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Reaching out to Southeast Asia

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Taiwan is promoting cultural cooperation and exchanges in various fields of arts with the AEC

In her introductory article titled “Sharing New Friendships and Visions”, Taiwan’s culture minister Cheng Li-chiun writes, “Taiwan has a long history of ties with Southeast Asia. Such relations are built upon an array of official and non-official cultural, tourist and commercial activities dating back many years. Based on this firm foundation, our new ‘Southbound Policy’ aims to share new visions, |create new opportunities and open new windows for cooperation and exchanges.
“But it is only through the human touch we can truly learn the important details of art, culture and their heritages. In order to expand the scope of cultural exchanges, and to better understand cultural differences of another, the Ministry of Culture is working to implement the New Southbound Policy through expanded people-to-people exchanges,” she continues.

Reaching out to Southeast Asia Chang Cheng introduced his SEAthemed bookstore Brilliant Time. Photo Ministry of Culture, Republic of China

With that in mind, last month the ministry officially appointed 18 “key influencers on the domestic and international stages” to the second Southeast Asian Advisory Committee (SEAAC), comprising Taiwanese and Southeast Asian nationals. I was more than honoured to be part of this.
Along with members of the 1st SEAAC, in the first few days, we were briefly introduced to the past and present of Taiwanese arts and culture and explored possible ways for exchange and cooperation. We visited the National Taiwan Museum, the National 228 Memorial Museum, the Human Rights Museum, which was converted from a political prison, the National Performing Arts Centre, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), a Southeast Asian neighbourhood in New Taipei City, Huashan 1914 Creative Park (where I ran into three of my former students on a Songkran holiday trip), as well as National Taichung Theatre and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts.
Although I had been to Taipei on three previous occasions, a new journey always comes with new knowledge and surprises. 
The first surprise I encountered is that this is a bottom-up, instead of top-down, approach to cultural exchange and cooperation. The second followed shortly afterwards and came courtesy of one of my SEAAC colleagues. Apparently the ties between Taiwan and SEA are partly based on geographical and historical grounds – in other words, Asean and the AEC could have included Taiwan. 

Reaching out to Southeast Asia A meeting with officials from Taiwan Film Institute. Photo Ministry of Culture, Republic of China

I have long been impressed by a Taiwanese chain of bookshops and its ability to make its stores look and feel more than just a place to buy books so it wasn’t surprising to learn that Taiwan’s book translations and publications are considered among the best of the world. What did surprise me though was the purpose of the two-year-old SEA-themed Brilliant Time bookstore. An advocate for Southeast Asian immigrants Chang Cheng, another SEAAC colleague and Brilliant Time’s owner, asks visitors to SEA bring back with them books in local languages and donate them to his bookstore, which will then loan them out for free. He also runs the Taiwan Literaure Award for Migrants to encourage SEA people to write, and to express their thoughts, in Chinese. To make ends meet, this independent bookstore organises many other small SEA-themed literary and cultural events charging nominal admission fees year-round, and I now know what will fill my bags on my next trip to Taipei.
I gave a lecture on Songkran tradition and the “sanuk” culture in contemporary Thai performing arts at National Chi Nan University. Located a hour’s drive from Taichung and 20 minutes from Sun Moon Lake, it is home to the largest community of Southeast Asian students and boasts the country’s first and only Southeast Asian studies department. Many Taiwanese students are studying Thai language there and listening to Thai pop songs. At lunch, my SEAAC colleague Yen Chih-hung showed that he could cook green curry better than me – which wasn’t a surprise. And as it was Songkran, he brought to the class a bowl of water and a branch of leaves for the traditional Thai New Year blessing. As my hair is the opposite to that of a Thai monk, I instead asked the students to pay respect to their professor in an authentic Thai way.
The programme for SEAAC members then turned more individualised and each of us had meetings with our potential partners on the subsequent days. While my filmmaker, curator, museum director and performing arts centre director colleagues were speaking in public forums, I was giving another lecture on contemporary Thai dance and theatre at the Taipei National University of Arts (TNUA), which is also a colleague in the Asia-Pacific Bond of Theatre Schools—and thanks to the SEAAC initiative, an MoU is, of course, in the process. 
At the end of the official five-day programme we all could see clearly the high potential for each of us to build on the already existing “friendships and visions”.

An intercultural and interdisciplinary project
The same week at National Chengchi University, art critic and Srinakharinwirot University fine arts professor Thanom Chapakdee and playwright and director Chung Chiao gave a talk on “The Unforgettable Bru: Animisms in the Films of Apichatpong and the Bru People of the Mekong River,” linking the works by Thailand’s internationally acclaimed film director to their ongoing collaborative research.

Reaching out to Southeast Asia Thanom Chapakdee and Chung Chiao at National Chengchi University.  Photo/ Ministry of Culture Republic of China

The two, who met at an academic conference, had already been in constant contact before being appointed to the 1st SEAAC last year.
Chung, whose Assignment Theatre brought the Satoyama project – a series of environmental theatre activities aimed at creating a mutual communication system between artists and the community participants, based on the development in environmental sustainability – from Japan to Taiwan, collaborated with Thanom, who has been working already with the Bru community for 10 years, in bringing the project to the Bru community along the Mekong river in Thailand this year.
Their friendship and vision are clearly evidenced in “The Water Village” project, presented in both countries and comprising theatre performance and workshop, and combining ecology and environmental issues. It links different disciplines of arts as well as artists and people of different countries.
Beyond tourist traps
Thanks to the “free visa” trial period, and consequently more direct flights between the two capital cities, Taiwan is now among the top destinations for Thai tourists, and vice versa despite the visa requirement from the other side. That, though, cannot yet be said for artists of the two countries, especially those working in performing arts.

Reaching out to Southeast Asia  “Dancing with Death”, still not seen in Thailand, will be in Taipei this August. Photo Bernie Ng

There are, though, a few examples. With support from Taiwan’s culture ministry, Horse Dance Company founder and director Chen Wu-Kang is, from last Friday to this Friday, conducting a workshop at Pichet Klunchun Dance Company, and will perform with the internationally renowned Thai dancer and choreographer this Saturday at Chang Theatre. The Thai company itself is scheduled to perform “Dancing with Death”, seen already in Singapore, Japan and Australia and never in its home country, at Cloud Gate Theatre this August, as part of “Asians Discover Asians Meeting”, a new initiative by Taipei Performing Arts Centre and Taipei Arts Festival. You may remember that the artistic path of Cloud Gate’s founder Lin Hwai-min, who has been creating contemporary dance works based on traditional training, is one of the paths our Silpathorn artist is following.
A question remains here whether our Ministry of Culture is aware of these exchanges and cooperation, sees how, on a larger scale in relation to Taiwan’s Southbound Policy, it is in fact directly linked to our (re)focus on AEC neighbours and consider how they can further support this people-to-people relationship.
I recently jokingly told an international gathering of theatre artists and scholars in Berlin that I was from Bangkok, Thailand, not Taiwan. Loud laughter followed. The fact that this joke still works says a lot about the two countries, which have been linked for many years, and not only by direct flights or common misunderstanding by colleagues from other countries.

Published : May 12, 2017

By : Pawit Mahasarinand Special to The Nation Taipei