2/05/2011

Regaining Monga



Wanhua Plaza 406

I spent the afternoon wandering around Monga (艋舺), otherwise known as Wanhua. My wife was at her maternal grandma's and was free to do as I pleased. I took all of the shots on this post at Wanhua Plaza 406, which is directly south of Ximending. The park is a work in progress, and seems to be part of bigger effort to restore the district of Monga, seen by many as the ghetto of Taipei. I've blogged about the area before. Resting between Ximending, around ten blocks south of the Taipei Train Station, and the Hsin Tien River, Monga is one of Taipei's most historic areas. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was known as a vibrant center of commerce and activity. Ships from all over the world called at her ports. Taiwan's important companies normally had a stake here. Centers of culture, such as Longshan and Qingshui (清水巖) Temples, were located near her banks.


Unfortunately, the Hsin Tien River started to silt up. By the time the Japanese colonists arrived in 1895, big ships could no longer navigate her waters. The Japanese, realizing they would be fighting a losing battle against erosion (Taiwan has the highest mountains in Southeast Asia) and a meandering river, decided to let the Hsin Tien at this juncture go. Now if you read about Monga, it is often suggested that after the multinationals left, brothels and the organized crime that fed off them filled the void. With all the traders, sailors and bureaucrats coming and going, the industry already had a firm foundation and thus officials either encouraged it or turned a blind eye. I'm not so sure that this is how an entire community gets by though. Monga does have a long history of prostitution, but can this sustain the economy for an entire district, or let's say town as Taipei a couple hundred years ago wasn't really a unified city but rather a collection of independent places? One thing is for certain. Monga's glory days are behind us. Household income is 25 percent below the city average. Only one in five people living here has a university degree (as opposed to one in three for the rest of the city). Property values are two thirds what they are in the rest of Taipei. And oh yeah, we have twice the population density and then some. 

The optimist in me tells me projects such as Wanhua Plaza 406 are good for the neighborhood. Not only do they remind us of Monga's history, but they also attract visitors or, in other words, people who spend money. I'm not exaggerating. Today, this park had lots of people obviously not from Monga; I had to wait again and again to take my shots as they were posing in front of these excavation works. I grabbed a cab home and we were immediately in a traffic jam, on account of all the people coming to see another popular tourist destination, the 300-year-old Bo Pi Liao (剝皮寮) Street. The driver, a Yong Ho resident, immediately started to complain about what he saw as chaos. When I said: "Look at all these people checking out the neighborhood," he spat:

"Bah. It's even worse where I live. I can't stand it." I still think the focus is healthy and I certainly don't mind the people every now and then. We'll have to see how it goes. 




Note: The inflatable pink bird and transformer Mayday were also part of Wanhua Plaza 406. This is a part of Taiwanese culture I don't really get. To me, pop culture is repetitive if not completely boring. Mixing these two monstrosities in with the old buildings (at the top of this post) seems weird.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrick, check out the 22nd pic down on this page (a new find, a Taihoku Brothel) Maybe you can find the location and do a before/after post with it(!)

http://taipics.com/taipei2.php

-marc

Patrick Cowsill said...

"Hi Patrick, check out the 22nd pic down on this page (a new find, a Taihoku Brothel) Maybe you can find the location and do a before/after post with it(!)

http://taipics.com/taipei2.php"

Thanks for the insight. I'd be interested in doing just such a thing. Bear with me.

Patrick Cowsill said...

BTW, I am guessing the brothel is the building visible on the immediate left. It has a balcony for the girls to call down to customers. Or was it a bit more discreet than this?

JakeTPE said...

Hi Patrick. Do you remember the area before the park? It was an old "juan cun" (military dependent's village) up until about five years ago and then the Taipei government relocated everyone (many against their will from my understanding), bulldozed all the rickety old buildings and shops, and held a contest to design the park/square. I'm glad they're putting the space to good use, but I still feel for the old residents who lost their community. The Taipei Urban Redevelopment Office used to have lots about the project on their website.

Patrick Cowsill said...

OK, but where did the military dependents come across this land in the first place? There are many stories about their parents / grandparents as part of the 1949 immigration from China invading homes or government / public places in Taiwan and taking them over. Or the government, which was pretty nasty and unsympathetic to the locals, did it for them. In Wanhua, somebody else lived on that land before the military and their dependents for sure.

A lot of these people, who we're supposed to feel sorry for, did not rightfully come by their land; they are / were squatting as well.

Jake said...

