The recent removal of the statue of dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) from the Kaohsiung City Cultural Center caused a media sensation. The coverage made it seem as if somebody had done something wrong, or that Kaohsiung citizens had deserted the country and turned their backs on history. Is it really that bad?
Every day, Kaohsiung residents visiting the city's cultural center can enjoy the beauty and leisurely atmosphere of its park. However, I wonder how many people are aware that prior to 2000, the cultural center very much resembled a huge closed-off government building. It was built like an emperor's temple in imperial style, with lofty spires and a layout suited to grand ceremonies, all of which served as a metaphor for absolute totalitarianism. In other words, if the cultural center's enclosing walls and the authoritarian atmosphere had not been removed in 2000, it would not appear as charming and spacious as it does now.
By doing away with the enclosing walls, the center returned to become part of the lifeblood of Kaohsiung. Without such authoritarian symbols, it became the best place for people in Kaohsiung to express their appreciation for life and culture in the new century. Hasn't this made the city more attractive?
Kaohsiung's entire urban space has been restricted for long enough. The central government and state-run enterprises occupy 60 percent of the city's land, so they can easily change commercial and residential zoning. Unfortunately, they did not see the imbalance between the population and the real estate market in the area. As Kaohsiung can only go along with the central government's decisions, how is it supposed to fix the problem itself?
Kaohsiung is blessed as a port city, but it took sustained effort from former mayor Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) and former acting mayor Yeh Chu-lan (葉菊蘭) to demolish the cultural center's enclosing walls so that the city's citizens could see the city's maritime heritage. People in Kaohsiung had hoped to reinvent their home as a lively port city.
However, when the city government wanted to build a center for pop music alongside the harbor, it met with strong opposition from the central government, which believed that the center would threaten the operations and business of the cargo wharf.
Ever since the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) came to Taiwan in 1945, Kaohsiung's urban development has been based on an unequal relationship between the central and local governments. The imbalance of power between the two sides was manifested in distorted cultural development. In the beginning of the 1960s, the central government decided that Kaohsiung would bear the cost of Taiwan's industrial development. It decided that residents would have to accept filth and pollution in the Love River and the Chienchen River, because this was the price of the nation's development.
Not until the transition of power in 2000 did central government begin to consider the city's appearance in its policies, and gradually revolutionize the urban space by doing away with the authoritarian atmosphere.
Over the past few years, the completion of Urban Spotlight, the revitalization of the Love River and the renovation of the only wetland park in Taiwan have all changed the city to an amazing extent. But these actions are not the result of direction or coercion from exterior forces, but instead it is the people of Kaohsiung that have had a say in their lives. The renaming of the city's cultural center and the removal of Chiang's statue from its main hall were a necessary step toward doing away with the legacy of authoritarianism.
Looking back on the many incredible cities that have reinvented themselves as they moved into the 21st century, were any of them afraid to face history, break the mold and do away with their past? We expect that Kaohsiung will become an amazing city in the 21st century. We expect even more that during such a process, we will accumulate the mass and ability to develop its urban space for ourselves.
It was correct for the city government to remove Chiang's statue from the cultural center. It was not a spontaneous decision, but a link in the long series of revolutions of Kaohsiung's urban space. Kaohsiung will be the more beautiful for doing away with it, and its people will have greater hope by breaking free from the city's past authoritarian shackles.
Tseng Tse-fong is an associate professor at the Graduate Institute of Urban Development and Architecture at National University of Kaohsiung.
Translated by Daniel Cheng
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