The Japanese magazine Brutus used a photograph of Tainan’s Guohua Street — famous as a place to buy local snacks — on the cover of its latest issue. The cover caused heated debate, with some calling it an embarrassment because the street looked ugly and unfriendly, cluttered with randomly parked motorcycles. Others have said the picture is characteristic of Tainan.
Tainan Mayor William Lai (賴清德) praised the Japanese biweekly for “respecting Taiwanese culture” by choosing the photograph.
I lived in Tainan for seven years, and I really like the city’s rich cultural atmosphere and its many historic spots. The delicious local food also made a deep impression on me, and Guohua Street and neighboring Baoan Road are definitely places that gourmets must not miss.
However, the dirty and messy environment has undeniably been a drawback that drives visitors away. This makes one wonder: Can “dirtiness and chaos” be considered a cultural characteristic?
Would it not be better if the businesses around the street were a little cleaner, neater and friendlier to pedestrians?
What is “culture”? Taking a broad view, it refers to the collective life of the people in a certain place. A more narrow view is that it is the “formation of humanity.” Since humanity implies “civilization,” only civilized manners or constructions that respect humanity deserve to be called culture.
What is the local culture of Tainan? The city is full of historic sites, tasty delicacies and a profound “human spirit.”
A dirty and chaotic environment disrespects people, so how could it be considered a “cultural characteristic?”
A few years ago, the German magazine Der Spiegel created a lot of controversy by criticizing Taiwanese for “living in a pig sty.” While such criticism might not be entirely fair, it certainly deserves some reflection.
If Taiwan wants to attract more foreign tourists, it should take the maintenance of high-quality local culture seriously, and, more importantly, it should also build a good living environment so that culture and life can complement each other.
A friend of mine who has worked as a taxi driver in Hualien County for 50 years often drives passengers from Europe, the US, Japan and other developed nations. He says that most foreign tourists praise Hualien’s beautiful natural scenery and the warmth of its people, but they always shake their heads and sigh when seeing the dirty and messy downtown area.
“There is not even any decent space to walk around,” my friend complained.
No wonder he said that most foreign tourists only like to visit the scenic spots rather than shopping downtown.
The problem with the streets of Hualien that my friend talks about is precisely the same problem that all Taiwanese cities suffer from.
If Taiwanese get used to looking at dirtiness and disorder as a local cultural characteristic and are unwilling to change the situation and perhaps allow it to erode their excellent local culture, then Taiwan will never become a progressive nation.
Hsu Yu-fang is a professor of Chinese literature at National Dong Hwa University.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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