Q&A: NZ artist immerses self in Taiwan's vibrant pop culture

Artist Allan Xia travelled to Taiwan last year to meet with creatives, attend pop-culture arts fairs and look for ways to establish connections between arts practitioners in New Zealand and Taiwan. In this Q&A, we talk to Allan about his research trip and discuss what makes Taiwan a hotbed for contemporary pop-culture. Allan was supported to travel to Taiwan by a grant from the Foundation's Arts Practitioners Fund. Allan is a member of the Foundation's Leadership Network.
Allan Xia standing beside a woman in front of shelves containing graphic novels and magazines

Allan Xia (right): "Exhibitors were extremely generous in sharing and discussing their design philosophies, production methods and business strategies."

Why did you want to visit Taiwan in particular?

Having immigrated to Aotearoa with my family at the age of eight, I owe much of my grasp of the Chinese language to traditional Chinese literature and media.

I have organised and participated in delegations, festivals and residencies in Asia, and Taiwan stood out to me as a key intersection of many larger markets and industries while still having a distinct creative identity on the global stage.

Furthermore, its island geography and indigenous culture means despite our population differences, there is a lot in common between Taiwan and New Zealand, in terms of the environment, lifestyle and challenges faced.

What was the purpose of the visit?

The purpose of the research tour was to connect with local Taiwanese artists/practitioners/curators/festival organisers and industry/government bodies to build on-going partnerships to facilitate future cross-cultural exchange between New Zealand and Taiwan.

A montage of three photos showing someof the people Allan met in Taiwan

Allan travelled to Taiwan to learn about Taiwan's pop-culture scene and make connections with artists and arts practitioners

In order to get a full spectrum understanding of the visual arts/publishing industry in Taiwan, I deliberately approached a diverse range of artists and organisations, from those working in commercial illustration to fine arts; from IP licensing to traditional cultural practices; from bespoke zine makers to the largest publishers.

What were the arts fairs you attended like?

During May/June, every weekend there were numerous summer markets and fairs. Two of which I attended included IF (Imagination Field) and CWT Originals (Comic World Taiwan). Both were spin off events of large-scale fandom conventions.

While there were notable exceptions, the exhibitors at these fairs tended to be well established and mainstream – their works and merchandise were typically variations of universally cute animals.

In contrast, I also attended more genre-specific festivals such as Adventure Festa (designer toys) and Not Big Issue (indie zines).

Adventure Festa was a small but intimate event with designers showcasing a diverse range of independently produced toys and collectibles. With a strong connection to the Japanese industry, the event also saw a dedicated section for Japanese works as well as attendance by Japanese designers.

The quality of the works on display was extremely high - from recent graduates to industry veterans alike. Exhibitors were also extremely generous in sharing and discussing their design philosophies, production methods and business strategies.

A montage of four photos showing tous and plastic figures

Independently produced toys and collectibles on display at Adventure Festa

Not Big Issue was an intimate underground (literally!) zine festival event (with an amazing name) introduced to me by local artists.

The event was in its 10th year and last held in 2019 due to setbacks during the pandemic years.

Having finally returned, the community was incredibly passionate - packing the small venue, with long queues around the block waiting to enter.

Exhibitors ranged from students to prolific independent book publishers such as Slowork, Nos:book, and Mangasick.

Many experimental zines were on display, as well as collaborative art and zine making throughout the event. It was evident grassroots events such as this form the foundation for the many book fairs throughout Taiwan.

A montage of four photos showing magazines and festival goers at zine festival  Not Big Issue

Zines on display at underground zine festival Not Big Issue

What would you say defines Taiwan’s graphic novel/comic/animation ‘scene’?

During my trip, it was unanimously acknowledged by those I met that the illustration, design, comics and animation sectors are all heavily influenced by Japan.

Practitioners and audiences alike grew up surrounded by Japanese art, manga, anime and culture.

However, there is an active effort to grow the Taiwanese creative identity both locally and on the international stage. From a grassroots level, creatives are exploring personal stories that reflect history and lived experiences.

The vast range of bookstores, venues and fairs also congregate diverse creative voices - helping to collectively shape the meaning of “works from Taiwan”.

Meanwhile, industry and policy makers have recognised the potential of the creative sector having seen how it has benefited neighbours such as Japan, Korea and mainland China.

How is the sector supported and what impact does it have on Taiwanese society?

The Ministry of Culture and Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA) continue to actively build and support physical art centres as well as digital platforms to encourage the development of valuable Taiwanese artists and IP.

Illustration and visual communication are very much in every facet of daily life - from product marketing to political/tourism messaging. It’s almost impossible to go about one’s day in Taiwan without seeing a character mascot or illustration/cartoon on posters and product packaging.

A montage of five photos showing gallery and street art

Allan: "Illustration and visual communication are very much in every facet of daily life."

One positive aspect of this is that artists are consistently credited in the public space, especially if their characters are used as part of an official collaboration.

This has the benefit of placing creators at the forefront, helping them to establish a growing presence in the public consciousness and increasing value for their stories, characters and worlds.

What were some of the more interesting works you saw?

All of the events I went to were filled with interesting works! A few standouts outside of festivals included the exhibition Re-Present by Taiwanese Artist Kao Chung-Li, whose works spanned sketching, sculpture, animation, animatronics, digital interactions and more.

A montage of three photos showing a large piece of wall art, four magazines and toy figures on a shelf

Some of Allan favourite works from his Taiwan visit

Outside of Taipei, I was also impressed by art toy designer Jei Tseng’s work - I was fortunate to visit his studio in Tainan. Immaculately designed down to every last detail, the space is as much of an art work as his creations - which ranged from 2D paintings, vinyl toys and large scale installations.

Finally, in Tainan I also visit the studio of prolific illustrator and comic artist Jian-xin Zhou. An award-winning picture book illustrator, it was incredible to hear him detail his many works across a wide range of styles and genres. It was also incredible to hear his journey of creating his first graphic novel Son of Formosa, an award-winning piece of work that has already seen localisation in many languages.

What was the highlight of the trip for you?

There are definitely too many highlights to name; however, I think the highlight of the trip for me was experiencing the feeling of optimism and passion that creators and the industry have towards the value of original work created locally in Taiwan. Regardless of the financial outcome, there is a real sense of pride for Taiwanese stories and artistic expression.

How do you think your visit will help you develop your practice as an artist?

Geographically and culturally speaking, Aotearoa and Taiwanese practitioners have a lot of similarities in our creative environment - drawing inspiration from diverse island natural scenery, a melting pot of post-colonial history and indigenous cultures and more. However, there is a lot for us to learn from Taiwanese artists due to their close proximity to much larger markets and industries.

Taiwan’s creative sector is also much more mature, especially across emerging creative mediums. Learning from how Taiwan grows and matures its arts and culture to the wider local and global community, will help shed light on potential pathways for us in Aotearoa.

Personally speaking, I am also excited to explore the new possibilities of production and licensing for my own practice.

Seeing fresh new works and methods have been humbling and inspiring to say the least, and I can’t wait to return to Taiwan in the future!

The Foundation's Arts Programme aims to bring Asia into the mainstream of New Zealand arts by inspiring New Zealand arts professionals to grow their connections and knowledge of Asia. It also supports the presentation of Asian arts in partnership with New Zealand arts organisations and events.

Our Arts Practitioners Fund provides support for experiential opportunities for individual New Zealand-based arts practitioners to deepen artistic and professional connections with Asia, including residencies, work placements, research tours and exchanges.

Find out about the Leadership Network.