Sun, Oct 31, 1999 - Page 1 News List

Dance studio gutted by blaze

CULTURAL HERITAGE The China Dance Club had just been granted heritage site status before going up in flames. Some wonder if the fire wasn't an accident, but an act of political malice

By Monique Chu  /  STAFF REPORTER

Just as the China Dance Club, established by Tsai Jui-yueh, had been declared a municipal heritage site, a fire occurred yesterday morning.

PHOTO: CHIANG YING-YING, TAIPEI TIMES

Just four days after the Taipei City government granted the China Dance Club studio status as a municipal heritage site, the building that housed the studio was gutted by fire in the early hours of yesterday morning -- reducing Taiwan's first modern dance studio, along with its related historic records -- to ashes.

And although police have refused to speculate yet on possible causes of the blaze, the owners of the building said they suspected it was not an accident.

A security camera that was mounted in an alley nearby pictured two men, suspected of being arsonists, entering the area just before the fire broke out. The first man appeared in the alley around 1:44am, followed by a second, carrying a yellow bag. The fire broke out around 1:54am, soon after the men left the site. Police urged the two men to contact them as soon as possible.

Fire department officials said the blaze broke out at a vacant home next to the site, which included the Last Waltz Cafe as well as the studio itself.

Chen Chung-yueh (陳崇岳), captain of the fire department's third unit, said his staff received a telephone report at 2:05am, shortly after thick smoke was seen billowing from the burning Japanese bungalow complex on Section 2 of Chungshan North Road. Although firefighters arrived at the scene within five minutes, the flames soon tore through three of the wood buildings, Chen said. A total of 180 firefighters and over 40 fire trucks were called to the blaze, which was extinguished in about 30 minutes. The exact cause of the fire was still being investigated, Chen said.

Members of the studio returned to the site yesterday morning to sift through the ruins looking for now-scorched photos and historic records dating back to the 1940's.

David Maurice, the husband of the studio's current operator, Grace Hsiao (蕭靜文), said although some historic records of the studio's founder, Tsai Jui-yueh (蔡瑞月), had been kept elsewhere, many of them were stored inside the studio.

"Most of them are here because it was intended to be a library, a memorial [for Tsai]," Maurice said.

Tsai's founding of the club in 1953 has been recognized as being the forerunner of modern dance in Taiwan, and caught the attention of the city's heritage examination committee members last August, who then decided to redefine the studio as a municipal heritage site.

The actual designation was passed by the committee just last Tuesday. Hsiao said yesterday's fire not only destroyed the studio site, but has also left Tsai, now 78, frightened for her safety.

Tsai returned to Taiwan only last Wednesday, the second time she has returned to the island after her immigration to Australia in 1983.

"After she heard about the fire she asked us this morning whether she would be safe [after the fire.] We told her a security guard was outside her door, and we would not allow anybody to enter the house. But she was imprisoned [back in 1949] for political reasons, not her art," Hsiao said.

"It was only several days after the studio was defined as a municipal heritage site did the fire break out. I really don't know how to explain it to her. My personal feeling is that the fire is related to political factors," she said.

The status of the studio site had been a matter of controversy before it was ruled as a heritage site. For more than 20 years those running the studio had been considered to be illegal squatters on publicly owned land, as the government lease had been canceled in the 1970s. It was only after plans were made to raze the site for new buildings that media reports and calls by artists helped sway officials to save it.

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