Article by Perry Wu | Edit by Open Culture Foundation

Taiwan was ranked as the high quality Open Data government in 2015 and 2016 by “Global Open Data Index". However, since than, there is no further development and many open data sets are still lack of function. This October, Taiwan National Development Council suddenly announced the draft of “Open Data Act" is under discussion. Before we finally step into next stage, let us review what is really going on about Open Data in Taiwan in historical case and environmental case.

After the overhaul of the Cultural Heritage Preservation Act in 2016, citizen participation finally became more extensive. The amendment of the law expected that experts from the private sector can make up for the government’s manpower gap in the investigation and protection of cultural heritage. As with the Open Government policy, more and more aged historical materials are digitized and open to the public, and the preservation movement of private monuments has flourished everywhere. Concerning the “Red Leaf Garden” (Chen Mao-tong Residence) case, a recent occurrence of cultural heritage dispute, how did the reporter find the key information in the scattered historical materials to rediscover the history of this house almost 80 years ago? How can we figure out a more open and fair solution in the dispute regarding the certification of historic buildings in time to come?

Saving historic sites before urban renewal is a race against time

In the circle that cares for the cultural heritage of Taiwan, everyone likes to share information about where there are old buildings in the cities, and information concerning the history behind those ancient buildings. Despite there is no public platform for the actual record, they all have their own “Old House Map” in their minds. There was formerly an ancient building of Art Deco in their “Old House Map” located on the east side of the Okura Prestige Taipei (now the Yuanta Jinghua construction site). The building blends the Japanese, Western and Taiwanese methods of construction. Watanabe Yoshitaka, the director of NPO Corporation Onomichi Akiya Saisei Project, once praised the building as an exceptional architectural work in Taipei.

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Photograph of the Red Leaf Garden shortly after the Mountain and Sea House Taiwanese restaurant moved away in 2017. Provided by Taiwan Citizen Media Cultural Association, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International and later version.

In July 2017, the Mountain and Sea House Taiwanese restaurant that rented the old house was announced to be temporarily closed and moved away due to the landlord’s upcoming urban renewal plan. People who care for cultural heritage were shocked that the old house would not be preserved, so they called on the public to report the old building to the Department of Cultural Affairs of the Taipei City Government as a “historic building”. According to the CHP Act, once the building was reported as such, it should be deemed as an “interim monument”. The Department of Cultural Affairs must invite the cultural heritage review committee to convene a review meeting and vote on whether to designate the building as a cultural heritage.

People who reported the case, the owner of the old house, Jang Dah Nylon Industrial Corporation, and the Department of Cultural Affairs, launched a competition to collect data on the old house’s past. This campaign of gathering information to revive the history of the house has had an effect in the cultural heritage circle. Even without formal organization, many experts and people who followed the case spontaneously helped to collect information.

With the unearthing of historical materials, people who cared about cultural heritage found that the building might be the private residence of Chen Mao-tong, a wealthy businessman in Dadaocheng area during the period of Japanese rule, and the landmark “Red Leaf Garden” in Mitsuhashi-machi (present-day Regent Taipei to Linsen Park). The volunteer action touched the descendants of Mr. Chen Mao-tong, and they came forward to provide a photo of him with the building. The reporters were overjoyed as if they have found irrefutable evidences that could prove the cultural heritage value of the building.

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The descendants of the Chen family provided a photo of Mr. Chen Mao-tong and his residence. Provided by Liou Yi-jyun. Lin Tzung-kuei, CC BY 4.0 International and later version.

On October 19, 2018, three months after the report, tripartite representatives brought the unearthed information to attend the Cultural Heritage Review Meeting. During the meeting, the review committee checked government information from the Japanese colonial era to the Nationalist era, including household data, land administration materials, maps, photographs, newspapers… and finally, they held a secret ballot and the result was 8 votes against it and 4 votes in favor, hence the resolution did not designate the old house as a historic building. The cultural heritage circle was stunned. They questioned that the review meeting was not well-prepared. The case was called the “Chiang Kuo-ching case in the cultural world.” In addition, Lin Zhou-min, one of the committee members and also the director of the Department of Urban Development of the Taipei City Government, did not avoid conflict of interest, and the fairness of the review meeting was questioned as a result.

