Showing posts with label taipei_city_government. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taipei_city_government. Show all posts

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Wandering around Neihu (yes, Neihu!) and a political history of the Kuo family, for some reason



On the final day of the long weekend for Mid-Autumn Festival, we decided to pick a part of Taipei we rarely visit and find something interesting to do there. Usually when we do this, we end up in one of the older or more innately interesting areas: Ximen, WanhuaBeitou, Shezi (included here as an antique store listing, but I've actually explored far more of the area than that), Wanhua again, my many walks in the quieter parts of Dadaocheng and Dalongdong, more Wanhua. Sometimes, of course, we seek out the less clearly fascinating parts of the city and run with that. These include our visit to the oldest house in Xindian, which has probably been demolished by now, or our trip to the Li Family Mansion in Luzhou - though that post doesn't actually discuss the Li mansion as we couldn't enter that day, we did eventually visit. 

This time, we set our sights on a more challenging district: Neihu. While it looks like a nice place to live, and the restaurant scene there is improving, there isn't much to interest the casual visitor in this part of town. Other than restaurant trips, the occasional visit to a big box store (hey, that's where they sell American-style drip coffeemakers), plans to meet friends, one visit to Donghu Park and one hike, I don't think I've ever purposely gone to Neihu for fun. Has anyone?

I had a vague recollection of hearing about an old family mansion in Neihu that I'd never been to. The photos from my old set of Historical Sites in Taipei books made it look decrepit and unloved, and back when I first heard about it, there was no MRT up that way, so I let it slip from my memory. But with this idea to see what one could actually do for fun in the area, I dug out the books and found the listing: the Kuo Family Estate (now the Kuo Ziyi Memorial Hall). Nearby was another Japanese-era building -- the old Neihu Village Hall.


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And conveniently enough, both were near the MRT.

In fact, the Kuo mansion is so close to Wende Station that I'm surprised it took me this long to check it out -- it's less than 50 meters' walk, not including a long but not particularly steep set of stairs. So that's where we started. 

Kuo Ziyi Memorial Hall 郭子儀紀念堂

MRT Wende Station (Exit 1, turn left and follow the signs, you cannot miss the gate and stairs)

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Built in 1919, the house is in the Taisho style very common to that era of Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan -- you'll know it by its red brick and cement exteriors with Baroque decorative flourishes and typically wood interiors.

This was originally the home of Ku Hua-jang (郭華讓) the first mayor/borough chief of Neihu, back when it was a village unit rather than a district of Taipei City. In fact, it was an administrative unit called a zhuang 庄 in Chinese, which isn't quite a town, and was a different type/level of administrative unit from the old Qing-era system. (I don't really understand much more about that, so that's the most I can say). It was later occupied by Kuo's relative, Kuo Hua-xi (國華溪). 





The Kuo descendants from this branch of the family also were important figures in twentieth-century Taiwan.


Historical Sites in Taipei says that there was a beam installed specifically to hold "traditional Taiwanese censers and lanterns", and at some point it was re-named 碧奉宮 (Bifeng Temple), although it was never actually used as such. Apparently in the 1980s there were plans to turn it into a Matsu temple, but the architecture of the front gate was deemed inadequate, and neighbors opposed the move, which led to the site being abandoned and falling into disrepair.

Then, the World Kuo Family Association -- which has its own website -- stepped in to direct and fund its renovation. (Their website calls Taiwan the "Taiwan Area" - a minor thing, but it'll come up later). It's also now the seat of the association. 

Anyway, even though the house was built by the clearly wealthy and connected Kuo Hua-rang and his cousin Kuo Huaxi, they had a much more famous ancestor, Guo Ziyi. Guo was a general in the Anshi Rebellion (the one where An Lushan revolted) in the 700s. That would be the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Xuanzong -- if that means nothing to you, you may have heard of Xuanzong's favorite and famously beautiful concubine, Yang Guifei (who had been friendly with An Lushan....anyway, there are lots of dramas, go watch those). He was also key in diplomatic (and war) dealings with the Tibetans and Uighurs and apparently saved poet Li Bai's life. Long story short, Guo Ziyi was an extremely important historical figure who had a real impact on the history of East Asia. 



This is why, when the World Kuo Family Association renovated the mansion, instead of honoring the builders, they turned it into a memorial hall for their much more famous ancestor, Guo Ziyi. 

Here's the culture difference: if I built a bad-ass Baroque mansion because I was the local town chief, and a few generations later my descendants decided to renovate it, I'd be pretty annoyed if they ignored my legacy and turned it into a big memorial for some ancestor of mine. But, when it comes to local culture, that doesn't seem so weird at all. I bet Kuo Hua-rang and Kuo Hua-xi would not only think that was fine, but deem it right and appropriate. 

