Friday 22 August 2008

Goodbye Taipei

I came across this fascinating article written by a GI in the closing days of the US military's prescence on Taiwan via a link from the Taiwan Defence Command blog. Any long time China expat will have come across one of the old timers from the days of Taipei's 'Combat Zone', before Chen Shui Bian came in as mayor and closed down the seedy bars that served the R&R needs of half the US military in Asia. This piece, containing attitudes an opinions common at the time and with which I am not entirely in agreement, goes a long way towards debunking that talk, but it also has a lot in it which will be familiar to any man who has spent a while in Taiwan. Here's a snippet:

Outside the compound, In the side streets between the Napoleon Club and the East Gate, were the bars and massage parlors - here you found the action, as far as Taipei had any action. The memories were made here, stories that will be told 30 years from now. An Oriental bar district is a strange and complicated place, where all things can happen and frequently do, at the same time. It was the playground for single GIs.

The clubs had the same names you see everywhere: Playboy, Playgirl, Penthouse, the Green Door, Rosie's. The same clubs could be found in Saigon, Hong Kong and along Phatpong Road in Bangkok. Occasionally one will disappear and another pop up in its place - same building, same furniture, but a different name. This is said to be because the police weren't properly bribed.

At three in the afternoon Fletcher and I, in search of a drink, sometimes poked our heads into these dens. Then the clubs were shadowy and empty, with maybe a few exhausted girls sleeping in the booths. They looked like people. But at night they put on their war paint and slinky dresses to become the mysterious beauties of the East - a process much aided by Western imagination. Really they were tired, neurotic girls.

It was fun to walk the district at night, except that Fletcher always sang "Old McDonald" at the top of his voice. Airmen prowled everywhere. The neon glowed and its too bright reds and blues reflected from the dresses of girls who stood in front to lure you Inside. Inside, the decor was air-conditioned Howard Johnson's, with plastic mahogany tables and vinyl upholstery, but sometimes you saw amusing things. Like a visiting senator trying to persuade a lovely young thing how important he was. You also realized quickly that the girls didn't like their work, and usually didn't much like you.

It's also interesting to see some recognisable types from my own time in Taiwan:

Then there was the Taipei of the... well, hippies isn't the right word exactly, because they weren't dirty, didn't use drugs, and didn't think they were three shades brighter than Einstein. But they had beards and faded jeans and lived in the tangled warrens of working class houses near Roosevelt and Ho Ping Roads, downtown.

A Screwy lot. There was an ex-Peace Corps fellow from the Punjab, a tiny Japanese mathematician seeing the world, a crazy Belgian intellectual who spoke Japanese because he had forgotten his native French after five years in Japan, and freelance reporters waiting for the next war. They all spoke Chinese and lived In $20-a-month rooms the size of closets.

Their Taipei was a world of soup stalls, open sewers, nights spent on the rooftops when the heat was too bad, and the landlord's children bringing their friends to see the crazy foreign devils. These curiosities often ate a 3O-cent meal in foodstalls where chow was displayed on pans and tough little workmen wolfed it down. There was fried egg and bean curd cooked a dozen ways, bean sprouts, small rubbery squid like gray vitamin pills, and a few we never did figure out.

They lived by teaching English to bargirls, not a job you'd tell your mother about. At night they squatted on the floor, because they had no chairs and probably no table, and drank Hung Low Joe. It means Red Dew Liquor, an unspeakable rice wine. You come to like it. Then they'd go out singing drunk, speaking six languages, and wander among fruit stalls and short-time hotels no tourist has ever seen. Sometimes, late on a rainy night, you saw them sitting In the island of light around a noodle stand on a deserted street, tossing down Hung Low Joe and chatting with the noodleman.

Read the whole thing if you've got time.

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