Young Taiwanese Bringing Taiwan to Expo Milan 2015: Taiwan is giving up the international stage, but we can't

Young Taiwanese Bringing Taiwan to Expo Milan 2015: Taiwan is giving up the international stage, but we can't
Photo Credit: OPTOGO

The News Lens international edition is sponsored by Tutor A B C

By Alicia Chen

Two hundred meters away from the Milan Cathedral (also known as Duomo di Milano), you can see the Taiwan Pavilion for Expo Milano 2015 among the hundred year old architectures of the city. You don’t have to line up especially in the Expo Hall for a glimpse of the pavilion and won’t be overwhelmed by the amount of people like in pavilions of other countries. But in the canal district of Milan, you will come across the Taiwan Pavilion right outside the cathedral and in front of the castle.

台灣館坐落在米蘭市中心|Photo Credit: OPTOGO

The Taiwan Pavilion. Photo Credit: OPTOGO

Walking slowing up the ramp to the Taiwan Pavilion, all kinds of spices, vinegar and teas meet the eye, making a grand opening for the pavilion. This time, the pavilion tells the story of Taiwan’s unique roadside banquet culture.

The wooden building gives a warm comfortable feeling. Circular designs are seen everywhere inside and are meant to imprint an impression of reunion inside the hearts of every visitor.

台灣館內部|Photo Credit: OPTOGO

Inside the Taiwan Pavilion. Photo Credit: OPTOGO

Looking up you see decorations made out of chopsticks. Orange and green circles form under the lighting, and the plastic chopsticks of these two colors that are used in local food stands turn into something fashionable.

Photos of electronic floats and hundreds of tables in front of the stage display the bustling atmosphere. It conveys a food culture different from the West. Here, people can chat loudly while wearing tank tops and flip-flops. They can sit together and share every dish with each other.

The volunteers of the pavilion make lively guides and talk about the uniqueness of Taiwan in all kinds of languages, such as Chinese, English, Italian and so on. You can see locals exclaiming in wonder, asking questions and even saying they must visit Taiwan sometime.

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

The traditional farmers’ clothing the volunteers are dressed in is the colors of the Italian flag. They push around car stalls in the every corner of downtown Milan. The warmth of having traditional Taiwanese snacks in the alleys attracts locals and they step forward to take photos and chat.

Walking into Casa Taiwan, a temporary Taiwanese restaurant located in downtown Milan, you enter a historic old building that was the former French Embassy. In this elegant occasion, waiters serve dish after dish of cuisine prepared by Taiwanese chefs.

Customers first get to learn about food through the twenty-four solar terms. The ingredients are presented in front of the Milan locals in their most pristine appearance.

Then they go on to tasting rice, sauces and other different Taiwanese dishes. With chopsticks in hand and saying, “Thank you," in Chinese, the locals learn about the Taiwanese food culture in a single night.

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

The world seeing Taiwan during Expo Milano 2015

A hundred years ago, the World Expo was held in Milan and the significance of the expo coming back to the city this time is unique. But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taiwan decided to sit out on this international event.

One Pavilion To Go (OPTOGO) is launched by a group of young adults with an average age of 27 years old, using the identity of a citizen group. After ten months of preparation, the Taiwan Pavilion officially opened on September 25, and has been promoting the car stalls and Casa Taiwan ever since.

“We hope to exhibit in the city and interact with the locals, so that the sharing culture of Taiwan can be integrated into the Milan lifestyle as closely as possible," says Chen Jing-ru, one of the founders of OPTOGO.

From me to we

With the results we have now, looking back at the process it seems so easy. But how many people actually cared about the project when no one knew if it had a chance to succeed?

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

In the ten months of preparation, other than the stubborn founders of the team, a group of volunteers from Taiwan and other various cities overseas helped support the project.

“We originally thought that having one car stall in Milan would be enough. But it was these volunteers that gave us the courage to dream big," says Chen while sitting outside the Taiwan Pavilion.

During the days before the opening of the pavilion, I holed up with them in their messy apartment in the suburbs. The room was piled with materials the pavilion needed and nearly 30 people filled the few rooms. Some people slept on the floor while others worked in the corner. They would gather around a small table with a few lights for meetings until four or five in the morning.

They eat simple meals and instant noodles, and sleep less than five hours a day because of the time limit and heavy tasks. But they never seem to want to give, and on the contrary develop a sense of revolution among the joy and noise. They deal with whatever is thrown at them. From preparations in Taiwan to carrying the project out in Milan, more than four hundred volunteers participated in this marathon of creating the series of events.

The curtain in front of the pavilion is strung out of more than two thousand wooden pieces and was strung one by one by the volunteers. The hundreds of chopsticks hanging from the ceiling was also put up one by one by the volunteers.

At 7 pm on the day before the official opening, the bells of the Milan Cathedral chimed and the volunteers hung up the decorations before it turned dark. They wouldn’t allow a slightest flaw in the exhibit.