Here's another thing I find interesting: years ago, a friend of mine surnamed Kuo told me about how there were three groups of Kuo immigrants from Fujian. One settled in Yilan, one in Hsinchu and one in Tainan. More Kuos came with the KMT refugees (including the family of tycoon and supreme jackass Terry Gou). Apparently, although most of the Kuos of Fujian were entirely Han Chinese, some were actually descended from Hui ("Chinese Muslims", though I don't know how I feel about that term). Guo Ziyi was from Shaanxi (陝西) and was later named the Prince of Fenyang (汾陽王) -- according to a plaque in the mansion, this was due to his military victories in Fenyang, Shanxi (山西 - not the same as his birthplace). The Kuos had been around for a long time before the Tang Dynasty, and therefore not every Kuo can name Guo Ziyi as a direct ancestor. However, many Kuos in Taiwan, regardless of which group of settlers they were in, claim that the Kuos from Fujian originally came from Fenyang, and can be traced directly back to Guo Ziyi. 

I have no idea if (or how many) of these Fujian Kuos, many of whom eventually settled in Taiwan, were actually descended from Guo Ziyi, and how many were not. But this is illuminating

One of the Guo family is from Hui clans around Quanzhou in Fujian.

Early in the 14th century, a Persian Al-Qudsan Al-Dhaghan Nam (伊本·庫斯·德廣貢·納姆) was sent to Quanzhou by Külüg Khan for assisting grain transportation by sea. He failed to return to Khanbaliq due to war, then got married and settled at Quanzhou. Because his Persian surname Dhaghan pronounces similar to Chinese Guo, Al-Qudsan Al-Dhaghan Nam's grandsons began to change their surname to Guo in order to assimilate with local Han Chinese. It was politically expedient to claim they were descendants of Guo Ziyi in order to be better accommodated by Local people and later Ming Dynasty government....

In Taiwan there are also descendants of Hui who came with Koxinga who no longer observe Islam, the Taiwan branch of the Guo (romanized as Kuo in Taiwan) family is not Muslim, but still does not offer pork at ancestral shrines. The Chinese Muslim Association counts these people as Muslims. The Taiwan Guo now view their Hui identity as irrelevant and don't assert that they are Hui.

Various different accounts are given as to whom the Hui Guo clan is descended from. Several of the Guo claimed descent from Han Chinese General Guo Ziyi. They were then distressed and disturbed at the fact that their claim of descent from Guo Ziyi contradicted their being Hui, which required foreign ancestry.  While the Encyclopædia Iranica claims the ancestor of the Guo clan in Baiqi was the Persian Ebn Tur (Daqqaq).


Huh. Assuming this is true, the guy being memorialized in the Kuo Family Mansion is probably not an ancestor of all of the Kuos in Taiwan (although surely he is an ancestor of some). 

Another unofficial story, relayed to me by word of mouth, is that some Kuos from Fujian were actually the descendants of captives or slaves brought back by Guo Ziyi after his dealings out west. Some moved back west and even on to Turkey, but some stayed in Fujian. In later generations, in order to assimilate, they took the surname of their captor's family. It again was considered politically wise to simply say they were descendants rather than admit they were not Han (this is also said to account for some Kuo families not including pork in religious offerings).

I don't want to presume too much, but if the ancestors of these Kuos were actually Muslim and from areas west of China, wouldn't that potentially make them more closely culturally/historically connected to Guo Ziyi's negotiating counterparts or even enemies, rather than Guo himself? Does it matter, so many centuries later?

Perhaps that's too much of a supposition, but it's worth contemplating that the official or "politically expedient" version of history is not always the correct one.

And in the case of Taiwan, this potentially looks a lot like a Sinicization -- no, a Han-washing -- of history to keep every narrative in line with Taiwan as a mere offshoot of the "Great Chinese Nation" and its "5,000 years of history", rather than a unique place that may hold some of its own unexpected historical twists and turns. I do wonder why the World Kuo Family Association, which includes people of "Kuo" ancestry across the entire spectrum of the Chinese diaspora, might be interested in pushing a Han-centric narrative, especially in *ahem* the Taiwan Area.

Maybe I'm reading too much into it, and connecting the site to an extremely famous guy from Chinese history was just a way to get government funding for the restoration. But the Kuos are huge (just check their website!) and there's a wall of donation plaques, so I am pretty sure it was funded by the association. If you're curious, I did not see a plaque from Terry Gou. 

