Two minutes to impress a panel of judges as harsh as Simon Cowell — mean judge of "American Idol" fame — and only one chance per year to do it.

This is not an audition for a singing competition, however. It is the examination street performers in Taiwan have been subject to since 2005 just to obtain a license to perform on the streets of Taipei. Buskers in Taiwan have been dealing with condescending and rude judges and ridiculously short performance times year after year without much complaint.

This year, a Taiwanese-American watching the exam was infuriated.

The exam is open to the public, and William Lü, a film director, dancer and faculty member at Codarts University for the Arts in the Netherlands, was among those watching.

He noticed the head of the judging panel interrupting a singer and asking him to perform in a different language. The singer switched from Chinese to Taiwanese, but after just two lines the judge walked away, leaving the rest of the panel with no choice but to follow.

According to Lü, the head judge constantly interrupted performers. He was also not paying full attention, chatting with other judges and walking away before the performers finished.

“Somehow, in this exam, there was no respect for the arts. They view this exam as if it was an examination given in school, but these performers are not students,” Lü tells The News Lens. “There's no way to judge someone's artistry based on how many languages they speak or how many different genres they play.”

Lü, angry about the disrespectful treatment the performers faced, wrote about the incident on Facebook. His post drew the attention of other performers who had taken the test before, as well as local media, prompting discussion on the necessity of the license.

The number of street performers attempting the exam has swelled over the past two years, rising from 280 in 2013 to 504 this year. Only 62 groups passed this year — a qualification rate of 13 percent. The few who make the cut can earn up to NT$10,000 (US$330) a day performing.

‘Legalizing’ street performance in Taipei

In 2005, Taipei became the first city in Taiwan to set up a licensing system to regulate street performers. Prior to the license , buskers — especially those who collected money — were considered to be “street vendors” by the police and couldn’t perform wherever they wanted to.

Under pressure from street performers and complaints from locals, the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs set up an exam for artists to perform on the streets. The move was supposed to “legalize” busking and protect street performers’ rights, according to the department.

Other cities and counties in Taiwan soon followed suit.

The licenses are generally valid for two years and can be renewed. They must be prominently displayed during performances and cannot be used in different cities and counties. For example, a license from Taipei is not valid in Kaohsiung. Street performers must take a separate test in each city or county they wish to perform in.

Blogs and forums are dedicated to teaching people how to pass the test, but even established local bands and musicians have failed and been deemed unfit to perform on the streets of Taiwan.

What is the test about?

Taipei City’s street performer test takes place each May over a period of two days, and applications need to be filed a month before the exam is held.

Tan Jiajin (陳嘉進), a diabolo performer from Malaysia, received his license last year. While he was not interrupted by a condescending judge during his exam, he and his partner had to scramble to change their routine at the last minute.

When he arrived at the exam, Tan was told that they could only perform for two minutes instead of the original five because there were too many people at the test that day.

“We practiced our routine for two months, but had to change it at the last minute so the exciting parts were in front,” says Tan. “We were really lucky we did not make any mistakes and got the license in one try.”

Luigi Percca, a British escape artist, has had his license for more than a year.

The escape artist only managed to get through half his show before the judges walked off. “I thought that was a bit rude, which it was,” Percca says.


TNL staff

Luigi Percca struggles to escape from his chains in Ximending.

But Percca adds that the time limit is a good way to test street performers. “When you’re under pressure and you still manage to pull it off, then it’s good, because street performing in itself is pressure.”

Both Tan and Percca credit passing the exam in part to luck, since there has never been official judging criteria.

An audience voting process is included in the exam — the only judging criteria given by the Department of Cultural Affairs. According to the regulations, “some members” of the public will be invited to vote on whether they “like” or “dislike” the performance. If a performance receives more than 10 percent of “dislike” votes, it forms a basis for the judges to eliminate the street performer.

Lü says he did not notice any voting taking place in this year’s exam, and Tan, the diabolo performer, says that most street performers get their friends to vote for them.

