by Elias König and Sylvie Ramakers
Photo Credit: Before the Bang/WikiCommons/CC
AMONG THE MANY ruins modernity has bestowed upon this planet, few could claim a more stunning–and yet a more awkward–location than what was once to become the Miramar Resort Hotel (美麗灣渡假村—its Chinese name Meiliwan reflecting the beauty of the hotel’s site). Located on the road from Taitung to the nearby village of Dulan, this giant abandoned six-hectare complex strikes its viewers as profoundly out of place, caught in between a range of breath-taking mountains and an ancient bay with precious coral reefs. Its five-storied walls spread out hundreds of meters, seemingly trying to occupy as much as possible of the picturesque beachfront of Fudafudak (杉原), once a popular beach hangout spot beloved by Taitung’s residents and revered by its Indigenous caretakers.
Holding out day and night in its restless position, the Miramar resort has become a unique monument to both capitalist hubris and people power. Nearly a decade has passed since it became the site of one of Taiwan’s most vibrant recent social movements, eventually leading to a Supreme Court decision barring it from opening. Today, Miramar has joined the ranks of countless so-called “Mosquito Buildings” (蚊子館) on Taiwan’s East Coast, abandoned buildings populated by insects rather than humans. Its future still remains undecided, as many activists continue to advocate for the demolition of the complex, while county officials envision repurposing it as an international conference center. This tension, we argue, poses a larger dilemma: How do we deal with the ruins of a post-colonial, post-capitalist world? And whose vision will prevail?
The story of the Miramar Resort could have been the story of yet another seemingly inevitable domino toppled over in the triumph of capitalist development. When construction crews began digging up Fudafudak beach in March 2005, there was an understanding that the development was just the first of many projects to come. With its pristine nature and its underexplored beaches, Taiwan’s East Coast seemed to be the perfect location for tourism magnates looking to expand their businesses. Word spread of a “new Kenting”, a coast plastered with walls of concrete, promising handsome profits to their prospective owners. The plans for the Miramar Resort, specifically, had been drawn up by the well-connected and influential Huang family and their Miramar Group (美麗華集團).
Based in Taipei, the Huangs had made a fortune in the tour bus tourism business in Taiwan, known in Chinese as yi tiao long (一條龍), with Huang-owned companies monopolizing nearly every aspect of the traveler’s experience. There was little pretense that the Miramar Resort would be in any way different: almost all money spent by the targeted high-income tourists would end up in the skyscrapers of Taipei rather than in the local economy. Nevertheless, the project enjoyed highest backing by the local county government, safely in the hands of the KMT and notorious for its support of dubious infrastructure projects, such as the Taitung Railway Station and a controversial mothballed waste incinerator. Allegations of collusion and corruption continue to haunt the city hall of Taitung, but have proven hard to substantiate in the absence of any official investigation into the role of the government. Given these political conditions, the Miramar Group did not even bother to obtain the legally required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for its new resort project—it simply went ahead with the construction.
The development of the resort can be traced back to before 2005, when there were plans for a similar hotel complex to be built in the nearby town of Dulan. After successful opposition by the A’tolan tribe, the developers eyed Fudafudak beach. This territory, traditionally belonging to several Indigenous tribes, had already been claimed by the government back in 1987 to create a public beach—“So ‘Meiliwan’ isn’t a first for us,” recounts Amis activist Lin Shuling. By cunningly dividing the complex into different plots, all amounting to less than one hectare in size, the Miramar group tried to circumvent the need to carry out an EIA and started constructing.
As it turned out, however, county government and Taiwanese capital had grossly underestimated the power of their own people. Protestors pointed out that the total site measured 5.97 hectares, defying the legal requirement of conducting an EIA for any development of over one hectare. Their resistance amounted to a retrospective EIA in 2007, which despite fining the company for environmental harm also maintained that the already-completed structure was legal. This conclusion led to the filing of the first citizen litigation against the Taitung government, with many more to follow, led by lawyers Chen Bo-chou (陳柏舟) and Thomas Chan (詹順貴). The plaintiffs held that Miramar’s building permit was not valid, since an EIA had not been carried out prior to construction. After Taitung’s High Court sided with the plaintiffs, the city government decided to appeal to the Supreme Court, which held up the original judgement. Determined to keep fighting, the Taitung government filed a new case at the High Court, but was once again ordered to stop construction at once. Realizing that the courts would not judge in their favour, the city government subsequently proudly announced the issuance of a permit for the entire six-hectare development in September 2010.
This is where the Fan Fan Fan (反反反) collective stepped in, a group of (Indigenous) artists concerned about the illegal development taking place on their cherished beach. Joined by residents and environmentalists, the activists put up a series of impressive protests, initiated by a camp-in on Fudafudak beach. After a month of art performances focusing on the Indigenous’ rights aspect of the Miramar controversy, the occupation came to its crescendo with a day of music and rituals attended by thousands of people. Backed by twenty environmental and civic groups as well as nationally-renowned musicians, the Miramar case and its movement now received nationwide attention. However, the Miramar group and the Taitung government were still trying to assert legality by conducting another EIA for the six-hectare complex.
