Venues That Bring in the Crowds

Besides Taiwan’s traditional cultural center of Taipei in the north, Kaohsiung is now rapidly developing as a vibrant secondary market with the help of its wide range of performance venues.

When famed British rock group Coldplay presents two concerts in Kaohsiung this November, it will further embellish the reputation of the southern port city as a center for pop music performances and a complement to Taipei’s offerings for classical music and jazz. 

Over the past year, Kaohsiung has pumped up the volume of musical performances and festivals, drawing A-list artists from both Taiwan and around the world. These have included concerts headlined by Taiwanese pop music icons A-Mei and Mayday, as well as the K-pop girl band sensation Blackpink. Attracting a total of 90,000 adoring fans over two nights last March, the Blackpink concerts reportedly set a new attendance record for Taiwan – surpassing the 80,000 set during a previous Coldplay tour in 2017.    

Kaohsiung is also getting on the map for leading classical music and jazz performers. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by its music director Jaap van Zweden and featuring violinist Hilary Hahn, came through town at the beginning of this month, and renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma is due to arrive in December. On the jazz scene, virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his combo held sway last March.  

National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts

Although not as well-known internationally as Taipei or as convenient to access by air, Kaohsiung has the advantage of a range of excellent facilities for musical performances – everything from smaller live house venues to the 40,000-seat National Stadium, the largest in Taiwan, where Blackpink set its record.  

Some of these facilities are also architectural gems. Completed in 2009 in time to host the World Games, the National Stadium was the first in the world to be powered by solar energy. The design by Japanese architect Toyo Ito features a striking semi-spiral shape intended to resemble a dragon.   

Another facility, the Kaohsiung Music Center, was designed by Spanish architectural firm MADE IN and opened in October 2021 as part of a massive project to redevelop the Kaohsiung waterfront. A collaboration of the Ministry of Culture and the Kaohsiung City Government, the center’s mandate is to “nurture domestic pop music talent.” The center is located in Kaohsiung’s Yancheng District, which was the most international part of the city in the 1960s due to the presence of American military personnel and was home to numerous jazz and other live music venues.  

Also acclaimed for its architecture as well as acoustics is the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, more commonly known as Weiwuying after the military training base that once occupied the site. The complex, which opened in 2018, is considered the world’s largest performance arts center under one roof. It consists of a concert hall (equipped with Asia’s largest pipe organ), playhouse, opera house, and recital hall, in addition to an amphitheater for open-air performances.  

The innovative design by Dutch architectural firm Mecanoo required the use of construction technologies borrowed from the shipbuilding industry. It also makes use of the surrounding banyan trees for both an aesthetic and cooling effect, creating a plaza that has become a popular leisure location. Inside, the concert hall features a “vineyard-style” design in which seating surrounds the stage in tiers for optimal sight lines.  

National Kaohsiung Stadium

“Because we have such a variety of venues, we can accommodate all kinds of performances,” says Emily Yeh, Weiwuying’s head of artistic planning. Besides programming based on monthly themes, the Center presents special events geared around long holiday weekends. The Center estimates that at least 30% of the total audience comes from outside the Kaohsiung area – either other parts of Taiwan or overseas.  

“Taipei has been cultivating audiences for over 30 years, but we are just beginning to cultivate our local audience,” says Yeh. That effort includes learning activities of various kinds, including workshops for youth.  

Kaohsiung’s emergence on the cultural scene has also been aided by strong support from the city government. “In the past, Kaohsiung was known chiefly for its heavy industry,” says Raymond Wong, the deputy general director of Weiwuying. “Of course, it still has its industry, but in recent years the city government has been keen to change that image by developing the cultural infrastructure. The ambition is to make Kaohsiung a kind of events city, and I can see quite a lot of opportunities here.”  

For several major events, the city government has sought to show appreciation to concertgoers through a “(K)Town After Party” program in which ticket stubs can be used to enjoy discounts at major department stores and other partnering shops, as well as free meals at scores of restaurants. During the weekend of the Blackpink concerts, local night markets reported record business and hotels were near full capacity, underscoring the economic benefits associated with performing arts events.  

The current cultural evolution is building on the foundation of music festivals that had already been a staple in Kaohsiung. The annual Megaport Music Festival held in April is Taiwan’s largest music festival. The inaugural festival in 2006 included performances from 20 artists on three stages. This year’s event, the first since the Covid pandemic, saw over 100 indie, rock, pop, hip-hop, punk, alternative, and other artists gracing 10 stages extending from the port-side plaza to the Great Harbor Bridge.  

In addition, the first Migrants in Kaohsiung Festival held at the Kaohsiung Music Center last December highlighted Southeast Asian music and food to celebrate Taiwan’s diversity.  

