Joseph R. Allen first heard of Taipei New Park in the late 1970s when he came to Taiwan to do graduate work and teach at what is today’s Tamkang University (淡江大學). One day during class he broached the topic of homosexuality with his students.
“Dead silence,” said Allen, who is professor of Chinese literature and cultural studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “The line people gave was that it doesn’t exist in Taiwan. Or they know nothing about it.”
When class ended, however, a student who Allen knew quite well approached him and said, “There are actually homosexuals in Taiwan. If you want to meet them, go to [Taipei] New Park. It’s the guys with white shoes.”
Though he wasn’t interested in “fishing” on the park’s benches, as J.J. Lai (賴正哲), a gay-rights activist and owner of Gin Gin Bookstore (晶晶書庫), has called the green space’s gay cruising scene, Allen finds it deliciously ironic that the homosexual community would congregate in a space that served at the time as a symbol of Chinese nationalism.
“It was like 228,” Allen said, referring to the 228 Incident, an uprising that began on Feb. 27, 1947 and was violently suppressed by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government. “Everybody knew about it but no one was talking about it for different sorts of reasons.”
Today, Taipei New Park is called 228 Peace Park (二 二 八和平公園), and has come to serve as a symbol of human rights and a place of sometimes silent, sometimes raucous, protest. And as Allen shows in his recently published Taipei: City of Displacements, the park is emblematic of the massive cultural and political transformations Taiwan has undergone since the demise of the Qing Dynasty.
The book argues that the history of Taiwan’s capital can be understood as a conglomeration of displaced spatial, architectural and monumental features that are pushed aside or destroyed as new social forces emerge. The park is a microcosm of this process.
“The book wouldn’t have happened without the park. You’ve got it all here. Layer after layer after layer,” Allen said.
From tablets marking the site of Qing imperial buildings to Japanese statues effaced after the KMT arrived and built the park’s lily pond pavilion, to the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum (二 二 八紀念館), a visitor to the park can barely walk 10 steps without stumbling upon some emblem of the nation’s past.
Perhaps the best vantage point to reflect on these displacements is the site of the 228 Monument, which is located in the middle of the park. The site was originally a road during the Qing Dynasty that ran east to west and faced Tienhou Temple (天后宮) temple, which was associated with imperial authority and served as an entryway to the provincial examination hall.
“The Tienhou Temple and its grounds were physically and socially removed from, or at least neutrally positioned between, the tensions of local ethnic politics,” Allen wrote.
But that all changed when the country was ceded to Japan in 1895. Whereas Qing administrators viewed Taiwan as a peripheral part of their empire, only bringing it into their fold in 1885 (and even then only administrating less than half of it), the Japanese, modeling themselves after the colonial pretensions of Europe’s major powers, envisioned themselves as benevolent modernizers. Taiwan would be the jewel in their crown.
To bring about their “civilizing” project, the Japanese immediately converted the Tienhou Temple into an administrative building and set to work on plans to turn the park into a space modeled on Tokyo’s Hibiya Park, a Japanese-European hybrid that was then under construction.
“The park, over the 50 years [of Japanese rule] becomes established as this very strongly civic space,” Allen said.
A photo from 1906 shows members of the recently built Taipei club engaged in all manner of recreational activity, such as horseback riding and cycling. In the same year, a stone monument of Kodama Gentaro, the fourth Japanese governor-general of Taiwan, was erected at the park’s south entrance and five years later Shinpei Goto, administrator of Taiwan between 1898 and 1906, had his own statue erected on the space where the 228 Monument stands today.
The recreation facilities and monuments to colonial power reveal how Japan increasingly viewed the park as a central part of its urban planning for the city. It is a process that entered a golden period between 1910 and 1930 when material conditions had improved and the Japanese transformed Taiwan from a militarily controlled state to one of civil administration. The Tienhou Temple was torn down and replaced by a neoclassical museum, known today as the National Taiwan Museum (國立台灣博物館), and a bandstand and amphitheater in art deco style were completed for an exposition in 1935.
“It’s a colonial park, a colonial space [where] people come to participate in modernity,” Allen said.
Still, the Japanese did retain some elements of Chinese culture, especially the literati and scholarly aspects of it that had already been integrated into Japanese society centuries earlier.
Just as the Japanese displaced anything Chinese that didn’t fit into their colonial agenda, the KMT immediately destroyed any object that appeared Japanese when they took control of Taiwan following World War II. The Kodama and Shinpei statues were among the first to go — the latter replaced by a clock and air raid siren.
Fortunately for posterity, however, many of the park’s buildings and statuary that didn’t have overt Japanese elements were spared, while others were effaced of their Japanese features. Allen gives the example of a bronze votive horse that can be found in the park today, though its original crest has been removed.
“The horse itself doesn’t say its Japanese. [It’s style] came to Japan from Germany and France and morphed into these Shinto things here. It’s the crest that says I’m Japanese. If you get rid of the crest, if you denature it sort of speak, [you] get rid of the [elements that make it] Japanese,” Allen said.
But aside from these cosmetic “getting rid of the Japanese” (去日本化) changes, the KMT left the park largely as it was until the 1960s, when the government’s Sinicization program was reaching its apogee.
Allen said this was most apparent with the construction of the pond-pavilion complex in the northeastern section of the park, which owes its architectural features to China’s “northern palace” style of buildings. Its central pavilion commemorates Sun Yat-sen (孫中山), and the four flanking pavilions are dedicated to important personages sanctioned by the KMT’s nationalist ideology, including Zheng Chenggong (鄭成功, better known as Koxinga), a Ming Dynasty loyalist, and Qiu Feng-chia (丘逢甲), who was a leader in the resistance against the Japanese occupation.
“The message here is anything but subtle: Sun Yat-sen and the Nationalist government, as the displaced Chinese nation, are supported on all sides by such loyal local patriots,” Allen writes in his book.
But change was just around the corner as pressure continued to mount for the KMT to liberalize the political system, which it eventually did in 1987 with the lifting of Martial Law.
A decade later, the 228 Memorial replaced the clock and air raid siren, which had earlier replaced the Shinpei statue, thus transforming a site that had been home to imperial, colonial and authoritarian symbols of power, to one that reflects the emerging democratic values of Taiwan.
“The naming of the 228 Park was revolutionary. It was highly politicized but because it was the 1990s, it was a very public debate [that] was carried in all newspapers. So that was a monumental thing, not just a monument,” Allen said.
In fact, as with the renaming of the park, Allen’s research would have been unthinkable 10 years earlier. At the time, the Japanese era was still off limits, unless it was “done so in a cursory and derogatory way,” Allen said.
Following the lifting of Martial Law, there was a dramatic increase in interest in the Japanese era, what Allen calls “refractive nostalgia.” “Literally devouring the Japanese period. Opening up the archives, publishing all these books and memoirs,” he said.
But it’s an area of interest that has largely run its course. Today, Allen detects the same amount of interest being directed towards the study of the authoritarian era.
“There is going to be a coming back to engage the question of the KMT period. Of course, it’s never objective but it will be examined in a different ideological light. Not in such a defensive or offensive position,” he said.
Joseph R. Allen will deliver a lecture, titled Making Space for the Modern City: Taipei, Tokyo, Paris, on Saturday from 2pm to 4pm, and participate in a discussion as part of the Lung Yingtai Cultural Foundation’s (龍應台文化基金會) MediaTek Lectures. The talk and discussion will take place at Yue-han Hall (月涵堂), 110 Jinhua St, Taipei City (台北市金華街110號), and will be conducted in English. Admission is free, but those attending must preregister online at www.civictaipei.org or by calling (02) 3322-4907.