Art in the Rice Paddies: Chishang Autumn Rice Harvest Arts Festival
Tina Xie /photo byLin Min-hsuan /tr. byBrandon Yen
The little town of Chishang in Taitung County has long been losing its population to the cities, but remarkably the township was featured on the website of Time magazine in 2009. In the photograph, a musician plays the piano amid billowing waves of golden rice. The melodies linger among the fields, as a gentle breeze caresses the rice paddies and resonates with the music through the vales and hills.
In 2018, Chishang celebrated its tenth Autumn Rice Harvest Arts Festival. As befits a town that loves Chinese calligraphy, it featured Cloud Gate Theater’s Pine Smoke, a dance work that captures the spirit of the art. (photo by Liu Chen-hsiang, courtesy of Lovely Taiwan)
Chishang’s Autumn Rice Harvest Arts Festival, which has been running for 11 years, is not merely a run-of-the-mill arts event, but a meaningful fête embedded in its locality. For local residents, the festival affords a wonderful opportunity to show visitors how much they love Chishang.
Students from Chishang Junior High School stand ready to welcome visitors to the arts festival.
A sense of community
Volunteers are to be seen everywhere during the arts festival. From traffic control, through medical assistance, to selling souvenirs, the locals take everything upon themselves. In front of the railway station, a visibly excited man says: “These two days are a big event for Chishang!” The whole community springs into action. Local residents perform their respective duties to perfection, serving visitors with great enthusiasm. Any tourist who appears at a loss is instantly approached by these volunteers.
In order to bring this festival to fruition, some 300 volunteers in Chishang need to spend at least eight months each year acquiring professional skills in diverse areas, including event programming, advertising, public relations, facility management and ticketing. Farmers, moreover, have to harvest part of their rice early and leave the rest until after the festival to accommodate the stage. Not only do they not grumble about the inconvenience, they even hang up notices reminding each other that because of the arts festival, there should be no harvesting for three days.
“We Chishang people have a great sense of community. That makes it easier to get things done.” Liang Zhengxian, chairman of the local Culture and Art Association, traces this community spirit back to the 1990s, when Taiwan was applying to join the WTO. When the news reached the farmers, a pall of apprehension descended upon Chishang, and no one wanted to install their newly purchased agricultural machinery any more.
Confronted with this challenge, Liang thought that instead of sitting there doing nothing, the farmers should carve out a brighter future for themselves by raising the quality and value of Chishang rice. At the time there were many dishonest companies advertising their rice as coming from Chishang, thus taking away income from the real growers. Liang encouraged the local rice farmers to work together to establish an origin certification system and to adopt organic farming methods. The farmers agreed to give it a go and joined the collective effort. After four years’ hard work, they won the support of the township administration and the farmers’ association, and the certification system was created.
Thanks to their endeavors, only rice that has been grown in Chishang can display the officially accredited mark “Chishang Rice.” As the mark gained recognition, farmers in Chishang came to enjoy greater economic security and developed a tremendous sense of camaraderie, which reinforces their local attachments.
Liang Zhengxian, chairman of Chishang’s Culture and Art Association, has promoted the certification mark system to safeguard the value of rice grown in Chishang. He also champions the town’s culture and art.
In order to accommodate the arts festival stage, farmers work together to harvest rice before the festival. The rest will be harvested afterwards. (photo by Lo Cheng-chieh, courtesy of Lovely Taiwan)
Chishang’s cultural vitality
Farmers in Chishang are committed not only to farmland preservation but also to art. During the slack periods of the farming year, they join in the activities of Chinese calligraphy, painting and book groups. Calligraphy is especially noteworthy, with its long history combining the emphasis on education in traditional Minnan and Hakka farming cultures and the leisure pursuits of veterans from postwar China. For example, the Kuroshio Calligraphy Society was founded by Xiao Chunsheng more than 20 years ago. It laid the foundation for the popularity of practicing calligraphy among the people of Chishang.
Chishang’s street signs and railway station display a rich array of calligraphic works by local residents, testifying to the town’s passion for calligraphy. Chishang’s potential to become a center of culture and art is evident here. That was why the Lovely Taiwan Foundation—which established a base there in 2008—swiftly found a way to collaborate with the locals.
There is a rich culture of Chinese calligraphy in Chishang. Calligraphic works by local residents are displayed in at the railway station and on road signs.
Lee Ying Ping, chief executive officer of Lovely Taiwan, says that the foundation’s guiding principle is “respecting the life choices of local people”: learning what the locals need by befriending them.
By tapping Taiwan’s rich veins of local culture, Lovely Taiwan wishes to help everyone appreciate the country’s beautiful landscape, benevolence and cultural vitality. Chief executive officer Lee Ying Ping says that as an organization coming in from the outside, their guiding principle is very simple: to respect local people’s lifestyle choices. “We would never begin by thinking about what to bring to an existing community. Only after acquainting ourselves with the locals and befriending them do we get to know, little by little, what they want and what we can offer.”
Lovely Taiwan decided that they should start small: hence the inauguration of the Chishang Picnic & Music Festival, which has been drawing local residents to the shores of Dapo Lake, where they can have their picnics while enjoying live performances. Owing to this beautifully created ambience, the landscape, which was once taken for granted, now gives the locals an entirely different feeling. Liang Zhengxian says admiringly: “The atmosphere is impressive, very poetic and picturesque.”
