By Chieh-Ting Yeh

In the world of international politics, nations have ignored Taiwan and pretended it does not exist for a long time.

If you look up recent news about Taiwan, you will see the country’s most recent diplomatic setback — Panama, a nation that has maintained official ties with the Republic of China for decades, finally made the decision to recognize Beijing as the legitimate government of China as most of the rest of the world has done. Taiwan was not invited to join the World Health Assembly in Geneva this year — nevermind the fact that Taiwan has only ever been invited to attend as an observer. Even students with a Taiwanese passport were turned away from attending the public gallery at the UN Human Rights office in Geneva.

But Taiwanese people, who created a resilient civil society and that have infused tremendous amounts of creative energy into the arts, is pushing “Taiwan” the brand into places far away from the marble halls of politics. People and stories that represent Brand Taiwan now show up in gourmet magazines, startup communities worldwide, and beginning last year, Taiwan’s contemporary music played at the largest open air music event in New York: Summer Stage in Central Park.

In the summer of 2016, some 4,500 people were introduced to Taiwanese artists Wonfu (旺福), Anpu (安溥) also known as Desets Xuan (張懸) and Sunset Rollercoaster (落日飛車). But this only became possible because of Ms. Mia Min Yen (嚴敏), the founder, and organizer of Taiwanese Waves. Yen’s love of music began early, as she was a child of parents who worked in the media industry and owned a record label. Additionally, one of her aunts worked as a radio DJ. Growing up, live music was the art form that spoke to Yen the most.

“I spent my high school years in Taiwan, and it was during that time that I discovered the music venues, the indie bands and the music scene in Taiwan. I made a lot of friends and got to know a lot of bands,” Yen says.

Later when Yen came to New York for college, she brought this love for music with her to her new base of operations. After graduating, Yen started working at music venues and she continued to build relationships with bands and local emerging artists in New York.

“Sometimes when I saw a show in the United States, I would have this thought — ‘oh this band reminds me of this Taiwanese band, it would be great if they could come to New York and play one day,’” she says.

Not one to just sit back, Yen started taking matters into her own hands. “After holding this thought for some time, I finally started to work with Taiwanese bands and book shows in the U.S. for them,” Yen says, adding that in the beginning she only booked shows at very small venues, but now she’s able to book shows at much larger venues, including at a music festival.

In 2013, after her internship with SummerStage, Yen approached her bosses about bringing Taiwanese artists to New York. Initially, the bosses at SummerStage were interested, but because they didn’t know the market, the language, or the music scene in Taiwan in general, they hesitated to take the plunge. Yen tried again in 2014 and 2015 to no avail.

Finally in 2016, after Yen put together a presentation on Taiwanese artists for SummerStage, SummerStage authorized Yen to curate the show. It was a runaway success, and Taiwanese Waves was invited to play again at SummerStage this year.

The explosion of Taiwanese music onto the biggest summer music event in New York City may come as a surprise. After all, Taiwan is a relatively lesser known nation in Asia — and one often confused with Thailand. Not to mention, Taiwan is constantly and intentionally shut out of the international consciousness by China.

One of the reasonings behind China’s claims to Taiwan is that as Taiwanese people use Mandarin as their lingua franca, the same as China, the two countries share the same “cultural roots.” But does Taiwan’s contemporary music have a distinct message for the world? Yen definitely thinks so. “Music truly reflects our society and our lives,” she says. “For example, we can discuss issues like domestic violence and unfair justice, but [we] can also celebrate issues like same-sex relationships and marriage.” Additionally, Taiwanese music can express the fluidity and diversity present in Taiwanese society. “We have artists that sing in Mandarin, Taiwanese, indigenous languages, and Hakka,” Yen says. And more recent immigrants are adding to the mix languages such as Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Malay, English, among others.

Taiwan’s linguistic diversity is one thing Yen plans to showcase at this year’s Taiwanese Waves at SummerStage. Of the three groups attending this year, the band FireEX (滅火器) will perform in Taiwanese, the singer Sangpuy will perform in Puyuma, and singers Berry J and Dadado Huang will perform in Mandarin.

Moreover, music in Taiwan has always been deeply connected to social movements, provided commentary on injustices, or has been used as rallying calls to action. Songs in Taiwanese were censored by the then-Nationalist authoritarian regime of Chiang Kai-shek, and songs like “Mend the Broken Net” (補破網) were used to infer the suffering of the Taiwanese people.

fSimilarly, FireEX rose to prominence after their 2014 single “Island’s Sunrise” (島嶼天光), which essentially became the theme song for the Sunflower Movement, a mass social movement initiated by students and NGOs in Taiwan in 2014 as they protested against government actions they deemed undemocratic, as well as China’s encroaching involvement in local affairs. During the month-long protest, students occupied the parliament floor, and riot police were unleashed onto the student protesters in a crackdown the likes of which Taiwan has not seen in half a generation.

“Island’s Sunrise” served as a source of strength for the protesters. The band sang:

Darkness breaks apart
Horizon lined with a hopeful crowd
A voice echoes, beckons
Wave by the wings below the sun

Darkness breaks apart
The flags raise high, the wall breaks down
Link my spirit to your heart
Together we stand proud

Other artists and songs have also reflected the recent growing pains in Taiwan’s civil society. “Enter the Battle” (入陣曲) by the popular mainstream band Mayday (五月天) alluded to many social controversies and student protests, such as the illegal demolition of a pharmacy and home by the Miaoli County authorities, nuclear proliferation and a resort development on beaches within indigenous territories. “Hey Kid” (囡仔) by the musician-slash-professor Chang Jui-chuan (張睿銓) runs through the history of abuses by the Nationalist regimes, including the 228 Massacre in 1947.” The rapper Dwagie (大支) is known for his sharply critical songs, and his 2011 album People features a track recorded with the Dalai Lama.

It’s the freedom of speech and thought, itself a novelty for merely thirty years in Taiwan, that allows Taiwanese artists to forge this uniquely powerful and dazzling message for the world. Yen believes that this energy in Taiwan’s culture is enough to project onto the rest of the world, through technology and with more Taiwanese presenting at festivals and events at all levels.

Through Taiwanese Waves, Yen is determined to realize her vision of telling this story of Taiwan’s unique music to the world. “I want to build a bridge that connects the two musical worlds. I think there is a major gap between the two. Asia is exposed to Western music all the time, but the Western world doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to experience music from Asia.”

“I have always believed in the power of music. Music crosses boundaries, even cultural and personal boundaries. Music resonates with people,” Yen says. “A part of me, I think, just wants to prove to the world that Taiwan produces some of the world’s most outstanding musicians and bands.”

This year’s Taiwanese Waves at SummerStage will take place Saturday, July 29, at 6 p.m., in Rumsey Playfield, Central Park. Admission is free.

The News Lens international edition has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Ketagalan Media here.