Lung Ying-tai: Minister on a quest for understanding

In an exclusive interview ahead of her official visit to Hong Kong, Taiwanese minister Lung Ying-tai aims to build bridges

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 7:44am

"Oh my God, why should I be here?"

That was the thought that went through the mind of Taiwan's first culture minister, Lung Ying-tai, every day for about six months when she returned to the island after leaving an academic job in Hong Kong in February.

As cultural critic and head of a new Ministry of Culture, the well-known author of more than 30 books faces a series of daunting tasks few would envy. Her to-do list includes building up the ministry, which was formally established in May, liaising with the international community and engaging in exchanges with the mainland and Hong Kong - a city she still calls home.

Before her appointment as a minister, Lung had lived in Hong Kong since 2003, experiencing the growing pains of the special administrative region, which she called an eye-opening experience. She came to the city as a visiting scholar at the University of Hong Kong "to get an education and an understanding of greater China and what it means".

Now she is returning to Hong Kong, but in a more significant capacity for a six-day visit which begins today. It is seen as a breakthrough for her to visit as a government minister, an issue that was still under negotiation just three weeks ago when she gave an exclusive interview.

"No minister of the Republic of China has ever visited China since 1949, and the major issue at stake is the title [to travel under]," Lung, 60, said.

The mainland's minister of culture, Cai Wu , made an historic visit to Taiwan in 2010, and Lung said she would like very much to pay a return visit.

"But I hope to go with my official title as a minister, and on equal footing and with mutual respect," she said.

Lung applauded Beijing's decision to remain silent over her much publicised official visit to North America in August - a sharp contrast with the missile exercise it conducted in response to former president Lee Teng-hui's visit in 1996 to Cornell University in New York.

"I am quite happy that the mainland government is becoming increasingly confident. A more confident a government is, the more composure it has. Then show to us, please, the poise that befits a great nation," she said.

With a new leadership in Beijing, the minister is optimistic that exchanges between both sides of the strait will continue and deepen. That, she believes, is where culture comes into play.

"Regardless of leaders or common people, the general agreement is that peace is more important than anything. And what is the most essential ingredient for peace? It's the earnest mutual understanding from both sides, which can only develop through cultural exchanges, and not through a handshake or agreement between leaders," she said.

"It is hoped that the new Chinese leadership will have an international perspective, an open mind, and a feeling for cultural heritage that does good things for the people and contributes to lasting peace across the strait through an unpretentious sense of mission."

There is much to be done at the new ministry after it was upgraded from the previous Council for Cultural Affairs. It is the island's ninth ministry, and the first the Taiwanese government has added since the original eight were instituted in 1949.

"Since the upgrade I have worked to piece fragments together under the new ministry, sorting out personnel issues, job descriptions and so on. It was not until August that things began to settle down where I could see the total picture."

Besides administering 500 staff and 2,000 affiliated personnel in subordinate institutions such as museums, Lung is looking beyond the term of the present government, which runs until 2016.

"I've spent a lot of time with my staff trying to build a shared vision and work mode that is forward-looking and culture-centred, that is not serving any particular political party. In other words, I am building an infrastructure for the ministry so that three years later when there's a change of power, this infrastructure will be sustainable.

"But the time is so short. Well, I don't know, I can only do my best."

In-house construction aside, Lung is keen on building up the ministry's overseas portfolio.

Lung hopes her ministry can use the island's culture as a vehicle for steering the island out of its isolation. Next year, at least 10 cultural offices will be opened around the world in addition to the existing three in Tokyo, Paris and New York.

Taiwan as an open and fair society, she emphasised, should be put within the context of China's thousand-year-long tradition, and not treated as a phenomenon that developed after the Kuomintang retreated to the island in 1949 after being defeated by the Communists.

The cultural offices would serve as "an alternative window for the world to understand what Chinese is". It was, she said, a role Hong Kong played before 1997.

"Imagine the world without Hong Kong then. How would the world understand China? It would be a fixed picture of what China is, and a limited vision of what Chinese-ness is.

"Then after 1997, Hong Kong became a part of China. Thank God we still have Taiwan, offering a refreshing and vivid alternative understanding of what Chinese-ness can be.

"Taiwan is one of the top 20 economic entities in the world, and, despite all our complaints, the Taiwanese are doing pretty well in advancing democracy, so I think we should share in the responsibility towards the world community."

Of all the ministry's overseas missions, probably none is more important to Lung than the Taiwan Kwang Hwa Information and Cultural Centre - the ministry's Hong Kong office.

In August, Lung sent her chief lieutenant, Katherine Lee Ying-ping, to head the office. In just three months, Lee put together a Taiwan Month, the annual November arts festival that has run since 2007, and the grand finale being the minister's visit.

"Kwang Hwa should not be there for leisure purposes. Instead it should build a bridge to tie Taiwanese and Hongkongers and to get them to benefit from their own experiences."

The office would be a catalyst to inspire an exchange of ideas, such as Taiwan's strength in the humanities vis-à-vis Hong Kong's global view and upbeat thinking. But the minister wants to go further.

"Once Kwang Hwa gets settled, I hope it will get connected with Shenzhen, Zhuhai and the [Pearl River] Delta by providing all parties with a platform to talk things over."

The Taiwan Month next year is likely to feature a totally different programme, with mainlanders in mind.

Between 1999 and 2003, Lung served as the cultural bureau chief in Taipei and the city's then mayor and now the island's president, Ma Ying-jeou, wanted her to serve another term.

But she declined, instead heading for her academic posting in Hong Kong.

"I grew up in the Taiwan intellectual community with a sino-centric perspective that looked at Chinese history from the northern, or Beijing, point of view. That's why I went to Hong Kong - to get a different perspective, and indeed I did," she recalled.

"I intended to stay for one year, but it ended up being nine. There, I came to realise what Yue [southern Chinese] culture is, and also overseas Chinese, the diversity and the weight of diaspora, how Chinese in Malaysia are different from those in Singapore or Thailand."

That appreciation of subtle differences between different Chinese groups allowed her to offer some advice to Hong Kong people, especially those feeling uneasy with an influx of immigrants and visitors from the mainland.

"It's so noticeable, even on the University of Hong Kong campus during my stay there, that you heard Putonghua spoken. I think Hongkongers should think very seriously, that they should not take the mainlanders as a liability but as a blessing. Both parties must have passion and vision for the future. This is really a test of how far your vision is and how authentic your compassion in humanity is."

During her return to Hong Kong, she will give a speech at HKU. The title of the speech: "My Hong Kong, My Taiwan" is a reflection of her sentiment towards the city.

Lung said she was not interested in the nationalistic sentiment drawn out by issues such as the dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands.

"I am allergic to nationalism. So what about leaving the islands to the birds and the fish?" she asked with a laugh, adding she might be deemed politically incorrect for making such remarks.

She looks back with pride in having hosted two Chinese writers for residencies in Taipei, both of whom went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

"During my term as cultural bureau chief at the Taipei city government in 1999-2003, I invited Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan as writers-in-residence. Now you may ask who I will invite next," she said with a laugh.

Mo Yan's art of language, she said, "has the authentic and original power of earth and that's what appealed to me most".

The Chinese term for earth, nitu, is the first of four slogans Lung used to describe the ministry's policy objectives. The other three are international, creative, and digital.

" Nitu is a very visual term, conveying a genuine, authentic and essential concern of something fundamental. It's very Taiwan too."