taipei

Beautification by Destruction – The Demolition of Japanese Buildings in Taipei

When I first came to Taipei I didn’t know much about its history. One thing I did know, though: Taiwan had been under Japanese rule for half a century and Taipei had been the capital of the colony. But when I walked around, I wondered why there were barely any Japanese buildings. If you go to Macau, for instance, you find thousands of houses from the Portuguese colonial era. But in Taipei, all the streets seemed not to be older than 60 or 70 years. I just came to the conclusion that Taipei must have been a colonial backwater, a small village, and that present-day Taipei had been entirely constructed after 1945.

It was only after reading some books and seeing old pictures that I realised the Japanese had built a lot, and that indeed many of today’s roads and thoroughfares had been created during the colonial era. It’s just that after 1945 most of these buildings were torn down, with the exception of  the most representative ones. 
Something similar can be seen in many cities in the Chinese-speaking world. In Hong Kong, the majority of the old colonial buildings were demolished without mercy. Even historic treasures like the Hong Kong Club did not escape destruction.

In Beijing, too, many buildings were sacrificed to the rush for modernisation. The famous hutongs, narrow alleys dating back to the Yuan Dynasty, were its most prominent victims. As Duncan Hewitt writes in Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China (2010):

[In 1997 a] drive across Beijing could take on a nightmarish quality, as on one memorable late-night taxi ride, when the faint yellow glow of the street lamps lit up a seemingly endless scene of destruction: for many miles, the half-demolished skeletons of courtyard houses lined the road on both sides, like the remnants of some particularly brutal battle. This, I later discovered, was the beginning of the construction of the new traffic artery, known as ‘Peace Avenue’ … A joke did the rounds that Beijing was the only place in the world where you had to phone a restaurant before going out for dinner, not to reserve a table, but to check that the building hadn’t been demolished.


In Taipei, too, houses were demolished to make space for modern ones. In some cases, like that of the demolition of the Huaguang Community, there were massive protests. But it’s hard to say whether these protests were a consequence of the love for the historic heritage, or rather of the anger of the owners who were to be forcibly relocated.

Most of the time, though, the demolitions of Japanese buildings go entirely unnoticed. For instance, only a few years ago old houses in Taipei’s Roosevelt Road were demolished in order to build a small park. Therefore, in Taipei as well as in Hong Kong and mainland Chinese cities, the characters 拆除 (demolish) have become a symbol of the annihilation of the past.

The picture proudly shows how the site looked before and after the demolition of the old buildings
Next to the park there still stand an isolated group of buildings that I would assume are from the Japanese era, though I am not sure. 

When I studied Mandarin at a school in Roosevelt Road, I and my classmates witnessed the demolition of several Japanese houses. When we asked one of our teachers why the city government allowed this to happen, she replied that as a child she had lived in a Japanese house, and it was very uncomfortable because it was old-fashioned. “No one wants to live in these old buildings”, she said. 

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Categories: taipei

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