About the Photographer
Ari-Joonas Pitkänen is an independent researcher, writer, and translator based in Turku, Finland. His research interests include national identities, nationalism, and postwar urban development in the Chinese-speaking world. He is also currently a project researcher at the Finnish University Network for Asian Studies and the Centre for East Asian Studies at the University of Turku until the end of 2019. Pitkänen holds a Master of Social Science in East Asian Studies from the University of Turku as well as a Master of Arts in English Translation from the University of Helsinki. He has lived in Beijing, Taipei, and Hong Kong.
My fascination with Taiwan’s urban landscapes developed during a semester of study and fieldwork in Taipei in 2016 and 2017. It was first sparked while I was apartment hunting and staying on the tenth floor of a hostel near the city’s main railway station. Running from one apartment-viewing to another and gazing at the seemingly disorganized cityscapes from the hostel balcony, I noted the untamed and informal nature of residential living in the city. The tenth-floor balcony was a perfect vantage point for the sprawling concrete-and-metal jungle below: clusters of tightly packed apartment blocks topped with makeshift additions of sheet metal and steel bars. The first few photographs in this essay were taken from the balcony during those first days in Taipei.
Apartment hunting provided a closer look at Taiwan’s urban particularities. The apartments I viewed were exceedingly small, usually parts of larger spaces that had been subdivided into studio suites. Windows, if any, often provided a hazy view to the bare concrete wall of the adjacent building through obscure glass and a metal grille that resembled prison bars. In the few shared apartments that I viewed, I found balconies similarly shielded from weather, burglars, and prying eyes with windows and steel grilles that converted the open-air setting into an extension of indoor living space.
Local friends had warned me against renting one of the infamous rooftop shacks found all around the city. Those buildings often cater to expatriates as inexpensive yet centrally located solutions that give an air of “authentic Taipei living.” Less advertised are their inherently unsafe construction and illegal origin. Heeding the warning, I eventually settled upon a fifth-floor studio in the central Da’an District. Although it was a subdivided top-floor suite, I was reassured by its sturdy concrete walls, which seemed uniform with the rest of the building. However, my pride in having found a “proper” apartment suffered a blow when the landlord explained that although I lived on the fifth floor, my address was for the fourth, and I would have to collect my mail from the fourth-floor mailbox. When I descended the staircase again, I noticed that the topmost flight of stairs was slightly crooked and clearly steeper than in the floors below.
It was obvious that despite my efforts to the contrary, I had indeed ended up in a rooftop apartment built by the owner of the fourth floor. I also found that all my neighbors were foreign students, further suggesting that this was ultimately a typical profit-making enterprise operating in the gray areas of Taiwan’s lax housing regulations. It was simply one of the more robust and professional examples, eschewing corrugated metal and plywood in favor of a concrete frame that blended admirably well with the rest of the building.
Curious about the pervasiveness of illegal construction and cramped living in Taipei, I began photographing these urban environments and discussing them with Taiwanese friends and colleagues. Many stories pointed to the complex reality of this urban existence. When I asked a friend about the omnipresent steel bars on apartment windows, he said that his mother was happy with the metal enclosures protruding from her windows because she could grow potted plants in them. I mentioned reading that such informal extensions often blocked fire lanes in the narrow spaces between buildings, but my friend was smilingly unfazed: the neighboring building had tilted during the great earthquake of 1999 and was subsequently torn down, leaving ample space for fire access and plentiful sunlight for the plants.
Through these talks and the lens of my humble mini-DSLR camera, a picture began to emerge of a postwar society mired in an existential conundrum that had persisted long enough to become an unremarkable feature of everyday life. Taiwan’s troubled history in the crossfire of competing national interests in East Asia had left the island without stern stewardship to guide its way into modernity. The well-known sociopolitical problems in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War had not impeded rapid socioeconomic development, but they had imprinted a directionless uncertainty on the physical features of Taiwan’s cities.
This photo essay was born from the desire to understand this fast and wild development. It features a collection of photographs from Taipei, New Taipei City, Taichung, and Tainan taken in 2016 and 2017. I am keenly aware that this lens is, both physically and figuratively, that of a foreigner—it presents as peculiar that which is mundane to the Taiwanese. My accompanying essay, “Wild Cities: The Renegade Roots of Urban Taiwan,” attempts to transcend this peculiarity by examining the social and political processes that have made these cityscapes so ordinary and prevalent in today’s Taiwan.