Info from the German Insititute in Taipei.

This seems to be one of the few areas where experiences related to German division actually can be meaningfully compared to Taiwan’s situation.

Jörn Mothes was in Taipei one year ago and brought a piece of the Berlin Wall with him then. You can watch my German TV report about that event here.

Hubertus Knabe is director of the East German Secret Police (Stasi) prison/museum Hohenschönhausen in Berlin. In this post, I recommended it for consideration when discussing Taipei’s very own Jingmei Prison.

On 14.11.2010 a symposium regarding different topics about how to deal with an authoritarian past and related issues will take place in Taipei.

Chinese title: 「見證與反思—台德人權博物館實踐經驗交流論壇」

There are four German guests to attend, among them are two former state commissioner for STASI-files, Joern Mothes and Edda Ahrberg and the quite renowned director of the Museum (STASI-prison) Hohenschoenhausen, Dr. Hubertus Knabe.

The symposium comes with German and Chinese translation.

Date and Place: 14.11.2010, 09.30 to 17:30h, Conference Room of the Institute of Social Science at the NTU, Xuzhou Rd. No. 21  (registration: 29393091#67575)

More Chinese information: National Chengchi-University or CNA.


時間:2011年11月14日(星期日)09:30 -17:30

Click here for more English posts on this otherwise mostly German blog.


I recently had the opportunity to have a little tour around the Taipei International Flora Exposition grounds that are still closed to the public. The Expo will open on 6 November 2010 and last until 25 April 2011 (Official Website).

I am fully aware of the current controversy sorrounding the Flora Expo. The question who paid riculously overcharged prices for flowers etc. was not what made me want to check out the grounds, however, and it is also not the subject of this post.

I was researching for a German article about how quality of life in Taipei has increased over the last 15 years or so, and how this development will go on. So I was interested in the question: Will the Expo bring lasting improvements to Taipei’s citizens even after it closes?

Elections are near (27 Nov.). The Taipei City government is mighty proud of the Flora Expo and hails it as the greatest thing that ever happened to Taipei. To the opposition, it is a giant waste of money, a mere campaigning tool and proof of ever-lingering corruption. My guess is that the truth is somewhere in between.

Now that the ideology is out of the way for the moment, let’s have a look at the plan.

The Expo grounds encompass 91 hectares of which, according to the organizers, 71 will be “covered with greenery”. They stretch east from Yuanshan MRT station, which is the spot from wich most of us probably have seen the changes that have already taken place. It is also from where I entered.

All four major areas of the Flora Expo have been used as parks for a long time, which also is a point of criticism: Why spend so much money to close large inner-city parks and give them a make-over, instead of building new ones?

I have not been a frequent visitor of the parks before the remodeling began. I recall seeing a DPP rally in front of the Yuanshan Football Stadium in March 2008. And I recall that large parts, at least of the Yuanshan Park, were wide stretches of lawn, with few trees or footpaths. Now the Taiwanese, given their aversion to sunbathing and barbecuing (except at Mid-Autumn festival), do not seem to value lawn in parks very highly. Apparently, many people prefer paved foodpaths, benches, flowerbeds etc.

Well, that is what they will get.

This is the main entrance area as seen from the Yuanshan MRT platform. To the right is the former Yuanshan Football Stadium. The actual tickets booths are under the roof to the left. Because the organizers are hoping for eight million visitors (including 400.000 foreigners) to stomp through this spot, it is perhaps understandable that pavement is preferred to greenery.

One of the most striking changes is the disappearance of a complete road.I am talking about the stretch of Jiuquan St. that used to connect Yumen St. (to the west, with the MRT) and Zhongshan N. Rd. (to the east) and that ran alongside the stadium. Google Maps still has it (you can also see the old layout of Yuanshan Park):

This road had to go to make room for the entrance area, the roofed structure with the ticket booths, and a pedestrian bridge crossing Zhongshan N. Rd., connecting the Yuanshan and Fine Arts Park areas. I very much hope it will not come back after the Expo is over. It would be the first time I am aware of that a road in Taipei is completely given up for the sake of pedestrians. This, to me, will be one of the most important criteria to judge if the then-elected city government is seriously thinking about the future or not.

The former Yuanshan Football Stadium only resembles a stadium by its shape now. It has been transformed into a multi-purpose building complex with an open air area. This is what the inside looks like now, standing on the former pitch.

The stands have become a flowerbed of sorts, the lawn is gone, and more than half of the area is occupied by a building (left) that will house exhibition halls, restaurants, shops, toilets and the Expo administration ofices.

