Enabler of Happiness: Taichung City's Jason Hu
Turning Taichung into the Vienna of the East
Taichung City may not be able to compete with the economic might of Taipei or Kaohsiung. But it has a much better chance of overtaking Taiwan's two biggest cities when it comes to style and culture.
Turning Taichung into the Vienna of the EastBy Scott Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 380 )
The scene was full of nostalgia. Tsai Chin, one of Taiwan’s singing legends, was delivering an emotional rendition of the popular ballad “The Last Night” before an audience of 10,000 enraptured fans, most of whom were singing along. When the performance came to end, the crowd of 40- and 50-somethings did not want to leave, intoxicated by the memories of their youth.
Tsai was performing at a special concert organized by the Taichung City Government at the Fulfillment Amphitheater in Wenxin Forest Park on the first weekend of July. Mayor Jason Hu was mesmerized by the melodies, holding the hand of his wife Shirley Shaw during the show.
“There has never been a concert like this organized for people of our age,” said the passionate 59-year-old Hu. “This concert may have been attended by the largest number of Taiwanese music fans of the highest average age.”
Culture Brings the Old and Young Together
For more than a week, Taichung was buzzing with nostalgia. Fashionable restaurants and offices were playing popular folk ballads, and those out for a hike in the Dakeng Scenic Area could be heard humming the old tunes. It was just another example of Taichung residents enthusiastically partaking in a cultural event.
Over the past year, the Taichung Amphitheater has held many performances, ranging from classical music and jazz to local or foreign dramas, often to capacity crowds. Taichung residents frequently bring their families even to small musical performances on street corners or in one of the city’s “green corridors.”
This cultural wave is not only the result of Hu’s vigorous promotion of the arts. Behind the scenes, the support and sponsorship of developers and construction companies in central Taiwan has helped Taichung escape its stereotype as “Sin City” and transform itself into the Vienna of the East.
Taichung City was long seen as the political epicenter and transport hub of central Taiwan, but it experienced a decline in stature after the Taiwan Provincial Government was effectively dissolved in 1998 and Taiwan’s second north-south highway was completed in early 2004. Political figures stopped staging big official events there, and business travelers had no need to make a rest stop in the city when traveling through central Taiwan. The massive Jiji earthquake of September 21, 1999 in central Taiwan and the SARS epidemic in early 2003 inflicted further losses on the local economy and only added to Taichung’s woes.
“Taichung is a city without any special characteristics,” Hu said when he took over as mayor six years ago, declaring his desire to find a way to position the city’s brand. “Compared to Taipei, we can’t match its political and economic strength. Compared to Kaohsiung, we’re not a port city and don’t have heavy industrial development. We can only win by competing with a unique urban style through culture, the arts, exhibitions and performances.”
He realized that to be competitive and stand out among Taiwan’s cities, he first had to make a name for the city in the international arena. Hu therefore tried to persuade the world famous Guggenheim Museum to set up a branch in Taichung. Although the Taichung City Council ultimately nixed the idea just as success appeared likely, the effort convinced city residents and businesses that Mayor Hu was serious about his vision for the city.
Bold Architecture a Key for a City of the Arts
At the same time that Hu began pushing his vision, the area’s architectural sector was also undergoing change. Following the 1999 earthquake, local architects and developers re-examined the quality of their previous efforts and committed themselves to using only the best construction materials in the future. Emboldened by Hu’s determination to transform Taichung into Taiwan’s leading center of culture and the arts, they also placed greater emphasis on tasteful design.
As a result, Taichung quickly turned into a showcase for architectural innovation, regardless of style. Eastern or Western, traditional or modern, luxurious or simple – many different styles blended together, and the creative wave drew the interest of many architects from around the country.
Cultural Seeds Spread the News
Although his bid to bring the Guggenheim to Taichung failed, Hu still aggressively pursued the establishment of the Taichung Metropolitan Opera House and the Fulfillment Amphitheater. Afraid that the complexes would be white elephants when completed, Hu worked feverishly in the meantime to cultivate city residents’ appreciation for art and culture by staging a number of free city-sponsored events.
“We deployed 5,000 volunteers, or ‘cultural seeds’ around the city. Whenever there was news of an event, each volunteer would tell 50 to 70 other people, in order to increase the rate of participation of city residents,” recalls Mark K. Huang, the director-general of the Taichung Cultural Affairs Bureau.
With this positive interaction between the city government and its constituents, average annual participation by city residents in cultural activities has soared from 4.7 times per year in 2002 to 28 times in 2006.
Taichung’s cultural cachet has prompted many individuals from outside the city to buy homes there because they’ve fallen in love with the lifestyle. The Central Taiwan Science Park is drawing investment from high-tech enterprises, leading to an even greater influx of people. Taichung now attracts more than 7,000 new residents a year, which in turn also gives a boost to the local real estate sector.
Despite the positive trends, Taichung still faces hidden challenges in the future.
“The renovation of old communities and the construction of the light-rail system have yet to begin. Also, Taichung City has not yet developed a metropolitan cultural character it can call its own,” says Yaw-hwa Liou, the director of Feng Chia University’s Department of Urban Planning, who believes that these issues would affect the quality of life in Taichung in the future.
Touched by the outpouring of concern for his wife after she suffered serious injuries in a car accident last year, Hu vowed to show his thanks by giving back to city residents. In the remaining three years of his term as mayor, how Hu reshapes the face of the city will set the course for the next 10 to 20 years of this young city’s development.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier
Chinese Version: 讓台中變身東方維也納