Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s Pittsburgh, the island’s former industrial heartland and likely birthplace to many of our products in the West that bore the ‘made in Taiwan’ stamp through the 1970s and 1980s. And just like Pittsburgh it’s a city that fell on hard times when global capital realignment saw heavy industry seeking cheaper pastures in countries like China. After the boom times ended, Kaohsiung was left with poisoned rivers, rusting factories, and a tepid job market such that to this day many graduates are forced to leave home and seek employment in northern Taiwan.
Yet walking around the city, it’s clear that the municipal government hasn’t taken these challenges sitting down. Massive private and public works are on display, many of which are so shiny and new that they don’t seem to have quite melded into the social fabric of city life yet. A good example is the Kaohsiung MRT which, though capable of putting my own hometown’s TTC to shame, is still hemorrhaging huge amounts of money due to low ridership. When I asked my girlfriend’s uncle why, his response was that it’s still too cheap and convenient for people to drive. And by the looks of it he’s right – Kaohsiung’s wide avenues don’t even clog up during rush hour. Not bad for a city of approximately 2.77 million people.
There are two aspects of Kaohsiung’s urban revival that are of particular interest to me. First is the grassroots movement to clean up the Love River, a 12 km waterway that winds its way through central Kaohsiung. From what I’ve heard, the river used to be a toxic cesspool in the city’s industrial heyday, and it was even walled off during the Martial Law period for fear of people gaining access to Kaohsiung’s port. The movement to clean up the Love River ran parallel to the struggle for political reform and liberalization, and there may be some lessons here for other people facing similar challenges around the world. This is a topic I hope to delve into in greater depth once I begin my post-trip research.
Another fascinating aspect of Kaohsiung’s revival is the Pier 2 Art Center. Pier 2 started back in 2001 when a group of artists occupied a few abandoned warehouses in the city’s deteriorating port lands. They used the space to stage avant garde exhibitions, performances, talks, and whatever else struck their creative fancy at the time. It didn’t take long for the government to catch on, and in 2006 it took over and began to promote Pier 2 as a hub for local festivals and artists. With government involvement came an eye for public-private synergy, and soon the site was home to a few designer boutiques (still careful to maintain that ‘indie’ and ‘creative’ feel), and the warehouse-style offices of a major game development company. More recently the government is looking to integrate Pier 2 into a wider port development scheme that will combine international convention and exhibition space, a library, a music hall, a cruise service center, and probably new residential developments as well.
The phenomenon of private interests stepping in and diluting the purity of creative endeavor, as must have been the case when the government took over Pier 2 in 2006, is a scenario that will repeat itself ad infinitum. I remember chatting with a coffee shop owner in Taichung about Stock 20 (a site next to Taichung Railway Station with a similar history to Pier 2), and his lamenting that whenever public grants get involved, artists distort their craft towards the presumed “point” being sought by the government, whether it’s cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, or any other buzzword of the moment.
But to me it’s the ‘selling out’ aspect that makes Pier 2 so remarkable. In a world where nearly every developed country is desperately fighting for an edge to attract global capital, the government of Taiwan has opted to ‘weaponize’ its local creative talent in the hope of creating local jobs and nurturing a ‘cool’ national branding. Pier 2 is just one in a national network of cultural and creative parks, with more planned in the near future.
From the government’s point of view, these parks aim to develop local talent, assist local artists and designers in starting their own companies, help small creative industries scale up their operations and output, and ultimately produce new Taiwanese creative and cultural brands that can compete on the global stage.
Taiwan’s approach on cultural industries makes for interesting comparison with my home country of Canada. Our debate is rooted in our insecurity vis-a-vis the United States; we don’t see public funding as a way to weaponize our creative talent for global competition, but rather as a cultural lifeboat in a sea of US exports. And since the debate gets framed in these non-economic terms, outlays to support cultural and creative industries are usually the first to be targeted in times of fiscal austerity.
Seeing Pier 2 and other Taiwanese cultural parks makes me think we might do well to re-think our approach. If anything, we’d get a few kick-ass tourist destinations out of it.