The Many Strangers of Bangka

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Brian Hioe

THE THING about living in a city I really love is how many interesting characters there are. And you’ll never know them all, no matter how hard you try.

Where I live in Taipei—Bangka, the oldest and historically poorest district—has proven especially full of unique characters. All of these people have stories, but I’ll never know them all.

Periodically, I see a Taiwanese independence chopper in front of the noodle shop across from where I live. Apart from the long screed attached to the back compartment praising former political dissident Chen Chu, who spent years in jail during the authoritarian period then later became mayor of Kaohsiung, it used to have a doll of former President Ma Ying-jeou attached to it, and it’s painted green—green being the party color of the Democracy Progressive Party, which emerged from the democracy movement. I later found a bike done in the same style with a doll tied to a pole on it and the words Tsai Ing-wen—the current president—near the doll.

The Taiwanese independence chopper. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

For a long time, I wondered who owned this bike. I imagined the owner would be some older, grizzled veteran of past social movement struggles or something. Later on, I saw him in person and he looked like he was an average office worker.

I wonder often who my neighbors are, as well. The building I live in proves something like a universe in itself, containing several union offices, a love hotel, offices, and a barbershop. Most of the residents look like ordinary elderly people—though given the lack of young people living in the building, they often stare for a long time when they see me.

But I’m also aware that some of my neighbors are gangsters and sex workers—it’s too self-evident based on how they dress and the hours they keep. There have been a few times that the police have come to my building with a loudspeaker, the kind they use for protests.

Bike owned by the owner of the Taiwanese independence chopper. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Sometimes I see a man dragging around a suitcase with a long conspiratorial screed against the current presidential administration, wearing a strange paper crown. I also see signs pasted on bus stops periodically of a man ranting about being denied his inheritance, which he then links to a conspiracy against him by the government. So many people with grievances against the world out there.

There have been a few raids on the area that involved mobilizing hundreds of police, mostly crackdowns on sex work—parts of Bangka are basically a red light district. I’ve never actually noticed. But there was one time when there was a crackdown on an illegal casino—the people that ran the casino had decided to locate it directly across from the police station, figuring that the “safest place was the most dangerous place” and that police would never think to look for somewhere just under their noses.

On that note, I’ve never quite figured out how the police operate in the area. They have placards attached to many buildings, which they scan when making their rounds. Places where placards are located are often hotspots that they keep an eye on, including many illicit massage parlors. I’ve seen sex workers running away from police a few times, but for the most part, they just stand there when police are doing their rounds. Police probably aren’t always out to make arrests, just at certain times.

Suitcase with conspiracy theories written on the side. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

The sex work establishments in the area, usually karaoke and massage parlors, are referred to as “agong-tian,” meaning “grandfather store. That’s because many of the clients are elderly men. A news story I read from a decade or so ago mentioned that there were some issues in the past because younger sex workers in the area were more aggressive in trying to pull in customers, whereas older sex workers tended to be less aggressive. Generational issues, I guess. But according to sex work organizers I’ve talked to in the past, there are fewer younger sex workers in Bangka now.

There usually are lookouts sitting with scooters near them, men who give off a strong gangster vibe, but they don’t seem to do much when police do their rounds either. Recently, there’s been a new one that seems way too overeager about his job, riding up and down the street excitedly on an electric bike. I can see his colleagues looking at him with a look of, “This man is crazy!” often.

I often hear strange shouting in the night. Usually “幹!”, meaning, “Fuck!” I hear this loud enough to hear from around a dozen stories above. I’m told that there’s a man with the habit of running around in the morning naked while screaming at the top of his lungs by neighbors, but I’ve never seen him.

The city is full of mysteries, I guess. I’ll never have an answer to them all.