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

In the beginning, there was only a small group of people with an architecture background. But then more volunteers from all areas joined in the preparation and international students from over the world gathered in Milan to execute and promote the project. Volunteers that travel back and forth Taiwan and Milan help deliver supplies and there were even artists that used OPTOGO as a theme for their work. Journalists recorded the process with words while photographers tried to seize each moment. There were even people who traveled to Milan to make Taiwanese dishes for the volunteers.

They chose to pause their lives and put down their work and studies to fight for Taiwan.

It’s hard to imagine that actions on such an international scale don’t have the support of any large financial group or power, not to mention help from the government. All this was accomplished because the Taiwanese citizens don’t want the island to disappear from the world.

The project was expected to land in Milan in July, but because we had only raised NT$ 200,000 of funds in July, the founders dug into their own pockets and were only left with a few hundred dollars in their accounts. Though we were raising funds in the name of bringing Taiwan to the world, the effect of crowd funding wasn’t as good as expected. We rose around NT$ 2 million on, but were still far away from the NT$ 18.6 million we needed.

Later, other businesses and individuals made donations, but every moment was a battle between time and money. Zhi-yuang, who is in charge of designing the pavilion says, “We had a lot of good designs for the pavilion, for example a projection area in the middle of the pavilion to represent the roadside banquet culture, but we weren’t able to build it due to lack of funds."

Compared to other countries that use hundreds of millions to build their pavilions, the Taiwan team was struggling to survive in impossibility.

Regarding manpower, internal members came and went in the few months. The visual design team left in the middle of preparation and the team in charge of designing the car stalls was also changed twice. The design sketch of the pavilion was changed at least over 30 times and each time was a consumption of cost. Along with the urgency of time, it was undoubtedly the most threatening challenge.

Even after arriving in Milan, due to the serious shortage of manpower, there was only one chef in Casa Taiwan in the first week. It was only after urgently calling upon the Taiwanese that lived in the city did we make it through.

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

“We have also questioned ourselves if we were being too naive and if it was simply something impossible," says He Ping-rong, another founder of OPTOGO. He says the whole thing is like a dream for him.

Coming this far, it’s hard to use a single word to describe the process. The time and effort these people put into this project without knowing if it was possible or not needed so much courage. The sacrifices and choices they made, such as putting down their thesis, their job or even their family, are only described in the simplest words.

People may say the team is a group of fools that have no idea of what risk is. But their firm belief in the project is even more rare in these times where everything is about pursuing interests.

“This is something we must do. The country has given up on the international stage, but we can’t."

“Do you think you succeeded?" I asked.

“For us, we have succeeded as long as we have brought Taiwan to Milan. Even if it is only a car stall or a few Taiwanese people sharing the culture in the streets of Milan." The team is sincerely grateful to each person who has been involved in the project. It was because of these people that the imagery of Taiwan was further pushed out into the world.

Everything was done for the first time and a lot of things weren’t perfect. But the team wasn’t afraid to be seen like this. Though they came across many obstacles and accidents, it is only through making that first uncertain step do we have the chance to continue on this journey.

Did we face difficulties of reality and were we taken as underdogs?

Not only did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taiwan decided not to participate in the project, but the team was also rejected by many enterprises. The initial focus of the project also went through manipulation of the media and comments on social media platforms. Even before the project was about to land in Milan, the news reports about the event didn’t surround the fact that the impossible was about to be done, but the fact that the process of inviting the chefs was done under the table. This happened due to interests of political parties. They splattered a layer of black paint onto the effort the team had put into the project at the most crucial moment.

They were only doing what they believed was right, but had to face the test of the society. I asked them, “Weren’t you angry at all?"

They only reluctantly smiled and said, “Politics is very complicated, but people who work with sureness will be rehabilitated one day."

“But is it only the younger generation that cares about this? What does the older generation have to say about it?" The help of just one large enterprise would take a big part of the workload off the team’s shoulders.

“The resources of the older generation actually hurt us most, but also give us the most warmth," says Chen. His answer was not what I had expected.

He talked about the impossibilities in the project and how it couldn’t just happen with hard work. The experience of the older generation gave them a lot of guidance.

“There is no need to stir up opposition between generations. Taiwan is deliberately widening the generation gap, but I believe the generations will gradually find a balance." As long as we don’t give up communicating, different generations can work together to create more possibilities. We are part of the same country and shouldn’t be talked about separately.

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

Photo Credit: OPTOGO

It was the Mid-Autumn Festival that day. We weren’t in Taiwan, but we were gazing at the same moon as people back home. It was so round and beautiful. We were huddled in the volunteer base in Milan having the most heartwarming meal in the history. There wasn’t any barbecue, but the room was filled with Taiwan flavor and we talked into the night in Taiwanese.

We are still unable to return home because our mission is still unfinished.

But this became our home long ago. A group of children that still remember their roots are polishing recognition of the world for Taiwan.

This is a fully-fledged citizen movement. The team used ten months to do what other countries spent a decade planning. It is because of them, Taiwan is able to escape from the edge of the world and return to the international stage.

Translated by Olivia Yang

The author has authorized publication of this article. The original text is published on CrowdWatch here.