Raymond Wong is the Deputy General Director of the Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying) in Taiwan. Weiwuying, as it’s known, is the largest performing arts center under one roof in the world. It is his responsibility to manage and oversee the aspects of marketing and branding, business operation, creative learning, and arts participation. Raymond is a member of the MMIAM International Advisory Committee and since 2017, has also served as examiner of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.
Hello! I’m so glad we were finally able to meet!
Yes! It’s been such a busy time. I’m just wrapping up an international symposium for the Federation for Asian Cultural Promotion. This year was the first time the conference has taken place since the pandemic and we brought delegates from all over Asia for three days of site visits, performances, and discussions about sustainability. And now, I’m back on duty for my organization, the Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying). Tonight we’ve been quite busy! We had a full house for a symphonic concert featuring music from Hayao Miyazaki’s films. We were sold out…quite surprising for a Monday night!
Editor’s note: Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese animator and the director of Studio Ghibli.
That’s fantastic! Weiwuying is a rather large organization, correct?
Yes. The Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, which is also known as Weiwuying, is in the south of the country in Taiwan’s third largest city. The history of the organization is rather interesting. The land allocated for the cultural center was a military base. Men trained here until, in 1979, it was determined to be no longer suitable for military use. At this time, the land was returned to the public where it sat for some time. In 2003, the government decided to make an arts and cultural center.
With Weiwuying being the site of a former military facility, was it difficult to convince people to visit the center?
The people in Kaohsiung actually appreciated the center. Prior to its opening, the South was seen as culturally illiterate and didn’t receive much support from the central government. Taipei, which was much more populated, was the country’s cultural center. The land belongs to the central government but there was this belief that it should be released to the people. So, when they were trying to come up with a plan for the land, advocates were lobbying for the arts. Now, this center is considered a cultural landmark and is visited by tourists and locals alike. It’s hard to imagine now, but this area was once very remote.
So, tell me about what you do there.
Almost three years ago, I became the Deputy General Director. In Taiwan, people think that attending the performing arts is a serious business. They believe they have to dress up and they don’t necessarily see performing arts as a part of their everyday life. But as you can imagine, with a very large center like this, we need large numbers of people to access the space. My challenge is that I want this center to be seen as a third space or a hangout space. I’m working hard to create an atmosphere that is friendly without compromising on the programming. I’ve put a lot of energy into business opportunities. For example, markets and bazaars, outdoor programs, children’s activities, contemporary dance, and circus, for example. We also open the venue when spaces aren’t booked. I want this to be a space for people to feel comfortable and learn about and enjoy performing arts.
Do you find that people who come to the markets and children’s activities return?
More and more! People definitely think this is an interesting place. There should be a synergy when people come for a market or to have food but there is also some sort of easily accessible event taking place, perhaps a performance or a workshop, that pulls them in and invites them to pay more attention to different art forms. This year we persuaded the board to create a Learning and Participation department. The nine staff members in this department focus on appreciation talks, workshops, school activities, etc. Before, this work fell under the marketing department, but the focus was on selling tickets. However learning should not be transactional.
In Taiwan, the culture has shifted and people tend to put a lot of emphasis on arts learning and participation activities. Before we saw that programs, festivals…large-scale activities received the bulk of financial support, but that has shifted. People understand that education is a must for the future. There is now a greater emphasis on nurturing young artists and also on letting local artists have more opportunities to perform. This goes hand in hand with the fact that it’s expensive to bring big traveling productions to our venue. It’s becoming more and more difficult to get revenue and balance the budgets. So, we tend to encourage more local artists in Taiwan, in particular, to engage and to curate programs that meet the needs of our community, of our audience.
So, let’s shift gears. How did you first become interested in the arts? Are you an artist?
I was a playwright. As a child in Hong Kong, I participated in a lot of amateur theatrical activities. I was involved in school productions before moving behind the scenes. I even have experience in puppet making! After college, I started my career as a program officer at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.
So, you’ve worked in both Hong Kong and now in Taiwan, what’s it been like working in those two places? How are they similar or different?
In Hong Kong, we are quite international, and in Taiwan, the roots run very deep. Hong Kong is truly a small city and we need international collaborations and partnerships to thrive. You can have a choreographer from New York working with dancers from Malaysia or mainland China. People are used to that. In Taiwan, you see a very particular culture, even between the north and the south, including indigenous cultures. In Taiwan, there are 16 indigenous groups and they each have their own culture. There is influence from mainstream Chinese and Japanese culture as well. Before the Second World War, Taiwan was a Japanese colony. In the south, in particular, elderly citizens are very familiar with Japanese culture and education.
Do the indigenous groups want to share their culture?
Yes! In the south, there is a dance company that I really like, based in the mountains, called Piwan. It’s also the name of an indigenous group. They preserve and promote their culture, but they aren’t exclusively performing their tribe’s traditional dances as they always have been performed, they place them in a contemporary context. It’s very special.
Can you share something you’re looking forward to in the near future?
Sure. The main reason I moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan was for a very specific opportunity here. I’d love to explore how we build a sustainable arts ecology that embraces young artists, indigenous culture, local audiences, etc. My first year was in 2021, which was very drastic due to the pandemic. We were shut down for two months and canceled many shows. 2022 was better, but many international artists didn’t want to risk being quarantined, but programs and audiences returned and I began to propose more activities. We’re lucky, Taiwan has been affected less, economically speaking, by Covid-19 because we have semiconductors. This is a very important industry because they’re used in cars, like Teslas, and computers, TVs, etc. The unemployment rate has been less severe. Of course, there has been a change in habits, but now that we’re fully recovered, I see what I mentioned earlier as becoming a reality. I’m looking forward to seeing what we’ve achieved in another six months to a year.
Is there something I should have asked you that I haven’t?
I would encourage arts managers to study their cultural roots while they also learn about other cultures. The world is getting more and more conservative, but I would encourage our colleagues to remain open-minded and dedicated to understanding one another. This is very important right now. Being an arts practitioner, we play a very important role in opening doors for more people to do the same.