Saturday, 26 April 2014

Zhongshan Hall - A Witness To Taipei's History

Zhongshan Hall is probably one of those buildings in Taipei that most tourists won't even notice. Despite being located in the heart of Taipei, just a few minutes walk from Ximending, and around 10-15 minutes from Taipei North Gate, Zhongshan Hall is not a major tourist attraction. The square in front of the building is – surprisingly enough in the bustling city - one of those relaxing and quiet areas that have preserved their clean, calm Japanese-era atmosphere. 

Zhongshan Hall (中山堂); the name on the facade must be read from right to left.

Contrary to what one may expect, however, Zhongshan Hall is a very important place in the history of Taipei, and thus I think it's worth dedicating a separate post to it.

Zhongshan Hall (中山堂) is located on Yanping South Road (延平南路), which during the Qing Dynasty was called North Gate Road (北門街). This long street ran from North Gate down to the Qing government district. In fact, from North Gate one could walk directly to Taiwan Provincial Administration Hall (布政使司衙門). This shows that the place where now Zhongshan Hall stands was central in the urban structure of both Qing Dynasty and Japanese Taipei. 

Qing Dynasty

The building that we now see did not exist during the Qing Dynasty. Exactly in the same place stood the Taiwan Provincial Administration Hall, which was the most important office in Taiwan. Inside this building the government issued its policies regarding all the financial, military and tax matters of Taiwan Province (Zhuang Zhanpeng et al.: Taibei Gucheng Shendu Lvyou. Taipei 2000, p. 56). The Taiwan Provincial Administration Hall was a large compound, comprising 18 buildings, constructed in typical Chinese style. It was built in the 15th year of Emperor Guangxu (1889).

The large compound of Taiwan Provincial Administration Hall. This most Chinese of all government buildings is unimaginable in present-day Taipei, as the Japanese demolished all imperial offices 

The Republic of Taiwan 

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Taipei Post Office (台北郵局)

The Taipei Post Office is located in Zhongxiao West Road, just a few minutes walk from Taipei Main Station, and opposite lightly to the left of the North Gate.

Immersed in Taipei's concrete jungle, the post office can be easily overlooked by first-time visitors. Unfortunately, this destiny is shared by many buildings of that area, which during the Qing Dynasty constituted Taipei Walled City, and under Japanese rule was the centre of the colonial capital.

The facade of Taipei Post Office

Monday, 14 April 2014

Taipei Main Station

I remember my first hours in Taiwan. When I arrived at Taoyuan Airport I went to buy a sim card for my phone, and then a ticket to Taipei Main Station. It was 5 pm, the sky was cloudy, and the weather hot and humid (at that time it was shocking to me that the weather could be like that in November). A bus driver shouted at me in Chinese, asking me where I was going. Then he pointed at an old bus. Hoping that my Chinese pronunciation - which I tested for the first time - had not betrayed me, I boarded the bus, and so began my adventure. 

I still recall the excitement and nervousness of those moments. I looked outside the bus window, trying to see as much as possible as we drove through the outskirts of Taipei and entered the city. I couldn't believe that I was really in Asia, so far away from Europe, in a country where everyone spoke Chinese and where I was truly a foreigner.

Around two hours later - the bus was quite slow and there was a lot of traffic - the electronic display finally announced that the next stop was Taipei Main Station. I was relieved; the journey had felt so long, and I had begun to worry that I might have taken the wrong line. 

For you, too, Taipei Main Station is likely to be the place in Taipei City where your feet will touch the ground for the first time, and the area around the station is the one that will give you the first impressions of the Taiwanese capital.

In retrospect, I guess that a part of me was disappointed. I had thought Taipei would either be an ultramodern, shiny global city with glittering facades and skyscrapers, like Hong Kong; or a traditional, old city with a lot of historic buildings. What I saw was a actually in between; neither ultramodern nor traditional, it had a rather 1970s-1980s-style look. There was only one skyscraper, and Taipei Main Station itself looked quite unprepossessing: a large, light brown square structure with a Chinese-style reddish roof, a mix of old and modern architecture. 

