Last weekend I decided to take a gamble and head up to Taipei again for the first time since my training week, in which I had very little time to actually dip my toe in the comings and goings of Taiwan's cultural hub. This time I was going to make a proper go of it, and made arrangements to meet up with some native friends in order to size up a nifty little art expo by the name of Exposure. Oh ho, so provocative.
I am sorry to say, I foolishly neglected to take my camera with me, so you'll have to simply endure this torrent of inelegant verbiage in order to discover why exactly I ended up standing shirtless on top of a bar in front of over a thousand people.
Getting around Taiwan on public transport is remarkably cheap. Travelling from Changhua to Taichung, approximately twenty minutes on the train, costs around 50 NT dollars, approximately a pound. Bear in mind that even with a railcard, making the equivalent journey from Coventry to Birmingham would cost closer to £3.
As a small country with very little in the way of a punitive fuel tax, a very large proportion of adults own or have access to a scooter or other form of personal transport. In most towns or cities, you can't walk a quarter-mile without passing a scooter workshop or three. In my estimation, the ubiquity and relative cheapness of personal transport keeps the cost of public transport low; a marked contrast to the UK.
So travelling up from the centre of the country to Taipei in the north cost just 410NT (£9~), when a similar journey in the UK would've cost me closer to £25.
Anyway, on arriving in central Taipei, I had a rather difficult time actually meeting up with my friends. Like the Pallasades at Birmingham New Street, the train stations are closely intertwined with shopping malls -- though these ones are largely subterranean. They're also infuriatingly difficult to navigate; I imagine by design, although slogging through them growing increasingly hot and sweaty and frustrated it was severely damaging to my sunny disposition. Luckily however my friends took pity on me and Doctor Bananas, the gayest man in Taiwan and possibly Asia, guided me via phone to their location in the nearby bus terminal. Bafflingly, it is possible to walk from one end of the transport district to the other via underground malls and walkways and not see a mote of sunlight. And they all pretty much look the same. >_<
Anyway, we relocated to a food court, where I found a surprisingly cheap vegetarian restaurant (less than 100NT for a plateful of samosas, veg and sushi with rice and soup into the bargain, excellent value for Taipei) and everyone else, particularly Bananas, gorged themselves on assorted fare. Teppanyaki is big in Taiwan from what I can tell, and there are some excellent teppanyaki diners even in Changhua, which I may frequent of an evening if I'm feeling flush or can't be bothered to cook. Sadly, many nights I finish too late to actually get there in good time. Most restaurants in my town tend to close by 10. Sadface.
Anyway, after boarding the extremely plush looking MRT (the Taipei Metro) which reminds me of nothing so much as an underground version of the Bangkok Skytrain, we found our way to the Taipei Artist Village, actually more of a college building with a cute little courtyard currently packed with stalls touting various artistic wares that any reasonable fellow would have had the foresight to pack a camera for in order to capture. Unfortunately I had left my apartment in an early morning fugue of bleary urgency and neglected to pick up the damn thing.
Photography by Taylor Brayton.
There was some excellent fare though. Largely ex-pats, sad to report, although there was some stunning photography of various parts of Taiwan, mainly Hualien, courtesy of Taylor Brayton (www.photoblog.com/tbraytonb) and some rather subvertise-y surrealist oil paintings from a chap called Derek Murphy. Sadly I had neither the funds nor the capacity for purchasing much more than a few postcards, but I hope that by passing on their portfolios I'm doing them a service in payment for their offerings.
There were egg-painters, watercolour artists, t-shirt designers, ceramic designers, and jewellery crafters, as well as some live music and foreign food. Falafel and tortillas, to be precise. There were also some pirates swaggering around, sporting water pistols loaded with vodka and soda. Because why not. It was a gorgeous day, excellent weather to sit or stroll around with a cold lager and appreciate some art, chat to the beautiful young and not-so-young people and generally indulge in the kind of effortless, easy decadence that I'm typically so quick to decry in London or the trendier of the British cities.
Art by Derek Murphy
The difference this time, he says, grasping for fig leaves to drape across his naked hypocrisy, is that it felt a lot more relaxed, less competitive, with less brutal ambition and ladder-climbing to cause tension. Far too beautiful a day to allow oneself to get wound up by the stresses of life.
Anyway, after a sufficient time lounging around in the sun with water pistols, art and beer, accelerating the rot and eventual destruction of Western civilisation as we know it, we headed on to a steakhouse which called itself, in a charmingly illustrative example of Taiwan's often gratuitous and ham-fisted use of English, Fun Steak. (http://www.fun-steak.com.tw/)
Beef is traditionally an uncommon treat in Taiwan. They tend not to have the inclination towards cattle farming, on account of a comparatively small interest in dairy products. On the other hand, beef seems to be a favourite for many, and nowhere was this more apparent to me than at Fun Steak, where a dizzying array of cuts in all hues and sizes were offered. Obviously I opted for something a little less made of cow. The salmon fillet was nicely grilled, I have to admit. Everyone else had beef. A LOT of beef. Admittedly, the largest cut they were offering was some 88oz. monster that I think even the most ambitious of Texans would have to take home in a doggy bag, but I was still flabbergasted by the ease with which my largely tiny, svelte companions were packing away their giant plates of grilled meat.
