Asian singing sensation Della Ding sounds like she’s in a giddy mood. The pretty entertainer known in Taipei as Little Bird has just arrived in Canada for the first time to perform a free concert at the Telus TaiwanFest on Sunday (September 4). Her fourth album, Soul Mate, has rocketed to No. 1 on the charts, thanks in part to its romantic ballads. In a phone interview before checking into a hotel, she told the Georgia Straight that when she sings her love songs, she likes to try to make herself cry. By doing this, the performer known simply as Della said she has a better chance of bringing an audience to tears.
Her fans are in love with her soaring vocals, but they also want to know if she has a boyfriend. “I’m so busy singing, I don’t have time to date,” Della admitted in Mandarin with a mischievous laugh, as her translator forwarded her words in English. “I regard all my fans as my boyfriends.”
It’s a polished response from a performer who is obviously very comfortable being interviewed. I also inquired if her many admirers ever offer marriage proposals. “Some people regard me as their wife already,” she quipped.
Della found fame in Taiwan even though she was born in China, often seen as a hostile enemy separated by a 180-kilometre-wide body of water. The Chinese government is pointing an estimated 1,300 missiles at the island it still considers a renegade province. Taiwanese nationalists maintain that their country has never been part of the People’s Republic of China—and their government has purchased many billions of dollars in advanced weaponry over the years to prevent an invasion from the mainland.
Despite the tensions across the strait, Della has been warmly accepted by the Taiwanese people after running away from home as a teenager and making her way to Taipei. According to Telus TaiwanFest managing director Charlie Wu, the Taiwanese capital has become the “megamarket” for Asian artists not only from China, but also from Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and the United States.
Della admitted that she felt lonely without her parents, and encountered a great deal of hardship in her struggle to get noticed. Her first album, which was released in 2007, was aptly called Run Away From Home. She confessed that her deeply emotional singing is rooted in her suffering.
“I worked hard and put my heart into everything I was doing,” she said. “Through that, I was supported by the people very well.”
Della’s experience mirrored some of the contradictions of Taiwan, which is a thriving, multicultural democracy of 23 million people about the size of Vancouver Island. Imagine the population of Canada minus Quebec living between Victoria and Port Hardy, and you get a sense of the island nation’s density. Yet like Vancouver Island, there are still vast, wide-open spaces, which shatter westerners’ stereotype of Taiwan as a massively industrialized, blighted urban landscape. (For more on this, see "Taiwan's Taroko Gorge rewards hardy hikers").
When it comes to politics, many Taiwanese resent the way they’ve been bullied by the government of Mainland China over the years. Yet they appear to have fallen in love with Della. This reality also challenges a popular perception that Taiwan loathes everything about its much larger neighbour.
This year’s Telus TaiwanFest aims to shatter other stereotypes, while at the same time filling people’s ears with music and their bellies with delicious food over the Labour Day weekend. When Wu announced the festival’s lineup at a news conference last month at the Edgewater Casino, he cited how traditional floral patterns used to be perceived. They were associated with a grandmother’s blanket—stereotypical dowdy images that spoke of a dreary past. Some have associated the designs with Japan, which colonized the island for decades before the end of the Second World War. According to Wu, nobody thought of them as fashionable, trendy, or artistic.
Then Taiwanese artist Michael Lin began using these images to reconfigure public spaces. His massive hand-painted mural, which was based on a traditional textile design, decorated the entire front façade of the Vancouver Art Gallery during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games. His brilliant patterns have also been showcased in major museums and galleries, covering walls, huge floors, and furniture. In Vancouver, Lin’s work appears on banners visible to anyone travelling over the Granville Street Bridge on their way to the festival, which takes place on the plaza of the art gallery, as well as in the 600 to 800 blocks of Granville Street, and at the Roundhouse Community Centre.
“Vancouver 2010 and the Vancouver Art Gallery gave a new value for something we almost threw away,” Wu remarked. “Michael Lin inspired us to rediscover our roots.”
Lin isn’t the only internationally celebrated artist from Taiwan who has dazzled audiences while demolishing stereotypes. Film director Ang Lee combated prejudice and won critical acclaim with Brokeback Mountain, a Western with a gay love theme, which was shot in Alberta. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, which performed in Vancouver during the Cultural Olympiad, has earned rave reviews in cities around the world for its distinctly modern interpretations of classical Chinese ballet.
