Tue, Dec 27, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan is losing its historic sites

By Hung Chih-wen 洪致文

Following the controversy over the cost of the -government-sponsored rock musical Dreamers (夢想家), people from non-governmental cultural circles got together and invited candidates from the three main parties contesting next month’s elections to present their views on cultural policy and answer questions about it.

Disappointingly, among the 12 questions prepared beforehand, none seriously addressed the matter of historic sites. Even of the questions raised on the spot, only the issue of the Losheng (樂生) Sanatorium had anything to do with this topic.

Although people working in the cultural field generally claim to care about the land and the disadvantaged, on this occasion all the talk was about exhibitions, performances and the arts industry, while the very important cultural issue of historical sites was completely sidelined. It must have been very upsetting for people who are struggling to preserve historical buildings, brick by brick and tile by tile, at countless sites all around the country.

You may say that the general issue of culture is just too broad and that people from various fields have their own particular focus. However, it must be said that the arts and cultural industries and the preservation of cultural heritage are the three most tangible and important aspects of culture.

It is a pity that in recent years, the way we go about preserving cultural heritage in Taiwan has been turned on its head. Many iconic industrial buildings that have been preserved have become completely cut off from their historical background. No matter whether they used to be warehouses, factories or whatever, when they have been repaired they are either rented out to cafes under rehabilitate-operate-transfer arrangements or used as venues for artistic exhibitions and performances, while all traces of their industrial past, which is what really should be preserved, is completely erased.

Take, for example, the “railway arts network” that the Council for Cultural Affairs has been promoting for many years. Neither the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration nor the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government that preceded it has been willing to change the concept to a “railway arts and culture network.”

As a result, the various railway-related spaces have been cut off from their historical roots. All that is left are spaces for artists to paint, carve and dance, detached from any kind of railway theme.

Furthermore, everyone in cultural circles agree on the need to preserve the Taipei Railway Workshop, but why should an industrial site like this be made into a gallery full of installation art? Every time the council puts vacant spaces like these to new use, it is invariably art for art’s sake. The council is not interested in spending funds on preserving the industrial cultural assets embodied in such places. Wherever warehouses or factories are preserved, they are inevitably given over to artists to reside in and exhibit their art, while their background as industrial sites is expunged, thus missing the real purpose of preserving them in the first place.

Preserving historic sites requires more than just caring about culture; it usually takes a great deal of money. When campaigning for election some years ago, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) suggested a very good way to find the necessary funds. His idea was there should be a rule that a certain proportion of the budget for any major construction project should be set aside for preserving cultural assets, and that if this money was not used in the course of a particular building project, it should be set aside for use on other projects.

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