TaiwanFest's indie artists are rocking in the free world

Whether they play protest songs or instrumentals, Taiwan's indie artists are making political music

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      Let’s start by flashing back to late February at the Justice for All outdoor concert in Taiwan’s tropical city of Pingtung. An array of Taiwanese acts will take the stage throughout the day, including the extreme-metal band Chthonic, shoegazers Windmill, and a postrock outfit called Aphasia. Chthonic singer Freddy Lim is a noted activist for Taiwanese sovereignty, Windmill sings in the indigenous language of Hoklo, and Aphasia—well, there isn’t a band more emblematic of this complicated nation and its robust and growing alternative culture than the Sonic Youth–inspired four-piece.

      In and of itself, the fact that Aphasia’s music is strictly instrumental stands as a slyly political message about the stifling of Taiwanese identity. But as Aphasia’s guitarist Luxia Wu notes about Taiwan’s growing indie music scene, in a call from Taipei, the bands that played Justice for All are only the tip of a movement that’s using music as a form of speaking out.

      “Now the youngsters are trying to express themselves by writing lyrics and singing in Taiwanese. That’s a relatively new thing, and it’s very important. It’s like trying to remember who you are.”

      There was a time in Taiwan when singing in any language besides Mandarin was forbidden; when bands like Chthonic, Windmill, and Aphasia would have been considered political and aesthetic dissidents, and their members “disappeared” and left to rot in the notorious Green Island prison some 30 kilometres off Taiwan’s east coast. That doesn’t happen anymore, although there are still some challenges.

      Where free expression was once stymied by harsh political forces, these days artists like Aphasia must grapple with the cold-blooded realities of the market. Through their independent label, White Wabbit, and direct involvement in record production, distribution, sales, live promotion, and even Taiwan’s alternative press, Wu and his bandmates have built a small but solid bulwark against the monolithic popular culture that has emerged in the last two decades of Taiwan’s fitful embrace of democracy.

      Vancouverites will get a big, 10-hour dose of alternative Taiwan—for free!—when this year’s TaiwanFest drops Aphasia and six other insurgent bands (plus a couple of Canadian ones) on the main stage in front of the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery on Saturday (September 4). They’ll be performing under the banner of the 2010 Indie Taiwan Tour. It’s a brilliant idea, and not just because our downtown streets will ring with the thrilling and often thrillingly strange sounds of Taiwanese rock, reggae, hip-hop, and electroclash.

      Taiwan’s independent music scene forces dialogue about the future of the country itself, dialogue that young Taiwanese want to take to the rest of the world concerning the turbulent cross-play of history, progress, market forces, and self-determination that has come to define the island and its strangely ambiguous political status. But to really understand their complex story, you have to rewind a little further than Justice for All, all the way back to 1947.

      Go Chic is a neon-splashed affront to decency.

      As Freddy Lim noted when he addressed the crowd prior to Chthonic’s performance at Justice for All last winter, the semiannual concert raises deep emotions among Taiwanese. Justice for All commemorates the darkest moment in the country’s modern history, the 1947 event known as the 228 Incident, when a dispute between a street vender and a Chinese-government official sparked riots, thousands of deaths, and 38 years of martial law in Taiwan under the boot of the Kuomintang (or KMT, otherwise known as the Chinese Nationalist Party). Japan had surrendered the ethnically diverse and often-colonized island to the Republic of China after World War II, much to Taiwan’s chagrin.

      Matters were further intensified in late 1949 when the Communists forced nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek into exile in Taiwan, where he resumed his presidency of the Republic of China and staged a cold conflict with Mainland China that would last decades. Chiang’s Kuomintang also intensified a program of Chinese nationalism in Taiwan, brutally prohibiting native cultural expression and jailing or executing hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese suspected of supporting Communism in the ensuing White Terror.

      Until the end of martial law in 1987, it was unthinkable to even mention the 228 Incident in Taiwan, and there’s still a certain anxious vibrancy attached to its memory. Talking to the Straight at her office overlooking the Fraser River, TaiwanFest communications manager Sherry Wang recalls a period of “innovation and creative ideas being allowed” after the end of martial law, but adds, “People were still afraid. The older generation, like my dad, he would always tell me, ”˜You shouldn’t speak your mind,’ because he was still scared of being thrown in prison.”

      His fear came from experience. Wang’s grandfather, an elementary-school principal, was forced into hiding as the Kuomintang rounded up intellectuals, artists, and any suspected Communists in the ’50s.

      By the ’80s, Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor in the KMT, Chiang Ching-kuo, realized that democracy was an irresistible force and allowed the slow concurrent process of Taiwanization to begin, whereupon the island began to assert its own personality again. But the bruises still lingered after decades of having Mandarin forcibly thrust upon it while its culture was erased from the record.