A year after the first camp-in, the beach was occupied for another week in July 2012 and featured Indigenous artists in exhibitions and concerts. Notably, typhoon Saola arrived only 36 hours after the occupation and damaged the Miramar complex. The movement culminated in December of the same year, when protestors were met with rows of shield and baton-wielding police officers at the day of the 2012 EIA decision announcement. The demonstrators literally carried their frustration, disbelief and anger on their shoulders, symbolized in the extraordinary Amis raft built by local Indigenous artists, and the tensions were high when the EIA approval was announced. Following a projected opening of the hotel by the Miramar group, protestors once more carried their grief and defiance, this time from Fudafudak to Taipei. The Amis raft and its bearers were joined by a crowd of over 2,000 people in the capital after a march of 17 days.
Several more rounds of court cases and appeals ensued, each time resulting in a defeat for the Taitung city government based on the fact that the EIA remained invalid. The battle between the local residents and the Miramar group and Taitung government—seemingly—ended when an unappealable judgement was issued by the Supreme Administrative Court in 2016. Nevertheless, even five years after this decision the fight is far from over. Not only does the building remain a thorn in the eye of locals, it has also cost them a fortune: only last year, an arbitration tribunal ordered the Taitung city government to pay the Miramar group a compensation of 629 million NTD.
Alongside other mosquito buildings, Miramar has become a ruin of a capitalist world whose legitimacy is rapidly disappearing. Beyond the exhausted mantras of limitless economic growth and expansion, sites like Fudafudak beach turn into zones of contestation: What is the future that we actually want to live in? And who gets to decide? As anthropologist Nauman Naqvi has recently argued, the repairing of such “global ruins” of coloniality is an essential task of our age. A conference organized by Naqvi at Habib University in Pakistan identified at least four dimensions to this task–ecological, political, economic and spiritual–along the lines of which we may think through the Miramar case.
Given the controversy over the building’s environmental impact assessment, the ecological implications of the case are perhaps most apparent. Since construction commenced in 2005, there have been reports of illegal burying of waste at the beach, sand theft, and construction debris flowing into a bay brimming with marine life. Typhoon Segat (2007) and Typhoon Usagi (2013) revealed that rubble had indeed been buried directly on the beach. As neighbors have observed more recently, a hastily built swimming pool seems to also have increased the level of coastal erosion along the beach. Perhaps most concerningly, the resort stands quite literally on sand, built on a slope susceptible to future typhoons. In times of an escalating climate crisis, this raises serious safety concerns. Dakanow (達卡鬧), an Indigenous musician from nearby Dulan and one of the initiators of the Fan Fan Fan (反反反) collective, has dedicated an entire album to the 2009 Typhoon Morokot, which heavily affected the area. Recorded to the tunes of a guitar made out of driftwood, the album captures the devastation brought by the storm:
On an evening when the storm howled
And even clear headed people couldn’t tell here from there
In an instant the ancient earth lost its
Memory of how it turned
The deranged world seemed to call in an
It rained raining in inexplicable torrents
Winds blew blowing in a disorienting blur
The totems are crying the totems are crying
The construction puts on full display the hubris of its planners, who either seem to have grossly underestimated the importance of the ecology of Shanyuan bay, or simply ignored it, knowing that much of the environmental damage associated with the resort could be externalized anyway. To author Amitav Ghosh, this attitude resembles a colonial vision of the world, reflected in the design of coastal port cities from Hong Kong to Mumbai, a vision that in its self-aggrandizement conflates proximity to the water with affluence, education, power and security. In the wake of natural disasters such as cyclones or floods, the presumed modern “mastery of nature” is rapidly exposed. Dakanow recalls that during typhoon Morokot, the elders of the A’tolan Amis community simply commented: “It won’t take money to tear down Miramar, just let Nature do her work!”
Given the serious safety concerns and the looming further attempts at “developing” Taiwan’s East Coast, the future of the Miramar complex, of course, also remains a political question. Somewhat paradoxically, it had only been the centralized courts and institutions of the ROC state apparatus–historically a prime perpetrator of colonial exploitation in the region–that had ultimately guaranteed the movement’s temporary win over the powerful Miramar conglomerate. Nevertheless, the same institutions also ensured that the Miramar group got away with its illegal development and was even awarded a significant “compensation” by the already fiscally challenged county government, indirectly making the Taitung public pay for their “crime” of standing up to powerful interests. In deciding the future of the building, there is thus little reason to assume that the existing political institutions, who are now pushing for a repurposing rather than a demolition of the building, would put local social and ecological interests at the center of their considerations.
