Made in Taiwan

Sarah Gillespie discovers a thriving art and music scene rising up out of the abandoned industrial space in western Taiwan

Paid partnership with Taiwan Tourism Administration

Made in Taiwan

Sarah Gillespie discovers a thriving art and music scene rising up out of the abandoned industrial space in western Taiwan

To listen along to this story about Taiwanese art and music, or to pause the playback, click the play button:

Creeping in through the side door of the disused sugar refinery, I find myself in a steampunk paradise of knotted pipes and beams crusted with flaking paint. Suddenly, an alarm sounds; an insistent tick-tick-tick.

I crouch in horror; are these rusting machines about to spring back to life? I am visualising what I might look like covered in molasses when the sound of drums thunders down the corridor. What I thought was an alarm was, in fact, a metronome.

Back in 2005, the Tainan-based Ten Drum Percussion Group were looking for a space in which they could rehearse without bothering the neighbours. On finding this abandoned sugar refinery on the city outskirts, they made it their permanent home, playing twice-daily shows in a warehouse that is now a 1,000-seat theatre space.

For most people, a show wouldn’t be enough to tempt them this far out of the city, so founder Hsieh Shih invested the group’s profits (plus initial government funding) into creating an industrial theme park called the Ten Drum Cultural Village.

It’s just one example of abandoned spaces in Taiwan being repurposed — a phenomenon that has been dubbed “tourism factories,” as most of the spaces are relics of Taiwan’s manufacturing past.

The Ten Drum Cultural Village feels like a post-apocalyptic, open-world video game. A metal ‘skywalk’ connects vast concrete storage tanks; there’s an archery range, a climbing wall, a laser-tag arena and a virtual reality cinema.

In one of the warehouses is a drum-making workshop; in another, performer Stuart Szu Tu Chang Chien gives me a music lesson.

I ask Stuart whether the group’s playing style is based on Japanese taiko drumming, as I had heard, but he dispels that notion. “It’s just Ten Drum style,” he tells me, checking my grip on the sticks. “If we like it, we take it, and it becomes our own style.”

Later on, he is joined in the theatre by the other performers, along with all manner of instruments: flutes; xylophones; gu zheng (a type of zither) and suonas, horn-like reed instruments.

It’s a dazzling journey through Taiwanese culture, with each composition representing a historic battle or tradition.

Afterwards, I catch up with the group. “It feels wonderful to perform on stage,” says Stuart, his face sheened with sweat. “All the performers feel tired — but they still have their smiles.”

It’s this same energy I feel in Lukang, a west-coast tourist town dominated by craftspeople. Dodging a parade of gilded dragon banners and masked deities, I duck into the Osmanthus Alley Art Village: a former dormitory complex converted into studios.

The artists must apply annually to the local government to secure their spot — if successful, they can use the studio for a year, free of charge.

From the Taiwan Lion workshop, I hear the clacking of wood and delighted squeals. I enter to find a young girl with both arms buried in a yellow lion mask — as she works the contraption, its jaws snap shut. 

Her grandfather, Shih Junxiong, springs up from his workshop table. He grabs a snarling green mask from the wall and starts twisting and weaving in an intricate dance. Red fringing billows, bells jingle, sapphire-bright eyes swivel imperiously.

Though lion dances are still a part of Taiwanese festivals, the traditional mask-making method — using papier mâché and clay moulds — has largely disappeared as newer materials take over.

Junxiong is one of the few traditional mask-makers left in Taiwan; he’s passing his skills on to his son, who may one day pass them on to his daughter.

As the sun sets over Lukang, I head over to the Taiwan Glass Gallery, which inhabits a warehouse still owned by the Taiwan Mirror Glass Enterprise (TMG). TMG was once a supplier to IKEA, but lost their business after cheaper labour tempted the furniture giant abroad. TMG has since converted the warehouse into a space where independent glass artists create and sell.

I start with a dizzying turn through the Mirror Maze, a family-oriented illusory experience. As I trace pathways marked in neon, I encounter parents with young children, their mouths agape at seeing their reflections repeated a hundred times.

On finally finding the exit, I’m confronted by a corridor of workshops, where artisans with blowtorches are bending glass into lion and lotus-flower figurines.

I’m beginning to understand the symbiotic relationship between artist and state: when the state supports artists, the artists elevate the lives of the people living there. Nowhere is this truer than in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, where ambitious creative projects have transformed the city from a post-industrial dystopia to a futuristic centre for the arts.

The Pier-2 Art District spans the length of Kaohsiung Port. In former warehouses, where goods once waited to be shipped, there are independent jewellery and ceramics shops, interlinked by steel sculptures and splashed with murals.

Lining the seafront are fields of humming fluorescent flowers, but everyone’s attention is on Octopoda. This steampunk-style octopus, made by the Australian creative group Amigo & Amigo, has eight glowing tentacles interactively linked to steel drums.

Groups of teenagers are pounding the drums; the tentacles flash in response, illuminating the glee on their faces.

Fifty years ago, these old warehouses thrummed with the sounds of industry; now, they pulse with the sound of music. It’s “Made in Taiwan” — but not as we know it.

Need to know

  • Getting there: EVA Air flies to Taipei Taoyuan (TPE) from a number of international destinations, including London Heathrow (via a brief stop in Bangkok) and New York City.
  • Best time to go: Apart from June to September, when Taiwan can be hit by typhoons at times, the country offers a variety of tourist attractions and activities for the rest of the year.
  • Where to stay: From five-star luxury hotels and resorts to economic hostels, Taiwan offers a great spectrum of accommodations. Check out the Taiwan Tourism Administration website for more information.
  • Food: Street food and night markets! Taiwan is best known for its diversity of food. Visit the Michelin Guide website to discover more.
  • Must-pack item: A jumper and a mac might be needed as indoor air conditioners and sudden afternoon showers could turn the temperature slightly chilly.
  • Anything else? In addition to Taiwan’s Lucky Land campaign which gives out 5000 Taiwanese dollars in spending money, Taiwan is offering visitors a Free Half-Day Tour at the moment.

More information

This article on Taiwanese art and music was brought to you in partnership with the Taiwan Tourism Administration.

For more information and suggested itineraries, go to their website.

The writer and photographer were guests of the Taiwan Tourism Administration with flights provided by EVA Air.

JRNY is an independent travel magazine published in the UK. Subscribe to JRNY for more stories like this.