On nights when I have nothing to do, I often hang out in late-night dive bars. It’s not unusual for these places to stay open as late as 5, 6, or 7 a.m. One I used to frequent, a bar with no name, stayed open until the last customer left; as a result, there have been times I’ve hung out drinking in that bar until noon of the following day.
My interest in Taipei dive bars has become vaguely sociological at this point. Most aren’t listed on Google Maps or Facebook, so when I stumble across one, I’ll make a note of the location. If, after going a few times, I find it has interesting regulars, I might decide to become a regular myself.
If it’s too dangerous—if it’s a gangster bar, for example—I might strike it off my list. With late-night dive bars, you generally are going to come across some element of the underworld, but the bars in which every customer is actually a gangster I try to avoid.
The closest dive bar in my neighborhood is one I don’t frequent. The first time I went there, I was stuck inside for three hours because two competing gangs started fighting outside. The owner and bartenders were very apologetic.
One of the bartenders said that the altercation started when someone who should have been laying low came out into the open and ran into the wrong people.
The owner decided to call in another group of gangsters to try and resolve the situation and then, later on, the police arrived. After it was all over the bar owner, who was by that point completely plastered, tried to introduce me to the gangsters she’d called. They were two tattooed young guys that looked to be around my age, in their late twenties. They seemed as confused as I was by the introduction, but they were friendly. I’ve often noticed that gangsters can actually be quite nice. If they’re much older, they might treat you as a nicer older person might treat a young person. What they seem to want most is respect, so if you treat them respectfully and deferentially, they won’t bother you too much.
The next time I visited that bar, I realized the people next to me were talking about a literal shooting. I couldn’t tell what incident they were referring to—Taiwan is generally pretty safe, and if it had been a recent event, I probably would have heard about it. But that was too much, even for me. I finished my drink and hurried out after that.
A lot of my favorite haunts are disappearing. The bar with no name closed over a year ago. I learned recently from the Line group that all of the regulars were in, which is normally inactive now, that one of the oldest regulars of the bar had passed away. We called him Big Brother Johnny (Johnny 哥), it being a fairly standard convention to refer to an older man as “Big Brother” in Chinese as a sign of respect. He was a ponytailed man in his seventies or eighties who frequently wore a cap.
Another bar I liked closed in September. This one was just up the street from the other one, so sometimes it would be my second stop if I visited the first one and there was nobody around. It’s kind of sad to me that I wasn’t in town for the last few months of this bar, which had some thirty years of history. I was out of the country for most of those last months, for speaking gigs in Germany and Italy, and to Hong Kong to report on the protests there.
For the longest time, I hadn’t had the nerve to walk in there; this was before I knew enough to be able to accurately assess the level of danger in a dive bar. Everything about it seemed to suggest to me that it might be a gangster bar.
Sure enough, the first time I walked in, a stranger approached me to chat, noting that he had never seen me before. He indicated a customer sitting at a back table next to a decoration that looked like an upside-down Christmas tree. “See him? He’s a member of the Four Seas Gang. But we’re all just friends here.” (The Four Seas Gang is one of Taiwan’s largest organized crime groups.)
Among Taipei dive bars, it was quite well-known. You’d often encounter foreign visitors looking for this place, people who’d stumbled across it on a business trip. Nobody seemed to know its name, but referred to it instead as “Big Brother Zeng’s Place” (曾哥的地方).
Big Brother Zeng (曾哥), the owner, was in his late sixties or early seventies. He had entirely grey hair and, like Big Brother Jimmy from the other bar, a long ponytail.
All the other Taipei dive bar owners seemed to treat Big Brother Zeng as though he were a figure of seniority. Only once did I encounter another dive bar where the owner, an older woman who seemed to be in her seventies, referred to Big Brother Zeng as “Little Zeng” (小曾), and I came away quite impressed.
It seemed safe enough, so I kept going back, and eventually brought friends along with me. They’d be a bit surprised at first, that I would hang out in such a weird bar. But undeniably, it was cheap, it could accommodate large groups, and it had a karaoke machine, too. So it often seemed like a good option.
On the stretch of road between the bar with no name and this bar were several places I knew to be jiudian (酒店)—a hostess club, as it’s usually translated in English, along the lines of Japanese hostess clubs. The Taiwanese hostess clubs sometimes have an element of sex work involved, whereas to my knowledge this is less common with Japanese hostess clubs. Also, this term has a different meaning in China, where “jiudian” just means “hotel”—a difference that leads to no small number of misunderstandings, I’m sure.
So sometimes you would encounter a customer who seemed to have gotten off of work from a nearby jiudian and needed a drink, perhaps from the stress of having to deflect obnoxious and overbearing male clients all night. Any gangsters you encountered there might also have a connection to the nearby jiudian in that area.
But I wouldn’t say it was a gangster bar, just one with some gangster links.
Although the customers tended to skew older and male—even the bar workers were almost all older men—I was by no means the only young customer, though other young people there were from far outside of my usual wenqing (“hipster” or something like it) and jueqing (“woke” or something like it) friend circle. And younger customers tended to clear out before 12 a.m., whereas I usually arrived around 3 or 4 a.m..
One well-known activist from the social movement world also frequented the bar, but I never ran into him. That might have been for the best, since I had a beef on the Internet with him.
Though I went to Big Brother Zeng’s place for years, I mostly just kept to myself. I just listened in on other conversations or zoned out, for the most part. Most of my conversations in the bar seemed to be about politics, as I recall. I got into a lot of political arguments.
Like the other bars in the area, the regulars were heavily waishengren. Waishengren constitute around 10% of the Taiwanese population and are descended from those that came over from China to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War with the Kuomintang. Waishengren constituted an economic and political elite during the authoritarian period, in which the Kuomintang ruled unchallenged over Taiwan. Most weren’t old enough to actually have been born in China, but were often second-generation waishengren, born in Taiwan; I found their pro-China views pretty shocking.
Despite our somewhat complicated ethnic background, my family generally thinks of themselves as waishengren. So, in some sense, I myself am third-generation waishengren. It’s a very common generational pattern for third-generation waishengren to be pro-independence, while their parents and grandparents are pro-unification.
So I often find myself having political arguments with people old enough to be my parents or grandparents in a dive bar, which may be part of their appeal. You don’t have to really hold back in political arguments with strangers the way you do with parents and grandparents. Also, since the election wipeout of November 2018, Taiwanese activists have been talking about the need to dialogue with the older and more conservative. And finally, as a pro-independence journalist and activist, I want to know how pro-unification supporters feel about issues. I generally come up with quite a lot of ideas for articles while sitting in dive bars, getting drunk by myself.
Funnily enough, though, there was a difference in political views between Big Brother Zeng and the other staff, who were a bit younger than he, and seemed a bit more independence-leaning. They seemed to really like me for being very forthright about my views. Still, I was careful not to shoot off my mouth too much, knowing that some customers could be gangsters. Many organized crime groups in Taiwan are heavily waishengren and they tend to be pro-China, as a result.
In the last year that the bar was in business, some friends of mine opened an underground electronic nightclub across the street. The regulars were a bit confused when goth-looking kids from the club drifted in occasionally.
The way the bar ended was rather mysterious. I stopped by one day and they told me that it would be closing the next week because of their landlord. I was leaving the country for another business trip, so I wouldn’t be around for the grand finale. They claimed they had already found a new location, but asked me to leave my contact information so they could tell me where the new location would be, remaining sketchy on the details. I couldn’t get the location out of them despite repeated tries. This leads me to suspect that there was never a new location; they’d fibbed in order to avoid long and painful goodbyes when they were, in fact, closing. After all, the bar had been open for around thirty years.
And what a blow that must have been. I’ve wondered about the kind of ties between some of the bar workers, who had been seeing each other every day for decades. I would have really liked to go see the big red sign outside that said “PUB” glowing for the last time, after thirty years, if I hadn’t been out of the country on that day.
On my last night there Big Brother Zeng, who was normally extremely chill, lost it at a customer. I remember hearing him shout “What right do you have to…?!” I didn’t hear what he said after that. But when I glanced over, that customer gave me the vibe of being a gangster.
I noticed Big Brother Yang (楊哥), by far the youngest of the bartenders and, honestly, someone who gave me gangster vibes sometimes, kept staring outside of the window as though keeping watch. At one point, he said to the other bartenders, “He’s been outside watching us the entire time.” I never learned what he was referring to; maybe they owed protection money? It seemed a bit like something out of a movie—though maybe I was making too much of a mundane interaction in my drunken state. In any case, I guess it’s time to find somewhere else to drink.