urban planning and popular participation: some thoughts on a recent talk

music–particularly discourses about good versus bad musics–feature in many discussions of urban planning; perhaps this sonic connection to urban planning is more evident in the developing (or in the case of taiwan, just developed) world. take, for example, the national symphony hall in taipei, which externally looks like a northern chinese palace but in fact houses primarily performances of works in the european classical canon and not the music one might expect (peiking opera?) on first glance. the construction of this symphony hall was part of the wider construction of the chiang kai-shek memorial at the center of the city, which filled in land repurposed from military usage. during the time of its construction, arguments about good and bad music had become an issue for city buses and taxis, with the city government even distributing cassette tapes of “good music” to drivers. in some of my work, i’ve been looking at these connections. of course, it’s useful to work through a larger political context. so i was glad to go to a talk at the long yingtai cultural foundation on the 28th, in which joseph allen talked about his new book Taipei: City of Displacements

in his talk, allen argued that taipei’s planning both followed and differed from its precedents, tokyo and paris; while paris is a city of “incisions”–note the broad avenues of the haussmann plan–cutting into and through the city, cutting away sections considered diseased and permitting better circulation, tokyo’s planners, who borrowed from the example of paris and other european cities, never thought of edo as diseased or dangerous and thus practiced the “implant.” to make modern spaces in tokyo, they implanted new types of structures into parts of the city vacated by the decline of traditional nobility (for example, tokyo imperial university campus) or by fires and earthquakes. in taipei, a city that was built by the qing empire as an administrative area between harbours controlled by feuding ethnic factions, japanese planners faced a city that was immature and required filling in. hence their strategies combined qualities of incision and implantation, while also perhaps being “nutritive”

in the discussion that followed, questions about the role of the MRT, taipei’s beautiful and terribly well disciplined subway system predominated; and, predictably, a question about the role of popular movements versus government in planning focused on “identity.” although ethnic division played (and still plays) a role in planning–note that the city was built between two ethnic enclaves on what was then a frontier–i doubt that identity is the best way of asking about the role of popular movements in urban planning during the mid to late 20th century. rather, noise, whether from construction, night markets, temple festivals, karaokes, or music (good or bad), might be a better place to proceed. why? it’s here that one might see more closely the role of quality of life discourses, which created structures of complicity for urban planning to proceed in taipei

surely, identity politics has informed some planning decisions, such as the public multilingualismof the MRT. however, popular involvement in planning in taipei never clearly followed the lines of identity politics (neither did elections, either). it was also stifled for several reasons. i will mention two. first, taipei is a city of migrants who largely view the city as a place of sojourn. second, emotional and structural investment in the city was stymied by KMT disinterest in urban planning and the party’s ideology of native place

sojourn in taipei does feature prominently in the island’s popular culture. panai’s “wandering,” for example, quotes a song widely circulated among taiwanese indigenous communities to establish that the “wandering” of her song is to the capital city; nearly any taiwanese person will at least be able to sing the hook lines of luo ta-yu’s “small town lukang” and lim giong’s “forward!”, two emblematic songs of travail in taipei. the possible conflicts of their nostalgias appear in a film clip that has circulated on youtube–can anyone identify the film?

only recently have these stories of sojourning become part of an articulated civic narrative for taipei. the “open taipei” album, connected to the su chen-chang’s mayoral campaign, for example, presents in both musical form, lyrics, and video a taipei of sojourners and strivers who somehow together build a more beautiful city. shanying’s “write love for the city” traverses the city with a young indigenous man who works as a deliveryman, uncovering the traces of the city’s old, young, and enterprising denizens. “northern city stories” outlines the history of taipei from tidal lake to metropolis, arguing for better care for the city’s historical sites. foregrounding the role of stories rather than personalities, those on the album appear only under pseudonyms which indicate their ethnicity. given the failure of the su campaign, however, one doubts whether this narrative has political traction. thus, the reality of taipei as a city of people from elsewhere seems still to mitigate against civic involvement in planning

