Fri, Apr 23, 2004 - Page 4 News List

Kaohsiung aspires to be cultural icon

'FRIENDLY CITY' Frank Hsieh and his administration are embarking on an ambitious project to turn a city known for its industry and pollution into Taiwan's Paris

By Lindy Yeh  /  STAFF REPORTER

A cafe scene on the banks of Kaohsiung's Ai River at night.

PHOTO: CHANG CHUNG-YI, TAIPEI TIMES

Though Kaohsiung Mayor Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) is seen as the frontrunner for the Democratic Progres-sive Party's (DPP) nomination for the 2008 presidential election, he has declined to comment on his career plans. His current amibition, he says, is to promote Kaohsiung as a "Friendly City" (友善城市).

One night earlier this month, Hsieh was playing the ocarina, a small wind instrument, in a cafe called "Hobby Mannbo" located on the banks of the Ai River (愛河). Hsieh was playing to entertain visiting writers from Taipei as well as the cafe's clients. His performance was unannounced, and even the cafe owner had not been informed.

Since there was a professional band playing in the cafe, he was simply pushed by his guests to show his amateur talent. He therefore stepped upon the stage and played in a relaxed way. The performance was typical of his easygoing style.

The patrons immediately recognized him and responded to his performance with enthusiastic applause. When he stepped down from the stage, people approached him, asking him for autographs and taking pictures. His popularity was obvious.

Hsieh does not take this for granted. He earned his support by his efforts to launch several major infrastructure projects in the city, and he won his 2002 re-election by only a thin margin of some 20,000 votes over his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rival, Huang Jun-ying (黃俊英).

In the presidential election last month, President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) strong showing in Kaohsiung was interpreted by many political analysts as a referendum on Hsieh. Chen beat KMT Chairman Lien Chan (連戰) by more than 100,000 votes in Kaohsiung.

Hsieh's most visible achievements include cleaning up the Chienchen River (前鎮河) and the transformation of the Ai River's banks into a commercial, art and cultural activities area that is modeled after Paris' Seine River.

The Ai River's transformation is part of an effort initiated by Hsieh's predecessors, which began around 20 years ago. But Hsieh has spent four years and a budget of NT$2 billion cleaning the Chienchen River.

The heavy pollution in the two rivers was so notorious that the Chienchen River was once called the "black dragon river" (黑龍江) and the Ai River stank to such an extant that many well-off residents moved to other districts.

Nowadays, the areas along the two rivers have become trendy again, with luxury houses, apartment buildings, shops and cafes springing up along the riverbanks. Several yachts in the Ai River are in service for tourists.

Luxury apartment buildings with river views have lured celebrities and prominent citizens, such as Deputy Secretary-General to the Presidential Office Chen Che-nan (陳哲男), whose family lives in Kaohsiung.

Real estate prices along the two rivers have appreciated 10 to 20 percent since the SARS outbreak last year, according to information released on April 4 by Rebar Rehouse (力霸房屋) -- a major real estate agency -- on its Web site Rebarnet.

Besides the riverbank areas, districts around the newly-developed parks, like the Neiweipi Cultural Park (內惟碑文化園區), have become trendy areas for the upper-middle class. The 10-hectare Neiweipi Wetland is preserved for ecological purposes and tourism.

Kaohsiung's MRT, which is under construction, is another boon for shops and businesses. Real estate close to MRT stations is also appreciating by at least 10 percent on average, Rebarnet said.

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