In any case, the mansion has been beautifully restored, though rooms that would have been living spaces once are now clearly meeting halls for the World Kuo Family Association. 


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There is a rubbing from a Tang Dynasty tablet extolling the virtues of Guo Ziyi, a placard that casts some pretty passive-aggressive shade on Yang Guifei, a big idol of Guo Ziyi, some lovely wood restoration especially around the windows, and lots of dorky-fun photos of the World Kuo Family Association as well as a variety of books locked in glass cases.

It's well worth a visit. 


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Neihu Village Hall 內湖庄役場會議室

#342 Neihu Road Section 2 內湖路二段342號

MRT Neihu, or a short walk from the Guo Ziyi Memorial Hall 

From the Kuo mansion, we walked to the Neihu Village Hall, which is now a community activity center. 

Built in 1930 -- so, when the Kuos were still around and probably running the area -- it faces north and looks over the "old village" of Neihu. There's nothing left of that, however: just newer residential buildings all the way to the hills. There is an old ruin called the Chen Family House a short distance north but a quick look on Google Maps made it seem unimpressive -- a ramshackle of bricks mostly hidden by a corrugated metal roof. We were hungry and it was hot, so I didn't suggest we go. 

The interior of the hall was not open but no matter; the outside looks far more interesting (you can see some photos of the interior here). In a country full of Japanese Baroque, it's refreshing to come across some straight-up Art Deco

The design of this hall is more interesting than its history: the tiles are greenish-blue and reticulated (meaning they have a veined or network pattern), and are dull, meaning they don't reflect light. This is apparently the "air defense color" I wrote about before, as it made buildings more difficult to identify by the bomber pilots flying above. Of course, knowing that now, I seem to have messed up the popular bright cyan color that I wrote about with this duller blue-green; it's clear that this earthier color camouflages better than bright turquoise-y cyan, and would more naturally be used in architecture where air defense was a concern. That means the bright, cheerful cyan I looked into was probably just a cheap and popular paint color in mid-century Taiwan (it was also popular in the mid-century US, so that's no surprise) and because it's both bright and contrasts attractively with brick, wood and concrete.

Of course, the "air defense color" -- that earthy blue-green -- also became popular as an aesthetic-only choice. Look at the way it's used here: there's no actual military or defensive purpose for it. 
It's there simply because it was deemed pleasing. 


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The cyan I had been talking about looks more like this: 





Other notable features include the bull's eye windows with medallion/key pattern decorative casements -- very common in Art Deco -- and the semi-circular columns that end in a waterfall pattern that reminds me of the Art Deco dressers my mom used to have (we sold them not long ago, and though I'll miss them, I have no reasonable way of getting them to Taiwan). The stepped gable is also classic Art Deco, though only a nod to the design (some stepped gables are far more dramatic). 

After the ROC occupied Taiwan, the building was briefly named Zhongshan Hall (not to be confused with the bigger, fancier Zhongshan Hall in Ximen) and then the Neihu District Public Activity Center, now that Neihu had ceased to be a village or zhuang 庄. 

We wrapped up our day in Neihu with a visit to a whiskey store near Xihu that has a particularly good selection so I could pick up some rye (洋酒城 - literally Foreign Liquor City; there are more branches than the one in Neihu), a quick stop at Oma's German Bakery, and a late lunch at The Antipodean Specialty Coffee, which I strongly recommend. 

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The walk from the Neihu Village Public Hall to The Antipodean takes about 20 minutes, and will take you past the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts, interesting for its mid-century 'Eurasian' architectural style that I find both revolting and fascinating (it looks a little bit like a budget Sun Yat-sen Memorial hall from the outside, if you squint). 


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You'll also walk past Bihu Park -- it's not dramatically impressive on its own, but it does make the walk more pleasant and offer a nice place for a break. The large, white building at the far end is a reading room -- literally just a large building full of tables with air conditioning where you can go read and study. Not very exciting, but I enjoyed the review by one visitor who complained about the old lady who hangs out there like it's her house and spits loudly and frequently. 

There are more things to see and do in Neihu, of course. If you're closer to the Costco end, check out the tomb of Lin Xiu-jun (林秀俊墓), which is very close to the bus stop with good service from all over the city. Though it's just a small tomb, it's the best-preserved, and perhaps the only, traditional Fujian-style tomb in Taipei, and dates from the 1770s. There don't seem to be any animal sculptures like the one in rural Miaoli or the few you can find on Kinmen, but there are some interesting colored tiles. It's also near Aphrodite, the funky antique market I sometimes like to peruse, though I haven't been in years. 

