This year, Vancouver TAIWANfest has a robust program of visual arts. With the theme of Self-Portraits of Formosa, the festival has three exhibitions in the 700 block of Granville from Saturday through Monday (September 2 to 4).
It’s me and wǒ features self-portraits by four Canadian artists of Asian ancestry: Alicia Chen, James Lee Chiahan, Liang Wang, and Tong Zhou. Meanwhile, About Innocence showcases self-portraits by Taiwanese schoolchildren. Love The Voice is comprised of self-portraits from Taiwanese people who are HIV-positive and HIV-negative.
“We want to shout out to the public that you can not identify who is living with HIV or who has what kind of background, only judging by their appearance,” the TAIWAN AIDS Society and Taiwan AIDS Nurses Association declare.
However, these aren’t the festival’s only visual arts events. TAIWANfest will also present visual artist Mina Lu, from Gongliao District in New Taipei City. She will talk about her country’s most famous artist, Chen Cheng-po.
Moreover, Lu, who will speak in Mandarin, will be joined by Pancouver associate editor and UBC graduate becky tu. She will translate Lu’s commentary into English and add her own comments.
Their “Hope Talk” will take place at 3 p.m. on Sunday (September 3) in Courtroom 302 of the Vancouver Art Gallery (750 Hornby Street; 溫哥華美術館302室).
“For Chen Cheng-po, nature served as his creative studio. He meticulously observed the play of light and shadow in the natural world, translating it into oil colours on canvas,” the TAIWANfest website states. “Even within a lush forest, he managed to capture a vivid mosaic of colours. With his brush, he documented the transition of the era from agriculture to gradual industrial urbanization.”
Chen studied in Tokyo, taught in Shanghai
Chen (1895-1947) helped define Taiwanese identity through his art. Born in Chiayi City, he lived most of his life during Japan’s colonization over the island. He learned Western-style watercolour painting from Japanese master Ishikawa Kunichiro. Chen also studied under Tanabe Itaru at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.
After obtaining a graduate degree, Chen moved to Shanghai, where he taught art. There, he came under the influence of traditional Chinese painters, such as Ni Yunlin and Bada Shanren.
But in China, Chen felt a stigma, according to TAIWANfest organizer Charlie Wu, because he was viewed as Japanese. Upon Chen’s return to Chiayi, he cofounded the Tai-Yang Art Society to assist young artists. He died in 1947 in the wake of the notorious 228 incident. That’s when Chinese nationalist soldiers under Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek slaughtered thousands of anti-government protesters and other Taiwanese people.
At the time, Chen was a city councillor in Chiayi, where there was major opposition to the Chiang government. He was captured by the military, paraded through the town, and shot dead in the street by soldiers. His family was forbidden from retrieving his body for three days as it decomposed.
Below, you can learn more about two of Chen’s more famous paintings. Much of the information came from the Chen Cheng-po Cultural Foundation in Taiwan.
Meanwhile, TAIWANfest will offer festivalgoers a chance to learn more about Chen’s art at the SFU Segal Building (500 Granville Street 西門菲沙大學), where there will also be an exhibition called Migration & Arts (11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday to Sunday). Migration & Arts will feature six diverse craft artists presented by the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute.
Sunset in Tamsui
This painting might remind Vancouverites of English Bay with a more densely populated area in the foreground and plenty of greenspace at the top.
In fact, this oil on canvas painting, circa 1935 to 1937, reflects the history of Tamsui in New Taipei. Chen included Fort Santo Domingo near the upper right corner. Spanish colonists destroyed it in 1642 after losing a battle with the Dutch Empire.
Dutch colonists subsequently built a new fort. Locals nicknamed it “Fort Red Hair” because the Dutch were known as “red-haired people”.
Ships in the harbour include a passenger steamboat as well as junks. The lighthouse at the end of the upper peninsula dates back to the 18th century. Qing rulers built a new one in the late 19th century before the First Sino-Japanese War, resulting in the island becoming part of Japan.
The patch of brown land near a boat is the Customs Wharf, which Japan developed during its colonization. Created with earth filling, it included berthing areas for ships. To the east is Beacon Street Section, which housed offices and warehouses.
Next to that is a two-storied Western-style building. It formerly belonged to Douglas Laprait & Co. as an employee dormitory and warehouse. The Japanese government expropriated this property for the post office’s bachelor quarters.
On the far upper right is a bell tower atop Tamsui Church. Below is a chimney on the roof of the Mackay clinic. These buildings still exist on Mackay Street, named after Canadian Presbyterian missionary George Leslie Mackay. He arrived in Tamsui in 1872 and remained there until he died in 1901. During his time on the island, Mackay learned Taiwanese and created churches, schools, and a hospital.
The Mandarin word huifang was often used for wine restaurants in Taiwan in the early to mid 20th century. That’s because this term literally means “a place where the aroma is filled”.
It’s one reason why legendary Taiwanese artist Chen Cheng-po called one of his 1932 paintings Xihuifang. If you look closely on the upper right side of this work of art, you’ll see the name written in Traditional Chinese, signifying the second-floor establishment. The real-life Xihuifang dining and drinking lounge was in Chiayi City, which is where Chen was born and where he spent the final 14 years.
Chen lived most of his life under Japanese colonization, which lasted from 1895 to 1945 in Taiwan. In that period, thriving entertainment and business zones arose in Taipei and other cities, sometimes modelled on Tokyo’s Asakusa district. Geisha houses operated openly. And in Chiayi, a flourishing lumber industry generated lots of customers.
In fact, written in Mandarin are the words “Chiayi Lumber Chamber of Commerce” above the awning in the middle of the painting.
At this point in his prolific artistic career, Chen was helping to define an emerging Taiwanese identity. The island—and particularly its Indigenous population—had already experienced a long history of colonization at the hands of the Dutch, Spanish, Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as Japan. Xihuifang reflects some of that diversity.
Chen painted a Taiwanese geisha in the second-story window. Standing in the foreground on the right is a man in the traditional rural attire of Taiwan, suggesting he might be a farmer. There’s also a woman in a figure-fitting Chinese dress (cheongsam) in the centre, with two other women in a kimono and western clothing (commonly worn by Japanese women) on the left side of the painting. Beside them to the far left is a labourer, hunched over with his load over his shoulders.
In the centre-right, there’s even a street cart with a Japanese “Ice Flag”, with a white background, blue letters, and red symbols. Further to the right and slightly higher is a billboard identifying a hospital.
Vancouver TAIWANfest presents visual artist Mina Lu and Pancouver associate editor becky tu in a Hope Talk about Chen Cheng-po. It will take place at 3 p.m. on Sunday (September 3) in Courtroom 302 of the Vancouver Art Gallery. All events at TAIWANfest are free. Mina Lu will speak in Mandarin and becky tu will translate her words into English and offer her own thoughts.