1993 / 7月
Sunny Hsiao /tr. by Phil Newell
A septuagenarian who lives overseas, who is also a great opera fan, came back to Taiwan in April to visit family members, and happened to come across a performance by a mainland Chinese opera troupe, a very rare event in Taiwan. For him, since he hasn't been back to mainland China in over forty years, he could only see famous figures like Mei Baojiu and Du Jinfang from videotapes. When the day to see them arrived, besides being delighted, he also couldn't help but sigh that "the performers here can't compare."
In April and May, two renowned companies from the mainland, the Beijing Peking Opera Company and the China Peking Opera Company, made their way to Taiwan in the wake of increased cultural exchange between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. They attracted many old opera buffs. Thus did Peking Opera, with a history of more than two hundred years, first formally shine in Taiwan? Even more unusual was that the show was very weighty, including many top performers together. "In the old days only the empress herself on major holidays could put together such a field," describes one insider.
Compared to this most complete of Chinese dramatic forms as it comes from the mainland, Peking Opera in Taiwan, with a mere forty years of tradition behind it, is still just the younger sibling. This high tide of Peking Opera has first and foremost stimulated those in drama: "Now there'll be nothing left for us to do in the future!" moan some. But some are meeting the challenge with courage. The famed leading actress Wei Hai-ming thinks this stimulation is all to the good, and Taiwan performers can learn from their betters. And Wang Hai-po in fact long ago crossed over to study under the masters, and has even performed on the same stage.
Thus there are differences in the level of Peking Opera on the two sides of the Strait, and mainland actors feel that the quality of audiences in Taiwan is high, while Taiwan performers envy the fact that the mainland has first class teachers. But the common problem that both sides face is: The audience is shrinking!
In the mainland, when a Hongkong pop star performs, young people are undaunted by a ticket price of RMB 100, and the 30,000-seat venue is packed. Meanwhile, a Peking Opera ticket goes for less than RMB 10, and they can't sell even a third of the theater out.
In Taiwan, most of those who head to the theater are older folks; though many young people go from time to time, they are seeking a change of pace or an enlargement of their experience. They don't really understand how you could see the same opera over and over. When the older folks move on, where will the audience come from?
What the performers at the pinnacle really want is a stage and applause, and they are not willing to go for the lowest common denominator and "make big money with simple arts." The enthusiastic welcome received here by the mainland performers gave them a taste of contentment.
Changes in the larger environment are a blow to artists caught between past and present. What kind of changes are performers on both sides facing? How can they decide when to change and when not? How can practicality and idealism be balanced out? Perhaps some clue to these questions can be derived from the stories of Taiwan's Wu Hsing-kuo and the mainland's Yu Wanzeng.
They are, respectively, the top level hsiao-sheng and wu-shu-sheng players on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait; differing in age by only five years, each has devoted half their lives to Peking Opera. Facing environmental change, they are contemplating the possibilities for breaking through current difficulties. An old Chinese proverb has it that: "There will always be water in the rivers and a moon over the streams." How these two people can carve out a space and culture that belongs to them in an increasingly confined space is something to wonder about.
Besides art and drama, industry has also been subject to a rapidly changing environment. The Industrial Technology Research Institute, established twenty years ago to promote domestic research and development capabilities, is facing the problem of where to go next as it marks its birthday.
Because the Six Year National Development Plan and the National Defense Plan have sharply raised national expenses, plus given the government's "fat-cutting" policy, as well as dramatic shifts in the political environment, in a single stroke the Legislative Yuan pruned NT$2 billion from the Science and Technology Special Case Program, of which NT$1.3 billion came out of ITRI's budget. From the fond glances they received in the early days to the sharp-eyed stare they are getting today, ITRI staffers are feeling a bit insecure.
ITRI can't help but feel offended at the budget cut. But many outsiders argue that there's something to all the complaints that research topics are divorced from production, that there are not enough technological results, and that there are conflicts of interest with the private sector.
Accepting commissions to do research from the government and the private sector is ITRI's brief, and it also does technology adaptation and technology transfer. Simply put, ITRI just wants to play the role of the backup force available to help one and all.
But big businesses want ITRI to be able to turn out twelve course dinners (complex technology) as well as your basic fried rice (lower technology for smaller business). After the results come out, however, then there are disputes over distribution.
Large scale enterprises do not want to see ITRI doing the same kind of R&D they do themselves, and then turn it over to industries who become competitors. Small businesses complain mat ITRI does too much high-tech basic research, and doesn't care about "the little guy." The conflict between the interests of individual businesses and business in general often puts ITRI in a no-win situation. And the cut in the budget this year is a result of the problems of fixing ITRI's role.
Under conditions where ITRI can only do R&D and services and cannot make a profit, while competing with private companies that must take responsibility for profit and loss, the difficulties of ITRI are not hard to understand. But the staff are beginning to understand that they cannot just keep their noses in the books.
ITRI president Otto C .C. Lin points out in the internal journal that the main directions hereafter must be confirming the centrality of R&D, maintaining an appropriate distance from industry, confirming operational goals, strengthening service to industry, and emphasizing communication and guidance.
Given this ability to adapt to changing circumstances, in fact we are optimistic about success. Who said a crisis isn't a chance to change for the better?