When World War II ended, Taipei began a period of transition. For the preceding 50 years (1895-1945), the metropolis had served as administrative headquarters for the Japanese colony of Taiwan, also known as Formosa. One of Taiwan’s four largest urban areas, the city spread over an area of 66.99 square kilometers and was populated by about 400,000 inhabitants.
A study in contrasts, Taipei was classified as a large (and densely populated) metropolitan area, yet 47 percent of its land was used for agriculture.
Taipei had a large foreign population. In 1944, about 123,000 persons — 30.6 percent of the total — were not native born. Of this number, 99,680 or 81 percent were Japanese. Yet, aside from this, the city’s neighborhoods were characterized by stability with almost all native-born residents living in the district of their birth.
The demographic equilibrium was disrupted when Taiwan was returned to mainland China in 1945.
At this time, although the island became a provincial capital of the Republic of China, it was neglected by the central government which was under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek.
The party on the mainland, the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, was engaged in civil war against the Chinese communists and had little time for provincial oversight.
The administrator appointed to manage Taiwan took advantage of the situation, obtained control of Japanese assets, and reorganized them as official monopolies to be administered by Chinese from the mainland.
Much of the island’s infrastructure, industry, food, and consumer goods was also expropriated. These actions exacerbated losses from wartime bombings which had seriously damaged the city’s built environment.
Squatter housing, previously unheard of, began to develop, especially on major roads near the administrative center in Old Taipei. Moreover, the residential segregation which had emerged under Japanese rule remained, with mainland China replacing the Japanese in preferred residential areas.
The behavior of early Nationalist officials antagonized large numbers of Taipei’s residents — and with good reason. According to Gerald A. McBeath:
Bureaucratic corruption was rife, with payoffs to most KMT officials expected, expensive permits required for virtually every transaction, and mountains of time-consuming and expensive government red tape . . . . Smuggling was rampant after the Nationalists took control. Corruption was widespread, ranging from burglary of homes and stores to looting of warehouses and factories. Profiteers diverted local goods and Japanese supplies to the mainland black market.
The arrival of the KMT as well as Taipei’s earlier history would eventually dictate the ethnic divisions which characterized the city during the Cold War era.