Taiwan’s architectural heritage is disappearing daily

While Taiwan has many stunning preserved historic buildings, many more are disappearing every day as ignorant developers and public sector workers put profit and an easy life ahead of their country’s culture

90-year-old Japanese-style wooden police dormitory torn down by Kaohsiung Water Resources Bureau. (By Central News Agency)

As a history graduate and long-time culture vulture, I took great pleasure in compiling my article on the Top 10 Best Preserved Historic Buildings in Taiwan, which was published on Taiwan News earlier this week. And judging by the flood of comments and alternative suggestions that have been coming in on social media during the week, it is clear I am not the only one who feels strongly about the importance of preserving Taiwan’s architectural heritage.

Which is why it pained me greatly this week to come across two more examples of the disregard and lack of understanding many Taiwanese seem to have for their own history. First, on Tuesday, it emerged that another culturally important building had been torn down without warning.

The building in question was a 90-year old police dormitory which was located in Cishan district, in the north-east of Kaohsiung. It was made of Chinese cypress wood and boasted a beautiful black-tiled roof. As well as a dorm, it had also served as a residence for the local Police Commissioner but had stood uninhabited for several years because the cost of restoration was deemed to be too high.

Despite this, the police regularly cleaned the building and controlled access to it. Yet, on Tuesday, without any warning at all, The Kaohsiung Water Resources Bureau bulldozed it and this special piece of local history was gone forever. Why? Because they wanted the land to house people whose homes they had already torn down to make way for new drainage construction.

Bureaucracy without teeth

While the dorm was not a designated heritage site, it had been promoted by local history groups. And given its age, there were administrative hurdles that should have been passed before it could be torn down.

In Taiwan, any building more than 50 years old requires a "Cultural Value Assessment" before it can legally be demolished. In this instance, this assessment had been completely overlooked. To those who care about history, this should be a complicated process designed to protect Taiwanese heritage by serving as a deterrent to those ignorant developers and public-sector workers who are more interested in an easy life and a fast buck than what is best for their country.

But the response of the Kaohsiung Water Resources Bureau to questions about the demolition emphasized just how toothless these powers are. Rather than expressing regret for the error, apologizing profusely, and tendering his resignation, Deputy Director-General Han Jung-hua (韓榮華) was clearly of the view that this was an administrative mix-up rather than a catastrophic cultural disaster.

He merely said that his office would "make up" the incomplete paperwork and offered no further comment. As far as he is concerned, a few forms stamped and submitted will mean this is no longer an issue. And the tragedy is, he is probably right.

Ill-conceived renovation

Then yesterday, I found myself in the small town of Chaozhou (潮州鎮) in Pingtung County, at the end of Expressway 88. Knowing that such small towns often still have little architectural gems yet to be swept away by the developers, I parked up and went to explore.

I did not have to look far. At the back of a car park right in the town center was a small settlement of Japanese era houses. All were long abandoned and overgrown, yet their wooden walls and elaborately tiled roofs remained intact giving a clear indication of their past elegance.

At one end of the settlement were construction barriers, which I assumed was an indication that these buildings would soon meet the same fate as the police dorm in Cishan. But in fact, it was the first phase of a project to restore the settlement and return the buildings to use.

I was initially encouraged until I looked at the first building they were restoring. Far from tenderly removing the original tiles and lovingly treating the wooden walls, they were gone, replaced instead by concrete walls and modern imitation tiles.

When finished, the new building would be handsome enough, but it was a new building in the style of what was there before. It was not, by any stretch of the definition, a restoration of the old Japanese-era houses.

I have no doubt that the powers that be behind this project mean well, and perhaps the building in question was beyond repair, and the others will be handled more sympathetically. But, this is not the first such "restoration" project I have found in Taiwan which sweeps all the history away to make way for a building fit for the modern age.

For me, these two examples go to the root of the problem Taiwan has with its architectural heritage. Too many people do not care about it. And those that do, do not understand how to handle it properly.

This does not seem to be a problem that can be fixed by new rules and regulations either, especially when the rules already in place are so readily ignored. I would like to see tougher "Cultural Value Assessments" introduced, with an assumption to preserve built in, as well as strong penalties for those that breach the law. But I am under no illusion that this will solve the problem.

What needs to happen in Taiwan is an entire cultural shift. It needs the people of Taiwan to appreciate what is old as much as they do new things, to value their history as much as they do modern design, shopping malls, and luxury apartment blocks. For that to happen will take a shift in education, information, and core values. And even then, it would take a generation, by which time most of those valuable buildings which remain will have gone.

Local campaigns will hopefully save some buildings, but as long as public bodies and developers treat history with disdain, much of Taiwan’s culture appears destined for demolition.