Originally published by The News Lens.
"We should try to construct practices of vocation that can begin to address the deficit of felt powerlessness and to chip away at our capacity to interiorise power relations, to delimit by ourselves the realm of the possible." — Nigel Thrift "Non-Representational Theory" (2007)
But what makes a city? With longer lifespans than the people inhabiting them, cities seem everlasting: filled with cement and steel structures, high-rise towers and thousands of apartment blocks housing private lives.
They give the impression of being forever: permanent testaments to the public that make them home, monuments to people and their lives. But, make no mistake, despite their ubiquity, not all cities are as permanent as we think they are. Nor are they created equally, divvied up fairly, or even utilized as they were intended to be.
In the opening quote, Sir Nigel Thrift, a former Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University and a renowned expert in the field of human geography, encourages individuals to resist feeling powerless, but to rather utilize what is at their disposal, however limited it may be. Affirming that people live their politics on the ground, he reminds us that if these practices cannot be actualized, people will make do with what they have.
A city is an attempt at a kind of collective immortality. We die, but we hope our city’s forms and structures will live on. — Marshall Berman, author of 'Restless Cities'
Every part of society and culture can be studied: from art and laws to street plans, religion, and language. What is often overlooked in these studies is how they are utilized. In “The Practise of Everyday Life” -- a philosophical study on how people individualize mass culture -- 20th century historian, psychoanalyst, and cultural theorist, Michel de Certeau (who was also a Jesuit priest) contends that this oversight -- the lack of formal studies on how people actually use aspects of culture -- is a dangerous omission. Without it, we are left with an inaccurate appraisal of contemporary life.
According to de Certeau there are two trends at play: strategies and tactics. Strategies are implemented by organizations and systems with “will and power” like governments and businesses. Tactics by nature are “defensive and opportunistic, used in limited ways and seized momentarily within spaces, both physical and psychological,” says curator and author Andrew Blauvelt in his book “Strangely Familiar”, which leans heavily on de Certeau’s research.
Just under three million people live in Taipei City – not including New Taipei City which is tightly wrapped around it – with Da’an District alone housing over 28,000 people per square kilometer. While this is nothing compared to Shanghai’s population of 25 million, it is still dense. The membranes between private and public wear thin, and become permeable. Lovers embrace on park benches. Space is a luxury. Migrant workers congregate in large picnic style gatherings around churches and train stations as they are afforded no communal spaces.
Some religious groups meet in parks to worship. Privacy is precious, and scarce. That's why there’s an abundance of love motels, KTVs, and private movie rooms you can rent for hourly seclusion. Walking past Chiang Kai-shek (中正紀念堂) or Sun Yat-sen (國立國父紀念館) memorial halls, you’ll observe teenagers dancing, choirs rehearsing, and small orchestras tuning instruments.
Extended families live together in small apartments (三代同堂). Children often grow up with aunts, uncles, and grandparents in their shared family home, and many young adults only leave after they marry. Neighborhoods are crammed, and this makes available many different kinds of business services in one area. Residents assert their limited space and personalize their small patch of territory by raising plants and caring for each other in neighborly ways.
This lack of privacy and limited space spark improvisation. New adaptations of public places occur. In “Strangely Familiar,” Blauvelt, writes that de Certeau's investigations into the “realm of routine practices, or the ‘arts of doing’ such as walking, talking, reading, dwelling, and cooking, were guided by his belief that despite repressive aspects of modern society, there exists an element of creative resistance to these structures enacted by ordinary people”. If a system or situation isn’t working for the people it is meant to serve, they will creatively make do with what is afforded to them.
Resistance unfolds tactical solutions.
Here in Taipei, this resistance manifests in manifold ways. Firstly, illegal rooftop apartments - dinglou jiagai (頂樓加蓋) -- sprinkle the skyline of Taipei City. Housing prices in Taiwan are so expensive that Taiwanese media has said the average household would have to “neither eat nor drink” for over 15 years in order to buy property.
People often have to make do in their living arrangements, even if it puts their lives in danger. Often constructed of corrugated iron and steel cages, makeshift homes perch lightly on top of squeezed-together buildings. Balconies are transformed into enclosed rooms, while other property owners build over narrow lanes.
These shantytown rooftop apartments are fire hazards, and deemed unsafe to live in. In certain parts of Taipei and New Taipei, government-funded demolition teams are in the process of methodically tearing them down. A recent News Lens article affirms that this is a necessary course of action: over 10 people have died from rooftop fires. People, mostly foreigners and students, continue to live in them. This rogue strategy temporarily combats overpopulation, the absence of building regulations, and the inaccessibility of rental prices.
Another example of this tactic of making do with what is available can be seen in Taiwan’s infamous night markets: a must-see on every tourist’s list. Night markets are usually well regulated and vendors need permits to sell.
Yet some eschew the red tape and just show up with their wares. Unable to afford, or unwilling to own a shop front, many private merchants have carts or stands that are easily closed up for quick removal or storage. In Ximending (西門町), or Tonghua Night Market (通化夜市), the wide walkways filled with throngs of milling people will be lined with merchants selling xiaochi (小吃) -- literally small eats -- counterfeit apparel, a wide range of electronics and toys, and even carnival-style games.
At any time, given warning of a policeman on patrol, these stands disappear smoothly, with nothing but darkened oil splattering on the tarmac to indicate they were ever there. They’ll set up again around a corner or return after the police have moved on. This informal occupation on the streets serves to meet the needs of individuals who cannot afford to go the legal route of obtaining permits.
A more positive informal takeover, can be seen in the way people utilize and accentuate public property to meet private needs. Gyms have been established along the tops and slopes of mountains: take a quick trot up to the open air gym on Elephant Mountain (象山) and you’ll probably see shirtless men pumping iron with leafy jungle fronds swaying behind them.
There is a fair amount of guerrilla gardening, manifesting in small vegetable gardens grown beside public roads or in empty lots awaiting urban development, a response to the inaccessibility of arable land. Stretches of the riverside paths that meander through Taipei are lovingly attended to, growing produce that feeds extended families. Community-run gardens are found everywhere in this city. Unsuspecting dead ends meet small corner parks that double as vegetable patches. Construction sites, flood banks and the island in-between the Zhongxiao and Zhongsheng bridges are all homes to such flourishing guerrilla takeovers.
The inhabitants of all cities use and re-use what is offered to them. There’s an abundance of new ways to subvert rituals and regulations. These actions allow individuals to appropriate systems to meet their needs. Quietly subversive, most turn a blind eye to the tactics employed, or employ them themselves. These methods offer a substantial insight into a city's temperament and the inclinations of its inhabitants.
Amid this tempestuous state of global foment, who knows what subversive tactics will be needed to keep individuals and families afloat. “A city is an attempt at a kind of collective immortality” wrote Marshall Berman in an essay on urban ruin. “We die, but we hope our city’s forms and structures will live on.”
Places are temporary, politics are in flux, and as de Certeau says “stories about places are makeshift things.” Even these are subject to the erosion of memory. In order to be preserved a city must adapt. Growth is necessary, change is inevitable, but just how much change can be sustained? And how can these changes better serve city dwellers?
It would seem that finding ways to make a city work for its inhabitants has never been more important. But, as we've seen, Taipei will make do just fine, with its particular brand of creative resistance and the very keqi (polite) ways in which people discreetly ignore the rules, and are themselves ignored.
TNL Editor: David Green