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Discussion on Cultural Networking (II)


Taiwan-SEA Cultural Networks Group discussions

Group II Enhancing Civil Society through Arts

(1) Art and cultural events in SEA with the support of Taiwan

(2) Taiwan as a platform for free expression and information

(3) Connecting long-term and short-term SEA immigrant communities through art

On the subject of supporting art and cultural events in SEA, the committee believes that Taiwan could create a platform on which people can exchange stories and share experiences. Policy should not be based on the conceit that Taiwan is "superior” or is here to "help” Southeast Asian artists participate in civil society. It is worth thinking outside the box and rethinking our definition of "Southeast Asia”. For example, is southern China also part of Southeast Asia? Tom Lii said that there are many Taiwanese businesspeople in SEA, many of whom are eager to provide Southeast Asian artists with financial support, and that the Ministry of Culture and Taipei Cultural and Economic Office should help to match up these businesspeople with artists according to their needs and interests.

Tay Tong spoke of Singapore's experience holding poetry contests for migrant workers and how these events helped combat prejudice against migrant workers by providing a chance for the general public to see a different side of them. He believes that many countries and organizations may have held similar events, but that they were not inter-connected—they are all working in "silos”. He suggested that comparative studies should be undertaken so that people can see how others have gone about it and so learn from each other's experiences.

The committee is confident of Taiwan's potential to become a platform for free expression and information exchange and the cultural hub of SEA. As was mentioned yesterday, a Cambodian writer chose to publish first in Taipei work which might have been deemed controversial by the Cambodian government and people, with a view to publishing it in Cambodia when the time is right. Carol Cassidy even said jokingly, "Whatever experimental art project you want to conduct, do it in Taiwan first!”

Lisa Ahmad told the committee about the situation in Brunei. The biggest challenge Bruneian artists face is still the six-month blackout that is imposed on a yearly basis. Censorship does not come only from the government, as artists are also induced to self-censor. No one dares touch on controversial subjects. In the future, she hopes to be able to generate more art critique and discussion in order to broaden artists' horizons and encourage them to stop limiting themselves. She is thinking about doing this using online discussion sites and smart phone apps, but is still trying to figure out the details.

Carol Cassidy said that in many countries including Laos, the term "civil society” is itself sensitive. Thus, explicitly linking the phrase with art projects will leads to restrictions and a diminished audience. She suggested using more neutral and less sensitive phrases to promote artist engagement in civil society, because this would reduce the possibility of conflict and obstacles. For example, the phrase "social enterprise” would be a good choice. Tran Tuyet Lan said that art events should be more diverse in form so as to reach out to more people: Going to the theatre costs money, and not everyone can afford it, especially disadvantaged and marginal groups.

On the topic of censorship and taboo, Nobuo Takamori underlined the importance of respecting taboos. He is currently producing a guide book on taboos around the world to enable art event planners to know what to focus on and what to avoid when they put on art events abroad. Speaking from experience, he explained that Taiwanese artists are too used to freedom and openness in their art works, and that if they encounter limitations like cultural taboos that might conflict with their overseas projects, they try to challenge authority and break rules. However, this can cause long-term problems for local partners who have to deal with the repercussions and may even face prohibition or prosecution. Therefore, to enable cross-cultural projects to continue in a mutually beneficial way, he believes that Taiwanese artists working with SEA artists must make an attempt to understand the difficulties their collaborators may face. Mr Takamori's guide book is essential because cultural limits and taboos differ from culture to culture.

On the topic of diversity, the committee argued that the Ministry of Culture should bear in mind that, in addition to SEA immigrants, artists should also strive to understand sex workers and other disadvantaged groups. Tran Tuyet Lan and Carol Cassidy announced their plan to visit aboriginal tribes during their current stay in Taiwan. They are looking forward to learning about the traditional tribal crafts and taking part in a joint project on the traditional crafts of Vietnamese, Lao, and Taiwanese Aboriginal tribes. Thanom Chapakdee related his experience working with NGOs to empower Thai sex workers who had applied for tourist visas in order to work abroad. Together with the NGOs, he provided workshops and classes to teach the sex workers craft skills so they could earn a living outside prostitution. He believes that marginalized groups like this are all worth caring for. Nobuo Takamori replied that there were many Taiwanese sex workers in Japan in the 60s and 70s who were later replaced by prostitutes from China and the Philippines, then Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries after 2000. Although they were of different nationalities, they probably had a lot in common in terms of their experience of working abroad in the sex trade, and such stories are worth researching.

Tran Tuyet Lan said that Vietnamese migrant workers who went back to Vietnam after working for several years in Taiwan or Hong Kong often needed time to readapt. The process was not quick, and some may even have failed to be accepted back into their communities or the wider society. This is a concern which is worthy of notice. She said that such migrant workers could in fact be a source of great help to Taiwanese artists wishing to hold art events in Vietnam, because not only did they have experience of living abroad but they had also learned the cultures and languages of Taiwan.

Cheng Chang also has migrant worker friends from Indonesia who went back home and found they were not welcome and experienced hostility from their neighbors. They had to put up with comments such as, "Don't think you're better than us just because you've been to Taiwan”. He also mentioned that his Southeast-Asia-themed bookstore Brilliant Time was inspired by his Indonesian friends. And in turn, the bookstore inspired these friends to set up similar bookstores and libraries in their communities and home towns when they went back to Indonesia. He said this story proves that art is not a one-way process, but continual process of mutual influence in which all can benefit. He is now planning to take a group of young Taiwanese people to visit the afore-mentioned libraries and bookstore in Indonesia and learn for himself what it has been like for the founders so that he can apply the experience back in Taiwan.