Party Animal still parties today
The influential Napoli
The eternal Night (Bar)
The original fM
The dearly departed Denver
The original PJ's Cafe in the
A Little History of Taichung's Western-style Pubs
By Courtney Donovan Smith
Translated by Angel Pu
For nightlife this month, we thought we'd try something a little different and give our readers a look at the evolution of the Western-style pub. These days, even calling these pubs 'Western-style' seems hardly accurate as they are now so much a part of Taiwanese society now--with many or most Taiwanese regularly enjoying a night out with friends at the local watering hole, chatting and enjoying the music.
This wasn't the case when I arrived in Taiwan in 1988. There were few pubs then and they were clearly thought of as 'Western'. There were plenty of karaoke bars, 'wine bars' and performance halls often populated by gangsters watching performances of sexy women or comedian Chu Ke-liang (豬哥亮). Indeed, one of the inaccuracies that struck me in the movie 'Monga' (艋舺), which was set in 1986, was the scarcity of the posters of scantily-clad women for those halls--in reality they were plastered everywhere, one on top of another for years and usually looking tattered and frayed. That pubs were not so popular with Taiwanese probably had a lot to do with their origins. The first great boom in pubs and bars in Taiwan was to serve the U.S. military personnel stationed here (in Taichung at Ching Chuan Kang [CCK] Air Base). This was greatly expanded during the Vietnam War, when boatloads of G.I.s on R&R would come here to play.
In Taichung, they would head down to a lane running from DaYa Road to WuQuan Road called the 'Dirty Dozen Lane'--Taichung's equivalent to Taipei's Combat Zone (which still exists). Bars had names like Me Can Do, Little Women Bar and Bar Twan. There was also a scene at what the G.I.'s called 'Bar Town' in Daya. It is often forgotten today, but a lot of Taiwanese didn't like these hard-partying G.I.s--in fact rioters sacked the American Embassy in Taipei (though that wasn't directly nightlife-related). Most Vietnam War movies have scenes of the soldiers on R&R, so we can guess what it was like here in Taichung back then.
While the antics of wild foreigners may have shocked most straight-laced Taiwanese back then, it also laid the foundation for modern Taiwanese rock 'n' roll and pub scene. For example, one pub owner in Tainan I know used to hang out with the G.I.s in the 1970s and share music with them. He went on to a launch a music career in the 1980s. Listen to the entire set of any Taiwanese cover band today at a pub and I guarantee you they will play the 1970s hit song 'Hotel California'. I've won bets on this--and never once have I failed to hear that song played.
When the G.I.'s left, Dirty Dozen Lane went with it. The center of the pub scene then moved to TaiZhongGang Road in the area near the National Hotel in the 1980s and early 1990s. These bars generally catered to businesspeople, and some of the more memorable pubs of that era include Captain's, Denver, Bali Hai and JD's (which closed only recently). Another bar that opened in the 1980s was the original Frog, then located on BeiTun Road, which quickly became popular with young Taiwanese and the equally young foreign English teachers (also popular with them was The Jail up near Tunghai University). Frog set the tone and standard for the younger crowd. Still owned and operated by original owners Brian and Ariel, their impact on the pub scene has been enormous and their pubs are now scattered around Taichung.
The late 1990s saw the decline of the TaiZhongGang Road scene and the burgeoning of the Canal District centered on HuaMei Street's canal. Frog relocated to here, and the now-legendary Napoli was opened. Napoli's was unusual in that it was bigger, had live original music and very popular parties--and was owned by a foreigner and his Taiwanese wife. Shubao, fM and the Londoner and others were founded by ex-Napoli employees. This area also hosted the original PJ's Cafe and La Bodega, both now relocated to Little Europe. Night Bar and Oldies remain in that area, and there is still quite an active scene there today.
At the same time as the rise of the Canal District, another scene was building around People's Park on GongZheng and ZhongMei Streets. The still thriving Ala Saxaphone, Party Animal and the sorely missed Hunter's formed the core of that scene. Though smaller than in it's heyday, the area still draws many revellers.
Little Europe's scene started with Escapades in the 1990s, but since 2002 or so really took off. Several pubs from the Canal District relocated here, including PJ's Cafe and La Bodega. Now the area is full of options, including many located on Soho Street. In the last decade the scene has exploded city-wide with every neighborhood offering a local watering hole. Thank the G.I.s!
Left: The original La Bodega
Right: Ala Saxophone still plays