TaiwanFest's Cultural Tango moves with romance and tragedy

Conductor Ken Hsieh celebrates long-standing ties between Taiwan and Hong Kong

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      Born in the dockside bars of Buenos Aires, the tango is notorious as a dance of seduction. Its dark glamour is famous worldwide, to the point that even here in distant Vancouver, TaiwanFest managing director Charlie Wu has chosen it to represent the relationship between two even more distant locales: the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, and mainland China’s preeminent port, Hong Kong.

      Who’s seducing whom remains unsaid. But TaiwanFest’s A Cultural Tango With Hong Kong, conducted by the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra’s Ken Hsieh, promises an apt analogy for the occasionally edgy dance that China and Taiwan have maintained for the past century, along with subtle allusions to the immigrant experience in our own cosmopolitan city.

      “I think Charlie came up with the idea, and he said, ‘You know, there’s a lot of similarities between Taiwan and Hong Kong,’ ” Hsieh tells the Straight from Toronto, where he’s performing at the Ontario capital’s own Taiwanese festival. “I mean, if you take a flight, it’s only about 45 to 50 minutes from Taiwan to Hong Kong, and so a lot of people actually go back and forth. Hong Kong people come for the weekend to eat food in Taiwan, and Taiwanese people go to Hong Kong usually to do some shopping or to eat some Hong Kong food. So there’s a lot of cultural exchange there, I find. Even in my own family, there were a lot of people who went to Hong Kong very often—and Hong Kong, back in the day, was sort of the only way to connect Taiwan to central China. You would have to go to Hong Kong and then go into China. And so the cultural tango is that Hong Kong has a lot of things that have influence on the Taiwanese.”

      It’s not entirely a one-way exchange. Wu’s idea for A Cultural Tango was to focus on the songs of the late Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese-born pop diva who was a massive star all over Asia during the 1970s and ’80s, often recording the same song in Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Indonesian.

      “Actually, I’m a huge fan of her Japanese songs,” says Hsieh, who heard them while working and studying in Japan. “I knew all her Japanese songs before I knew any of her Taiwanese or Cantonese songs, to be honest. Every time I went to a karaoke bar, people who are in the older generation, they always loved to sing Teresa Teng’s music. So I really grew up with it.”

      Teng’s melodies, he adds, are emotive enough that even those who did not grow up listening to Asian pop will understand their sentimental appeal. “The melodies are not like rock ’n’ roll,” he explains. “They’re more like caressing, more like yearning for something. It’s easy for people to relate, because I think everybody in their life yearns for something. I think this is why, when you think about love songs, they really touch people.”

      Once Hsieh and Wu had settled on Teng, who died of acute asthma in 1995, there was the question of finding a dance partner for the late star’s music. A number of names were discussed, but only one really fit: Leslie Cheung, the Hong Kong–born singer and actor who came to an even more tragic end.

      “Initially, we were thinking about Anita Mui, another very famous Cantonese pop singer,” Hsieh reveals. “But then we thought, ‘Well, if we’re going to make it a cultural tango, we can’t have two women dancing. You have to have a woman and a man to really balance it. So we thought Leslie Cheung was the perfect icon for this.

      Two Hong Kong singing legends will be celebrated at TaiwanFest.

      “Leslie had a huge presence in Taiwan,” the conductor continues. “He was a huge sensation, and it was just really sad to hear that he’d passed away—I think it was in 2003—by suicide.…He was an extremely gifted singer and a really great actor as well, and he had a huge following, but the pressure on him must have been enormous. So I was really sad to see him go, but it was also really wonderful to see what kind of legacy he left, not only in Hong Kong, but in Taiwan. If you ask anybody who was born in the ’60s or ’70s, Leslie Cheung would be at the very top of the list of people they loved to listen to.”

      Not coincidentally, both Teng and Cheung were at the peak of their popularity at exactly the same time many Taiwan and Hong Kong residents were immigrating to Canada, the former in search of economic opportunity, and the latter in fear of an imminent Communist takeover. Hsieh’s Taiwanese parents were among that influx, and he says that working on the music of their generation—Teng was his mother’s favourite singer—has got him thinking about his own Taiwanese heritage. And what he yearns for, most of all, is a better connection to the life that his grandparents, who stayed behind, led under a succession of occupying forces that included the Japanese military and the Kuomintang.

      “I really never knew my grandparents on my mother’s side; they passed away before I was born,” he says. “On my father’s side, I met them once or twice; that’s it. They also passed away when I was very young. So if I ever could go back and ask them a question, I always wanted to know what they went through.…How did these people manage to get through life?”

      His grandparents’ experiences, Hsieh surmises, helped shape his parents’ decision to move to North America, where they hoped to find a better life for their own children. And they’ve affected his own psyche, too: his passionate pursuit of music has involved a similar blend of curiosity and resilience.

      “I’m doing something that’s really about western music, and people in Europe grew up with that,” he notes. “It’s like when the Viennese play Johann Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’, for example. It’s in their blood—they have a very unique way of playing the waltz. But for me, we are coming from the outside, and we have to learn even more to get into the depths of the music and really prove ourselves.”

      In a small way, he continues, his growth as a conductor and musician parallels the rise of Taiwan as one of the world’s centres of high-tech innovation.

      “What is Taiwan, as a place, to compare itself to Microsoft or Apple?” he asks. “It’s not in the same league, but I remember my father telling me that one of his roommates was the founder and president of Acer computers. He said that this man was the son of a single mother, but he worked hard to bring up his companies; he had to prove himself. And I think that is what I have to do in my career. I was not born with it; I have to learn about it, analyze it, get into the depths of it—and then really absorb it and feel it in my body in order to have it as a complete whole.”

      Hsieh’s record on the podium suggests that he’s learned his lessons well, but away from the bandstand, he confesses, he still sometimes has difficulty with his dual identity. “I have to prove myself to both sides,” he says, laughing. “My friends always go, ‘Oh, you should cook us a Taiwanese meal,’ and to be honest I don’t know how to cook a Taiwanese meal. I’m a good cook for French or Italian or western food, but Taiwanese food? I have no idea!”

      Ken Hsieh conducts A Cultural Tango With Hong Kong at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Saturday (September 3), as part of TaiwanFest. The festival runs from Saturday (September 3) to Monday (September 5) on Granville Street and at various other venues downtown. For the full schedule, visit the TaiwanFest website.