This place will never again be used for football matches, that much is obvious. Pretty senseless to protest against that now, like some Taiwanese Football officials recently did. (Besides, football matches in the Taipei Stadium or the Kaoshiung World Games Stadium would be the best thing to happen to these two venues.)

Right next to the stadium there now is a building that has already caused some foreign media to give report on the Flora Expo before it even opened (report with video). It is the EcoArk, a building with walls made of 1.5 mio. recycled plastic bottles.

The EcoArk will serve as a showcase pavilion for new ways of constructing buildings. With solar panels for energy and open water circulation instead of air condition, it does not consume a lot of energy, which makes it quite different from most buildings in Taiwan.

The recycled PET bottles are formed into transparent “bricks” that look a bit like water cooler bottles. Apparently, you can use them to build walls like with Lego blocks. The idea of using plastic garbage as building material seems to be something Taiwan could turn into an industry of itself.

The building is 30 meters high. Inside, there will also be some art or fashion performances. Notice the sunlight streaming in.

The Eco Ark belongs to the Far Eastern Corporation, which will dismantle it after the Expo and transfer it to another location.

The EcoArk as seen from the pedestrian bridge over Zhongshan N. Road:

The park next to the Fine Art Museum has also been completely redone. This is the view from the pedestrian bridge.

Lots of new footpaths here, too. Also, some of the building facades surrounding the grounds got a much-needed cleanup. The actual flowers are only being planted as i am typing this. Someone was smart enough to wait with this until the typhoon season ended.

In the big pavilion one above, there will be music and dance performances. The newly constructed pavilions are to remain after the Expo closes, serving a restaurants, restrooms etc.

Looking towards the north, lots of construction still going on there, too.

It still is not easy to imagine what the Expo area will actually look like with everything in place, and even harder to imagine the situation after the actual event is over. I hope that Taipei uses every opportunity, including this, to become a greener and nicer city, with less space for cars and scooters and more for human beings. The citizens really deserve it.

To everyone who is complaining about the “destruction” of the original parks: How about focussing your energy on something that is more important – the fact that Taipei wants private investors to build the “Taipei Dome” a giant hotel, shopping and arena complex, on one of the last open spaces left in the city centre, across from Sun Yat Sen-Memorial Hall on Zhongxiao E. Road. That really is a shame. The place should be turned into the next Daan Forest Park, like some Green Party politicians (and I do not mean the DPP) have suggested.

Click here for more English posts on this otherwise mostly German blog.

They start practicing in Kindergarten. They get better at school. They are masters by the time they graduate from university. And they use their skills every day at the office. Give a Taiwanese a desk and some minutes of free time, and he or she will fall asleep immediately.

Actually, it does not even have to be a desk.

Are you Taiwanese? How do you do it?

If you want to learn more about my work in Taiwan, go to www.taiwanreporter.com.

Maybe you are also interested in my 10 Really Weird Warning Signs in Taiwan?

Heute mal wieder auf Englisch, weil Taiwan ausnahmsweise gerade international Schlagzeilen macht. Leider nicht wegen eines der vielen wirklich wichtigen Themen, sondern wegen Kämpfen im Parlament. Wieder mal. Kaum gibt es Gerangel ums Rednerpult, interessieren sich plötzlich auch in Deutschland die Medien von Spiegel Online bis Bild Online für Taiwan. (Bruce Darnell wusste, worauf es ankommt: Drama, Baby!) Dabei fasst Spiegel Online immerhin die Hintergründe des Streits kurz, aber einigermaßen neutral und korrekt zusammen, wobei ich nicht weiß, ob hier eine Agentur zitiert wird oder ein Redakteur selbst ein wenig Sachkenntnis hatte:

Die Opposition hält den Kurs der Regierung, der eine Annäherung an China bedeutet, für falsch. Sie befürchtet, dass Peking, welches Taiwan als abtrünnige Provinz betrachtet, langfristig die Angliederung anstrebt. Die Insel Taiwan vor der chinesischen Festlandsküste wird nur noch von wenigen Ländern der Erde als unabhängiger Staat anerkannt. Dabei gehört sie zu den wichtigsten Wirtschaftsmächten der Welt.

Solche Kämpfe im Parlament gibt es immer wieder mal, und natürlich sieht die Regierungspartei KMT ebenso wie viele Außenstehende darin einen Versuch, die Arbeit des demokratisch legitimierten Parlaments zu behindern. Bei einer Pressekonferenz am 29. April fragte ich daher die DPP-Vorsitzende Tsai Ing-wen, ob dies wirklich das Bild sei, das sie von Taiwans Oppositions ins Ausland transportieren möchte. Ihre Antwort ist nicht uninteressant. (Und bevor ich ins Englische wechsle: Ein richtig guter Artikel über Taiwans politische Lage ist gerade in den Nürnberger Nachrichten erschienen.)