Taipei Main Station

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Blogging Therapy

For over a year blogging has been part of my daily life. Before going to Taiwan I had never thought about blogging. When I was still in Berlin and planning my first trip to Taipei, a Chinese friend of mine told me that I should start a blog so I could keep my friends in Germany and Italy updated about my new adventure. But I had no idea how to write a blog, and at that time I had no interest in it, either. 

Perhaps I should have started to write a blog in those days of euphoria, when Taiwan was an entirely new and exotic place to me, when I had so many emotions and felt so much enthusiasm. I used to update my private Facebook page, instead. I had never used Facebook so much before, and I turned my life in Taiwan into a sort of show. In hindsight, I think that show was a technique of self-persuasion. 

While at the beginning I felt as if Taiwan would be my new home and I was passionate about it, after a few months I became much more sober and disenchanted. I began to see many aspects of Taiwanese life and society that I had not been aware of. It was only then that I discovered blogging as a way to cope with that new situation. I guess this also explains the rather sombre atmosphere of this blog when compared with other travel and expat blogs.

I used blogging both as a public diary and as a place for reflection. I wanted to make sense of the new place where I lived, which was so different from what I had imagined, and so fascinating, because I felt there was so much to learn. Many of my blog posts are bits of my learning process. At the same time, blogging became important to me in moments when it was hard to find someone to talk to. 

I remember a scene from “Lost in Translation”, when the female protagonist calls a friend of hers. She feels lonely and wants to talk to someone; but her friend is in a hurry, and she does not understand her. These are situations that happen in everyone's life. There are feelings that one cannot put into words, or that other people cannot truly understand. One must cope with them alone, unless one finds a special person, a kindred person willing to listen. But that doesn't always happen.

The past two months have been for me one of those moments. After my father got sick in February, things have been complicated. I had to leave Taiwan all of a sudden, with a return ticket in my hands which I never used. 

I realised that I had to deal with the situation without any help. I couldn't express my anxiety, I couldn't talk about my suffering with anyone. I isolated myself, didn't write to or call my friends. One thing alone was on my mind, and when you feel like this, talking with a friend isn't easy. Most people's lives go on, but mine came to a halt for a while. 

As a matter of course, I spent most of my time in the hospital where my father was treated. I went there twice a day.

Despite the stress and worry, I tried to keep on blogging. It was a way to stop thinking about bad things, and focus my attention on something else. In this respect, it was very helpful. 

At the end of March Taiwanese students organised the biggest protest the island has seen in many years. This event made me feel that Taiwan was very far away. I wish I had been there to witness this historic event, and to get a first-hand experience of the atmosphere.

In the first two days the general euphoria affected me, but then I became more sceptical. At that point, blogging turned into a burden. I received a lot of criticism because of my rather unconventional point of view. Actually, I don't enjoy these heated debates where a different point of view infuriates people. Especially when one is not having a good time for private reasons, such diatribes only add to one's own distress. But whenever one expresses one's opinion, one has to expect criticism. For the sake of peace with others, one could avoid overexposing oneself, so as to be considered nice by everyone. 

But that's exactly what makes blogging so interesting. Blogging is absolutely free. You decide what to say and what to write about, without any external influence. As a form of communication and self-expression in a time of fast change, displacement and frenzy, blogging is a parallel world, a space you can form and adapt to your needs, where you can talk to yourself and to others without constraint. 

Actually, there is one constraint. Because I decided that this blog would be mainly about East Asia, I couldn't write about Rome. During my long walks in the city, I see a lot of things that interest me. I took a lot of pictures of buildings and streets, of old Roman ruins and unknown places. I would have liked to write about these things and share pictures, something which is definitely more relaxing than politics.  

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Taiwan, Europe and the Problem of Nationalism

Recently I have been criticised by some people because I used the term "Taiwanese nationalism", which to some apparently sounds too negative. 

In this post, I will briefly explain what I mean by nationalism and why I am in principle sceptical about it. I am not arguing that nationalism is not a legitimate ideal. But I view nationalism as very problematic; first, because it presupposes a collective identity and the subordination of the individual to the community; second, because the "nation" itself can hardly be defined rationally and objectively.

I won't be using any academic material as reference this time; since I want to respond to recent critical comments, I didn't have time to write down any quotations. This post will just be a blueprint, perhaps to use in the future for a more detailed analysis. 

