Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Putting Taipei's past into perspecitve

It might be hard to find, but Taipei's history is out there and is set to be the focal point of a series of events in the coming months, as the city prepares to celebrate its 120th birthday

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

Built atop an alluvial deposit-filled lake, Taipei City may not be one of the world's most picturesque metropolises and it might not be one of the oldest, but on Aug. 22, when the city celebrates its 120th birthday as the nation's economic and political nucleus, the city government hopes to remind Taipei residents that amid the urban sprawl lays a rich historical legacy.

Originally home to Taiwan's plains-living Aboriginal peoples, the basin that now cradles the nation's capital was first settled by ethnic Chinese from Fujian Province in the early 1700s. Records show that in 1709 a group of Fujian residents petitioned to Qing officials in a bid to open up land adjacent to the Tamsui River for development.

The first settlers arrived that same year and established settlements in and around what is today the Taipei suburb of Hsinchuang.

By the mid-1800s, Wanhua, or Manka (艋舺) as it was then known, had entered its heyday and sizable settlements had sprung up along the Tamsui, Keelung and Hsintien rivers in what are today the city's Wenshan and Songshan districts. So great was the influx of Han-Chinese settlers, however, that Manka soon became too small to handle the increasing traffic and a new port was established at Dadaocheng (大稻埕).

As the area's largest seaport, Dadaocheng and the surrounding area soon became Taipei's economic hub and prospered through trade in rice and teas. Quick to realize the benefits of amalgamating the trade zone with the numerous surrounding settlements for administrative purposes Qing officials established the municipality of Taipei Prefecture, or Taipei Fu (台北府) in 1875.

The idea of relocating Taiwan's capital to Taipei first came into fruition in 1882, but it wasn't until Aug. 22, 1884, when Taiwan's first governor, Liu Ming-chuan (劉銘傳), relocated his offices to Taipei Fu and declared Taipei the new capital.

Liu created an administrative infrastructure that included the building of government offices and schools and commissioned the construction of a city wall.

Like many of the original Qing structures, the city wall was demolished for military and sanitary reasons in 1895 on the orders of Japan's first colonial governor, Motonori Kabayama. Over the next 40 years, Taipei was to lose much of its Qing tradition and was instead transformed into modern city with an up-to-date sewer system and countless engineering projects that saw Japanese architecture become the face of the new Taipei.

Successive decades of development have meant that many of the Qing structures that survived the Japanese have long disappeared and large numbers of Japanese colonial buildings have met with the wrecking ball and been replaced by modern edifices. The Taipei City Government's Cultural Affairs Bureau has attempted to stem the tide of what was, until as recently as four years ago, the widespread and unrestricted demolition of historical buildings.

"Until the late 1990s large numbers of old buildings were demolished by landowners illegally, but in the past three years the number has dropped significantly," said Wang Yi-chun (王逸群) of the city government's cultural bureau. "Landowners who demolish historical buildings now face a fine. And while the fine is a minimal NT$30,000, any landowner who demolishes such a building is now forbidden by law to build any other structure on the site."

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