The History of Queer Parties in Taiwan

An Interview with DJ Rainbowchild

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Alejandro Wang

The following article originally appeared on Electric Soul, a Hong Kong-based electronic music magazine and ticketing platform, on December 6th.

Brian Hioe spoke to Levin Lo, or DJ Rainbowchild, a veteran of the queer party scene in Taiwan. Among other things, Rainbowchild was the DJ that played at the wedding banquet party that celebrated the legalization of gay marriage in Taiwan in May 2019, as the first place in Asia to legalize gay marriage. Rainbowchild currently DJs at Locker Room, CÉ LA VI Taipei, and other venues, having also DJed at the Werk parties, Fairy, and other venues. 

Brian Hioe:  Could you first introduce yourself?

Levin Lo:  I’m Rainbowchild. I began to learn how to become a DJ around 2000 or 2001. That was because I began to become interested in electronic music and thought that I could do this myself. I learned how to DJ. But because of work, I stopped for awhile. Until the last ten years, when I began to take this up again.

Currently, I DJ for work part of the time. I view myself as a techno DJ. But with some of the different venues I play at, some people wanted me to play in bars. That’s more like work. I’ll play some different songs, like popular music. Or for accommodating the venue. Some of DJing I do for my personal interest, some of it is for work.

BH:  How did you first encounter techno?

LL:  I liked listening to music from when I was small. When I got older, when I was in college, I had a bit of my own money to spend. Then I had some money to buy CDs. I went to various records stores around NTU to buy various records. I didn’t really get music then so bought whatever. I’d look at what the labels were.

In 1994 and 1995, some people in Taiwan tried to promote psytrance in underground venues. Some DJs would play in underground radios that existed then. I became curious then. I went to a record shop called Universe City (宇宙城). The store clerks would add their own notes to records outside. I saw Ima by BT, it looked different, and it sounded different, so I started to come into contact with electronic music then.

But I wasn’t listening to it very systematically then. That when electronic music had just entered Taiwan. Many DJs weren’t very firmly classified as one genre or another, they played what they liked. So I listened to various things, such as BT, The Orb, Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy. We’d think of those as artists of the period now. That got me interested in electronic music.

Around 1999, before 2000, there was a period of rave fever in Taiwan. There suddenly was many people organizing raves then. Many friends liked them, so I went to these parties, too. I got to know smaller record stores, then. Universe City or Rose Crowd (玫瑰大眾) were record stores then. But smaller record stores might only have electronic music and focus on this exclusively.

Many of these record stores had DJ gear then. I got to know the owners, so they would let us play around with the gear. Then I got to thinking I could do this too.

BH:  Could you talk a bit about the rave culture then and the large clubs that existed then.

LL:  From 1993 to 1995, the scene sort of built up and exploded. I know that some writers argue that there was no real rave fever in Taiwan after the 2000s. I myself do believe that this took place, looking at this from the standpoint of the market. Before the 2000s, there were many raves, but as a whole, it was more along the lines of enthusiasts organizing small parties for themselves. I’ve interviewed some older DJs and they’ve discussed this as some friends that liked this music organizing it for themselves. People wouldn’t think as much about if the organization could continue or if they could continue.

Because in organizing an event, getting a space, and DJs, you have to spend money. It was fine doing it once, but if you want to organize parties over a year, you have to consider whether you can continue this. After the 2000s, organizers considered how to keep organizing parties.

From 1993 to 1995, there were some radio shows, or there would be some media outlets—such as Pots Weekly—that discussed this. Some take the view that there wasn’t a rave fever because before the start of Pots Weekly, there was already some promoting electronic music before 2000.

But the media usually focuses on raves as though they were a bad thing. And that caused people to notice raves then. Young people usually see the parties in the news and don’t think too much about negative reports, they see that it looks fun.

Around 1998 and 1999, there were some people in the media, such as editors, who started attending parties. So they would discuss this. Or people on radios. That built up to 1999, leading to an explosion in which many people went to raves. Growth was comparatively fast. Before 1999, it was some smaller secretive parties on Yangming Mountain or on mountains in Xindian. Some people that liked going to these parties, plus the rise of BP Calls, made it easier for partygoers to connect. The UK scene was more dependent on flyers and specific spots for spreading news, though there was some use of hotlines. But after BP Calls, it made it easier to spread news of parties.

Around 2000 is when cell phones became more common. I remember I received my first cell phone from my boyfriend then. He gave me one he wasn’t using, because it was too hard to contact him.

BH:  What about queer parties?

LL:  The rise of queer parties in Taiwan also built up over time. 1993 or so, maybe 1995, Taiwan had some DJs that were originally playing at gay dance clubs. Like Victor Cheng—DJ Victor—or Jimmy Chen. Jimmy Chen played at a venue called Funky.  It was a gay dance club known before the 2000s.

