“Why Are the Taiwanese So Angry?”

Having recently hosted a foreigner visiting Taiwan, I was reminded that the Westerners I have shown around Taiwan have had the same question while here, “Why are they [Taiwanese people] always so angry?” The first time a traveler asked me this I was taken aback, for I know the Taiwanese as warm, friendly, and outgoing. The particular person that asked me this was a veteran world traveler who had been living in Japan for over a decade. When I questioned him further, he explained that he was referring to the Taiwanese tendency to yell at each other—rather angrily—upon first meeting. This basic question has been echoed by virtually every Westerner of my acquaintance who has come to Taiwan.

It’s an interesting question that requires some cultural information, a bit of linguistics, and a smattering of the psychology of culture shock to answer. As I imparted to my companion, the first thing that needs to be thought of are cultural norms. In Taiwan there is a cultural concept referred to as renao (熱鬧). I don’t think English has an exact translation for this word. Basically renao refers in a positive way to active, boisterous, happy, good-times surrounded by lots of people. Think of how happy the Taiwanese seem to be in a night market with hawkers and touts yelling while the crowds jostle each other. Though it may make the average Westerner’s skin crawl, to the Taiwanese, these moments are almost the definition of happiness—this is renao.When two friends meet on the street, restaurant, or school hallway, they will tend to try to create this happy, warm feeling of renao. The foreign visitor to Taiwan experiences this as a cacophonous barrage of Chinese that seems to increase both in tempo and volume until the people are virtually yelling at each other. In most parts of the world this is what a fight looks like. For the Taiwanese, they are simply trying to create the amount of noise necessary to feel happy. In their mind’s eye they are recreating the night market, banquet hall, or whatever other noisy environment symbolizes good times for them. The yelling is not done in anger, it is joyous.

There is also a linguistic component to why the Taiwanese tend to sound angry. Chinese is a tonal language. There are four tones: the first tone is a high tone; the second tone is rising tone; the third tone is a swooping tone, where the voice starts high, falls only to rise again at the end of the syllable; and the fourth tone is a falling tone. It is the fourth tone that is of interest here. The fourth tone starts high and drops quickly into the pit of your stomach, it pretty closely approximates the anger tone in European languages. Imagine that you are having a really bad day and your children are dancing on your last nerve as you try to get them ready to leave the house. In frustration, you snap, and yell, “Come here!” You will have said both come and here using the Chinese fourth tone. It is that sharp falling tone that denotes anger.

In Chinese, it does not connotate anger at all. It is simply the tonally correct pronunciation of the word. 20% – 25% of Chinese characters use the fourth tone. Inevitably, Mandarin sounds angry to those used to the sounds of Romance and Indo-European languages. The tendency to speak loudly combined with a snappish sounding language explains why foreign travelers think the Taiwanese tend to be irritated.

The psychology of international travel also comes into play. One of culture shock’s “joys” is a tendency to regard all interactions in the vicinity, that you can’t understand, as being related to you. Under these circumstances, being surrounded by people speaking loudly, with a mad or at least anxious tone, while gesturing vigorously can cause a near panic-attack in travelers try to guess how they caused the kerfuffle. Partly this is the result of the natural tendency to see oneself as the nexus of all things. Also, as travelers find themselves immersed in a totally alien environment they come to realize they don’t understand what is happening around them. It is natural that this growing discomfort manifests itself as anxiety that they inadvertently did something wrong to cause the heated discussions.

No, the Taiwanese are not rage-prone. They are some of the warmest people in North-East Asia. Random smiles from passing strangers is one of Taiwan’s charms. Visitor can count on a helpful smile and assistance should they ask a stranger for help. The Taiwanese are not choleric—those “angry” noises on the street are sounds of joy.

Hey Ya It’s Weiya

Weiya (尾牙) season is upon us. Weiya is the banquet held for employees during the Chinese New Year season to show appreciation for their hard work that year. During the course of the year there are several ya’s (牙) in Taiwan, when companies communally pray or baibai (拜拜), make offerings, burn spirit money and incense for Tudigong (土地公) the God of the Soil and Earth. These workplace ceremonies occur on the 2nd and 16th days of the lunar month. 尾牙 literally means the tail, or last, ya (牙). Thus, weiya is the final climactic workplace obeisance for the year. Originally in China, weiya was a feast giving thanks to the earth for providing a fruitful harvest. Over time weiya moved from a strict harvest festival to an employee appreciation banquet as there wasn’t a tradition of employee bonuses in China. It developed into a way for business owners to thank their workers and continues in this form to the present day in both China and Taiwan. During the month and a half before Chinese New Year virtually every company holds a weiya.

