There is a rural village called Neiwan (內灣) nestled in the mountains of Hsinchu County. Surrounded by verdant forests, the village has developed a tourism economy based on its Hakka cultural resources. On weekends, the village draws a good number of domestic visitors, who take the Neiwan railway line for a scenic tour of the countryside.
But local leaders are now pursuing the bigger dream of transforming Neiwan into a comic art mecca.
Earlier this month, authorities announced a plan to build the Taiwan Comics Dream Park (台灣漫畫夢工場): a sprawling center with a comics and animation museum, a training institute featuring renowned teachers for aspiring talent, a summer camp for students and exhibition halls to host cosplay fairs. The Hsinchu County Government believes that a comics park can convert the little village into a world-class center for the production of cartoon animations and comic books.
Long road ahead
It is a lofty goal that is perhaps overly grandiose. When it comes to comics, Taiwan lags far behind the established leader of Japan and the rising South Korea.
According to the latest figures for Taiwan’s comic book publishing industry, the total turnover for 2012 was US$66.7 million (NT$2 billion) — and over 98 percent of sales were Japanese comics.
The turnover is small potatoes compared to that of Japan, which last year reached US$6 billion, not including licensing and merchandise sales. Meanwhile, South Korea’s comics industry is rising, with turnover reaching US$800 million last year.
However, the Hsinchu County Government remains confident in its new venture.
“The project will attract local and international talent to [help Neiwan] become a leading center for comic books and cartoon animation production in Asia,” said Hsinchu County Commissioner Chiu Ching-chun (邱鏡淳), adding that there is already NT$300 million (US$10 million) earmarked for the park.
The Neiwan edge
Neiwan does have one cultural asset that could facilitate its growth as a comics hub. The village’s favorite son is Liu Hsing-chin (劉興欽), also known as “Taiwan’s King of Cartoons.”
Since the early 1970s, Liu has blazed a path against the prevailing dominance of Japanese manga. Central characters in his comic series are now Taiwanese cultural icons. Brother A-San (阿三哥), Big Aunty (大嬸婆), and A-Jin (阿金) are all familiar figures to most Taiwanese over the age of 40.
Earlier this month when officials announced the park project, animators from China said they consider Taiwan attractive as a site for comics production.
One visiting Chinese comic artist surnamed Wang (王) explained that her comic series, which have story lines based on characters from historic Chinese novels, are subject to censorship by her country’s authorities.
Wang said she makes her comics fun for readers by using kuso, a Japanese form of humor that is deliberately outrageous and campy. For example, she depicts a handsome warrior who develops a crush on a chivalrous male character.
Wang said Chinese authorities have informed her that the theme of same-sex love is not allowed, as it is contrary to the moral values of Chinese society. Taiwan is a good place for artists like her to develop their creative works, she said.
Another visiting student surnamed Li (李), who hails from a Chinese institute for animation and comics, seconded Wang. He would be among the first to sign up for training in Taiwan, said Li.
“China’s authorities place too many restrictions on content. Some subjects are deemed taboo, and so our creativity is somewhat stifled,” Li added.
He explained that under Chinese publication laws, comic books are considered a genre for children 14 years old and younger, so “mature subject themes” are not permitted.
Li was on his first visit to Taiwan. He said he is envious of the “freedom to express one’s ideas” and the “freedom to draw comics,” which he said is reflected in the wide variety of Japanese and Taiwanese manga genres in bookstores and rental shops across Taiwan.