At the beginning of 2018, the owner released goodwill. After negotiations among the Department of Urban Development, the Parks and Street Lights Office of the Public Works Department, Jang Dah Nylon Industrial Corporation and Yuanta Construction Development, it was decided to move the house to the nearby Kangle Park for preservation. The cost of the relocation would be shared by Jang Dah Nylon Industrial Corporation and Yuanta Construction Development. This would be the first case in which an old house in Taipei City is not granted the “cultural heritage status” and yet moved to the municipal green space for preservation with funds provided by a construction company.

It could have been a good story in the history of Taiwan’s cultural heritage preservation, but due to opposition from local residents, the proposed move was cancelled in the end. Therefore, the cultural heritage organizations launched a proposal on the E-Participation in Public Policy Platform, urging the government to “establish a Taiwanese historical building preservation area to accommodate historical buildings that could not be preserved in place for any reason” and hoped to find a location for the house in question as soon as possible. The gathering of signatures for the proposal was quickly carried out, but it was still not adopted by the Ministry of Culture. The old house was dismantled and temporarily stored in the Jang Dah Nylon Industrial Corporation Xindian Factory Area, and the reassembly date was nowhere in sight. The development of this dispute case that had been an emotional roller coaster for people who cared about cultural heritage ended here and stopped.

Stories from different sources seem inconsistent and incompatible about the data of building completion.

The old house was originally reported as a “historical building”. According to the CHP Act, “Historical Buildings” are “Buildings and its ancillary facilities where historical events occurred, or which are of value from the point of view of history, art or science, need to be preserved.” In other words, whether a building has preservation value depends not only on whether its construction method is special or has artistic value, but also depends on the user of the building and the context of its local story. 

In this case, the reporter claimed that the building was “Red Leaf Garden”, the private residence of the rich businessman Chen Mao-tong, and it had appeared in the Bird’s Eye View of Great Taipei, a map guide to famous resorts in Taipei in the Japanese colonial era. Stories about Mr. Chen Mao-tong were mentioned in the Taiwan Character Review (Lin Jin-fa, 1929) and in news reports. He had served as the director of the Taipei Islander Pharmaceutical Industrial Combination, the President of the Pharmaceutical Suburbs Association, Bao Zheng (Village Chief), the Taipei State Tax Investigation Committee, the Daojiang Credit Portfolio Supervisor, the Taipei Chamber of Commerce Director and Accountant, and the Toyo Medical Association Taiwan Branch Minister, etc. He had great influence in the Chinese medicine industry in Taiwan.

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The Red Leaf Garden used to be the landmark of Mitsuhasi-machi and appeared in the Bird’s Eye View of Great Taipei in 1935. Provided by SMC Publishing, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International and later version. 

In 1935, the Minister to Japan of the Republic of China Chiang Tso-ping visited Taiwan, and Chen Mao-tong was one of the organizers of the welcome party. After Chen Mao-tong passed away in 1936, the chairman of the funeral committee was served by Chen Tian-lai, a wealthy merchant of Minato-machi. This shows that Chen Mao-tong was an important figure in the Taiwanese business community at that time. Chen Mao-tong’s personal history was less than controversial. The debate at the review meeting was more about whether the building was actually Chen Mao-tong Residence, also known as the “Red Leaf Garden”.

The cultural heritage organizations supporting preservation of the Red Leaf Garden submitted information to demonstrate that Chen Mao-tong did buy the land of the building site and constructed a residence there while he was alive. In particular, media reports and books of 1933 and photos provided by the descendants of Chen Mao-tong show that Chen Mao-tong was the owner of the building.

