SiSi Chang

Freelance writer. Masters of Arts from Taipei National University of Graduate Institute of Theatre Performance and Playwriting and Graduate Institute of Architecture and Cultural Heritage. Chang sees travel as a discipline and learns to look at things from a different angle each time when she is in a strange place. Published works include Amazing Australia, An In-Depth Guide to Angkor and Lonely Planet IN Series: Taiwan.

Is there anything beyond shopping malls for Taiwan’s heritage?

06 2015 | Issue 6

The Huashan 1914 Creative Park and Songshan Cultural and Creative Park in Taipei are two successful examples of rejuvenation by Taiwan’s cultural and creative industries. The two buildings were both factories during the Japanese colonial period. Huashan 1914 was a wine factory, and was abandoned in 1990, after which it became a space for artists and musicians to showcase their talents. It reverted to government ownership in 2000, and its management team has since transformed it into a venue synonymous with trendiness. The Songshan complex was originally a tobacco factory. After years of disuse, it became a creative design centre in 2011, also providing exhibition spaces for the community.

Many things cannot be helped in the process of preserving and rejuvenating historical buildings. According to the UNESCO standards, buildings must be preserved alongside their living history in a realistic and holistic way. These are the preliminary starting points for cultural assets. But Taiwan has a very discriminatory attitude towards preserving historical artefacts. As soon as there is a whiff of something that needs to be preserved, action is quickly taken to disrupt the process, for example by razing something to the ground before a review process officially begins. If a site is designated as a historical site to be preserved, then it loses its commercial value if real estate cannot be built on it, particularly if it is a prime piece of land in the city. It is like a golden chicken that can’t lay eggs. Both Huashan and Songshan are located in premium areas of Taipei, and both were the subjects of long drawn out debates over whether to demolish or preserve the structures. But not everything was rescued. Precious machines, technology, history, literature and culture were lost in the process. Even the main factory structures that remain have been turned into individual units to be leased commercially, like shopping malls.

But how can these structures be rejuvenated and make money if they aren’t transformed into shops? Should we take a “frozen in time” approach and let these buildings stand as museums? In fact, it isn’t easy to be a landlord there, as they incur a lot of maintenance costs from corrosion and leakages and as the buildings are so old. They also cannot command rents that are too high, otherwise art groups cannot afford it. So only shops that can afford it are able to move in. All we can do is to try to keep the history and culture alive while breaking even at the very least.

Do museums actually make money? Ultimately, that depends on a museum’s revenue-generating model. The preservation and rejuvenation of historical sites must be grounded in the existing cultural context to allow the history to survive and be passed on. Germany’s Ruhr metropolis is a good example of this. There, the government has taken a holistic approach to historical preservation, putting the community and towns at the forefront of their considerations. Re-using historical buildings doesn’t just mean emptying and cleaning them up, and then thinking about how to make them commercially viable. Instead, the geographical location, spatial attributes, historical texture and the lives of nearby residents and how all these things interact with one another is used as the basis for thinking about how the next generation can best make use of the place.