On March 18, over 300 protesters rushed the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, occupying the building for the next five days while thousands more gathered outside.
Their beef was over a trade pact that allegedly favoured mainland China’s economic interests over Taiwan’s, and when the ruling KMT party declared its intention to push onward with the unpopular deal, the student-led revolt—dubbed the Sunflower Student Movement—moved en masse and uninvited into the Executive Yuan, prompting a brutal response from riot police.
That was the night after an artist by the name of Chen Ching Yuan approached a punk band from the city of Kaohsiung to ask for help.
“We actually had a song called ‘Goodnight Taiwan’ that was written before the Sunflower Movement,” explains Sam, the uni-monikered frontman of Fire EX (short for fire extinguisher), speaking through a translator to the Straight from Toronto. “The students that were inside the Yuan at the time listened to that song quite often. Every night, actually, so they were asking if Fire EX could write another song for them.”
The four members of the band had already spent days milling with Sunflower activists on the street, but Fire EX was fevering away in the studio when matters escalated and jackboots started connecting with teeth.
The song that emerged from the furious three-day writing-and-recording session—a rousing exhortation to “fight those unforgivable ones” called “Island’s Sunrise”—promptly became the anthem of the Sunflower Movement, which continued its occupation for another three weeks.
“The song was actually written in very little time—at the time we were only thinking about how to finish it,” says Sam, adding that Fire EX was “surprised” at how quickly the track ignited. The song’s emotional charge is obvious, but “Island’s Sunrise” says as much about Fire EX itself as about the event it addresses. The students initially adopted “Rise Up” by Taiwanese superstars Mayday as the Sunflower Movement’s signature song, with the band’s tacit blessing up until its enormous fan base in China started making noises about it. In contrast to the “Chinese Beatles”, Fire EX didn’t retreat from its loyalty to Taiwanese identity or its overarching support of progressive social movements when “Island’s Sunrise” filled the breach.
“We still think that Mayday was very supportive of the Sunflower Movement,” says Sam, with admirable diplomacy, “and we do understand that Mayday is a bigger band and they do have a very big China market. That market is very important to them. Mayday had a responsibility to also take care of the needs of the China market.”
Meanwhile, Sam also expresses the less commercially minded drive of Taiwan’s independent music community when he declares, “We wish that when we do go into the China market it’s strictly as a cultural exchange, and when we do perform we want Taiwan to be thought of as a country.”
He’s just as direct when asked about the condition, in his view, of Taiwan’s fragile democracy. “We think that the Taiwan democracy right now is at a very critical point because of the KMT, the ruling party,” he answers. “We think that it’s leaning toward China. We think that democracy is deteriorating in Taiwan right now.”
Talking to the Straight’s Charlie Smith, Taiwanfest organizer Charlie Wu—who brings Fire EX to Vancouver this year—laid out his vision for the festival.
“The focus is social movements,” said Wu. “We want to use this to ignite passion for social good in Canada. This is not just about Taiwan. It’s about getting people to pay more attention to social issues here. This is the direction we want to head. We have a purpose to be here, not just to entertain people. We are Canadians, too.”
With the addition of Sam and his bandmates to the 2014 roster, Taiwanfest presents us with a perfect example of putting out the fire with gasoline.
Fire EX is part of Taiwanfest’s Music for Taiwan concert at Westside Church (777 Homer Street) at 8 p.m. on Sunday (August 31). Admission is free.