Last year, the managing director of the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association created a great deal of discussion in the Taiwanese diaspora by writing a commentary in the Georgia Straight.
The piece was entitled “I’m a Taiwanese Canadian, not a Chinese Canadian”. In it, Charlie Wu discussed some of the complexities of his identity—and why he refuses to be pigeonholed as being Chinese.
The article is one of many ways in which Wu has promoted Taiwanese culture and raised the profile of Taiwanese Canadians in Canada. This advocacy led the Taiwanese-Canadian Association to recently grant Wu with its Outstanding Taiwanese-Canadian Award for 2021.
Wu, the senior organizer behind TAIWANfest in Vancouver, has also been recognized in Taiwan for the way he’s reshaping Canadians’ perceptions about the independent East Asian island nation. Gūsa, a Taiwanese publisher, will soon release a new book, Taiwan: The World’s Answer (a direct translation of the Chinese-language title), which tells of Wu’s experiences with the festival. He dictated it to writers Sisi Chang and Kai-Chun Huang.
“While the book is written for the Taiwanese people in Taiwan or around the world, I really want to thank every Canadian who might have played a role in this journey to find my identity,” Wu told the Straight. “I am also very proud and honoured to tell the world that Canada is the best place in the world to discover who you really are.”
Wu left Taiwan when he was 15. He readily admitted that as a young man, many of his views about his country of birth were “one-sided” because he was educated in a school system overseen by an authoritarian Kuomintang government. It was a creation of Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, whose supporters fled with him from China to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communists.
The book highlights how TAIWANfest’s partnerships with various East Asian countries in successive years helped Wu understand how diverse Taiwan really is.
Through the arts and culture presented at TAIWANfest, he learned much more about how Taiwan has been shaped by the influences of many other countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, and Hong Kong—as well as by former colonizers such as Japan and mainland China.
The book relies on examples from different years of TAIWANfest to reinforce Wu’s outward-looking, inclusive, and contemporary philosophy. For Wu, relevance trumps tradition at TAIWANfest because he’s focused on building events that reinforce connections between people of all ages to their heritage and the broader community.
This explains why Taiwanese pop bands like Mayday and Sorry Youth, as well as fashion and visual arts, have played such a big part in TAIWANfest over the years.
Another way to remain relevant came when traditional Chinese medicine practitioners offered treatments to passersby on Granville Street in prepandemic times. Other pre-COVID-19 festival hallmarks included the sharing of food at different venues and the Taiwan Bookstore on Granville Street.
“We’re about being a platform where conversations and dialogues can take place with other communities,” Wu said.
Then there’s the Indigenous history of Taiwan, which parallels many aspects of Canada’s Indigenous history. Over several years, Wu has gone to great lengths through TAIWANfest and another festival, LunarFest, to forge trans-Pacific connections between Indigenous peoples on both sides of the ocean.
“What the book is trying to convey to the readers in Taiwan is this is a great time: Taiwan is democratic,” Wu said. “We actually should perhaps come up with a new narrative about Taiwan going forward. We can do the same here in Canada. It’s a Taiwanese story, but it’s an exercise that every single community could do, especially the newcomers’ communities.”
The Taipei-based editor of Wu’s book, Joshua Wang, told the Straight by phone that Taiwan’s identity and nationality have never been very clear, which is why Wu’s story is so timely. The country has long been under pressure from the much larger People’s Republic of China, which denies the reality of the island nation’s independence.
According to Wang, Wu repeatedly emphasized in the book that Taiwan’s residents have to shatter the framework around how they understand their country.
“Charlie Wu encourages us, a lot, to resist the idea that there is only one China and there is only one type of Taiwanese,” Wang said. “Usually, we tend to think that Taiwanese have the same face. Actually, Taiwan is very diversified. Just like any other country and other cultures, it always changes.”
In this regard, it’s similar to Canada. Wu noted that the way diversity is celebrated in Canada offered him an opportunity to engage in difficult conversations and be exposed to unconventional perspectives, which helped him in his reflections on his own identity.
“Many years ago, an Indigenous elder told me that reconciliation in Canada isn’t just about the very first peoples on this land; it is about finding their own way to reconcile with everyone’s own past,” Wu related. “It was in a conversation with Japanese Canadian author Terry Watada that I realized there are different meanings of being hyphenated in Canada.”
Canadian theatre artist Sangeeta Wylie shared her empathy for the Vietnamese boat people, which was reflected in her play we the same. That influenced Wu’s thinking about Vietnamese people in Taiwan when he formed a partnership with that country for one edition of TAIWANfest.
And it was Vancouver police officer Darren Ramdour, who’s of Mauritian ancestry, “who approached me in his uniform and told me with a serious face that TAIWANfest should have an edition to dialogue with Africa”.
“I witnessed the beauty of people coming together for each other,” Wu declared.