Looking north 

As both Weiwuying and Taipei’s National Theater and Concert Hall (NTCH) belong to the Ministry of Culture’s National Center for the Performing Arts, Kaohsiung is also benefiting from the connections and reputation that Taiwan has built up in the international cultural community over the decades. For Taiwan, the addition of a second venue in the south makes it an even more desirable location to include on a performance tour schedule.  

National Concert Hall

The New York Philharmonic’s recent concerts are an example of this symbiosis. After the orchestra performed for two nights in Taipei, it proceeded to Kaohsiung’s Weiwuying for a final performance before moving on to Hong Kong. 

“Having more players in the market is something we embrace very positively,” says Lin Ting-chun, NTCH’s director of programming and international development. “Before, when there was only one professional venue of its kind in Taiwan, we had to do everything. Now having more venues makes the entire cultural market more desirable for those on tour.”  

Both Lin and Weiwuying’s Yeh also cite Taiwan’s advantages as a tourist destination as a plus in attracting international performers. “Taiwan has the best street food, beautiful scenery, and kind people,” says Yeh. “The foreign artists always tell us they want to come back.” 

At the same time, there are differences in the nature of the markets in the north and south. Given its longer history as an artistic center, the audience in Taipei tends to be quite sophisticated, even compared with other big cities in the region.  

“One indicator is that post-performance talks in the lobby at NTCH can easily attract more than 200 people, and they ask very intelligent questions and are artistically curious,” says Lin. “They want to know about the creative process and the context of the work, and they are able to share ideas about what they have seen. That is really rare in the world, and the artists often tell us how exciting that is for them.”  

Taipei Performing Arts Center

Some types of events that are extremely popular in Taipei – for example, a visiting modern dance troupe can do three or four sell-out performances – would not be as appealing to Kaohsiung audiences. And recently, reflecting the culturally liberal environment in Taipei, NTCH has geared an increasing amount of programming to such contemporary themes as social justice, climate change, and LGBTQIA+ rights. For instance, one recent program focused on the dangers posed by misinformation, while another stressed the importance of sustainability by using no more than 150 watts of lighting throughout the performance.  

In contrast to the modern architecture in Kaohsiung, the traditional Chinese palace style of the twin National Theater and National Concert Hall buildings are distinctive, elegant additions to the urban landscape. Although the complex is 36 years old, Lin stresses that age is a relatively insignificant factor for a performance venue. She notes that New York’s Carnegie Hall, though built in 1891, is still one of the world’s preeminent concert halls. 

At the same time, NTCH has stayed fresh through rigorous maintenance and continuous improvements, Lin says. The pandemic period slowdown, for example, was used to install 4K camera systems and a 5G enterprise network.       

Looking ahead, the NTCH calendar for the coming months brings some outstanding musicians to Taipei. The 2023 Summer Jazz festival will feature the popular Kenny Barron Trio as well as jazz vocalist Kurt Elling accompanied by guitarist Charlie Hunter. Classical music aficionados can look forward to the arrival of Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä leading the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in works featuring violinist Janine Jansen. A phenomenon at 27 years of age, Mäkelä is the current “wunderkind” of the classical music world. 

Despite Taiwan’s successes in the cultural arena, many in the domestic industry say that this market has fallen short of its potential. Events promoter Steven Lin, founder of Wonderful Entertainment Asia, notes that Taiwan is often absent from the itinerary for mega pop music events. A prime example is Taylor Swift’s upcoming world tour, which will take her to only Japan and Singapore in this region. Both the Tokyo Dome and the Singapore National Stadium are covered arenas, whereas the only comparable facility in Taiwan – the National Stadium in Kaohsiung – is open-air, leaving events vulnerable to bad weather conditions. 

In rating Taiwan’s competitiveness, Steven Lin also cites the higher levels of corporate and government support in some other Asian locations. “Doing a music event can be very high risk,” he notes. “If there’s a typhoon or the headliner falls sick, the concert has to be canceled. Having strong brand backing and government support makes it easier for operators like us to go into a country.” 

He says the government support could be either monetary, such as waiving or lowering venue fees, or increased assistance with visas, application procedures, customs, and traffic or crowd controls. He also urges more efforts to tie music and other cultural events together with tourism promotion.   

“As a result of K-pop and Korean cinema, the authorities here are starting to become more aware of the importance of cultural products to a country’s economy and international image,” he says. “So I think things will improve, though for now we’re still quite behind.” 

Potentially, the availability of new performance venues may help the situation. The recent opening of the Taipei Performing Arts Center in Shilin – it’s the building that looks like a pregnant wall – brings several more small and mid-sized theaters to the market. And after many years of on-again, off-again construction, the multipurpose 40,000-seat Taipei Dome, known colloquially as the “Taipei Big Egg,” should soon (fingers crossed) finally be ready to contribute to both the local sporting and cultural scenes.