EXCLUSIVE: Taiwan Minister Of Culture Lung Yingtai Talks China, Democracy And Culture (PHOTOS)

Doctor Lung Yingtai does not have an enviable position. She is Taiwan's first Ministry of Culture. In a country that is in constant cultural "disagreements" with their big neighbor China across the Taiwan Strait, Dr. Lung must draw upon her many years of civil service experience, her own personal contributions to the democratization of Taiwan with her influential essays and works, and the support of the Taiwanese Government and its people.

I had a chance to sit down with Dr. Lung during her recent visit to New York City where she toured culturally unique sites like the High Line and spoke at the Asia Society.

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She's a spry and youthful looking at 59 years old, and has a soft voice and a demeanor that demands your attention when she speaks. You can feel the spark from the woman who famously crafted an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintau, and authored "Big River, Big Sea -- Untold Stories of 1949," which is banned in China but has sold 500,000 copies in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The first time you visited the United States in 1975 you were coming from a Taiwan that was very different from what it is today, where even the idea that the water ringing an island country is considered a cultural and political wall. What was that visit to the United States like coming from that kind of environment?

Lung: The first time I went to the US was 1975, and that was also the first time I crossed the border over to Canada, and the way I crossed was by foot. I remember I was standing there and I couldn't believe it, because I always thought every country was surrounded by water, and to me water was not something that carries you over, but stops you. So when I was able to walk to other country, simply by walking over I thought something was wrong. That shows how the strait, the water around you, is a political wall -- that really molds your understanding of the world. Later on we try to break free and get away from this kind of confinement.

The 110-mile wide Taiwan Strait is the divisional line between China and Taiwan. China still has thousands of metal spikes and fencing on the coast facing Taiwan. What progress has Taiwan made since the late 1950s in "breaking down" those barriers and walls?

Lung: Things are not quite as normal as things could be. But of course it takes time, the Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years, but the wall in the mind is still there, and that takes time to tear down. With Taiwan, its not even as far as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall because you're [Taiwan and China] still two 'states' who are stationed against each other. The easy example to draw are the missiles. More than a 1000 [Chinese] missiles are stationed along the coast and directed at the Pacific. Its interesting to see after six decades; the families on both sides, commerce going on, yet things are still so abnormal.

Could expanded Chinese tourism and lifting of restrictions help normalize cross-strait relationships? Where do most of the restrictions come from?

Lung: The restrictions are more placed on both sides. For a number of years both the Chinese and Taiwanese Governments allowed organized group tours, but since last year individuals have been allowed to come over from China. But the Taiwanese are afraid of an overflow of Chinese tourists, and that they might not have the infrastructure to receive them.

How do you mean?

Lung: The private sector, the people who sell gifts, the people who are in hotel businesses, they welcome Chinese tourists. Just like in Hong Kong where they opened up the market for Chinese, and nowadays its the Chinese tourists who come to Hong Kong to buy up gold, brand name fashion pieces, Louis Vitton, they're bought by the Chinese tourists. There's a joke, that the Chinese go over to Hong Kong to buy brand names, and the Hong Kongers go over to China to buy up fake brand names. Even if the joke is black humor, it shows its kind of a hate/love relation between the two countries. When it comes to Taiwan, the small business sector wants to have more Chinese tourists come over here. As for the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan] they would say, 'Look, if we allow more Chinese to come over here, our men will lose their jobs, and our women would marry them. Just imagine our public parks, they would be full of Chinese and imagine what happens after dark!' This is the type of rhetoric that was used, so it is sort of ambivalent.

How do you retain Taiwan's artistic talents?

Lung: It has to do with the economic rise of China, the Chinese Government has a seemingly unlimited budget which can build one theater after another, and build concert halls, and museums, all this hardware where you could have unlimited space to do exhibitions and grand looking theaters. By comparison, we are always fighting for budget in Taiwan, so you have a smaller market and a smaller audience, and financially the performing artist groups could never survive on their own, so people go.

As a new Ministry of Culture, how do you address that tiny budget creatively?

Lung: We've been studying many of the existing laws and regulations to see if there are ways to create more resources. For instance, if the United Kingdom could have such a big percent of the Lotto to reinvest into culture, why couldn't we? So we study our Lotto distribution regulations. Even if we could get just one percent of our Lotto income that would help.

