Wed, Jul 25, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Dodgy dealings

Taipei’s Shida district has long been the center of a vibrant commercial life, but recent expansion has riled residents, and the government has stepped in to curb, or kill, one of the city’s most diverse recreational areas

By David Frazier  /  Contributing reporter

A diagram compiled from interviews with local residents and officials giving an indiction of the rapid spread of businesses outward from the central commercial district into nearby residential zones.

Diagram: David Frazier

If you ask residents in the Shida area about the Shidahood Association (師大三里里民自救會), you’ll get very different answers. When I asked bunch of old ladies in a neighborhood park, some of them in wheelchairs, they spat back expletives. “They’re wangbadan!” (a term of abuse similar to “bastards”), said one woman, while another called the association “hateful.” Elsewhere, one man asked scornfully, “Why won’t they just let people do business?” These were mainly resident property and business owners, and quite a few of them were elderly.

Much of the crowd at a 10:30pm street-side trash pickup however declared that the Shidahood Association was doing very important things. They claimed to be “highly supportive,” “very much in favor,” or say, “Without them, this neighborhood would be chaos.” These were mostly middle-aged and middle-class residents, working professionals who inhabit the area’s quieter streets and lanes.

What’s at stake is the future shape of Shida. To many, the neighborhood is Taiwan’s funky university district, a bustling night market zone of indie boutiques and coffee bars that serves tens of thousands of young people, a hip music crowd and a growing number of tourists. Many Shida residents meanwhile want to reclaim their neighborhood, kick out hundreds of businesses and keep the area prim, quiet and residential.

The Shidahood Association formed last November with the stated goal of expelling “300 illegal businesses” and “200 legal businesses” of the 700 to 800 businesses estimated to be in Shida, including restaurants, clothing shops and the night market stalls. Association Chairman Jerry Liu (劉振偉) claims the group has between 2,000 and 3,000 active supporters, plus an even larger “silent majority” of the neighborhood’s 16,500 residents.

Due to the combined pressure of Shidahood and Taipei City, more than 100 Shida businesses have shut down in the last three months, and many more have received fines or notices that could cause them to close. Several are longstanding neighborhood landmarks, like the 16-year-old rock club Underworld (地下社會), which helped give birth to Taiwan’s indie rock movement. It shut down on July 15 to avoid government fines.

Roxy Jr. Cafe, a bar-restaurant and favorite expat watering hole open since 1994 was recently fined NT$150,000 for illegal operation and faces more fines or forced closure if it keeps selling alcohol to customers who don’t also buy meals. Other shops say they may close because business is getting worse and they no longer trust the regulatory environment.

“I’ve been here for 18 years running the exact same business with the same license and have never had a problem, so why am I having a problem now?” asks Roxy owner Ling Wei (凌威).

“I invested NT$15 million in three restaurants here because I trusted the law and I trusted the city. I sold my house in India. Just last year, Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) was promoting Shida as a commercial district. Now I ask myself, is this Taiwan or is this China?” says Andy Singh, an Indian restaurateur who is fighting the city.

“We residents are the victims,” counters Liu. “The noise and pollution in this neighborhood are ruining the quality of life.”

“The city has been negligent for too long,” Liu continues. “The city can have its commercial districts, but this is zoned as a residential area, so the city should uphold its own regulations. This should have been done 10 years ago.”

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