A prison into a small urban mall, Japan, China KMT, democratic Taiwan Republic – this emerging Taiwanese national identity 榕錦時光生活園區-原臺北刑務所官舍: Taiwan dispatch, historical memory, and Taiwan Republic 台灣国 classrooms

This emerging Taiwanese national identity — urban history and collective memories. Remarkable to have this new project, 榕錦時光生活園區-原臺北刑務所官舍, three blocks from my childhood home. As an elementary school student, I used to save the bus money to buy newspapers and walk home from my school via these alleys.

Taipei is sadly a remarkably not beautiful city — whatever it was the pre-Japanese folks had in mind, and whatever grand plans the Japanese had, the Chinese invaders brought chaos and temporary-ness — occupiers who did not plan to stay long behaved accordingly. It also occurred to me today while experiencing the present and remembering my childhood that I have watched multiple Taipeis slowly meld incompletely into one another — the elegant Japanese wooden buildings that used to be all around the neighborhood, with the one-to-two-story super ugly Chinese invader concrete buildings, with the latter-day 1990s and beyond “western-ish/glass/concrete” apartments.

My parents made a pain face a few days ago when I politely noted that all of the buildings in Taipei are designed as if they have no neighbors — as if they are not a part of a city. In my childhood 1970s Taiwan was still under a Chinese invader-junta dictatorship, and in those classrooms, I was being brainwashed about how “we” fought the Japanese and must soon take back “our” fictionalized China — while coming home to visit my Japanese-speaking maternal grandparents and aunts and uncles.

If you ask me what I make of a former Japanese prison being turned into an urban hipster shopping/restaurant/coffee place, I made a face. Not because I am above the fray anti-consumerism per see — a prison is an unhappy place, and this transformation did strike me as odd. On the other hand, as I have often argued with fellow academic historians — we cannot keep just having a cow over every single history inspired film and tee-vee shows not being as boring as many academic books — regular people have fun, and we should at least not be anti-fun. More pragmatically, for downtown Taipei land this precious/costly, this is probably the only way to preserve the site without razing the little that’s left of what the Japanese built and turning it into yet another unremarkable but highly profitable apartment. And that’s not nothing, either. And I think the folks the city subcontracted did a tasteful job, things are clearly marked, and the rebuilt restaurants and coffee shops are useful, attractive to mass consumers, and interesting enough to history buffs.

This slowly emerging democratic Taiwanese national identity — to find a reasonable national container to tolerate these contradictory currents — peacefully — none of us particularly pleased, but tolerable, functional, democratic, and not a part of China. Historians cannot resist periodizations. Do urban projects like this mean modern Taiwanese national history has moved from the Dutch, Koxinga, Manchus, Japanese, China KMT invaders, and Democracy, into the consumerist coffee house phase?

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