As with any other festival, religious observance, get-together, or celebration in Chinese culture, food is the most important part of weiya. The boss treats the workers to a banquet and then puts on a show to thank his employees. Often the boss himself will entertain, putting on his own song-and-dance show, embarrassing himself, and opening himself up to light mocking from his social inferiors. It is an interesting example of role reversal in popular culture and parallels Europe’s medieval carnivals. The historian in me finds that intriguing.

Most employers pay performers to provide weiya entertainment. Corporate engagements during weiya season are a great source of work for all types of performers at all levels of the entertainment industry. Large rich corporations may hire nationally or even internationally recognized performers, but most companies hire substantially more modest talent. (I’ve gigged at a couple weiyas, so…you know).

Besides eating and entertainment, the other important part of weiya is the series of lucky draws that occur during the banquet. I suspect that in pre-bonus China, lucky draws functioned as a way to randomly give bonuses. A face-conscious method of acknowledging employee contributions without raising one worker above others. In a similar way, traditionally, employers would point the head of the cooked chicken towards the employee who need not show up next year, a nonverbal face-saving method of firing. [Although, getting fired by chicken sounds brutal to me]. Most weiyas will have both cash (hongbao 紅包) and household items as prizes. Prizes reflect the company’s profitability and can be substantial, expensive sports cars are not unheard of, though washing machines, kitchen appliances and computers are more normal. The cash grand prize can reach into the 6-figures (NT$), even higher during Taiwan’s tech boom. Generally an effort is made to have a wide array of prizes of diverse value to be distributed as widely as possible throughout the company’s various departments.

Like many foreigners I have tended to try to avoid weiya. When I worked at a smaller buxiban (補習班) it was impossible to avoid, but when I moved to my first university I never went to weiya. Most the foreign staff avoided it, viewing it as an infringement on winter vacation. But now, if possible, I always go. It is not painful at all. You just sit around and enjoy a Taiwanese style banquet with other members of your department. And, I’ve won 10,000NT each of the last two years that I was able to attend. Not bad. I’m going for the grand prize this year.

The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock

Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture posits a theory that all cultures can be placed on a continuum between high-context and low-context. The position of the culture on this spectrum explains almost all cultural differences between two countries, regions, corporations, etc. The high-/low-context framework is exceptionally useful for contextualizing culture shock and giving the expat a way of understanding the wackiness that dominates his/her life. Taiwan is a high-context culture; most English speakers come from a low-context cultures, and therein lies the problem.

A higher context culture has an indirect and implicit style of interaction. High-context communication emphasizes context as the preferred method of imparting meaning. Words are not used to explicitly state meaning, rather meaning is conveyed indirectly and nonverbally. The meaning of a statement is to be found in between the actual words. In a high-context culture there is an emphasis on establishing long term relationships. That’s logical as clear communication in a high-context culture requires familiarity. As you can imagine talking with a stranger who is artfully trying to avoid saying what he really means is a recipe for miscommunication. High-context cultures de-emphasize writing as there is less room for subtle non-word communication. By contrast low-context cultures seek clarity in all aspects of communication. There is a strong emphasis on explicitly stating meaning. They speak directly, avoid nonverbal communication, and rely on written communication. Can you see the potential for cross-cultural miscommunication and culture shock?

High-context cultures tend to be exclusionary. They emphasize community over the individual. Long-term relationships are important and there is a strong differentiation between group members and outsiders. The emphasis on being part of a group means that people in the group have enough shared values, experiences, and other commonalities to be able to communicate without the necessity of explicitly stating everything. These cultures rely on their common background to explain situations. Asian countries with their relatively high level of racial homogeneity tend to be high-context. Whereas more racially diverse (European) cultures tend to be low-context. The higher cultural/racial diversity requires individuals from widely varied backgrounds to use words to clearly state meaning, as there isn’t the group cohesion necessary for high-context communication.

The languages themselves have developed to reflect these different communication styles. High-context languages tend to be more ambiguous. While low-context languages have developed to state meaning clearly and explicitly with enough precision to convey fine gradations in meaning. These differences are clearly manifested in high- and low-context languages’ vocabulary and writing structure. For more information on high-/low-context languages and cultural linguistics see “A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places”.