  1. The parcel numbers recorded in the “Land Register” during the Japanese colonial period: Kobayashi Sojiro, the head of Nisshin Commercial Firm located in Hon-machi, Taipei and the landowner of Mitsuhashi-machi No. 2-31, divided the land into two land plots and sold them to Chen Mao-tung respectively in 1932.
  1. Taiwan Daily News, the newspaper with the largest scale in Taiwan under Japanese rule reported that the Red Leaf Garden was inaugurated and Chen Mao-tung would hold a banquet at his new house on September 30, 1933 to entertain his relatives and friends on September 29, 1933. On October 1, 1933, it was reported that the banquet was attended by top politicians and business leaders such as city mayor Matsuoka and Koo Hsien-jung.
  2. The chapter named Chen Mao-tung: The Leader in Traditional Chinese Medicine Business in the book “Profiles of Businessmen” by Yoshida Torataro in 1933 noted that Chen recently built a Western-style mansion in Mitsuhashi-machi.
  3. According to Chen’s household registration record, he registered this place as his second residence in 1935.
  4. Chen passed away in 1936.
  5. The descendants of Chen Mao-tung provided us some old photographs of him with his residence and relevant oral history about his living in the house.

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The Taiwan Daily News reported on September 29, 1933 that the Red Leaf Garden was completed. Historical remake from Lin Tzung-kuei’s Facebook page.

The owner who opposed to register it as a historic building submitted information from the government, indicating that three years after Chen Mao-tong’s death, his descendants sold the land to others, and the building was completed the following year. Hence the owner argued that the building cannot be Chen’s mansion.

  1. Chen passed away in 1936.
  2. After Chen died, the “Land Register” recorded that his descendants sold the land in 1939, which was also earlier than the construction year of 1940 recorded in the Constructional Improvements Register. 
  3. The “Constructional Improvements Register” showed that the house was built in 1940, but Chen Mao-tung passed away as early as 1936, so the building could not possibly be his mansion, the “Red Leaf Garden”.
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The land ledger of 2-31, Mitsuhasi-machi. Historical remake from Lin Tzung-kuei’s Facebook page.

Was the building built when Chen Mao-tong was alive? There was a gap between the newspaper materials found by the people and the official records. Faced with such differences, the cultural heritage organizations suggested that the actual completion time of the building may be different from the registration time. Some members of the review committee also suggested in the meeting that they entrust professional entity to complete a thorough study within a limited time. But in the end, a vote was still taken at the meeting. As for what data the committee members have admitted, it was not too difficult to guess from the result of the voting.

The cultural heritage organizations Chen Mao-tong built a house here and did live in the house before he died while the owner who opposed to register the house as a historic building insisted it was built after Chen’s death. Made by Perry Wu.

Filing a cultural heritage report: a rapid short-term data collection contest

The development of the Red Leaf Garden case is actually a portrayal of nearly all private cultural heritages being reported as monuments. Cultural heritage organizations often find that an old house will perish soon when the owner has properly finished the application for urban renewal plans, and the house is about to be dismantled. Although it is possible to file a report immediately and let the building be deemed as “interim monument”, the relevant data must be prepared in a very short period of time in order to facilitate the review committee’s appraisal.

The existing cultural heritage review system, except for a few cases that contracted out the investigation to professional entity, most of the rest required the reporters themselves to submit evidence. For those who lack resources, collecting key information is not easy. The Red Leaf Garden case is even more urgent, and the relevant historical materials are very scarce. Therefore, the reporter can only use the only information on hand, that is, the land was owned by the head of the Nisshin Shokai, Kobayashi Sojiro, so the reporter mentioned it as “Kobayashi Residence” at first. When the review committee members conducted site survey, the case was evaluated from the wrong perspective, which may also indirectly affect the results of the subsequent cultural heritage review.

