Taichung City Giving Creativity Free Rein
By Ma Yue-lin
Photos by Taichung City Government
Translated by Ann Lee Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Published on Jan 30, 2008
This young city intent on change sticks out for its free and easy-going atmosphere, its consumer aesthetics and creativity, and the good life its people enjoy.
round the globe, cities are competing across continents and oceans, from Japan to Taiwan, from Asia to Europe.
Taichung mayor Jason C. Hu hopes to stir Taichung residents' appetites for culture and the arts. Two months ago, on Dec. 6, 2007, Taichung mayor Jason C. Hu personally flew to London to accept the World Leadership Award in the category of Culture & the Arts. Shortlisted alongside Taichung were two formidable competitors - Lima, the capital of Peru with its Incan heritage, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, known for its distinctive blend of American and Mexican culture. Eventually, Taichung prevailed, performing beautifully on the international stage.
Most likely, the key for winning the award was the city's impressive list of world-ranking artists that have performed in Taichung as well as statistics that demonstrate its citizens' active participation in cultural events. Over a period of just five years, Taichung residents have become much more interested in culture and the arts. In 2001, residents attended an average of 3.94 concerts, theater performances or other cultural events, but by 2006, the figure had progressively risen to 28.38.
Welcoming World Stars
Since its opening a year ago, the Fulfillment Amphitheater has attracted 4.13 million visitors. As a former foreign minister, Mayor Hu is looking beyond Taiwan's horizon. Hu not only wants Taichung to outshine Taipei, the capital, but also hopes to position his city as the artistic capital of Asia. "I don't necessarily want Taichung to be No. 1, but I want it to be unique," Hu says in describing his ambitions. Hu imagines the Taichung Cultural Festival reaching the dimensions of the Edinburgh Art Festival and the city's arts circles reaching a
scale that would make the city "the Vienna of the East."
Taichung often hosts major cultural events and attracts many world-class artists. Since its completion, Fulfillment Amphitheater, Taiwan's largest outdoor theater, located in the city's Wen-hsin Forest Park, has staged many mega events with tens of thousands of visitors. In 2003 the Vienna Philharmonic opened its Taiwan tour in Taichung. And in 2004 famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble gave their only Taiwan concert in Taichung. On his Farewell Concert World Tour in 2005, Italian superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti also chose Taichung for his final concert in Asia and his sole concert in Taiwan, underscoring the success with which the city has placed itself on the international concert circuit.
Young Taichung Enjoys Burst of Innovation
Taichung's broad green corridors offer plenty of public space for leisure and recreation, circling the city center like a necklace of jade. Taichung is a comparatively young city in Taiwan. Its name only began to appear on maps in 1885 when Taiwan's first governor, Liu Mingchuan, advised the Qing Court to make Taichung the provincial capital (in the end, Taipei was picked). In contrast to Taiwan's old capital of Tainan, with its three or four centuries of history, Taichung is not beholden to longstanding traditions. And it is free from the constraints that Taipei faces as the island's century-old political and economic center. Even today, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) rather than large corporations are the city's economic backbone.
Due to the concentration of SMEs in the area, Taichung was among the first communities on the island to be hard hit by the exodus of manufacturers to China that began more than a decade ago. As a result, the city's businesses have become agile and quick to adapt to changing circumstances. Since they are fending for themselves rather than following the lead of an industry giant, they need to have innovation and adaptability in their blood to survive.
While some conventional manufacturers have chosen to relocate to lower-cost countries, others have upgraded to making high-precision machinery or have transformed into service-industry enterprises. And thanks to its abundant academic resources - Taichung boasts a number of renowned universities such as Tunghai University, Feng Chia University, and National Chung Hsing University - the city has become an excellent laboratory for the service industry. As the birthplace of globe-spanning food fads like pearl milk tea and bubble tea, Taichung also has a lot to offer in the food and beverage sector. Moreover, a number of innovative chain restaurants such as the British-style cafe England Rose Garden and the coffee shop 85 Degree C started out here. Even the most traditional Chinese pastries such as moon cakes, pineapple cookies, and cheese cake have been reinvented by local bakeries such as Dawn Cake, which sell their products in stylish traditional stores, fashionably packaged and tailored to the palates of health-conscious consumers.
Jay W. Chiu, architect of the Earthquake Museum of Taiwan in Wufeng, Taichung County, believes that the lack of historical baggage works to Taichung's advantage. "Taichung does not have a history, no burden, no old houses. Her special feature is freedom, the freedom to create her own culture," he argues, adding that nowadays developers are struggling to get their hands on property that was hard to sell in the past, such as plots in the city's 7th Development District.
High expectations are placed on the Taichung Metropolitan Opera House, which is being built in the district. The groundbreaking ceremony for the new opera house, designed by Japanese star architect Toyo Ito, was held in late January.
Huge arts installations give the plaza in front of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts an interesting ambience. Ito's design, which some have likened to a piece of Swiss cheese, clearly distances itself from straight lines and cubic forms. Ito himself has likened the opera house with its intertwining tubes to a "space cave" and characterized its design as "neotubist."
David Tseng, an architecture professor at Tunghai University who works as an environment and landscape consultant for the Taichung City government, is convinced that Ito's opera house will put Taichung on the map of international architecture, just like the circular 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa brought fame to the western Japanese city of Kanazawa.
Classic Green Corridors
One of the few marks that history has left on the city is its Japanese-era Green Corridor.
At the time the Japanese colonial government borrowed the green belt concept from British urban planning, designing a circular green corridor around the city center. "The green corridor, stretching from the Museum Parkway to the Jingguo Parkway, is like Taichung's jade necklace," says Li-wei Liu, assistant professor at the Department of Urban Planning at Feng Chia University, pointing at the city map on his office wall. The abundant greenery in public space is what most sets Taichung apart from other Taiwanese cities.
Ava Hsueh, director of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, describes Taichung's growth as "organic." Jr-Gang Chi, a lecturer at Tunghai University's Department of Architecture, decided to live in Taichung when he returned to Taiwan more than a year ago, after working as an architect in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles for many years. Chi loves to take friends for a stroll along the Museum Parkway in front of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. "On both sides of the parkway you find all sorts of foreign and fusion-style restaurants. This not only creates an exotic ambience, but also is an opportunity to give some old houses a facelift. The parkway is a classic example of Taichung's creativity," Chi declares.
Wooing the Arts, Offering Tasteful Consumption
Ava Hsueh, director of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, observes that Taichung is a highly organic city. "It keeps changing all the time. From the area around the Taichung Railway Station in the early days, to the 5th Development District and the 7th Development District today, the helter-skelter growth of the city's various districts is quite obvious," she notes.
Taichung's ability to constantly reinvent itself has earned it the reputation of being a metropolis centered on consumer aesthetics, creativity and living the good life.