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From Austerity to Exuberance—The People’s Presidential Office Building

In recent years the Presidential Office Building has grown closer to the people. (courtesy of the General Association of Chinese Culture)

In recent years the Presidential Office Building has grown closer to the people. (courtesy of the General Association of Chinese Culture)

 

Time flies. In 2019, the Presidential Office Building celebrated its hundredth birthday. Once the tallest building on the island of Taiwan, and still the unshakeable center of political power today, the structure continues to inspire awe. In recent times, it has quietly acquired an added sense of intimacy.

 

Located at No. 122 Chongqing South Road Section 1 in Taipei City, the Presidential Office Building, its façade decorated with horizontal bands of red and white, projects an aura of resplendence. Against a backdrop of blue sky, it’s a must-see scenic spot on the streets of Taipei.

The people’s Presidential Office Building (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

The people’s Presidential Office Building (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

A century-old structure

During the period of Japanese rule, the building served as the governor-general’s headquarters, as well as the site of 1935’s Taiwan Exposition, which marked the first 40 years of Japanese governance. It later temporarily housed the offices of the Executive Yuan, and was long known as Chieh Shou Hall, a tribute to former president Chiang Kai-shek. Designated as a national monument in 1998, it was renamed as the Presidential Office Building in 2006. The structure is situated at the end of today’s Ketagalan Boulevard, a space it has occupied for the past hundred years.

The building was completed in 1919, and there are more than a few stories regarding its construction. In 1907, the Governor-General’s Office announced that a building design would be selected through open com­peti­tion, a first in both Taiwan and Japan. Japanese designer ­Uheiji Na­gano won second prize, but architect Matsu­no­suke Mori­yama took the plan back to Tokyo, where it was slightly modified, increasing the height of the tower from six to 11 stories. The revisions added to the building’s air of authority, giving it the appearance that it has today.

But that’s not all. According to Ling Zongkui, a cultural resources scholar at the National Taiwan Museum, the building’s façade is noteworthy as well. At the time of its construction, Ling says, colonial administrative head­quarters in Southeast-Asian countries often had stone exteriors. But the Taiwan Governor-­General’s Office boasted a red brickwork façade (on a steel-reinforced concrete structure).

(photo by Chuang Kung-ju)

(photo by Chuang Kung-ju)

“In Western architecture, stone represents eternity, while brickwork is very commercial, very much of the Industrial Revolution,” Ling says. According to Na­gano’s original design, the outer walls were to be made of stone. However, Mori­yama revised the plan to look like it does today. While we don’t know what lay behind the change, it left later generations a good deal of interpretive and imaginative space.

Structurally, to withstand Taiwan’s frequent typhoons and earthquakes, the building’s foundations are exceptionally sturdy, says Ling. According to committee recommenda­tions, the design included octagonal chambers at each of the building’s four interior corners as a means of fortifying the structure. Used as smoking rooms in the past, the spaces have since been converted to ­offices.

Thanks to its firm foundations, the Presidential Office Building survived the massive May 1945 Allied bombing raid on Taipei. Although parts of the building suffered significant damage, the structure as a whole proved sound. Following repairs, it continued to stand tall, its position at the heart of political power in Taiwan unchanged.

In older citizens’ memories, the Presidential Office Building was solemn and forbidding. (MOFA file photo)

In older citizens’ memories, the Presidential Office Building was solemn and forbidding. (MOFA file photo)

Closer to the people

As the center of political power in Taiwan, how does the Presidential Office Building exist in the memories of the Taiwanese people?

Perhaps you marched close-order in a military review; or performed ceremonial drills in a marching band; or maybe you carelessly rode your motor scooter up Chieh Shou Road—today’s Ketagalan Boulevard—only to be flagged down by a military policeman.

A Taiwan Panorama colleague who as an MP stood guard at the Presidential Office Building during 2014’s Sunflower Student Movement, spent nights in the building’s first-floor atrium. The hard floor and a kit bag for a pillow made for poor sleeping, he says, his only criticism.

As a child, Lee Hou Ching lived near the Presidential Office Building. In recent years he feels it has grown closer to the people.

As a child, Lee Hou Ching lived near the Presidential Office Building. In recent years he feels it has grown closer to the people.

Longtime Tai­pei resident ­Zhuang Yong­ming wrote, “Walking toward the building, I was never intimidated, but never thought fondly of it either.”

Lee Hou ­Ching, deputy secretary-general of the General Association of Chinese Culture, grew up on Chang­sha St., behind the Presidential Office Building. When he was in elementary school, he recalls, as the October 10 National Day approached each year, a troop of soldiers would bivouac on the school grounds and conduct drills. As a trade-off, the students enjoyed several days’ va­cation from classes.

Old photos of the October National Day celebrations reveal a strong and spirited yet disciplined and vigilant military force. (MOFA file photo)

Old photos of the October National Day celebrations reveal a strong and spirited yet disciplined and vigilant military force. (MOFA file photo)

Burgeoning social activism

In older citizens’ memories, the Presidential Office Building was solemn and forbidding. After the lifting of martial law and the social liberalization that followed, however, times changed, and the area surrounding the building became a scene of mass protests and a locus of social movements. “That was an era when everyone took to the streets,” Lee Hou Ching remembers, “a time when national authority collided with the people.”

Social communication of all kinds took place here; various public groups used Ketagalan Blvd. as a venue for voicing concerns on issues such as Aboriginal people’s rights, farmers’ welfare, energy, environmental issues, educational and legal reform, opposition to media monopolies, and pension reform. Since then, the dialogue has never ceased, a sign of social progress.

