Sandwiched between the more characteristic northern and southern parts of the island, the central Taiwan city of Taichung has realized that it has to search for its identity to position itself in the grand scheme of city promotion and marketing.
Nine years ago when incumbent Mayor Jason Hu assumed office, he called Taichung “a city without a face,” said Deputy Mayor James Hsiao.
While other major cities in Taiwan are all known for something, Taichung, a city of roughly 1 million residents whose name means “central Taiwan” in Chinese, has trouble finding anything to distinguish itself from Taiwan's other metropolises.
“Taipei, the capital, is the political and economic hub. Kaohsiung is a port city and Hsinchu is known for its technology development. It looks like we have nothing here. We're nowhere close to the ocean nor the mountainous areas,” Hsiao said.
Residents of Taichung share the same concerns as its officials.
“Talking about Taichung, people would always say 'nice weather' and stop there, having trouble coming up with anything else that interests them,” said a Taichung resident surnamed Hsieh.
“It seems to me that Taichung residents are always 'somewhere in between'. People in the north are known as cool, calm and collect living in an advanced lifestyle, while people in the south are known for their passion and focus on the grassroots local culture, (but) this is a city without its own identity,” said resident Jimmy Lin.
Back then, Taichung City Government officials were clueless as to how to find and highlight the city's unique traits before native son Mayor Jason Hu decided to go down memory lane and bring back the city's traditions when it was known as a “City of Culture.”
Taichung earned the nickname in the 1920s during the era of Japanese rule in part because the city's urban design plan was based on that of Kyoto, a former imperial capital of Japan with rich cultural tradition. It was also a stronghold of Taiwanese Cultural Association, established by intellectuals who called for preservation of local culture and autonomy.
The city government launched the project with the idea of setting up “hardware and software” at the same time, Hsiao said, which means the construction of museums, opera houses, sporting facilities and libraries; and organization of as many cultural events as possible.
Cultural events which in the past skipped Taichung were lured to the city, which has invited Spanish tenor Jose Carrera, American cellist Yo-yo Ma and will host Chinese director Zhang Yimou's opera “Turandot” this month. Hu's ambitious plan ??" a bid for a Guggenheim Museum branch ??" failed to materialize, however.
The hard work paid off, Hsiao said, as averaged participation of cultural events for every Taichung citizen per year has increased from 3.8 times a year in 2001 to 35 times in 2009.
Taipei and Kaohsiung, Taiwan's largest and second largest city, both made their presence in the so-called “city marketing” felt when dramas and movies filmed in the cities won international and domestic awards. But Taichung was the first city to collaborate with filmmakers and allocate a NT$5 million budget as subsidies for aspired filmmakers to shoot their films in the city, Hsiao noted.
A city's competitiveness could possibly surpass a country's competitiveness nowadays, Hsiao quoted Hu as saying, which was why Hu had been flying all over the world to promote tourism and investment opportunities for the city.
The results from Hu's relentless promotional trips have been fruitful, he said, as tourists from Hong Kong increased significantly over the past year. With the relaxation of cross-Taiwan Strait travel regulation and Taiwan-China relations, tourists from China have also increased.
All of these are far from what the city government had in mind. A “city of immigrants” in Hsiao's word, Taichung still faces various problems such as downtown regeneration, high apartment vacancy rates and relatively high crime rates, Hsiao admitted.
Taichung has ranked last in crimes for per 100,000 persons among the country's 23 counties for 12 years before 2009, when it managed to rank 19th and lowered the crimes for per 100,000 persons below 3,000 for the first time.
It's not easy to change people's perception, however. Every time there was a violent crime case in Taichung shown on TV news, people would just say “here it comes again,” Hsiao said.
According to the city government's plan, it would take at least five to six years to complete urban regeneration of the downtown area, the city's earliest developed region which has lost its luster after business activities had moved elsewhere as Taichung developed into a multi-core city, the deputy mayor went on.
The central government's plan to merge Taichung City and Taichung County into a special municipality at the end of this year provides a great opportunity for the central region, Hsiao said, because the area of three million residents would be able to integrate their resources and complement each other.
“We will have a seaport in Taichung Port, an international airport after the renovation and upgrade of Ching-Chuang Kang Airport, and the natural resources of the old Taichung County to promote tourism,” Hsiao said, adding that the planned mass transit transportation system that connects cities in the area will be under construction soon.
“Rebuilding a city like Taichung inside and out will be a long process, but there's no direction for us to go but up,” he said.
From The China Post