INTERVIEW: Taiwanese Waves’ Mia Yen on Bringing Taiwanese Music to New York

INTERVIEW: Taiwanese Waves’ Mia Yen on Bringing Taiwanese Music to New York
Photo Credit: Emily Cheng

What you need to know

One woman is on a mission to take Taiwan's leading musical talent to a wider audience in New York.

“If you think it’s right, then just do it. Don’t be worried. So far everything I’ve done and every idea I’ve had has been based on ‘I think it’s the right thing to do.’”

This was the final piece of advice Taiwanese Waves event curator and music promoter Mia Min Yen (嚴敏) proffered as we closed off our hour-long interview, which also coincided with our first face-to-face meeting in October 2017. Taiwanese Waves is an annual free-of-charge showcase of Taiwanese musical artists in New York's Central Park, which this year falls on July 7 as part of the legendary Central Park SummerStage event that brings free concerts to the heart of the city each summer.

As one of the only other people I know to have set their sights on sharing Taiwanese or Mandarin music with Western audiences, I’ve always kept her words with me as a compass of sorts, providing guidance when the road ahead seems unclear. Mia has always been interested in Taiwan’s independent music scene. After moving to New York to pursue her masters degree, she began taking on jobs and opportunities to learn more about live music curation, with one of the internships being with SummerStage itself.

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Photo Credit: Shun-Ping Liu
Mia at the 2017 Taiwanese Waves showcase at the SummerStage event in Central Park, New York.

These experiences, along with her realization that there was a market and interest in Taiwanese music internationally, motivated her to pitch Taiwanese Waves to SummerStage. After three years of trying, they finally accepted her proposal in 2016, giving her the green light to execute what was to become one of Taiwan’s most well-received international live showcases over the past five years. In her first year of hosting Taiwanese Waves, the showcase pulled in crowds in the thousands, becoming one of SummerStage’s most successful free events that season.

Mia’s words have been lent more weight by her present-day endeavors, emphasizing that she’s willing to walk the talk, no matter what it takes. On top of a full-time job, being the U.S. manager for Taiwanese indie darling 9m88 and respected chanteuse Anpu and more, the soft-spoken yet determined individual is fighting hard to gather funding for her third annual Taiwanese Waves showcase via the Taiwanese crowdfunding website FlyingV.

This is not an unfamiliar situation for Mia, who shared that gathering funding for artist visas, plane tickets, accommodation and more has been the hardest part of running these showcases each year.

“Money is the most difficult thing because it’s a free show -- I have to pay for everyone’s flights, accommodation, visa if they need it, show fee. And also I need to find a crew for visuals, sound engineers and all that. So getting the money [is] actually the hardest thing. Every year.”

However, this year has proved even more challenging than the previous two, due to a sponsor pulling out from the project at the eleventh hour. This forced the team to pull together a last-minute crowdfunding campaign in an effort to get together the funding needed for Taiwanese Waves to take place.

With only a little over a month left until the showcase and 10-odd days until the end of the campaign, the time pressure has been palpable; yet Mia has pushed on to secure three of Taiwan’s most critically acclaimed acts from the folk, hip-hop and math rock genres -- Sheng Xiang band (生祥樂隊), Soft Lipa (蛋堡) and Elephant Gym (大象體操), respectively.

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Photo Credit: Jhane Hoang
Mia, the Taiwanese waves team, and acts Anpu, Wonfu and Sunset Rollercoaster pose at the 2016 Taiwanese Waves event.

The Shengxiang band, headed by Hakka singer and environmental activist Lin Sheng Xiang (林生祥), has been a mainstay in Taiwan’s folk and music activism scene for the last 20 years while Soft Lipa is an anomaly in the underground rap scene for inventing a unique chilled out rap style. Kaohsiung-based Elephant Gym, though not as experienced as the other two acts (Mia selects a new-gen act each time to support young independent artists) are nevertheless brimming with talent, so much so that within a year of their debut, they were personally invited to collaborate and perform with Taiwanese singing and reality TV show star Yoga Lin at his solo concert at Taipei Arena.

And with Mia at the helm, these artists and their musical offerings will be treated with the utmost of care and respect at this year’s Taiwanese Waves. The music curator shared with us how her showcase differentiates from other efforts to export Taiwan’s music globally:

“A lot of festivals, they have Taiwan night or something, but they’re usually part of a very big festival in a little spot where there are multiple things happening at one time. So Taiwanese Wave’s advantage is that on that day, there’s only us. It’s more relaxed.”

Indeed, the festival scene provides many hindrances -- noise levels which detract from the band’s music, the opportunity to move from band to band without truly engaging, the questionable nature of the audience’s lucidity -- there are often too many uncontrollable variables that reduce the efficacy with which Western audiences can truly engage and appreciate Taiwanese music in a way that they can understand.

I am still trying to find a way to break boundaries. It’s about time somebody does something about this. — Mia Yen

But for Mia, this visibility and engagement factor played a big part in her choice of location for the showcase. While she says that 80 percent of concertgoers are still of Asian heritage, 20 percent are visitors at Central Park who are intrigued and incentivized by the showcase’s free entry policy.

"That’s actually a major reason why I want to work with SummerStage; I think it’s a very good way to attract people who would never [listen to your music otherwise] … and I think music is very direct, this art form is really direct, you listen to it and if you like it, you like it. It doesn’t really matter the language, if you enjoy the music, the melody, you’ll probably stay and listen to the whole set, and then my mission is complete. Even if it’s just 10 people.”

But this aim to break boundaries and allow Western audiences to truly engage with Taiwan’s music goes beyond the bottom line. While other concert promoters might rely on Mandarin-speaking audiences to pull in the crowds, Mia tries her best to provide her artists with exposure through local channels, and with positive results.

“So I usually book the Taiwanese bands a Sofar Sounds [a showcase for secret live shows in intimate venues] gig because the people who sign up are 90 percent Caucasian, it’s the best way to see how they would react to your performance with very new music. And so far all the artists I’ve booked for Sofar Sounds have had really good feedback. Even with Sangpuy, from the Beinan [indigenous Taiwanese] tribe, everybody loved him. It’s a really rewarding experience because it proved my point that music crosses cultural boundaries, it’s just a matter of how, when and where you hear it.”

Yet Mia continues to stay grounded in her approach; savoring each bout of Taiwanese Waves as if it is to be the last. For when you’ve built something with your own hands from the ground up, it is a double-edged sword. On one hand you are able to savor every last bit of effort that came to fruition, but on the other, be intimately aware of how changing circumstances could prevent there from ever being another experience like it. The bittersweet catch is that crossing cultural boundaries takes time, as Mia knows too well.

“I am still trying to find a way to break boundaries. It’s about time somebody does something about this.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article had the date of the 2018 Taiwanese Waves event as July 29. It is in fact July 7.

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Editor: David Green


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