Dancing in the Dark… Taiwan Style

Back in the 80s, I was honored by an invite to be a part of the Taiwanese Chinese Youth Corps cultural tour.  Every year, hundreds of up and coming Chinese kids around the world were invited to the island nation to see a little bit of Chinese culture, connect with fellow other kids our own age, and learn a few skills along the way.

Now, I was probably at the height of my “I am Canadian” phase at the time, that is, I tried to see myself as beyond being of Chinese cultural heritage (in general, I’m actually a mutt… but that’s a tale for another day).  Hell, if you asked me if I was Chinese, I probably would have said Quebecois first and foremost.  Yeah, I was definitely what we Chinese call a “banana”, yellow on the outside, white on the inside.  A little concerned, my folks suggested I give my heritage a bit of a break, and try to keep an open mind.

Well, admittedly the trip did change a lot of my impressions and thoughts on being Chinese, but there was an unexpected effect.  While I became more China-centric, I also let my guard down and became a full fledged party guy for a brief sliver of time.  It was pretty inevitable. get 1000 17, 18 and 19 yr old boys and girls and put them on the same campus with no parental supervision?  What do you think happens?

Now, I can tell you about the pub crawls, the late night dinners, sleeping in karaoke clubs, and more… but one particular night will always shine in my mind.

Kiss La Bocca. more affectionately known as just KISS, was probably the very first night club I ever went to.  There, with some beer and my new friends. I was introduced to the electrifying music of New Order, the smooth sensation of a Rum and Coke, the quiet delights of a snuggle in the shadows and the hot action of the dance floor.  It was there where my friends and I would sneak out every other night to relax after a hard day of Chinese language studies and road trips across Taiwan.  And it was there when lil’ evangelical me (back then, I was such a religious kook) had his first… well… I don’t know what to call it moment.

To understand this event, you have to understand that KISS’ layout is basically a dual level nightclub.  On the ground floor is one huge dance floor, with random lights flashing off everywhere.  At one end of the floor, there’s a large stage surrounded by huge speakers.  On the sides, there were bars, tables and chairs and so on.  The upper second floor is more of a huge veranda, surrounding 3 of the 4 sides of the room giving the crowd above a great view of the floor below.  Now that you have an idea of the room, let’s get back to the tale.

So there I was, with my friends and basically going wild on the floor below, when the music switched from techno to a romantic slow song. All of us left the dance floor, but Patricia (wow I miss her) came up to me and asked if I’d like to slow dance, and astonishingly I said yes and we embraced.  The lights shut down, and all that could be seen were couples holding close, fumbling in the dark.

It was… nice.  Her body close against mine, warmth against warmth, heads against each other.  I savored the moment between 2 good friends, and admittedly just the simple pleasure of a cute gal pressed against me.  And then… our eyes adjusted to the darkness.

It was a shock… and then some.     As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I started to see the other couples dancing cheek to cheek.  They were all close and intimate.  They were all in each others’ arms.  They were all men.

My eyes widened.  I closed them again and when they opened again… yep… it was all men.  I whispered to Pat, “Take a look around. Are we in a gay club?”  I couldn’t see her face and see her reaction, but a few seconds later she replied, “I think we are.”

Well, the tender, sweet moment between Pat and I was pretty much lost right there and then.  We started to look around us more in depth, and looked up together at the walkways above.  And again, we were shocked yet once again.  There they were, over a hundred Taiwanese pairs of eyes, all male, all watching Pat and me intensely like a Foodie on a diet staring at a 21 day aged well done Prime Rib.  We held each other tighter and continued to dance, and I asked her, “Are they watching us or just me?”  She replied, “We’re in the middle of a gay club, so I’m pretty sure just you.  I guess your ass has a lot more sex appeal than I thought.”

