Taipei’s annual Dream Parade—a cacophonous riot of color honoring Taiwan’s aboriginal villagers (and funded by a local property magnate)—has been likened to Rio’s Carnivàle and the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Mark Daffey dives in.
Dressed in guises designed to replicate banana peels, wizened old women turn back the clock with a zestful vigor that belies their years. Bespectacled men, their decorative attire ablaze with what appear to be licks of fire, rattle tambourines while braying rhythmic chants. Latino-looking samba dancers frolic in step with the locals, never missing a beat, each costume as outrageous it is eye-catching. Suffice to say, it’s not your typical Taiwanese scene.
Welcome to Taipei’s Dream Parade, an annual street festival that’s part-musical jamboree, part-dance fiesta and part-fancy dress party, with more than a smattering of beauty pageantry added to the mix.
Most of the revelers beneath the Liberty Square Arch, where the parade begins, have commuted to this Central Taipei landmark from a place called the Dream Community, a four-acre residential property development north of the Keelung River in the New Taipei City district of Xizhi.
The residential development was a passion project of a man named Gordon Tsai, a property magnate with a modus operandi that few of his ilk share—that profit isn’t paramount, and that art can change society when it’s integrated into everyday life.
Every condominium buyer at Tsai’s Dream Community signs an agreement to attend at least one major art festival around the world each year—a practice that Tsai has followed for decades. In past years, Tsai has travelled to Brazil for the Carnivàle, to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras, to Seattle to take part in the Fremont Solstice, and to Japan for the Asakusa Samba Carnival.
In any given year, as many as 100 residencies are offered to painters, sculptors, tile mosaic artists, metalworkers and other creatively-minded folk from all over the world, with residents able to watch them work through floor-to-ceiling windows.
In 2015, he fulfilled a long-held ambition of organizing a group of Dream Community residents to travel with him to Nevada for the Burning Man Festival. His 70-strong team spent months designing then building a Chinese Matsu temple that was then set ablaze at the festival’s conclusion—a fate that every creation must comply with.
Apartment buyers also understand that a predetermined portion of their purchase price goes towards funding an onsite arts program. In any given year, as many as 100 residencies are offered to painters, sculptors, tile mosaic artists, metalworkers and other creatively-minded folk from all over the world, with residents able to watch them work through floor-to-ceiling windows. Most of what is made remains onsite so that the Dream Community’s infrastructure doubles as a living gallery.
In keeping with the festive spirit, Dream Community residents must also agree to organize teams of 10 under a unified theme–-last year, it was ‘Crazy Village’—to participate in the Dream Parade, an annual event that Tsai instigated in 2001 paying homage to indigenous communities and villages around the island nation.
And Tsai leads from the front too. In past years, he’s smothered himself in white powder while dressed only in running shoes, an oversized diaper and a baby bonnet. Or he’s come as a fire-breathing fighter drowned in purple body paint.
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From an initial 200 residents participating during its first year, the Dream Parade now attracts thousands. Typically scheduled to take place on the third Saturday of October—October 20, this year—it commences at the foot of the stairway to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Liberty Square at 3pm and culminates three hours later outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building on Ketagalan Boulevard, where an after-party continues through until 9pm.
Drawing on influences from across the globe, the parade attracts giant puppets, stilt walkers, laughing yoga clowns, bead tossers and floats that stretch up to three storeys high. Tsai pays specialist artists from all around the world to attend the event, particularly those appearing prominently on the global festival calendar.
With upwards of a thousand drummers pounding away, the din is loud enough to trick seismic indicators into thinking that disaster is afoot.
New Orleans marching bands, Berlin troubadours and Brazilian samba queens have all featured in past years, with many of these ‘celebration artists’ arriving months before the event to prepare and work at the Dream Community, teaching residents puppetry skills, for example, or how to walk on stilts. Often, they’ll travel to other parts of Taiwan to impart their knowledge.
The highlight of the parade is arguably the number of teams vying for first prize in the samba drumming competition, with judges posted along the parade route critiquing their skills, costumes, choreography and enthusiasm. While samba drumming is not an aboriginal tradition, Tsai believes it helps preserve rural culture as more and more young people move to the cities for work.
Contestants are typically school children drawn from aboriginal villages around the nation, each first having gone through an elimination process prior to undertaking the journey to Taipei. With upwards of a thousand drummers pounding away, the din is loud enough to trick seismic indicators into thinking that disaster is afoot.
Some of the participants are bare-chested, with brushstrokes daubing their cheeks and torsos. Others wrap animal-print ‘furs’ around their shoulders. Masks are worn and floral wreaths crown the heads of many. Woolly pom-poms swing from braided bandanas. Paradoxically, Nike trainers adorn their feet. A second prize is awarded to the person adjudged the most beautiful samba girl, of which there are more than a few contenders.
But it’s not just the young and beautiful who receive all the attention. Everyone is treated equally, with Tsai reserving a special award for the elderly participant who best embodies the spirit of living life to its fullest. Known affectionately as ‘samba grannies’, beads and sequins embroider their skimpy costumes and glitter cakes their cheekbones. More noticeably than on any other demographic though, their faces beam, from the mid-afternoon start time until long after dark. For some, it seems, the party never stops.
After an early career spent sorting through shoeboxes filled with receipts so that his tax accounting clients could escape on overseas holidays, Australian Mark Daffey now accepts travel assignments to places considered off the beaten track for a range of publications.