On Monday morning, it was a strange scene at the Legislative Yuan. More than 300 rockers in black t-shirts, skinny jeans, tattoos and odd hairstyles filled one of the legislature’s ground floor meeting rooms to protest the closing of Underworld (地下社會), an 80-person capacity Taipei rock club. The venue has been a launching pad for indie bands over the last 16 years and is widely considered to be Taiwan’s CBGBs.
The motley crew of young people assembled to hear legislator Cheng Li-chiun (鄭麗君), Underworld shareholder Ho Tung-hung (何東洪) and a slew of well known musicians and actors who came out in support of Taiwan’s indie rock scene. The media was also there in force.
At the press conference, Ho, Cheng and others called upon the central government’s Ministry of Culture to give a legal status to live music performance venues. Then they led the throng of rockers into the legislature’s central courtyard, where they swirled around TV cameras in a kind of mosh pit while holding placards and chanting the bar’s name, “Di Xia She Hui [Underground]!”
“We feel that the government should give [Underworld] more room to exist,” said Masa (瑪莎), bass player in Mayday (五月天), Taiwan’s all-time top-selling band. “We played there 13 or 14 years ago” — long before the group was selling out stadium shows of 40,000 or more in Taiwan, China and Singapore. “It was just a place where you could go and find out about music,” he explained, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the event. (The band had come unofficially to offer support as fans of the venue.)
“If this problem isn’t solved, this won’t be the last live house in Taiwan to close,” said Vincent Jeng (鄭峰昇), of the rock band Backquarter (四分衛), speaking from the stage at the press conference.
“As far as the government is concerned, a live house is in the same category as a prostitute bar on Linsen North Road,” said Ho, referring to Taipei’s notorious red light district.
“The government has recently spent huge amounts of money supporting music as a cultural industry,” Ho said later. “But what they don’t realize is where culture comes from before you can make an industry out of it.”
Monday’s rock-n-roll invasion of the legislature means that Underworld’s problem has now been raised at the national level, and a cabinet minister will likely have to address it. Obstacles to be overcome include heaps of bureaucracy at local and national levels of government, as well as the potential hypocrisy of a national culture policy that is spending billions of NT dollars to promote cultural industries but won’t allow live houses the legal right to exist in Taiwan.
And, as if that weren’t enough, Underworld’s most immediate problem revolves around a snowballing fight between residents and business owners in Shida, the bustling Taipei neighborhood where the club is located. Pressure from a group of area residents, the Shidahood Self Help Association (師大三里里民自救會) likely prompted the city to issue a notification on July 29, saying that the venue’s fire exit weren’t wide enough and that — after 16 years of doing exactly the same thing, hosting bands three nights a week and selling drinks to a few dozen patrons — its business license was suddenly deemed improper.
Before getting into legal hair-splitting and squirrelly politics of this neighborhood battle, it’s probably important to understand why an 80-person capacity and incredibly smoky rock club can and should be considered a national issue.