It’s a bit hard for me to put a finger on what’s so cool about Wu Bai exactly. Lately he’s been doing some strange things—for example, appearing in commercials such as these Uber Eats commercials, which have already been much parodied. He’s had his share of odd MVs and album covers, too, including one where he’s some kind of spaceman and a number of MVs involving weird group dances, all of which were hits in their day. He once had to delay a concert tour by three months because of an ice-skating accident.
But Wu Bai may be capturing the spirit of the times. He is known as the quintessential Taike rocker—Taike originally being a derogatory term for working-class benshengren Taiwanese, descended from the waves of Han migration in the hundreds of years before the Kuomintang came to Taiwan, but it was increasingly embraced by musicians in the 1990s. And Wu Bai (a nickname that means “five hundred”) was one of the figures who made Taike-ness—being rough around the edges and working-class—cool, in some sense. Now in his fifties, he still cuts a sharp figure with his long hair and guitar, his looks having changed very little over the years. He’s now respected as an elder statesman of Taiwanese rock, you could say, if not an outright living legend.
Born Wu Jun-lin in Xindian, Taipei, Wu Bai grew up primarily in the village of Suantou—meaning “garlic village”—in rural Chiayi. There are many apocryphal stories about where he got his nickname, but the most commonly heard one is that it came from scoring a perfect one-hundred in five subjects when he was a kid.
After flunking his university exams, Wu Bai moved to Taipei to turn to music. He worked a number of odd jobs: insurance salesman, streetside vendor, and clerking in musical instrument stores. Reportedly, Wu was fired multiple times for practicing the guitar on company time, instead of trying to sell to customers.
Wu Bai’s rise to prominence was linked in part with the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, with Wu contributing two songs to the soundtrack of 1992 Dust of Angels alongside Lim Giong, another name associated with a quintessentially Taiwanese sound in the 1990s. Fittingly, Hou’s films often concern the subject of youth from rural Taiwan moving to the big city. Wu’s first hit was 1994’s “Wanderer’s Love Song.”
At the other end of the musical spectrum is DJ Jerry, a Taiwanese-American producer who also embraced the term Taike. Emerging around the same time as Wu Bai, DJ Jerry is probably best known for “Fire”, the signature track of the “Electric Techno Neon Gods,” another 90s cultural touchstone that paired rave music with temple dances. Noting Wu’s collaboration with Lim, who also collaborated with DJ Jerry, the ties between musicians who embraced “Taiwanese-ness” in the 1990s are visible across genres, though Lim Giong’s multi-genre virtuosity played a significant role in this.
These days, tickets for Wu Bai’s sold-out stadium shows are hard to get. Yet in the 1990s, his fame as a live performer grew from playing at the live houses that defined Taiwan’s indie music scene back then. These, too, have mostly faded with time—in Taipei, the only places with a remotely similar atmosphere may be Revolver or EZ5, with the once-prominent Roxy series of live houses having tried (and failed) to stage comebacks a number of times over the past few years. In any case Wu Bai gained his nickname of “King of Live” through the 1990s and 2000s, and became increasingly popular among Mandarin-speaking populations in Asia.
Despite his Taike image, many of Wu Bai’s best-known songs are not sung in Taiwanese Hokkien, but in Mandarin, likely owing to commercial considerations. His balance between the Chinese and Taiwanese markets may not be possible now, because of the accentuated polarization between Taiwanese and Chinese identity in the decades since his rise. For example, Wu Bai’s backing band, which is very much a part of his image, is called “China Blue” despite his Taike affectation. But for a time during the aughts, Wu and China Blue were not allowed to tour in China because they’d performed for the then-mayor of Taipei, pro-independence Chen Shui-bian; eventually they were allowed back in.