There is a strong correlation between collectivism and high-context cultures. High-context cultures emphasize building strong interpersonal connections and maintaining long term relationships. They seek to maintain strong kinship, patronage, and other social group ties. Distrust of outsiders is built into the culture, language, and communication style. [So, if you’re an expat in Asia, it sucks to be you]. There is a parallel emphasis on getting group members to conform to the larger group’s expectations. Low-context cultures are more individualistic. Interpersonal bonds are less stable. Group cohesion is less robust, which allows people to move in and out of a group more easily than in a high-context culture. Low-context cultures tend to be open and accepting of outsiders.

High-context cultures tend to be traditional. Communication requires society members to absorb shared cultural contexts and cues. Cultural stability is needed for the subtextual basis of high-context communication to be assimilated by all community members. High-context cultures tend to fight change and are slow to adapt. Low-context cultures have a lower emphasis on using shared history to provide shared communication references and thus are free to make quicker social changes. The downside is that large intergenerational communication gaps can develop, sometimes making cross-generational communication difficult.

One aspect of high- and low-context cultural differences that gets attention among multinational corporations is the difference between polychronic and monochronic work methods. High-context cultures tend to be polychronic, which values human interaction above time considerations and material objects. A polychronic work culture encourages multitasking, does not worry excessively about time management, and spurns strict organization in favor of a collegial—if chaotic—work environment. Low-context cultures tend to be monochronic, where people do one task at a time, they do it well, and then they move on. Time is considered to be very valuable. The monochronic approach to work is to carefully plan and schedule everything. Time management is of paramount importance. Getting it done is good; but getting it done on schedule is what matters. High-context cultures tend to feel that the process is more important than the product. In low-context cultures the end-result—in the case of work, the product—is what’s important. If you made a good product then the degree to which its production facilitated warm interpersonal feelings amongst staff is inconsequential. That’s not true for high-context cultures.

The high-/low-context framework provides a broad structure for perceiving and generalizing cultural differences. It aids in understanding the underlying social factors that sometimes lead to cross-cultural interactions going awry. It is generally used to place nations within a worldwide cultural context. It is inherently an instrument of overgeneralization, though a certain nation might generally be considered high-context certain groups, regions, corporations, ethnicities, etc. within that country may be lower-context. Still, I find high-/low-context theory useful for helping me understand my interactions with Taiwanese society.

I wanted to introduce the high-/low-context framework for use in future articles on cross-cultural interaction. It is a useful model to illuminate aspects of expat life in Asia. As you can imagine this article barely scratches the topic’s surface. If you’re interested in more information try reading Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. Anchor Books, 1976. ISBN 978-0385124744 and Samovar, Larry A. and Richard E. Porter. Communication Between Cultures. 5th Ed. Thompson and Wadsworth, 2004. ISBN 0-534-56929-3.

Studying Wei Chi in Taiwan

I keep trying to engage with Taiwanese society. As an inveterate learner, one way I attempt to be a part of the Taiwanese community is by taking classes. Ideally this would allow me to meet like-minded individuals, create friendships with locals, share our mutual interests and learn something. It never works out that way.

A few years ago I decided to take a Wei Chi  (圍棋). I was first introduced to Wei Chi, or Go, while in grad school by an exchange student from Beijing. I liked it—what little I understood of it. Go is played on a board with a 19×19 grid. Like in chess, two players face off across the board, one with black stones, the other with white stones. At the beginning of the game the board is empty. The black player begins by placing his stone on one of the 361 possible intersections on the grid. Then it is white’s turn to place his stone on one of the 360 possible remaining intersections. And so the game proceeds as the players alternate turns. The object of the game is to control territory. The rules are simple, the game play is infinitely complex, orders of magnitude more intricate than chess. I’ve always had a problem with the pure analytical thought in chess. The greater number of moves possible in a Go game means that pure calculation is not the preferred approach. Go has a greater emphasis on intuitive play based on experience and shape recognition that more suits my brain.

With my language skills finally at a level that I thought could handle a Go class, I signed up for a buxiban (補習班), cram school. I was primarily motivated by the goal of learning, but I had a secondary desire to develop new Taiwanese acquaintances. Even by my own low standards, Go class was a spectacular failure as a friendship making tool.

