Andy Singh, owner of Out of India restaurant, is one of the many small business owners in the ShiDa who has been standing up to the harassment over the past few years by developers, who want to turn the heart of Taiwan’s once liveliest district into a more lucrative and commercial shopping area
A Taipei City taskforce put a moratorium on the use of the expression "Shida Night Market'. Why are officials trying to shut down the best part of Taiwan? Photo source: mykafkeasquelife.blogspot.com
By Trista di Genova
When I came to Taiwan over 10 years ago, I used to hang out with my friends in ‘ShiDa’, a great neighborhood named after the university (NTNU, National Taiwan Normal University (國立臺灣師範大學)).
The ShiDa night market ( 師大夜市, Shī dà yèshì) used to be Taiwan’s most cosmopolitan area. It had numerous ethnic restaurants, outdoor cafes and vendors. In sum, it was the best part of Taiwan.
Today, ShiDa is a sad spectre of its former, vivacious self. Now, any given evening, even a Friday or Saturday night – – ShiDa, once teeming with activity and populated by a great mix of locals, students and foreigners alike, is eerily dead, almost totally devoid of life compared to its former glory.
Even Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌), the current Taipei mayor, once touted it as a model district. Then in 2011, Hau did an about face, putting an ‘expansion ban’ on ShiDa, allowing no further expansion of Taiwan’s liveliest night market area.
Night markets are Taiwan’s Number 1 tourist attraction, according to a 2009 survey by the ROC Tourism Bureau. Night markets were the most popular spots to visit for foreign tourists (with 73 visits per 100 people), easily surpassing Taipei 101 (with 58) and the National Palace Museum (52) as the island’s hottest tourist attractions.
Thereafter, about two years ago now, everything began to change for the worse …
What the heck happened? Who killed ShiDa?
On the ground, the atmosphere in ShiDa became tense and oppressive. The neighbors began constantly lodging noise complaints in ShiDa Park against the small groups of people who congregated there, and who were talking, having discussions, or sometimes singing, playing guitar, drinking and smoking –- all the activities for which everybody loved to hang out in the park that lines ShiDa Road.
As it turns out –- and this information comes from long-time ShiDa residents – most of these ‘neighbors’, the newly outraged residents of a once-bustling night market area, only moved to ShiDa “within the last 2 or 3 years.”
So the police started constantly crashing the party, responding to all the neighborhood complaints by ‘residents’. The cops, who understandably felt they were “just doing their job”, however started demanding people – foreigners mainly – to show their IDs.
I’ve been present several times when the cops come, and it’s always foreigners, and not Taiwanese, who are asked for identification, which in my book is tantamount to intimidation and harassment. In my experience, Taiwanese were asked for ID only if they were with a group of foreigners.
Why would the authorities want to harass foreigners?
I asked long-time residents this question, and they said quite simply, “Foreigners are too lively.” Foreigners have too much fun, we enjoy life… and they were the life blood of ShiDA. Foreigners were even part of the attraction of ShiDa — a place where you could people-watch and see the wonderful mix of many cultures. City officials wanted to shut down the multicultural party that was going on, any given night of the week.
Musicians and club owners protest the closure of Underground at the legislature in July 2012. Many musicians began their career at the popular 'live house'. Photo: David Frazier
Then, too, one by one, the restaurants began closing doors. The same residents had begun lodging complaints and calling in inspectors to fine the business owners.
What was going on?
According to insiders, the ‘residents’ had allied themselves with local and city officials, who targeted the heart of ShiDa for a shopping mall-like makeover. They were calling in city inspectors, who began slapping restaurant owners with fines for so-called ‘violations’.
Insiders say that developers have been working in conjunction with the Taipei City Council and Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌), the city mayor, and that developers paid officials kickbacks (“21 wan” , or 210,000nt according to one source) to make the ShiDa area “dead, completely dead.”
