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Graffiti Villages in Taiwan Festoons with Artwork in a Bid to Inject Some Life into Rural Places

Nestled in the mist-covered foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range, Ruan Chiao village is virtually devoid

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Graffiti, Viilages, Taiwan
Hakka graffiti artist Wu Tsun-hsien paints a wall in the Taiwanese village of Ruan Chiao, May 21, 2019. VOA

Nestled in the mist-covered foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range, Ruan Chiao village is virtually devoid of young people, but artist Wu Tsun-hsien is coaxing the Instagram generation back by transforming local homes into a canvas of color.

Dipping his brush into a tin of beige emulsion, he carefully applies new layers of paint to his latest production, a vibrant rural scene depicting farmers in traditional weave hats tending to a flock of animals.

Behind him, an elderly villager with a walking stick shuffles his way down the main street, which is plastered with Wu’s colorful paintings.

“This village is full of old people,” the 55-year-old laments, explaining how the vast majority of youngsters, including his own children, have moved to the city, leaving elderly residents listless and lonely.

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A local resident walks past a house painted by Hakka graffiti artist Wu Tsun-hsien in the Taiwanese village of Ruan Chiao, March 30, 2019. Pixabay

But paintings have started to bring young visitors — always keen for a selfie in a photo-friendly location — back.

“These drawings attracted many tourists to come and visit. The old people who were left here are no longer so bored. This was my biggest gain,” he beams.

Wu is not alone in this adopting this strategy.

There are now some half a dozen so-called “graffiti villages” in Taiwan that have been festooned with artwork in a bid to inject some life into rural places that have been emptied of their young.

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Empty villages

Like many industrialized places, Taiwan’s remarkable economic transformation over the past few decades has upended rural communities and unleashed huge demographic changes.

“It’s perhaps a more recent phenomenon than it would have been in some other places,” explains Shelley Rigger, an expert on Taiwan at Davidson College in North Carolina, who said much of Taiwan’s industrial manufacturing stayed in the villages.

“People sewed Barbie doll clothing in their houses and then carried it down to a packaging plant in the middle of a village,” she tells AFP, as an example.

Graffiti, Viilages, Taiwan
Hakka graffiti painter Wu Tsun-hsien poses in an empty old house near his home in the Taiwanese village of Ruan Chiao, March 30, 2019. VOA

Ruan Chiao village, for example, used to churn out paper temple offerings.

But once much of the manufacturing shifted to mainland China in the late 1990s and Taiwan moved up the value chain, many of those jobs left.

“That’s when you see rural areas kind of emptying out,” Rigger adds.

Aging country

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Taiwan’s population of 23 million is also rapidly aging. The birth rate has plummeted — only 180,000 children were born last year, an eight-year low.

The Wu family have experienced this flight first hand.

The ancestral home is occupied by his wife’s father, 81, and mother, 72, who still work a few plots of land in the hills above the village growing organic vegetables. But Wu’s own children both went to university and have left, one to Australia, the other to a nearby city.

Wu’s wife Fan Ai-hsiu explains their bid to draw Instagram-happy crowds of youngsters was less about economics and more about giving her parents something to look forward to.

“They want to have conversations with people, that’s what they miss, it’s not about money,” Fan says.

But it was not initially an easy task to persuade fellow villagers to use their houses as a canvas.

“People here are fairly conservative,” she recalls, adding: “But once the first few paintings went up, they could see it brought people in.”

Political themes

Most of Wu’s paintings in the village stick to rural pastiches or traditional symbols of good fortune.

It is the family home where he really gets to express himself, and which has quickly drawn a mass following on social media.

Perched on a slope overlooking the village, the whole house is covered in images, many of which detail Wu’s politics.

He’s an avid believer that not enough is being done to tackle climate change, so some of the scenes show apocalyptic scenes of environmental devastation.

Others are commentaries on social issues like gay marriage — which he opposes — or how the elderly are treated in an increasingly consumerist society.

“This mural depicts the present Taiwanese corrupt society,” Wu remarks as he walks along a huge painted wall featuring hundreds of images.

“This one is society’s mayhem due to mobile phones, computers and television … and this one is our cultural loss where many of our Hakka young generations don’t know the culture,” he adds.

Distinct group

The Hakka are a linguistically distinct group of people who trace their origins back to southern China. They have lived in Taiwan for some four centuries and make up 15-20% of the population.

Evelyn Sun puts on art and food events in Taipei and found out about Wu’s paintings via social media.

