Chen Chun-fang /photo byJimmy Lin /tr. byPhil Newell
The Bulareyaung Dance Company, from Taiwan’s Taitung County, incorporates features of indigenous peoples’ dance into modern dance. Their performances in Singapore drew tremendous responses from the audiences. (photo by Bernie Ng, courtesy of Esplanade)
Because they share a common language, Taiwan and Singapore have enjoyed frequent cultural exchanges. Exhibitions of Taiwanese painting, dance, or literature are held in various locations in Singapore, and always attract a great deal of attention from the general public.
When you arrive at the Taipei Representative Office in Singapore, you are greeted by a sea-blue sofa and a print by the artist Wang Liang-yin inspired by sweet pastry. The rich, dreamlike combination of colors transcends the stereotype of government offices as bland, serious places.
Artworks bring a sense of liveliness and vitality to the official residence of the Taipei Representative in Singapore.
Taiwan contemporary art in Singapore
The public spaces at the representative office are like mini art galleries, displaying works by the new generation of artists in Taiwan. “Art enhances the atmosphere of daily life,” says Representative Francis Kuo-hsin Liang. Corridors that were once gloomy have now become corners where office staff and visitors stop and enjoy artworks.
Under a program between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture, for periods of one year each the Taiwan Art Bank arranges the display of works by contemporary Taiwanese artists in overseas representative offices. The theme of the current exhibit in Singapore is “Taiwan in Full Bloom,” and it highlights the richness and beauty of Taiwan. For example, the work Gentle Breeze by Tsai Shih-mei looks like an ink-wash painting done in green ink, but in fact she uses black ink on green paper to outline grass in a meadow waving in the wind. Standing in front of the painting, one can almost smell the fragrance of green grass blowing on the breeze.
The official residence of the Taiwan representative in Singapore, which similarly hosts frequent visits by foreign dignitaries, also has contemporary Taiwanese artworks on display. Francis Liang doubles as guide, introducing the meaning and character of the works shown there.
Before going on display in the representative office, paintings are first put on preliminary show at other exhibition spaces in Singapore, open to the public free of charge. Many visitors who attend these shows are amazed by the level of artistic creativity in Taiwan, and some even express a desire to buy works on display. Although the purpose of these shows is to promote awareness rather than make sales, the artists at least gain recognition from them.
Francis Liang says: “The innovation, experimentalism and dynamism revealed by Taiwan art are very well received in Singapore.” You can also often see Taiwanese groups appearing at Singapore’s largest performance venue, Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay. For example, Cloud Gate Dance Theater and the Godot Theatre Company have been invited to perform there.
Francis Liang, Taiwan’s representative in Singapore, says that showing contemporary Taiwanese art in overseas offices of the Taiwan government is a concrete expression of national cultural policies.
Bringing together outstanding Chinese artists
Aiming to “make art accessible to everyone,” Esplanade stages brilliant programs all year round. Reflecting Singapore’s ethnically diverse population, each year it holds “Huayi—Chinese Festival of Arts,” the “Malay Festival of Arts,” and the “Indian Festival of Arts.” These allow different ethnic groups to appreciate each other’s cultures, and provide even richer art experiences.
This year’s was the 17th edition of Huayi—Chinese Festival of Arts, which is held annually just after the Lunar New Year. There are no themes for Huayi, but the general idea is to gather together outstanding artists of Chinese ancestry. “We hope to become a sought-after platform for Chinese artists all over the world,” says Delvin Lee, the event’s producer. The program for Huayi is very diverse: There are easily understood, entertainment-oriented events, as well as avant-garde and experimental performances.
For example, the Bulareyaung Dance Company from Taiwan’s Taitung County, breaking free of modern dance’s image of being inaccessible and difficult to understand, incorporated the song and dance of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples into modern dance for the segment of this year’s Huayi entitled “That Which Cannot Be Divided.” In response to the dancers’ rich bodily expression and resounding singing, the audience constantly shouted their approval throughout the performance, nearly tearing the roof off with their enthusiasm. Many audience members said they had never seen modern dance of this kind before.
The first overseas performance by Taiwan’s Story Works company was the tension-filled work The Way of Zhuang Zi, which won the hearts of Singapore audiences. (photo by Tuckys, courtesy of Esplanade)
Expanding the performance stage
Delvin Lee states that Esplanade is a non-profit organization, and does not base its choice of participants on commercial considerations. So long as performers have good and unique works to display, they don’t have to be extremely famous to come and perform. For example, the showing of The Way of Zhuang Zi by Taiwan’s Story Works at Huayi 2019 was the first overseas performance of any kind by the company since its founding in 2013.
