In Taiwan, Even Funeral Services Can Count as 'Cultural and Creative'

Photo Credit:AP/ TPG
Why you need to know

Dan Cunningham writes that cultural and creative industries are thriving in Taiwan, but their loose definition means that almost any business can qualify.

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Taiwan is in the midst of a push to re-establish its culture and creative industry (CCI) credentials at the top of the global tree, aiming to revive the heady days when pop stars like Teresa Teng dominated the airwaves, or dramas like "Meteor Garden" could be found flickering ubiquitously on TV screens across Asia and beyond.

Companies involved in the sector face stiff competition from international rivals benefiting from sharply honed models that maximize return on investment and ensure a virtuous circle of creative growth. Conversely, in Taiwan, the term wenchuang (文創, cultural and creative) has achieved commodity fetish status among marketers, but a lack of attention invested in determining which enterprises deserve the title threatens to undermine the sector's vitality.

Taiwan already has a thriving CCI sector, but is its development is hampered by the inclusion of large enterprises in other industries.

Taiwan's CCI sector is currently worth some NT$807.25 billion (US$27.7 billion) or 4.72 percent of Taiwan’s total GDP, according to figures from the Ministry of Culture (MoC). It accounts for 63,339 companies and 2.25 percent of total employment. The majority of companies are low earners; just over a quarter earn less than NT$100,000 per year, a further 35.02 percent earn less than NT$1 million, and another 22.2 percent earn less than NT$5 million. Less than 1 percent earn over NT$100 million, painting a picture of a sector dominated by small enterprises with relatively few heavyweights.

Moreover, these numbers are artificially inflated through a legal loophole that allows Taiwanese marketers to leverage the term wenchuang to describe just about any enterprise with a cultural or creative element.

This structural flaw in Taiwan impacts genuine CCI enterprises, who find themselves competing with an out-sized number of companies for their rightful share of government support. Look no further than the infamous case of funeral company, Lungyen Group, for an example of how these companies (in this case quite literally) sap the life out of the sector.

Legal niceties

Vivian Wang (王愛嵐) from the MoC's Department of Cultural and Creative Development told The News Lens, “Because wenchuang is an abstract concept that seems all-inclusive and is hard to define, the MoC defines [it] based on wenchuangfa -- the Law for the Development of the Cultural and Creative Industries.”

The law defines CCI as originating "from creativity or cultural accumulation, with the potential of using intellectual properties to create wealth and job openings, on top of enhancing the aesthetic level of local people and improving their living environment.”

According to the law, Taiwan’s CCI sector is divided into "15 plus one" categories, with the plus one defined as "other industries as designated by the central Competent Authority," which in this case is the Council for Cultural Affairs of the Executive Yuan.

This ambiguity around the 16th category allows enterprises that would normally be associated with the hospitality industry for example, such as cafes and hotels, to be termed cultural and creative, opening the door for the government to bulk up the sector’s value.

Academics studying CCI at National Taiwan Normal University and The News Lens (Taiwan edition) have decried this misuse of the term wenchuang, citing how Taiwan's CCIs are crowded out by more powerful, profitable enterprises when competing for a share of the MoC's multi-billion dollar budget, which is distributed in the form of grants of up to NT$5 million.

The infamous case of Lungyen Group

Lungyen Group offers a stark illustration of the issue. The company, worth US$1.2 billion according to Forbes, is one of the world’s largest funeral companies, and describes itself as a combination of service sector, cultural sector, and humanitarian care, despite clearly being a funeral company. Lungyen enjoys CCI accreditation, which it justifies through associations with architects, interior designers, craftsmen, and landscape professionals who create exquisite designer cemetery parks with highly desirable feng shui elements.

Check out Lungyen’s newest cemetery park concept, Palace of Light designed by Tadao Ando.

The group's boisterous funeral celebrations have earned international acclaim, repackaging a distinct Taiwanese cultural tradition with dancers, hired mourners, and esoteric processions. It incorporates cultural practices from Taoism and Buddhism into a funeral service package, which can be purchased alongside prime real estate in a designer cemetery park. Despite the incorporation of CCI practices within Lungyen’s product, the majority of its business is in the death industry. The designers associated with Lungyen products belong to the CCI sector, but Lungyen Group itself does not.

Refining CCI

The UK's Design Council offers Taiwan a model under which it can drill down within the 15 categories covered by the law, which include music, performance art and fashion for example, to maximize the revenue generated by genuine cultural and creative companies, according to the council's Research and Evaluation Manager, Stephen Miller.

stephen-miller
Credit: Stephen Miller
Stephen Miller, Research and Evaluation Manager at Design Council (UK).

