Sat, Jun 30, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Erasing vestiges of Taiwan’s past

The fight over the preservation of New Taipei City’s oldest public cemetery pits Taiwan’s cultural heritage against economic development and cultural taboos

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff reporter

What’s left of the Sindian First Public Cemetery after it was razed earlier this month.

Photo: Noah Buchan, Taipei times

Wayne Liu (劉文川) was outraged when he learned that his ancestor’s tomb was going to be destroyed. The grave’s removal, one of an estimated 2,400 that will disappear when the New Taipei City government razes the cemetery where it’s located, will erase any trace of his family’s history here, as well as the cemetery’s 270-year old history.

“My ancestors have been buried here for five generations,” Liu tells the Taipei Times, as he motions past a metal fence that now surrounds the public cemetery to a large yellow excavator that has already demolished part of it. Broken gravestones and shards of funerary objects lay scattered everywhere.

“But it’s [not only] my family’s tomb,” he says. “It is important … to preserve the cemetery for its cultural and historic [value].”

Liu is among a group of academics, amateur historians, activists and local residents calling themselves Sindian Cemetery Heritage (搶救新店的墓園), who have spent the past three years lobbying the New Taipei City government to preserve the six-hectare cemetery (about the size of six sports fields) in Sindian District (新店).

But there is little incentive for the government to do so. The valuable land, which is located close to industrial and residential areas, will almost certainly be zoned for development. Combined with strong cultural taboos regarding the pollution of death associated with graveyards, the preservationists face an uphill struggle to save it and the tombs that hold the history of nearly three centuries of Han Chinese migration to the area and their burial practices.

CULTURAL HERITAGE VS ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Dating back to 1770s, the Sindian First Public Cemetery (新店第一公墓) is the city’s oldest and holds valuable clues to the many different peoples who have lived there.

Wu Bo-wei (吳柏瑋), an activist and a Tree Party candidate for city councilor in the November elections whose ancestors arrived in Sindian over 200 years ago, says the cemetery is a powerful reminder of Taiwan’s colonial history. It contains graves from the Qing Dynasty, when the area was first opened up for cultivation under the Qianlong Emperor, to the Japanese colonial era and the arrival of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) after World War II.

“The cemetery shows in great detail the funerary practices of those who have come to Taiwan, the materials they used to construct the graves and the positions of the graves. All this has to do with our people and their livelihood, with Taiwan’s history,” he says.

The problem for preservationists, says David Blundell, an anthropologist at National Chengchi University and one of the academics spearheading the preservation efforts, is that the mortuary department has been tasked with demolishing the cemetery, and its only concern is with the contents of the tombs — corpses and bones.

“The [mortuary department] has the right to destroy the tombstones, but it doesn’t have the right to preserve the tombstones,” Blundell says.

That responsibility falls under the purview of New Taipei City’s Cultural Affairs Bureau, which has expressed little interest in taking up the mantle of protector.

“The government is dragging its feet by appealing to the fact that people of Chinese descent do not typically preserve cemeteries … because graves are typically seen as taboo,” Wu says.

Indeed, an employee with the New Taipei City’s Mortuary Services Office, who asked for his name to be withheld because he’s not authorized to speak with the media, tells the Taipei Times that the government has received several complaints from local residents, who say that the cemetery is a spooky eyesore.

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