There is one sure way to make the international media report on Taiwanese politics: Have a fight in parliament. As much as most newspapers or websites tend to ignore Taiwan – throw in some physical confrontation, and they find the time and space to report. Unfortunately, this kind of news usually gives an impression of Taiwanese policitics being immature, irrational and a little silly.

Yesterday, a confrontation between KMT and DPP politicians broke out during a session on ECFA, the trade agreement with China. The KMT says it’s all business, no politics. The DPP sees it as a huge step towards Taiwan being absorbed by China (Anschluss, anyone?). Today, you can read about the brawl in many papers worldwide. Or on the web. Most of the reports mention the political background of the fighting, but mostly very briefly and not always historically correct („split from China in 1949…“).

Some days after another one of these incidents, on April 29, DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-Wen had a Q&A with the foreign press. I asked her if obstructing parliament’s work is the kind of image for Taiwan’s opposition she would like to project abroad. This is her answer.

The DPP represents at least 45 percent of the votes here. But unfortunately we only have slightly more than a quarter of the seats in the legislature. So in terms of proportional representation, this is not the kind of situation that we would like to have. That is, your seats are not representing enough the people who voted for you. And the rules in the legislature that is our parliament are such that it would not give the minority enough room to exercise the right amount of influence. So you have an extremely powerful versus an extremely weak political party in the legislature. And in that sort of situation, the relationship has to be very, very carefully managed. But we don’t see the will on the part of the KMT being an extremely powerful party in the legislature to sit down and negotiate and express their willingness to hear what the other party has to say.

So if they are not prepared to be a listener, they are not prepared to sit down and negotiate, if they are not prepared to respect the views of at least 45 percent of the population here, I think the kind of conflict that we saw is something very difficult to avoid. And of course we don’t want to see that sort of thing happen every day. We try to reduce that sort of conflict. But it is so difficult to avoid, primarily because you have the other party that is not ready to be patient and rational.

We are not the only country that has that sort of conflict in the legislature. And you have seen that sort of fights in other places, as well. Korea has that sort of situation and to a certain extent Japan has that situation, too. So I don’t think this is something unique here. And if there is any uniqueness in this political situation here, it is we as a political party have to face KMT as a very powerful party plus the Chinese. So this is a very unique situation and as a result it is very, very difficult for an opposition party to be meaningful. Unless we take strong actions.

Our appeal to the international community is they have to pay more attention to what is happening here and what is the voice of the people here, and what the opposition has to say. I think the news coverage in terms of what the opposition has to say is rather limited in terms – I mean, I am not complaining, I am talking about foreign press here. So we have a humble request that perhaps you want to be more accomodating in terms of the opposition’s view on various things. And to a certain extent we hope you are more understanding and sympathetic.

Watch footage of the brawl here. And on thousands of other websites.

In Taiwan, sometimes you run into signs warning you of dangers you have never even been aware of. Or doing so in a way you would not have thought imaginable. Creative in their design and/or content, I want to share some examples with you.

Also see my photo collection on Taipei City’s potentially deadly subway escalators.

I am usually blogging in German, but in this case I’d like to reach out to Taiwan’s Western expats, so I give it a try in English. (Again.)

Where might she be from?

Every “Westerner” in Taiwan probably knows what it means to be treated as a first-class foreigner. So we behave clumsy most of the time, do not have 5000 years of culture and our languages are not as sophisticated as Chinese, but hey – white skin means we all speak English perfectly, make tons of money and look like Hollywood stars, doesn’t it? So despite widespread latent scepticism towards foreigners, we get by quite well.

(Read more about the preferential treatment of white foreigners in Taiwan in this excellent blog post.)

But there is another group of foreigners in Taiwan that far outnumbers us. Only we tend not to notice them so much. Those are the foreign workers from Taiwan’s poor neighbouring countries, brought in to work in factories, construction, as maids and caregivers. Basically, they are here to do the jobs the Taiwanese are not willing to do themselves, at least not for the wages being paid.

According to the Taiwan’s official government statistics, there are currently almost 360.000 foreign workers in Taiwan (PDF). About half of them work in manufacturing and construction, the other half does social work, so the gender ratio seems to be balanced. There are 145.000 Indonesians working in Taiwan, 78.000 Vietnamese, 74.000 from the Philippines and 62.000 from Thailand. (There also is one lonely Mongolian in the statictics.) As far as I know, this does not include the “foreign wives”, so the actual number of foreigners from poorer countries looking for a brighter future in Taiwan is even greater.

