There’s a saying, the Georgia Straight is told. “Hong Kong today, tomorrow Taiwan.”
“Meaning,” explains Chung-Han, a.k.a. Fred, drummer with Taiwanese rockers Sorry Youth, “the situation is the same, it’s just that there’s an ocean between the mainland and Taiwan, so it’s safer for us. But actually, with an authoritarian government like China, Taiwanese should be more cautious about the situation.”
Fred and his two bandmates in Sorry Youth, Weni (guitar and vocals) and Giang Giang (bass and vocals), are talking to the Straight in mid-August, only minutes after wrapping a gig in the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan. A week earlier, the alt-rock band played in Hong Kong as the former British colony entered its 10th week of massive pro-democracy demonstrations. China answered with an ominous display of military might across the bay in Shenzhen.
“So we directly talked to those youngsters of Hong Kong. And they actually are worried about the situation in Taiwan,” continues Fred, speaking English with impressive skill. “If we decided to accept the threat of China, [it] will push more than ever before. They will try make us sign a ‘peaceful’ deal with them, but it’s not peaceful at all. It’s actually just like the example of Hong Kong, right now.”
Both the former British colony and the island nation of Taiwan endure an uneasy coexistence with the People’s Republic of China. It’s Taiwan, however, that elected, in 2016, its first president of Aboriginal descent, Tsai Ing-wen. And it’s Taiwan that historically exerts the fiercest desire for autonomy, noisily expressed through one of the most politically charged music scenes on the planet.
When Sorry Youth arrives in Vancouver next Sunday (September 1) as part of this year’s TaiwanFest, it follows an array of previous artist-activists—Aphasia, Kou Chou Ching, Fire EX—whose music is an implicit cry for Taiwanese independence.
True to form, notes Fred, Sorry Youth makes an immediate statement by singing in its native “local language, not Mandarin”. Otherwise, the band’s 2017 album, Brothers Shouldn’t Live Without Dreams, concentrates on more personal matters, often with a sweeping sense of drama. The alternative-rock template remains from 2012 debut Seafood, recalling Mellon Collie–era Smashing Pumpkins in “The Kitchen I Remember” or mutant New Order channelling Asian psych on album closers “Running On” and “Undercurrent”. But the beats are more limber, Weni’s guitar work more textured and jazzy, while the addition of horns and traditional influences—beiguan music on “Child of God”, spoken-word liam kua on “Friends”—thrillingly suggests the collision of Taiwanese folk with ’90s Britpop.
Also in contrast to Seafood, the new album was recorded live with few overdubs, 10-minute title track included. Sorry Youth might have cooled its studio jets for five years while plying day jobs, but in the meantime the band evolved into a monster live act with an expanded musical imagination. Fred figures that’s likely to happen when you live and play in Taipei.
“Comparing to the mainstream music, Taiwan’s indie music is kind of motivation for people to listen to different types of music,” he says. “Because in Taiwan, the pop music is all the same, but in the local indie scene you could listen to a variety of music, whatever it is—pop music, blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll. We think it’s more creative than the pop music.”
The mention of Taiwan’s most commercially successful act, Mayday, triggers an eruption of knowing laughter from the entire band—although Fred allows that “the first album is very good”—and nobody seems particularly perturbed that Sorry Youth wasn’t allowed to visit mainland China when a friend from Taipei tried to organize a show in Shanghai.
“The immigration bureau rejected our application. We don’t know why,” says Fred.
“They didn’t tell us,” remarks a laconic Weni. “But that’s all right. We didn’t care.”
The band, in fact, has no interest in that market, rejecting several bids to tour and release its albums on the mainland. “No freedom,” they reply in chorus, when asked why. But it’s a disingenuous question. Taiwan’s internal cultural fire promises more excitement than a thousand uniform stadium shows. Fred and his bandmates rave about Taiwanese acts ranging from veteran blues rocker Wu Bai to legendary chaos merchants LTK Commune. (“Like the Sex Pistols of Taiwan,” says Fred.) If western rock music has reached a terminal slump after decades of domestication by commercial forces, Taiwan’s is still in its screaming infancy.
“In our music history,” says Weni, “there’s no golden age of rock ’n’ roll.”
“Not yet!” says Fred. Be advised: today Taiwan, tomorrow the world!
TaiwanFest runs at various venues from August 31 to September 2. Sorry Youth will perform at 8:30 p.m. on September 1 on the plaza in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. More information is at the TaiwanFest website.