When Vancouverites hear the words "made in Taiwan", they're apt to think of consumer electronics, plastic products, or Giant bicycles.
The Taiwanese Canadian Cultural Society and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vancouver want to transform that impression with a Taiwanese art exhibit in the main foyer of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC.
Made in Taiwan features six showcases displaying porcelain antiques, aboriginal artifacts, handicrafts, and contemporary art from the island nation off the coast of China.
Most of the pieces were brought from Taiwan by Cecilia Chueh, CEO and cofounder of the TCCS.
"In 1990, we started with a classical concert with the Vancouver Symphony [Orchestra]," Chueh says in an interview with the Georgia Straight alongside the six showcases.
Since then, the society has become a major supporter of the annual TaiwanFest and LunarFest celebrations, as well as programs to encourage young people to embrace Taiwanese culture.
Chueh starts by discussing the aboriginal exhibits. She points out that there are 14 indigenous tribes in Taiwan, which has 23 million people living in an area roughly the same size as Vancouver Island.
Weaver Yuli Taki, a member of the Taroko band on the eastern coast of Taiwan, has parlayed her traditional skills into a premium brand of elegantly stitched and colourful purses and handbags.
Chueh reveals that Taroko women are famous for how they mark their faces.
"When young girls reach a certain age and they can prove they have the weaving skill, then they can have the face tattooing," she says. "That means they can get married."
Then she points to a traditional necklace from the Paiwan tribe in southern Taiwan.
Chueh explains that each bead represents an ancient god, so it would only be worn on very spiritual occasions.
She says scholars have confirmed genetic links and other connections between the indigenous people of Taiwan and other tribes in the South Pacific, including Polynesians.
In the exhibit, there are also ornately sewn wine bags and ceremonial sashes made by aboriginal artists, as well as a giant knife.
"I hope it didn't chop the head off anyone," Chueh quips.
One of the highlights of the exhibit is a collection of porcelain pieces from the Ming, Ching, Yuen, and Liao dynasties, which were all collected by local Taiwanese-Canadian artist Neil Pan.
They had all been broken in the past, but were put back together by master craftspeople, showing the ingenuity of the Chinese people.
The centrepiece, a large glaze jar shaped like a leather bag, is estimated to be 1,100 years old. Pan bought it in the Chinese city of Harbin for an undisclosed price.
"It was pretty hard to get that piece," Pan tells the Straight. "I spent about six months [in negotiations], starting in Beijing."
Some of the porcelain pieces were from Taiwan. It's worth noting that Taiwan never experienced the Cultural Revolution that caused such havoc in the People's Republic of China, in which precious works of art were destroyed by Chairman Mao's Red Guards.
The show at UBC includes some fun contemporary art, including tableware in the shape of dumplings and a "double happiness" marriage mug.
The fine-art showcase includes seven bamboo sculptures called People of the World.
Chueh explains that artist Yeh Ji-shung was able to turn bamboo into humanlike figurines by warming the wood so it became soft enough to be twisted into different shapes.
"The original wood is very hard," she says.
A Burnaby-based creative agency, Transform the Design Experience (formerly CA Design), worked with the TCSS and TECO in Vancouver to place the works of art in different zones.
"What we wanted to do was develop some creative that was really powerful and strong—and really help them make a mark on the whole Taiwanese culture," company spokesperson Angela Bains tells the Straight.
Chueh says that the Taiwanese people are very open-minded, partly as a result of being occupied in their history by the Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese. She says all of these influences can be seen in Taiwanese art.
Great Britain and the Portugese also had a presence in the region, and Taiwan was also transformed after the Second World War by the arrival of two million refugees from China. In addition, hundreds of thousands of troops loyal to Chiang Kai-shek arrived following the Communist revolution in China.
Taiwan was under martial law until 1982 when it was transformed into a democracy.
TECO in Vancouver media-relations officer Vivian Lee tells the Straight that the arrival of democracy and an open society triggered an outburst of creativity in Taiwan.
"With democracy and freedom, the people there have the space to express their ideas," Lee says. "Taiwan is very vibrant in design and in the fine arts."
She adds that her office is pleased to have the opportunity to work with people at UBC, which has the slogan "a place of mind".
She notes that of all the nations with large Chinese populations in Asia—such as Singapore, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan—her country is the "only mature democracy".
"Taiwan is just like Canada," Lee adds. "We are very free."
Like Canada, Taiwan also has some very creative aboriginal artists, which will be clear to anyone who views the Made in Taiwan exhibit.