We're also looking at other regulations such as a one percent budget for public art, which we have, but with the existing laws that require that money go to art pieces, or 'concrete art work'. We're trying to come up with a solution by drafting new regulations allowing this one percent to become an art fund. We're also trying to let more of the private sector have the business and the industrial circle support art on a larger scale.

Does that one percent go to creating art villages?

Lung: If we could turn it into a fund, then that's possible.

What is the public's perception of those rundown areas turned cultural centers?

Lung: With the artist villages I did a lot when I was Culture Minister of Taipei from 1999 to 2003. Instead of building new structures, I systematically renovated old rundown places and turned them into museums, artists galleries and that has been very successful. Since then it has become the 'in' thing to do. That's been going on for the past decade.

You've mentioned that having artists go to China was a way of spreading culture to China, and that it was you duty to take on this role. Are there any fears of Taiwanese artists going to China being persecuted?

Lung: We haven't had any issues of Taiwanese artists going to China being persecuted. I would say the Taiwanese artists are more individualistic self expressionists. Before the 1980s the Taiwanese actually experienced political pressure themselves, so many of the young artists during the 1960s would opt for leaving Taiwan altogether. They would go to Europe.. Madrid, Paris to learn art, and they'd stay because Taiwan was too repressive for them. Then in the 1980s when democracy finally ruled Taiwan, these people began to come back. In freedom, the artist tends to be less politically engaged and more for self expression. So the Taiwanese artists who would go to China would go there for opportunity for their art to be seen. They don't go there to be politically active.

Like with human rights?

Lung: The issue of Chinese human rights domestically [in Taiwan], has been overtly politicized, consumed by partisan politics. The reason why I'm saying that is the KMT [Kuomingtang] -- which happens to be the ruling party since 2008 -- they drive towards peace with China and when peace negotiations become very important, then you don't want to overemphasize the human rights situation in China, to antagonize the people who you want to reach the peace agreement with. For the the opposition party DPP [Democratic Progressive Party], they try to disengage with China by stressing that we are, 'Taiwanese and we are not Chinese so don't tell me that I have to be concerned with China because they are not my compatriots, they are foreigners and it is not my duty to be concerned about them.' They try to go the other way, pretty much to the extreme.

Then the pure concern for Human Rights, Human Rights for Human Rights sake gets lost in the vacuum in-between.

You said politics are "teamwork and gang fights" during your speech at the Asia Society...

Lung: Whenever I look at American politics I feel better! Wow, the Americans are like that? Well no wonder we young democracies can do better.

What could Hong Kong learn from Taiwan if China is looking at Taiwan as a "democracy laboratory?"

Lung: Taiwan has been very important for Hong Kong as a reference point, increasingly so since 1997. My Hong Kong friends used to say, 'You Taiwanese stay the way you are because you are still there, far apart from Beijing and therefor we are relatively still in a safe place because we have to be the showcase.

So there is that very delicate game of balance, and increasingly with the development of democracy in Taiwan, the Hong Kongers, they try to orient themselves between Beijing and Taipei. For the past decade Hong Kongers have been watching the details of Taiwan politics intently, including how the [Taiwanese] President was sentenced to go to jail, the partisan fights and how the Taiwanese position themselves against Beijing. The Hong Kongers drew both inspiration and frustration from the Taiwanese model.

They are inspired by the Taiwanese culturally. Many of my friends in Hong Kong have a habit of just flying over to Taiwan on Friday afternoon, spending the weekend going to bookstores, walking down the little alleys, sitting down in cafes, then flying back to Hong Kong on Sunday night. So Taiwan becomes a sort of cultural garden for Hong Kongers.

China is pushing a more favorable view of Communism in Hong Kong education in 2016, could something like that have an affect on Hong Kong culture if children are learning these things at an early age?

Lung: To indirectly address this question, the Taiwanese used to grow up with textbooks written by the Government alone, so we grew up with only one vision of history. For many, many years I remember seeing Time and Newsweek magazines being sold in the kiosks. And if you leafed through one of them and happen to see a report on China or Taiwan, the text or photos would be blacked out individually with pens. If there was something improper in there, there were Government people who's job it was to cover it up. We grew up with that, and everything was tunneled. The Government told you what to believe in, the Government allowed you to sing certain songs.. so we went through all of that. It backfired later on. In 1975 when I went to the US for the first time I went to the library and by chance I got a book about Chinese history. That opened my eyes and I thought 'Oh my God what I was told before were all lies!'

