Fifty-one year-old Wang Yu-chi (王禹奇) recalls his childhood days with obvious affection. As a kid, he often went to his friend’s house clustered together with other small residences that dotted a narrow path in his neighborhood. Unique to the area, inhabitants built their homes around the trees rather than cutting them down. In the spring, when the peach trees blossomed, the tiny houses were blanketed with petals, as if in a fairytale.
“When my dad wanted to give me a scolding, I would hide here, lie on the trunk growing in the middle of our living room, eat guava and chat with my friend,” says Wang, pointing to a lush tree whose human companions no longer inhabit the same ground.
Wang’s experiences form what was once a bucolic part of life in the Huaguang Community (華光社區), a now nearly deserted neighborhood that will soon be flattened to make way for a glitzy commercial and shopping quarter inspired by Tokyo’s Roppongi district.
For the past few years, the name Huaguang has been synonymous with controversy due to the central government’s forced eviction of residents. For local residents, however, Huaguang was always known as Prison Gate (監獄口), an epithet from the past that has become central to a preservation campaign by the Alliance Concerned for the Taipei Prison Settlement (台北刑務所群落護育聯盟).
“By calling the place Huaguang, we only see it as a community wrapped in controversy. Many things are omitted, its long history forgotten,” says Huang Shu-mei (黃舒楣), a member of the alliance formed in March by a dozen groups and organizations including the Organization of Urban Re-s (都市改革組織, OURs) and Friends of Trees at Huaguang (華光護樹志工隊) as well as individual professors, cultural workers and concerned citizens.
Been a long time
Surrounded by present-day Jinhua Street (金華街), Hangzhou South Road (杭州南路) and Jinshan South Road (金山南路), Prison Gate is where Taihoku Prison, the country’s first modern penitentiary, stood. Opened in 1904 by the Japanese colonial government, the Taihoku penitentiary was the grandest among the several prisons built by the Japanese at the turn of the 20th century. It was outfitted with on-site dormitories for prison staff, a public bath, hospitals, farms and a martial-arts hall designed for the prison officers to practice, compete and show off their strength and skills.
Constructed with stones knocked down from city walls built during the Qing Dynasty, the Taihoku Prison offered proof of the progress that Imperial Japan strove to make, according to Huang, a scholar specializing in historical preservation and urban regeneration.
“Defeated by the Western colonizers, Japan sought to become their equal by becoming a colonizer itself. As Japan’s first colony, Taiwan was a perfect place to spread the empire’s power as a newly modernized nation. Today the penitentiary is a good site to examine the ideology behind Japan’s imperial modernity,” she explains.
Upon its retreat to Taiwan in 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime took over the facility and continued to use it as a prison and detention center. From the Japanese colonial period to the White Terror era, countless democracy activists such as Lai Ho (賴和), Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水), Chien Chi (簡吉) and Lo Fu-hsing (羅福星) were jailed or executed inside the penitentiary.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the prison was relocated to Taipei’s suburbs, and the original penitentiary was torn down to make way for the headquarters of Chunghwa Telecom (中華電信) and Chunghwa Post (中華郵政). The former penitentiary’s vast farmland was sold and developed into the now bustling area connecting Lishui Street (麗水街) and Yongkang Street (永康街).