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.
However, the situation we have now is that a certain proportion of the budget of major construction projects is used for public art, but there is no funding set aside for cultural assets at all.
If such mandatory funding were available, it would ensure that, when controversies about preserving historic sites emerge while a construction project is underway, there would be money available to pay for preservation and to cover the expense involved in changing construction plans. The idea Ma suggested was a very good one, but he has been in office as president for more than three years now, with his KMT influencing a majority of seats in the legislature, yet nothing has come of his suggestion.
Taiwan’s cultural assets have reached the point where, if they are not quickly saved, they will be lost forever. Local cultural departments and the council at the national level are usually “masters of the art” of arranging committee membership to ensure that submissions for listing places as historic sites or historically significant buildings are rejected, while going through all the technically correct legally required procedures of public hearings and deliberation by experts.
When the Taipei City Government’s Department of Cultural Affairs absurdly decided not to list Huashan Station, the last railway station built during Japan’s colonial rule over Taiwan, as an historic site, the DPP did nothing about it, even though the station is right next to its national headquarters. If such a site in a prominent location cannot be preserved, what hope can there be for the other precious historic buildings that are under threat of demolition? In many cases, people campaigning for such buildings to be preserved are left clutching the broken bricks and tiles that lie strewn around after diggers and bulldozers have done their work.
The issue of preserving historic sites is by no means confined to the Losheng Sanatorium case. The Cultural Heritage Preservation Act (文化資產保存法), the definition of cultural heritage, the system for preserving historic sites and the budgeting of funds for preservation need to be thoroughly discussed. Sadly, it is hard to find people who are willing to speak out for Taiwan’s threatened and disappearing historic sites.
Hung Chih-wen is an associate professor of geography at National Taiwan Normal University.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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