The Problem of the Nation

On April 2, 2014, the Italian police arrested a group of Venetian separatists who allegedly were plotting to commit terrorist acts (note). Some of them were also involved in a violent action that took place in 1997, when armed people stormed San Marco Square in Venice. The aim of their movement is to found a separate state comprising the whole Veneto region.

Veneto is not Italy - 2009 campaign for
Venetian local elections
(source: Wikipedia)
Since the 1980s, nationalist independence movements within Italy have been on the rise. Especially in the North, parties and movements in different areas have been founded which advocate the secession of some regions from the Republic of Italy and the establishment of new independent states. The most important of these parties is the Northern League (Lega Nord) which promotes the creation of a Northern Italian state, the so-called Padania. But there are also many other movements in different parts of the country.

Before 1861, Italy existed only as a geographical entity but not as a state. There were many different kingdoms, and some of them were ruled by foreign dynasties. The nationalist movements of the 19th assumed that Italy was a nation and that it should have its own state, like the French and the English had their own states. After many decades of war, finally in 1861 a united Italian state was founded, and Italian nationalism was so strong that it led to the rise of Fascism in the 1920s. But in the 1980s, Italian national identity began to be called into question by several separatist and nationalist movements. 

Italy is just one of many cases in history that show: the nation can hardly be defined rationally, and its meaning and interpretation change over time.

What is a nation? This question has been asked many times, but one can barely find a coherent practical definition. 

The nation has often been defined as an imagined community of individuals with a shared history, language and culture (one may also add ethnicity). The problem is: what is a a shared history, what is a common language, and what is a common culture or ethnicity? 

First of all, the difference between dialect and language isn't clear. But also a shared history or a shared culture are extremely subjective criteria.

The assumption that there are communities of people that inhabit a certain territory and share the same identity, is a fiction, a construction, an ideology.

In fact, most societies are not homogeneous - as nationalist ideologies assume -, they are heterogeneous. 

First of all, a nation consists of a large number of individuals. They have different ideas, opinions, personal histories, characters, and economic situations. Then, many states also have strong regional differences, and many also have a mixed population. Moreover, because people migrate, individuals enter and exit a certain community.

Let me give you an example: Germany. 

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Sunflower Movement, the Media, and Showbusiness

Popular protests in the digital age are made half on the streets and half online. Whether a political movement is successful or not, whether it is supported by a large number of people or not, depends on how the media depict it, and on how skillfully the protesters use the most formidable peaceful weapon of our time, the internet. 

While I was following the events around Taiwan's Sunflower Movement, I felt like a man who goes out to take a nice walk in th park, but ends up in the middle of an unbearably noisy and smoggy highway full of cars. There's just too much information around, there are too many different interpretations, and, above all, too many people shouting and screaming, arguing that they - and they alone - are right, and those who disagree are the absolute evil and do not represent anybody. 

The protesters claim that they represent Taiwan, that they love Taiwan, and that they want to save Taiwan. Therefore, whoever agrees with the trade pact, or whoever disagrees with it but opposes the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, is evil, a traitor, and will sell Taiwan to China. This is the typical ideological language of those who regard disagreement as betrayal, and governments that do something they dislike as dictatorship. Pro-DPP, anti-KMT and anti-Chinese media and independent commentators (most notably many among Taiwan's expat community) agree with this absolutistic view. Many of them, I presume, believe that the KMT is a foreign regime that, if it likes China so much, should go back there. 

Pro-KMT and pro-Chinese media and independent commentators, for their part, have tried to discredit the protesters on a personal level, arguing that they should go to back to studying rather than waste their youth demonstrating. An article on Taiwan's China Times even called the three major leaders of the student protest, Chen Wei-ting, Lin Fei-fan and Wei Yang, "naughty boys". The paper argued that Chen and Lin are affiliated with the opposition party DPP, and Wei is a member of a youth activist group. According to the China Times, the three leaders 

have all undergone instruction and training from Wang Dan and Wu'erkaixi, the famous student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement in China, on how to conduct urban guerrilla warfare. During the latest movement, they have been on hand to check the latest warfare results (note).

I think this article deserves no comment. 