It wasn’t focused on electronic music, though Jimmy played some 1990s house. There was some very mainstream house played then, but he couldn’t play all house the entire night. Funky would have one hour of slow songs, or maybe ten to twenty minutes, then ten minutes of fast songs, one hour of cha cha, and then fast songs again. There was a set order. There was less time for DJs to play what they wanted to.

So some of these DJs would want to hold the activities they wanted to hold elsewhere. This was a key reason for why gay parties rose up then.

In Songjiang, in a venue called Underground, they started to hold a monthly party. They would play the music they liked, such as house popular in the US and Europe. That was less mainstream house, more soul house or garage.

They had drag performances then as well. It was more along the lines of ballroom parties in the US. Gay nightlife began to differentiate from that point. You could pick from gay dance clubs, somewhere like Funky that young people liked to go to, or the wedding banquet halls that old people like. It was originally differentiated based on age. But there was more differentiation on the basis of taste after that.

Funky was still younger people, but they liked Chinese-language popular songs, or things popular in the West. Those that went to Paradise parties might not be so young, they might be older, but there were some younger ones as well, that liked deep house or garage or soul house. These partygoers were more willing to accept underground music. So around 1999, they became part of the rave fever.

They’re more like the gay clubgoers you see at house parties now. Around 1999 or 2000, the Paradise parties would be held in some very commercial venues, though maybe not at great times. There was a club called @live in the past. It’s where the Tsann Kuen by Roosevelt Road and Heping West Road is today, on the second floor.

It was often on Wednesdays. Nightlife in Taipei then often also took place on Wednesdays.

Photo credit: Alejandro Wang

BH:  Interesting, you see that less now.

LL:  I’ve discussed this when friends. Many believe that this is because we have two days off a week now. In the past, you might work all the way until Saturday. So Wednesday became something like a mini-weekend. But now there are two days off per week, so you go out on Fridays. So it was possible to hold events in commercial venues like @live on Wednesday nights. People were used to going out then.

The gay parties we see now have a different development history. There are many differentiations that emerged later.

The context I just discussed is more similar to Werk. There are some people that overlap with the Werk crowd. But from 2000 to 2008, many gay people in Taiwan left the country—I’m not too clear why, if there was an increase in the proportion of Taiwanese people traveling outside of the country. Many people started going to Thailand or Europe or the US then.

BH:  Maybe it was because airline tickets became cheaper? That’s what I seem to recall then.

LL:  Maybe it was that there was many cheaper tickets then, so many gay people began to go to parties in these places. So they brought the development path of circuit parties back to Taiwan. So there was circuit parties in Taiwan afterward.

BH:  That’s quite interesting, because nightlife in Taiwan seems very different now compared to then.

LL:  I feel like the development of Taiwanese nightlife was interrupted because it didn’t become commercially viable. It seems like when there’s the opportunity for it to become more mature, then there’s a decline again. So we’re influenced by what occurs outside of Taiwan and new developments there, too.

From my point of view, Korner built up a development path and expanded outward. It’s a different context than Taiwanese nightlife up to then. But it created a new development path.

Cosmic Worm has deeper links to Taiwanese nightlife from this period. It’s from around 1993 to 1995, that crowd. They’re still around. But Korner is very new.

BH:  They’re mostly at Pipe these days. That crowd seems closer to the Texound style.

LL:  They can be said to have continued that path. Because Texound didn’t go on eventually. I also see that development path as very interesting. since they developed between 1993 and 1995 as well.

I’ve interviewed them before. They started to do things in 1993 and 1995 and do some rave parties. They wanted to have a place to operate continuously. So that’s why they established Texound.

Texound was originally hoping to continue the atmosphere of their outdoor raves. But a group of gay men sort of occupied the space. So what it became was very different than maybe what they originally aimed for. It became sort of a queer paradise.

There was a place called Second Floor that wanted to replicate the feeling of Texound somewhere else as well, regarding what I was discussing earlier. But because of the crackdown on drugs in Taiwan, this couldn’t allow for this to continue.

It’s remembered in Taiwan like Berghain almost. The things that happened there are so different than elsewhere. It wasn’t so different from Berghain in terms of what happened there. Texound also was more internationally known, people would come from Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, and even the US. So there was an opportunity for something Taiwan could be proud of in Asia.

BH:  Texound is very interesting because of how well-remembered it is. I remember Databass organizing a talk that touched upon Texound in Revolver.

LL:  When they organize the “Return to Texound” events, it’s more in terms of music. But in terms of trying to get back to that culture, it’s harder to do. Texound was quite special, it’s hard to find or imagine somewhere you’d have gangsters and dance hall girls (舞廳小姐) rubbing shoulders with gays. It was very diverse. Various groups you couldn’t imagine were suddenly in the same space.

