Monday, September 22, 2014
Confucius and the Department Store
It just so happens that I wrote this while listening to this.
Two weeks ago, a confluence of things happened.
First, I planned and executed a Mid-Autumn Festival barbecue near my apartment, which doubled as my birthday party because I knew I wouldn't have the energy, what with Delta Module 3 going on, to hold two parties in one month.
We hadn't noticed the sign that had been posted in our building, as there are a lot of notices and things that are usually irrelevant. So on the day of the party, we were upset to find out that maybe we should have read that notice after all: no barbecuing would be allowed in the main courtyard areas around where we live (which are perfect for barbecuing). The reason was not clear but usually it has to do with "smell and noise".
Two years ago, you could barbecue anywhere in this area. We barbecued in the small courtyard just outside our apartment. Then the next year, that was prohibited and you could only barbecue in the large courtyard further out. This year, they prohibited that too and we were only allowed to barbecue in a small, dark little area down by the wet market, and policemen constantly rode by on bikes making sure we adhered to that rule (this was the first year there was a police presence).
I can't help but feel that it's a slow, systematic attempt to ban barbecuing on Moon Festival in all urban areas, but to do it slowly enough that people don't complain much.
Then, I had a discussion on Facebook with Alexander Synaptic about this fascinating blog post of his about old "entertainment centers" in towns and cities in Taiwan. It's a coincidence, but a telling one, that he entitled it "Dreams of Empire". There's one in Sanchong that functions mostly as a string of pool halls rife with gangsters, and a closed-down one in Zhanghua.
I noted that while until recently, street-level commercial activity and entertainment was mostly-happily tolerated by local residents, and a proliferation of night markets and other "re nao" (fun) spots were allowed to thrive, which has given Taipei, at least, a sort of vibrant street life and sidewalk scene that Beijing and other cities in China are lacking - and which is a part of what makes Taipei a great place to live - that there seems to have been a culture shift.
This happened around the time that Brendan and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary. We had wanted to go to Opa! Greek Taverna, which has hands-down the best Mediterranean food in Taipei (Sababa is good for falafel, but I make better hummus). Turns out their old street-level restaurant near Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall was closed, and they'll be re-opening in ATT 4 Fun at the end of the month.
Those old entertainment halls are now closed, but they're being replaced by glass monstrosities like ATT 4 Fun. Night markets (like Shi-da or Shilin) are being shut down (except for a few boring "fashion" and cell phone cover stores) or the food stalls relocated to indoor areas, which drastically reduces their appeal. Streetscapes are ruined as giant granite obelisks of luxury housing go up, leaving no room for shops or comfortable passage for pedestrians. Trees are torn down as a huge event arena is built - nothing wrong with Taipei Dome but those trees were a part of the street scape and we loved them. Restaurants are relocating to department stores. Street-level storefront rent is skyrocketing and only chain businesses can afford them, so interesting local spots are being crowded out. As ornery residents start complaining - which they didn't seem to do before - everything that was fun in some neighborhoods is either being shut down, or moving and often they end up in ATT 4 Fun or the equivalent.
Rather than go to Chun Shui Tang (which I know has been implicated in the recent gutter oil scandal) in one of their well-decorated branches which create street-level visual interest, I basically have to go to Chun Shui Tang inside Shinkong Mitsukoshi. One of my favorite Indian restaurants, Calcutta Indian Food, moved from a street-level shop on an interesting stretch of Kunming Street to a basement-level restaurant in a somewhat grody building called "U2". All the good places are slowly moving indoors, but the indoor spaces are expanding: walk underground from City Hall MRT through the basement of Hankyu Department Store to Eslite Xinyi, and it's a veritable food festival of eating options. All indoors. In the basement, even. Outdoors, you'd have to walk for awhile to find something decent to eat.
I don't care for this at all - and as a Taipei resident, I do believe that counts for something.
If I wanted to live in a city with dead streets, where you walked between huge edifices, some new and marbled, some old and marbled in a different way, and cars whizzed by on the road, and I had to walk inside some concrete magnate's wet dream just to eat dinner at a restaurant I like, which is no longer within walking distance because they couldn't afford the rent, I would live in Beijing.
I don't live in Beijing, because Beijing sucks. I do not fancy walking a mile along a sidewalk flanked by a wall and a six-lane highway, with one overhead crosswalk every mile, and big empty spaces dotted with steel monoliths that spear the pollution floating overhead, where people hustle in and out of sliding doors into slightly less polluted air conditioned buildings to eat, drink and shop. Beijing is one of the worst models possible for urban planning.
And I don't want Taipei to become just like it.
