Taipei's Historic Military Villages Face Extinction ; Symbols of Former Mainlanders' Past, the Villages Are Being Plowed under to Accommodate Urban Growth

Article excerpt

Across the river from Taiwan's hurried capital, Taipei, Li Mei Ling wanders under a canopy of banana trees in the Air Force First Village and points out the landmarks of her childhood. A shallow bomb shelter lies buried under weeds. Narrow alleyways where the neighborhood kids once played hide-and-seek stand damp and forlorn, clogged with rusty bicycles and other castoffs of those who have moved on.

"This was the kind of place where your neighbors took in your laundry for you if they saw it was raining," says Ms. Li with a wistful smile. "The mothers ran open kitchens, and the kids would come running if they smelled something good.... I'll miss everything about it."

Li and her neighbors, residents of one of Taiwan's "military dependents' villages," are among the last denizens of a disappearing subculture that arose out of wartime chaos and became a touchstone for relations between native Taiwanese and Taiwan's mainland Chinese immigrant community for nearly 60 years.

The low-slung villages, built in the late 1940s and early '50s to house some 600,000 nationalist troops who retreated to Taiwan from the Communist advance in mainland China, are currently being demolished under a government directive to relocate residents to modern high-rise housing.

Taiwan's national legislature enacted a plan in 1996 to upgrade housing conditions and open large swaths of increasingly valuable urban land to redevelopment.

But the policy is erasing a pivotal chapter in Taiwan's history: Of the approximately 900 original military villages that once dotted the island, about 140 are standing today. All are due to be razed by 2009, dispersing tight-knit mainlander communities as residents choose to buy into new, government-subsidized housing or accept a compensation package and move elsewhere.

More Taiwanese, fewer Chinese

The end of a decades-old way of life for mainlanders in Taiwan comes as the island redefines itself in relation to China. Since the mid-1990s, Taiwan has begun to forge a new national identity - emphasizing its own language, culture, and history - apart from its cross-strait neighbor.

Recent public opinion polls show a sea change in how Taiwan's residents see themselves. A 2004 poll conducted by Taiwan's National Chengchi University found that 45.7 percent of respondents identified themselves as "Taiwanese," compared with only 13.6 percent in 1991. About 6 percent identified themselves as "Chinese" in 2004, compared with 43.9 percent in 1991.

Along with this shift, social divisions between descendants of Chinese immigrants of the late 1940s and the Taiwanese - long intertwined with the island's politics - have lost currency, particularly among those younger than 40.

"Barriers between mainlanders and Taiwanese have declined over the generations," says Chang Mau-kuei, research fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan's leading research institute.

Mainlander footholds after the war

The military villages - called jiancun in Mandarin Chinese - played a unique role in giving Chinese immigrants a foothold in postwar Taiwan. …