Toad Mountain Edge Effects

by on Sunday, 01 December 2013 Comments

For students of NTU, Gongguan's café hipster youth and the high density of foreigners and government officials in the surrounding area, Toad Mountain (蟾蜍山) is merely a beautiful mountain ink landscape backdrop as one walks down Roosevelt Rd, as that painted by the traditional oil paint artist He Cong (何從):

Fig-2-蟾蜍山水墨長軸 大圖 何從老師版權所有-He-Cong-Copyright

Toad Mountain perhaps arouses some curiosity for the huge radar or radio system standing on top, an emblem of Taiwan's technological advances. However it is a curiosity rarely further explored, tucked as it is behind the hustle and bustle of this happening area, in between the Wanlong and Gongguan districts of Taipei. Yet hidden behind assembled upwards from the foot of Toad Mt there is a soon-to be destroyed historical treasure of a community, Huanmin Village (煥民新村) [1] This Toad Mt community is known as a Military Dependents' Village (MDV)[2]. MDVs (眷村) are an architectural feature unique to Taiwan. With the huge influx of landless soldiers who came over from the mainland in the aftermath of the Chinese civil war, the government somehow had to accommodate them. These makeshift communities were built to house the soldiers and their families, a temporary answer to the housing problem. The MDVs tended to be built in border spaces, remaining pockets of land in an already partitioned city, often at the riverside or next to the mountain. The Ministry of Defense commissioned certain MDVs (regulated 列管眷村), firstly to house only those soldiers who were married, while the remaining soldiers remained in the military dorms. As other unmarried soldiers went into retirement, the government and military tolerated or gave tacit permission for the soldiers to erect their own communities, usually spontaneously built by self-help groups consisting of several mainlander and military families (unregulated 自立/非列管 眷村). Often the unofficial MDVs were simply extensions to the official MDV communities, as in Toad Mountain, where for all intensive purposes there was no real separation and distinction between the legitimate and the illegitimate communities and even now one would be hard pressed to notice the difference.

However, those who were not officially given land by the military or government back then instead establishing their own self-built communities are now considered illegal squatters, even if they have lived there for 50 years. This has been the tragic case in the evictions of Huaguang Community where some long term residents were driven to bankruptcy or even suicide. This legacy of illegal architecture is something that pervades the city, especially as the authorities try to bring more and more of these unofficial spaces under their jurisdiction, into manageable, legitimate settings (see eRenlai's interview with Roan Ching-yue about illegal architecture and middle class angst, or Wang Shu on the cultural inheritance of illegal architecture). This has over time led to the gradual demolition of most of the MDVs in favour of high rises. The military families have largely been brought into the mainstream city life and these marginal communities have gradually made there departure from the cultural cityscape.

The few remaining MDVs are traces of poetry left on Taipei's urban landscape, architectural reminders of the Chinese civil war and the huge, uncomfortable migration across the Strait which began from 1947, a period which left salient marks on Taiwan's later development. Toad Mountain is one of such communities so rich with historical layers, dating back to the Qing Dynasty when the area was a trade and administrative outpost between Taipei and the South, from which Gongguan (公館) in Taipei got its name:


This map shows the old trade path (blue) before Roosevelt Rd (green) existed. The old settlement (top, white), the current Toad Mt settlement (yellow), and the original place named Gongguan (white).


Following the Qing Dynasty, it was the turn of the Japanese to make use of Toad Mountain, and they did so in a very different way. The Imperial government was more interested in developing Taiwan’s agricultural capabilities, thus establishing some experimental agricultural facilities there. Even today some people still live in these old Japanese agriculture facilities and the university still owns agricultural land there. Apart from the obvious KMT history, the military base was also an US Air Force station. In fact, the emblematic telecommunications facility and military base were commissioned by the Americans and many of the residents can still remember working for them.

