OPINION: Kaohsiung's Skyline Is Dotted with Expensive White Elephants

OPINION: Kaohsiung's Skyline Is Dotted with Expensive White Elephants
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Longtime Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu leaves a legacy of expensive vanity projects alongside failing public services and infrastructure.

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Kaohsiung recently welcomed another cultural landmark when the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts was inaugurated on Oct. 13. The center, constructed on a former military training facility in Weiwuying Metropolitan Park, took an astonishing 15 years and a jaw-dropping NT$10.7 billion (US$346 million) to complete.

Given such a sizable outlay from public funds, perhaps it was inevitable that the Kaohsiung City Council and the Taiwanese government would go to such great efforts to make a fuss about it.

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Credit: Youtube Screenshot
The National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts took a staggering 15 years to finish.
Weiwuying transforming Kaohsiung

The National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, we are told, will be crucial in the transformation of Kaohsiung from an industrial port city to a vibrant cultural hub. The center’s chairman, Ju Tzong-ching (朱宗慶), claims it will draw an additional 250,000 visitors a year to the city.

In her speech at the grand opening, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) described it as being “a key part of the southern experience,” “the fruit of [her government’s] space democratization,” and a fine example of how public space is being returned to the people.

Tsai was also keen to push the importance of enabling the Taiwanese public to have easy access to the arts. She proudly spoke of the new arts centers that have opened in northern, central, and now southern Taiwan during her time in office.

This point was hammered home throughout the public opening event for the center. While the formal opening concert in the center’s 2,000-seater Concert Hall was sparsely attended by visiting signatories and a handful of arts journalists, the free evening event, which was held in the outdoor amphitheater space, drew thousands to sit on the grass and enjoy an extravaganza of music and dance set to a thrilling light show by German performing arts company phase7.

But the big question on many people’s lips throughout the opening festivities was whether this public interest could be sustained, or if the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts will become yet another expensive white elephant.

The building itself will undoubtedly be a draw for tourists and locals alike. It has been designed by Dutch architect Francine Houben, who stressed the influence of Kaohsiung’s culture, climate, industry, and nightlife in her design.

In particular, she drew inspiration from the banyan trees which still populate Weiwuying Park. This can be seen in the Banyan Plaza, the cavernous, space-age public space beneath the Arts Center, from which the venues rise up like tree trunks into the roof above.

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Credit: Jimmy3357569 / CC BY-SA 4.0
The National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts features a rare double pipe organ consisting of 9,085 pipes. Designed and built by the renowned German organ manufacturer Johannes Klais Orgelbau, it's believed to be the grandest pipe organ in Asia.

As with all such sheltered public places in Taiwan, the Banyan Plaza will quickly attract groups of street dancers and pensioners doing their early morning exercises. Meanwhile, the sloping floors seem certain to prove popular with skaters and skateboarders, and young Kaohsiungers are certain to flock here to get that perfect selfie – Houben, speaking at the opening event, said she was sure the park was bound to become an Instagram hotspot.

But aside from this, there is one question which seems to have gone both unasked and unanswered throughout the opening weekend, and indeed the 15 years this building has taken to go up: What will it deliver for the people who paid for it, the residents of Kaohsiung?

A glance at the initial 10-week program for the opening season offers very limited fare. The selection of modern dance events, classical recitals, and circus workshops all look good on paper. But how many people will actually pay to come and see them?

Sure, plenty turned up for the opening event. But that was free. The crowd was also noticeably thinner by the end of the event, with many losing interest and drifting away well before the end.

There may be some people in Kaohsiung who have an interest in such events. But even if there are, tickets for most events start at around NT$300 to NT$400 (US$9.69 to US$12.92) for the cheapest seats. Few may be willing or able to attend anyway.

All of this flies in the face of the rhetoric President Tsai and former Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) threw about at the grand opening. For all their talk about "arts for the people," exactly how the expensive new venue planned to deliver on that laudable objective was not touched upon.

‘Kaohsiung Cultural Corridor’ of arts venues

Lurking behind this is an even larger question: Does Kaohsiung even need a new arts center? President Tsai highlighted the so-called new ‘Kaohsiung Cultural Corridor,’ which includes Weiwuying along with the Dadong Arts Center and the soon-to-be-completed Kaohsiung Maritime Cultural & Pop Music Center.

Such a soundbite sounds great in a politician’s speech but means very little in the real world. It also fails to mention that Kaohsiung is already saturated with existing venues such as the Kaohsiung Cultural Center, the Pier 2 Arts Center, the Kaohsiung Arena, the National Stadium, and the Kaohsiung Exhibition Center.

Is there really a need for eight such venues in a city of just under 3 million people? Do they offer the residents of Kaohsiung value for money?