The same issues continue to pose a challenge for Taiwanese bands. Indie-rock mainstay May Day—another pillar of 90s Taiwanese rock with garage band roots—originally sang in Taiwanese Hokkien, but later switched to singing in Mandarin to achieve mainstream pop success. Their political stances have sometimes gotten them in hot water, too. May Day originally expressed support of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, involving the monthlong occupation of the Taiwanese legislature by student activists. But the band later backed away from this stance in order to continue to operate in the Chinese market. The mantle once held by May Day—as a top indie band known for singing in Taiwanese Hokkien—has arguably now been taken up by Fire EX, which provided the “theme song” of the Sunflower Movement, “Island’s Sunrise.”
In a 2001 interview with Time, Wu describes his style as “lonely,” “dark”, and “sad”. His best-known songs are love ballads, often with long guitar solos. Compared to a lot of lighter Mandopop, there was probably something more direct and more unadulterated about Wu Bai: an intensity about it, different from, say, the somewhat sanitized heartthrobs of the 2000s. Wu Bai is described as having a sort of masculine roughness, but also what is described as “tenderness.”
Wu Bai’s Taike image does seem to have been somewhat strategic. According to interviews, the choice of clothing for his album covers was deliberate, to play up a rough image—like a trucker. The 1980s and 1990s films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, contemporaneous with the rise of Wu Bai, examined the issue of uneven development and disparities between urban and rural communities in Taiwan. The emergence of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from the Taiwanese democracy movement, and of Chen Shui-bian, who later became the first non-Kuomintang president of Taiwan in 2000 after decades of authoritarian rule, illustrates rising trends in Taiwanese identity during this time.
The lifting of the authoritarian mores embraced by the KMT during democratization also relaxed restrictions on rock music and the like. In this way, the culture of live houses in the 1990s can be understood as somewhat subversive, with young people reveling in their newfound freedom—rock music, long hair, and the like having previously been banned by the KMT during the period of martial law. Performers like Wu Bai and China Blue were thus able to break new ground. Wu Bai commented that when he was first studying guitar and listening to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and other classic rock artists, he felt it a bit unusual for a Taiwanese person to be learning the guitar. This classic rock influence is more apparent on older Wu Bai albums, such as 1996’s “Love Lens” (愛情的盡頭).
In the context of the broader political liberatory impulse, the commercial viability of a Taike rocker image at this time is readily understood, as well as the dynamic that could propel an “indie” band to mainstream success. This story seems to have repeated itself many times in the decades since.
Sometimes I hear people joke that Wu Bai is an “old wenqing,” using the contemporary term often translated as “hipster.” That does seem to be the case, even as Wu Bai found unprecedented commercial success. He has spoken of his shock—and displeasure—in learning after the success of “Wanderer’s Love Song” that he was now classified as mainstream, or seen as having sold out. Wu Bai has sometimes spoken of his struggle to balance commercial considerations with his integrity as a musician.
In a time in which “indie” is the new mainstream in contemporary Taiwan—heck, the indie rock scene in Taiwan is large enough that it can sustain an entire dating app, just for lovers of indie rock—Wu Bai can probably be considered the ancestor of bands who sing in Taiwanese. Sometimes Taiwaneseness still sells on its own account, and it’s often dependent on political developments.
I remember the rise of rapper DJ Didilong in 2016, as another very Taike figure—this took place in the years following the Sunflower Movement, and the DPP’s sweeping victory in the 2016 elections, which put Tsai Ing-wen in power for the first time. DJ Didilong’s hit “Taipei Didilong” put a Taike cast onto Taipei, drawing on the legacy of Taike representations in past decades.
But musicians and bands continue to sing more in Mandarin as they find mainstream commercial success. This was the case with DJ Didilong, as well as groups such as Amazing Show.
My own memories of Wu Bai are of sitting in dive bars, listening to people that were more his contemporaries, lost in their memories. Still, he always seemed quite contemporary to me. There’s something quite timeless about him.
I was chatting with a friend recently, commenting that Wu Bai’s guitars and other effects were on display at the Taipei Music Center as part of a new exhibition. I said that there was still time to check out the exhibition, which would be up for five years.
“Five years? That’s too short,” she replied. “Anything less than five hundred years is unacceptable.”