      “The whole atmosphere opened up slowly, because people are so used to the martial law and everybody spying on everybody,” recalls Aphasia’s Wu. “But things gradually took steps forward.”

      The KMT’s newfound tolerance was put to the test two years after the end of martial law, when a punk band called Double X released an album called Put Myself Out on one of the country’s major labels. It was promptly banned. Singer Sissey Chao later discovered that a smear campaign was mounted against him from somewhere inside the Government Information Office. From Taipei, Chao tells the Straight, “They sent out an official paper to all media saying ”˜Don’t interview this guy, he must be on drugs.’ Apparently, this is from my lyrics. I should have kept that paper so I could sue the government. I’ve got no drug charge. No nothing.”

      Chao’s real crime on Put Myself Out was to include explicit lyrics about sex. After finally dealing with its murderous contempt for Taiwanese identity, the KMT was apparently still suffering from a bad case of prudishness. Meanwhile, Chao’s hero status among youth in Taiwan was cemented. As Wu notes, “He’s very important for the indie scene, because he’s a pioneer. He’s the first one. He was trying to kick the door open.”

      Chao’s musical odyssey began with cover bands in high school in the early ’80s.

      “We start actually from disco,” he recalls with an endearing laugh, before breaking into the chorus of “One Way Ticket” by Eruption. “And then Rainbow, and Zeppelin, Tom Petty. And we listen to classics like Rolling Stones and Beatles.”

      Before long, Chao was scoring bootleg copies of records by the Ramones, which threw into sharp relief his disgust with official culture. “There were only three channels on TV, government-run television, and the stars only stand still and sing.” He sighs. “They don’t jump, they don’t sing loud, they just sing propaganda—”˜Love the nation,’ things like that!”

      When considering the rise of Taiwan’s Indie Nation, Chao is still something of an enigma. He remembers having a “very happy childhood”, aside from the ever-present standoff with the People’s Republic.

      “The propaganda,” he says, “they always say there was a war ahead of us with the mainland. That was horrible.”

      Today, he’s ardently apolitical—“I don’t think I’m a Taiwanese or a Chinese. I’m a world people!” he bellows down the phone line—and he doesn’t care to jump and sing loudly anymore. When he arrives in Vancouver, he’ll bring his newest and most mature sound with him, an infectious mélange of folk-rock and electro that sounds—on tracks like “Tripping”—like nothing so much as Danzig toying with trip-hop.

      Hip-hop crew Kou Chou Ching wears its politics on its sleeve.

      There’s nothing remotely apolitical about Kou Chou Ching, a hip-hop crew from Taipei whose name roughly translates as “Fuck Hard Work” and who leave no stone unturned in their examination of Taiwan’s social ills. The band’s debut album, KOU!! It’s Coming Out!!!, runs a gamut of issues, sardonically slamming cheap and dangerous Chinese products in “Black Heart”, condemning industry for poisoning the waters of beautiful Formosa in “Grey Coastlines”, and schooling Taiwan in its history under the Qing dynasty in “Civil Revolt Part 1”.

      Most significantly, KCC builds its tracks with an invigorating adherence to traditional Taiwanese musical forms while sampling from records that disappeared under the Kuomintang almost as effectively as the luckless musicians who made them. Kou Chou Ching crystallizes the concerns of young, radical Taiwanese who acknowledge that even with all of Taiwan’s gains since the end of the KMT’s single-party, authoritarian rule—which truly ended with the election of President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party in 2000—advancement toward true independence has stalled for different reasons.

      Taiwanization continued apace under Chen, but he was toppled after eight years and a raft of scandals by the moderate KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou. President Ma dramatically eased relations with Beijing as a way to protect Taiwan’s economic strength, but the question of Taiwan’s status was off the table. Some would call Ma’s seeming push toward unification with Mainland China pragmatic. MC Fan Chiang of Kou Chou Ching has another way of seeing it.

      “They make the Taiwan economy dependent on China,” he tells the Straight, calling from Brooklyn the day after a performance in New York. “So it’s not good. I don’t want President Ma to be president again, but I think he will be.”

      Sherry Wang of TaiwanFest, after remarking that China would conventionally start practising with missiles whenever President Chen got too bolshie, puts it this way: “People pretty much want to stay status quo. We are independent, we just don’t want to declare it because it will anger China. And it’s funny, that’s why President Ma got elected, because he’s more pro-China. But people don’t necessarily want to unify with China. All these messages about how President Ma got elected are really confusing to people.”

      Naturally, Taiwan’s cultural renaissance has suffered. As democracy bloomed, young artists across the spectrum were free to explore indigenous languages and forms, while the work and reputations of exiled and forgotten composers and artists were restored. As democracy settled, popular culture’s loyalty to the massive Chinese market emerged—leaving Taiwan with the kind of two-tiered, concentrated-wealth system Canadians have known for decades. Taiwan’s radio and television are now proudly dominated by substance-free major-label pop.