When I enrolled I was a neophyte and my first class was for absolute beginners. In class there was me, over forty years old, and my classmates, a dozen pre-kindergarten students. There were actually some advantages to this. Obviously it was the correct level for my game play. Also the teacher was partially teaching  his young charges Chinese. Go has its own specific, and pretty funky, Chinese terminology. My Chinese language instructors couldn’t teach it to me. The golden rooster stands on one leg (金雞獨立) turns out not to be in common usage among Chinese speakers. A quite large part of class was learning Go vocabulary, and since the students were so young the teacher included Taiwanese phonetics (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) with the characters, which was helpful. Another advantage was that the students were too young to be intimidated by the hulking blonde Adonis amongst them. Their only experience of foreigners was their big fun-loving English buxiban teachers. With that as their entire lexicon of cross-cultural experience, there was no reason for fear.

Unfortunately, in every other way the class was awkward. Classes had a set formula; a lecture, followed by solving Go problems, and then students paired off to play a game. The age differential caused some issues for me. If I played a game with one of my classmates and lost, I’d feel bad because he was four years old. Of course, four year old boys are not noted for their subtlety. After stomping me across the board I was often treated to a pudgy little hand with four extended fingers being waved in my face. “Ha, ha. I’m only four years old.” That hurt. Conversely if I won—they’d cry, and I’d feel bad. It was a no-win situation, I was either a loser or a cur.

Finally I moved up into a class full of grade school aged students. There were some obvious benefits. The lectures had more strategic content and were more intellectually stimulating. My classmates never cried if they lost a game, though they were more likely to get pissed. Likewise, I didn’t find it nearly as annoying to lose to them; and they wouldn’t ridicule me if I did. There were other issues. The older students were intimidated. Some of it was a natural preteen desire to interact with people their own age. They also attributed to me an intellectual superiority that I simply did not possess over the Go board.

Occasionally a Taiwanese retiree will show up in this level of class. That might have worked well for me, but my class was all children. I eventually quit. I’d enjoyed learning Go, but I was the class pariah. At the same time high-quality English language Go content began being posted on the Internet. I didn’t need class as much. I am considering going back to Go buxiban, not so much for the Go study as for the Chinese language benefits. When learning a language, it is helpful to have an interest that allows you to use your target language in a natural setting, something outside the language classroom. It might be time to try it again.

Snakes & Whores: Snake Alley Then and Now

A visitor to Taipei’s Snake Alley could be forgiven for questioning why such a lackluster night market has become a staple of tourism in Taiwan. The answer is—it wasn’t always mundane. I first came to Taiwan thirty years ago on a study tour put on by my home university to study Chinese folk religion. We traveled to many temples and festivals as part of the class. We also visited the main tourist attractions, including Snake Alley. It was an eye-opening experience for this nineteen year old prairie boy.

Snake Alley was a raucous zone where the seamier elements of Taiwanese society bubbled to the surface, a place with the feel that anything might be possible for a price. Snake Alley, formerly known as Huaxi Street Night Market, was Taiwan’s first international tourist zone, and dates back over fifty years. Snake Alley is located in the Wenhua District, Taipei’s oldest area. It is near the historic Longshan Temple, and is nestled among other night markets. The structure of Snake Alley helps distinguish it from those other markets. At the alley’s entrance there is a Chinese style gate, which is hung with traditional red lanterns. It gives the feeling that inside you can expect to see some distinctly Taiwanese sights. The alley itself extends for two blocks and is covered, which gives it an intimate arcade feeling.

Snake Alley has evolved, or devolved, a lot in its lifetime, depending on your perspective. The first time I visited Snake Alley was thirty-odd years ago, as part of the aforementioned school excursion. Snake Alley was just about to begin its decline, but there was no doubt why it was an international tourist destination. Whores. Lots and lots of whores. The alleys just off Snake Alley once housed legal brothels. In its glory days Huaxi drew international sex tourists, locals, along with American servicemen from the American air force bases in Taiwan or on R&R from Vietnam.

My classmates and I walked the Alley in 1987. As a group, we, collectively had our heads on swivels, constantly turning to gape at each new piece of foreign oddness—let me tell you there was a lot to stare at. There were multitudes of snake restaurants, which gave the street its name, most with a worker out front drawing crowds by charming the snakes, selling shot glasses of snake’s blood and bile. When a customer chose a likely looking snake, the luckless reptile would be pulled from its cage and hung by its head from a chord, and quickly slit open, along its underside, from anus to gullet, the still live snake dancing wildly on the gibbet as its intestines fell out. The chef would step up to the writhing snake and milk out a couple ounces of blood and a bit of bile. These were offered for sale to the gathered crowd, purportedly great for male vigor, but almost everything in Chinese culture is, while the person who actually ordered the meal went into the restaurant proper to enjoy their repast. The foods available inside the restaurant included snake and herb soup, a cold weather favorite, baked or fried snake, snake penis wine, snake gall and possibly even snake oil pills.