The storyline of The Way of Zhuang Zi revolves around six people who take part in a locked-room escape game. They have to solve puzzles or riddles based on the thought of the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, and in order to win the prize money they undergo a series of intrigues and deceptions that test their humanity. Story Works director and playwright Huang Chih-kai believes that “within the fabric of different cultures there are similar human values.” Even though the script includes many jokes in Taiwanese, Huang didn’t change a single word, as he wanted to give the Singapore audiences the work with its original flavor intact.
Originally Huang calculated that Singapore audiences would only be able to understand about 70% of the comic material in the play. Little did he expect that the audiences at all three performances in Singapore could get all the jokes, and would respond even more raucously than did audiences in Taipei. Huang opines: “Huayi is an event with an established brand name, and Singapore audiences are composed of people from diverse cultures. If we can be accepted by audiences there, it means that Story Works has the opportunity to advance onto the international stage.”
Delvin Lee says that Esplanade is continuing to work with arts centers in Taiwan to promote the overseas development of Singaporean artists. For example, for The Blood and Rose Ensemble, produced by Esplanade in collaboration with the National Theater and Concert Hall in Taipei, they brought in Singaporean artiste Oliver Chong to perform, and arranged for the piece to be staged in both Taiwan and Singapore. Afterwards Chong was invited to have his own works performed at the Cloud Gate Theater.
Singaporean artist Jason J.S. Lee (left) has organized an exhibition project named “Small Singapore Show 2.0: TaiSing Conversation,” aiming to inspire greater creativity through interactions between artists from Singapore and Taiwan. The photo shows two works from the “Sound Portrait” series of the Taiwanese artist Peggy Kuo (right), symbolizing friendship between the two countries.
Dialogue between artists
Singaporean artist Jason J.S. Lee is currently studying in the Graduate Institute of Transdisciplinary Arts at Taipei National University of the Arts. He considers himself a bridge between Taiwan and Singapore, and has undertaken the exhibition project “Small Singapore Show 2.0: TaiSing Conversation” in hopes of promoting more exchanges between artists in the two places.
Lee has matched up over ten artists from Taiwan and Singapore, in fields that include photography, painting, and music. The matchup partners first use the Internet to discuss the issues that concern them, and their creative proposals. After exchanging opinions for several months, the artists then create works in response. For example, Taiwan’s Chia Chien-ju and Singapore’s Justin Lee sent each other objects from their respective cities. Justin Lee, a skilled printmaker, combined plastic bags from Taiwan with fishing nets to create a series of works with Taiwanese elements, in a form similar to silkscreen prints.
After researching musical culture, Taiwanese artist Peggy Kuo (Kuo Pei-chi) decided to create melodies from portraits of personalities. This involves constructing portraits out of notes on sheet music and then presenting the result as a video installation. Just put on headphones and you will hear the music on the page. For example, the work Sound Portrait: Vegetable English uses the ROC national anthem as the background for a portrait of Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, while Sound Portrait: Lee Hsien Long uses a portrait of Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien-loong drawn over the sheet music for the Malaysian folksong “Di-Tanjong Katong,” which is familiar to everyone in Singapore (the selection was inspired by Kuo’s matchup partner, artist Urich Lau). Jason Lee hopes that interactions like these will allow Taiwanese artists to more deeply understand Singaporean society and culture, and enable Singaporeans to reexamine Singapore from the point of view of Taiwanese artists.
Singapore’s Grassroots Book Room sells Chinese-language books from all over, and periodically holds lectures and exhibitions; it is a meeting place for all kinds of products of the imagination.
A window for the Chinese language
Inside the Grassroots Book Room on Singapore’s Bukit Pasoh Road, the wooden bookshelves are filled with books in Chinese.
Looking around, you see books from Taiwan publishers everywhere. These include lyrical works by Taiwanese authors, such as Chang Man-chuan’s Midlife, or works like Story Grocery Store (a collection of short stories based on legends from Taiwan’s rural areas), as well as translated books published in Taiwan.
In Singapore, where English is the main language for reading, Grassroots Book Room owner Lim Wooi Tee compares his bookstore to an oasis in a desert. Chinese-language books from Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and China are all within Grassroots’ purview, as they broaden the perspective of readers. In view of the one-way traffic in books from Taiwan to Singapore and Malaysia, Lim says that the understanding that Taiwanese have of Singapore and Malaysia, and indeed of Southeast Asia as a whole, is very one-sided. Last year Lim and a Taiwanese friend opened the Monsoon bookstore in Taipei to bring Chinese-language books published in Singapore and Malaysia into Taiwan, and also published Chinese-language books such as Indonesia: Twenty Years of Democracy in Taiwan, thereby creating two-way interactions between Taiwan and Southeast-Asian countries. “What’s great about a bookstore is that it provides a platform where people with different ideologies can interact,” says Lim.
Taiwan’s pluralistic values have made for rich vitality and creativity in the arts and culture. Cultural exchange between Taiwan and Singapore will endow the arts with even greater scope for imagination, and allow the friendship between our two countries to flourish.