A Rising Center of Creativity
Romantic yet practical, Taipei’s free-flowing creative energy is surging beyond Taiwan and into ethnic-Chinese communities around the world. Even countries in the West are showing fascination with the city’s creative expression.
‘Hot’ TaipeiBy Veronique Chou
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 608 )
A song, a painting, a handmade item – they all represent how their creators see life, the times in which they live and the world. Taiwan may be best known among outsiders for its natural beauty, but Taiwanese artists and designers are now attracting visitors from Asia and the West to the country’s “everyday sensibilities.”
This creative ambiance has been spreading, from Dihua Street in Taipei and Parklane by CMP in Taichung to downtown Tainan and Pier-2 Art Center in Kaohsiung. These hubs are all part of a new movement that is spawning a cultural and artistic revival, one that eschews uniform chain stores in favor of cultural and creative clusters full of personality and hand-crafted inspiration. They sell not commodities but lifestyle values.
This revival was born out of a sense of crisis. Landy Chang, CEO of creative and entertainment business promoter Neutron Innovation, was previously in the record business and experienced Taiwan’s pop culture crisis first-hand in the 1990s.
“After the global music industry opened up, it was clear that pop music in the West had a much deeper cultural dimension and a lot more imagination than ours. How could the Chinese-language music scene compete?” he remembers thinking.
Chang pondered the question for a long time and eventually decided to start his own business to address the competitive gap.
Facing an open and highly competitive global market, Chang asked himself what it was that Chinese pop culture could hang its hat on. That conundrum led him to more fundamental questions about culture, such as “Who are we?” and “What do we like?”
In 2006, Chang launched the first “Simple Life Festival” based on a philosophy of “doing what you like and giving what you like to do value.” The festival sparked an interest in directly exploring core issues outside the social mainstream.
Over the past 10 years, the festival’s philosophy has flowed like the wind, lightly caressing people’s minds but striking direct hits on their hearts.
“It was like a new sprout growing after a nuclear holocaust. Young creators are romantic yet practical, even-keeled yet free and easy,” is how Taiwan’s late godfather of advertising David Sun described the creativity and handiwork of young designers to Chang.
Dreamland Culture and Creative CEO Su Li-mei (left) and Neutron Innovation CEO Landy Chang (right) agree that nurturing young talent is the key to success of Taiwan's cultural and creative sector.
Before the arrival of the Simple Life Festival, most people would have had trouble imagining that the new sprouts of creativity were already emerging and would ferment in the following years and converge into a popular lifestyle phenomenon among the younger generation.
Though many adults may not have appreciated the trend, “to independent artists, Taiwan’s space, the space to be creative, to think and to perform, and the pace of life, they are all luxuries for people from Hong Kong,” says independent musician Yoyo Sham, who hails from Hong Kong.
Before moving to Taiwan in 2010, she worked at the Beijing recording studio of renowned Taiwanese singer, songwriter and producer Jonathan Lee and encountered several Taiwanese musicians, in the process changing her.
“I was curious about the kind of environment that nurtured these people and made it possible for them to freely write thoughts and music from the heart,” says Sham, who has appeared in every Simple Life Festival since 2010.
Another of these new creators is the founder of Taiwanese agricultural designer brand “Damu Farms,” Tsai Wen-ling. She used to listen to music outdoors, browse markets and appreciate good design with her classmates, but now she’s the one people are coming to see, setting up a stand at the Simple Life Festival and promoting her own brand.
The new economic models being created by these creative spirits operate around the clock on Facebook, but they are also carving out names for themselves in retail spaces.
Good Cho’s, a food and lifestyle space popular with Asian tourists, promotes stylish Taiwanese objects, creative handicrafts and local farm products. In the six years it’s been in business, it has worked with an average of about 120 Taiwanese design brands.
Good Cho’s store manager Tu Chi-ting says tourists account for about 30 percent of the company’s sales, with Japanese and Hong Kongers the most common customers. Though the number of Chinese visitors has dipped in recent months, Tu says, the brand has seen growth in customers from South Korea and Thailand.
Good Cho’s was an extension of Landy Chang’s vision to create a different creative vive in Taiwan following his launch of the Simple Live Festival. He also went on to set up the independent music platform “Street Voice.com” and the performing arts space Legacy Live House in the Huashan 1914 Creative Park. Both have become channels of expression for young singers, songwriters and musicians. Of the roughly 100 performances per year at the Legacy Live House for which tickets are sold, about 40 percent are for concerts by independent musicians.
The Pier-2 Art Center in Kaoshiung is just one of the places around Taiwan where creative clusters are emerging.
The Importance of Youth Creativity
For innovators like Chang, the creative process can be just as, if not more important, than the business side of a cultural enterprise.
“When looking at the cultural and creative sector, a lot of people tend to focus on commercial issues, typical of the thinking of the manufacturing sector. I think what’s most important is the front end, culture, creativity and aesthetics, and the nurturing of talent,” Chang says.
Su Li-mei, the founder and CEO of Dreamland Culture and Creative Co., Ltd., agrees.
“How to take cultural creativity from zero to one is the most challenging job and the one taken on by the fewest people,” Su says.
She contends that Taiwanese lifestyles have been like cultures concealed in alleyways in the past, hidden and rarely apparent, and she hopes through Dreamland to dig deeply into people’s lives and find symbols that can be converted into “cultural intellectual property” and then translated into products or services.
In 2013, bookstore Yue Yue & Co. was created from the idol drama “Lovestore at the Corner,” which was produced by Dreamland and Chinese Television System, to play the role of a cultural laboratory in today’s new ecosystem. Overseas visitors account for about two-thirds of the customers at its store in the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, often lured in by its literary ambience and free spirit.
Culture is rooted in life, and Chang hopes the Simple Life Festival “can help the creativity of contemporary youth find a close commonality with contemporary life and aesthetics.”
The first 10 years of the festival, he says, were spent putting in place a basic infrastructure and developing an ecosystem that enables creative artists to be competitive in the next phase of development.
So what is the next phase of development? Su admits that there are no precedents for cultural creativity to fall back on, but she believes the right direction involves identifying cultural IP, exploring the possibility of making it part of mainstream living and then perfecting it step-by-step so that it becomes “indispensable.”
The process requires trial and error that will often lead to frustration, but Su says such problems are not insurmountable.
“When there are setbacks, I often share with young people a line from the Lu Xun short story ‘Hometown’: Even if a path is not there to begin with, when lots of people go the same way, it will come into being.”
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier