I am just back from a short trip to Taipei, Taiwan, after nearly 2 years since my previous visit. I can say that I returned from this trip truly refreshed, thanks to the sense of commitment that exists there among long-lasting friendships. This comradery is built on shared values and engagements, which, for example, I see reflected in the formation of the Double Degree (DD) programme on ‘Critical Heritage in Asia and Europe’, which IIAS is facilitating together with National Taiwan University, Yonsei University (South Korea) and Leiden University (Netherlands).
I met with some of the first students who returned from their one year stay in Leiden, and with our Taiwanese colleagues who are working hard to make the DD programme a meaningful experiment. At NTU, the collaborative initiative involves the Faculty of Liberal Arts, especially its Department of Anthropology, and the Graduate Institute for Planning and Building (Faculty of Engineering). I noticed that our colleagues from Taipei, likewise those in Leiden, have come to appreciate this unique educational exchange initiative and the fact that our DD programme is the first of its kind involving European and Asian partners in the Humanities on Cultural Heritage Studies. At a time when the space for free intellectual inquiry on issues of knowledge and power is shrinking in many regions of the world, it is indeed refreshing to put into conversation, in a truly open and free (uncensored) fashion, experiences and ideas on the always contested question of cultural heritage and identity politics. On that matter, I want to pay personal tribute to Prof. Chia-Yu Hu, a renowned Taiwanese anthropologist, who during the democratization process that took place in Taiwan in the 1990s and 2000s courageously engaged in the sensitive process of reviving and decolonizing the contested ethnological museum collection established by the Japanese pre-war authorities on the societies and cultures of the Taiwanese Aboriginal communities at the University. Prof. Hu was instrumental as an enthusiastic supporter of the DD programme with NTU for what it could do to facilitate exchanges between Taiwanese and other scholars on the subject of ‘critical heritage’. She sadly passed away a few months ago.
I again recognised the same sense of solid friendship and continued commitment, when I visited the site of Báng-kah, in downtown Taipei; an area where IIAS, together with NTU’s Graduate Institute of Building and Planning, Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, as well as local actors, organized a roundtable in 2012, under the coordination of Prof. Wang Liling. As its title indicates, this in situ policy roundtable ‘Constructive Contestation around Urban Heritage in Taipei’ (7-10 October 2012), helped to devise a strategic blueprint to renew and regenerate the area, through a collaboration between the local inhabitants, the City Government and Heritage scholars. The recommendations made by this event sought to encourage processes of sustainable urban revitalization of the historical neighbourhood with its original inhabitants. More than six years have passed since that roundtable. But I have been informed by NTU colleagues and local individuals how the 2012 roundtable and the resulting recommendations for the area (to avoid a fatal decline and the prospect of being either erased to give way to new real estate developments, or of falling subject to a slow process of gentrification – both cases resulting in the marginalization or the outright eviction of its historical inhabitants) constituted a turning point that energized the different stakeholders involved – from local groups, university faculty and students, to City Government officers – to re-invent a Báng-Kah in which its inhabitants would take ownership. This endless work was especially carried out by Dr Chen Te Chun, a former NTU faculty member who actively participated in the roundtable and who ultimately moved to live and work permanently in the area. Dr Chen now runs an integrated NGO programme that works with local community members. The results are quite amazing. Local dwellers have organized themselves to invest in the revitalization of their neighbourhood by developing a network of locally owned small shops, and by attracting initiatives aimed at homeless people. The Báng-Kah local-global transectorial collaborative project is a good example of a sustainable participatory heritage-making process that gives concrete meaning to the study of critical heritage.
In these two small cases, to which I could add the multiple individual and institutional connections forged through other activities – such as our collaboration with the Taipei National University for the Arts (TNUA) and their involvement in the IIAS-coordinated Humanities Across Borders programme’s pedagogical project developed by Prof. Chiang Min Chin around Indigo craft making; or our collaboration with Academia Sinica and the series of international conferences on Asian Heritage making. There are also multiple other connections created through individual participation in IIAS events, under for instance the Taiwan Ministry of Culture’s ‘Spotlight’ initiative.
There is a concrete case to be made of IIAS’s long term collaborative commitment toward a nebula of Taiwanese academics, artists and other culturally active citizens, and the forging of a trans-border community of scholars and their institutions, all contributing to the shaping of a new range of activities and collaborations built around shared ‘universal’ questions. I could mention other places in Asia where IIAS has played a significant role together with local partners, but this Taiwanese example of IIAS’s longstanding involvement in Asian contexts is somehow a good fit as we celebrate the Institute’s 25 years of existence. The multiple connections forged in just one tiny part of Asia is a testimony to IIAS’s continuing commitment toward academic collaboration and freedom in the service of innovative humanistic scholarly endeavours, and in a common effort to have a positive impact on society.
The upcoming ICAS 11 in Leiden, the Netherlands, will be an occasion for our Taiwanese colleagues, along with others from many other places where the Institute has also made its mark, to themselves contribute to the making of IIAS in the very city where it is based, a mutual dedication of knowledge-sharing that no amount of money, or big words, can replace.