A closer look at how many of them are performing suggests not. The Kaohsiung Arena, for example, cost NT$4 billion (US$130 million) to construct, plus more for the neighboring department store. It is a 15,000 capacity arena with flexible seating arrangements capable of hosting a wide range of events.

Yet, in October, it will play host to just one concert, two minor trade fairs, and no sporting events. In December, there are two concerts and one trade fair scheduled; in January, only two concerts are on the agenda. At the time of writing, there are no further scheduled events in 2019.

In November, the e-sports 2018 World Championship will be held there. This is one of just two major events taking place at the Arena this year, the other being the sparsely attended BLIA Cup University Basketball Tournament in July.

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Credit: MiNe / CC BY 2.0
The Kaohsiung Arena has not justified its hefty price tag.

Then there is the National Stadium, which holds 55,000 and was built at a cost of more than NT$5.2 billion (US$169 million) for the 2009 World Games. In 2018, other than being the start and finish point for the Mizuno Kaohsiung Marathon and an annual 100-km cycle race, the stadium has not hosted a single sporting or music event.

The Dadong Art Center was completed in 2012 and forms part of the so-called Cultural Corridor in Kaohsiung. It cost NT$2 billion (US$65 million) to build and has been running since 2012. A glance at its schedule shows it is fairly busy at weekends but moribund for much of the week.

Usage data for Dadong Art Center is hard to ascertain. Over the past two years, the center has only hosted events for 32 percent of its total potential operational capacity. Data on how many people attended those events is not available, but in a report up to 2014 (the most recent I have found), Kaohsiung City Council admitted that Dadong had not reached usage expectations.

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Credit: Forgemind ArchiMedia / CC BY 2.0
The Dadong Art Center in Kaohsiung.

Then there is the intriguingly-named Kaohsiung Maritime Cultural & Pop Music Center, which is currently under construction. That was originally budgeted at NT$4.4 billion (US$142 million). But it was also scheduled to open by the end of 2014, so what the final cost could be is anybody’s guess.

This venue will consist of a 12,000-capacity outdoor performance area, a 5,000-capacity indoor space, and eight small performance spaces with a capacity of 200-400 people. While it will be another striking architectural addition to the Kaohsiung skyline, what exactly will be taking place inside remains unclear.

It is not just arts projects which have seen huge sums of public money being poured into large-scale yet questionable public building projects.

The Kaohsiung light rail system is currently under construction. This new public transport network is eventually intended to run for 22.1 km and had an initial projected cost of NT$16.5 billion (US$533 million). It has been dogged by delays and public protests with many deeming it slow, noisy, unsafe, and unnecessary.

But the biggest problem with the light rail system has been its lack of users. Plenty of people hopped on when it first opened. But at that point it was free. As soon as passengers started being charged, ridership dropped by 50 percent.

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Credit: Tze Chiang Hao / CC BY-SA 3.0
Kaohsiung Light Rail trains at Lizihnei LRT station.

Then there is the absurdly expensive project to run Kaohsiung’s urban rail network through tunnels rather than at ground level. There are of course advantages to this. Everyone in Kaohsiung has been delayed at one of the city’s many level crossings at one time or another, while hiding the noise and pollution underground also has its attractions. But does it really justify the eye-watering costs of the project, conservatively estimated at NT$100 billion (US$3.23 billion)?

The legacy of Chen Chu

Visitors to Kaohsiung cannot fail to encounter a cartoon-likeness of the city’s former mayor when they come here. Her image is plastered on just about everything. Chen Chu, who served as mayor from 2006 to early 2018, has long been as symbolic of Kaohsiung City as the 85 Sky Tower and the Cijin ferries.

With her bubbly personality, curly hair, and fame for being one of the Kaohsiung Eight dissidents arrested by the Kuomintang (KMT) after the Kaohsiung Incident, which helped catalyze the eventual democratization of Taiwan, she has long been a central figure in Kaohsiung politics.

During her 12-year mayoral term, she was virtually unopposed as head of the long-time stronghold of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), giving her free reign to shape the city in her own image.

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Credit: Reuters / Pichi Chuang
Chen Chu oversaw the transformation of Kaohsiung during her 12-year stint as mayor.

Perhaps it was inevitable that she would seek to leave a lasting, physical legacy of her time in office, as many mayors are wont to do. It is just unfortunate that her focus was on grand infrastructure and building projects rather than improving public services and the lives of the city’s people.

Some of those projects will undoubtedly bear fruit over time. The addition of the light rail service could help connect the city together.

But many of her signature projects will struggle to shake off the impression of being white elephants. They are surrounded by inevitable, if unsubstantiated, rumors of corruption and dirty deals between the city council and the handful of big developers who have worked on these projects.

