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CultureRTI Radio Taiwan InternationalRTI Radio Taiwan InternationalCurious John

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

09 January, 2021
Beiguan

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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02 January, 2021

Scientific illustrations. These are the sort of hand-drawn diagrams that appear in old books and these days, as posters on the walls of fancy cafes or home decor shops. Each part of their subject, animal, plant, or stone, is carefully labeled, or sometimes, whole extinct creatures emerge from the page, reimagined in an artist’s impression based on fossils and other surviving evidence. It’s these lovingly drawn and diagramed subjects that form the basis of an ongoing exhibit at the National Taiwan Museum's Nanmen Branch: "Drawing Nature: Taiwan as Portrayed in Natural History Illustrations". The museum’s Hsiang Li-jung joins us today for an overview.

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26 December, 2020
Taipei in 1928: A Guidebook

In the 1920’s, the newly born city of Taipei was a rapidly changing place. Automobiles began to fill streets where human-power rickshaws had once been the only means of transport. Telephone lines began to connect once distant parts of town. An expanding waterworks system piped in clean water into homes, and electricity lit up the night as it did in only a few other tiny slivers of Taiwan. The city was a dynamic sort of place that old black-and-white photos just don’t do justice to. And, at the same time, it was also a city subject to colonial rule, where locals and colonizers lived very unequal lives. Fortunately for us, a snapshot of this city more than any photo survives, a 1928 guide to the city that lists everything there was. Part tourist guidebook, part phone directory, part atlas, it maps out every single business, public institution, and even market stall that stood at the time, giving a valuable look at what people of the time were buying, what conditions they lived in, and what visitors to the city could expect when they arrived. Long out of print, it has been reissued this year by the Chiang Wei-shui Foundation, an organization devoted to the 1920’s-era doctor, proponent of Taiwanese culture, and leader of anti-colonial struggle Chiang Wei-shui, a man mentioned in the guide itself. Association director and grandson of Chiang Wei-shui, Mr. Chiang Chao-ken, joins us today for a look at this priceless document and a look at why his organization has decided to reprint it.

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19 December, 2020
Taipei's Centenary

It’s difficult to imagine what any city in the world looked like 100 years ago without the help of photos or maps, but the Taipei of 100 years past is an especially hard place to figure out. That’s because the past century here has seen the city’s population surge, old landmarks disappear, and new districs dominated by high rises rise up from nothing. These days, lots of people are thinking about Taipei as it was a century ago. That's because this year is the centenary of Taipei's official foundation. One of the most insightful exhibits about life in 1920's Taipei is going on now at city hall.

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12 December, 2020
A 165-year-old celebration

Taipei’s Wanhua District is the sort of place you don’t soon forget. It can be on the gritty side, but the area packs a punch when it comes to historic buildings, street food, and old temples full of old traditions. Among the district’s treasures is a grand temple festival and parade that has been held regularly for 165 years, commemorating the lifting of a great epidemic that hit the area's 19th century townspeople. Appropriately enough for a year filled with disease, the 2020 edition of the festival, which ended last week, was the largest yet, attracting, per local media reports,100,000 or so participants. Late into the night, over the course of three days, firecrackers lit up the streets as revelers held a procession in honor to the gods that lifted the plague all those years ago. This year, though, things are a little different. The celebration this time around started early, back on November 27. And while the streets have calmed down, it’s actually not over yet. This year, the Taiwan-based General Association of Chinese Culture has organized several weeks of events and exhibits around the big bash to attract visitors to Wanhua and bring its history, plague and all, to life. The association’s deputy secretary-general, Li Houqing,  joins us today for an overview of Wanhua’s history and all of the activities planned this year to celebrate it. 

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