There's also a Qing-dynasty quarry (easily findable on Google Maps) near the trail up to Gold Face Mountain. That is also a worthwhile hike, though we came at it from the Jiantan side, which took all day. A bit to the east of that are several hiking trails that snake past temples with good views and a suspension bridge. 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Update: Speaking up works - YouBike will allow foreign residents to register

Here's the great thing about Taiwan - when something actually gets done, it happens so efficiently and with such personal care, that it can be astounding. 

Of course, this assumes that something is done properly in the first place, which isn't always the case (see: every English language education initiative the government has ever announced).

But yesterday, YouBike did (mostly) the right thing, and so fast that the news cycle could barely keep up with it. 


After the news broke that YouBike's new insurance scheme wasn't available to foreign residents or tourists, and therefore foreign residents and tourists could not register their EasyCards to use YouBikes normally but would have to go through complicated and expensive processes each time they wanted to rent, we positively tsunamied them (I made a new verb!) with complaints. 

Within a day those of us who complained by e-mail received a reply that they would talk to the Department of Transportation about the issue, and then they actually did so. Now, foreign residents would be able to register their EasyCards to use YouBike on December 24th. (This is quite acceptable; it will surely take time to update the code).

The city government even released a statement acknowledging the volume of complaints:



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I honestly believe that in the country I come from, those complaints would have simply been ignored. If a solution came, it would be long after the fact with no clear notification made. (Not that any American cities except New York have remotely acceptable public transportation in the first place, mind you, and even New York's transit smells end-to-end like pee). If you were lucky you might get a form letter in reply that did not actually address your issue in any substantive way.

There are good and bad things to say about the course of events. I'm in a positive "we got stuff done!" in a positive mood, so let's start with the good.

What we've learned from this is that speaking up works. It works!

There were a lot of comments on social media saying we were just "complainers", "first world whiners" or "guests in this country" who should never complain, or that we couldn't possibly get the problem fixed so the only choice was to accept it.

What they didn't realize was that this wasn't whining, it was strategy. The more people make noise, the more likely the problem will get fixed. If even 5% of the people who read this post wrote to the city government, that's still several hundred e-mails they received. 


And we did get the problem fixed, so all those "don't complain, you can't change it" people were simply wrong.

That doesn't mean everything's great because the problem is solved, however.

Tourists still have to go through the more cumbersome process of one-time rentals, which require an NT$2000 deposit on a card which is not refunded for up to 15 days. The process also takes a lot longer, and it's frankly silly that Taipei city encourages tourists to get EasyCards but then doesn't make them useable for YouBikes. The city rolled out YouBikes in part to appeal to tourists, and routinely recommends tourists use them (here's one example, originally published in Taipei magazine. Making rentals annoying and expensive for tourists is self-defeating when all they have to do is add code to the system that opts foreign visitors out of the new insurance scheme that caused this whole mess. 


And, of course, the quick turnaround we got on this issue does highlight "expat privilege" to an extent. I discussed the issue with a few students who said they didn't think of the Taipei city government as particularly responsive, and we may have gotten the problem solved in a day simply because we were foreigners. Not only that, but we were mostly (though not entirely) white "expat" foreigners who tend to get preferential treatment.

To be frank, that almost certainly played a role. Let's not pretend it didn't. 


Which means that, if we can make change by speaking out as a privileged group, maybe we should do that more often, in service of goals that benefit people who are more likely to be ignored by the powers that be.

Finally, there's the fact that this simply should not have been a problem in the first place. I doubt it was active discrimination, but rather that the impact of the new policy on non-citizens was simply not considered. That results in discriminatory impact. Discrimination can exist in impact just as much as intent (if not more so).

To avoid these sorts of issues in the future, the government can't just passively ignore the foreign community and pretend that's the same as 'not discriminating'. It has to actively consider its actions through the lens of understanding that the city it governs has foreign residents, too, and that its tourism strategy should be coherent and synchronized across departments. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

Youbike discriminates against foreigners

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It feels as though every time life in Taiwan for the foreign community gets better - websites improve, companies will take our resident visa numbers rather than saying they're "invalid" - it's inevitable that soon, it'll also get a little bit worse. Two steps forward, one step back.

Today, the issue is YouBike.

The Facebook group Taiwan Foreign Residents' Association confirmed just a few hours ago that YouBike, once open to registration by all residents, including foreigners who have made Taiwan their home, now does not allow foreigners to register their EasyCards for use with YouBike.

Apparently, the reason is that YouBike now offers personal injury insurance, and such insurance is not available to foreign residents, therefore, no new registrations will be allowed (they had been allowed previously).


