Something dark is stirring in the streets of Taichung. Wandering the streets, one notices something missing, not so much physical as part of the atmosphere, like the lifeblood of the city has been poisoned or cut off. Then it hits you. Almost every bar you pass is closed, despite the holiday weekend, all bearing the same Chinese script on scrap paper over their doors. Those which remain open do so while treading on eggshells as the slightest wrong move, the least mis-step from staff or clientele, could bring down the wrath of the city government. The current toll is unknown but fearful, conspiratorial whispers estimate the potential casualties at 300 and no-one knows when or if they’ll re-open.
Rewind the clock a few months back and this was, to all intents and purposes, a city like any other. People here work hard and come the evenings and weekend, as with people everywhere, they like to play hard. Taichung played host to a varied and vibrant nightlife from western ex-pat watering holes to native drinking dens, karaoke houses to glamorous nightclubs. Citizens and tourists alike could drink and dance all they wanted into the small hours of the morning, taking this privilege for granted as do nighthawks the world over.
All this began to change on March 6th this year when an inferno raced through the nightclub ‘Ala’, claiming the lives of 9 patrons and injuring many more. The root club of the blaze was a dance show involving naked flames which ignited the ceiling of the club and soon escalated. During the ensuing investigation is transpired that the club possessed a valid fire certificate but, Asia being Asia, it wasn’t worth the highly flammable paper it was printed on. Governmental shortcuts, laziness and the systematic corruption which pervades this part of the world meant that a club with combustible foam lining its walls and ceilings and the most meagre excuses for fire exits could operate without fear of reprisals.
In the immediate aftermath there were the usual token actions – a few disciplinary hearings at the council, the club permanently closed and so on. However those were just preliminary rumbles and the real quake was still a few months away. It started slowly, a favourite bar here and there being found in breach of some archaic regulation or other and closed indefinitely. Then another, and another. Soon it became clear what was happening. The government, embarrassed at having lost face following the fire, had to be seen to be doing something. To restore face this had to be something big, something unmissable. They chose to punish business owners and their customers for their own transgressions in the past. To be fair many of these businesses run afoul of the relevant standards but the owners would happily have brought their establishments into line at the appropriate time had the issue ever been raised. Turning a blind eye was standard operating procedure and any new business owner would more than likely be unaware of there was any existing problem.
Which brings us to the present. To date I believe four bars I know have been shut down by the city government, some only after having to empty their wallets through a series of police bribes before the hammer finally came down. The crackdown continues with the 300 figure mostly consisting of small local drinking holes but also covering many of the most popular among the western community. Those which remain open have the sword of closure hanging permanently over their heads and spend their days waiting for the knock at the door.
What to do? Well thankfully this town is possessed of no small measure of attitude and defiance. They want to take away safe, controlled drinking areas? These people aren’t just going to sit at home, sipping Ovaltine and watching wildlife documentaries (that’s just me), they’ve decided to take it to the streets in a wonderful peaceful protest. Every Saturday, commencing today, those dissatisfied with the extreme measures being taken will gather at People’s Park, at 6pm once the sun has gone down and families have left the area. There they will attempt to drink the nearest 7-11 dry in a wonderful expression of community and support for the business owners affected.
In the UK this would be a recipe for disaster – invaded by neds and chavs, soaked in vomit, and with probably more casualties than the incident which sparked it all. This isn’t the UK though, thankfully, and my new townsfolk have demonstrated a wonderful ability to enjoy themselves, sing and dance, and drink heavily of course, all without descending into the kind of behaviour which occasionally makes me empathise with the Americans who used to travel with Maple Leafs sown onto their backpacks to avoid identification.
I’ll be there and will hopefully have a full report on the festivities over the next couple of days. Here’s to expelling this demon of darkness from the streets and returning some light to this city!
(Note – if anyone from Taichung notices any inaccuracies here please let me know. I’m basing this partly on newspaper reports, partly on conversations with bar owners but inevitably there’s also some hearsay. All from trusted sources but that still doesn’t mean it’s all correct!)