      “In Taiwan I don’t want to sign with a major label,” Fan says, “because our major labels all want to go to China and they don’t want us to say anything about our independence. They want us to talk about love. I don’t want to write a pop song. I don’t like this.”

      Not that it’s a bad thing for indie musicians or their fans to have a rallying point in the nation’s stalled dream of merely being itself, and not the Republic of China, or Chinese Taipei as it’s sometimes called. As Kou Chou Ching puts it in an urgent KOU!! track that’s half feral rap and half haunting Asian lullaby,“Your name is TAIWAN.”

      “I think some foreign people don’t know that Taiwan is not a part of China,” Fan states. “So when we perform in other country, we say we are an independent country. Our country’s name is Taiwan. We are not a part of China. I think this is very important for other countries’ people to hear this.”

      Adds Wu: “The last couple of years have been strange for us because you see a little stepping back. But I think looking at the whole picture, it would be very hard for Taiwanese people to go back, because this thing is already moving. You can’t stop the rock from rolling.”

      Indeed, if the acts that are joining Kou Chou Ching and Aphasia on the 2010 Indie Taiwan Tour are less explicit in their concerns about independence, they surely represent the truly multifaceted nature of Taiwan’s personality.

      Don't let their impassive faces deceive you: Taipei-based dance-punkers 1976 promise a riotous set at TaiwanFest.

      1976 is a young group with a British feel that offers a throwback of sorts to Sissey Chao’s early explorations of western rock. The big difference is that 1976 has doubtless never faced Chao’s struggle to find decent gear. Go Chic is a neon-splashed affront to decency not terribly unlike our own You Say Party after taking a syringe of horny adrenaline straight to the heart. The Taipei-based dance-punkers who bill themselves as “Three Chix, One Dick” are likely to provide the Indie Nation stage with its most riotous set if they bring along barnburners like “Hard Date”, with its almost psychotically insistent chorus, “We are your reason to dance!”

      Suming is a singer-songwriter from the indigenous Amis tribe who enjoys enormous popularity among expat Taiwanese. It’s no surprise—his bright and catchy fusion of Amis language and music with digitally buffed dance beats on tracks like the summery “Kapah” is almost impossibly cheerful. Ditto for Matzka, a four-piece reggae outfit from Taiwan’s southeast coast that made Pacific Ocean–sized waves last year with its party anthem, “Ma Do Va Do”. Like Suming, Matzka deploys its feel-good vibe in an aboriginal tongue, in this case Paiwan.

      Even if Suming and Matzka’s vocalist Song Wei-Nun aren’t on-stage agitating for UN recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty, their very existence speaks to a deeply felt impulse among Taiwan’s musicians to define themselves away from the homogenizing forces of the Chinese yuan.

      And while it’s important to keep in mind that outfits like Aphasia and Kou Chou Ching are—in terms of Taiwan’s larger picture—what we would probably define as underground, there is a vitality to their cause that’s truer to democracy than platinum discs. Fan Liang puts it best. Asked if he feels different, strange, or marginalized due to Kou Chou Ching’s restless vision of a better Taiwan, he gives a blunt answer.

      “No,” he says. “I think we are right.”



      The Deported!

      Sep 2, 2010 at 8:27am

      What ... no mentione of The Deported?!? http://www.myspace.com/thedeported ... (just name-droppin' them cuz my buddy is in that band - an ex-Vancouverite! Ha! Ha!)


      Sep 4, 2010 at 8:33am

      Just a few corrections needed for your GIO press release:
      1. Japan never surrendered Formosa to the Republic of China in 1945. There was no transfer of sovereignty, only the surrender of Japan's forces on Formosa to Jiang Jieshi's Nationalist forces.
      2. MC Fan Chiang's accusation that "they make the Taiwan economy dependent on China" conveniently shifts the blame from the people of Taiwan (of whom 1,000,000 live and work in mainland China and benefit from China's eceonomy) on to its government. A rather naive understanding of Taiwan's politics and economy.
      3. MC Fan Chiang may think that some "foreign people" do not know that "Taiwan is not part of China," yet this "foreign person" knows that only 23 nations recognize the R.O.C. as a nation, and not any nation called "Taiwan." The dollar diplomacy exercised by the GMD (KMT) used to buy the R.O.C.'s diplomatic recognition was also exercised by Chen Shui-bian's DPP gov't.
      4. Sherry Wang has yet to understand that independence is either de facto or de jure. Without any U.N. recognition, the R.O.C. remains a de facto nation. So, until there is a de jure recognition of "Taiwan" as a nation - it is not one.

      Musicians make good entertainers, but often this limits them politically.