Last year’s Telus TaiwanFest showcased the country’s thriving indie-music scene, which is another demonstration of the country’s creative spirit. Taiwanese bands catapulted to prominence in the 1990s and the past decade as the nation emerged from martial law and was transformed into a modern democracy. At this year’s festival, one of Taiwan’s indie kingpins, the Chairman Band, will perform in what’s being billed as a “Guardians of Taiwan” concert at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.
In a phone interview from Toronto, the bass player, Taiki Lin (no relation to Michael), explained that band members perform “Taike rock”, which integrates Taiwanese culture with its guitar-driven music. Formed in 1997, the Chairman Band sometimes sounds like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or Nirvana. But there’s a twist. These guys wear traditional masks on-stage representing Taiwanese traditions—and their lyrics, sung in Taiwanese, deliver a distinctly patriotic feel.
Lin emphasized that Taiwanese masks are unlike those worn in musical performances on the mainland. “This is our celebration,” he said in English. “It’s serious—it’s not a show like Chinese opera. I think a foreigner may be confused about Taiwanese culture and China. They don’t know that Mandarin and the Taiwanese language are totally different.”
He revealed that his favourite Chairman Band song is called “The Gods Bless Taiwan”. Lin also mentioned that band members feel a responsibility to express an “attitude” about their country. “We hope that the Taiwanese people in North America remember that Taiwan is very beautiful. I hope they come back to Taiwan and look around. It’s totally different than years before.”
The Chairman Band, an unabashedly nationalist group, will appear on the same stage on the same evening as Della, who hails from the mainland. A third band on the Sunday-night schedule, Taiwanese hip-hop stars Magic Power, will fill the plaza with their pulsating, Eminem-style sounds. “It’s going to be very noisy downtown,” Wu said with a smile.
Magic Power will also perform in the early evening on Saturday (September 3) at the art gallery, followed later by the Musou Girls’ Band, which has a Top 40 sound. The festival’s eclectic musical lineup illustrates the diversity of Taiwanese culture.
This diversity will be addressed in a free lecture at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday (September 3) in Vancouver Art Gallery courtroom 302 by Prof. Jolan Hsieh, a noted Taiwanese scholar, former cochair of the Green Party of Taiwan, and an indigenous-rights activist. In a phone interview from Arizona, where she has studied, Hsieh drew comparisons between aboriginal people in Taiwan and First Nations people in Canada. “A lot of people think Taiwan is like a single race, or all Chinese,” Hsieh said. “Actually, we are pretty multicultural.”
The government has recognized 14 indigenous groups, and she suggested there may be another 10 Taiwanese First Nations that still haven’t been acknowledged. Some, like hers, are matrilineal; she said others are patriarchial. Together, they comprise more than 2.2 percent of Taiwan’s population. She said that DNA tests and their languages indicate that the Taiwanese indigenous people have a connection to aboriginal people in Polynesia, New Zealand, and the Philippines.
“We never had a treaty like New Zealand has or the North American Indians have,” Hsieh commented.
She cited numerous stereotypes that still exist: indigenous people are lazy, not as intelligent as ethnic Chinese people from the mainland, they only know how to sing, and they like getting drunk in villages. She characterized this type of discrimination as a “worldwide problem”.
Hsieh recalled that as a child, she was forbidden from speaking her indigenous language in public. She added that some of the older First Nations people in Taiwan say the Japanese imperialist rulers were more benevolent than the Kuomintang, which was headed for years by Chiang Kai-shek, who brought his nationalist forces from China in 1949. “There are a lot of elderly people who still speak their own tribal language and Japanese,” Hsieh said. “We still have a Japanese influence in Taiwan.”
This obvious diversity flies in the face of a stereotype about Taiwan advanced by Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. In his 1,500-page manifesto issued before his recent shooting and bombing rampage, he declared that Norway should be more like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan because they protected monocultures rather than embracing multiculturalism. “He is so wrong,” Hsieh declared.
She pointed out that Taiwan has guaranteed seats for indigenous people in its legislature. Taiwanese people whose families lived on the island for many generations have their culture, and then there is a minority who trace their roots back to the mainland. Among them, there is tremendous diversity, because their families came from different parts of China.
Wu pointed out that people around the world carry stereotypes about others. “In Canada,” he said, “it’s a complicated problem because we brought stereotypes to a country that already has stereotypes.”
The festival hopes to obliterate some of them in a public game-show called “Survey Says”, which will take place on Granville Street throughout the weekend. Teams of three will compete to identify stereotypes held by Canadian-born people about immigrants, and those held by immigrants about those born in Canada. “Through arts, we can learn about our own stereotypes—and we learn our culture,” Wu said.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.