Cognisant of the structural constraints associated with the present political order, the Oppose Meiliwan movement had therefore actively situated itself in the context of a larger nation-wide Return our Land movement, which called for the large-scale restitution of Indigenous territories in Taiwan. During her 2016 campaign, incumbent president Tsai Ing-Wen adopted the return of Indigenous land as a central campaign promise, but has since fallen short on its implementation. Although legislation introduced by the government allows for some public land to be restored as traditional Indigenous territories, privately owned land has been excluded from the provision. Any struggle over the future of the Miramar complex will, thus, also be linked to the ongoing broader movement to retrieve Indigenous territories all across the island: For as long as the structural conditions that allowed Miramar to happen in the first place remain untouched, a second Miramar could ensue anytime.
While the resort itself remains barred from opening, Fudafudak beach has not been spared from the economic effects brought by a wave of gentrification that has swept over much of Taiwan’s East Coast. Along the beach, high rises and hipster cafes have sprung up, often outpacing local businesses. “This kind of money must come from outside of Taitung”, comments one neighbor candidly. Doubtlessly, these developments are driven by inherent dynamics of capital accumulation, which relies on constant expansion, extraction and commodification. Dakanow writes in the aftermath of typhoon Morokot:
No one who witnessed the scene will forget the tangle of driftwood that covered the beaches that day after the typhoon. But who spray painted serial numbers on the trees? If it weren’t for the storm, we might never have known that the forest, springs, and land had all been registered in the capitalist’s bank books.
The uneven and extractive development of the region has so far failed to benefit local communities, who are forced to participate in a game whose rules are rigged against them from the start. In his memoir A far corner, writer and long-time Dulan resident Scott Ezell recalls Dou-dou, an Amis artist, complaining: “Back in the days we had nothing but time. We still have nothing, but we don’t have time either.” In face of the obvious failure of neoliberal modernization, many residents express hope that some form of “eco-tourism” or more sustainable modes of organizing the local economy could offer them a better deal. In this context, some have also suggested turning the Miramar resort into an Indigenous cultural center or using it as part of a university campus.
Unlike in other places, alternatives to the capitalist mode of production are not yet outside of the reach of imagination in Taitung: After all, Indigenous economies in the region have managed to operate within the boundaries of sustainability since time immemorial. As Leah Temper observes in her anthropological work addressing issues of injustice in a settler-colonial context, many Indigenous conceptions of nature stand in stark contrast to the outlook of a capitalist system, as they fundamentally “call into question the view of the environment as a commodity that can be owned or traded”. Rather than letting the interests of capital dictate the terms of “sustainability”, be it in the dress of a “green economy” or in the language of “sustainable development”, the present struggle, then, requires a different language. Beyond calling for the mere redistribution (or repurposing) of land, it foregrounds the possibility of a relationship to the land that transcends the logic of property. As one neighbor of the Miramar ruin put it to us: “Can you buy a mountain? Can you buy a sea?” Viewed from this vantage point, even a communal use of the resort could hardly restore its lacking legitimacy—even adding the tangible contradiction of an Indigenous cultural center built on stolen Indigenous land.
As such, sites such as the Miramar resort also embody a deep existential crisis that results from the hollowness of capitalist relationality. Its walls, windows, and stairs are the concrete manifestations of a system that has materially transformed every corner of the globe, and yet inevitably bereft it of meaning. Within just a couple of years, the Miramar business would have sacrificed the complex histories, traditions, human and non-human relationships associated with Fudafudak for the mere individual gratification of a few solvent customers. One wonders how the five-star tourists that were going to reside in the Miramar resort would have felt: Would they have known about the history of the beach buried beyond their feet? The families evicted for their convenience?
Just after fighting a decade-long battle against the illegal construction of the Miramar resort and averting this worst-case scenario, local communities might have to fight yet another straining battle to make their voices heard in deciding the future of Fudafudak beach. Their struggle epitomizes a challenge faced by communities around the globe: How do we deal with the ecological, political, economic and existential ruins of modernity? And how do we make sure communities get to have a say in this decision? While the last years have seen little direct political action, many of the structures and networks from the earlier protest wave are still in place, with veterans of the Oppose Meiliwan movement still leading beach clean-ups and congregating on a regular basis.
Perhaps, it is time for another occupation?
The authors would like to thank the people who shared their knowledge of and perspective on the Miramar Resort case with us. For a more detailed timeline, please refer to this extensive Wikipedia article compiled by one of the activists we interviewed.
Elias König writes about philosophy, colonialism, and the climate crisis, for example, for The Ecologist and Truthout.org. He is currently involved with the #ShellMustFall campaign.
Sylvie Ramakers holds a degree in Environmental Sustainability. She is interested in environmental justice, political ecology, and the social effects of climate change.