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Cultivating Culture from the Bottom Up

Taiwanese Writer Lung Ying-tai
Excerpts from Interview by Cheong Suk-Wai
Straits Times Interactive (http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg), 29 August 2004
[contributed by Aynarahs from Singapore]

"...I don't believe culture can be done top down. You have to have a really energetic, organic and powerful culture and to do that, the only way is bottom up. If you try to encourage creativity through camps, workshops and courses, you will get only technicians because that is how you train technicians, not thinkers...If you are imagining that, someday, this country will produce great novelists, great philosophers and great scientists, your soil of culture then has to be very deep...When can an English-speaking Singaporean ever compete with an English-speaking Londoner, New Yorker or Melburnian? Could we envision Singapore such that if we want the best Chinese scholars on the study of Nanyang Chinese or the best studies of Chinese immigration and the East-West divide, we would find them here? Singapore is in a unique position to be a cultural powerhouse. "


You could call Taiwanese writer and cultural critic Lung Ying-tai a woman who ventures where few dare to tread. In the name of preserving history, she braved the snake-infested former residence of the American ambassador to Taiwan to see if it could be saved. Today, it is the Taipei Arts Centre, a lively watering hole of Taiwan's literati. But heritage conservation is just one among a plethora of pet projects for the 52-year-old, who is one of the most widely read critics on culture and society in the Chinese-speaking world today...

Quotes:

'The hardest thing I've had to do in my entire life was to go from being a vocal and critical writer who is very individualistic to being a politician with soft manners who compromises and deals with people you despise and dislike.'

'If a train has to run at that time, you have to lay down the rails first. I wanted to decide the direction of the rails. Now someone else can run the trains on them.'

'If you are a private orchestra, you can do anything you decide to do. But you are financed totally by taxpayers' money, and vegetable sellers are taxpayers too.'

Q How do the Chinese in China and Taiwan see the overseas Chinese today?

A Chinese intellectuals in China and Taiwan know very little about the Chinese in South-east Asia and Hong Kong. There is chauvinism and they do not bother to study anything beyond the shores of China or Taiwan. They are prejudiced even though their knowledge of your part of the world is minimal. It's ignorance.

Q Why do you think it is important for them to know more about Chinese culture in South-east Asia and Hong Kong?

A The more you know about your own culture, the more you realise that any great culture is made up of multiplicities. Chinese culture itself is made up of multiculturalism. For instance, Confucianism is only one of many elite traditions against a huge domain of folk traditions. So, to understand Chinese culture fully, you need to know its complexity.

Q What informed your life's work and critiques against the governments in China and Taiwan?

A It does have something to do with how one grows up. I was born in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, under Chiang Kai-shek's rule and, until the mid-1990s, I went through a very high-handed, repressive and half-baked dictatorship.

My parents were refugees who escaped from China in 1949; my father was from Hunan and my mother from Zhejiang. So I observed the repression and quest for individual freedom with them.

I am also married to a German and lived in Germany for 13 years, where I witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. I also saw the Tiananmen massacre and was in Russia when it was under president Mikhail Gorbachev. I also lived for nine years in the United States. So the process from serfdom to freedom has been part and parcel of my life.

I've seen how human beings create jails for themselves and that has captivated me.

As to the tension between tradition and modernisation, when I was small, I was brought up under nationalist rule in Taiwan and learnt the Chinese classics in school. But at the same time, society around me was very dramatically undergoing modernisation.

Q What would happen if societies did not try to resolve the clash between tradition and modernisation?

A If we ignore this conflict in a globalised world, when companies of certain countries actually take control of the economies of others, the rules of the international game will be laid down by a small circle of elites for a small circle of elites only. So if we just let them run over us, we will be following rules in their interest only.

When we speak of economic globalisation, we often talk of economic structures. But any thinking person knows that the economy never comes alone. In the 19th century, with the marching forward of guns and warships came cultural ideologies.

The same applies today - what comes along with economic power is cultural power; they are always a package. So if you do not think deeply and are alert to modernisation and question ourselves as to where we stand, it would be like being in a cinema here, in Taiwan, in Sydney or anywhere else, where the menu is the same - just Hollywood fare.

If you are simply swept off your feet by any culture that is stronger than yours, the world's cultures will gradually become The World's Culture. That's the worst thing that could happen because you would lose individual characteristics and diversity.

What, you might ask, is wrong with that? What's wrong is that this world is still a world of competition, of survival of the fittest.

It's important to study where you are and where you are going because the development of a strong economy needs the support of a strong culture. That's because you have first to be able to think before you can have any innovation, and you can generally only turn out citizens who are capable and independent thinkers if you have a healthy culture which allows people to think.

I don't believe culture can be done top down. You have to have a really energetic, organic and powerful culture and to do that, the only way is bottom up. If you try to encourage creativity through camps, workshops and courses, you will get only technicians because that is how you train technicians, not thinkers.

So, you can turn out thinkers only if you allow children to be stimulated and have interaction.There's a critical difference between a technician and a thinker. If you turn out any number of good technicians and you just want a well-fed and well-bred Singapore, your economy will probably do well for some time and you could also transplant systems from abroad. But if your vision for society is something different, and you want your society to generate ideas, thoughts and innovations of your own that can contribute to the prosperity of the world, that's a different matter. If you are imagining that, someday, this country will produce great novelists, great philosophers and great scientists, your soil of culture then has to be very deep.

If you want to plant small bushes, 1m of soil may be enough. But if you are thinking not just of landscaping your garden but growing a forest of huge trees, the earth you need would have to be very thick, say, 100m or deeper.

Q From what you know of Singapore, what cultural issues do you think it will have to grapple with in future, especially if it wants to succeed in the China market?

A If Singaporeans continue to think pragmatically and only in a utilitarian way, where the primary concern is the economy and which strong economy it should turn to - for example, the United States, China and India - it is a pity because then it would be like a country of technicians with a box of tools thinking of which tool to use at which time.

Ideally, Singapore can do more than that, to think whether it is possible to turn out a Singaporean culture, not just technology, to give the country more depth.

If Singapore can create its own cultural depth, it could contribute multilingualism and multiculturalism to the world's community, that is, if it doesn't artificially cover up racial and linguistic differences and demand that the common denominator be the English language. When can an English-speaking Singaporean ever compete with an English-speaking Londoner, New Yorker or Melburnian?

Could we envision Singapore such that if we want the best Chinese scholars on the study of Nanyang Chinese or the best studies of Chinese immigration and the East-West divide, we would find them here? Singapore is in a unique position to be a cultural powerhouse.

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