In sum, there’s said to be an alliance of the city officials, developers and their fronts of ‘neighborhood associations’ like the Shidahood Self Help Association (師大三里里民自救會), who are running out the ‘small people’ in ShiDa – often with a combination of bribery and intimidation of those people who put up resistance to the city’s ‘renovation’… and by targeting them (through Shidahood’s blog), for example, to fine the businesses out of existence, especially those who have no connections to this group of… ‘gentrificators’ let’s call them something nice.
I asked Andy Singh what was going on. I met Andy one night in ShiDa park, and discovered he is one of the few local business owners who has been able to stave off the nefarious characters who are destroying the heart of ShiDa – at least so far.
Why would anyone want to kill business in ShiDa?
Andy: They’re [developers?] going to make the area dead, then buy the land for a cheaper price. They make people go bankrupt on the first floor, then buy the building. It’s happening in many areas in Taipei city. This area’s getting more expensive day by day.
Wild East: What is the strategy to shut down ShiDa?
Andy: Harassment. They decide “We are going to shut down all the shops in this area,” and on which shops within that area. They say “We’re going to complain about the landlords renting the 2nd floor for small rooms, and say it’s ‘all illegal’.” Business was so good before, they had to scare them to get them to leave. So they’d say [owners] didn’t have an exhaust pipe going up the wall and would have to shut it down. Or else, every day they’d send inspectors.
They always come to inspect, and if they find anything illegal, you have to shut it down. For most businesses, when they receive a 60k fine they’re gone, because we can’t afford a 300,000nt fine. Then they start to scare them. Don’t ask questions or else the fine will double or triple.
Rabbit Rabbit spent 3 million NT on decoration, and they got a fine because it’s on an 8m-wide road. But still, if it’s even on a 12m road, [developers] figure “If we want to give you trouble we’ll give you trouble.”
So by seven months ago, all of [the restaurants] were gone [at least 40]. Now, only two are left – Kelly Pizza Pasta and me.
Wild East: What businesses have been forced to close?
Andy: Before in ShiDa, these lanes had so many great restaurants – Tibetan, Thai, Korean, Italian, American, Chinese. They took Roxy Jr. For the first time in 25 years, Roxy Jr. Café had to shut their doors!
Wild East:What about KGB Burger?
Andy: They [developers] don’t need that area.
Wild East Do the developers have a map for all this?
Andy: Yes, there’s a map.
Wild East: Sounds like ‘gentrification’. How do they get businesses to leave?
Andy: [The City says] because the roads are not 4m wide, they can’t have a business there. So the business owners receive their 1st fine, 60,000nt (US$2,000). If they don’t pay the fine in one month, it becomes 300,000nt (US$10,000). The 3rd fine is 900,000nt. After that, they cut off all electricity and water.
David Frazier, a ShiDa resident, has written several excellent articles for Taipei Times about the crisis in ShiDa. Here are some links to them:
Travel writers warn Taipei City: Destroying Shida is a “stupid move”
Under the gun: Underworld, a rock club on Shida Road known as a launchpad for indie bands, will close its doors due to resident complaints and government policies…”
Excerpt from David’s article “Dodgy dealings”:
Generally, the Shidahood blog has anticipated which streets and lanes will see heavy inspections weeks before they happen and named hit-lists of undesirable businesses. Notably, these have included Toasteria, Rabbit Rabbit (兔子兔子) and 1885 Burger, all of which closed down.
Not long after the Shidahood Association formed, Taipei City formed a Special Shida Taskforce (師大專案小組) headed by deputy mayor Sherman Chen (陳雄文) and involving a wide array of government departments. So far, the city has put a moratorium on the phrase “Shida Night Market” and stopped recommending Shida as a tourist destination (along with Yongkang St., an area loved by foodies that includes Taiwan’s most famous restaurant, Ding Tai Fung.)
Then in April, the city began its first wave of inspections and fines. It first targeted Pucheng Street, Alley 13, otherwise known as “International Food Street” (異國美食街), a lane that had been filled with restaurants for at least 15 years. Now only one restaurant remains, Singh’s Out of India.