Remember, I was a bit evangelical and definately a little homophobic then., and if you know me, you know that my friends tend to have a sense of dry wit and humor.  Needless to say, Patricia hit the PERFECT words to freak me out and enjoyed it all the while.  So I did what any young mildly evangelical homophobic kid would do when slow dancing with a hot girl but surrounded by hundreds of gay couples and being watched from above by other men… I took the slow dance lead and lead us off the dance floor all the while Patricia was both mildly amused by my reaction and a little surprised by the whole revelation around us.  In fact, I slow danced us off the floor, didn’t even notice having left it and continued to go on right back to the safety and sanctity of my friends and our tables.

Now this is one of those cultural things that I never could have known about, just like in my previous blog about barber poles (check out The Boy, The Barber Shop and the Talented Hooker to see what I mean).  When I explained the whole event to a Tour coordinator, he spent a few minutes laughing before he could control himself long enough to breathe.  My friends and I went out on a Wednesday night, which to you or me probably wouldn’t have made much difference at all, but makes all the difference to a local Taiwan guy.  You see, Wednesdays seems to be the unofficial night for Taiwanese guys to go to night clubs, to take what they’ve learned from American videos and the past weekend, and to test out their new moves so they could impress their girlfriends on the weekend.  And being an obviously Western crew, we walked in on the one night where each and every one of them would watch and examine us to learn fresh moves from the US of A.  Being the only visitor guy who dared go on the dance floor for a slow dance, they were analyzing every little thing I was doing to see if they could improve their own skills, and thankfully not to check out my Chinese-Canadian ass.  (Thank heavens, I never thought my ass was particularly sexy.)

It was a fun night.  It was an awkward night. It was magic, and comfort, and sexy, and freaky.  And it was a night that was a step on my path to understanding on when to embrace the experience and run with it.  Thanks Patricia and all the crew of the Chien T’an 1989 Taiwan Cultural Youth Tour for memories I’ll never forget.

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The Boy, The Barber Shop and the Talented Hooker

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” – Sigmund Freud

“Some of the worst mistakes in my life were haircuts” – Jim Morrison

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Young me, with a good ol’ cup of Van Houtte coffee

When I was young, daring, invulnerable and stupid, I did a fair amount of traveling on my own in Asia.  My folks had encouraged it, as my life in Quebec had produced a walking banana or a Chinese kid who is yellow on the outside but white on the inside.  I had wholeheartedly embraced my Canadian heritage, with little or no knowledge of my Chinese roots and admittedly didn’t even think of myself as an Asian kid.  So, when the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore came up, I didn’t hesitate (much).  I thought it would be fun, and in a time before the internet, it would be interesting to explore new lands and places that I’ve seen only in James Bond movies and the Noble House mini-series  (ironically starring a young Pierce Brosnan).

Well, the novelty quickly wore off and then some.  Being of a northern climate, the 30+C temperatures roasted me alive during the day, and the intense humidity made me gasp for breath.  Worse, all of these areas seemed to have been extremely influenced by the West that made it indistinguishable from some southern cities, just with way more Asians.

Of course, that’s not true.  There’s a lot of little subtle differences here and there if you’re willing to look and listen.  Some of even funny as heck, really.  Go to a Pizza Hut in Hong Kong around lunch time on the weekend.  They offer a set price for a bowl of salad, as much as you can fill from their salad bar for a few bucks.  On the weekends, you’ll see some of the most astounding acts of balance and scale ever, as ever growing 3 or 4 foot high salad towers arise from these bowls, with a starved group of students waiting in the booth for the salad acrobat to bring his creation over to.  Heck, look at the pizzas too, as scrambled eggs and scallions has their places of honour next to the pepperoni with extra cheese.  It’s the little things, where the West swamped them with our culture, and they turned around and made some tweaks to make it their own.

And this is where I come in.  I had spent a few months in Taiwan at the time, but having the mandarin language skills of a deaf-mute, I had to take a LOT of things on faith that it was identical to Canada.  Most of the times, being the seasoned traveler I was, I really kinda winged it most of the time.  Worse, I was guilty of a common traveler’s crime, that is, when encountering people of another culture who had no clue what the heck you’re saying, you repeat your questions over and over in English, but LOUDER.  Needless to say, I don’t think I really endeared myself to a lot of the locals.

Well, it had been months since I landed, but not knowing where my usual sources of useful services could be found, I hadn’t cut my hair in ages.  It was getting pretty bad, so I kept an eye out for hair salons and the like.  And it’s with total abandon and boyish glee that I ran over to the first barber pole I saw.

Before I go on, I have to explain a little bit about Taipei’s famous Snake Alley or Huaxi Street Night Market.  It’s a tourist wonderland, filled with some of the most awesome clothing, music and trinket deals, and some of the best street food on the planet (really recommend the oyster omelet!).   It’s also famous for it’s delicacy of snake blood and urine, mixed in a alcoholic aphrodisiac, and for being a den of sin and villainy to some extent.  Being the person who I am, I couldn’t resist exploring it alone.  (Yes, as I mentioned, I was young, invulnerable and stupid indeed.)

When I saw the barber pole. I saw it as a lucky event as what were the odds to find a barber in a place like this?  I quickly ran through the door and hoped there wasn’t too much of a line up.  There wasn’t… in the front.  In fact, in the reception, there was no one at all.

The room was quite unremarkable.  While everything seemed to be made of a dark wood with a dingy layer of dust everywhere, there were the customary barber chairs and mirrors, a little cash, and a curtained door in the back.  Lighting didn’t seem to be all too hot as well, but as I was in a barber shop for the first time in months, I didn’t really care too much.  I called out, wondering where the heck was everyone, when a young woman in a pretty tight dress walked out.  It quickly became apparent that there was a language barrier, as everything she said was pretty much greek to me.  So, I thought, might as well pantomine everything to show what I wanted done.  I walked over to a chair, dusted it off a little (yes, warning bells should have gone off but I was again, young and stupid), sat down, and indicated to her that I wanted a hair cut with a few hand motions.  She seemed to be a little puzzled, but played along and started to cut my hair.

Now, this was where things started to get weird.  The girl was a bit apprehensive when considering that all I expected was a haircut.  She seemed a little confused, and I just chalked that up to maybe dealing with someone who couldn’t talk back to her.  So I sat down and let her cut away, wondering why and so on while it was taking forever.  And things then started to take a different turn….

As she was cutting, I noticed she was getting closer and closer to me.  In fact, within a few minutes, I would describe the event as practically intimate.  With each snip, she started to rub her body against mine and I, being the catholic school boy at heart, was getting to be pretty flustered.  Was this some sort of new way to cut hair?? Is this the custom?  What kind of place was this?  Needless to say, I was just speechless.  I had no idea what to think about this, and would have jumped out and left but I didn’t want to leave with a half done job as well.  Besides, it… admittedly.. was getting to be kinda fun in a weird barber shop experience.

Finally, over 20 min later, the ordeal came to an end.  My hair was cut, maybe not expertly so, but decent enough to be able to walk around in society.  The girl was still looking a bit confused, and was now trying to get me to get into the back room for some reason.  Well, I hadn’t paid yet, so I thought maybe her cash was there and so I went…. into a back room with a few beds separated by curtains, lit candles, lots and lots of beads, the heavy scent of jasmine and more…  It suddenly hit me, this wasn’t so much a barber shop as it was a BROTHEL.

I can’t really elaborate on what happened after, only that the resulting fumbling, really nervous English dialog and me giving her about $30 (no idea what it cost, but at that time, I wasn’t really thinking straight).   I promptly ran out and hit a bar for a few drinks.

Here I was in Taiwan, a devout catholic kid at the time, and fairly naive in a lot of ways with no internet existing as we knew it.  How was I supposed to know that in some parts of Taiwan, barber shops and poles were used not to indicate a hair salon, but a prostitution brothel!  There were events like these and more, but this would be enough for this tale.  My brother in spirit, Dave, reminds me of this every so often, and I keep wondering, how the heck did I survive my stupid years.