I feel like all of this is related. There seems to have been a spike in old-school, stick-up-the-butt Confucian values, more influence from China (which has a distinctly different culture from Taiwan, and to Taiwanese or those used to Taiwanese culture can seem a bit stick-up-the-butt although I realize it's not always), and increasingly authoritarian leaders telling the public to basically go screw themselves. To the point where I wonder, as Letters from Taiwan implies, if the recent deaths - I believe that's a plural deaths too - of various high-profile Sunflower activists were, ahem, accidents. It would not surprise me at all if the government, taking its cues from China as it tries to force the Taiwanese to accept the idea of eventual Chinese rule, decided to off them. People complain about noise and smell on the streets, and the city slowly morphs into Beijing's stepsister (I'd say ugly stepsister, but it's hard to get uglier than Beijing).
I feel it's related to the increase in gang activity - White Wolf not only allowed to return to Taiwan but to rub shoulders with Ma Ying-jiu's sisters. A gang fight resulting in the death of an off-duty policeman which raises many questions about what exactly he was involved in (it's fairly well-known that the police let the gangs run the clubs in exchange for kickbacks). The subsequent inevitable closing down of Taipei nightlife (so it can reopen later, under the protection of newly-strong gangs who give the police better kickbacks). I won't even get into what happens if you cross a gangster in a KTV.
Some other gangsters, deeply entwined in real estate development, convince local politicians to ignore laws about having to provide "green space" for every building they erect in exchange for letting those politicians buy units in the buildings before they go on sale. The politicians can later sell those units at substantial markups. This is all perfectly legal. And we allow it, because they are Our Leaders.
We like to think that the heyday of gang violence in Taiwan was the '80s and '90s, but it wasn't. It's as bad now as it was then, only now we have "democratic" leaders acting like dictators telling us they'll do something about it, when clearly they won't. They'll shut down a few nightclubs, but nobody really important will face punishment.
Increasingly authoritarian "leaders" leaning both on the Confucian ideas regarding the masses doing what they say, inextricably intertwined with gang activity, huge corporations and development companies tearing down the city (and quite possibly encouraging "citizen complaints" about noise and smell from restaurants, night markets and even barbecuing, which is a Mid-Autumn festival activity associated mostly with Taiwan) in order to rebuild it in China's image.
I do not think this is deliberate. Nobody is sitting behind a desk going "mwahahahaha, let's make Taipei look more like a Chinese city, so the Taiwanese will accept annexation by China! Bwahahaha! My evil plan!" I know to imply that these events are deliberately connected is only a few steps shy of donning a tinfoil hat. My point is that the mood in Taipei has changed, and not for the better. And that these issues are all effects of that - the slow migration of street life to department stores, the budding New Confucianism in which we are all told to follow the rules, the increase in gang activity, the increasingly authoritarian government that is quietly trying to push Taiwan towards China and a future the majority of people do not want but many feel powerless to stop.
There has been a culture shift, and it's starting to really be felt.
So, to me, they are related even if not intentionally so. The same overly conservative, regulation-loving Neo-Confucian "follow the rules, do as we say" ideas that brought us the tragedy that is the KMT and President Ma have also brought us the steady department store-ification of Taipei. It's a whole culture shift, even if it is not deliberate.
I still think Taipei has gotten a lot right in terms of urban planning, and I hope that this is a temporary phase.
Sadly, I fear it's not.
Everybody shut up, everybody shop here, don't protest or your motorcycle will suddenly go off the highway outside Pinglin. You just don't understand because you don't know 'correct values' and you need it explained to you like you're four years old. Listen to your leaders! Confucius said so! Buy these items produced by our good friends at Uni-President who swear they didn't know about the gutter oil, in a building they built, so they can profit more. They need profit. They need to make sure the politicians and police get their cut, you know, so they need it. Stop shopping near your home in stores that line your sidewalks. We have air-conditioning, and your favorite shop is here! We're not in bed with both gangs and politicians, and real estate developers hell bent on driving out every bit of soul this city has! You don't like those street-level shops anyway, you would rather it be like this. Come on, lay down, calm down, it'll hurt less that way. You know you want it. Listen to us. We are your leaders. Confucius says that the emperor is above the people. We are above you. And we are Chinese. Therefore, so are you. You must identify as Chinese. This poll said that you do.
There's no reason to muddy the waters like this. We are all Chinese. We don't like noise on the street. We do like strong leaders and air conditioning. We want our residential areas quiet and our entertainment to be safely contained, in a building built by someone rich and powerful, in another part of the city. We like it to be clear. Don't you hate these blurred lines?