Home Artifacts The detention center must be better preserved

The detention center must be better preserved

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  • By Lin Hsiu-jui 林秀叡

On February 27, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) invited journalists and a group of people targeted by political repression after the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident to visit the so-called Ankang Guesthouse, a detention center from 1973 to 1987 which is listed as a historical site of injustice from the White Terror era.

At the event, Tsai announced that a Ministry of Culture working group would turn the site into a human rights park. While the government’s conservation efforts are appreciated, there are issues it should address first:

The government should strengthen security at the site. The once-secret complex has long been a popular spot for amateur explorers, and there are plenty of videos of people sneaking around and having fun, starting fires and creating scenes for videos. Recent media coverage of the center is likely to attract even more intruders.

Many artifacts have also disappeared. For example, during the February 27 event, a keychain that cultural property assessors who inspected the site in November last year thought had been stolen appeared to have been returned, but a comparison of photographs shows that ‘at least half of the keys to the interrogation and detention rooms are missing. If security is not tightened, more artifacts are at risk of being stolen.

A thorough historical investigation should also be launched. The Ankang Guesthouse is unusual in that it was jointly operated by two major agencies at the time, namely the Taiwan Garrison Command and the Bureau of Investigation. Many contemporary documents, oral statements and records have been collected, but many mysteries remain unsolved. For example, how were operations organized within the site’s four buildings? Why did agency staff live in two separate areas? Are statements made by agency staff consistent regarding their joint operation of the center?

Only a thorough historical investigation can answer these questions.

The four buildings in the center, its two watchtowers and its underground passages are in poor condition. Water has been seeping for a long time, building materials are decaying and many parts are overgrown. The government should investigate the damage and repair it if necessary, but the historical remains should be respected and not erased by speculative restoration or excessive overhaul.

The site must be classified as a historic monument, respecting the rights of private owners.

The government has rightly voiced support for the civic groups’ request for the site to be listed as a monument. This would resolve the restrictions imposed by laws and regulations, while the terms of the Cultural Heritage Preservation Law (文化資產保存法) would protect the right of ownership of the adjoining private land.

Another factor to consider is that construction of the detention center was completed in 1974, making it a rare property owned by intelligence agencies, which may add to the diversity of the nation’s cultural assets.

Events should be organized with historic conservation in mind to avoid damage to the property. The rails used to hang the backdrop during the February 27 event were nailed into the wall and floor, damaging the building. This goes against the ethics of preservation and conservation.

Another risk of damage came from the crowd of journalists crammed into a small room with several television cameras. More precautions should be taken when holding such activities.

Lin Hsiu-jui is a cultural heritage researcher.

Translated by Julian Clegg

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