Category Archives: Vignette

Vignette #13: Halloween in Taipei

I was sittin’ in a bar, just a knockin’ ’em back, when in rolls a crew of pint-sized ghouls, princesses, and the cutest little strawberry you’ve ever seen. Yep, Halloween traditions have made it to Taiwan, and the trick-or-treaters were out in force. I’m not sure why they were making the rounds five days before Halloween, but that’s a piddling detail.

TV and movies have spread many Western traditions to Taiwan. There’s a childish appeal to many of these customs that is largely lacking in Taiwanese traditions. Tomb Sweeping Day and Ghost Month, with their emphasis on filial duty, don’t have quite the juvenile appeal of Halloween. Santa Claus and Christmas cater to children’s sensibilities more than Chinese New Year. (See: Ho, Ho, Ho, It’s a Very Taiwanese Christmas). Naturally kids here want to enjoy the hijinks they see in Western media, though the local interpretation differs from what you’d find in the West. In the case of Halloween, there’s no chance that the tykes would be successful going house to house trick-or-treating. So, it has become a bit of a tradition for English buxibans to gather their youngest classes together and take them, as a group, around to participating merchants. It is an exercise in almost unbearable cuteness.

Each group of thirty or so students is accompanied by a couple of local teachers, along with one or two foreign teachers, all dressed up in Halloween garb. The foreign teachers’ hangdog expressions as they herd their miniature brigades of highly excited phantasmagorical charges through the streets is nearly as delightful to behold as the unbridled excitement of the children.

The schools often go to merchants and supply them with candies to give the students. I think, on Anho Rd., where I was, the merchants were supplying the treats and letting neighborhood schools know that they wished to participate in the festivities, because there were numerous groups of children, obviously from various schools, walking up and down the street, going from store to restaurant collecting goodies.

It was heartwarming to watch these groups of children traipse through the dark bar, with its regular coterie of afternoon drunks, collecting their candy from the obviously tickled barmaids. It was a very fine Taiwanese Halloween, and added a nice touch of cherubic color to this old souse’s afternoon quaff.

Vignette #12: Underground Dance Clubs

I have previously written about Taiwan’s nightlife just after martial law was repealed (here). Another charming diversion, besides burlesque, was underground dance clubs. When I use the phrase “underground club” I mean it literally, not in its current usage as a marketing ploy. During martial law these dance clubs operated outside the law. Of course, at least by the end of martial law, the Taiwanese were showing great ability to skirt laws they found onerous. Generally it was a matter of wink, wink, nudge, nudge, pay your bribe, and we’ll say no more, say no more.

I stumbled on these clubs during my first trip here, but they were on their way out already at that time. The repeal of martial law removed their reason for existence. Legitimate night clubs replaced them. The club that sticks out most in my mind consisted of 5 to 7 floors, each floor featuring its own style of music and type of dance, so one floor might be general ballroom, another tango, while the next floor was disco. I’m a little fuzzy on its location, but I’m thinking Ximenting (西門町).

We always went to the disco floor. Don’t worry, it wasn’t really disco, that was just the generic term for any dance where you stand about a meter from your partner, roughly face each other, and wiggle your ass. I didn’t foresee the demise of these clubs, they were often large and elaborate, usually full, and the clientele was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about dance. Many of the dance halls were mirrored so dancer could check their technique. The women I met there did spend a lot of time working on moves and checking technique in the mirror. The end result was impressive. It made me feel like a socially awkward duck, waddling around the dance floor on my too wide, and too webbed, feet. But, this was long before there was a foreigner on every Taipei street corner, so despite my sub-Carey Grant suaveness, there was no end to the hotties trying to get on my dance card.

Ahh, the good old days.

These clubs were such a vibrant part of Taipei’s nightlife, it was hard to imagine they’d be gone shortly after I returned to Canada.

Vignette #11: Dating Fails

I moved to Taiwan as a spritely young man of 29 years. Of course, my first priority was economic survival, but not far down the list was a relationship. I had reached the age where random interactions with women at clubs was losing its luster. That’s the venue where being a foreigner best allows you to exceed your capabilities. Unfortunately, when seeking a long-term “real” relationship, being a foreigner was not an advantage.

Being new to Taiwan I didn’t really have the dating chops necessary for success. I don’t know if other foreigners have experienced this. I suspect that most new arrivals immerse themselves so deeply in the party scene that they don’t notice, or care, that they’re not creating deeper relationships. At the time that didn’t appeal to me.

I ran into two uniquely Taiwanese problems right off the bat.

