Rail fans deserve workshop site

By Hung Chih-wen 洪致文  / 

Sat, Dec 14, 2013 - Page 8

Last month, the Taipei City Government posted proposals online for the development of the Taipei Railway Workshop site, finally revealing what the government had been planning, away from prying eyes, for the disused site.

A lot of research has already been devoted to exploring what part the site plays in the city’s industrial heritage, and the general public would like to see this important — in terms of the history of railways — area used for a railway museum.

However, the government, true to form, and with the incessant interference of directives from on high, is proceeding in the direction of a Taiwanese version of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris: a cultural shopping mall and luxury residential area, making a total botch job of what is hallowed ground for Taipei’s railway heritage.

Taipei residents, unless they have a terrible memory for such things, must recall how the city government commissioned the Railroad Culture Festival at various sites related to Taiwanese railways, including the workshop site, which ran for most of September and October.

The only reason the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs wanted to put the festival on was to give time for the Department of Urban Development and the entire city government to complete their plans. This included an initiative in which students from universities, technical colleges, research institutes and schools were invited to propose ideas for the development of the site and the uses it could have.

However, this was all little more than a front for its under-the-counter parceling out of which parts it wanted to give over to art galleries and which to other uses. At the end of last month, the city government finally revealed its hand, right on schedule, as it had planned to do right from the start.

The site has a long history as the place trains were sent for maintenance. Given this history, the reasons for renovating the premises to accommodate an art museum are tenuous at best. They would only make sense if there was another railway workshop in Taiwan, with an equivalent history, that could be converted into a railway museum in its stead.

When the workshop is gone, there will be no comparable railroad and industrial site. How can it be given to those who would make it into an art museum?

Of course, the city government says that the proposed museum will make an effort to incorporate railway culture, with railroad art represented in various media. However, in the absence of any real railroad culture conservation, this faux art with its somewhat tenuous associations to what it is supposed to be representing is hardly likely to engage the public.

As to the buildings within the premises, the city government is planning to convert them into facilities for “related cultural exhibitions and performances, commercial retail, leisure, administrative and residential” options.

It is common knowledge that there are no sanctions against destroying historical buildings within the Cultural Heritage Preservation Act (文化資產保存法), and it would even be possible to demolish the entire lot, leaving nothing but a single window frame as a token gesture to conservation. Are the valuable buildings going to be converted into shops for young culture vultures, offices or residential buildings? Remember that developers could just pull down the whole edifice and pile up the rubble to the side as a piece of installation art. Why is the railway cultural heritage that belongs to the nation going to be sacrificed in this way?

Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) said that there are a lot of railway fans in the nation, and that any development should only proceed after careful consultation, but qualified this sentiment by saying that the development must also be “optimized” in terms of the benefits it brings.

A contradiction exists between these two statements. Cultural preservation is not a profit-making enterprise. It has a far more profound mission: to educate and pass on cultural heritage to subsequent generations. If art and culture are reduced to being measured in commercial terms, the whole project is consigned to going the same way as the Huashan Creative Park and the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, two other projects that the city government botched. It will become another commercial playground for young culture-vulture pretenders, a place utterly bereft of historical context and devoid of any cultural significance.

Senior government officials must intervene and make sure that the site is not converted into an art museum and shopping mall, so that it can become a historic site for the railway industry that Taipei can feel proud of.

A site for a “living” railroad museum in which the many engines and carriages that still exist can be displayed is a must, and the maintenance and manufacturing processes should be reconstructed.

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

Translated by Paul Cooper