Putting so many different people in the same space was very amazing. It’s something that can’t come back. It’s a very interesting phenomenon in the development of Taiwanese culture. Only immediately post-martial law could there be so many different people from all walks of life squeezed into one space.

People went there because they liked it.

BH:  It feels more dispersed in terms of crowds now.

LL:  It does. That’s not something you can force to happen either. They all came there naturally.

BH:  Could we talk a bit about the development of queer parties, then?

LL:  Gay parties had a development history, like we discussed earlier. From gay dance halls and nightlife to something new, which has continued. But what came later, was there was more drag queen performances.

For example, if you interview drag queens today, they often bring up RuPaul’s Drag Race. This program also had a large influence on Taiwanese queer parties. It led many people to try out drag, though they might have thought about it earlier. It outlined points to compete on, or set out various scenes. So various queer people, male or female, started to want to performances like this, too.

So there were more and more people that wanted to participate in this. Werk began to be organized when RuPaul’s Drag Race began to become very popular. The people that went in the beginning and later on are very different. Originally, it was people that went to gay parties, later on, there were people who came because they wanted to see drag performances. That changed the ecology of the party as well.

Originally, in the beginning, performances by drag queens were used for an intermission or as a transition. But because many people came to watch this, the proportion of drag performances became larger. And it also changed the partygoers’ behavior. Originally, many people came to dance, but then afterward they came to watch.

It brought in a different group of people. It was different than Locker Room. Like now, there are many friends who have asked me about wanting to organize gay parties. But I told them that if they wanted to do this, it’s not just that something would automatically be a gay party if they said it was. It’s not that gay people would show up to party automatically just because you said it was a gay party either [Laughs].

Historical footage of the Paradise parties

In the past few years, everyone has an image now of gay parties. Like I said regarding circuit parties. So that brought in influences from circuit parties popular in the US and Europe. Circuit parties are very focused on the body, there would be go-go boy performances. These parties emphasize the sexuality of it. So what you wear. If there’s not enough sexual content for partygoers, it’s not so easy to attract gay partygoers. So I always advise party organizers to be aware of that.

From the Paradise parties of the 1990s and the development of circuit parties, I also feel like underground spaces in Taiwan have accomplished something that they aimed to do. Many friends want to do this as far back as Korner, but didn’t succeed. They may be more focused on music, they may have been to German clubs. They get that atmosphere, but it’s not possible to replicate in Taiwan. If Texound had survived until now, it might be like that, but it’s not around now. And you can’t recreate it.

But with the popularity of drag queens in Taiwan, some drag queens are more aiming to do performance art. They managed to link up with party organizers that wanted to do underground queer parties. And I think they managed to create the atmosphere that they wanted to.

BH:  It’s also interesting because you see stages at B1, Final, and Pawnshop for drag performances, when that didn’t occur at Korner. And some are art performances, as well.

LL:  After Jesse started organizing at Pawnshop, he could bring some things from queer parties into that space. Like a dress code or having to change before entering. It’s sometimes as though he’s introducing a new way of partying to straight people.

BH:  I also find this interesting, Pawnshop attracts a lot of straight people from Xinyi early in the night. [Laughs]

LL:  Drag or dress codes for parties wasn’t invented by gay men, of course, but making this a new point of fun in Xinyi is something new for parties organized by gay men. So for the underground, this is a new trend in queer parties. It’s a third path.

Because the ballroom tradition entered Taiwan from America and it’s been something that has continually developed. Circuit parties there has also continued to be a demand for. Since 2008, when many foreigners came to Taiwan for the Pride Parade. Circuit parties became something that could attract a market of foreigners. So it became something very stable in Taiwan, so long as Taiwan continues to be an advanced country for gay rights in Asia. [Laughs]

This might be hard to change in ten years. Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia found it hard to achieve breakthroughs in the past ten years. China wanted to compete with Taiwan in this respect, but after 2012 to 2016 and 2018, this was pretty successful in Shenzhen and Shanghai with respect to some clubs that could replicate the atmosphere of circuit parties in China. But the past few years…well, it’s unfortunate that they’re in China.

So they’re competing less with Taiwan now, it’s primarily Thailand now. But Taiwan has more of a spirit of friendly competition with China. A wave of people come over in October. And during new year’s or Songkran’s, a group of people go over from Taiwan.

BH:  The passage of gay marriage is another factor, though there’s COVID now.

LL:  If not for COVID, I feel like—there’s also that from 2018 to 2019, queer parties in China experienced a downturn. In 2020 or 2021, Taiwan should have a pretty vibrant scene, but we experienced COVID during this time instead.