"Every single sheltered migrant worker bears an undesired labor conflict, which reflects the injustice of the system." (c) TIWA

Now it would be nice if Taiwan’s society, known for its overall kindness, would extend their hospitality to each and every one who choses to come here to make a living, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Instead, many foreign workers in Taiwan apparently encounter exploitation, prejudices and sometimes open racism on a daily basis. A Catholic priest and professor puts it like this:

Even students who appear to be open-minded on such controversial issues as abolition of the death penalty or gender equality tend to react angrily when I suggest that too many Taiwanese employers routinely look down upon or flagrantly mistreat workers from Asian countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Issues that touch on the treatment of laborers belong in an ethics course as examples (often glaringly obvious) of behavior that offends principles like the dignity of the human person, fairness, and respect.

(…) at least some employers intimidate and control foreign workers by seizing control of their passports and, sometimes, their cell phones. (…) I know of a couple who once hired a worker for care-giving, but insisted she could not leave their home alone. The bosses told me they feared their worker would meet other workers and compare her situation with theirs, and return to them “unhappy.”

Just recently, the news that many employers force Indonesian Muslim employees to eat pork made headlines. Then there are the government’s plans to scrap the minimum wage requirements for foreign workers. One Western foreigner nailed it in this letter to the Taipei Times:

If, as I once read, we are to judge a society’s level of civilization by how it treats its most vulnerable members, then Taiwan is failing spectacularly. Taiwan’s migrant workers should be given medals and awards for what they have contributed to society here, not further reductions in barely subsistence-level wages — but then such actions show us just how far the present government is prepared to stoop to pay back its corporate masters.

"I want my day off." (c) TIWA

There are actually organizations in Taiwan trying to make a difference, first and foremost the Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA) that is organizing demonstrations and press conferences and advocating foreign workers’ rights.

TIWA chairperson Ku Yu-ling (顧玉玲) said the root of the problem lay in the government repeatedly delaying including migrant caregivers under the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法) to protect their basic working rights.

As a result, caregivers are often forced to put up with poor working conditions, such as doing things that are against their religious beliefs or working for long periods of time with no days off or adequate time to rest.

Going public: Foreign workers face the press. (c) TIWA

There are two reasons I am writing on this subject now. First, I just returned from a photo exhibition TIWA put up that depicts scenes from foreign workers’ life in Taiwan. I had lots of time to take a good look at the photos – I was the only one there. Little wonder, since the exhibition is tucked away in a basement corner of an expensive shopping mall near Taipei 101.

So I want to encourage everyone to go and see this exhibition. It’s only on display until May 31, and you find it on the B2 floor of the Shinkong Mitsukoshi in Xinyi, in the A9-building. There also seem to be photos on display in Ximen’s Cinema Park (which is currently being revitalized as a public art space), but I have not been there yet. More information on the exhibitions (in Chinese) on the TIWA website.

The other reason is that there is a fine movie playing right now called “Pinoy Sunday” that I cannot recommend highly enough. It focusses on two Philippino workers in Taipei on their day off. While the story superficially is about their attempts to bring a red sofa, discarded by a rich Taiwanese couple, back to their factory dorm, there are lots more layers to it. You get to se the microcosm of “Little Manila” on Zhongshan North Rd., where the workers spend their free Sundays. And while racism or discrimination is not at the story’s center, there are enough awkward situations and remarks to make you understand that being a foreign worker in Taiwan is probably not an altogether pleasant experience.

There is a fine review of “Pinoy Sunday” in the Taipei Times, and a letter by Dan Bloom who argues it deserves an Oscar nomination. Most important, there is the official website that tells you where and when you can see it. And you really should hurry, because it’s no blockbuster, and right now there are only three cinemas left screening it (two in Taipei, one in Tainan).

"Pictures, representing us as exhilarated tourists..."

Go see the exhibition, watch the movie, and keep in mind: Most foreigners in Taiwan are too busy working in factories, building apartment houses or MRT lines or caring for old people to idle away their time writing or reading blogs like this. They really deserve our sympathy, solidarity and, where possible, support.

How can we do this? Suggestions are welcome.

"...are gifts sent back home to reassure our familiy." (c) TIWA

Normalerweise schreibe ich hier nicht auf Englisch, aber diesen Text habe ich sowieso als Leserbrief für die Taipei Times aufgesetzt.