In 1960's the houses were generally temporary makeshift shelters built under tight resources, however due to the failed retaking of the mainland; the villages lasted for generations and were thus imbued with a sense of home, family and community. This sense of community was all the more so for the sociable layout of small buildings, balconies facing each other, winding passages and community squares. The houses were connected and thin-walled, a common joke among the MDV residents was that when your next door neighbour farted you could hear it. In days past, the Liugong Canal that forked off from Toad Mt in three directions to irrigate the Taipei Basin, ran along the front of the community, where children would frolic or catch fish, and men would wash after work, though the canal is now paved over with a layer of asphalt (see Taipei, Water City)[2] "The water used to be really clean, the residents in the front row of houses would do their washing in there," explained Mrs Chen, before showing us photos of her own children by the canal:


Even today, with a percentage of the houses evacuated pending demolition, there remains an exemplary community spirit for the 200+ residents. Daily tai chi sessions also take place on the square where the village meets the road. Old retired soldiers chat on the same seats on which they have been gathering for decades, as Tian Tian showed in her moving documentary exploring what was left of the community, "Will my friends come out today?". The documentary was well received and became instrumental in firing off the preservation movement.


Toad Mountain Preservation Movement

In 1996 the law allowing for the 'reconstruction' of MDVs was passed. By 2000, the rights to the land had been given by the government to National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (NTUST) to use as campus land for extra dormitories, pending resettlement of all the community's residents (a condition yet to be met). The actual houses however are owned by the Ministry of Defence, pending destruction behalf of NTUST. By the fall of 2011, many residents had been resettled and their houses destroyed. In April 2013 it was declared that the several remaining blocks were soon to be demolished, leaving the rest of the residents cut off from the community life source at the centre of the village. 

As a 5-year resident of an aging Huanmin Village; on hearing that the buildings were soon to be demolished, and having regularly involvement in social issues through his work, Lin Ding-chieh (林鼎杰) felt that he could not sit back passively and let things have their way. Ding-chieh thus launched the Good Toad Club (好蟾蜍俱樂部) and Good Toad Working Group in an effort to preserve the Toad Mt community.

Lin rapidly solicited the involvement of Professor Kang and his department, the notorious NTU Graduate Institute of Building and Planning (B&P) that has been the prime force of resistance in land-related social movements since the end of martial law. B&P Students such as A Bang (城邦), Astrid Pei (廖佩柔) and Yu-wen (林郁文) came to their aid and began mapping the community cartographically as well as through their ethnological research, with in-depth interviews and daily interactions with the residents, before finally bringing their stories to light with exhibitions and community events. As Master student Yu-wen explained to us the Institute's spirit is that of community participation in urban planning and design.


The first success for the Good Toad Club, was that they were able to postpone the demolition, due to the existence near the houses of two old tree each in excess of fifty years old. They then moved on to attempt to acquire historical architecture status for the community.

The movement was not just trying to preserve an enclave of historic and natural beauty but was bringing into question the whole development ideal of the city. What sort of city is one for the people? Should the city valorize the diversity of our marginal communities? With these questions in mind they galvanized the support of film and cultural circles to hold an arts and film festival, the Toad Mountain Community Action. From this time we also entered the preservation movement and began making our own documentary of the process. Eventually we requested the meticulous cartography skills of a talented young Englishman Tom Rook, to draw a map of the whole Toad Mt community by hand, before it was too late (see top picture). The drawing itself intrigued the old residents as it allowed them to see their community in a different light, and spot their own houses on the rustic map.

At the time of publishing, there are still mediations between the affected parties, now including the Culture Bureau, though as yet NTUST has refused to budge on appropriating the lands. Nevertheless Lin is optimistic: "When it comes to development, you would expect there to be a big conflict between economic interests on one side and environmental or social justice on the other" if we compare to other communities that didn't avoid demolition, "but this is education on the one side and culture on the other, there is not such a big gap between these positions in general." Lin hopes they can negotiate a way in which NTUST could use the space for educational purposes, whilst keeping the unique architecture and the community alive.

Another strength of the Good Toad Club's position is that the Toad Mt community was selected as an external exhibition site of this year's Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, under the topic of Urban Border, and Ideal Cities.

Edge Effects and the Ideal City

For Prof. Kang (康旻杰), these marginal communities were born in a very particular historical context, and cannot be considered simply according to standards of legality and illegality. He explained that beyond Taiwan, the process of globalization and urbanization has caused an insufficient supply of housing, and this has forced a phenomenon of illegal construction throughout the global cities, out of pure necessity. While illegal MDVs are specific to Taiwan, they are nevertheless in the same vein: many people were not looked after by a government who had no ability or will to make provisions for all of them with sufficient speed, so they were forced to take action by themselves. Thus, a functional city or the ideal city must relate diversely to the different contexts of its various communities and historical layers. As the residents of a community like that at Toad Mt have lived there for 50 years, we must consider their own life histories, rather than leave them to be replaced and displaced by urban renewal. This should also have a right to the city. Beyond the ecological paradigm, an ideal city must also consider cultural and social diversity and sustainability.

