Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jul 17 2013

The city and the river

(This is an article I wrote on the dysfunctional relationship between Taipei and its rivers for Village Taipei URS magazine)

It is said that fengshui has strict requirements on the positioning of cities. The central axis is supposed to run from north to south, with its north end pointing towards a mountain that runs from east to west and acts as the guardian of the city. A winding river around the city is said to be an auspicious feature. Even the Forbidden City in Beijing was built according to these rules. And at first glance, the city of Taipei conforms almost exactly to these conditions as well, surrounded by winding rivers and bordered on the north by Yangmingshan. But something happened along the way, a kind of divorce.

Taipei used to be all about the rivers surrounding it. Trade poured in from overseas as ships plied up and down the rivers, bringing goods and passengers to the riverfront districts of Dadaocheng and Wanhua. For hundreds of years, the pristine water supplied to the Taipei Basin by the rivers was the source of health, livelihood and transportation.

But the focus of the city was destined to move inland as it expanded. The authorities built a walled administrative center halfway in between the two main business districts, and then the Japanese tore down the walls and built what is now the Presidential Office, facing away from the river, away from the old business districts, towards the eastern plains that were the subject of elaborate plans for the development the city. Nonetheless, ships from Taiwan still traveled all over the region under Japanese rule.

But that would not last. When the KMT began administering the city, under the cloud of the threat from mainland China’s communist forces, the sea and everything close to it became off-limits, mirroring on a smaller, civic scale China’s retreat from the sea in the late Ming Dynasty, another tragedy on another scale. Personal craft were banned, military installations took over the shorelines, and ferry services dried up and disappeared. The island was repurposed for the use of small industries, whose pollution was deliberately overlooked so that quick profits could be maximized. Purportedly for flood control purposes, huge walls were built separating the rivers from the city, hiding them from view, cutting off access. The government widened the bottleneck of the Danshui River in Guandu, allowing saltwater to flow inland and completely change the ecosystem, which was already under severe attack from the unregulated pollution flowing into the river from the city’s primitive sewage systems and countless small factories. The path of the river was changed, and, as if to add insult to injury, dredging the river ceased; with no ship traffic to accommodate, it soon became too shallow for all but the smallest, flat-bottom boats. The shallower rivers flooded even more, of course. Even then, the reek of pollution made this a somewhat less than appealing notion, and fishing was out of the question for the same reason. Waterfront property wasn’t for living any more; it was for factories and junkyards. Stray dogs had better views than the majority of the expensive high-rises in downtown Taipei.

Gradually, the people of Taipei forgot about the rivers surrounding them. Rivers were just things one caught a brief glimpse of when hurtling across a bridge from one part of the city to another, if one were brave enough to take one’s eyes off the whirling maelstrom of scooters for a second or two. The prohibitions against coastal uses combined with local beliefs that water was dangerous, not just during Ghost Month, but all year round, a self-perpetuating and most vicious cycle, as the more people believed that swimming and other water activities were dangerous, the fewer people engaged in such activities, and with almost nobody knowing how to swim, the danger of drowning became all the more severe for those who did venture into the water, reinforcing the belief that water was dangerous, and so on. The polluted state of the water did not exactly help in this regard either, and the government actively discouraged any riverside farming or settlement. Again, “flood control”, a problem exacerbated by the very measures implemented to control it, was the driving force behind such actions. However, in Taiwan, the difficulties in dealing with the pragmatic realities of life resulting from ill-advised policy are almost always dealt with in the same fashion: Under-the-table practices with little of no enforcement. Thus, the farms and other river-related activities, became part of the unofficial mythology, like the rivers themselves.

For decades, this was the state of things in Taipei. The old waterfront districts of Wanhua and Dadaocheng languished, falling into disrepair as the city’s focus moved further and further inland from the forgotten rivers. The old districts were now bordered not by the river but instead faced huge concrete walls that allowed no scent or sign of the river it concealed. Hidden rivers were not just easier to ignore, they were also much easier to pollute, being out of sight as well as mind for most of the populace, and without any public impetus for reform, factories were free to continue dumping whatever chemicals they liked into the waters. The results of these pollutants entering the riverside farms and fishing, a world that didn’t officially exist, were likewise ignored.

Starting a decade or so ago, however, some of these things began to change. Recent administrations have opened an eye towards the existence of the rivers, raising enforcement of environmental standards to the point that the water isn’t as toxic as it once was. A certain amount of fish and other flora and fauna have returned. Boats now ply the waters between Dadaocheng, Guandu and Danshui, and there is talk of a new ferry down the coast to Hualian. The riverside has been transformed into a place for bicycling and sports.

But the huge walls still exist. More important than the physical walls, which remain necessary for flood prevention, are the mental walls the people of this city have built in their perceptions of the rivers over the many decades since the two parted ways. The government can spruce up the riverside paths and place a few boats on the water, but all it takes is a glance at the picture windows of many a riverside dwelling to see that they have their work cut out for them. For more often than not, the expanses of double-glazed glass do not present the views they were made for, but rather buttress stacks of boxes, clothes and other household detritus.

Chinese architecture traditions are partially to blame for this, after centuries if not millennia of courtyard-style buildings with no real windows facing outside, but when a magnificent view of the river, winding its way from the mountains to the sea, is placed on the same level of value as the concrete wall of the building next door, the reality of priorities influenced by decades of ignorance becomes apparent.

There’s no easy answer; government authorities can encourage riverside and seaside development, and some progress has been made on Taiwan’s east coast. Kaohsiung, having always been a port city, has also made great strides in this area. The aura of an international port has kept it open and alive, though just as, if not even more polluted than Taipei, over the years, and parts of the Love River have ceased to smell like cesspools. Current construction methods, floodways, underground storm water reservoirs, etc., make the existence of primitive floodwalls unnecessary, and with Taiwan’s population growth slowing, there simply isn’t a need to cover up the rivers with concrete and buildings; there is space for wetlands, for floodplains, there is space for the river.

But that would only be the beginning. The participation of the rivers in the existence of a city is an indicator of more than physical presence; rivers are the opposite of walls; they connect us to the rest of the world. Taipei tore down one wall but built many more, the most important of which were in the minds of its residents.

It’s high time those walls came down.

posted by Poagao at 11:08 am  

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