One such allegation – made during the current election campaign by a Facebook page connected to the KMT mayoral candidate in Kaohsiung, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) – suggested that Chen Chu and current DPP mayoral candidate Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) had arranged for favored developers to win bids of up to NT$30 billion (US$972.5 million) of city construction projects.

The Facebook page in question has subsequently been shut down, but despite being threatened with legal action, Han’s team has not retracted the allegations.

We don’t know what will become of the recent electoral drama. What we do know is that, when Chen left office to head to Taipei and work in the Tsai administration, she left behind a trail of expensively built and largely underused buildings.

The idea of repositioning Kaohsiung as a cultural hub may have been intended to be part of her legacy. But the truth is that, while perhaps well intentioned, it was misguided at best and an act of extreme folly and negligence at worst.

A lack of funds for basic public services

If the objective of buildings such as the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts was really to make arts and culture more accessible to the people of Kaohsiung, perhaps a better way to go about it would have been to invest in Kaohsiung’s chronically underfunded educational system.

A nephew of mine is a pupil at the Municipal Yangming Elementary School in Sanmin District. It is a large public primary school, with some 1,500 children housed in decrepit buildings adjacent to the Number 1 Freeway flyover, which cuts through this part of the city.

Like nearly every public school in the city, there is no air conditioning in the small and overcrowded classrooms where at least 25 children are expected to sit and study from 8 a.m. until around 4 p.m. During break time, children only have four basketball courts, and one swing set with three functional swings, to play on. Remember, this is a school for 1,500 children!

Until last year, there was a small plastic slide and climbing frame of the type found in many small parks around Taiwan. It had long been broken, but towards the end of last year was finally deemed unsafe and removed. A full nine months later, the money has still not been found to install a replacement.

My nephew is also a keen soccer fan and a pretty decent player, too. In the middle of the bumpy running track is a patch of grass where kids can play. But on the odd occasion when the grass has been cut short enough to kick a ball on, the pitch is what soccer fans would call an ‘ankle breaker.’ It is not just that the ground is uneven, but that just under the surface there appear to be bricks, bits of concrete, and all manner of other debris poking through the surface. It is hugely hazardous to play on. But the kids at Yangming Elementary School have no choice.

This is not an isolated case either. I have been to various schools across the city looking for a place to kick a ball safely with him. Almost all greet you with facilities in various states of disrepair. Chats with locals suggest there is little optimism of money becoming available for repairs or replacements anytime soon.

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Credit: SSR2000 / CC BY-SA 3.0
Kaohsiung's Municipal Gushan Elementary School.

Another example can be found in the city’s public play centers. Kaohsiung has several indoor centers dotted around the city, which offer an air-conditioned space with various toys and equipment available for parents and children to use for free. There was a time when the city was rightly proud of them, but over time, the centers became run down and the toys worn out and broken.

However, finding the necessary resources to bring these centers back up to scratch has not proved possible. Some, like the one of Jouru Road in the heart of the city, have received much-needed renovations. The Jouru Road center was one of the busiest in the city and no-one would argue that renovation was urgently needed. Today, the space is clean, nicely painted, and well-designed.

But unfortunately, the budget couldn’t stretch to equipping it with new toys and equipment. As a result, there is almost nothing for the kids to play with, and what equipment is available appears to be salvaged from the old center. The number of families using this facility has dwindled dramatically since the refurbishment. It is not difficult to guess why.

Then there is the issue of access to basic equipment. In researching this article, I spoke with a freelance art teacher who has worked in various schools in Kaohsiung. These days, she spends far more time in private schools than public ones and this is put squarely down to the lack of an available budget to pay for her.

For those few schools that can afford her, the issue she faces is a chronic lack of supplies. She is quite a progressive teacher and doesn’t like to use the pre-packaged art projects that most public sector teachers turn to. But trying to get schools to pay for even basic art equipment such as painting accessories can be extremely challenging. On more than a few occasions, she has had to provide them herself.

For a city that claims to be reinventing itself as a cultural hub, to keep school budgets so low that even basic art supplies are not affordable seems like a case of misplaced priorities.

Instead of a network of arts venues, Kaohsiung needs funding to allow kids to do a bit of painting themselves. Instead of a Pop Music Center, they need to provide funds for kids to learn to play musical instruments. Instead of an unused National Stadium with 55,000 mostly empty seats, why not equip the schools with some pitches that won’t cripple the kids playing on them?

For some people, the legacy of Chen Chu in Kaohsiung will be the redevelopment of a rundown industrial city into a modern cultural metropolis. But for most who live there, her reputation will be a series of white elephant public infrastructure projects, unused and unnecessary arts centers, and a missed opportunity to intervene at ground level and improve the lives of a whole generation of Kaohsiung citizens.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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