as mentioned above, KMT ideology of native place, as well as the party dictatorship, also stood in the way of civic participation. when civic organizations were able to gain a foothold, the relationships of these organizations with the state were not always antagonistic. as shown by robert weller and others (including of course michael hsiao), when popular mobilization succeeded, it did so not through engagements with identity politics–identity politics would become dominant well after the end of martial law–but with issues concerning quality of life, environmental degradation, and consumer protection. because these organizations never confronted the chiang dictatorship or its chinese nationalist ideology directly, they actually formed networks with allies within the KMT party state. thus the articulation of quality of life discourses served as what i have called a “technology of complicity.” a good example of this kind of complicity would be the work of long ying-tai, who upon confronting the noise of itinerant peddlers outside her house, not to mention their threats (all rendered in an embarrassing pidgin taiwanese hoklo in long’s writing), famously asked “chinese people [sic], why aren’t you angry?!” in the mid-1980s many considered her work oppositional; however, a more careful look at government produced quality of life discourses contemporary to long’s work shows that factions of the KMT state had argued for noise abatement, better music, and–here identity politics does enter–removal of taiwanese hoklo from public spaces. moreover, her work was published by china times, hardly an opposition media outlet. in retrospect, it’s true that her work was oppositional but perhaps not in the sense of popular opposition to the state, and certainly not in the sense of identity politics. long has never, and could never, articulate a taiwanese ethnic or national identity. in fact, her prejudices against ethnic taiwanese are apparent in her early writing. if better disguised today, it is because she has moved to promote a “globalized” civic consciousness for the city, of a piece with the MTR, minus the announcements in hoklo and hakka. it is this kind of globally aware civic participation that she has encouraged as the chair of taiwan’s national council for cultural affairs (that said, i must admit that i have always been fond of long’s writing, in spite of its limitations). although multiculturalism has become a dominant discourse on taiwan, then, its connection to urban planning in taipei continues to be limited. or to state this problem differently, one might need to separate articulations of taiwanese multiculturalism from identity, which seem always to appear as push button issues in the island nation’s electoral and distributive politics

on the other hand, i also wonder whether allen gave short shrift to the role of “incision” in taiwan’s urban planning, particularly from the chen mayoral administration onward. however, i am looking forward to reading allen’s book. i’m sure that there will be much to build upon for investigations of sound and urban life in taiwan during the 20th century. it will arrive in taiwanese bookstores soon!

2 Replies to “urban planning and popular participation: some thoughts on a recent talk”

  1. darryl sterk

    i know the film, an adaption of the Huang Chunming story The Two Signpainters that reworked the story for the late 1980s, and this is a brilliant scene from that film, I’m amazed how well the indigenous song and Sun Yue’s rendition of the Chinese folk song combine. the point of this scene is that the situations of the two painters and their songs are one – i don’t see the conflict in nostalgias. right after they sing this song they see the sunset and it reminds them of their respective displacement, how they both have a temporary home and a real one they can’t go home to. this brings them together. an unlikely combination, maybe, but that’s the point the film is trying to make. it’s one of the great moments in taiwan’s many aboriginal films. the song you refer to was used again, for instance in the zheng wentang film 馬雅的彩虹, from a “back to the village” trilogy he made 11 or 12 years after “the two sign painters”. there it is played by older fellows who have worked in taipei but decided to come home.

    i don’t quite see what you’re saying about noise, but if you’re saying it should receive more attention in discussions of modernity i would tend to agree. the noise one makes relates to the kind of life one is leading on a day to day basis than one’s ethnic identity. there is some ethnic distinctiveness to the noise i hear – the guy selling window screens talks in taiwanese, but it’s now a prerecording played on a loudspeaker (i would welcome the sound if it was his real voice). but for the most part it’s just traffic and construction noise. it’s maybe in the past ethnicity had more to do with noise, but the relation is weakening today. the blues and the greens can argue all they want about taiwan’s future, but they all drive their cars past my window. this deserves more thought, and if i can get a few minutes of peace and quiet i’ll think about it.

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  2. a-tiak

    fortunately, living in a’tolan most of the time, i can find some time without the soundtrucks. but actually, i find vegetable, fruit, and bread selling trucks that we have charming. there is still a definition of the street in taiwan, at least for the time being, that includes more activities than automobile driving. so i’m a fan of real night markets that block entire streets and not the tourist facsimile the taipei city government seems intent on installing everywhere. as for sound, i’ve recorded and still record all of the itinerant merchants that i can. they provide one of the key signatures of taiwanese soundscapes, i think

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