The Picnic & Music Festival is much loved by the locals, who have also come to subscribe to the vision that fuels it. Having strengthened their connections with the community, Lovely Taiwan found that local people felt more at ease when communicating with them and when expressing their wishes to them. A conversation between the two parties gave birth to Chishang’s Autumn Rice Harvest Arts Festival. During a dinner gathering, a local resident voiced this idea: “We have such beautiful rice paddies. It would be fabulous if someone could perform music there!” Ko Wen-chang, chairman of Lovely Taiwan, replied with delight: “If you provide the rice paddies, we’ll arrange the concert!”
Chishang’s Autumn Rice Harvest Arts Festival was inaugurated in 2009. A photograph showing the pianist Eric Chen performing in the middle of rice paddies appeared on the website of Time magazine, revealing the beauty of the place to the world at large.
The Chishang Barn Art Museum is a new incarnation of a historic barn belonging to Liang Zhengxian’s family. It not only preserves local memory but also serves as a space where locals are encouraged to interact with artists-in-residence.
Rooted in the locality
The enthusiastic responses, however, prompted Ko Wen-chang to wonder whether what Lovely Taiwan had achieved would eventually be rooted in the lives of local people and their offspring, or whether it was but a moment of glory, striking but transient. In order for Chishang to continue to develop in a sustainable way, Ko conveyed these thoughts to Lovely Taiwan and to the locals. He hoped that Chishang would set up its own culture and art association to host the arts festival, with Lovely Taiwan offering assistance behind the scenes.
At first, the locals did not believe they would succeed in organizing a festival on such a grand scale. But Lovely Taiwan encouraged them to cut the first turf by establishing their local association. Thus the Chishang Culture and Art Association was founded in 2016 to collaborate with Lovely Taiwan on the Autumn Rice Harvest Arts Festival scheduled for the following year. The association began with less complex tasks, then set about gradually mastering the core aspects of planning the event. Meanwhile Lovely Taiwan notified their sponsors that future festivals would be taken over by the newly founded local association.
By degrees, Lovely Taiwan introduced the Culture and Art Association to relevant resources, contacts and expertise, aiming to yield the limelight to the locals. Eventually, in 2018, the arts festival came to be hosted solely by the Culture and Art Association. Lovely Taiwan only assisted them with media relations, for which they were not yet fully prepared at that time.
Reminiscing about her time in Chishang, Lee Ying Ping says that in addition to the support of local residents and the influence of artists, time is a key factor in enabling culture to realize its fullest potential there. All of Lovely Taiwan’s projects have a ten-year span. They do not rush to effect changes within just a couple of years because they understand that for a place to experience any positive transformation, sustained efforts and patience are imperative.
Wei Wen Hsuan (left), who was among the first youngsters to return to Chishang, has helped his younger friend Frank Lin (right) to renovate an old house; they share customers by providing different services. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Chishang’s rice paddies occupy 500 hectares, without a single utility pole in their midst. In autumn, the rice turns golden, transforming the scene into the most natural of “natural stages.” (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Preserving Chishang’s memories
Apart from the annual arts festival, Chishang boasts an ever-increasing number of independent businesses which tourists find attractive. Many of these are in renovated old houses near the railway station, such as the café-cum-gallery Coffee Stay and the B&Bs ChingTing, HowHas and Good Harvest. There, visitors can acquire intimate glimpses of Chishang’s history, while basking in the owners’ love of the place. Some of these proprietors are youngsters who have recently returned to their hometown to live and work, and others are newcomers who are simply enamored of Chishang. Whatever their backgrounds and motivations, they have settled in Chishang because of what the place represents, and because they are committed to a shared vision: to preserve the story of Chishang.
Wei Wen Hsuan, owner of Good Harvest B&B, has been back in Chishang for 16 years. As one of the first young people to return, he is aware of the challenges faced by the younger generation, who enjoy few job opportunities and are not well connected with established local figures and businesses. Wei’s own initial enthusiasm was in fact mixed with a deep-seated sense of apprehension about the future.
As a result, Wei invited his close friends to form the Black Knights. They pedal around the town on old-fashioned bikes, hoping to strike up conversations with local residents. In doing so, they aim to familiarize the youngsters who have recently returned to Chishang, as well as newcomers, with the way their town is being developed, and locals, in turn, have come to know these new faces and establish amicable relationships with them.
As more and more young people are returning or moving to Chishang, the local businesses have devised a “dispersed hotel” model, whereby each provides different services and they share each other’s customers through the website Amusing Chishang (chishang-travel.tw).
Through the recommendations on Amusing Chishang, tourists who have come to stay in the town are introduced to many characterful local shops and can then go dining or shopping in places that catch their eyes.
Through renovating old houses and sharing customers, young people in Chishang are more likely to be able to make a living. Only by retaining the younger generation can issues such as education and elderly care be properly dealt with. And only by this means can people in Chishang continue to write the next chapter of their story.
Chishang’s rice paddies are where local people earn their living and catch up with each other. The town owes to them its cultural vitality and artistic creativity. (photo by Hsiao An-shun, courtesy of Lovely Taiwan)
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama