Taiwan in Time: Religious Conflicts in Daan Forest Park

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A two-year fight over whether to preserve a large Buddhist statue in the northwest corner of the green space raged until two days before the park officially opened on March 29, 1994.

  • By Han Cheung / Staff Reporter

March 28 to April 3

The Taipei City government was in a panic. With only six days left until the inauguration of Daan Forest Park on March 29, 1994, officials had yet to resolve an intense dispute – which had been going on for two years – over whether to keep a large statue of Guanyin in the northwest corner of the park. .

Buddhist master Shih Chao-hwei (釋昭慧) and independent legislator Lin Cheng-chieh (林正杰) were on the fifth day of their hunger strike to save the statue, vowing to “defend the statue until death” and rally their followers to form a massive human barrier around her on opening day.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The government had hoped that the influential Fo Guang Shan Monastery could persuade the protesters to negotiate. But on the night of March 23, the monastery’s founder, Master Hsing Yun (星雲法師), announced his full support for the protest, saying he would mobilize 325 tourist buses full of people.

The city’s final offer was to keep the statue as public art, as long as believers refrained from using it for religious activities. The demonstrators accepted and called off the hunger strike.

On the morning of March 27, 1994, Master Hsing Yun symbolically donated the Guanyin to then-Mayor Huang Ta-chou (黃大洲) in a brief ceremony, ultimately ending the debacle.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Although the crisis was averted, the inauguration of the park was a disaster anyway. A video from the Chinese Television Service (華視) on YouTube shows unhappy visitors trudging through ankle-deep mud and construction debris. And despite festive events throughout the day, Taipei’s largest green space was painfully incomplete. The toilets weren’t even functional yet.

There was still a long way to go before what was dubbed “Mud Park” (泥巴公園) could live up to its promise as “Taipei’s lungs”.

LONG TERM PROJECT

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Taiwan in Time, a chronicle on Taiwan’s history published every Sunday, highlights important or interesting events in the country that have anniversaries this week or are related to current events.

Daan Forest Park was a project over 60 years old. In 1932, the Japanese reserved 17 locations in Taipei to serve as a future city park. Each location was identified by a number and until the 1990s, Daan Forest Park was called “Park No. 7”.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) used most of these open areas for military purposes when they arrived after World War II. Park No. 7 housed two dependent military villages, various military installations including a radio station, and Taipei International House. Illegal squatters, mostly refugees from the Chinese Civil War, also settled here, and up to a few thousand people may have lived here. The settlement continued to expand over the years as young people came from the south to Taipei to make their fortunes.

Photo courtesy of Chung Yung-ho

The Taipei International House Gymnasium, located at the corner of Xinsheng South Road and Xinyi Road, was a hotspot for concerts, sports matches and film screenings. It hosted several Miss China beauty pageants in the 1960s.

In 1984, the government briefly considered building a 30,000-seater stadium on the ground instead of a park, but this sparked protests from environmentalists who advocated more green spaces in Taipei. The city decided on a “forest park” in 1989.

Life was not easy in these colonies, as depicted in the 1983 film Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing? (搭錯車), but people refused to leave when the government tried to relocate them. Their fierce resistance plays an important role in the film, and a major character dies in a clash with the authorities. The city prevailed and on April 2, 1992, they demolished the International House.

These residents generally supported the removal of the statue, as they felt it was unfair that it was allowed to remain when they lost everything. Many of them were Christians, and the demolition of places of worship in the park reserve has also drawn the ire of non-Buddhist groups.

STATUE OF CONTROVERSY

Completed in 1985 by famed sculptor Yuyu Yang (楊英風), the statue has been plagued with controversy since its inception.

In 1979, the founder of Da Hsiung (大雄精舍) Monastery, Chiu Hui-chun (邱慧君), reportedly received a message in a dream to build a new temple next to the Taipei International House. Landowner Lin Tsung-hsien (林宗賢) was happy to allow it, but the government was reluctant to allow a structure when clearing the current land was already a problem.

The Buddhist community rallied and gained political support, striking a deal where Chiu could build a statue for simple worship, but not a temple. The monastery has promised not to interfere with the development of Park No. 7 and to obey all government requests during planning and construction. This was clearly not the case later.

The statue attracted many devotees, who planted a bamboo forest around it as a natural home for it. Huang recalls the monastery ignoring repeated requests from the city to move the statue, and they left the structure standing during the 1992 demolitions due to its sensitive nature.

This sparked the struggle that lasted for years, and it did not help that the government kept changing its position under pressure from the side that had the upper hand. Supporters of the removal dominated until June 1993, when someone doused the statue with acid and excrement. This caused outrage in the Buddhist community. Within a week, more than 10,000 signatures in support of the statue were collected and brought to City Hall by Abbot Master Ming Kuang (明光法師) of Da Hsiung Monastery and supporting politicians.

In September, Huang decided to keep the statue as a public artwork, noting that along with the bamboo forest, it would be a nice addition to the park. The statue would be fenced with barriers, plants and flowers to prevent people from approaching.

Advocates of the withdrawal were furious and launched an even stronger campaign. Within two months, Huang ordered the monastery to remove the statue by the end of March 1994.

Just over a month away from the park’s official opening, supporters launched the “Guanyin Don’t Go” campaign, which has been joined by many Buddhist groups across the country. More and more politicians also joined in, and the city was running out of time.

“Of course, there was immense pressure,” Huang says years later in “A Study in Power and How It Shapes Spaces” (權力與空間形塑之研究) by Liao Shu-ting (廖淑婷). “Three hundred tourist buses would cripple Taipei’s traffic.”

Taiwan in Time, a chronicle on Taiwan’s history published every Sunday, highlights important or interesting events in the country that have anniversaries this week or are related to current events.

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