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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.