Thanks for responding. No doubt they were squatting. But the illegality of their homes had really only become an issue when it came time to demolish them and erect the park. They were hard done by, but you could argue they were very well compensated for something they didn't have much of a legal claim over--other than a sort of imminent domain. Who lived there before them? That's a good question. Maybe we can look into it or maybe an answer is at the current square.

Speaking of which, I think they left the Li-Jiao Temple as part of the new public space, right? At least some history has been retained, as you point out in your post. I've always been fascinated by that area and talked to a couple of the residents before they were evicted for the Spacial Development course we took. I should go back and have a fresh look around.

john scott said...

I was in Taipei from late 2001, but I was not aware of that place (park #406) at all until the squatters (and the various shops, restaurants and businesses that operated there) had already been evicted several years ago. I do recall seeing photos of the community that existed there that were taken in the 1980s or 1990s.

I read some article in one of the papers that described them as squatters, and apparently the whole block was “condemned” in the 1990s and the people evicted under eminent domain in a similar way as the BoPiLiao neighborhood.

Regarding the BoPiLiao blocks, I do recall reading that there were some big protests about the evictions and that old folks had to be dragged out of their homes there. I bet they don’t include that story in their historical displays there. The place had already been fenced off by the time I became aware of it.

From what I have read (and can’t recall just where), that whole block (park #406) was a Shinto shrine complex. The bell tower is still mostly intact, and there is still the 5-foot high ‘platform’ with the steps, where the main temple was built. I’m guessing that the temple burned or was destroyed soon after the KMT took over, and that it just became a convenient place to squat and build temporary housing , much like the community on Treasure Hill (southwest of National Taiwan University). But it would be interesting to know the details.

But I guess locals do not think that kind of story is especially interesting. Although stories of squatting, poverty, displaced soldiers, prostitution and organized crime may make up important pieces of the history of that area, I suppose people naturally prefer stories of progress and modernity. Seems like it would make a great oral history project for some university students to undertake—to gather first and second hand stories of that area and archive them before it is too late. Would make a cool documentary. Maybe the Monga movie will generate interest. Have any of you seen it? I’ve just seen the poster photos. Look like a vehicle for pretty boys with pretty hair, like the ones on 7-11 ads!

Patrick Cowsill said...

"I do recall reading that there were some big protests about the evictions and that old folks had to be dragged out of their homes there. I bet they don’t include that story in their historical displays there."

Yes, it is sad. But the places they were dragged out of, even though they may have been their homes, did not belong to them. And still they were compensated. They should remember that Taiwan has been more than generous to them. Many of these people have not properly repaid the country for its generosity. Some of them have even looked down on the idea of Taiwan and Taiwanese people.

I've seen Monga, the film. It did a lot to promote the neighborhood, bring tourists and their dollars to the shops around here. I hope people do work hard to collect the oral histories too. I would be more interested in a doc. on the land grabbing, home invasions, squatting that took place starting in the second half of the 1940s. For example, I'll be talking to people about the history of a place and they'll say: "See that apartment over there? The people living there stole it from so and so 60 years ago."

Why not interview the home invaders, or their descendants then? There's probably an interesting story here.

Readin said...

I just learned about your blog and have been reading back-issues.

After reading though this back-and-forth of the plight of the old-soldiers and descendants I'm left wondering how to take-over was handled.

Did individual soldiers take the initiative to oust the rightful owners from their homes, or did the government come in and take the property then distribute it to the soldiers?

If the latter happened, then the soldier was faced with a moral dilemma having only one practical solution. Yes, he knew the property had been taken, but it wasn't taken by him and paying compensation was the responsibility of the government that took the land. The government did owe him a place to live - he had fought for the government in two separate countries and was now stranded in exile due to the government's failures. Finally, if he refused to accept the property because it was stolen, did he have another option or was he stranded homeless with not relatives in country to rely on?

As for the descendants, well you're born where you're born and it's not your fault. We can't go back and right every historical wrong, tracking down the descendants of ancient criminals to make them pay restitution to the victims of ancient crimes.

Patrick Cowsill said...

"Did individual soldiers take the initiative to oust the rightful owners from their homes, or did the government come in and take the property then distribute it to the soldiers?"

I have heard cases of home invasions and robberies from old people. They'll say something like, "the Wangs used to live in the house on the corner, but it was stolen by a soldier. His family still lives there today."

"As for the descendants, well you're born where you're born and it's not your fault. We can't go back and right every historical wrong." If my father stole something a long time ago, does that mean I can just keep it? I really shouldn't be required, or feel any compunction, to give it back?

I see your point. How far can we go? This question is difficult to answer. I guess the government needs to establish some standards and then apply them.