Over the decades, the layout of the original complex has remained largely intact. The square-shaped dormitory for prison police, for example, is the only remaining Japanese square-shaped dorm still standing in the country, an indication of the area’s historic importance which is further revealed by the materials that went into constructing the other buildings.
“During the colonial era, walls were made from bamboo and mud. When the Mainlanders came, the use of bricks became common,” says Wang, pointing to an exposed wall that contains all three of the building materials.
Born and raised in a self-built home next to the martial arts hall, which was consumed by fire in 1994, Wang remembers the imposing architecture, which was three to four stories high and could be seen from a distance. Its concrete foundation survived the fire, giving an idea of the grandeur of the original hall.
Wang says life at the Prison Gate was never affluent. But it did have charm and was sealed in against outsiders because no one would want to live close to the prison except those who worked there or were too poor to live elsewhere. Without running water before the 1960s, inhabitants often used the three public restrooms in the neighborhood as a meeting point to share information or gossip.
“History leaves traces in space, architecture and landscapes. It is through the history of the space that we learn what has happened and why the place becomes what it is now,” Huang notes.
Setting another bad precedent
Huang says the central government’s decision to raze the century-old neighborhood exposes its blatant disregard for history.
“We pretend that our colonial history didn’t happen. We forget the past and embrace our former colonizer’s Roppongi. It is totally absurd,” she says.
Peng Yang-kae (彭揚凱), secretary-general of OURs, an NGO focusing on urban policy and community-based reform, agrees.
Peng says the Huaguang case illustrates the central government’s disregard for residents and a lack of policy vision. The central government, he adds, is only interested in making a quick buck by leasing the land out to big corporations, and eschews the normal procedures, which involve the local government holding public hearings and seeking public consensus.
“It [the central government] basically tells the Taipei City Government to beat it and skips the whole procedure that allows public opinion to be heard and discussed. Meanwhile, it never tells us any details regarding what it wants to do with the land except for two words: Taipei Roppongi,” Peng says. “A large project like Huaguang will have great impact on the development of the city, but neither the city government nor the citizens have a say in it.”
Another issue surrounding the development project is how public land should be used to benefit the public. For Peng, equating the public interest with the state treasury, the government sounds and acts like a land developer that measures everything in dollars and cents.
“In the past, the government sold the state-owned land. Now it rents it out. But they are never able to answer the question: does it work in the public interest?” he says.