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Of course, there is no reason why they can't offer foreign residents this insurance. We pay taxes and pay into NHI just as citizens do. Many of us - myself included - also pay into labor insurance. We pay our dues, and deserve equal treatment.

Suggestions from YouBike staff so far have been to recommend that we register with a local friend's information - you know, like we're criminals trying to hide - or have a friend rent a bike for us (because of course, we should all have Taiwanese friends with nothing to do willing to come out and meet us every time we want to rent a bike, and also be available to us at our destination when we return the bike. Yeah, right). The other workaround is to rent one on your bank card with a one-time registration and NT$2000 deposit.

Nevermind that NT$2000 - around US$60 - is a lot of money in the local economy for something as simple as a bike ride. You do get the money back, but imagine if you rented a YouBike every day. Your bank account would be a mess, with that $2000 deposit coming and going daily. Apparently it can take up to 15 days to be refunded, but if you ride YouBike every day, does that mean every 15 days you have to hand the government NT$30,000 in deposits? If you ride it twice a day - say, to and from work - that's NT$60,000, more than the average local salary.

How is someone supposed to stay on top of their finances that way? Do they expect that foreigners will only rent YouBikes occasionally? I know people who rent one every single day. 



The other suggestion, apparently, is to giggle at the person calling because there are no other options.

Let me be clear: this is discriminatory. It is unfair. We have made Taiwan our home. We live here, work here and pay taxes here. YouBike is a government project. It is simply not acceptable to withhold government services to foreigners as though we are second-class citizens. Unwanted, untrustworthy.

Is this the face Taiwan and YouBike want to present to the world? The famous hospitality and friendliness of Taiwan, oh, except you can never truly live here as a normal person, we'll always make life difficult for you for no reason at all?

If Taiwan wants to open up to the world, to be an international nation and Taipei and international city, it must do better. It cannot treat foreigners like undesirable scum. We are not criminals. We work and pay into the system like everyone else, and so we deserve the same transportation benefits as everyone else. Period.

Even tourist deserve better - part of the whole point of YouBike is to encourage tourism by helping people get out of the city. Taipei Magazine routinely suggests tourist itineraries that use YouBike - how do they expect tourists to use it if they can't even register with the EasyCards they're going to get? Do you really think they'll pay NT$20,000 for every YouBike rental on their visit, to be refunded long after they leave? It's ridiculous!

It shouldn't be hard for the time being to create a registration system that opts out all registrants without a National ID. Hopefully the law will be changed to allow residents to participate in the insurance scheme, but for now that would be a sensible workaround.

In fact, what happens if a friend does register for you, and there's a crash? Does the insurance apply? If not, can't you sue, as technically the insurance was activated upon registration? If that's the case, doesn't that just create more confusion? If current users can still access the system, what happens if they are in a crash? The workaround suggestion negates the rationale for the change.

Finally, aren't the format of ARC and APRC numbers supposed to change soon, to match national ID numbers? What happens then? The whole thing is a mess. It doesn't make sense, meaning the reason boils down not to regulatory issues, but idiotic, discriminatory, self-defeating and short-sighted decisions.


Do better, Taipei. Do better, Taiwan. And do better, YouBike. 


If you want to complain to YouBike, you cannot contact them from their website because that requires a national ID card number. ARC numbers are not accepted. But you can email or call them:

City Hotline: 1999, ext. 5855 / 02-89785511
service-taipei@youbike.com.tw

Or, you can send a complaint to the Taipei City government under the "simple petition system" here. You can leave the National ID section blank (unlike on the YouBike website).

I suggest you do all of those things. Let's make them feel this.

This is what I wrote:

Hi, 
I'm writing because it's becoming well-known in the foreign community in Taiwan that Youbike is no longer offering Easycard registrations for foreigners who live here, even if we are permanent residents or otherwise have a resident visa. 
This is unfair and discriminatory. We pay taxes and pay into National Health Insurance (so insurance issues should not be a reason to discriminate). I personally have lived here for over 13 years; to say that I cannot access the same services as other Taipei residents makes me feel like an unwanted, second-class citizen. Is this the face Taiwan and Youbike want to show the world? That they are unfriendly - even hostile - to foreigners? 
Having to put down an NT$2000 deposit is simply not fair for people who have built their lives in Taiwan. We are not tourists. We are *residents* and we live, work and pay taxes like *residents*. We deserve to be treated like *residents*, not "scary foreigners" who can't be trusted. We are not criminals! 
Taiwan must do better, and Youbike must do better.
I am sure that this story will hit the media soon, so I request kindly that the policy be changed as soon as possible to end all unfair discrimination against the foreign community here. 
Best regards, 
Jenna Cody