BH:  How would you say COVID has influenced the scene during this time?

LL:  It’s harder for parties to develop now. Parties need clients that are willing to go out and play. But due to COVID, it’s harder to do this. So Werk or Game Boy or other gay parties haven’t been active in the past two years. Some have tried, but the situation isn’t great. It’s a risk that there might be one or two cases the day before and so people aren’t willing to go out and party. So people are resting.

But in the past few years, I feel there have been some interesting developments in gay bars. From 2018, such as with Fairy or Belle, though they might be bars, they do events that are like parties. Belle did this almost every week. They’re actually a straight bar, but they would find performers. They have the tipping culture and ordering culture of straight bars. It was almost like the red envelope clubs that used to exist. You can feel the gay bar atmosphere but the business was run like a straight club with boxes.

And some straight people that wanted to flaunt their wealth, maybe bringing a group of girls, might go there. Gay bars tend to be quite cheap. You don’t have expensive alcohol for sale there.

BH:  You see a lot of drinking unlimited for a certain amount of time in gay bars.

LL:  That’s right. Box culture or opening expensive alcohols are not what you see in gay bars. But that existed in Belle. It’s quite an interesting phenomenon. They were successful enough that it attracted a lot of straight people. They wanted to replicate this experience in a commercial district. If there were performances, that could attract straight people to go there, they thought they could maintain this. But they encountered COVID, which was the issue.

Locker Room, where I work, is another example. It has a similar model. Go-go boys or drag queens are performances that people go to see, including straight people. So the boss thought they could create an atmosphere for continuing these performances and in which the environment is set up for performers, not just as a bar or nightclub. It’s focused entirely on the performer.

If this model is stabilized, this might be able to contribute to performance art in Taiwan. Many go-go boys or drag queens, in terms of make-up or dance, work very hard at it—some might have backgrounds in make-up or costume design or be from art school backgrounds and be trying this out. So if we’re able to maintain this, or if these places in Xinyi can survive, I believe that this can be of benefit to cultural production in Taiwan. We can provide stable income to these performers and allow them to work on the make-up, costumes, or performances that they hope to do. It can be a new development path outside of purely performance spaces.

BH:  Do you feel that this growth in the scene has allowed you to play more of what you would like to play, as a DJ?

LL:  As I mentioned, I view myself as a techno DJ, but some store owners want us to do other performances. Some DJs will turn this down, which I can understand, because most DJs in Taiwan are performing because of interest. For them, to be able to play what they would like to play is the main point. Some DJs think you’re done if you play popular music, because then what kind of DJ you’re seen as will change.

For me, though I view myself as a techno DJ, before I did this, I worked in game development for 13 years. So I can understand what it is to take on work—in pursuing game development, it was because I really loved games. But if you love games, you have strong tastes. You believe that games must be a certain way to be fun.

But now, game development is better understood as an industry. When I was starting out, it was not your main job, there was not a lot of professional training, and you just went for it as a labor of love. So people might have difficulties getting a stable income if they’re working only on the games they want to out of passion. Companies might want you to develop other games to make money.

So you have to understand the difference between what you do for passion and to make money. I like the game industry and I have music that I like, but I can also help develop what is needed commercially while playing games I like myself. It’s similar to with music. I thought of it as playing different music in different places. I might lose some opportunities to play what I want to play, but I don’t really hate what I play in commercial settings as well, I’m okay with it. Because the people that ask me to play music that gay people like aren’t too far from the gay people that enjoy music. I don’t have any negative feelings toward this music.

So I do think I have more opportunities now. The strange thing is, in the two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have more opportunities to play. But this also reflects how COVID has not been severe enough to affect the hours for bars and gay bars in Taiwan have also entered a new stage, in which there are many new experiments, including greater focus on music. In the past, it was rarer that gay bars would have DJs, they might just play a CD or something like that.

Many gay bars might not have a set DJ, but they’ll have DJ nights, where they find some DJs to share their music with customers. It’s not just me, in the past two years, gay DJs have more opportunities to play.

BH:  What would you say in closing to international readers?

LL:  I hope that if you would like to come to Taiwan, you can go to some different venues. I feel that nightlife in the past five or six years has had some very interesting developments and some new phenomena. Underground parties are definitely worth it in Taiwan. Information about this is harder to find out, but websites such as Taiwan Beats or yours can introduce about nightlife.

And please support your local underground scene. The past two years have had a large impact on the global underground. What I worry about myself—I also see some people discussing this issue in the UK—is if cultural legacies from long ago may disappear. People may try to rebuild it again, but even if you rebuilt it, such as what I was discussing with Texound, sometimes you can’t make it come back. So please support your underground clubs so they can survive.