What you need to know
Residents of Dalinpu know that leaving home is inevitable as pollution has spoilt their land, but they question the city government’s motivations and are calling for open discussion of their options.
Last Saturday, thousands of revelers from around Taiwan joined a raucous procession through the streets of Kaohsiung's village of Dalinpu (大林蒲) as the 320-year-old Fonglin Temple (鳳林宮) concluded a major ritual known as Jiao (醮) for the final time before its closure.
Performers in elaborate costumes pranced past crowds of onlookers as fireworks released colorful plumes of smoke that wafted across the factory-clad skyline. However, this day of elation was bittersweet. Dalinpu’s entire population of 19,000 is slated to be relocated due to unhealthy levels of pollution from nearby steel mills and oil refineries. As residents said goodbye to their longtime spiritual nucleus and community bedrock, many doubted that the government would ever clean up the land they have called home for centuries.
Earlier this year, the Kaohsiung Urban Development Bureau conducted a door-to-door survey in Dalinpu and neighboring Fengbitou (鳳鼻頭) which showed that 89 percent of residents were willing to relocate. The survey asked respondents to list their main concerns, but residents said their answers were being ignored in a rush towards green-lighting relocation. The Yes voters I spoke to said that, while they conditionally favored moving, there were irregularities in the vote-counting process, they were misled on details in the survey and they have not seen formal plans to reduce pollution in the area.
Dalinpu’s air quality has been held hostage by its surroundings since the 1970s, when China Steel, Taiwan Power, and China Petroleum opened plants in the area. The influx of nationalized industry brought stable jobs to Kaohsiung’s traditionally agricultural Xiaogang (小港) district, but also obliterated the region’s air quality. “The government has no intention at all to reduce pollution,” said Fengbitou resident Gong Quancheng (龔全成).
Gong shares the common belief that the city government’s true motive is to clear the land for future industrial development. Plans for a yacht manufacturing park fell through last year. Residents questioned why the government would move them to a proposed relocation site near Kaohsiung International Airport that is also polluted. Fengbitou resident Hong Xiuju (洪秀菊), a tailor who heads a local anti-pollution organization (要健康婆婆媽媽團高雄分團 or "Kaohsiung Moms and Grannies Demand a Healthy Environment"), said the plan would move them “from hell to another hell.”
Hong spun around from her sewing machine and laughed incredulously as she shared her feelings about the relocation process. “The government is fishing for everyone” to vote Yes on the survey, she said. Hong voted in favor of relocation herself, but she wants more reassurances before she commits to moving. To her, nationalized industry should be leading the way in adopting greener practices, but the nearby Taipower plant has only ramped up its coal usage since it expanded into space cleared by nearby Hongmaogang (紅毛港), which was relocated in 2007 to make way for a container terminal.
Many residents were upset that the China Steel plant uses a wet coking system instead of switching to a cleaner dry coking system. They want local plants scrutinized, much like Formosa Plastics was by the Vietnamese government after a leak destroyed 200 km of coastline in 2016. Gong chose Yes on the survey, but he wants the government to provide a formal plan to reduce pollution. Like many residents, he lives with multiple air purifiers in his home. If he leaves his hometown behind, he wants it replaced by an ecological park, or “the government can plant more trees,” he said. “Will that not improve the air quality?”
Guo Jinzong (郭進宗), Chief Engineer at the Kaohsiung Urban Development Bureau (KUDB), said that “we are doing our best to combat pollution,” and declined to comment further.
While the procession attracted well-wishers from around Taiwan, temple caretakers insisted Jiao – an important offering ceremony held in response to calamity – was not held to draw attention to Dalinpu’s quandary. “Protest and the procession are separate,” Dalinpu borough chief Hong Fuxian (洪富賢) said. Taiwanese temples are often magnets for regional political activism, but Fonglin Temple plays a subtler role. During a ghost clearing procession (夜巡) in 2013, the chariot of Wang Ye (王爺), one of its martial deities, went inside the China Petroleum gate and stayed until its ghosts were removed.
Fonglin’s caretakers called for Jiao to heal the gods of Hongmaogang and clear the vacated area of wandering ghosts. Several Dalinpu residents cited the relocation of their neighbors as a cautionary tale. Landowners in Hongmaogang were given the option of accepting a cash advance or a land swap, but many who chose the land exchange went into debt after receiving more expensive real estate and falling behind on their mortgages.
Residents also worried that, even with a one-for-one ping swap deal, new Kaohsiung zoning regulations meant they'd be moving into smaller houses. The Urban Development Bureau initially said that residents would be able to purchase additional land, but it reneged on this promise after the final tally, saying there was not enough land to go around. If residents are left with small plots, they can build taller homes or “join with relatives to build a bigger house,” Guo said.
"If people could purchase extra land in the relocation site, then what would the citizens of Kaohsiung think?" Guo said, arguing that Dalinpu residents were already allowed to exchange low-value land at above market rates. This suggestion made Dalinpu resident Zhang Wenru (張文如) visibly angry. She said that the value of her land, where her family has lived for hundreds of years, was only low because of pollution.
The relocation survey was delivered to the doors of landowners, who were authorized to vote for all family members registered to the same hukou (area), and to decide on the family’s preferred compensation package. Property owners could “discuss [the survey] with the family and give a final answer,” Guo said. However, this process led to a questionable count, and the veracity of the tally was not checked. One resident who opposed relocation was counted as a Yes vote because her father voted for her entire family. Zhang voted Yes for herself and four other family members because she was the only one home at the time.
Zhang felt that the process was rushed – after the survey results were counted, Kaohsiung Vice Mayor Shi Ze (史哲) immediately called for a “relocation preparatory meeting” to begin housing valuations. "It's like they got their "yes" vote, and now they're moving on," Zhang said. Like the majority of Dalinpu residents, she accepts the inevitability of relocation but wants an open and transparent process.
A meeting to discuss housing valuations occurred Sept. 17, but residents complained that it failed to address their concerns over the rushed survey. Government plans for the site also remain in doubt. The Ministry of Economic Affairs' Industrial Development Bureau (IDB) told The News Lens that the bureau is working on a plan for a circular economy industrial park at the site and will submit a proposal to the Executive Yuan for approval in January. An official from the IDB also mentioned the plan at the Sept. 17 meeting, though officials from the local KUDB stuck to the line that the relocation was strictly due to pollution in the area.
The residents I spoke to asked for the chance to work with the government and voice their concerns. Jiao was meant to bring Dalinpu together one last time, and Zhang, tired from carrying a chariot during the procession, hoped its small-town spirit would survive displacement. “We want a community we know, a place that feels like home,” she said. “A place like we have here.”
READ NEXT: The Politics of Pollution in Central Taiwan
TNL Editor: TNL Staff