Democracy can only exist if there is tolerance toward different ideas and identities, that is, if all ideas can coexist peacefully. But if two sides regard each other as traitors of the nation, as unreasonable and evil, this peaceful coexistence becomes fragile. Even in the United States, the polarisation of politics has led to an impasse that has lasted for nearly the entire Obama administration. 

I regard the perspective of both sides as legitimate and justifiable. However, in my personal opinion, the way in which the Sunflower Movement has blocked the parliament is not democratic (whether it's legal, I doubt, but I'm not familiar with ROC law). The protesters claim to represent "the people". They are the only true voice of the people, the true Taiwan. They claim to show through opinion polls that Ma Yingjiu and the trade pact are acting against "the people". 

Recent polls, however, have shown that a growing number of Taiwanese wish for an end of the occupation (note). But that's not my point. 

Governments are not elected through opinion polls. For instance, Margaret Thatcher was at times extremly unpopular. Polls show that between 1979 and 1983 support for the Conservative Party dropped to 23%, and to 24% between 1983 and 1987 (note). Yet she managed to win two general elections and pursued her own programme. This is what the democratic change of government is about. 

The interesting thing is how much Western commentators support in Taiwan what they would condemn at home. How would we react if students occupied Westminster to block the government, thus giving an extraparliamentary help to the opposition? How would we react if students occupied the Congress and blocked the Obama administration because they think he is a socialist, or he is selling the US out? Well, this is not how a democracy is supposed to function properly. Because in a democracy, no one can claim to represent "the people", but only certain groups of people. And after one receives the mandate in the elections, one has the right to govern, within, of course, the legal framework of the constitution and the law. 

Not unlike Margaret Thatcher, Ma Yingjiu has a neoliberal, pro-free trade economic viewpoint. But the main reason why he is unpopular with the protesters is because he wants to bring Taiwan and China closer. Yet, closer cross-strait ties is exactly what Ma promised to the electorate during his campaign, and he won two elections. It was clear from the start that Ma intended to further integrate the Taiwanese and Chinese economies and improve cross-strait ties. In 2012, after Ma was re-elected, the LA Times wrote:

Ma won 51% of the vote, compared with 46% for his chief rival, Tsai Ing-wen, after a tense campaign packed with criticism of his overtures to China. Ma had urged voters to see his attempts at rapprochement as a stimulus for the local economy, but was accused of getting too cozy with Taiwan's rival of more than 60 years. (note).

This doesn't mean that I myself agree with Ma's position. First of all, I am opposed to neoliberalism, and second, I would negotiate with China only if the PRC renounced the use of force to achieve eventual unification. Nevertheless, sacrificing the democratic mechanisms of Taiwan's fragile democratic balance is not a way to solve the China-Taiwan issue. 

Meanwhile, the media coverage of the Sunflower Movement seems to have become a sort of circus. There are anti-Chinese ideologues that keep on depicting the Ma administration as an enemy of Taiwan; there are pro-KMT and pro-Chinese groups that try to defame the students and that propagate the idea that the trade pact is necessary and vital for Taiwan's existence (which they can hardly prove). And then, there are the media that profit from the protests and try to make a spectacle out of it. 

Now also some Taiwanese erotic performers have begun dedicating their songs or writing articles in favour of the protesters. An interesting mix between self-promotion, political activism, and the objectification of the female body in Taiwanese society I talked about in one of my posts.

One of them is the erotic model Xuebi (雪碧), who wrote a song about Lin Fei-fan, the student leader I mentioned before. The title of the song is I love Lin Fei-fan (我愛林飛帆). The news network NowNews published an article about this.

Another one is a 17-year-old girl from Kaohsiung, whose half-naked sexy pictures have been published by Taiwanese media (I think that explicit pictures of underage girls should not be shown, though). Anyway, she wrote a song entitiled We are not a mob (我們不是暴民). The song says: 

"We hold sunflowers, but we are chased away. We really aren't a mob, please look into my eyes, look at our sincerity, don't tell me you can't see it at all, tears of blood are streaming, my eyes are filled with tears, we just want the government to see our dream."  (拿著向日葵,卻還得被驅趕,我們真的不是暴民,請看我的眼,我們的真誠,難道你們全部都看不見,世上流著血淚,眼眶帶著淚水,只是想要政府看見我們的心願) (note).

Revolutionary enthusiasm, polarisation, showbusiness ...