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Curious John

English Service host John Van Trieste is curious. There’s nothing about Taiwan’s many cultures that he doesn’t want to know more about. Join him every week as he gets to the bottom of yet another question. What will he be curious about this time?

What's On

06 February, 2021
The Hualien County Museum of Archaeology

Of all the places where archaeologists have dug in Taiwan, few have yielded treasures as remarkable as those found in Hualien County along the east coast. Yet until this year, many of these treasures were scattered among various universities and museum collections in other corners of Taiwan. Now, the newly-opened Hualien County Museum of Archaeology has brought them all back home in one place. The collection here is enormous, and it includes items both mysterious and impressive. Together, they paint a picture of a prehistoric past in which Hualien was a sophisticated place connected both with the rest of Taiwan and the outside world. The museum’s director, Mr. Wen, joins us today for an overview of the Hualien region’s prehistory and the legacies it’s left to us.

30 January, 2021
A History of Isolation

After a year of closure for renovations, the National Museum of Taiwan History is back. And what a year it was, filled with border closures, lockdowns, and quarantine measures keeping people around the world apart. Even in Taiwan, so far spared the worst of COVID-19, social distancing is in force. The mass isolation of the past year is the inspiration for one of the museum’s first comeback exhibitions in this year—an examination of isolation, both physical and metaphorical, through Taiwan’s history. The exhibit features five case studies of people being cut off. The last in particular, an examination of how the physically and mentally ill were once placed in special facilities, is particularly timely. Joining me today for a look at isolation in Taiwan’s past is museum curator Shih Wen-cheng.

23 January, 2021
“The Precious Boat on Shallow Waters: The Biographical History of Tshiu-te-a”

It probably doesn’t come as any surprise that Taiwan, an island nation, has had its fair share of boats throughout history. From the strikingly painted seagoing canoes of the Tao people from Orchid Island off the southeast coast to the grand Chinese-style junks of centuries past, there’s a lot to marvel at where Taiwanese boats are concerned. But while these flashier boats get much of the attention in the popular imagination, there are also humbler, more plain vessels dotting Taiwan’s past that also deserve attention. Take for instance, the  thoroughly ordinary tshiu-te-a, a workhorse boat that once helped power the economy around the southwestern city of Tainan back when roads had yet to knit together much of the city’s swampy hinterland. This wasn’t anything fancy, but it was a dependable ride through the shallow inland waters, carrying cargo so innocuously that it was barely noticed until it had disappeared. Today, the National Museum of Taiwan History in Tainan holds the only surviving boat of this type in existence, and it is around this simple vessel that it’s built one of its first exhibits after a year of closure for renovations. Exhibit organizer and museum researcher Su Fengnan joins us today for a look back at a ship that shaped a city.

16 January, 2021
Taiwan's Bats

Across Taiwan, from remote fields and mountains to urban centers you can see them just after the sun’s gone down. During the warmer parts of the year, at least, you can see them at dusk right over RTI’s parking lot, too. Bats. These creatures have gotten a bad rap over the past year as hosts of multiple coronaviruses, but in Taiwan, at least, they’re old symbols of good fortune, and creatures that benefit the humans that live here today to boot. Here with me this week for a look at Taiwan’s bats and Taiwanese attitudes towards them is Hsu Chao-lung, a researcher at the Bat Conservation Society of Taipei.

09 January, 2021

Beiguan, literally "the northern pipes", is a style of music that once functioned as the soundtrack to all sorts of events in Taiwan, from celebrations of births and marriages, to funerals, temple festivals, gods' birthdays, and theatrical performances. But Beiguan is also a way of life, with performers tied to their tightly-knit troupes, subject to stringent taboos and codes of conduct. At one point, they were even prepared to clash with members of rival troupes if need be. Whole towns gather around their local Beiguan troupes, chipping in money to help them buy the best uniforms and the fanciest cloth banners for temple processions. And even today, as the genre's connections with births, weddings, and funerals fades, it remains the sound of Taiwanese folk religion, raucous, lively, and, unlike some more elitist genres of Taiwanese music, open to all. Professor Jian Hsiu-Jen of Taipei National University of the Arts is behind one recent effort to get Beiguan Music back into the public eye, an ongoing exhibit at the National Center for Traditional Arts in Yilan County. She joins us today for a look at the art form at the fun ways the exhibit aims to make the old form of Beiguan accessible for a contemporary audience.

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