Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Thursday, April 18, 2002

In Taiwan the Lantern Festival is celebrated annually at the end of February after the Lunar New Year. It’s a 7-8 day long festival of lights. This year the main Lantern Festival events and displays were in Kaohsiung, instead of Taipei, where it has traditionally been held. In Kaohsiung three dimensional paper cut outs glowing from within were hung along the sides of the Love River bank- where lovers or friends would usually take a casual stroll along a quiet path. But during the Lantern Festival the edges of the Love River were transformed into a bustling, crowded display of hanging lanterns. Many of the “hanging lanterns” look like anything but lanterns- there were glowing objects and cartoonish characters like Hello Kitty, Snoopy, and even Harry Potter. Larger than life floats of animals, objects and the imaginary, glowed through the darkness.

Apparently, the Taipei Lantern Festival was really quite a disappointment. My friends living in Taipei remarked that it was quite lack luster compared to ones in past years and I found myself defending the choice to host the Lantern Festival in Kaohsiung. This conversation got me thinking about how Taipei has always enjoyed such preferential treatment and that a lot of people (especially residents of Taipei) don’t realize why it’s been necessary to move more and more major events out of Taipei, in recent years, like this year’s Lantern Festival.

It’s interesting that I write this, because my understanding of what goes on in Taiwan is often limited due to my lack of proficiency with the local languages and an unsophisticated understanding of Taiwan’s complicated history and politics. I probably wouldn’t have realized these things were it not for the fact that I am currently living in Kaohsiung. I’m sure I would probably have shared my friends’ impressions if I were still living in Taipei.

In the past few years, there have been more efforts to promote Kaohsiung and shift attention to Taiwan’s second largest city. The people of Kaohsiung want more assistance from the government in developing its infrastructure and economy. By giving Kaohsiung the opportunity to host a major event such as the Lantern Festival, it shows that the government is committed to further developing cities and counties other than Taipei. Shining the spotlight on Kaohsiung showcases its untapped potential (there are sites in Kaohsiung being proposed for a business/science park) and it brings more commerce to the county in the form of increased tourism locally and from abroad. Naturally that leads other gains such as a small boost to the local economy (for small businesses, hotels, travel related industries, etc.).

Taipei is the capital of Taiwan. It is where the seat of the government is, where all major corporations have set up their headquarters and where most of Taiwan’s culture and festivals have historically been showcased and celebrated. Taipei has always enjoyed a privileged status in this respect. There is a tremendous disparity between Taipei and other cities in Taiwan (not just Kaohsiung), in terms of quality of life and health of local economy.

Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s second largest city, after Taipei and is home of the world’s third largest container harbor, but it suffers from a depressed local economy and the highest unemployment rate in all of Taiwan. Among the reasons Kaohsiung lacks the resources to better develop itself is that investment and monetary resources have been concentrated in Taipei. The majority of corporations have set up their headquarters in Taipei and Taiwan’s tax laws require that companies pay taxes to the city in which their headquarters are located. Consequently, Taipei has benefited disproportionately. Meanwhile, Kaohsiung has suffered the impact of industrial waste produced by its plastics, petroleum and chemical plants. But it has not shared in any revenues produced by these companies because they are headquartered in Taipei.

In Kaohsiung, there aren’t many diverse job opportunities due to lack of investment and reliance on traditional industries. Many of my peers (20-30 years of age) in Kaohsiung are employed in education because it’s one of the few guaranteed, steady professions here. My local friends have pointed out to me that there really aren’t many other types of work to be found in Kaohsiung.

There needs to be reform. Corporate taxes must be distributed equitably among the various counties of Taiwan, but the question is on what basis? Per capita? Production levels? Other problems that plague Kaohsiung include undrinkable tap water and a poor transportation infrastructure. The current public transportation available is not very convenient or efficient and the quality of tap water is poor because it has been tainted by pollution upstream, old, rusty sewage pipes and industrial waste.

Thankfully ground is being broken for the building of the MRT in Kaohsiung, but that won’t be a reality until 5-6 years from now. Kaohsiung’s lack of job opportunities and poor infrastructure has led to the draining of intellectual capital as students move north to Taipei to pursue higher education and permanent jobs. The effects of these shortcomings have been compounded over time leading to a self-defeating cycle that will be difficult for Kaohsiung to reverse.

The value of real estate has plummeted in Kaohsiung, a stark contrast to what has happened in Taipei. There are many cases in which an apartment bought in Taipei 15 years ago has increased in value ten times over, but a comparable apartment in Kaohsiung bought 15 years ago will have dropped substantially in value.

Kaohsiung is not the only city in Taiwan suffering from lack of resources and monetary support from the government. It’s time we all realize why there are such great disparities in the quality of life between Taiwan’s cities and that the government does something equitable to rectify the situation.

Just something to think about, nothing more, nothing less… especially for those of you living in Taipei.


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