In times of crisis, our convictions matter. They even matter when a crisis is over, as they show how committed we are to our beliefs.
While the nation moves toward a more open and free democratic society, the Taiwan Railways Administration’s (TRA) ban on sitting in Taipei Railway Station’s main hall is puzzling and, more likely, not useful, if not counterproductive.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions on gatherings in public spaces have been put in place to slow the spread of the virus. The station’s main hall was one of the affected spaces.
Now, as the pandemic shows signs of ebbing, the TRA is taking advantage of the restrictions, as it announced on May 18 that it plans to make permanent a ban on sitting on the station’s main hall floor.
Unsurprisingly, the policy has sparked controversy and protest.
In response, the TRA explained that it had never intended to provide such a “service” to tourists and travelers, but merely acquiesced to what happened.
Now, to avoid confrontations, the TRA proposed inviting experts to discuss how the hall should be designed to benefit users and would put forward a proposal this month.
Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) took a middle-of-the-road position, saying “the TRA can continue its dialogue with the public and find ways to satisfy both sides.”
Lin should instead take charge and put the genie back in the bottle.
In its history, the hall has been part of many people’s lives. During Lunar New Year holidays in the 1990s, long queues were seen inside the station, as hundreds of young workers waited for their trains to return home to their villages for family reunions, and given the limited waiting space, they brought sleeping bags and quilts to make beds on the floor, and stayed inside the station overnight. Some brought food or mahjong sets.
The hall was an important space where citizens expressed dissent and held protests.
In 1991, the Ministry of Justice’s Investigation Bureau had five students and academics arrested in connection with their participation in the Taiwan Independence Association. To defend freedom of expression, college students across the nation went on strike and organized sit-in protests inside the station’s main hall.
In 2006, anti-corruption protests against then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) were held in the hall. At the time, chairs were provided for waiting travelers.
The station’s main hall was also an important part of migrant workers’ lives. On weekends, they often met friends there and sat together on the floor.
One of the most shining examples for the hall’s importance is the annual gathering of Muslim migrant workers celebrating Eid al-Fitr there.
By allowing the observation of festivals in public spaces, the public has the opportunity to better understand migrants’ cultures. As a result, mutual respect and trust are fostered.
In 2011, when the hall was under renovation, the TRA seized the opportunity to remove all chairs.
Without public seating, travelers had to buy drinks and food inside the station if they wanted to sit, thereby boosting sales at restaurants and shops.
The TRA said that it aimed to prevent people from occupying seats, disrespecting the rights of others.
Some academics and non-governmental organizations slammed the policy, as it not only discriminates against homeless people, but also serves the TRA’s interest in commercializing the space.
Against this backdrop, people took back the right of usage by sitting on the floor. Students, elders, backpackers, migrant workers, foreigners, travelers and tourists used the space for all kinds of activities.
As time moved forward, the hall became a symbol of a diverse, inclusive and open society.
Such a valuable heritage, which epitomizes our evolving society, is now again facing a challenge. The TRA should think twice before it is too late.
The improvement of the hygiene of the environment or the international image of the station is not all that matters. The more excuses the TRA makes, the more it reveals its disguised commercial intentions.
The point is to preserve an intangible cultural heritage, a place which not only witnessed the history of democratization, but also shows the extent to which society is committed to the values of democracy, freedom and respect for human rights.
There is a thin line between short-term advantage and long-term vision. Will Lin read between the lines?
Huang Yu-zhe is a political science undergraduate at Soochow University and has been accepted to National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Interdisciplinary Studies.
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