Taipei has undergone massive changes in recent decades, with new areas springing up and old ones being demolished or redeveloped. Very little appears to be permanent, save a few relics like the four remaining city gates. Communities are razed, despite the protests of residents, in the name of modernity. Often the protests come too late, along with the question: “Why was something not done sooner to try and save it?”
The latest addition to the list of endangered environments is Novel Hall in Taipei’s Xinyi District (信義). The 935-seat theater was built by the Koo (辜) family’s Chinatrust Commercial Bank as part of its headquarters’ facility and became Taipei’s first privately operated performing arts center when it opened in 1997.
Named after the original Novel Hall that Koo Hsian-jung (辜顯榮) established in 1915 in Taipei, the theater is the home stage for the Taipei Li-Yuan Peking Opera Theatre and the annual Novel Hall Dance Series. It has hosted a variety of local and international theater, dance and music groups, and has become an integral part of Taipei’s cultural life. It is run by Vivien H.C. Ku (辜懷群), a granddaughter of Koo Hsian-jung.
The theater had just reopened on Sept. 23 last year after undergoing a multimillion-dollar upgrade of its lighting and stage system, so it was a major shock when Chinatrust announced on May 4 that it would be selling its Songshou Road location as part of a planned move to new headquarters in Nangang District (南港), and that the theater would have to go.
A protest Web page was set up, cultural icons such as Cloud Gate Dance Theatre founder Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) and author Kenneth Pai (白先勇) called for the theater’s preservation, Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) asked for consultations, questions were raised in the Taipei City Council and Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) spoke of promises made before the Xinyi site was developed.
On Friday last week, Hau promised the city government would present written documents within a week to remind the company of its promise — although as of press time last night there had been no further word from him or sight of the documents. Meanwhile, Taipei Deputy Mayor Chang Chin-oh (張金鶚) said the city would not agree to any request from the company to reclassify the land or demolish the theater.
Left unasked was the question of how this situation was allowed to reach a crisis point to begin with.
Chinatrust Financial Holding began construction at its Nangang site in 2009, mentioning in its past few annual reports that the site would be home to a 30-story headquarters building, a 20-story commercial building and a 14-story business hotel, with a moving date set for next year. There was no mention of a theater at the new place, though now company officials say they will try to find a place in Nangang for one.
Company officials note that under the Banking Act (銀行法), the banking industry is not allowed to invest in commercial real estate, so Chinatrust has to sell the Xinyi site.
Given that the relocation has been planned for years and the Banking Act’s requirements are well known, why were questions not raised about Novel Hall’s fate back in 2009? What about last year, when the Ministry of Culture, among other benefactors, gave NT$20 million (US$667,100) to subsidize Novel Hall’s overhaul? Why was Chinatrust not asked about its intentions before the fundraising began and so much money was allocated?