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My first trip to Taiwan was in 1986, not too long after martial law was repealed.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.