang’s daily needs for the past eight years. It released a statement in December, demanding an apology from Lin and his company, but it has not arrived.
Lin is embroiled in yet another lawsuit, accused of scamming dozens of artists by claiming to help them apply for government subsidies, according to Apollo Chen, a lawmaker in Taiwan. In return, the artists signed contracts that granted Lin the copyright to all the works they produced in their lifetime.
Unable to wrap his head around the ordeal, Huang only grimaces, recalling how exhausting it was. Now that it’s over, he has settled back into his daily routine: napping in the afternoon and painting at night when the tourists are gone.
“I’m happy,” Huang says, “because this is my creation, and everyone comes to see it. And they all know me as Huang Yung-fu, the Rainbow Grandpa.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.