A few days ago I walked over to the Taipei Circle, a round glass-clad building at the intersection of Chongqing N Road and three other roads in Taipei’s Datong District (大同), only to find that the building’s entrance is now occupied by a beerhouse with Western music blaring out from its doorway.
The Bobee Bar, where people used to be able to wander in freely to pray at an altar to Guan Gong (關公), was no longer there.
A quick glance inside revealed a restaurant with round banquet tables. By the look of things, people can no longer wander in unless they intend to have a meal.
Looking back over the investments that have been made to set up catering establishments in the building over the past decade, I have lost count of how many times it has been redecorated.
I vaguely remember the Bobee Bar’s high-profile grand opening in October last year. Heavily promoted by television and radio host Belle Yu (于美人) with the theme of “bringing color to the Taipei Circle and blessings to Taiwan,” the bar’s layout and decor were designed to encapsulate the history of nearby Dadaocheng (大稻埕), while incorporating the lively culture surrounding “Bobee,” the third prince of Buddhist legend. It was a novel attempt at injecting new life into a scenic spot that had grown deathly quiet.
In February, then-prospective Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Taipei mayoral candidate Sean Lien (連勝文) stood in the foyer of the building and proclaimed his intention to make Taipei Circle the starting point for creating “two hearts” for Taipei.
Who could have foreseen that, with Lien’s words still hanging in the air, the building would later be quietly rented out to some other catering business.
If customers are going to have banquets there, it is likely that large tour groups from China will be the most frequent customers. What is by no means certain, however, is whether those customers will keep returning.
At the end of May, Starbucks Coffee opened a branch in the corner of a new tall building just across the street. The chain’s decision to invest in setting up the new store suggests that it is fairly optimistic about the consumer spending power of people who live and work nearby.
However, that Starbucks, with all its business acumen, decided to set up shop in a building across the street, rather than inside, suggests that Taipei Circle’s qualities as a center of commerce are somehow lacking.
It is no wonder then that Frog Cafe opened there some time ago, but soon moved over to Dihua Street.
This trend is not just true of fashionable beverage shops — snack shops that were famous in the old days, like Sanyuan and Longfeng, have also moved away.
Which of them would want to move back, or even dare to? They would rather find a spacious shop space nearby, spruce it up and keep it clean. As long as they are well-managed, these shops will do very well.
Taipei Circle is in decline and it can never go back to its former self.
The present building was constructed at the turn of the century; designed by a famous architect, it transformed the appearance of the traffic circle.
However, the new building proved to be the last straw for commerce at this location. No matter how it is managed in the future, the circle can no longer revolve around food and drinks alone.
Long ago, when Taiwan was under Japanese rule, two traffic circles were built at major intersections. They were meant to serve the needs of the growing city, and both of them were planned as little parks.
The one now known as Taipei Circle was one of them and the other was in Ximending (西門町). It was only later that these circles came to be occupied by stalls and shops.
At that time, when there were not so many people living in the area, planners wanted to have a park on the spot and it is all the more needed with today’s dense population.
There are hardly any green spaces to be found in nearby parts of this old city area. Buildings stand cheek by jowl, with very few buffer zones or open spaces between them. If Taipei Circle is to be altered or developed, turning it back into a park might well be the best thing to do with it.
In that case, indigenous plants should be considered as one of the elements in creating some kind of green, arboreal edifice. It would be a new landmark that could boost the productive value of this aging district.
A future Taipei Circle full of ecological significance would be sure to attract a variety of flowers, plants, insects and birds that would enrich the diversity of the area’s natural environment. It could even act as a big air filter, reducing pollution and muffling noise. Having a green traffic circle at this urban intersection would also enhance the slower, more easygoing aspect of the city.
An old district such as Datong does not need to be, and indeed cannot be, made into another commercial zone, such as Xinyi District (信義). Rather, its character and opportunities are to be found from among its past and existing neighborly life.
I have my doubts about Lien’s proposal to create “two hearts” for Taipei. It would be more suitable to talk about lungs instead of hearts. Greenery is an essential building material when old districts are undergoing urban renewal, since the quality of its living space cannot be improved without it.
If Taipei Circle is not revived, it will be hard for the aging district to be turned around.
However, if old mindsets are not done away with, it will not be possible for new thinking to take root and grow.
If creating business opportunities remains the prime consideration, we will see the failures of the past dozen years repeated over and over again.
Investors will go on appearing one after another, raising fanfare and drawing pictures of rosy prospects, but finally closing up show, packing their things and moving away.
Liu Ka-shiang is a writer.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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