Taiwanese aesthetics inform the Presidential Office Building’s reception rooms. The “Taiwan Green Hall,” shown here, features a work by a master calligrapher and a carpet decorated with images of Taiwanese flora and fauna. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)

Taiwanese aesthetics inform the Presidential Office Building’s reception rooms. The “Taiwan Green Hall,” shown here, features a work by a master calligrapher and a carpet decorated with images of Taiwanese flora and fauna. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)

In the 1990s, the authorities began to ease restrictions on the space. The December 1994 Taiwan Panorama cover story proclaimed “The Presidential Palace Opens Its Doors,” an invitation to citizens to tour the building. In 1996, Chieh Shou Rd. was renamed Ketagalan Blvd., a memorial to the Ketagalan people, the indigenous group that traditionally inhabited the area. 

Outside the building, social movements were in full swing. Inside, in addition to several partial renovations, then-president Chen Shui-bian asked Professor Lin Mun-lee to redecorate with a focus on native ­Taiwanese aesthetics, integrating ocean themes, Aboriginal motifs, Taiwanese endemic flora and fauna, and works by calligrapher Chen Yuncheng and painter Lin Xing­yue. The three redecorated reception rooms have been dubbed “Taiwan Sunshine Hall,” “Taiwan Green Hall,” and “Taiwan Rainbow Hall.” When the president receives inter­national visitors, each element of the native Taiwan­ese decor will shape foreign friends’ memories of our treasured island nation.

Sydney Lin says that slogans are not enough to bring the Office of the President closer to the people; concrete action is required.

Sydney Lin says that slogans are not enough to bring the Office of the President closer to the people; concrete action is required.

The people’s Presidential Office Building

After entering the Presidential Office Building from Gate No. 3, at the intersection of Baoqing Rd. and Bo’ai Rd., one sees a very large Chinese character: fu (府). As the exhibition text explains, one component of the logo­graph is 付 (likewise pronounced fu), which can be interpreted to mean “entrusted by the people,” emphasizing that presidential power comes from the citizenry. Thus the Presidential Office Building embodies the people’s trust and expectations—it is, as the exhibition’s theme declares, “the People’s Presidential Office Building.”

The Presidential Office Building 100th Anniversary Special Exhibition, themed “Fu 100,” is an extension of the permanent exhibit, “Power to the People.” The number “100” represents the building’s hundred-year history, while the zeros stand for “two circles, or ‘eyes’ and ‘1’ symbolizes the people,” explains Lee Hou ­Ching. “The idea is to show the Presidential Office Building as seen through the eyes of the people.”

The highlights of the exhibition include not only works selected from a photography contest, symbolizing that everyone can interpret the Presidential Office Building according to their own perceptions, but also a collection of photographs from the past hundred years. In the space filled with the historical photos, curators have ingeniously installed several arched porticos, modeled on those that grace the building’s outer walls, echoing the exhibition’s theme, according to Presidential Office spokesperson Sydney Lin.

The “Fu 100” exhibition allows visitors to view and interpret the Presidential Office Building from personal perspectives.

The “Fu 100” exhibition allows visitors to view and interpret the Presidential Office Building from personal perspectives.

Taiwanese citizens and international friends alike are welcome to visit, and volunteers provide introductions to the exhibits in Mandarin, Japanese, and English. Those from neighboring Southeast-Asian countries may be somewhat familiar with Taiwan, or may have heard the names of its presidents, but might not be completely acquainted with the nation’s path to democracy. Watching the volunteers recount the achievements of Taiwan’s National Health Insurance system, Taiwanese athletes’ successes in international competitions, and the course of various social movements, we see foreign friends’ astonished reactions to Taiwan’s progress and liberalization. Standing to one side, in addition to recalling this part of Taiwan’s history and its interconnections with our own life memories, we can’t help but feel a rising sense of confidence in being Taiwanese.

One section of the permanent exhibition includes an especially moving feature, “The People,” an assembly of Taiwanese voices from every sector of society. The power of citizens’ collective appeals ensures that those in govern­ment will hear them.

A concert held in April of this year in front of the Presidential Office Building featured another kind of collective voice.

The program included a once-in-a-century gathering of classical, popular, indie, Hakka, indigenous, and Hoklo musicians, all taking part in the concert. Sam-seng-hiàn-gē, a Taiwan indie group whose sound blends musical elements drawn from temple festivals and religious processions, and Aboriginal singer Sangpuy, performed on a platform atop the Presidential Office Building’s porte-cochère, from where President ­Chiang Kai-shek once reviewed military parades and addressed the nation. It is especially significant that local musicians now stand in the same place, Lee Hou ­Ching says.

The century-old structure’s arches and arcades, and the façade’s alternating red and white ornamentation, are among the Presidential Office Building’s most arresting features.

The century-old structure’s arches and arcades, and the façade’s alternating red and white ornamentation, are among the Presidential Office Building’s most arresting features.

“Taiwan has always been known to the world for manufacturing. The concert brought together Taiwan’s pluralistic culture and showcased the strength of Taiwan’s cultural presentations. This is a more refined expression of national strength,” says Sydney Lin.

At the end of May, President Tsai Ing-wen personally welcomed international visitors to spend a night in the Presidential Office Building, inviting them to offer suggestions on how to experience the edifice. The move was unprecedented in any presidential mansion anywhere in the world: “This is a good way of letting the world see Taiwan,” Lee Hou Ching says.

Do you remember when we elected our first female president? And do you remember the hundred-table wedding banquet on Ketagalan Blvd. celebrating same-sex marriages? In recent years, Taiwan’s international visibility has risen dramatically, and discussions of its future directions are increasingly diverse. We should have more confidence in ourselves, and make friends with the world. The Presidential Office Building, bearer of Taiwan’s memories and witness to so much of its history, still stands tall and proud. As time passes, we hope that it will become even more approachable, and, under the Taiwan sun, accompany the people on their chosen paths.