Deep in farming country in rural Chiayi County, a brand new six-lane road, complete with streetlights, gardens and fountains, cuts through acres of fertile farmland. Less than a kilometer away stands an imposing high-speed rail station, about a half-hour drive from central Chiayi City.
The road is almost entirely empty. The occasional blue truck passes by, carrying agricultural produce, or in one case, cages filled with angry squawking chickens. The fountains spray jets of water listlessly on a timer, impressing nobody but the passing stray dog.
Hidden behind a tall metal wall along Gugong Boulevard (故宮大道) lies the reason why the new roads, pipelines and transmission towers were built last year, at a cost of more than NT$1 billion (US$31.2 million) to taxpayers. It’s the construction site for the new branch of Taipei’s National Palace Museum (NPM).
“Six hundred and twenty days and counting” blinks a huge electronic urn-shaped billboard erected by the county government. The number is in reference to President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) pledge that the NT$7.9 billion NPM Southern Branch would open by spring 2012 at the latest, after years of delays.
County officials are hoping the new museum, the only branch of the NPM outside Taipei, will convince more tourists to visit the agriculture-and-tourism-based county, best known for its iconic attraction Alishan. Already, early signs of new development can be seen along the new roads leading up to the construction site.
“Our wish is that this new branch, with its new design and modern features, will exceed the original museum in Taipei,” said Kang Wen-lin (康文玲), director-general of the county’s cultural affairs department. “We want it to draw tourists, not just from within Taiwan, but from around the world.”
However, it now seems that this optimism will have to be put on hold, after NPM officials admitted that the opening date for the main museum building would be pushed back at least another three years, to 2015, and the surrounding grounds another five years, to 2017.
Officials say the holdup has resulted from problems with contractors and concerns over flooding in the area. In 2008, two major contractors responsible for design and consulting on the project, Antoine Predock Architects and Lord Cultural Resources, were dismissed, allegedly because of cost and construction time overruns.
A quick peek over the wall shows dozens of acres of weeds and wild unkempt grass. Missing from the picture are the excavators, construction crews and building supplies that usually accompany a major development, especially one backed by an election pledge from the president.
The empty grounds stand in stark contrast to what the museum is supposed to become. When finished, it will include a 34,000m2 main building with Aboriginal and Taiwanese features, as well as an additional 58 hectares of gardens, rivers and performance areas. The layout also includes exhibition areas for pottery, textiles, tea and Buddhist art as well as walking paths and two man-made lakes.
News that their prized project has once again been put on hold has shocked local residents and tourism operators, who say they trusted Ma to follow through on the pledge he made for a 2012 opening when he was campaigning for a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate in the local elections last year. Some bet their livelihoods on the promise.