Sunday, October 2, 2011

Busking mania revives Taipei street life

  • By  Aaron Hsu
As the sun set on Taipei City one evening this September, a lonely spot of light could be seen shining in the darkness. The light did not come from a store’s neon signs; nor was it from a streetlamp illuminating the way. Instead, it was the product of a type of art accessible to all: it came from a night-time booth set up by a street performance artist.
Busking has been gaining popularity in Taiwan, where it is more and more common to see street artists both young and old showing off their talents. In Taipei City alone, there are 59 public places now open to street performers, including parks, commercial plazas and a number of metro stations.
Saxophonist Stalin Chen is a regular at downtown Taipei’s Vieshow Square, where impromptu musical performances can frequently be found. After listening to some smooth jazz melodies performed by Chen, the audience can reward him with a small tip. If they pay him NT$100 (US$3.25) or more, they can even take a CD recording of his work home with them.
Chen also performs at wedding ceremonies, but the street is where he advertises himself to the public. “If you would like to contact me for a professional instrumental performance, here is my name card,” he repeats from time to time after ending his songs.
Besides Vieshow Square, the Ximending area in western Taipei and the Tamshui Metro station near the northwest coast of New Taipei City are also renowned busking sites. As the number of performance centers increases, residents of the city are beginning to find that art is no longer so remote from their daily lives. Some residents even film the performances and upload them to such sites as YouTube.
“The recent emergence of street performances in Taiwan, in my opinion, is a return of the combination of life and art,” said Jay Tseng, an associate professor in Taipei National University of the Arts. “Some two decades ago, when Taiwan still lived under martial law, society was very conservative and Taiwanese did not look to the streets as a suitable place for entertainment,” Tseng said.
But thanks to the lifting of martial law, a thriving economy and a general recognition of the importance of the spiritual life, street performances have resurfaced throughout the country, Tseng said.
To ensure that the new social phenomenon unfolds in an orderly way, Taipei City stipulated in 2005 a set of rules governing street performances. The rules recognize three main types of street performance: music and the performing arts, such as dance and pantomime; visual arts, such as painting and photography; and creative crafts, such as making miniature flour dolls. Artists receive performance licenses valid for a two-year period, which can be easily renewed when they expire.
Attracted by the lawful and lifetime status that the licenses can confer, between 2005 and 2008 more than 1,500 individuals or groups applied for street performance permits with the city, of which 677 were approved. “Clearly, the negative stereotype that the street is inferior to the studio is also gone,” Tseng said, adding he has served as a judge in permit examinations since 2007. “And what I have found is that not many people are motivated by money. Some of those certified may have an impressive educational background or even a good reputation.”
Some performers see the streets as a steppingstone to fame and fortune. Indeed, several Taiwanese stars, such as composer Bobby Chen and band player Chang Chen-yue, started out as street performers. Others are so enchanted by the audience interaction offered by busking that they perform just for the fun of it. Willy Chang, the former host of a radio program, often plays the guitar in central Taiwan’s Taichung City. He also partners with Jackson Liang, a Golden Melody Award nominee, as the B&W Duo.
街一Willy Chang says he loves busking because it is the most direct way for an entertainer to interact with the audience. (Courtesy of Chang)
Chang said that as the audience is just several meters away, a street performer has to be able to generate continuous and variable performances. “In this regard, street performance is much more difficult than a TV show, where mistakes can be fixed in the editing room, or than a stage concert, where the performer is supported by lights, stereos and a huge light-emitting-diode screen,” he said.
Chang added that he expects to see street performances proliferate in the future, because they create job opportunities for disadvantaged artists and help local tourism. He now doubles as president of the Taiwan Buskers Development Association, whose mission is to fight for more street performance space, advocate buskers’ job rights, and keep the traditional arts alive. “I feel that native characteristics are helpful to tourism,” Chang said. “When I returned from the 2009 National Multicultural Festival in Canberra, this feeling grew even stronger, because I saw so many different buskers there who represented their own country in a unique way.”
The tour taking Chang and three other buskers to Canberra was organized by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Australia. Government agencies at home and abroad are equally devoted to promoting Taiwanese street performances featuring modern and traditional elements.
Taipei City staged a festival at the Dalongdong Cultural Area in 2009, inviting local folk artists to perform classical Chinese music as well as traditional games such as whipping tops. The event even allowed parents and their children to make a wish by throwing divine wooden blocks—a highly unusual occurrence, as the blocks are normally only found at places of worship.
Besides preserving traditional culture, Taiwanese street performances are also enriched by incorporating foreign elements. French artists 2 Rien Merci and P'tit Cirque a Bretelles, for example, were invited to flex their muscles during a folklore arts festival held by the Kaohsiung County Government in 2007.
In the capital, the annual Taipei Street Artists Carnival is set to take place in the Gongguan Water Park during the last two weekends in October. The city expects the carnival, which will showcase both modern and traditional Taiwanese art forms, to attract many tourists.
“In the past few years the park has been revamped and its aqua-friendly facilities have become a must-go for residents of Taipei in the summer. We chose this park this year because it is near Gongguan, a major transit point in the city, and a successful festival will help bring businesses to this district,” said Chang Ping, third subdivision chief in the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.
During the preliminary planning stages, “we visited each shop in the neighborhood, encouraging them to offer discounts on food or goods,” Chang said. “The combination of busking and discounts will make visitors feel full in both mind and body and will make them want to come back again.”
Chang noted that as 2011 happens to be the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China, officials are collaborating with the buskers to present a special centennial street performance festival. “We hope during the festival that the audience can be generous with tips,” Chang said. “An enthusiastic response by an appreciative audience will no doubt help bring about the best in the performers.” (HZW)

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