Ulara Nakagawa

Today we’re talking with The Diplomat Associate Editor Ulara Nakagawa, author of our New Emissary blog, about arts and culture in Asia.

You’ve been associate editor of The Diplomat for a year now. What have been some of the highlights for you in covering culture in the Asia-Pacific?

Having the chance to regularly explore the region’s remarkably varied happenings has been both eye-opening and inspiring. There’s just so much out there—from Pakistan to the Philippines to Tasmania.

Highlights have been meeting people through interviews who have a deep respect and appreciation for a given art form and culture. Take, for example, a group of passionate and cutting-edge ‘artpologists’ made up of artists and academics hailing from local communities and around the world who keep me in the loop about some really innovative projects. These are taking place in Central Asian countries we rarely hear much from in terms of the arts, such as Kyrgyzstan.

Recently, they set up an experimental restaurant in one of the country’s busiest bazaars to interact with the locals there (although the bazaar was completely destroyed in this year’s political uprising). These topics would never usually make world headlines, yet they still very much reflect the everyday lives of people across cultures. I think it’s important to remember these kind of ‘smaller’ stories at a time when the media is growing ever more sensationalist.

Has there been anything that has particularly surprised you?

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When I ask photographers who travel throughout the region—in places like Iran or Afghanistan that still remain a bit of a mystery to many as they aren’t exactly popular tourist destinations—I often ask them what their greatest impressions from there are. And I’m surprised that so many of them answer, ‘the people.’ I had previously tended to imagine photographers would be more inspired in their art through things like unique buildings or pristine scenery. But it seems, at least with the ones I spoke with this year, to be the people who leave the strongest impression. For example, one photographer who went to Iran told me that the people he encountered there were so kind and welcoming that they left an unforgettable impression on him that still lingers months later.

You were raised in Canada and go back there regularly. How much of an impact would you say Asian arts and culture have had in Canada? Is there any one country particularly?

I’m from the west coast of Canada—Vancouver, British Columbia—where there’s a strong Asian presence. In the early 1990s, with all the political uncertainty in Hong Kong, many people there started moving to Vancouver. For about half a decade, tens of thousands of immigrants from Hong Kong came and settled each year in the city I grew up in. It was remarkable to see, and my hometown seemed to transform before my eyes.

We always had a distinct old Chinatown, so I was familiar with that atmosphere and feel. But then new ‘modern Chinatowns’ seemed to spring up all over and there was suddenly so much more diversity in the population. There’s also a large Indian population in Vancouver, and Korean and Japanese students continue to come to the city in steady waves, which seem to have intensified now with increasing numbers of students wanting to study abroad and learn English.

Of course there are other cities that have seen something similar, but I’d say the Asia influence is especially strong in Vancouver. It still feels new and is coming together, but where I can see the most fusion in the community even now when I visit home is in the food. There’s so much good ethnic and fusion cuisine available in Vancouver—more than any Western city I’ve visited so far. And I do believe regional cuisine is in many ways the heart and soul of a culture. It’s all a pretty interesting prelude of things to come I think, for Vancouver.

What kind of issues do you plan to explore more of in the coming year?

I’d like to try and touch more on lesser-covered countries like Laos or Sri Lanka or Bhutan or Cambodia. It’s harder to dig deep into their arts and culture scenes without actually visiting them (which would also be nice this year too!) But I think it’s important to focus on such places, because otherwise we’d end up with a skewed vision of ‘the world’ or the Asia-Pacific and the people who comprise it.

I plan to uncover more projects and initiatives involving women and young people, but also mix things up with some interviews on topics like the fascinating world of ‘cultural propaganda’, pop culture, and some lighter topics too. I’ll be featuring more artists and photographers covering some of the issues I’ve already mentioned with a focus as I said on many of those stories that often don’t make the headlines. After all, these slices of life are just as good a reflection of people’s lives in diverse communities across the Asia-Pacific, and have the potential to educate and inspire.