March 18, 2017 10:15 pm JST

Dark chapter of Taiwan history memorialized in music

Hong Kong-born composer disclaims political intentions

ROSS ADKIN, Contributing writer

Chung Yiu-kwong (Courtesy Chung Yiu-kwong)

TAIPEI -- On a recent afternoon, around 500 people gathered in a central Taipei park to hear the premiere of "Ode to Democracy," a piece of classical music composed in memory of the victims of a dark chapter in Taiwan's history.

Against the hum of traffic, the orchestra, choir and soprano singer performed the composition by Chung Yiu-kwong, better known in North America, Europe and East Asia for his percussion work and musical interpretations of Chinese philosophy and folklore than any political overtures.

From a tent erected for the event, the clanging cymbals of a Buddhist ceremony and chanting floated out as crowds gathered to remember the thousands dead and missing in a clash with authorities 70 years ago.

On Feb. 27, 1947, officials of the Chinese Kuomintang government that had taken control of Taiwan from Japan at the end of World War II confiscated the wares of a cigarette vendor and beat her. As an angry crowd gathered, the officials backed up and fired their guns, killing a bystander. The following day, the protests erupted into an uprising across the island, which was in time brutally put down by the Kuomintang, allegedly on the orders of Chiang Kai-shek, its leader.

At least 18,000 are thought to have been killed in what became known as the 228 Incident, in reference to the date in 1947. Following those events, Taiwan was ruled under martial law for the next 40 years.

Not long before this year's 70th anniversary commemoration, a spat broke out across the Taiwan Straits over the meaning of the 228 Incident as China hailed the event as a chapter in the revolutionary struggle that culminated in the communist victory in the mainland two years later. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen announced plans for a complete unearthing of all Kuomintang government archives from the period.

Hong Kong-born Chung, who settled in Taiwan in 1991 with his island-born wife, is reluctant to acknowledge the political thickets he entered into with "Ode to Democracy."

Speaking to Nikkei Asian Review, he said, "For me, it is about the 228 Incident and the Taiwanese people, nothing more."

He was approached to compose a piece to mark the 70th anniversary by Huang Hsiu-wan, the grand-daughter of a victim of the 228 Incident named Ong Thiam-teng. Huang's daughter, Ho Hsin-yi, wrote the lyrics, with inspiration from poems written by Ong.

Chosen path

At Chung's science and math-focused high school in Hong Kong he almost decided to study architecture in the U.S before changing his mind to pursue music. He subsequently studied in New York under Robert Starer, a leading American composer. He then received conductor training in St. Petersburg, Russia and Bucharest, and became general director of the Taipei Chinese Orchestra in 2007.

Chung's love for numerical abstractions remains. He is an avid coder and programmer, and produces many of the visual displays that sometimes accompany his performances. He is also innovative in the way he stages his orchestral performances.

For example, for his recent composition "Matchup of Aces," Chung played a game of his beloved ping-pong against Mei-Ju Yu, a Taiwanese professional, in front of his orchestra as they played their instruments. "This idea of combining sports and music has been in my mind for 20 years," he said.

He says that when he retires from teaching at National Taiwan University of Arts in a few years, he wants to focus more on sport. He is already planning an extended version of "Matchup" but he wants to "go further with the ping-pong, play a longer match."

He hopes at some point to take a re-worked version of his ping-pong concerto to China, the Mecca of the sport. He is also in the early stages of planning a joint collaboration with a Chinese orchestra and a group of shadow puppeteers to produce a visual and audio performance on the mainland. But Chung is acutely aware of sensibilities across the Taiwan Straits and that he must walk a fine line between the two sides.

That can be tricky. In 2016, an invitation to Puzangalan Choir, a Taiwan children's group, to perform in Guangdong Province was canceled after it performed Taiwan's national anthem at President Tsai's inauguration. So far, however, China's stridently nationalistic internet users seem to have taken little notice of "Ode to Democracy."

Taiwan's National Archives are due to report on its research into the Kuomintang files later this year. Already officials are talking of changes to Taipei's landmark Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in light of increased scrutiny of his role in the 228 Incident and martial law. As a first step, Chiang figurines and stationery were removed from the museum gift shop in February.

For Chung, he is keen to return to less contentious topics and is training hard for his next performance of classical music and ping-pong. He opened a sports bag to reveal a set of paddles as the interview with NAR ended. "I've got a game set up after my teaching is done this afternoon," he said.

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