Unless a property owner applies for designation of his building as a monument, otherwise he is usually not willing to assist the reporting team to request for relevant information. The reporter can check the cadastral information of the building in the Ministry of the Interior’s “National Land and Building Registration Transcriptions Electronic System” to find out who the past owners were and relevant ownership transfer process. However, if the reporter want to know more about the owner’s background or the story of the building, the simplest way is looking for the household registration information. But there are a lot of personal private information in it; therefore, at present, you can only ask the Department of Cultural Affairs to submit an official document requesting the district office to provide the household registration information of the past owner to the review committee for reference. Only the applicant or owner of the building can access the architectural drawings and the like, hence, the reporter can only find relevant information through the government’s open data and files. Although many materials before or after World War II have been digitalized and made open to the public, they are scattered in the websites of various competent authorities, and it is still a huge project to piece together the disappearing history with scattered information.

Various public databases that can be used for reporting cultural heritage and prove its value. Made by Perry Wu.
The surveyed drawing of the vicinity around the Red Leaf Garden (marked in bright red) by the Japanese colonial government in 1940. Screenshot from Academia Sinica’s Taiwan Centennial History Map Website.

An old aerial photo of the vicinity around the Red Leaf Garden (marked in bright red) in 1957. Screenshot from Academia Sinica’s Taiwan Centennial History Map Website.

The protection of cultural heritage is immensely difficult, and there is still a gap between historical materials written on paper and government open data.

Although most of these paper-based historical materials have been scanned into digital copies, the information on them is still not machine-readable, it is impossible for the reporter to quickly find key information through metadata, and most of them are handwritten with Japanese characters, and the words are different from today. It makes the search work even far more difficult. Fortunately, there are a lot of enthusiastic people who applied the carpet search method in the “Red Leaf Garden” case and found the key report by the Taiwan Daily News in a sea of data.

It’s so difficult to collect digitalized public information, let alone those files that are still lying in the storage rooms of various government agencies, and they may even disappear before they have been digitized. In 2019, the Taichung Dali Chief Residence was reported as a cultural heritage. The reporter believed that the last Dali director and famous writer Zhang Wen-huan who lived in the dormitory at that time handled the chaos of the Japanese colonial government’s transition to the Nationalist Government, hence there must be many stories about it. However, the local government responded that it could not find any relevant historical materials at the time… and finally another old house with the potential value of cultural heritage fell. In addition, when cultural heritage organizations reported the first-generation Station Master of Taichung Railway Station as cultural heritage, they found that there were a lot of ancient materials in the warehouse of the Taiwan Railways Administration, but they were unable to sort them out.

Is the Open Government policy really implemented in the local cultural heritage review?

If we use the four elements of Open Government policy, which is “transparency”, “participation”, “accountability” and “inclusion”, to examine Taiwan’s current cultural heritage review system, we will find that, although the CHP Act expands the capacity of citizens to participate, there are still many violations of the principle of openness in the practice of local government.

Take the case of Red Leaf Garden as an example, the Taipei City Government only disclosed the “records of the meeting” and “live films” of the cultural heritage review meeting on the Internet. All the information collected by the Department of Cultural Affairs during the meeting was only given to the cultural heritage committee, not publicly available on the Internet or available to the people who attended the meeting as observers. The briefing files used in the meeting were not disclosed on the Internet and can only be seen on the part of the live video that showed the projection screen, but the writing on the screen is unclear, and the sound quality of some segments is not good, either. The meeting records have only the opinions of each of the reviewers on the case; the conclusion that ultimately affects the vote is not included. This kind of non-expressional voting method is also inconsistent with the mechanism of “accepting accountability and giving an explanation” of the Open Government policy.

As those regrettable things happened in the capital of Taiwan, and there is surely much more room for improvement in other counties and cities. Someone who cares about cultural heritage has repeatedly reported that many local government’s cultural heritage review conferences were not publicly broadcasted, and there was no video file that could be found online after the review meeting. The materials that were given to the review committee during the meeting and the outsourced government survey reports were not disclosed. Cultural heritage organizations could obtain only one meeting record with the final conclusion, which was often not the satisfactory answer they wanted…

The Government’s new business in proactive census and proactive disclosure under the Cultural Heritage Preservation Act can be done with help from the citizens!

