Celebrated Taiwanese writer Lung Ying-tai describes her recent foray into the political world as a “field trip”.
It’s the second such field trip for the author of 30 books, including the best-selling 2009 examination of the Chinese civil war, Big River, Big Sea—Untold Stories of 1949, which was banned in Mainland China. It was dedicated to the 10 million people who died and the many others who suffered when the Communists took power, forcing a mass exodus from the mainland to Taiwan.
Lung, whose parents were part of that diaspora, served as the director of the Taipei cultural-affairs bureau from 1999 to 2003 under then-mayor Ma Ying-jeou. At the time, she focused on converting dilapidated buildings into vibrant cultural spaces, including a museum of contemporary art, galleries, and literary salons.
“I very firmly decided not to go ahead with the mayor for a second term,” she recalls in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight from New York City, before heading here for an appearance at Telus TaiwanFest. “I’m very happy that I left at that time.”
Instead, she accepted an academic post at the University of Hong Kong and wrote her epic book. Ma, meanwhile, went on to become Taiwan’s president. And when he sought reelection this year, he recruited Lung, who has a Ph.D. in English and American literature, to beef up his ruling Kuomintang Party’s credibility in advance of a tough campaign.
(Ma’s wooing of Lung is reminiscent of how former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell brought on a cultural-affairs star, then-CBC chair Carole Taylor, to boost the B.C. Liberals’ fortunes before the 2005 election.)
“I was thinking if I want to serve the country in a more active way—which would cost me a lot of energy and time—this probably will be my last time,” Lung, 60, says with a convincing tone in her voice.
She’s now Taiwan’s first minister of culture with a mandate to deal with the same government across the strait that prohibited distribution of her book.
So what’s it like negotiating with China, which considers Taiwan to be just another province? “We are making very slow progress,” Lung acknowledges.
As an example, she cites an agreement to allow 10 Chinese films to be broadcast in Taiwan every year. In return, China consented not to set any quota on Taiwanese films being shown. Lung notes that on the face of it, the deal sounded ideal for her country’s film sector. The reality, however, turned out to be considerably different.
“Throughout the whole year, there were only eight films really entering China because you have so many unseen barriers there,” she says, referring to the Chinese government’s lack of transparency. “That goes back to the fact that…the social structure and the political structure of the two places are so different.”
Taiwan is a thriving democracy with a vibrant cultural community. It has produced numerous indie-rock bands, the high-end Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, and a buoyant film sector made famous by its most revered director, Ang Lee, who happens to be a friend of Lung.
However, the minister says that the Chinese government’s huge investments in arts and culture to expand its “soft power” are having an effect on Taiwan, home to 23 million people on a land mass slightly larger than Vancouver Island.
“We are kind of experiencing a brain-drain type of thing because the market is so huge over there,” Lung states. “We are witnessing people going over to China—including playwrights, novelists, designers, singers, and so on. So it’s a huge challenge for us…to keep our own talents here.”
She sees a parallel with the Canadian brain drain to the much larger United States, albeit with a significant difference. Canada and the U.S. are on friendly terms, whereas China is pointing approximately 1,600 missiles at Taiwan.
“The Taiwanese have been really industrious people who worked very hard,” Lung says, “and at the same time, somehow, the people have managed to create a real open society in the context of traditional Chinese culture.”
Lung last spoke in Vancouver in 2009 to a capacity crowd at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. As part of the Telus TaiwanFest, she is back in town for a free public discussion downtown at the CBC building on Friday (August 31).
Lung says her goals include developing more writers’ and artists’ exchange programs between Canada and Taiwan. Lung adds that she also wants to learn how Canadian cultural institutions have been able to mobilize so many volunteers.
When asked which country has done the best job of promoting its arts and cultural sector to the world, Lung brings up Great Britain. In her words, it has “steadily and very self-assuredly” done this, which was apparent to anyone who watched the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Games.
“They are very self-confident in their own content, but they are also very good salesmen,” she says.
As part of Telus TaiwanFest, Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad program director and producer Robert Kerr will moderate a discussion with Lung Ying-tai at CBC Studio 700 from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Friday (August 31). Register for free here.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.