UC San Diego professor talks about Taiwanese music in the 1930s

With Taiwan being a trans-cultural hub, the Taiwanese have historically been more open to foreign ideas, more adaptive of social changes and lifestyle shifts and this is reflected in the island’s music, according to Professor Liao Ping-hui. In a recent talk, “Viva Tonal: Engendering New Sound in 1930s Taiwan,” Liao said that Taiwan has been influenced by the cultures of Japan, the United States, China and even Eastern Europe.

During the talk at the Martin Luther King Library in San Jose, Liao used footage from the documentary Viva Tonal – The Dance Age about the Taiwanese music scene in the 1930s.The film explores the private lives of several singers, composers, and collectors who offer a nuanced and sensitive interpretive account of Taiwanese music and cultural history. The film contributes to the understanding of colonialism and modernism in East Asia, said Liao.

Liao is the Chuan Lyu Endowed Chair at the University of California, San Diego. Along with the Chuan Lyu Foundation, the San Jose – Tainan Sister City Association and San Jose State University also serve as co-sponsors.

Liao said the emergence of new acoustics in the recording industry along with phonographic sound reproduction technology helped Taiwan’s music gain transnational significance. He touched upon multiple sources of music and modernity in the early twentieth century Taiwan linking it to the rest of the world, saying the documentary can be viewed as an archival project, indicating Taiwan’s presence at the hub of transculture across the Pacific in the 1930s.

Columbia’s viva tonal label was a commercial success in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Chinese migrants in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore all found solace by listening to its records from Taiwan, a phenomenon also noticeable in the production of Taiwanese films from the 1940s to the 1970s. Liao traced the genealogy of Taiwanese popular songs from Chun Chun to Teresa Teng to Jay Chou in southern China and Southeast Asia, saying this is a trans-regional republic of popular musical culture.

Liao is a distinguished scholar in Taiwan studies. He has served as a visiting scholar or professor at Princeton University, Harvard University and Columbia University, in addition to a number of academic institutions in Taiwan.

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