Toad Mountain is also a border zone with strong ecological, social and historical edge effects. Edge effects occur in zones bordering two types of natural or built setting, for example the marshes where the river meets the bank. Because of its border position there is fringe density, that is to say more diverse ecosystems, cultures or social systems in one area. At Toad Mt there are mountainside farming plots looked after by grandmothers, while poisonous snakes trail the humans land nocturnally; dense historical layers with memories of the great and tragic migration of a million who left their homes, the age of the American base; or the mix between military families sporting the various regional accents of China, poor students who can't afford housing, and urban indigenous peoples who have come to the city to work. There is even an Indian family who have settled there in recent years. The extent of neighbourly relations is unimaginable just a few blocks down the road. These edge effects create a historical, cultural and social diversity extremely rare in other parts of the city.

Architect and author Roan Ching-yue (阮慶岳), explained that there was a process of development in Taipei and beyond by which the middle class mainstream was endlessly replacing the marginal communities, which are different from the norm and are feared or even hated for being different or potentially unsafe. This process or standardises and destroys all diversity in the city. The result is that the less well-off marginal communities have been deprived from their right to the city, being forced during their displacement to join the ranks of the middle class or fall back as the landless and disenfranchised. Roan is skeptical for any supposed cultural preservation which made the city look charming, but did little to maintain diverse community life in a real sense. He mentioned the example of Treasure Hill, which he feels failed to maintain a living community spirit. Furthermore, he felt Taipei's winning of the design city in 2016 was unlikely to substantially change the ability of the community to participate more in the way their city is designed, but merely intended as an advertising ploy.


As with most MDVs, Toad Mountain has always relied on a community DIY ethic to build and constantly fix their houses, using whatever materials could be mustered at the time. This fact that the residents participated in the building of their own houses gives them a sense of pride in these structures that would not be felt, for example, by the owner of a high-rise apartment. It allows them to set down their roots and does not leave them alienated from their production. A block which is planned, built and finished by experts i.e the architects, engineers, urban planners and temporary workers - who will have no relation to the house after it is complete, only serves to monopolize housing in the hands of the few, alienating the citizens from their accommodation and land. The usage of large quantities of rare materials further removes the possibility of individuals or communities building their own housing.

If we are talking about ideal cities, we should also be asking what type of city is both for the people and by the people. In 2011, I attended Roan Ching-yue and Hsieh Ying-chun's workshop "The People's City" asking how such a city could work in practical terms. Hsieh's project used cheap architectural structures (that he had developed while doing post-disaster reconstruction) which nonetheless allowed for the individuals to transcend his own work and individually design their own spaces. This type of 'soft' structural design gives the community and the individual a role in urban design, de-alienating people as it reconnects them to the product of their own work. This way of doing things runs in opposition to the current rapid development model prevailing throughout Asia, and it is in this search for the ideal city that the edge effects of marginal communities such as Toad Mountain can be useful, maintaining diverse liminal spaces from which we can imagine the ideal city.




Photos provided by Good Toad Club, Sharon Liu, Pinti Zheng, Tom Rook, Nick Coulson.

[1] The community is adjacent to the intersection with Keelong Rd (基隆路) and Roosevelt Rd (羅斯福路).

[2] See last month's focus Taipei, Water City for a documentary exploring the Liugong Canal. The Liugong (瑠公) canal is named after Kuo Hsi-liu (郭錫瑠), the 公 'gong' was posthumously affixed as a term of respect for accomplished older man. '圳' Usually pronounced "jun" but can be confused with the Taiwanese pronunciation of 'zun' and the most common Mainland China pronunciation of 'zhen' as in Shenzhen. The 'jun' is an irrigation ditch, dyke, channel or canal. I standardize as the Liugong Canal. For a cartographic history of the Liugong Canal see here.

Apart from the obvious KMT history, the military base was also an US Air Force station.  Indeed, the iconic telecommunications facility was commissioned by the americans and many of the residents can still remember working for the americans.


Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.


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