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Dramatist Stan Lai:

Taipei's Greatness Comes from Its Freedom


Long active on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, one of Taiwan's foremost directors considers the open atmosphere that gives Taiwan the creative edge.



Taipei's Greatness Comes from Its Freedom

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 401 )

Over the past few years Taiwan's leading contemporary theater group Performance Workshop has brought its productions to China. From the play "The Peach Blossom Land" to the three-man political cabaret  "Look Who's Cross-Talking Tonight," the group that playwright and theater director Stan Lai founded has drawn full houses across China. In Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Guizhou alike, audiences show the same reaction to these amusing, touching and sometimes disturbing performances: When they finish laughing, they feel like crying, and when they finish crying, they feel like savoring the aftertaste for a while.

The theater group's creative vein was nurtured in Taipei. And there's no doubt that Lai himself is a part of Taipei culture – pluralistic and sophisticated.

How does Lai, as a director and author who knows how to move people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, compare Beijing and Taipei? What is Lai's take on the underrated city of Taipei? Following are excerpts from an exclusive interview Lai accepted with CommonWealth Magazine.

Actually, a group of rich Chinese, including the Beijing property developer Wang Shi, visited Taiwan two years ago, and I had the opportunity to take them around to several places.

It takes only half an hour from downtown Taipei to Danshui, so I took them to the Taipei National University of the Arts and then to the Koo Foundation Sun Yat-sen Cancer Center in Guandu.

At Taipei National University of the Arts, they saw the concert hall inside the university and were stunned to see that a university with just 1,000 students could have its own concert hall. They felt that none of their own central academies of technical arts or fine arts could achieve such a thing, while schools in Taiwan could be run to such a degree of sophistication.

They were even more impressed by the Sun Yat-sen Cancer Center. They felt it was much stronger than Stanford University Hospital, that it was beautiful and humane.

Then the billionaires furtively asked me with whispering voices, "What kind of people come here to see a doctor?"

I proudly told them, "Anyone with a national health insurance card can come here to see a doctor. The people you see registering with their NHI cards over there are all ordinary people. It's not just privileged people that can come here."

After these corporate leaders had seen the two places, they said that China still has a long way to go before it can catch up with Taiwan.

These two places planted the seeds of inspiration in these Chinese entrepreneurs – that's the magnetism of Taipei.

I have lived in many countries, but the place that I identify with most is Taipei, I am proud to be a Taipei person.

Taipei has a certain complexity and sophistication, a certain rich experience and vast knowledge that it has built up over the years, yet it is not flashy. That's the lifestyle of Taipei.

Creative Joy and Ease

Recently there was a fashion forum in Beijing. Several apparel manufacturers complained to me with a sigh that the current generation born in the 1950s won't produce brand-name designers of the likes of Louis Vuitton. I said that I somewhat agree, because to work as a fashion designer takes joy, and that's something the 1950s generation of Beijing did not have. I feel that even in the next generation, that kind of joy has not emerged yet.

But in Taipei many people have been enjoying their lives in their own way for many years. They open a small store, do some small business. Even a civil servant could very likely be an expert parachuter in his spare time. Taipei people have become very sophisticated in looking for their own pleasure in life. This is pretty rare in the Chinese-speaking world, where everyone slaves away in pursuit of money.

The lifestyle of Taipei people is more free and easy. More than others, they have the energy and joy that it takes to be creative. Without joy it is very hard to create a brand.

In the Chinese-speaking world those who understand the situation all know that Taipei has its absolute competitive edge – namely, our culture. To put it more precisely, what has brought about this culture is a liberal atmosphere.

I have worked in China and in the United States. Taiwan is much more liberal than the U.S. For example, in television, film and theater, you can do whatever you want. There are no restrictions with regard to content, even for political or sexual topics – everything is okay. No matter how many people appear naked on stage, you don't need to notify anyone beforehand, or even to inform the audience. It's the same even if a play is staged at the National Theater (in Taipei).

When Performance Workshop staged Waiting for Godot at the National Theater in 2002, we built a passageway inside the theater. Our theater people looked at it and said it was okay. But when you do the same in New York, the first thing they will do is to set fire to your props to find out whether they're fireproof.

If a young person wants to stage a play, he will have a lot of opportunities and possibilities in Taipei, even if he doesn't know anyone. Taipei's resources are actually stronger, although the state provides extremely few resources.

So in terms of technical aspects, subject matter and administration, Taipei is very free. That's where Taipei's magnificent spirit lies – everything is doable.

And Beijing? Whatever you do, you always think about politics. Beijing audiences are more and more able to accept a lot of things, but having worked on both sides of the Taiwan Strait for so many years, I am still on tenterhooks when I arrive in Beijing and accept media interviews, because I don't know when I might say the wrong thing. That culture has been going on for a very long time.

But when it comes to creativity, Taipei doesn't have an absolute competitive edge. This is because the power of the Beijing government is very strong, and it uses the economy to quickly boost culture. It has great ambitions. It not only uses hard forces, but soft forces are also slowly emerging, such as the Songzhuang Artists Community in Beijing, which has already become the world's most productive artist village.

But Taipei's freedom certainly favors creativity.

Exactly what kind of creative fertilizer or nutrients are at work in Taipei? Maybe there is no precise answer, but I'm convinced it's a kind of spirit of sophistication. It's something you can't easily perceive. It's a sophistication of human nature, democracy and life.

That's why I always take my initial inspiration for my creations from Taipei. Taipei can hardly compete with Beijing in terms of surface area and power. But over there, they're still only blindly thinking about making money, to an extent. Taipei definitely needs to grasp what its distinguishing features are. If your distinguishing feature is to go for size, then I can tell you, for many business people the KTVs (karaoke parlors) in Taipei are not as big as those in Guangzhou, and the bar hostesses are not as beautiful as in Shanghai.

Taipei's distinguishing features are sophistication and a human spirit.

So we need to raise the benchmark for life and beauty again. Only then will creativity be taken to new heights, and Taipei will continue to be competitive after direct links open between Taiwan and China.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

Chinese Version: 賴聲川:台北的偉大,在自由