Providing inspiring vision and proposing stimulating projects are encouraged among heads of local governments to demonstrate their dedication and commitment to developing their constituencies. However, sometimes the inspiration becomes too inspired — when the grandiose picture lacks a crucial element for worthwhile development: the local touch that can highlight the city, town or county’s uniqueness.
This question came to mind after Greater Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) announced his latest pet project: replicating Twin Oaks Estate, a 26-room Washington mansion and grounds that served as the home of Republic of China ambassadors from 1937 to 1978, and has since been used by Taiwanese representatives in the US to entertain foreign dignitaries and host cultural events.
According to the city’s Tourism and Travel Bureau, a budget of NT$900,000 has been planned for the design of the project, which will cover an area of about 22,000 ping (72,727m2), or almost as large as the 7.3 hectare Washington estate itself. Bureau head Chang Ta-chun (張大春) said the proposed project was a response to a call for the city to become more internationalized and provide more sightseeing spots. The Twin Oaks replica could be a major draw for visitors, he said.
While Greater Taichung’s motto is “an economic, cultural and international city,” and the municipal government has worked hard trying to steer the city to greater prosperity and status as an “international city,” one has to wonder whether taxpayers’ money would be truly well spent on such a project.
Old does not always mean outdated, new does not necessarily equal progress, and copying buildings and landmarks from other nations does not automatically make a city more “internationalized.”
While some Greater Taichung residents lament the seeming lack of importance their government attaches to local history and unique sites, many more cannot help but find the government pathetic, wondering how its self-confidence has fallen to the point it feels it needs to transplant foreign buildings and culture to boost tourism.
The Twin Oaks mansion was built by Gardiner Green Hubbard, the founder of the National Geographic Society, who commissioned architect Richard Allen to build a summer house in the style of a New England Colonial Revival-style home, a style influenced by 18th-century Georgian architecture in England. So Hu wants to build a copy of a copy.
Who would visit such a site? Taiwanese might be interested in seeing what the Twin Oaks building looks like, since few will ever have the chance to visit the real one, but why would Chinese and other foreign visitors be interested? Twin Oaks is a footnote in ROC history, not of major international importance.
Perhaps we are worrying needlessly. After all, in his more than a decade as mayor of Taichung, Hu has enthusiastically lobbied for a “London Town” (a nod perhaps to the many years he spent studying in the UK), the construction of a “Hakka landmark” and a penguin house, all of which he declared would become major tourist attractions, and none of which have materialized.
Hu appears to propose many of his grandiose ideas on a whim, without much thought for logic, actual demand or the need for budgets to ensure long-term maintenance. Greater Taichung residents would be better served if Hu focused on basic governance and the myriad of issues currently facing the city, such as traffic congestion, public safety and employment, rather than tossing out far-fetched ideas that will likely only squander money.
Like any good marketer, mayors should know that the key to “selling” their city is to tailor it to what people want, and not what the mayor thinks they want. After all, a mayor is elected to serve the people and not their own personal agenda. Whimsy does not a legacy make.