The latest in mysterious fires to historical sites in Taiwan occurred last week when a 1920s era Japanese government building in Taichung burned. LTN documents.
In 2013, after yet another mysterious fire, this time at a historical site at NTU, the Taipei Times observed:
Despite a denial from NTU secretary-general Chang Pei-jen (張培仁), the blaze, reported at 12:24am, has raised some eyebrows amid rumors that developers have been eyeing the plot for a development project.These fires appear to be linked to developers, who either want to force the site to go up for sale, or to force occupants out. This paper notes:
While police, who have not ruled out arson, investigate the cause of the fire, relevant government agencies should take a more active role to better preserve and care for the nation’s many old buildings and landmarks that are rich in Taiwanese culture and history.
The public has good reason to be worried, considering the slew of news reports that suggest cultural and historical sites are being pushed aside to make way for development.
Last month, New Taipei City’s (新北市) Yingge District (鶯歌) — known as the birthplace of the nation’s pottery and ceramics industry — saw a 90-year-old oval-shaped kiln and its smokestack knocked down by a construction company, which owns the site, as well as another square-shaped kiln and its brick-built chimney that had stood for more than 50 years. The area, once dotted with more than 300 high-rise kiln smokestacks, is now left with fewer than a score of them.
Reports of similar demolitions of buildings and houses with historical value have also shocked and saddened many local residents, historians and cultural preservationists, as in the case of demolitions of Japanese colonial era kilns carried out by the Miaoli County Government for urban development projects and in Taichung, where a 114-year-old house was torn down by excavators in the middle of the night.
Sporadic cases of historical houses consumed by fire have also occurred, the causes of which remain unsolved to this day.
According to the statistics of fire occurrence, 52 fire events happened in Taiwan’s cultural heritages and historical buildings from the 1970s to 2014. Among them, the highest proportion of fire causes is arson (33%) and the second largest is electrical fire (27%), as shown in Figure 1.Another source puts the arson count at 41%. Recall that it is not difficult for a skilled arsonist to make a fire seem like an electrical fire. Not all arson cases are developer-related, some are simply madmen or personal. In a few cases it is not the fire that destroys the buildings, but the firemen -- many older wooden structures can't take the force of water from fire hoses. Such fires not only destroy the historical sites, but in Taipei's cramped residential areas, they often take nearby buildings as well. Indeed, the tiny winding lanes surrounding them make it nearly impossible to save smaller historic sites in case of fire.
One such case was the Aug 4, 2005 arson attack on a temple site in Taipei, the Xi Ben Yuan. After the site burned down for the first time in 1975 (also thought to be arson), it was occupied by squatters and the usual collection of shops and vendors, quickly becoming a living community. The Taipei city government offered the site for sale but no one wanted it, then they rezoned it under "urban renewal" laws and tried again, to no avail. Finally they decided to treat it as a park and plaza and began removing the squatters. During this process, it was discovered that parts of the old temple had survived, and preservationists moved in. The site quickly became the topic of urban legends -- it had been an execution ground in 2-28 rumored some, and in another, it was the home of a Japanese treasure stash. Neither was true, but a mining company applied for a permit to excavate the site.
It was eventually designated a historical site. As scholars and preservationists worked to reconstruct the site, on Aug 4, 2005, it was struck by arson. The fire burned the lecture hall. At that point, it was -- probably not coincidentally -- mooted that the historical site designation be removed. Fortunately, the lecture hall had a solid brick structure and could be rebuilt. Incredibly, when the building burnt in 1975, someone had carried off the old bell from the bell tower to preserve it, and 30 years later, it was returned.
Many of these fires never make the news....
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