Over the last week, performance venue Novel Hall (新舞臺), located at the center of Taipei’s Xinyi Commercial District, has been the subject of fevered speculation as to its fate, after it was announced that the Chinatrust Commercial Bank (中國信託商業銀行) would move its headquarters (which includes the venue) from its present downtown location to Nankang District. On Monday, two of Taiwan’s most distinguished and internationally recognized artists called a press conference at the Taipei Lecture Hall (台北書院) at Zhongshan Hall (中山堂), presided over by scholar Lin Gu-fang (林谷芳), to ask the banking group to reconsider its move. It also called on the government to look into ways of facilitating the preservation, at its current location, of one of Taiwan’s best medium-sized performance venues.
Novel Hall is unique in being one of the only international standard performance venues owned by the private sector. It is also located in the Xinyi Business District, a location where land prices have skyrocketed in recent years. A Central News Agency report estimates that the Chinatrust building is worth NT$25 billion. Novel Hall itself, which as recently as September last year underwent a multimillion dollar overhaul of its facilities, is widely recognized as the best equipped, furnished and run venue of its size in Taiwan, with its nearest rival probably being the Metropolitan Hall (城市舞台) on Taipei’s Bade Road (八德路).
A press conference on Monday was called by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre founder Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) and doyen of Taiwan’s literary establishment and ardent promoter of the revival of kun opera Kenneth Pai (白先勇), to make an impassioned plea to preserve Novel Hall in its current location, and to call on the government to look into ways by which they can assist with the maintenance of such valuable cultural resources.
Both Lin and Pai recognized the enormous expense of maintaining a top ranking performance venue, especially one located in the middle of Taipei’s swankiest commercial district. Both also agreed that the benefits for Taipei, and Taiwan as a whole, of the venue being maintained in its present location far outweighed any consideration of financial cost. They made a number of interesting points that while specifically related to Novel Hall and its present circumstances, should certainly become part of the discourse for the future of the arts environment in Taiwan.
Pai, who had returned from Shanghai for the press conference, emphasized the importance of top-flight theaters in defining a city’s image. He referenced La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and pointed out the massive work of theater building currently underway in China. Theaters are part of a city’s identity, and they are a facility that builds pride in the residents of a city, even among those who do not necessarily frequent the theater. Speaking of the newly built Shanghai Cultural Square (文化廣場), Pai emphasized its location in the center of Shanghai.
“It’s in one of the most expensive districts of downtown and has the finest facilities. It is a symbol of Shanghai’s determination to return to its former glory, not just as a commercial center, but as a cultural center as well. They understand that without culture, Shanghai will just be a commercial city, and will never be able to stand among the top cities of the world.”
Lin followed this up by quoting comments from the many top-flight international artists he has brought over as part of his Novel Dance Series (新舞風). Novel Hall has been highly praised for its excellent facilities, its design, which has the well-being and comfort of the performer in mind, and the excellent service both front of house and behind the scenes. As an aside, he also quoted many as praising the quality of Taiwan’s theater audiences for their courteousness and discrimination.
Lin also pointed out that the way venues like Novel Hall help define a city was predicated on the location of the venue as much as its facilities, and the creation of various serendipitous synergies. As an example, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (國立國父紀念館) auditorium was established long before the National Theater, but it never became the center of the same kind of theater culture and audience culture, he said.
“Over the years, Novel Hall has fostered its audience… The Xinyi District has plenty of designer shops and luxury buildings, but none of this is special... Many cities are now cloning this kind of environment. In the center of this we have establishments like the Eslite Xinyi flagship store (誠品信義旗艦店) and Novel Hall. (The presence of such unique establishments) touches and engenders respect in all those who visit. In comparison, what is Taipei 101? If Novel Hall moves to Nankang, this important synergy will be lost,” Lin said.
Lin emphasized that he was not making demands of China Trust, whose foremost commitment is to their shareholders, or of calling on the government to forcefully intervene, as might occur under authoritarian regimes such as China’s. The call put out by Lin and Pai is for dialogue between the arts community, China Trust and the government, and an attempt to raise awareness that the relocation of a theater has much wider repercussions for a city than might at first be apparent.