It would be helpful to know the judging criteria, says Tan, or at the very least the scores of the acts that received licenses “because it is so competitive in Taipei and the acceptance rate is so low, more people complain [about the lack of transparency].”

The Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs also states that the judging panel is a combination of arts academics, representatives from the department, public space management representatives and street performers.

But Lü, the Taiwanese-American artist, says he later looked up the background of the judges at the exam he watched. “The two judges I found only studied theory, and I could not find any relevant performance experience,” Lü says.

"The judges don't have what it takes to recognize innovative and edgy performances," Lü says. "I know a brilliant percussionist who plays on household objects and has taken the exam four, five times and failed because the judges think his act looks cheap and dirty."

“Art is really subjective, and it all really depends on the judges’ taste. If they like your act, they like it. They tend to like acts that interact with their audience a lot more,” Tan says.

Public space limitations

After receiving a license, street performers should be allowed to perform in 77 locations, including parks, shopping districts and riverside parks, according to Taipei City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. But Tan said he once contacted the Taipei Zoo — a listed location — and was told “they were no longer allowing street performers, but they would contact me if they needed performers for future events.”

Most street performers are limited to Tamsui, a popular weekend getaway, the Ximen shopping district and the Xinyi shopping district.

Each of these three locations is managed by a different agency.

In Tamsui, music performers are banned from most areas, and performers have to draw lots for performance spots daily at 9 a.m. If it rains, they have to go back and sign out of the spot. Those who want to perform in Ximen have to draw lots every two weeks, while in Xinyi district it’s first come, first serve — the first to reach the spot gets to use it — and buskers switch with others every few hours.


TNL Staff

Tan Jiajin and his partner perform at the Xinyi shopping district.

Street performers without licenses don't shy away from performing either, says Tan. While he harbors no ill-feelings toward unlicensed performers, the performer agrees that if the city means to issue licenses, then it should enforce these regulations.

Re-thinking regulations

Taipei City Councillor Vivian Huang (黃珊珊) wants the street performance examination to be eliminated. Since 2015, she has called on Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) to review and amend street performance regulations.

Many aspects of the exam are problematic, a representative from Huang’s office told The News Lens. He took Pan Mei-chen's (潘美辰) case as an example. The singer and songwriter failed the exam this year and was interrupted by the judges because her drumming was “too loud.”

“We all know she’s a performer, but somehow Taipei City’s appointed judges have to decide if she’s a street performer? Isn’t this logic a little strange?”

The fact that the examinations are separate for each county and city in Taiwan is also questionable, says the representative. “There’s no reason that one can be a street performer in Taipei, but not in another city.”

Instead of an examination, the Department of Cultural Affairs should establish clearer guidelines for managing performance spots and set up a platform for street performers to book performance areas, the representative adds.

“Street performers can also keep each other in check, so if, for example, someone who is doing basket weaving and selling them is in a street performer’s spot, then they should be reported to the authorities since that is more like street vending,” he says.


Mr. 小安先生

Mr. Mamdera, a street performer who specializes in juggling, puts on a show at a local event.

At a Taipei City Council meeting on June 1, Ko and the commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, Chung Yung-feng (鍾永豐), promised they would draft a new plan within the next month for the regulation of street performers.

However, Huang’s representative thinks the examination will not be canceled any time soon.

“They (The Department of Cultural Affairs) are worried that if they change the rules, there would not be any manpower to enforce the regulations,” the representative says. “But that really isn’t an issue.”

Lü, the American dancer, also believes the examination should be eliminated.

“Performers are auditioning because they bring their talent and self-expression to these adjudicators,” Lü says. “Calling it an exam also disrespects these artists.”

Despite all the hurdles he has had to jump, Tan, the diabolo performer, still enjoys performing in Taipei.

“If I were to perform in Malaysia, people would think I was a beggar. The culture just isn’t there yet,” he says.

Percca, the escape artist, agrees with Tan.

“It’s a hard life, but it’s one of the best lives in the world, because sometimes when you’re just walking down that road and all you have is a backpack on and you see the moon and stars — it’s freedom, it’s peace.”

Editor: Olivia Yang