This is a text I sent to the Taipei Times as a letter to the editor. Usually, I am blogging in German. In English, find out more about my work as a journalist in Taiwan on Facebook or Twitter.

For years, the debate surrounding the former Jingmei Prison in Xindian has been covered extensively in the media. Therefore, I did not know whether to laugh out loud or just bang my head against the wall when I read the statement by Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA) Minister Emile Sheng in the Taipei Times: “We plan to (…) hear more opinions, look more into the history that the site represents and then carefully plan the future of the park”, he said – almost one and a half years after the newly elected KMT government closed the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and turned its management over to the CCA. (New official website, Facebook site.)

If even foreigners like me can grasp the meaning of Jingmei Prison, how can Emile Sheng after all this time of being responsible come up with such a ridiculous statement?

I visited Jingmei Prison three times over the past one and a half years, each time getting a valuable lesson about how Taiwan tries to come to terms with its past as a dictatorship – or not.

In June 2008, the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial was still as when it had opened in 2007 – an impressive reminder of how authoritarian regimes can ruin people’s lives. But there were hardly any visitors, and I do not remember signs to help us find the place.

Coming back in June 2009, the prison was closed to the public. The government had ordered the CCA to come up with a new exhibition. We managed to get access, anyway. (Another blogger did, too.) Some CCA employees reluctantly showed us around the compound, but did not let us access the cell tract, for fear of our safety. They said the previous exhibition had focussed too much on specifically Taiwanese political aspects, and the new one would also be about human rights in other parts of the world. I feared the worst, as President Ma also announced he “hoped to see a park where the public could come and relax, learn about human rights, and where artists could exhibit their works.” By the way, why did Mr. Sheng not point to this statement when the CCA was recently attacked for art exhibits in the park? Obviously, he just followed orders.

Update: Check out this excellent photo gallery on Flickr with pics and comments from June 2008 and June 2009.

In December 2009, the place was open again, now named “Human Rights Memorial & Cultural Park”. Again, even on the weekend, there were almost no visitors. Going there, I was relieved to see that the changes made werde not fundamental. The cells could still be accessed, as could the courtroom in which the “Kaohsiung Eight” were sentenced in 1980 in the government’s last big-scale attempt to crush Taiwan’s opposition.

But I noticed some subtle changes that lessened the impact the memorial had on me. First, in 2008 there was a video monitor set up in the Military courtroom. It showed photos of dozens of soldiers who had been sentenced to death in that very room – before and after their execution. Rarely had I seen such a spine-chilling and thought-provoking installation in any memorial I had visited. It is gone now. Furthermore, the exhibition in the cell tract now ends on a positive note: “(…) people in Taiwan have already stepped out from the shadow of political persecution and White Terror. Dawn of human rights appears in Taiwan. In the future, we have to go further for promoting human rights from political aspect to diverse aspects.” Apart from the typically shoddy English translation, this gives the impression that everything is well in Taiwan, as the political past has successfully been dealt with. Based on my observations, I would say this is not the case.

I come from Germany, where we have made our own experiences with all kinds of dictatorships. In Berlin, there is a memorial with a meaning quite similar to Jingmei Prison. It is the former Stasi (State Security Agency) prison Hohenschönhausen, where East Germany’s communist dictatorship arbitrarily incarcerated and tortured people without due trial – much like it happened in Taiwan, too. Today, as some East Germans yearn for the “good old times” when they had no freedom but their jobs were safe, school classes regularly visit this memorial and listen to former inmates talking about their experiences. There were more than 300.000 visitors in 2009.

Schools and teachers in Taipei and Taipei County should be encouraged to visit Jingmei Prison with their students, get a first hand impression of their country’s dark past and listen to people who had to suffer through torture and imprisonment. And if they do not want to come, it should be made a mandatory part of the curriculum. Only by confronting the past can people finally come to terms with it and will not fall for lame excuses like the one Emile Sheng just offered.

Talking about hiding the past, there is one more striking example of that in Taipei: The 228 Memorial Museum, as important a reminder as the Jingmei Prison, is missing from the maps found in Taipei’s MRT stations. While even banks are meticulously included, there is no indication that the 228 museum even exists. Little wonder, then, that is is also empty most of the time, as tourists cannot find it and school classes are not brought there. How about doing something about that, Mr. Sheng?

While I generally appreciate the Taipei Times for coming up with lots of exclusive stories, I must say that over the months, their coverage of the Jingmei debate was based too much on reporting official statements, instead of just visiting the place and documenting the changes.


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