Developers erase Taipei’s history

By Hung Chih-wen 洪致文  / 

Thu, Apr 11, 2013 - Page 8

A few days ago, reports came out that the Cabinet had finally decided on a plan to turn the site of the former Air Force General Headquarters, which lies on the north side of Renai Road in Taipei, into a mixed-use commercial area, taking Tokyo’s Roppongi District as its blueprint. The plan is to create a city within a city, incorporating big department stores, shops, offices, world-class tourist hotels, rental housing and so on.

Some may feel that this plan has a familiar ring to it, because the “dream team” behind the Taipei Twin Towers project, which is currently causing such a turmoil, also said that their development plan was going to change the old city center into “Taipei’s Roppongi.”

Taipei’s development over the past decade is cause for despair. People have tried to protect trees that were planted by our parents’ generation and grew to provide a green, shady canopy. They have tried to keep a bit of space for the homeless to live in, and to preserve historic monuments and buildings that are coveted by construction companies and developers, but all these efforts have ended in failure. Taipei is being turned into a ghost town. It has temporary “parks” on plots of land where low-capacity buildings have been demolished and higher-capacity buildings are going to be built. It has a few mummified monuments that have been hollowed out and stripped of their historical content, serving only to satisfy the postmodernist romantic imaginations of the upper-crust elite.

The authorities talk about culture and creativity, but all they give the public is creativity without the culture or any sense of history. A city that has no history has no future — it has nothing left except development and money.

Now the former air force headquarters is to be turned into “Taipei’s Roppongi.”

The slogan and the dream are all too familiar. How many Wall Streets does Taipei need, and how many Orsay museums? What the city really needs is “Taipei’s Taipei,” not Taipei’s anywhere else. It is very doubtful that any of those involved in the planning and development of the former air force headquarters site have any idea about where this piece of land came from, or about the previous role of the old buildings that stand on it.

The plot of land that was until recently occupied by the headquarters is one of the few spaces that bear witness to the latter part of Japan’s rule of Taiwan.

In 1921, the office of the then-Japanese governor-general of Taiwan established a central research institute incorporating departments of agriculture, forestry, industry and health.

The central institute was disbanded in 1939, but the original four research departments lived on, reorganized as agricultural, forestry, industrial and tropical medicine research institutes. In 1940, one of these establishments — the industrial research institute — started to construct some new buildings on the land that was later used for the headquarters. That explains why there are old buildings standing on the site today.

Construction of the industrial research institute’s buildings was halted because of the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific theater, following completion of block 1 of hall number 2, which is still standing. The building thus serves as an uncompleted witness to the handover of the government of Taiwan that took place following the end of the war.

In the past, not much importance has been attached to buildings such as these that were built toward the end of Japanese rule. That is because, when government power was handed over after the war ended, they were different from earlier buildings in that they were very new, being less than 10 years old. For this reason, the significance of their existence in the city is only beginning to be recognized now, more than 60 years later.

Sadly, given the things that have been done in Taipei over the past few years, probably nobody imagines that we can really preserve the city’s history. All we can do is modestly implore government officials not to demolish every historic building and chop down every tree when it is handing over the sites that it wants to develop into Roppongi clones.

We can ask them to give those of us who still care a little about our city’s history a chance to go in and have a look. At least, before they erase every last trace of the city’s historical memories, perhaps they would be so kind as to let its citizens go in and record the fact that this city once had a past.

Hung Chih-wen is an associate professor of geography at National Taiwan Normal University.

Translated by Julian Clegg