Taiwan's New Cultural and Creative Mecca
Of Taiwan's biggest cities, only Tainan has insisted on preserving its historical roots and using them to draw a more creative crowd. But will that be enough for the city to regain its vitality?
Taiwan's New Cultural and Creative MeccaBy David Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 504 )
"Taipei is a lot like other international cities like London or New York. But Tainan has a completely different feel than Taipei. It's quiet and not flamboyant. It's a great place to live," says Englishman Patrick Wyton, sitting beside the remnants of an old stone wall in the Tainan Confucius Temple Historical Area.
Nearly 350 years ago, the Tainan Confucius Temple was built as the first site for Confucian studies on the island, earning it the moniker "Taiwan's First Academy." The foliage extending from four- to five-story hundred-year-old banyan trees provide plenty of shade for visitors to the park.
Sitting under one of the trees in a T-shirt and shorts, Wyton had come to the park with his family to walk around and get some exercise. When Wyton came to Taiwan 13 years ago, he decided to settle in Tainan and got married to a woman from the city.
"Tainan is a city that's continually on the rise. Taipei and Taichung will soon be overtaken," Wyton says, particularly appreciative of the city's historical tradition that is well-preserved to this day.
Tainan's population may be growing at only a gradual pace, but it has expanded consistently from year to year, helped by a positive net migration rate that has outpaced the city's natural birth rate.
The city was Taiwan's capital under the Qing Dynasty from the late 17th century to the late 19th century, and what appeals to outsiders is the old capital's historical feel, mixed with its steady stream of innovative businesses.
Linking Historical Sites through Stories
Walking from the old gate of "Taiwan's First Academy" on Nanmen Road toward Jhongjheng Rd., one passes by a building that was the Tainan Prefectural Hall during the Japanese colonial era and is now an important cultural center – the National Museum of Taiwan Literature. A left turn onto Jhongjheng Road after reaching a traffic circle reveals an old department store from the Japanese era currently under renovation.
All of the historical sites on this short walk have always been able to attract visitors on their own merit, but one year ago, the Tainan municipal government capitalized on the renovation of the Japanese-era department store to group the historical sites into a special cultural "zone."
Old Lin's Department Store, built in 1932, was one of only two pre-World War II department stores in Taiwan (along with the Kikumoto Department Store in Taipei) to have an elevator. It was five stories tall – a sight so rare at the time that the residents of Tainan simply referred to it as "the five story building."
"At one point on Jhongjheng Road, there were more than 30 department stores in the vicinity of Old Lin's Department Store," says Yeh Tse-shan, the director-general of the Tainan Cultural Affairs Bureau. "Along with the department store restoration project, many private interests have now begun to use those other old store structures."
"We hope to turn the renovated Lin's Department Store into a 'cultural and creative department store' designed to reflect Tainan's culture," says Wang Hao-yi, who is involved in the creative industry and promoting in-depth tours of Tainan. He is also in charge of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications' "International Spotlight" program for southern Taiwan.
"Tainan's historical sites already have different looks in different parts of the city. Old residences are scattered all over," Wang says. "What I want to do is to use stories to string together a series of historical tourism routes."
According to Wang, the political disposition of southern Taiwan (which leans more pro-Taiwan and anti-China) has left administrative heads in the region reluctant to show Chinese officials or tourists around. But he has insisted on introducing Tainan's culture to Chinese visitors.
Last week, when Wang welcomed a group of over 30 tourism and cultural officials from China, his main points of emphasis were historical sites such as the Confucius Temple and the city's many other temples.
"These are historical legacies shared by the two sides of the Taiwan Strait that resonate the most," Wang says. When he showed the visiting officials a plaque in the Koxinga Shrine with an inscription written by Chiang Kai-shek reading, "Revitalize the Chinese Nation," one of them exclaimed, "What we want to do now, Taiwan already did 40 or 50 years ago."
The Tainan government is also getting into the act. It has just completed a general survey of more than 700 Japanese-era official residences in the greater Tainan area and plans to revitalize these abandoned structures.
Tainan mayor Lai Ching-te rattles off with ease the names and current statuses of a number of these buildings. "The red-brick Japanese military officer residence in an alley off Gongyuan Road is now a memorial hall for painter Kuo Po-chuan. The residence for judicial officials across from the Ximen branch of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store will be converted into a cultural park."
"If we can attract 10 or 20 designers capable of developing smartphone apps or who are willing to use concepts from Tainan's cultural history to create new things, it will allow cultural and creative industries to slowly take root," Lai says.
The city's new young immigrants have gone a step further, applying their diverse perspectives to interpret life in Taiwan's old capital.
Renovating Old Houses, Fulfilling a Dream
Writer and director Looloo Lu, born in 1980, made his name with the 7-minute short film "Poetic, Taipei." The premiere screening of his "Life of Never End Co. Ltd." – set in Kaohsiung – was completely sold out. But it was while filming that movie that he would often return to Taipei and stop for a rest in Tainan, and gradually fell in love with the city.