She visited with friends who all soon found themselves sitting around a table with the Wu family, eating traditional Hakka vegetable dishes and tucking into eggs boiled in a secret recipe of local herbs.

The 25-year-old enthuses: “Taiwan has many ‘graffiti villages’ that are beautiful scenic spots where people will just leave after taking pictures.”

“But I realized when I came here that every mural here is depicting a social problem faced by society.”

She hopes other young Taiwanese will explore the nation’s rural villages more often.

She explains: “These people are our culture, they are our history, we have to get to know them.” (VOA)

Next Story

Here’s Why China Cut Off Travel Permits for Tourists Going to Taiwan

Suspending the travel permits lets China remind Taiwan of its economic clout, some analysts say

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Chinese tourists would get close to Taiwan's political heat. Wikimedia Commons

China’s decision last week to stop issuing permits for independent tourists to Taiwan applies new economic pressure to their already strained relations, and analysts see three underlying reasons behind Beijing’s move.

Beijing’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism cited the “current mainland China-Taiwan relations” as cause to stop permitting indie travelers after about a decade. China regards self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory rather than a state, but Taiwan prefers at least today’s level autonomy over the Chinese goal of unification. That schism has caused the two sides to chafe for 70 years.

Here are three reasons China cut off travel permits:

Taiwan’s president opposes China despite earlier pressure to get along.

Suspending the travel permits lets China remind Taiwan of its economic clout, some analysts say.

The permit shutdown ends a process that generated on average more than 82,000 arrivals per month last year, which boosted the island’s service economy.

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Despite the military and diplomatic pressure, the government in Taipei openly opposes rule by China. VOA

Since 2016, China has flown military aircraft near Taiwan and persuaded five Taiwanese diplomatic allies to switch their allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. The Communist leadership hopes to pressure Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s government to bargain with China as her predecessor did — on the condition that acknowledges both sides are considered part of the same country.

Despite the military and diplomatic pressure, the government in Taipei openly opposes rule by China. Tsai in January condemned the “one country, two systems” idea that Chinese President Xi Jinping had proposed then as a way to rule Taiwan.

China is “more than furious” that Tsai openly backs anti-Beijing protesters who have taken to the streets in Hong Kong since June, said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.

China upped its warnings by calling off Taiwan-bound independent travel, said Liang Kuo-yuan, president of the Taipei research organization Polaris Research Institute. “The headline news will create some psychological effects,” Liang said. “I believe their motivation should be that mainland China wants to say ‘as well as using military threats we can also hold you back economically.’”

china, tourists, taiwan
Suspending the travel permits lets China remind Taiwan of its economic clout, some analysts say. Wikimedia Commons

Taiwan’s president faces a tough reelection bid in 2020. China hopes the tourism suspension will remind Taiwanese that “there are riches to be had” if they reject Tsai’s reelection bid in January, King said.

Tsai is running against Han Kuo-yu, a mayor who supports opening talks with China to bolster economic and investment ties. His party, when in power from 2008 to 2016, accepted Beijing’s condition that each side see itself as part of China for negotiation purposes. The two governments inked 23 deals.

Tsai rejects the one-China condition, and China cut off talks after she took office. China hopes the cut in travel permits will addle the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.

Hotels near tourist hotspots will take the biggest hit from the loss of self-guided tourists, though many had expected business to taper due to the decline in political relations, said Peter Lin, chief executive officer of the Topology Travel Agency in Taipei. Losses from the travel suspension are estimated at about $1 billion per year.

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Independent travel permits had been suspended because of increasing “risks” for travelers before the election. Wikimedia Commons

“The Chinese do want to show that DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] is not doing good things and want to punish the DPP,” Sun said. “They want to squeeze the election, and tourism is a very convenient channel. The tourism industry in Taiwan will be hit pretty hard.”

Chinese tourists would get close to Taiwan’s political heat. China’s official television network said on its Weibo social media website Wednesday that independent travel permits had been suspended because of increasing “risks” for travelers before the election.

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Beijing frets about its tourists being drawn to Taiwan’s democratic institutions including its unfettered mass media, King said. Relations with China are shaping up as a core presidential campaign issue with daily media coverage.

“There’s the incidental bonus for Beijing of having fewer of its citizens exposed to the island’s vigorously open political culture,” King said. “This fact cannot be overlooked, especially given the protests in Hong Kong, uncensored coverage of which mainland visitors get to see on their Taiwan hotel television screens.” (VOA)