For someone who has spent an extensive amount of time in the United States, gentrification is a social phenomenon that I have been reading so much about in the past few years. However in Taiwan, this isn’t a topic that attracts much discussion simply because of the small amount of real-life examples that people can draw from. However, a historic community deep in the heart of Taipei’s affluent area around Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is being forced out of their homes due to gentrification, or to put it in a more politically correct way, urban renewal.
Shaoxing Community, located between Xinyi Road and Renei Road, has been fighting for its survival since 2011, when National Taiwan University suddenly filed a lawsuit against the residents, accusing them of illegally settling on the school’s property. A series of public demonstrations was then organized by residents and NTU students to try to stop the school from forcing them out of their homes. Even though they were able to settle the case and reach an agreement with the university after 4 years of negotiation, they still can’t stop the force of urban renewal from taking over their homes. What they see now will soon become a modern yet unfamiliar scene to them in a few years.
I stumbled upon the community on a sunny Sunday afternoon, as I deviated from the main road to discover pockets of Taipei that I have never come across before. Made up mostly by small shacks that are one or two stories tall, the streets and dark alleys of Shaoxing Community bear the traces of its history. With almost no space to fit anything other than the necessities, it is common to see huge piles of worn-out furnitures stockpiled at the back of each house, making the alleys look even darker and smaller. Since most residents depend on government welfare or do recycling for a living, the area resembles the common traits of urban slum, where residents make use of every space that they have to build a life that many may consider unbearable.
On the day I visited, there was an exhibition put together by volunteers who hope to help residents and people in Taipei remember Shaoxing Community as the way it is. As I walked around the community with my camera, I couldn’t help to sympathize with the residents and the fate of the community. Most of the older generation are veterans who arrived in Taipei with Chiang Kai-Shek, but was only given some woods to start their new lives here. With no land property given to them, they could only try to build little shacks around CKS Memorial Hall, which used to be the military base back then. Decades have passed, and the community continues to be left out of the government’s consideration when they pass legislations to regulate land ownership. The government only became aware of their existence when demands of urban renewal began to surface, and instead of finding a solution that benefits both the residents and the developers, they tried to forcefully evict these underprivileged people from their homes. Even though a solution that ensures their rights to “return” was found, the conditions that they have to accept still reflect the cruel nature of urbanization, which the powerless should always be thankful of the mercy that the power holders are willing to offer. This is a pattern that has been repeated around the world, and now the residents of Shaoxing Community become the latest group of victims whose rights as citizens are sacrificed.
It’s hard to imagine how the lives of these veterans and their families would be once the construction is complete. Life in the shack may be tough, but at least they have a place to call home. Now everything they have is about to crash under the bulldozer, I wonder what life would mean to them after all they have become part of a history that very few in Taipei would remember. As a journalist, there is not much I can do to help reverse the situation. The only way I can contribute is to help preserve the scenes before they vanish into rubbles, and lament the unfair compromises they have to make in order to have a chance to return, even when nothing remains the same.