Adventures in Taiwan


SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: Joanna Sterkowicz writes…Standing on top of a mountain in the spectacularly beautiful rainforest area of Wufongchi in Taiwan (Republic of China), I wondered how it was that a film and TV journalist from South Africa could have ended up here as part of what was a business trip.

My week-long presence in Taiwan was the result of a gracious invitation issued by Mr Charles Ou, head of Information at the Taipei Liaison Office in Johannesburg, to attend the Golden Horse Awards, regarded as Asia’s Oscars, in Taiwan’s Hsinchu City on 26 November.

Others attending the event were Tad Doyle, director of Programming at the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival, Canadian film critic Katherine Monk, Charmian Smith, an arts and food writer for New Zealand’s Otago Daily Times, Jure Kos of the Foreign Desk of the Slovenian Press Agency, Sabrina Baracetti of the CEC Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche in Italy, Yasmin Lee Arpron of the Asia News Network, and David Callahan of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts: Reserve Film and Video Collection. David was travelling with his wife Andrea Kannapell, an editor at The New York Times.

Our host for the week was the charismatic and humorous Dr Joe Wang of the Government Information Office (GIO), who has a slightly American drawl in his voice – the result of 15 years spent in Los Angeles. Joe jokingly refers to himself as ‘GI Joe’ and was responsible for drawing up the fantastic programme for the trip and for looking after us.

Granted we did have several meetings pertaining to film – with Taiwan’s biggest production company (Central Motion Pictures Corporation); filmmakers Ta-Pu Chen, Albert Huang and Cheng-sheng Lin; the National Film Archives; the GIO Film Division; and the formidable Peggy Chiao, producer, professor and famed film critic – but the majority of the week was spent touring Taipei’s most famous sites, such as the imposing Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, which is slightly reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

We were taken to the top of Taipei 101, until 2010 ranked as the tallest building in the world at 89 floors, from where we could see Taipei in all directions. It’s an absolutely enormous city – an endless spread of high rise buildings and home to two million people. As a structure Taipei 101 is unique, with its repeated segments that reflect an Asian pagoda.

The Centre for Traditional Arts in Yilan has a vibrant, colourful, village-like feel and exists to promote traditional Taiwanese arts and crafts. It teems with young schoolchildren.

A visit to the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts served as an introduction into the conventions of traditional Beijing Opera. We learnt how the colour of a character’s face denotes certain characteristics (ie. if the face is white the character is selfish and if the face is black the character is not afraid of power etc.) and how the colour of the costume denotes a character’s status (eg. red and yellow costumes signifies royalty). The highlight was a performance by final year students who exhibited eye-poppingly impressive acrobatic and triple-jointed skills.

Surely one of the most unusual architectural structures in the world, the Lanyang Museum has a completely asymmetrical design and displays various examples of Yilan’s wetland ecology.

The National Palace Museum, which boasts thousands of visitors every day, is a must for any visitor to Taiwan. It has more than 680,000 pieces, making it the premier holding of Chinese art and culture in the world. A small jade sculpture, the Jade Cabbage, is the most treasured item in the Palace.

Whiskey lovers in our group were delighted that the programme included a visit to the King Car Kavalan Whisky Distillery. We were surprised to find that not only does King Car produce award winning whiskies but orchid seeds, instant porridge and, of all things, a chip for the Human papillomavirus.

The Taiwanese are a deeply spiritual people and everywhere you go there are ornately beautiful temples and a steady stream of worshippers.

Only last year Taiwan opened its borders to tourism for mainland China and the place swarms with Chinese visitors, as wells as tourists from Japan and Korea.

One gets the sense that Taiwanese people are extremely proud to be Taiwanese and understandably, given their history which has seen them under Spanish, British, Dutch, Chinese and Japanese occupation, greatly covet their independence. This year Taiwan celebrates 100 years of independence and, as one journalist in our group said, it seems that the Taiwanese government is on a mission to promote the country and its culture globally.

Taiwan’s top notch service levels were a welcome culture shock for someone who comes from a country with questionable service delivery. Whereas in South Africa you would get one or two people assigned to a particular job, in Taiwan it seems that several people are assigned to the same duty, thereby contributing to employment and helping to ensure good service. Employees in Taiwan are very energetic and literally bustle all the time – there is no such thing as lolling around doing nothing. At high end restaurants all the waiters and waitresses wear microphones to keep in constant contact with the kitchen and to facilitate the timeous serving and clearing of dishes.

Talking of food, Taiwanese cuisine offers an enormous array of exotic dishes to titillate the palette. At one dinner we were served 22 different dishes! So yes, our waistlines were compromised during the trip.

Karoake was in evidence at a very big night market that we attended at the kind invitation of the organisers of the Golden Horse Awards. At one stage an elderly man in jeans, sneakers and baseball cap took to the stage and sang two songs. He had such a beautiful voice that I assumed he was a famous Taiwanese singer. As it happened, he turned out to be none other than the legendary local filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-hsien (A City of Sandess).

The Taiwan trip culminated in the Golden Horse Awards, which are open to films from Taiwan, Mainland China and Hong Kong. These were every bit as glitzy, glamorous and exciting as the Oscars, albeit in Mandarin.

Along with the rest of the tour group, I was lucky enough to be at the receiving end of red carpet, five-star treatment throughout the trip.

What an introduction to a beautiful country, an amazing people and their fascinating culture and history!

The January 2012 issue of the Screen Africa print magazine will feature an article on the Taiwanese film industry.


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