On August 4th, Taiwan NGO Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (日日春關懷互助協會, COSWAS) protested outside an event attended by the Taipei Department of Cultural Affairs chief Liu Wei-kong (劉維公) to petition for preserving Wenmeng Pavilion (文萌樓), a former public brothel with historical significance for sex workers’ rights.

The Wenmeng Pavilion was built in 1925 in the Dadaocheng area of Taipei, and served as a brothel for the working class during the Japanese period until 1945. It became a legal brothel in 1956 until the Taipei City Government outlawed sex work in 1997. Currently, COSWAS, a group that advocates for licensed sex workers and sex workers’ rights, has rented the building to use as an office, and has opened the doors to the public for viewing this particular slice of Taipei’s history.

The building has been designated a heritage site in 2006 by the Department of Cultural Affairs, but in 2011 the property was purchased by new owners, who then filed suit to evict COSWAS with an eye towards redevelopment through urban renewal incentives. The Shihlin District Court ruled against COSWAS in 2012, and the case has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

During this time, several proposals have been made to compromise between the owners and COSWAS, but to no avail. The proposals include transferring ownership to the city government in exchange for zoning or construction incentives from the city, or have COSWAS pay rent to the owners, but the owners have rejected them.

At the protest, Cultural Affairs chief Liu met with COSWAS staff, and said he agreed with COSWAS that “Wenmeng Pavilion should be preserved as a historical heritage site” and that since COSWAS’s work is part of the historical value of the site, evicting it would “take away the meaning” of preserving the building. However, with regards to COSWAS’s demand that the government expropriate the building, Liu said he cannot unilaterally expropriate private property, but will have to wait until the owners submit its plans for redevelopment before taking further action. Liu assured the protesters that “working with COSWAS” and “preserving the legacy of sex workers” will be criteria for approving the plans.

In Taiwan, land rights have become hotly contested in recent years. Due to the small area of available land, rising housing prices from speculation, and the government trying to attract investors by providing cheap industrial land, increasingly civic groups fighting for environmental protection, historic preservation and homeowners’ rights are clashing with developers and the government. Most notable examples include the Dapu, Miaoli incident where private homes were demolished to make way for an industrial zone, the Huaguang Community in Taipei that was leveled for the “Taipei Roppongi” shopping mall, and the Losheng Sanatorium, which is slated to be torn down for a metro train depot.

In a similar case, three days ago landowners illegally demolished a block of historic buildings in a former red light district in the Wanhua area, despite the buildings being designated heritage sites. The Taipei City government has said it will seek the harshest penalty and maybe even demand the buildings to be rebuilt, but some say the fines are negligible compared to the profits from hi-rise residential development.

(Feature photo of a historic site in Dadaocheng, Taipei)

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