The CHP Act stipulates that local governments are obliged to take the initiative to conduct a survey of whether public buildings are potential cultural heritage sites. If so, they should be recorded and traced and their conditions should be under regular inspection. The Urban Renewal Act also sets up a check-up procedure to urge development units and local governments to take the initiative to examine whether there are buildings with potential cultural heritage value. These two policies inevitably lead to a lot of tasks in the local departments of cultural affairs. The public servants on the front line will unavoidably resist to make more information public and to disclose more potential cultural heritage sites.

The digitization and disclosure of information is a universal value of modern society and an important foundation for governments of all countries to move towards the new era. However, in the process of transformation, it is an indisputable fact that the frontline civil servants are under ruthless pressure of additional learning and work. Perhaps under the framework of civic participation, the government can open the protection work of the two terms of public and private buildings with potential cultural heritage values to the private sector.

  • Citizens can help 1: Local governments can disclose the list of the public buildings that are being traced, establish an online reporting platform, and then invite the public to assist in revealing the current conditions of historic sites.
  • Citizens can help 2: The competent authority can establish a geographic information platform for private buildings, coupled with a more user-friendly and integrated historical data search interface, so that citizens who care about historic sites can collaborate online to collect the history of their city’s buildings with cultural heritage value, and discover private buildings with cultural heritage potential without delay.

Take the Red Leaf Garden case as an example, if the Taipei City Government had already known the building’s history when the builders applied for urban renewal, they would take the initiative to conduct a cultural heritage review and confirm whether to designate the building as cultural heritage, and the cultural heritage organizations wouldn’t file urgent report out of the blue when builders have already legally applied for urban renewal.

The Facebook community “Are you alright? Japanese-style dormitory group in Taiwan” gathers together nearly 20,000 people. From time to time, they search through the cities for buildings that seem to be left over from the Japanese colonial era and share the information they have collected. When an old house is demolished, local members will post messages to the community as soon as possible. Those who pay attention to the monuments will immediately know in some county or city there is another old house that perished. The experienced ones who care about cultural heritage will also immediately start the rescue program. Their interest in monuments coincides with the need for the Department of Cultural Affairs to conduct surveys and trace old houses. They may be the most suitable citizens to assist the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Consummate the open database for history to make sure there is no more next Red Leaf Garden.

The case of the Red Leaf Garden once again caused a potential cultural monument to fall, and broke the heart of cultural heritage organizations and people who cared about cultural history. Several points can be summarized from the rescue process:

  • The time for collecting information and submitting it to the cultural heritage review committee for consideration is very short. In the Red Leaf Garden case, it should be done within a three-month time limit.
  • Reporters must prepare materials by themselves, which is very difficult for civilian reporters under the pressure of time.
  • There are still many historical materials that have not been organized, scanned, digitally archived, and made public, so the official database may not be complete and searching is difficult. 
  • Whether members of the review committee should take official  information as the sole consideration and ignore the importance of folk oral history and history in news articles, it is worthy of discussion by experts in the cultural heritage circle.

More than that, in the face of further cultural heritage rescue cases in the future, we realize that the Departments of Cultural Affairs of local governments have a lot of deficiencies in the general direction of civic participation and government open data emphasized by the Cultural Heritage Preservation Act. We expect that one day the DOCA and the cultural heritage organizations will no longer be confrontational, and will work together to preserve the story of the city and reduce the workload of the civil servants of the DOCA. As the minister without portfolio Audrey Tang said: “Open Government policy is meant to let civil servants get off work early!” When the cultural heritage census is more complete, it will certainly help reduce the number of difficult cases such as the Red Leaf Garden case.

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The photos and data collections gathered by the public in the Red Leaf Garden case are placed in the Facebook public album “Data area for monument reportage of Chen Mao-tong Residence, Mitsuhasi-machi, Taipei.” Provided by Taiwan Citizen Media Cultural Association, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International and later version.

The article is authorized as CC BY (source name) 3.0 TW after 48 hours.

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