It was a trip halfway around the world, without leaving Manhattan.
The 9th Annual Passport to Taiwan festival packed patrons, performers and business vendors into Union Square Sunday for a celebration that is considered the biggest and best outdoor Taiwanese event in the United States.
“A passport is a pass to another country. [This festival] is like a pass to Taiwan and the Taiwanese American heritage,” said Borcheng Hsu, Executive Director of the event. “I want [people] to leave with good memories of warm hearted Taiwanese Americans, warm hearted Taiwan, and a culture where they can say, ‘Wow.’”
The festival kicked off at noon with a thundering performance by the Chio-Tian Folk Drum and Arts Troupe. Five performers wearing face paint, red headbands and “I Love Taiwan” t-shirts hammered on drums and clanged cymbals to a receptive audience of children and adults.
“I think it’s a very auspicious occasion,” said city comptroller John Liu, whose family immigrated from Taiwan to Flushing when he was five years old. “The park is packed wall to wall with New Yorkers and people throughout the region coming here to learn about... the traditions of Taiwan.”
Over 50 vendors set up shop in Union Square, a colorful mish-mash of food, arts, music and political platforms. Amongst the organizations in the crowd – the Fresh Air Fund, the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, and Taiwanese American Professionals.
Certain booths drew more attention than others; small crowds gathered in front of the Blown Sugar Sculpture stand, where an artisan melted, molded and blew sugar into the shape of a bird. Dolls paraded in prismatic costumes at the Glove Puppet booth.
Chris, a visiting student from Brown University was impressed by the spectacle but not by the local delicacies. “I think the art here is really unique and fascinating,” he said before adding, “not a fan of the food here.”
Other patrons would beg to differ as lines for Taiwanese dishes wound down the street. Visitors wined and dined on popular morsels like bamboo tamale, Aiyu jelly and Oden. The line for Cua-bing, or Taiwanese shaved ice was consistently the longest. The chilly concoction – a mixture of ice, red bean, condensed milk, passion fruit and jello, is a popular delicacy that is sold in Taiwan’s night markets.
“We started at noon and we’ve sold at least 500 bowls already,” said Fanny, a biology professional volunteering at the booth. “Every year we’ve sold at least 2,000 a day.”
There was plenty of fun, games and politics.
“Taiwan has a much better healthcare system than the US does,” declared State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried to a cheering crowd, “and if we can learn from Taiwan about how to provide healthcare to Americans, we’d all be a lot better off and a lot healthier.”
A prominent motif was Taiwanese independence. A significant number of volunteers wore t-shirts with “Keep Taiwan Free” stamped across the back.
“I think its important we identify ourselves as Taiwanese Americans because a lot of the younger generations don’t understand that Taiwan is not a part of China,” said Michelle, the Vice President of Taiwanese American Professionals. “We are a democratic government and Taiwanese Americans in the US are completely different from Chinese Americans.”
In 1999, Congress designated the second week in May as Taiwanese American Heritage Week. The first Passport to Taiwan launched shortly afterwards in 2002. Over $50,000 dollars was invested into this year’s festival.