After the meal we headed on to the Beat Party at the Taipei World Trade Centre. Unfortunate name. It was actually very close to Taipei 101 itself, which cut a distinctive figure in the night sky against the otherwise uncluttered skyline. We hooked up with a few more of Bananas' friends, other teachers from closer to the capital. After some wrangling, and Bananas pulling in some favours, we got inside in good time, with about five hundred revellers already piled in.
The World Trade Centre, despite being so grandly named, looked more like a massive warehouse than anything, with scaffolding all around the sides for lights and sound desks. The stage itself was nicely laid out though. As we arrived, around 11, there was some DJ or other laying down a steady wave of house, although the assembled crowd, about 95% Taiwanese at least, was less than receptive, with some very half-hearted bobbing around. Having come all the way up to Taipei on the promise of a gig to remember, I was a little disheartened, but we made the best of the situation, jumping around as much as propriety would at that point allow, and guzzling the cheap (but watered down) vodka and juice cocktails they were offering.
Things picked up when the models came out onto the stage, mainly because they were decked out in some extraordinarily skimpy garments. Out came the cameras of pretty much half the audience, and the other half were considerably perkier as well, probably due to the rather buff breakdancers accompanying the models. After the initial dancing segment, they began an honest-to-god catwalk sequence, with some bizarrely impractical costumes. There were wings. It was kind of bewildering. Well, it was eyecandy if nothing else, and it certainly seemed to be improving the vibe. Shortly after that came the main event: Chris Willis, a gay American R&B/pop singer, who despite knowing even less Chinese than me had little trouble in whipping the crowd up into the frenzy I'd been hoping for all night. With the model ladies and breakdancers backing, he gave an energetic set with what I gather were his most recent hits -- although personally I hadn't known him from Adam until he walked on stage. That wasn't really important though, the set was lively and the crowd pumped enough for everything to come together.
After Willis' set finished, the DJ recommenced his playlist. Reception was a lot warmer now, with the contents of the bar largely in the stomachs of the punters -- or inadvertently splashed all over Bananas and myself thanks to a clumsy attempt on my part to instruct him on the correct procedure for weaving shapes. So it was that I found myself at the bar at just the same time that the models from earlier (now clad in denim shorts and what could only with the charitable disposition of a saint could be referred to as 'blouses') climbed on top and began cavorting in a particularly wanton manner, dousing each other with beer and generally making a spectacle of themselves.
Presumably in order to prevent the unwashed masses from hurling themselves at the willowy beauties in a drunken lascivious horde, a cordon had been established, while still allowing punters access to the boozes. I was still standing at the bar sorting out my change -- albeit taking my time. It was quite the show, after all.
No sooner had I pocketed my wallet and picked up my drink than one of the dancers, an especially slender girl with that shade of rusty, ochre hair so many young Taiwanese strive for gestured down at me, extending her hand. I initially assumed she was looking for more liquids to pour, rub or otherwise bring into contact with the bronze and glistening skin of her and her compatriots, and was willing to contribute. However, she brushed past the beaker I'd offered, and tugged instead on my arm. Initially I was reluctant to indulge her in this, but as she was joined by another of her friends thought better of trying to excuse myself.
Unfortunately clambering onto the bar itself proved trickier, now that the models had covered it in beer. As a portable bar there was no underslung section for me to brace against while pulling myself up, and I lacked the leverage and, by this point of the night, the muscle control necessary to pull myself up by armpower alone. Eventually I had to hoist myself up backwards, planting my arse emphatically in the pool of chilled beer. Hardly a graceful start. No sooner had I got onto the bar than the model who'd coaxed me up unbuttoned my shirt before I could protest. Admittedly she was extremely adroit at whipping it off, so by the time I was aware of what was going on my hirsute and fish-belly pallid uygouren frame had been exposed to the masses. Figures that someone who wears many different outfits in a short space of time for a living would be adept at undressing others as well as herself.
Well, it was too late to back out now. I uneasily got to my feet, squinted out into the hundreds of revellers, and raised a fist on high in salutation. The slender reddish-head who'd dragged me into this began dancing what I am at a loss to describe as anything other than on (or at the very least over) me, and with little wits and less talent for choreography I decided to wrap an arm around her waist and opt for some good old horn-throwing action instead. Which seemed to work in lieu of anything else. Certainly those gathered seemed to be appreciative. Personally, I thought it was bloody fantastic.
My memory is a little hazy, but I'm fairly sure this is exactly how it happened.
Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your perspective) this state of affairs did not persist for terribly long. After a minute or so, the other models, and my ochre-haired dance partner, hopped down off the bar, quickly followed by me, with my shirt bundled back into my arms by the attendant security. I shrugged it on and meandered away in a kind of daze, only barely registering and reciprocating the high-fives, fist pounds and jealous glares of the onlookers. It was a pretty fitting end to a great day, I have to say. If only I could shake the compulsion to grab a rosary and start reciting passages from The Beauty Myth in penance.
As anyone who knows me from back in the UK will attest, this sort of thing never happens to me. If I even hear about these sorts of shenanigans I am likely to be the fellow tucked up in an armchair under a piping hot laptop, tutting and shaking my head at the depredations of the youth today. It was tremendously good fun to cut loose and let what may come at me on all cylinders. Not sure if I'll be making a habit of it. But it was certainly a breath of fresh air, and I did come here to try new things. I hope I can keep this up.