In 2010, Lu and his wife, designer Ayo Hsu, were about to have a child, and they decided to settle down and open a business – designer handbag company "La Yoo" – in Tainan.
"We spent NT$1 million to buy this three-story storefront building and just over NT$2 million to buy the apartment where we now live," Lu says. "For less than NT$4 million, I was able to start a business and live in Tainan, and I had more time for my family."
Lu's new life does have its pitfalls. The old house he bought leaks, but he seems uninterested in covering the roof with sheet metal to solve the problem. "I've spent more than six months just looking for an old craftsman who can repair the roof tiles," he says. "I want to live in a house that's organic, because we have come here to find happiness."
The couple decided to make handbags because Hsu became obsessed with handmade handbags when she was pregnant. In Tainan, they have a rich cultural palette from which to draw inspiration for new products.
"Our first Confucius Temple bag made use of the Tainan Confucius Temple's cornices and curved lines," Lu explains. "After it went on sale, Tainan consumers suddenly discovered that Tainan's culture could be represented in this way."
But finding talented artisans to make handmade bags was as big of a chore as tracking down experienced craftsman to fix old buildings. The couple went through every listing in their local Yellow Pages before finding an elderly woman in Sinhua – a small town east of the city – who had crafted bags for more than 40 years and was willing to help produce them and guide new employees.
Today, this veteran bag maker leads a team of 20- to 30-year-old employees recruited by Lu, teaching them how to sew by hand and by machine.
"Taiwan's cultural and creative products face a major fault line when it comes to production. We hope that we can hand down these techniques and enable traditional needlework to develop along the lines of Japan's shokunin," Lu says, referring to Japan's class of master craftsmen.
Urban Renewal Encroaching on Historical Feel
Tainan has the potential to become a world-class old capital blending the old and the new, but it still has a long way to go to fulfill such a vision.
Because the Tainan government has faced funding shortfalls since becoming a special municipality at the end of 2010 (resulting from the merger of what was Tainan City and Tainan County), it has opted to bump up permissible floor area ratios to encourage private-sector participation in urban renewal. The initiative allows developers to put up new buildings with far more floor space than previously existed on the same plot of land. But at least one scholar, Wu Yu-cheng, who teaches architecture at Tainan's most prestigious school – National Cheng Kung University – has his doubts about the plan's feasibility.
He cited the example of a 24-story structure suddenly sprouting up in a neighborhood of old four-story residential buildings because of the relaxed floor space ratio, destroying the old capital's cityscape.
"Urban renewal should not be just about selling space and selling land," Wu said. "The urban renewal I have in mind for Tainan focuses on solving the problem of inadequate infrastructure rather than giving communities large-scale facelifts."
A Barrier to Cultural Expansion
Though the city is betting on a cultural reawakening as the foundation of its development, it faces a serious challenge.
The city's growth has always been concentrated in the old part of town, unlike Taipei and Kaohsiung, which have seen their centers of gravity move eastward, and Tainan has suffered for it, preventing it from engendering a broader cultural population that can support an expansion of the arts. As a result, the Yanfen District Art Camp, a unique fixture in Tainan for 30 years, was discontinued recently, and the renowned Tainan Jen Theatre Group has decided to leave its old Tainan home.
Even more troubling, many renovated old residences that were designated to be used as performing arts or exhibition venues have not been able to attract a proportionately sized audience. A photo exhibition called "Once Upon a City" by noted photographer Chu Yin-hua, currently on display at Art Square Taiwan, across from Chin Men Theater, rarely draws a soul on weekday afternoons.
Venues similar to Art Square are found in almost every alley near Fujhong Street, a pedestrian street just across Nanmen Road from the Confucius Temple that has gradually emerged as a key cultural and creative cluster in the heart of the city.
Paul Chuang, who runs Art Square, says candidly that he wants to diversify Tainan's arts and culture but has yet to find a suitable operating model. "Fortunately, the rent and living expenses are cheap, so I can continue on," he says, but the problem he faces results from a vicious circle, according to National Cheng Kung University's Wu.
"Without broader and more diverse development, you can't cultivate cultural and creative businesses. Without those businesses, you can't support a lot of people," Wu explains. "Tainan still has to make a major effort if it really wants to use the old capital's cultural assets to develop the cultural and creative sector."
When Taiwan's economy took flight in the 1970s and 1980s, Tainan did not ride the development wave to expand and modernize as did other major cities, instead preserving many of the old sites and relics for which the city has become known.
But tour developer Wang Hao-yi remains optimistic. "Over the years, we've seen Kaohsiung get bigger, Taichung get broader, and Taipei get taller. Only Tainan has preserved some of its old flavor, which has inspired people to come here to dream."
But whether those dreams can be fulfilled and the city's old tunes can hit new notes will depend on Tainan's residents and their ability to instill new life into their cultural assets and inspire newfound creativity.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier