I can still remember when Taoyuan International Airport was called Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport. The name was changed in 2006, when Chen Shui-Bian, the first non-Kuomintang president in Taiwanese history, began renaming streets, buildings, and institutions in order to erase traces of the dictatorial rule of Chiang Kai-Shek and his son Chiang Ching-Kuo over decades of unchallenged one-party Kuomintang rule. This took place near the end of Chen’s second term in office, as he faced allegations of corruption and the possibility of a Kuomintang successor. He seemed to be in a hurry to rename as many places as possible.
Naming Taiwan’s largest international airport after Chiang Kai-Shek had been a matter of course. Places and institutions during the Taiwanese authoritarian period had often been named for Kuomintang party leaders, cities or places in China, or aspects of Kuomintang party ideology such as “Guangfu” (光復), meaning “restoration,” which is the name of many a school, building, and road in Taiwan. It refers to the “liberation” of Taiwan from Japanese rule, as well as the ideological aspiration of the Kuomintang to retake the Chinese mainland.
The road in front of the Taiwanese Presidential Office was originally named “Chieh-shou Road” (介壽路), an abbreviation for “Long Live Chiang Kai-Shek Road”. It is now Ketagalan Boulevard, the Ketagalan being the Taiwanese indigenous group that originally inhabited present-day Taipei.
The airport’s new name, Taoyuan, is just the name of the county where the airport is located, about 25 miles from Taipei.
Nearly two decades after Chen’s inauguration in 2000, Taoyuan International Airport still reflects Taiwan’s identity issues writ large; as the country’s literal and symbolic gateway to the world, it is still a contested site of power between the Kuomintang and DPP.
Since the Chen presidency the Kuomintang has retaken power once, under Ma Ying-Jeou, the scion of a powerful Kuomintang family who served as mayor of Taipei before winning the presidency. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to which Chen belonged and which emerged from the Taiwanese democracy movement, retook the presidency in 2016 under Tsai Ing-Wen. Since 2016, for the first time in Taiwanese history, the Kuomintang has not been the ruling party in the Taiwanese legislature.
The Kuomintang remains committed to its view that Taiwan is an inviolable part of China, and it seeks a political unification. At this point, however, ambitions to oust the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to retake China are unrealistic. The party instead aims for a “junior partner” arrangement with the CCP. The DPP, on the other hand, began as a pro-independence party, though its members have differences on the subject of Taiwan’s independence from China, and in general the party is deemphasizing its push for independence.
The DPP has a pattern of playing up Taiwan’s indigenous history as a way of distinguishing Taiwan from China. Approximately two percent of Taiwanese are not of Han Chinese descent, but are of Austronesian indigenous descent. The approximately ten percent of those of Han descent currently residing in Taiwan who originally came from the mainland are referred to “waishengren,” while those who are of primarily Han descent who came from earlier waves of immigration are referred to as “benshengren”, constituting the other 88% of the Taiwanese population.
Many benshengren have some small amount of Taiwanese indigenous descent by virtue of having descended from those who have been in Taiwan for several hundred years. But this trait is sometimes magnified by those in favor of Taiwanese independence, in order to suggest intrinsic differences between Taiwan and China at the ethnic or genetic level. That’s why, during DPP administrations, a great deal of indigenous imagery and representation suddenly appears in Taoyuan International Airport.
Even though many benshengren have traces of indigenous descent, the indigenous airport scene is really a form of Han appropriation of Taiwanese indigenous culture as a means of distancing Taiwan politically from China. The tourist slogan ubiquitous during the Chen era in Taoyuan International Airport and elsewhere was “Naruwan”—but few could tell you what this means, or which indigenous language it comes from. (Evidently “naruwan” (那魯灣) is an Amis word meaning “Welcome, [for] we are all in the same family.”)
The tokenization of indigenous peoples has continued into the current administration. Tsai herself is a quarter indigenous, but she has been criticized for spotlighting Taiwanese indigenous culture while failing to take action on campaign promises made to indigenous groups, such as the return of traditional territories.
On the other hand, when a Kuomintang administration takes power, Taoyuan International Airport becomes a bastion of Chinese culture. Taiwan has sometimes claimed to be the “real” China, preserving 5,000 years of history and culture lost in mainland China because of the Cultural Revolution. For example, the Kuomintang emptied out the treasures of the Forbidden City, and brought them to Taiwan when they fled China. They are currently displayed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and the question of whether to return them to China remains a contentious political issue.
The Kuomintang has been in disarray since the 2014 Sunflower Movement, and it remains to be seen whether they will ever return to power. But if it ever should, a new Kuomintang administration would likely “re-sinicize” Taoyuan International Airport.
Either way, Taoyuan International Airport is always unbearably schlocky. Why? One reason might be that Taiwan’s marginalization as a de facto nation-state unacknowledged by the majority of other nations has left it desperate for international prestige, while also having very little sense of what exactly it is that appeals to the broader world.
In the last few years, each of the different airport waiting lounges has been redesigned around a theme, each touting a different aspect of Taiwan. One aimed at showing off Taiwan’s accomplishments in the tech industry is called “The Glory of High-tech Waiting Lounge.” Another, celebrating Taiwan’s sporting achievements, is called the “Glory of Sports Waiting Lounge.” I am unsure why exactly there is a “The” in name of the former and not in the latter, and even less sure why airport authorities think visitors to Taiwan would find either interesting. Alongside other outliers, such as pavilions devoted to Taiwanese bikes and Taiwanese LED lights, there are also pavilions more reasonably devoted to local food, tea, and traditional Taiwanese opera.
There’s even a song about the airport: “Song of Airport – On the Road”. Taking a hook from “Country Roads,” of all the songs they could have picked, this number somehow got no more than 3,000 views on YouTube, despite being sung by Lala Hsu, multiple-time winner of the Golden Melody Awards, Taiwan’s most prestigious music industry award. Here, go give them some views; no small amount of Taiwanese taxpayers’ money likely went towards producing this.
Thelast time I went to Taoyuan International Airport, I was surprised to discover that they even have an art gallery in the airport now. The exhibition was about “Fur Kids” (毛孩子), a contemporary euphemism for pets. From the artistic statement describing the aims of the exhibition:
But what exactly is the hidden truth behind how dogs became so significant in our lives? The expansion of dogs’ characters and fields1 [sic] shed light on changes in our lifestyles via our relationships and ideologies. Potentially, we could ponder over our own lives in different dimension by gazing through their shiny eyes.
On reflection I realized that this, too, was a garbled comment on contemporary social issues in Taiwan. Animal rights are in the public eye lately, as well as social commentary on why people are so obsessed with their pets, almost as if they’re becoming substitutes for children in a time of declining birthrate. Attempts to communicate these ideas to international visitors to the airport, however, are predictably garbled.
The design of the airport pavilions is apparently the result of a public-private partnership between the Taiwanese government and a company called Everrich, evidence of another quintessentially Taiwanese sociopolitical feature reflected in the Taoyuan International Airport—questionable public-private partnerships producing, ultimately, mediocre results; sometimes because of bribery and corruption, and sometimes just sheer bureaucratic laziness or ineptitude.
The airport provides many such examples. Last year, 200,000 Taiwanese passports had to be recalled because an artist mistakenly drew Washington Dulles Airport in the passport instead of Taoyuan International Airport, having apparently confused the two in Google Images.
Another example is the Taoyuan Airport MRT, which was supposed to connect Taipei and Taoyuan International Airport. The project, announced in 1998, has dragged on for two decades. Rumor has it that delays mounted as kickbacks came in from real estate developers who knew that having an MRT stop near their properties would drive up prices, and more and more stops were added in. Even so, every year there would be an announcement that MRT would be open in a matter of months.
When the Taoyuan Airport MRT finally opened last year, it was a sort of Waiting for Godot moment for me, seeing as it has been under construction almost all my life. A part of me expected that I would never see it completed. But large parts of it remain under construction, and significant safety concerns remain.
In 2015, an American visitor spent three days living in the airport in order to try every restaurant before she left. Even in this, Taoyuan International Airport embodies Taiwan’s contradictions. The airport may be inconvenient and a little weird but there’s no denying that in Taiwan as a whole, the food is incredible.
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Brian Hioe, My Airport