Thursday, March 29, 2007

Designs for life

Young Taiwanese industrial designers are for the first time showcasing some of their ideas at an arts museum in Taiwan.

You can see their ideas in the lobby of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. In the show - Beautiful Chaos – the 30 something designers - all set themselves the challenge of coming up with pieces that reflected the spirit of contemporary Taiwanese society and culture around them.
Some poke fun at the obsession with western brand names; and suggest that its time for Taiwanese to find their own unique design aesthetic that reflects the uniqueness and beauty of the local culture.
There's a stylish chandelier made out of Barbie doll parts..recalling that Taiwan was once a manufacturer of the iconic doll.
There are some practical ideas too.. from cool-looking rearview mirrors for motorbikes, to chopsticks that double as spoons and forks, and fun tablecloths for outdoor banquet tables that tie like a shower hat without blowing away in the wind.
One of my favourites: a simple hanger that allows you to display books and magazines on the wall - acting as a bookmark as well.
The show has been getting large crowds - creating quite a buzz. The days of Taiwan's mass manufacturing are over; and the emphasis has shifted again - from original design, to own-branding. There are some exciting ideas.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Re-writing the past

" Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" - George Steiner

Three elderly "a-mas" - grandmothers, or euphemestically called "comfort women" took part in a protest in Taipei today - one of several taking place in Asia.

Two were in their 80s; one in her 90s.

The reason? Activists are furious at comments by Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, bowing to right wing pressure, in which he denied that women were ever forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the second world war.

According to a UN report, around 200,000 women throughout Asia are thought to have been drafted into sex slavery by the Japanese during the war - working in a network of military brothels; they thought they were going to be given legitimate work in factories or other places.

Their individual stories are quite terrible..many served 20-30 men or more a day; but their misery didnt end there. After the war, many comfort women were shunned by society when they returned home. So they kept quiet about their past, hiding their shame. Nearly five decades later, some women finally began to talk about what happened. They started a campaign to demand restitution and an official apology.

But they failed to win either an apology or compensation from the Japanese government. [A private fund was set up in Japan - but many women refused to accept compensation - calling it an insult]. They want an official apology and compensation from the Japanese government.

Several legal cases were brought but thrown out by the Japanese courts over the years. Japan's official position is that all war-time related claims were dealt with in bilateral peace treaties decades ago.

What the women want most of all is a public apology - to get some dignity back and see justice before they die.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Reassessing the past

There seems to be a frenzy of activity at the moment to remove all vestiges of Taiwan's authoritarian past and change sinocised names to those more firmly reflecting their setting in Taiwan.

Defence minister Lee Jye, lost his KMT membership, after acceding to cabinet orders to remove statues of Chiang Kai-shek, the island's controversial former president, from military bases.
The Cabinet plans to rename the Chiang Kai-shek memorial to the Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall - though other plans to demolish the outer walls have been resisted by the city goverment.

Yesterday, Kaohsiung city government dismantled the island's largest seated statue of Chiang and renamed its cultural centre - removing all references to him.

I think we can expect more cases like this, as the 31st anniversary of his death approaches next month...

Taiwan furore over statue removal
By Caroline Gluck BBC News, Taipei
The government wants statues of Chiang Kai-shek to be removed

The biggest seated bronze statue in Taiwan of its late authoritarian ruler, Chiang Kai-shek, is being removed from the island's second city of Kaohsiung.

It is the latest in a series of steps by the government to dismantle legacies of the island's authoritarian past and stress its distinctiveness from China.

Chiang led the Kuomintang (Nationalist party) and once governed all of China.
He fled to Taiwan with his troops in 1949 after losing to the Communists at the end of the civil war.

Scuffles broke out late on Tuesday night as protestors gathered to try to prevent hundreds of police and soldiers from starting work to dismantle a large bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek which sits inside the entrance to Kaohsiung's main cultural centre.

Television news reports showed protestors trying to scramble over barbed wire barricades.
Work to remove the bronze statue, first erected more than 20 years ago, continued on Wednesday.

Revered and reviled
City officials said the bronze figure would be temporarily stored until another site could be found where it would be welcomed and well treated.

Kaohsiung city government officials had earlier announced that Chiang Kai-shek's name was being removed from the cultural centre.

The steps are in line with recent cabinet efforts to remove monuments honouring Taiwan's former and controversial president.

He is still revered by many as a hero, but reviled by others for ordering a violent crackdown on critics and imposing martial law.

In recent months, his name has been removed from Taiwan's main international airport and the government has ordered his statues to be removed from military bases.