With education things will change. Right now the [Taiwanese] Government doesn't write textbooks, its like any other open society where book companies and publishers provide different versions and its up to you to choose. With what's happening in Hong Kong, I don't think it is possible -- especially with the sophistication and global orientation the Hong Kongers have enjoyed for so long -- that if you want to instill a single-minded view on things, I don't think its going to be easy.

What are some things you could do better with culture in Taiwan?

Lung: We're thinking how culture can be more discussed, debated, talked about on TV. If we could somehow work in a way that culture is not so marginal. In our government structure before the establishment of the ministry, it was called the Council for Cultural Affairs. It was a council, the budget was very tiny, and it was understaffed. In the government structure you have weak ministries and strong an powerful ministries, and when you fight for a budget its how you convince the others that culture isn't so unimportant that it always has to take a backseat. So we already have to work within the government system, convince the budget office, convincing the government office, convince the President, asking for more budget. That's already a major task. Then, convincing the media that politics is not the only thing in the world, and that its also possible to cover cultural issues.

Even when artists come up with a protest against the Ministry of Culture, when they have demands the Ministry of Culture cannot meet, I look at them [the protests] positively. A month ago the owners of Livehouse Industries complained they are easily shut down by the police or sanitation departments or they are improperly taxed because they are looked upon as if they were brothels, when they are actually livehouses where singers and songwriters perform. They got themselves into media coverage, which I consider positive because otherwise the media totally ignores cultural issues.

So what we can improve on is the awareness both on the government side and in the media. We are trying to create more liaison crossing creative industries. We are trying to work on how to get the movie industry to work more closely together with literature. Can you turn more novels into movies? Can you get popular songwriters to work with poets?"

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Being a writer and creative yourself, is it easier to communicate that need for crossover?

Lung: As a writer I'm a loner, I don't have to bother with bringing anybody together, but now I have this job so maybe the advantage to being a writer is that I have to think logically. A movie director probably works with people better and organizationally, but that's not the trait of writers, writers are loners. As a writer myself I find that I have to have the ability of thinking logically, I have to be analytical and one thing that's very important is the ability to listen. Only when I listen can I collect and add content, and that becomes the power of my writing. Once you lose the capacity of listening, you lose the whole thing.

How does Taiwan's view of culture differ from that of China?

Lung: I think there's a contrast between what's happening in China and understanding of culture in Taiwan. There is a drastic, basic fundamental difference in there. Many Chinese believe in the unified grand narrative of what culture is. The Taiwanese used to believe in the grand, nationalistic, monolithic narrative, which through the process of democracy cracks into millions of small, tiny, personalized, individualistic narratives of culture. It also means when you stay with that unified grand narrative of things, its still collective, and you put an abstract notion of 'Nation' as centerpiece. The Taiwanese have moved far away from there. There is no such collective thing there on the pedestal. Its the individual life, its the small happiness and sadness of the individual person that counts. And that also explains why across the strait [in China] when we were talking about signing a cultural agreement or not, we first have to bridge the concept of what culture is.

The Taiwanese are suspicious of any grand narrative, they would rather hold onto something very personal, very small.

What are some local cultural assets that you're looking to protect?

Lung: I would try to work very hard to protect the basic understanding of culture as something very small, very personal. I would try to avoid this push towards a grand narrative. That's the basic value, attitude. Therefore if I were asked to put my personal opinion as a writer into my Human Rights museum, I would reject doing so. The museum should be an open bottle where the descending opinion and values would go in there, not my own personal values. So I guard it, I guard this individualistic freedom for Taiwan.

What other Asian countries are doing a good job of preserving their culture.

Lung: The Japanese are doing a wonderful job. The japanese are like the Germans somehow, on the one hand they can be very high tech, very efficient, very industrial. At the same time they can be in their way of life, in the way they preserve their villages, in they way they still are dressed in their traditional costumes and feel comfortable in their tradition, and they can be archaic, and they can be so old and so called 'backwards' at the same time, so I think the Japanese combine their modernity linked with their own tradition in a nice way.

The Presidential election is coming up in the United States, which candidate would be better for the Arts here?

Lung: Wow! That's tough. You tell me first, which one of them has more respect for culture?

I'll have to remain impartial!

Lung: Well, which one would be more open-minded when it comes to culture?

Some would say its traditionally been the Democrats who have been more open-minded.

Lung: Well, for culture you need somebody who is very open-minded. I would prefer to have someone as Cultural Minister who does not know how to paint, play piano, or even read much, but he or she would have to be a very open-minded person!