The organization produces detailed reports on the design industry in the UK, which have helped establish it as a world leader in diversifying our understanding of CCI. "The Design Economy" (2015) quantified the value of design to the UK economy, and paved the way for the council's latest report "Designing a Future Economy" (2017), which examines the design skills required for productivity and innovation.

“At [Lungyen Group], there will be someone using design skills as part of their job, but we wouldn’t recognize them as being a creative firm,” Miller says. “It’s not to say that they don’t use design, but they are not the most intensive users of design, compared to a graphics design studio or a product design firm." Under the Design Council's framework, there is a clear distinction between "design intensive" and "design active", the latter designating firms that employ designers, but not as their primary resource.

Many national organizations in Europe, Asia, and America, are following in the UK’s footsteps and pursuing research into the economy of design. Miller says the Design Council is working with organizations in New Zealand, Czech Republic, Denmark, the state of Georgia in the U.S., and South Korea, while the Atlanta Design Festival in Georgia aims to initiate research on a state level, before scaling up to a nationwide report.

These efforts map a global trend in which developed nations, many of which are witnessing tremendous growth in the creative sector, are refining their analytical models in order to double down on investment. Yet working out where to draw the line around the creative sector is no easy task.

Creative individuals
daniel-chen
Credit: Chen Ting-han
Chen Ting-han, Design Director at Play Design Hotel.

Chen Ting-han (陳鼎翰) is Design Director at Play Design Hotel. His background is in digital media, communication design, architecture, and industrial design. Previously, he worked as an interaction designer, planning exhibitions for museum and commercial clients. Now, he channels his creative skills into the hospitality industry, where he has created a tangible product in the form of his hotel.

Chen uses a service design approach, which focuses on creating an optimal user experience along a series of touch points. "If we see ‘lodgers checking into a hotel’ as a service journey, then we can identify touch points composed in this journey and design the experiences at each of these touch points,” Chen explains. “It is very much like visiting an art exhibition, but unlike an art exhibition, Play Design Hotel is a place where you can stay overnight and touch everything.”

Chen’s perspective on the hospitality industry, exemplified by Play Design Hotel, blurs the line under the UK Design Council's framework for defining a creative enterprise. He makes a compelling argument for why his role is creative, but it is impossible for everyone in his hotel to work in the same way. Similar to the way that Lungyen Group works with designers, he is a creative professional, but his enterprise belongs to a different sector.

Breaking limitations
tim-cheng
Credit: Tim Cheng
Tim Cheng, Co-founder and CEO of flyingV.

Tim Cheng (鄭光廷), co-founder and CEO of flyingV, the first crowdfunding platform in Taiwan since 2012, embodies the complexity of creating a framework that allows creative innovation to thrive. He also runs an art and music event space called venue, located in Taipei’s old red light district. Many of the musicians, filmmakers, and artists who use the crowdfunding platform also use the event space. Cheng thus has a holistic view of how to nurture and develop artists and CCI enterprises.

“Our core value [at flyingV] is to be completely inclusive,” Cheng says. “This is key because our sole purpose is to create an environment where culture and all forms of creativity have a chance to garner support and get off the ground. Creativity should not have limitations. We have hosted over 2,350 campaigns and funded over NT$580 million.”

Yet under the current law, neither of Cheng's enterprises would qualify for CCI support as the crowdfunding platform belongs to the financial services sector, and the events space belongs to the hospitality sector.

Redrawing the boundaries

Taiwan already has a thriving CCI sector, but is its development is hampered by the inclusion of large enterprises in other industries, including from the hospitality, financial, and funeral service sectors, and which fit into the other “plus one” category.

The Ministry of Culture would do well to commission research into the 15 legitimate CCI categories to be initiated by the main agencies in charge of those categories.

The UK’s Design Council offers support for research projects in other countries, opening one potential avenue of support and cooperation.

Once Taiwanese researchers acquire the skills to organize this kind of research project in design, it could be replicated across the rest of the CCI categories such as performing arts, music, and film. Accurate analytics on CCI will then enable Taiwan to invest where it counts, help Taiwanese CCI professionals to compete with their peers on the international stage, and put Taiwan’s creativity firmly on the global map.

Read Next: INTERVIEW: Jay Lin on Taking Taiwanese Creative Content Overseas

Editor: David Green

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