A landmark memorial hall dedicated to him in Taipei - a key tourist attraction - is also due to be renamed, although cabinet plans to tear down the outer walls of the building are being resisted by city government officials.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Taiwan puppetry

One of Taiwan's renowned puppet masters, Huang Hai-tai, was honoured in a presidential citation at a funeral ceremony in central Yunlin county this weekend, after he passed away at the amazing age of 107.

I met him a few years ago - I was doing a story about his legacy; and his family - several generations of puppeteers.

He began learning his art at the age of 14 from his father. Puppet masters would be the "voices" of all the puppet characters. At a time when the shows were based on Chinese historical tales and themes of patriotism and filial piety, he introduced racier stories - tales of good and evil, with dramatic plots and action-packed martial arts scenes.

His sons carried on the tradition. One, Huang Chun-hsiung, got his show aired on television. It became massively popular - as it had all kinds of special effects - and ran for more than 500 episodes. It was stopped by the government in the end because workers would down tools to watch the programme.
His grandsons started the Pili puppets - which has become so fashionable with young Taiwanese.
Pili International Multimedia is a multi million dollar enterprise - putting out dvds, all kinds of merchandising; and re running old episodes on their own cable channel dedicated to puppetry.

The puppet figures were selected in a public poll last year as the top image to represent Taiwan internationally.

Glove puppetry - or budaixi - is one of Taiwan's traditional arts - introduced around 200 years ago during the first large wave of immigrantion from China's eastern Fujian Province. In its heyday, there were hundreds of troupes. But in modern Taiwan, their numbers - and audiences - are dwindling.
The Huang family have somehow managed to swim against the tide; making their art relevant and popular with modern-day audiences, and using the latest media and technology to do so.

Friday, March 9, 2007

lantern festival

It was great to head out of Taipei yesterday, if only to briefly escape the media frenzy whipped up over AP and CNN reporting of vice president Annette Lu's press conference in which she announced she'd be standing for her party's nominee as President.

I briefly got caught up in the coverage...mistakenly identified in the press conference when I asked the v-p a question. Wish the local media would check their facts...and behave more responsibly.

Anyhow, yesterday, visited a lovely lantern festival in Chiayi. The special thing was part of the event was given over to some artists, allowing them to express - mainly using local materials - their view of a very traditional festival. It was really beautiful.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Guarding the treasures

Behind closed doors...I meant to post this story before I went on holiday - but too much of a mad rush.

Anyhow, I managed to get rare access to see the tunnels behind the newly renovated National Palace Museum last month.

The museum has one of the most important collections of Chinese art treasures and objects in the world. Most of the objects were collected by China’s ancient emperors and held in what later became known as the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

But, on the orders of Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, the treasures were carefully packed and moved out in 1933, and transported around China to protect them from advancing Japanese troops; and later, from damage during the civil war.

For many of the best pieces in the collection, the epic journey ended 16 years later, when more than 3000 crates were shipped to Taiwan, as the Nationalists fled to the island after losing the Chinese civil war.

Some crates were reportedly left on the the Nationalists were fleeing China and didnt have time to put them all on the ships.

The museum’s collection is so vast that only about 1% can ever shown at any one time. But it carefully guards its treasures.

Some of them - mainly ceramics are kept in steel crates - in two tunnels cut into the mountainside at the back of the museum.

To get to see them, I was accompanied by senior museum staff and security officials. We went through three sets of elaborately sealed and locked doors.

Inside, the tunnel was lined by steel crates, and seemed to snake endlessly into the distance.

There were also some clearly battered wooden crates - the originals used to ship the treasures from China.

Most of the people who made the journey with the treasures have passed away. Luckily, my friend Joy helped me get in touch with some people who could help me interview one survivor and leaf through some historic photos from that time.

Its such an amazing story. I felt privileged to discover more about the past. Here's my full story on the bbc website


What's in a name ?

The government has been stepping up efforts to drop the word "China" from many [state run] companies and organisations.
The newly renamed Taiwan Post Office last week issued the first stamps bearing the name "Taiwan" on the 60th anniversary of the 228 incident.
Looks like the Chiang Kai-shek memorial will soon become the Taiwan Democracy Park. The goverment wants to tear down the walls around the park; the city government says officials need their approval first; could be a legal battle ahead.
I've not been keeping this blog up-to-date recently, but the British band Muse played at the Spirit of Taiwan Concert (see previous entry) and were amazing. They have sold out concerts at Wembley Stadium...but at Taiwan's Chunghsan soccer stadium, there was plenty of space for more crowds. I think the lack of publicity (a nervous Warner music record company anxious about the political overtones and China's reaction) was the reason. Too bad; they missed out on one of the best bands I've seen live in a long time.