Sun, Dec 21, 2003 - Page 17 News List

The battle of Treasure Hill

A derelict squatter's community on the edge of Taipei is being remade into an artists' village and youth hostel. But for the long-term residents of Treasure Hill, the attention is both helpful and a hindrance to their daily lives

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

PHOTO: STEPHEN WILDE

Students clamber down the steps of Treasure Hill (寶藏巖), cameras and notebooks in hand. They've spotted a group of elderly residents who have emerged from their houses and met up in a neighboring courtyard. As the students approach, all but one of the old people duck for cover inside their homes. One remaining man, a retired soldier named Chen, makes a stand against the platoon of pupils as they fire questions and requests at him.

"What's your name, sir?" one of them asks.

"How do you feel about all the changes here?" another wants to know.

Still another is curious which house on the hill Chen lives in and if he can take his photo standing in front of it. Another asks if he can help him redesign it.

Chen holds out bravely but has clearly had enough. "I'm going to eat," he announces and mounts his scooter in retreat.

The relative peace that this squatter community enjoyed in the five decades after it was first settled by Chinese Nationalist Party soldiers from China is gone. The area was rezoned as parkland in 1980 and then, 13 years later, notices were posted on doors warning residents that the labyrinth of illegal piecemeal buildings would soon be razed.

Treasure Hill quickly became a cause celebre for student activists and academics who saw the community as representative of the city's past. In the 1950s, they argued, 30 percent of Taipei was squatter villages hastily constructed to accommodate the almost immediate doubling of the local population by mainlanders who fled the communist army.

While most of those communities have since been turned into parks or been replaced with modern buildings, Treasure Hill remains as both a reminder of the past and present home to some 100 people; many of them are poor retired soldiers, others are immigrants from southeast Asian countries, still others are students attending neighboring universities.

When the eviction notices went up, the academics and activists protested and the city government demurred. Responsibility for the future of the area was transferred from the Department of Parks and Recreation to the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, which became charged with, essentially, making Treasure Hill less of an embarrassment to a city bent on modernizing. Now it's become the stomping ground for culturati who see the promontory as an "organic community" and come on their days off as part of the Global "Artivists" Participation Plan (GAPP).

GAPP is the brainchild of the Organization of Urban Re-s (OURs), a group commissioned to "legitimize the squatters' residency" on the public land. OURs' current proposal, written by one of its core members, National Taiwan University professor Kang Min-jay (康旻杰), is to "create a co-living commune which will incorporate the original resident units as alternative social housing, a youth hostel, and an artist-in-residence program." OURs' primary goal is for the area to be seen more as a preservation district than a park.

"In the beginning, we didn't want to take part in developing an artist village here. We thought it was fake," Kang said. "But the Bureau of Cultural Affairs mandated that there be one and it became a matter of `Well, if we don't do it, someone else will.' OURs at least had established roots in the community."

OURs plans to build a community kitchen, dining facility and co-op neighborhood store. Already they've planted a community garden, begun screening free outdoor movies for residents and staged absurdist dramas by local theater companies. They also publish a community newspaper that's distributed door to door and read aloud to anyone who can't read.

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