The snake restaurants were only part of the vibrancy on offer as we walked down Snake Alley. There were also turtle meat restaurants, at least one of which offered televised dog fights to ease their customer’s digestion as they ate their turtle soup and turtle’s blood. Another eatery, not to be outdone, offered televised cock-fighting for its customers. To add to the otherworldly experience of the place there were sex shops and small stalls selling local pornography, of the hint of areola with a touch of butt cleft variety mandated by law, but not so discrete inquiry quickly revealed the good (foreign) stuff hidden inside the vendor’s cart.

All of this was fascinating and possibly culture shock inducing, but it was not what left myself and my classmates stunned. We were floored by what we saw when we reached the end of Huaxi Street. Nineteen naïve prairie jaws hit the not so clean Huaxi asphalt, for at the end of Snake Alley, there were small streets branching off to the left and right. It was nothing but whorehouses as far as the eye could see, and each house seemed to have a dozen or so, young girls hanging out of the windows and doors waving and yelling what I assume was their only English, “Hello,… hey djyou,… hey American, djyou want?…” Amongst this cacophony of noise and activity some of the younger girls were playing a game of tag—chasing each other from brothel to brothel, shrieking and squealing as they ran past madams, their Triad protectors, and customers alike. The effect was as if the old lady who lived in a shoe had decided to open a red light district.

There was a circular route through this area that tourists walked. The circuit was perhaps like walking around a city block. This stroll had lots of tourists walking it, many Japanese and some Westerners, along with the expected locals. My fellow university classmates moved closer together, for mutual protection, and moved through this as a collective blob, with each member scared to detach themselves from the relative safety of the group. On each side of us there were girls beckoning, yelling, grabbing at us to try to pull that person into their den. As aggressive and scary as that was for this milk toast nineteen year old, the area we walked through had relatively wide streets and less aggressive girls, but there were many side alleys branching off the main drag. They were much smaller, the girls standing in their respective houses on either side of the alley, and waving, seemed to be virtually touching finger tips. The thought of walking down one of those smaller side alleys was truly intimidating. Each whorehouse seemed to have hundreds of tentacles, prepared to reach out, trap, and devour anyone foolhardy enough to venture off the well-trodden path. Or, as my classmate said, “I think if you go down there, they might pull you into the house, rape you, and then demand payment for services rendered.” That is about how it felt.

The reason Snake Alley became a famous tourist destination is that it was a legal prostitution zone and attracted Japanese sex tourists along with Vietnam war era American servicemen. In 1986, Snake Alley was already in decline, but still amazing. I’ve lived my entire adult life in Asia, visited many Asian countries, seen their red light districts, but I’ve never seen anything to match Snake Alley in its heyday.

Recently, one of my dear friends, who was also on that university trip to Taiwan thirty odd years ago, came to visit me in Taiwan. It was his first time back. One of the things we did was return to Snake Alley to compare present day Snake Alley with our memories. Despite living in Taipei I very rarely have cause to go to Snake Alley, maybe four times in the last twenty years, so returning to Snake Alley was a return to the days of yore for both of us.

Things seemed similar as we walked through the gate announcing Huaxi nightmarket, but that’s where the similarities to our memories ended. Huaxi Street itself was a pale imitation of its former glory. Where once there had stood multiple snake restaurants with large crowds in front being entertained by the snake charmer or bartering for a glass of snake’s blood, now there were only two snake restaurants with no crowds in front. There were no snake shows happening at all. Instead, each restaurant had one or two tables of customers inside, quietly slurping their snake soup. The snake shows disappeared as public health concerns grew around the practice of drinking raw snake blood and bile. There were concerns that the practice might be linked to hepatitis.

“Well, that’s kinda sad,” my friend noted as he looked around the alley, “It’s actually pretty dead here.” He was right, at best Snake Alley is a shadow of what it was thirty years ago. Gone are the large boisterous crowds. Gone are the cheering people watching televised dog and cock fights while enjoying their meals. Whatever you may think of the practice, those animal fights definitely added a lot of local color to the street. Though there are still a couple of sex shops plying their wares, they are pretty sad looking businesses, without much in the way of customers. Gone are the large crowds of gentlemen perusing the latest electronic aids to love making. I suppose the Internet is what killed that. Although the unlibidinous feeling of modern day Snake Alley can’t have helped.

