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With A Performance in the Church, filmmaker Hsu Chia-Wei breaks new ground in uncovering Spanish colonization of Taiwan

A Performance in the Church
Tak Cheung Hui, Ruo Mei Wu, and Cheng Yu Wu bring past sounds to life in A Performance in the Church.

Taiwanese director and artist Hsu Chia-Wei opens his 2024 film, A Performance in the Church, with a live archaeological excavation. Underneath a parking lot on Heping Island near the northern tip of Taiwan, researchers carefully brush dust off human bones. The camera pans to centuries-old skeletons on display in exposed tombs.

“We’re preparing for a video shoot,” director Hsu says in Mandarin. “It is a performance at the archaeological site. The wall footings that we see now, including the burials and stones, were asleep underground for 400 years. Through these silent objects we want to, at this location, again create sound.”

The musicians—Tak Cheung Hui, Ruo Mei Wu, and Cheng Yu Wu—are about to perform on the former site of Todos Los Santos Church. It once stood beside a 17th-century Spanish seaport called Fort San Salvador. The instruments been re-created from what Spanish colonists might have played when they were living in this part of Taiwan from 1626 to 1642.

The leader of the trio sits in front of his modern laptop and gives a signal to begin. What follows is eerie, poetic, and spiritual—almost as if sounds in this former Roman Catholic house of worship are coming to life after nearly 400 years.

The percussionist taps a drumstick against a deer antler. The horn player blows into a flute made from a 3D printout of a human bone. And with the help of computer technology, healing Gregorian chants ring through the space in slow motion. It’s astonishing.

A Performance in the Church is certainly an ambitious documentary, ideally suited for anyone interested in the intersection of art, science, and history.

A Performance in the Church
Skeletons were uncovered by archaeologists at the former church site.

Hsu showcases archaeological work

Then, this performance is suddenly interrupted when the director cuts to a circular power saw driving through a thick concrete slab. It’s back to the archaeological dig, with students using various tools to scrape away the rocks, dirt, and dust to reveal what lies beneath.

An international team of archaeologists uncovered the complete foundation of the church between 2018 and 2020. This came after architectural historian Kun-Chen Chang overlaid maps of Heping Island onto ancient maps drawn by Spanish and Dutch colonists to determine the location.

“It was then found that the location of the church is likely to be the public car park on Pingyi Road of the island,” principal investigator Cheng Hwa Tsang says in the film. “Upon excavation, many ancient artifacts were discovered.”

A Spanish investigator of the Fort San Salvador and Todos Los Santos Church Archaeological Project, Elena Serrano Herrero, explains that the colonists needed to level a big surface with sand in order to create their church.

Underneath the sand were ancient artifacts from the Iron Age. On top of this layer is the burial ground along with porcelain pieces called kraak and small vases called anpin from the Spanish colonial era. On top of that were remains of buildings from the Qing dynasty. Higher up, there is evidence of a dormitory where workers stayed during the Japanese colonial period from 1895 to 1945.

Layers of Taiwanese history are embedded in this site on a scenic island in the city of Keelung.

“We use topographical methods to conduct archaeological research,” says another Spanish investigator, Eva Engracia Redondo Gómez. “It’s not just about recording strata. It’s also about recording objects. The advantage of topographical registration is that you can propose all sorts of hypotheses.”

Watch the trailer for A Performance in the Church.

Dutch drive Spanish out of Taiwan

The film’s director, Hsu, manages to merge the languages of film and contemporary art in his breathtaking and science-grounded exploration of Asian colonial history. With the help of brilliant drone footage and animation, he reveals how the trade in deer skins played a central role in the fate of Spain’s long-lost Fort San Salvador.

In 1624, the Dutch East India Company established a colony in southern Taiwan in what is now the city of Tainan. This colonial enterprise reaped tremendous profits by shipping deer skins from Taiwan to Japan, where they were prized by the upper classes. Samurai venerated deer as an animal close to God. So, they wore their skins in honour of this creature.

But the Spanish were intent on bringing Taiwan into their empire, which included the nearby Philippine archipelago. Colonial rivalries led to bloodshed, with the Dutch finally defeating the Spanish and driving them out of Taiwan in 1642. Twenty years later, the Dutch were sent packing.

But this isn’t the end of the story in A Performance in the Church. Director Hsu takes viewers on a side trip to Cambodia, where the trade in deer skins led to another war in 1643. Native Cambodians objected to the Dutch empire pillaging their wildlife. That led to heavy shelling of Dutch vessels travelling along the Mekong River near Phnom Penh.

It’s clear from Hsu’s film that the Age of Exploration didn’t unfold peacefully.

A Performance in the Church
The Mekong River near Phnom Penh was the site of a ferocious battle in 1643 between Dutch colonizers and the local Cambodian population.

Massive explosion in Malacca

There’s also a fascinating section in A Performance in the Church about William Farquhar, a Scottish colonial administrator who served as the Resident of Malacca from 1813 to 1818.

The Dutch had ruled this area since 1641, but the British occupied Malacca when the Netherlands was distracted by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. When the territory was about to be relinquished to the Dutch in 1818, Farquhar blew up the British fort with gunpowder.

The story was revealed in a diary written by Abdullah bin Abdul Khadir, which is evocatively shared in A Performance in the Church. The drone footage reveals that two centuries later, there is no sign of the British fort, but there is a massive transmission tower providing Internet connections to the entire city.

“This explosion scene is the most violent of modernity,” Hsu says in the film. “It is also the most straightforward scene. For the local Malays it was the first time for them to see the power of gunpowder. Not only were the walls destroyed, but their traditional faith, as well as their unique cosmology, were shattered together.”

This isn’t the first time that Hsu has used drones in an artistic project. In the video below, he makes the case that archaeology is how human beings are able re-create a time and space that they have never experienced.

Hsu Chia-Wei uses drones to shed light on the past.

Skeletons provide clues

But back on Heping Island in Keelung, a question remains. Are those skeletons the bones of Spanish colonists or were they the original Aboriginal inhabitants of Heping Island? One of the research assistants, Shen Wei Ko, points out that in general, Asians’ incisors are more likely to be shovel-shaped, whereas the incisors of westerners are shaped more like spoons. The skeletal teeth suggest that they may be from Europeans.

Another researcher, Selina Carlhoff of the Max Planck Institute, then talks about DNA testing—and how the best chance of recovering DNA is from the inner ear portion of skeletal remains. Yet another researcher speaks about the burial positions of Aboriginal people in comparison to people from China or the West.

Then, there’s a discussion of the beads found on the skeletons and talk of what their bone structure says about their lives. Did you know that people who eat seafood have healthier teeth? That’s another fact revealed in A Performance in the Church.

This film certainly delivers a symphony of science along with a memorable concert in what was once a sacred space. But A Performance in the Church is also a detective story, in which researchers draw on clues from the past to present a vivid picture of a bygone era.

TAIWANfest Toronto will present A Performance in the Church at Studio Theatre in Harbourfront Centre on August 24. For more information about this free screening, visit the TAIWANfest Toronto website. Learn more about diverse communities from the Toronto Spark website. Follow the Toronto Spark on X @TOSparkOfficial.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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