There was a prohibition against 29-year-old women marrying. It was thought an unsuitable time for major life changes, part of Taiwan’s ubiquitous birth date numerology fengshui thing. Taiwanese women either needed to marry before turning 29, or wait until after, when they’d be considered old maids (老處女: lao chunu). Of course, there were no similar problems for men; mid-30’s was generally considered an appropriate time for a randy young buck to begin exploring options with an eye towards eventually settling down. This doesn’t seem to be true for women anymore, but it was a common idea at that time, and it did not help me. Women in what I considered an appropriate dating age range were on a mission to get married. They couldn’t let anything deter them from their goal. A socially inept foreigner, dipping his toes into the Taiwanese dating pool, was hardly marriage material and nothing but a distraction. They were laser focused on their goals, and I didn’t fit in.

Another problem I ran into was that women my own age seemed to want to date men at least 10 years older than themselves. That meant the eligible women for me, as a 29-year-old, to date were around 19 or 20, and had the maturity of a 12-year-old back home. They were sexually attractive and yet fundamentally unappealing.

I now realize that I was probably meeting mostly wai sheng (外省) women. Their fathers had been Chinese soldiers who’d fled to Taiwan. They’d lost years of their lives to the civil war. When’s they got to Taiwan and had a chance to make up for lost time, they chose young brides. Their daughters regarded this age gap as normal and desirable. I wasn’t culturally astute enough to realize I’d have had better success if I’d sought bensheng (本省) women.

Intercultural dating can throw up surprising obstacles, these were two I faced early in my time in Taiwan. Fortunately, horny always finds a way.

Vignette #10: White Skin Sucks

White skin has its socioeconomic advantages, sure, but in purely physiological terms, it blows. It is terribly unsuitable to Taiwan’s hot humid climate. It is terrific if you’re lost in a snow drift, but here on the Tropic of Cancer it is anything but grand.

I’ve had a continuous rash for twenty-plus years. Heat rash, jock itch, Hong Kong foot, allergic dermatitis (I’m allergic to my own sweat—try that in Taiwan), hives, and every fungus known to man—I’ve hosted them all, along with other less heat related skin maladies. These problems are the low-grade background noise of living with white skin in Asia.

The more serious issues come from a lifetime spent under the hot Asian sun. Every summer for the last few years I have been doing battle with potential malignancies, sun damage, and various of the more serious consequences of white skin. Each year I get several small surgeries—this suspicious thing gets cut off, those ones get biopsies, and the less suspicious growths get burned off. I never get ahead, and just find myself doing the same thing all over again the next summer.

There is a general Asian predisposition towards thinking having whiter skin would be awesome. My wife is constantly shocked by how spectacularly unawesome it really is. The fairer you are, the bigger the problem. Being a white person living in Taiwan is like being a penguin living on the Serengeti. It is just not our natural habitat, and there’s a price to be paid.

Vignette #9: Taipei Burlesque

My first trip to Taiwan was in 1986, not too long after martial law was repealed. I came as part of a class studying Chinese folk religion. One of the things that stood out was the throwback nature of a lot of the entertainment; ballroom dance halls, taxi dancers, and burlesque. These amusement were on their way out, but they still seemed vital.

On one night out we went to a burlesque theater in Ximending (西門町). The local guide who was arranging temple stays, temple tours, and seminars with notable masters (師父) asked if we wanted to go see some strippers. When it comes to culture, you don’t have to ask me twice. I and most of the male members of the class joined the guide.

By that time, I’d spent a couple years in the navy, and my fair share of time in peeler clubs. I was expecting more of the same: loud canned music; a couple unhygienic stripper poles; and a handful of weary, trashy—and yet still appealing—women. However, I was transported back to a classier time, an age when eroticism was erotic.

We stood in line outside the theater underneath hand-painted posters of the performers that made them look like cigarette girls from 1920s Shanghai. I assumed the posters were hyperbolic, trying to conjure an atmosphere more than the reality. I was wrong.

When we were allowed in the place was a theater, not a strip club. There were show times. You didn’t just walk in on some naked woman, mosey by and grab a beer—hence the queues. There was a raised stage with theater seating. There were even stage sets to be used at appropriate times.

When the first performer came on stage, I knew I was in for something different. She was clothed (in more than just a puff of lingerie). She wore a beautiful qipao (旗袍) and was made up like what I imagine a Chinese flapper must have looked like. Then she started her performance. She sang a lilting Mandarin song, likely popular in the 1960s. You know the type, very lyrical with no discernable rhythm. Undoubtedly a love ballad. She was accompanied live, onstage, by a small quartet. I was certainly no judge of Mandarin singing at the time, but it seemed passably fair.

And, so the performances went. Each performer singing and moving sensually around the stage, alluding to stripping while not doing much stripping. The finale was a woman doing a dance with feather fans, alternatively using the fans to hide and reveal. The show was frankly very light on nudity. Afterwards we found out that the show’s managers hadn’t paid the police their bribe, so they’d been in the back of the theater ensuring no nudity.

The overall effect was that of a live variety show, a burlesque show. I do wish that the police had allowed the performers to do their complete acts. I’d like to have had the experience of enjoying my porn like a nineteenth century gentleman.