I have this fascination with Taipei dive bars. Not the hipster kind of dive bar, mind you, but the kind that few young people would dream of setting foot in. I’m a regular at probably three or four such places around my neighborhood in Taipei. They are usually full of lonely old people, or outcasts of one kind or another. A part of me has always been attracted to outsiders, maybe because I’ve always seen myself as someone on the fringes.
I make it a point to drop by these places maybe once a month, so I have a number of drinking buddies who are a lot older than me, including people in their fifties or sixties, and even one in their seventies. I also have a strong desire to understand people with perspectives very different from my own, like these older people, who tend to have political views completely at odds with mine.
My district of Taipei is heavily conservative, so the old people I meet in these bars are very pro-unification and very pro-Kuomintang. This is another way of saying that most of them are are waishengren—descendants of those who came to Taiwan following the defeat of the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War, a group comprising around 8% of the Taiwanese population. Under the Kuomintang, waishengren were a privileged class with economic and political status higher than the remaining 92%, those whose ancestors arrived in earlier waves of migration from China, the so-called benshengren, plus the roughly 2% indigenous population.
Older waishengren commonly view the contemporary democratic politics of Taiwan with distaste, seeing the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang as a more orderly time during which the economy prospered. While some of them may have lived and worked in China, they generally lived in the major metropolises, and so tend to look at China in an exaggeratedly rosy light.
I am a leftist, and pro-independence. But I also come from a Kuomintang family from this district, though I am the only person in my life who lives here now. So I have a deep familiarity with where the “old school” waishengren are coming from, in terms of their strong identification with China. Since Taiwan’s democratization, however, the clear line of demarcation between waishengren and other groups is blurring—not only because of intermarriage, but because young people like myself, regardless of our origins, increasingly identify with Taiwan and not China.
It is clear to me that, increasingly, waishengren will fade as an form of sub-ethnic identification. Part of my interest in the local dive bars is an awareness that their patrons represent a form of subjectivity that will die out in the near future.
The results of 2018 elections in Taiwan last month resulted in a resounding win for the Kuomintang. Many of my peers were shocked that Taiwanese voters would support the Kuomintang, which had seemed on the ropes only a few years ago. After the election there was a lot of talk about the failure of activists to break out of their echo chambers in order to engage with average voters, or with older voters.
But one of my favorite dive bars did have a few other young people who were regulars. I always called this place “Pub”, because the first time I drifted in—around 3:00 a.m. on a cold January night 2016, when I was covering the Taiwanese presidential elections—the neon sign with the bar’s real Chinese name was broken and did not light up, leaving only one working neon sign, which just read “Pub” in English. Somehow my friends started calling it “Pub” as well. This eventually caught on.
The inside of the bar was dimly lit. Most of the regulars usually sat at the bar, which had a television and dart board at the far end, though there were also some tables for small groups and a couch. A few strange paintings adorned the walls, one of an abstract dancing figure, and the other of a flower. I remember after one of the bartenders accidentally knocked one of the paintings down in 2016, it was put back crookedly and stayed that way afterward for the next two years.
Pub was like the restaurant featured in the Japanese television drama Shinya Shokudou, meaning “Midnight Diner”, about a late-night Japanese restaurant which similarly draws all kinds of strange denizens of the night. As Shinya Shokudou is highly popular in Taiwan and China, this similarity was apparent to others beside myself; the menu at Pub was titled, “Midnight Diner Menu”.
Whereas the other dive bars in the area are generally male-dominated and ethnically homogeneous, in line with their Kuomintang affiliations, this place had a diverse clientele: In addition to Taiwanese Han, whether waishengren or benshengren, on any given night you might find southeast Asian migrants, stray westerners, and others. The gender balance was more equal, too, and it was a surprisingly queer-friendly space, with both male and female regulars who were out—a near-impossibility among other dive bars in the neighborhood.
Pub closed last month, and has already been torn up, marking the end of a ten-year history. The bar changed hands many times during those ten years, and I had been hopeful that it would pass to a new owner, but it looks like this is finally the end.
Pub was unique in that it never closed until the last customer left, as a result of which it was routinely open until 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. I have to admit there were times I hung out there until noon the next day—on weekends, anyway. I‘d show up intending to have just one drink, and then get sucked into some fascinating, bizarre conversation that would last all night.
There were two customers whom regulars agreed were in all probability gangsters, and they were accordingly treated with the appropriate caution. I can’t confirm this, since gangsters usually don’t go up to you and tell you directly that they are gangsters. The pair would show up drunk, demand more to drink, and never pay for anything. Eventually the owner would have to call a cab to remove them. In talking with them I learned that gangsters are strangely socially awkward people. They have no way of interacting with others except through masculine bravado; what they seem to hunger for most of all is to be respected, which to them means being feared.
Once the CEO of a big Taiwanese tech company—I won’t say which—turned up at the bar at around 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. Surprising, but then there were very few other options open. There were Japanese businessmen, who gave me a rare opportunity to practice my rusty Japanese. I once got into a shouting match with an exchange student from Myanmar who denied the ongoing genocide of the Rohingyas.
One of the regulars, a real estate agent, stayed at Pub till 6:00 a.m. almost every day, oftentimes passing out on the bar. According to the then-owner, this man spent over 40,000 NT (about 1,300 USD) at Pub every month. It was hard to believe someone could drink so much every night and still maintain a day job, and deal with the hangover daily.
A lot of times, I didn’t have too much to say. It was a place to sit quietly by myself and drink alone. I sometimes joked that because I wrote so much, I had very little to talk about. I’d sit and read the day’s news articles, which would be out by midnight, well before my arrival.
But most often, I’d have arguments with older patrons about China—their views tended to be highly selective, taking the position that China had already become more or less democratic after the free market reforms of the 1980s, and never mind how bad things have gotten in the past few years.
I find it valuable to listen to and engage in different conversations in order to get a sense of what “regular” people think about the news. I’ve come to suspect that being so relentlessly political shuts me off from what ordinary people think and feel, even when, as a journalist, that’s precisely what I need to understand best.
We had a Line group for Pub, Line being the messaging app of choice in Taiwan for the elderly. Every day, my inbox would fill up with so-called zhangbeitu (長輩圖) or “elderly images” from my friends there, Line stickers that old people in Taiwan and China are in the habit of sending around, saying things like “Good morning”, often paired with a nature image.
Pub closed while I was on a trip to New York. The closing made grappling with the results of 2018 elections in Taiwan a good deal harder to deal with. I had nowhere to go and brood alone about the state of the world, as I had done not only in January 2016, but also in November 2016 after Donald Trump’s election.
One of Pub’s owners once joked to me that he thought he was similar to the main character in the Wong Kar-Wai produced and scripted film See You Tomorrow, who also runs a bar that connects a whole lot of disparate people. He’d never seen the film, he admitted, but knew it seemed like something that would appeal to me. All the regulars had pegged me as a wenqing (文青), a term literally meaning “cultural youth”, but more or less equivalent to “hipster”.
After an election in which so many attributed the victory of the right to a failure of dialogue between different generations, a place that had allowed for such exchanges to take place had disappeared. With the disappearance of Pub, I couldn’t help but think that something valuable had passed from the world.
In any highly alienating urban society, I guess, there is a longing for that sort of place of intimate familiarity. Maybe I was looking for that myself, too.