Sun, Jul 29, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: Wrong times for a great talent

Winning Japan’s only Olympic medal for music, Chiang Wen-ye’s talent was downplayed by the Japanese colonial government — the kind of poor treatment he would also receive at the hands of the KMT and the CCP

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Chiang Wen-ye’s honorable mention certificate from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Taipei Times file photo

July 30 to Aug. 5

Despite his talent and accomplishments, composer Chiang Wen-ye (江文也) was a victim of circumstance throughout his life.

The Japanese tried to downplay his win in the 1936 Summer Olympics for Japan — Chiang, who didn’t attend the games, did not know he had won an honorable mention for his orchestral work, Formosan Dance (台灣舞曲), until a package arrived at his home nearly a month after the games concluded.

According to a Chiang biography by Liu Mei-lian (劉美蓮), Saburo Moroi, the only musical contestant from Japan to attend the games, failed to report Chiang’s honor when he returned home.

This was supposed to be huge news. The arts competition in the Olympics had only been around since 1912, and Chiang, along with two Japanese painters, became the first ever Asian winners that year. The next two Olympics were canceled due to World War II, and the arts competition was canceled after the 1948 games — making Chiang the only Asian to win a music medal in Olympic history.

However, the Japanese probably didn’t like the fact that the 26-year-old Chiang took the glory, while Moroi and three other experienced Japanese contestants, came up empty-handed. Chiang was young, had been learning composition for only a few years and, crucially, he wasn’t Japanese.


In fact, Chiang had to personally take the medal and certificate to the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun newspaper to get the word out. Other newspapers had no choice but to follow suit after seeing the report, Liu writes.

Moroi continued to publicly belittle Chiang, stating that Formosan Dance received attention solely due to its novelty factor to the Western judges as a fusion piece with strong Taiwanese and Asian elements.

“I believe that if we want to compete against Western pieces, we need to create works that are completely rooted in Eastern music,” Chiang told the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun. “Today’s Japanese composers are bound by their pride and ego, and aside from a few progressive ones, they find it hard to free themselves from Western theory. I have no formal musical education, so this is the only idea I can offer.”

Nevertheless, music publishers released Formosan Dance as both piano and orchestral scores, a feat that Chiang was immensely proud of, as the piece was essentially a reworking of his first composition. And in his native Taiwan, this was front page news.

“Byron once said, ‘I woke up one day and found myself famous,’” Chiang wrote in his diary, which for him summed up the year 1936.

“I know how that feels now. My blood is boiling, my body is jumping, my life is colorful,” he wrote.

However, he was obviously stung by the Japanese critics.

“My work does have some fantastical elements in it, and this has led them to feel that it’s merely a frivolous exotic novelty and has no value. They want to ignore my existence … but this is my declaration of war to the musical world. I will continue to put myself at the perilous frontlines, but it seems that nobody treats me as a worthy opponent, only chattering about my work like a sparrow.”


Born in 1910 in Taipei’s Dadaocheng area, Chiang actually never spent much time in Taiwan. His family moved to China’s Xiamen when he was four years old, and in 1922 he headed to Japan to study. During high school, he spent a summer interning at a power plant in Taipei. Upon college graduation, the aspiring singer auditioned for Columbia Records (the Japanese version) and released his first single, The Three Human Bomb Heroes, which commemorated three Japanese soldiers who sacrificed their lives during the invasion of Shanghai.

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