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Transplants Forge a Great City

Hsinchu's Quiet Revolution


One of the world’s major technology hotbeds, Hsinchu has attracted a high proportion of non-native residents. Can its population of transplants trigger their own brand of urban renewal?



Hsinchu's Quiet Revolution

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 390 )

An experiment in urban renewal launched by the residents themselves is quietly underway in Hsinchu, a city with over a century of history. The warm yet vigorous voice of radio DJ Chiang Hsueh-ying, transmitted over The Voice of IC, a local radio station, implores: "We need to bring the city's people together in a silent revolution, encouraging everyone to carry reusable chopsticks and water bottles with them. And in the next stage, we'll promote a 'free hug' campaign."

In a distant four-story home, the wife of a Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park engineer moves quickly to send out the call to her email list of science park employee wives to take up the mantle of the campaign and do their part for the environment.

This experimental flame of city residents getting involved and making their voices heard on issues conveys not just warm energy but a good deal of critical power.

Last October a group of professionals calling themselves the Bamboo Broom Action Alliance (the name is a pun on Hsinchu, which literally means 'new bamboo'in Chinese) was formed to sweep away phenomena detrimental to culture and society, and put cultural civic rights into action. At its own expense, the group rented 10 public buses, each bearing large signs on them asking, 'Citizens of Hsinchu: are you happy' This was their way of expressing their hopes and concern for the city's fiscal performance and promotion and protection of cultural and historical landmarks.

Most Intellectual Chinese City on Earth

Whether a small flame or a wild fire, the main thrust of this civic movement is a group of transplants from other areas that have found a new home in Hsinchu.

Hsinchu has witnessed several waves of new arrivals, including technology professionals, foreign brides, and guest workers. In fact, transplants account for over 100,000 of this small town's 390,000 residents, injecting new blood and vitality.

Among these, a cross-section of people in their forties and fifties boasting seasoned professional and international experience, comprises the main impetus for the civic movement.

First among these are the professionals that for the past 30 years have been working at the Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park, Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), National Tsing Hua University and National Chiao Tung University.

Park Life is a locally focused magazine with 13 years of history circulated among the science park, ITRI, and the city's two major universities. Magazine publisher Huang Chun-ming notes that since the 1980s a new group of transplants entering the area to work in semiconductor wafer contract manufacturing has made the city its home.

Hong Hocheng, dean of academic affairs at National Tsing Hua University, is a typical transplant. Since taking a position at the university 20 years ago, he and his family have made Hsinchu their home. With two children in local schools, he is actively involved in educational reform at the local level.

The second group of prime movers consists of people in the architecture, media, culture and history fields with a passion for historical landmarks.

Lin Chih-cheng, a 49 year-old with a scruffy beard, took a position at the prestigious architectural firm C.Y. Lee & Partners after returning to Taiwan with a master's degree in architecture from Columbia University in New York. A native of Jiayi with a particular passion for historical architecture, he resolved to depart the big city of Taipei, preferring Hsinchu's proximity to both the mountains and the sea. Working out of an office in a classic horseshoe-shaped Chinese homestead, he is active in local cultural affairs.

Hsinchu is home to well over 100,000 people like Hong Hocheng and Lin Chih-cheng, transplants in their forties and fifties.

Strongly Critical Spirit

In fact, Hsinchu has always been a city with a free spirit and a tradition of criticism.

Hsinchu Senior High School is one of the city's biggest sources of pride. Long distinguished for something it lacks a perimeter fence or wall separating the campus from the community its character was established under former principal Hsin Chih-ping, who stressed the balanced development of students' characters and academic capacities. In addition to earning plaudits for its liberal style, the school has produced such leading figures as Nobel laureate and Academia Sinica president Lee Yuen-tseh, and poet Cheng Chou-yu.

The presence of its universities and the science park has lent the city additional innovation over the past two decades and a culture of pragmatism and straight talk. Universities are founts of creativity and innovation, and with six universities of its own, Hsinchu has more than its share. The industrial park provides a further progressive presence.

"This is a group of workers accustomed to global competition. When everything hangs on a flawless yield rate, you become trained to be very critical," observes Chiang Hsueh-ying.

These transplanted citizens have taken this critical, straight-talking style into public arena.

Unlike traditional communities, their focus centers more on broader public issues like transportation, education, and improvement of the living environment. Their organizational network also departs from Taiwanese society's conventional agricultural committees and public cooperatives run by patricians, instead drawing from professionals with a broad range of backgrounds and wide reach.

An Easy Grassroots Revolution

A protest in 2000 dubbed the Black Umbrella Movement triggered a citywide experiment. The city's cobblestone street by the old east wall was scheduled to be torn out and paved over, at the insistence of one segment of the population (largely those unhappy about high heels getting caught and reduced accessibility to taxis).

However, a group of citizens with a passion for the old Hsinchu got together and launched the Black Umbrella Movement. Firing off emails and cell phone text messages, they put out the call for action, "Let's all carry black umbrellas tomorrow in mourning for our moat river." The next morning numerous people who'd never met before put aside work and gathered together, black umbrellas at hand, and ultimately the city relented on its demolition plans.

Huang Chun-ming offers, "The Black Umbrella Movement in retrospect seems to be the point in recent years at which the city's people went beyond their own personal interests to get behind public issues."

The Hsinchu experiment of transplanted residents not only poses a challenge to authorities but also rattles the nerves of the patricians. Although they are cosmopolitan, progressively inclined, and hold the government's feet to the fire to see that its policies are environmentally viable and socially equitable, they can nonetheless come off as too highbrow in their ways and concerns. Giving the example of the Nanliao waste incinerator project, Hsinchu City Council member Lee Yen-huei notes that while private interest groups and scholars called for the facility's dismantlement, incessantly noting its high dust particle volume and threats to human health, their appeals failed to resonate with the average man on the street.

A great citizenry is the foundation of a great nation, city, or town. The next step in Hsinchu's experiment of transplanted residents is to strike a chord with more regular folks on the grassroots level to make great reforms possible.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman

Chinese Version: 新竹市民的寧靜革命