Taipei's historic military villages face extinction

Symbols of former mainlanders' past, the villages are being plowed under to accommodate urban growth.

Across the river from Taiwan's hurried capital, Taipei, Li Mei Ling wanders under a canopy of banana trees in the Air Force First Village and points out the landmarks of her childhood. A shallow bomb shelter lies buried under weeds. Narrow alleyways where the neighborhood kids once played hide-and-seek stand damp and forlorn, clogged with rusty bicycles and other castoffs of those who have moved on.

"This was the kind of place where your neighbors took in your laundry for you if they saw it was raining," says Ms. Li with a wistful smile. "The mothers ran open kitchens, and the kids would come running if they smelled something good.... I'll miss everything about it."

Li and her neighbors, residents of one of Taiwan's "military dependents' villages," are among the last denizens of a disappearing subculture that arose out of wartime chaos and became a touchstone for relations between native Taiwanese and Taiwan's mainland Chinese immigrant community for nearly 60 years.

The low-slung villages, built in the late 1940s and early '50s to house some 600,000 nationalist troops who retreated to Taiwan from the Communist advance in mainland China, are currently being demolished under a government directive to relocate residents to modern high-rise housing.

Taiwan's national legislature enacted a plan in 1996 to upgrade housing conditions and open large swaths of increasingly valuable urban land to redevelopment.

But the policy is erasing a pivotal chapter in Taiwan's history: Of the approximately 900 original military villages that once dotted the island, about 140 are standing today. All are due to be razed by 2009, dispersing tight-knit mainlander communities as residents choose to buy into new, government-subsidized housing or accept a compensation package and move elsewhere.

More Taiwanese, fewer Chinese

The end of a decades-old way of life for mainlanders in Taiwan comes as the island redefines itself in relation to China. Since the mid-1990s, Taiwan has begun to forge a new national identity – emphasizing its own language, culture, and history – apart from its cross-strait neighbor.

Recent public opinion polls show a sea change in how Taiwan's residents see themselves. A 2004 poll conducted by Taiwan's National Chengchi University found that 45.7 percent of respondents identified themselves as "Taiwanese," compared with only 13.6 percent in 1991. About 6 percent identified themselves as "Chinese" in 2004, compared with 43.9 percent in 1991.

Along with this shift, social divisions between descendants of Chinese immigrants of the late 1940s and the Taiwanese – long intertwined with the island's politics – have lost currency, particularly among those younger than 40.

"Barriers between mainlanders and Taiwanese have declined over the generations," says Chang Mau-kuei, research fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan's leading research institute.

Mainlander footholds after the war

The military villages – called jiancun in Mandarin Chinese – played a unique role in giving Chinese immigrants a foothold in postwar Taiwan.

Originally built as temporary bamboo-and-mud shelters while Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist government plotted to recover China throughout the 1950s, the villages evolved into permanent communities of one- and two-story brick and cement homes when it became clear that the planned incursion would never take place.

The families who occupied these isolated pockets of mainland culture, ringed by bamboo fences, spoke provincial dialects different from the Taiwanese language. Military rations of rice, flour, and cooking oil were delivered directly to village homes, and some of the larger settlements initially had their own schools.

With their husbands frequently away on duty, village mothers, who were known for being tough, spent much of their time playing cards and cooking the regional specialties of their native provinces. It was a communal life: Villagers shared public bathrooms and children often shared a bed with a parent.

But mainlanders' communication with neighboring Taiwanese was limited. Locals viewed the villages as closed societies and were wary of their military affiliation. Intermarriage between mainland men and Taiwanese women eventually bridged the two communities in the 1960s.

Mr. Chang says what is known in Taiwan as jiancun culture developed out of a shared experience of migration and a need to put down roots. "The men had gone through war together and were survivors," he says. "It was important to find a place that felt like home in a time when resources were scant."

For the second generation of villagers, growing up in an immigrant enclave created an immediate kinship, one felt well into adulthood. "It was a special group of people who had been forced to move frequently. We relied on each other, and doors were always open," says Clarence Fu, who lived in Taipei's Guang Fu West Village. "Today, that feeling is impossible to duplicate."

Preservation efforts

Most remaining villagers have accepted the government's demolition plan with resignation, but a few communities have fought to preserve a piece of history.

In Taipei, the city government, prompted by activists, restored a cluster of homes from the 44 South Village, located in the now-upscale Xinyi district, and converted them into a public assembly hall and exhibition space. The city of Hsinchu, Taiwan's high-tech hub, recently opened a three-story Military Dependents' Village Museum.

Taiwan's Public Television Service will air a documentary later this month telling the story of Sanchung City's Air Force First Village, and of residents' two-year effort to preserve their village as a park, a request still pending before the Taipei County government.

Thomas Wu, the film's director, says it is critical to document village culture before it is lost.

"In the older generation of Taiwanese, there are still a lot of negative stereotypes about Chinese emigrants," he notes. "The younger generation doesn't know their story at all."

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