Taichung (CNN) — Residents of Taiwan's Rainbow Village are not your average fellow homo sapiens, but whimsical, brightly-colored animals.
Covered in vibrant colors and funky illustrations from the walls to the floor, the 1,000 square meter art park in Taichung, central Taiwan, has been an Instagrammers' favorite thanks to its kaleidoscopic visuals, attracting around two million visitors per year before the Covid-19 pandemic.
People don't visit just for its aesthetics, they also love its backstory: The village was once on the verge of demolition, but one veteran's simple action of painting saved it and gave it an even more glamourous second life.
In 2007, Huang Yong-fu -- then 84 years old -- learned that his home was going to be demolished and the land sold to developers.
Born in Guangdong province in mainland China, Huang was constantly on the move during his life as a soldier.
He fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War, lived in Hong Kong, then joined the Nationalist army on Hainan Island to fight the Chinese Civil War before retreating to Taiwan with the troops led by Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 following their defeat.
He went on to serve at an airbase in southern Taiwan and finally retired as a clerk at a recruit training center in Taichung. Since then, he had been living in a military dependents' village, one of the many communities built to accommodate Nationalist soldiers who fled to Taiwan, as well as their families.
An artist touches up a detail at the Rainbow Village.
To bid farewell to his home of nearly 30 years, Huang picked up a brush and started painting his furniture. Playful images of imaginative creatures and local superstars were brought to life one after another, crawling from his wardrobe, desk and stools all the way to the exterior walls and the neighbors' abandoned houses.
Little did he know that his fate -- and that of his beloved home -- was about to take an unexpected turn.
When students from nearby universities discovered Huang's artwork, photos of the colorful buildings went viral online. The 11 houses covered in quirky paintings quickly became a photo hotspot under the nickname of "Rainbow Village," leading to a petition campaign to save it from demolition in 2010.
The Taichung City government eventually agreed to keep the village and turned it into a public park in 2014. Huang, now 98 and known as "Grandpa Rainbow," was allowed to stay and continue his daily routine -- painting the village and greeting visitors.
Paintings of blessings
Wei Pi-ren, 68, has been supporting Huang since 2010 and shares his vision for the village. "We want this place to be fun, healing and romantic," he tells CNN Travel.
For decades, Wei has been working to preserve the culture of military dependents' villages and assisting veterans like Huang with hospital visits. When Huang's younger brother from Hong Kong asked him to look after the veteran and his art, Wei founded Rainbow Creative and recruited young artists and staff to maintain the park.
The company's art director, 34-year-old Lin Yang-kai, has been painting and studying with Huang for nine years. He is also keen to help the veteran who "experienced wars and separation from his family, but still remains innocent and pure" spread positive energy through his art.
Grandpa Rainbow is depicted in his military uniform, paintbrush in hand.
"His wish is simple," explains Lin. "He wants people to enjoy their time here. They can take photos with the illustrations and Chinese blessing phrases and take the happy memories home with them."
Love and family are repeating themes in the village. Lin believes they reflect what Huang longed for but "was never allowed to have as a soldier during wartime."
"The murals are mainly about family, love, success, friendship and health -- simple happiness we take for granted and have never fought hard to get," says Lin, pointing to an illustration of a happy family sitting around a dinner table. "He finds comfort in painting them."
A legacy to last and thrive
Due to health concerns, Huang is currently living at a separate location and rarely visits the village himself.
Still, Rainbow Village -- which no longer has any residents -- has developed its own life. It keeps evolving as the murals are repaired and renewed by painters like Lin.
Five years ago, Wei and the team came up with an idea to make sure Huang's creative energy and spirit won't be confined by the size of the village or Huang's health conditions.
34-year-old Lin Yang-kai hopes to take the mantle of the Rainbow Village in the next generation.
"He was painting new things every day and we eventually ran out of wall space," laughs Wei. To solve the problem, Wei rented a warehouse and ordered customized stone boards for Huang to paint. "Grandpa Rainbow and our art team have created numerous new paintings on the boards. They can be screwed onto the walls and displayed anywhere anytime in the future."
But Wei's ambition doesn't stop here. The company plans to bring Huang's art to more people by building seven Rainbow Villages across Taiwan, representing the seven colors in the rainbow.
"The villages will feature stories and food of military dependents' villages, and of course, Grandpa Rainbow's murals," says Wei.