As we strolled down Snake Alley there was an unmistakable feeling of decay. That the things that had once made Snake Alley great—or at least worth a look were gone. What replaced them? Mostly foot massage shops and a handful of average, everyday, Chinese restaurants.

As we approached the end of Huaxi Street, my friend leaned over and reassured me, “Don’t worry we’re coming up on Snake Alley’s reason for being—things are bound to get more lovely when we get to all the whore houses.“ I was pretty sure my friend was in for a rude awakening. At the end of the alley my his mouth practically fell to the street. He was as gobsmacked this time as he had been last time, but for entirely different reasons. Expecting to see the seemingly hundreds of whore houses and thousands of prostitutes of his youth he was stunned to find nothing. Where once had thrived a virtual city of sin, now there was literally nothing. At the end of the street there was simply a deserted lane that went off to the left and right, a small nondescript lane that didn’t even hint at what it had once been. “Well, that’s a disappointment.” Not that my friend was looking to engage the services of a prostitute, it’s just that without them Snake Alley isn’t really Snake Alley anymore.

In 1991 the Taiwanese government banned prostitution and Snake Alley lost its status as a legal red light zone. That effectively spelled the end of Snake Alley’s glory days. Despite now being illegal, prostitution continues in Taiwan, as indeed it does in the environs of Snake Alley. To see this, my friend and I ventured slightly north of to a short block that time seems to have forgotten. As we turned down this small side street we were immediately confronted with what could only be termed urban blight. Both sides of road are lined with the bleakest of brothels. Each house was little more than a doorway looking in on a hallway with a dozen or so doorways off it. Behind these doorways were dark rooms only large enough to hold a small cot. The wallpaper and other furnishings seemed to be unchanged since our last visit in 1987. “Sad, I’d hate to see this place under UV light, the glow could probably be used to guide planes into the airport.” He had a point, the idea of even approaching one of those cots with anything less than a level D hazmat suit was positively revolting.

Unfortunately, the people we saw on the street hadn’t held up to the ravages of time any better than the buildings. Standing on one dark corner of the lane was an old Taiwanese woman, I’d say she was seventy if she was a day, complete with tattooed eyebrows (poorly shaped, so she looked constantly surprised) and the eponymous Brillo Pad perm favored by that age group of Chinese women. Like a gothic gargoyle protecting what remains of this street of whores, she was perched near the entrance to the alley. As we walked into the lane, she reached out, grabbed my arm, and gave me her sales pitch, undoubtedly honed when she was an already long in the tooth prostitute for American servicemen. “Hey Joe,” delivered with a lewd, and extremely disturbing flicking of the tongue up-and-down inside her wrinkled mouth. “Come to my house. Love you good, Joe,” followed by another display of her tongue’s erotic dance.

I should have chatted with her, got her price and a little sense of how she manages to survive. I’m positive that her prices are ridiculously low, but even so,… just… no. Though I was curious about these things, my overwhelming emotion was a strong desire to get away—I just wanted to rip my arm out of her clutches and make haste to anywhere else. My friend was as unhelpful, as best mates tend to be, he stood to the side, out of the harpy’s reach, making encouraging signs and lewd gestures simultaneously. Finally I managed to extricate myself from her grip—none the wiser about the life of a prostitute in Taipei, but plenty scared.

There is a hierarchy to prostitution, and as we walked through the red light district, it was clear we were plumbing the bottom rung of that hierarchy. Most of the girls we saw on the street or inside the brothels were older, not like my near paramour, but pushing middle age. They were generally less attractive than what you might expect to see in one of Taipei’s other red light areas, too fat, too thin, haggard, too old, etc. Some seemed like they might have been doing the same job, in the same red light district, even perhaps inside the same house, with the same wallpaper and mattress, since our first visit. I guess it is good that they found a career, not just a job, but the whole scene was not very seductive.

After a quick walk down the street, we turned off to head back to modern clean Taipei. With whore’s catcalls fading behind us, my friend observed, “It is so sad when you see someone you haven’t seen for decades, and you see how much they’ve aged, and how poorly, and it makes you feel old and sad. That’s how I feel now.” Snake Alley is like one of the old whores working her street. Her rouge is faded and can’t hide the lines anymore. She struggles on trying to find her place in modern Taipei. But, it is hard for her to compete with the new young shopping districts and the latest, hottest, night spots. Still they carry on reminders for many of a Taiwan they either never knew, or would rather forget.