In Taiwan, expat English teachers find their artistic niche
By Lin Yang Nov 3, 2011, 3:06 GMT
Taipei - From a passersby point of view, Saturday's market at the artist village in Taipei seemed like an international art fair.
All of the artists running the 23 booths of paintings, photography, T-shirts, and graphic design artwork were either white or black-skinned, and the working language for trade was English.
Although originally from abroad, each artist now permanently resides in Taiwan, and have found the island conducive to exploring their talent for design in a way that they couldn't develop in their home countries.
The open art market, Exposure, was organized by Shawn May and Felicia Rodrigues, an American and Canadian who wanted to build a collective among the growing number of expatriate artists who are trying to find success in Taiwan.
But none of artists are devoted to their craft full-time. Most teach English to pay the bills.
May, 35, had hopped from South Korea to Thailand as an English teacher for seven years before landing in Taiwan two years ago. He began designing vintage T-shirts on the side and sold 12 at the market on Saturday.
For May, Taiwan has a perfect combination of factors that sparked him to launch a T-shirt design business. He said raw materials and printing costs in Taiwan are incredibly cheap, so the barriers to entry are low. Also, a huge factor is the unique expatriate community in Taiwan.
'People are getting into music and getting into art,' May said. 'Everyone I know has got something going on the side besides teaching. I was inspired by what all of them were doing.'
Unlike Singapore and Hong Kong, in which many of the expatriates are more established professionals and upper-level management, a large portion of Taiwan's expatriate community is young and transient.
In 2010, Taiwan welcomed 5,923 foreign teachers, more than the numbers of foreign businessmen and engineers combined. Most teach in the English kindergartens, cram schools, and international schools that dot the island.
Taiwan mandates a minimum salary for foreign teachers that is twice as high as what a first-year local teacher would make. Some expatriates can afford to teach part-time.
This has helped Jeannette Engelbrecht, 38, who struggled as an artist in her native South Africa. She said many of her friends sacrificed creativity for commercialism in order to make a living.
But in Taiwan, Engelbrecht can support a comfortable lifestyle as an English teacher and devote her free time to exploring her craft on her own terms. 'At home, if you want to succeed as an artist, you have to sell your soul. In Taiwan, I have creative freedom, 100 per cent,' she said.
In addition, expatriates bring novelty to the local arts scene.
After Engelbrecht came to Taiwan five years ago, she began learning Chinese-style ink painting. She then mixed scenery from her southern Africa, including the bush and Afrikaans road signs, into her ink-painting pieces.
'With Taiwanese earning more, they are becoming more interested in collecting art. Art by foreigners is exotic to them,'she said.
Still, many of the artists admit that a majority of their works are sold to other expatriates. Language barriers aside, Engelbrecht blames the tendency of Taiwanese to avoid art that is provocative, and buy artwork that is more for decoration than for appreciation.
Kelly Harding, 22, another artist from South Africa, thinks a mismatch of culture is involved. Her art reflects her longing for her homeland. She sketches portraits of black women and paints them in brilliant hues of blue and red. 'But I don't think Taiwanese are big on paintings of black people,' she said.
She sells about two paintings a month to mostly expatriate customers. 'But I got my first Taiwanese commission today,' she said. 'A man approached me to do a painting of a magazine photograph. He said the magazine is called 'Playboy'.'