The ‘90s and 2000s LGBT Party Scene in Taiwan: A Conversation with Victor Cheng

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Victor Cheng

Brian Hioe interviewed Victor Cheng, who organized the Paradise parties starting in 1995. The Paradise parties were the first regularly-held LGBT-focused party series in Taiwan. The following article originally appeared on Electric Soul, a Hong Kong-based electronic music magazine and ticketing platform, on February 14th.

Brian Hioe:  Could you first introduce yourself for readers that don’t know you?

Victor Cheng:  I’m Victor Cheng. I’m a DJ, graphic designer, party promoter, and drag performer. I’ve DJed for quite a long time, probably from the end of the 1980s up until when I left Taiwan. I’ve been living in Canada since 2008. I’m a freelance graphic designer and I still do some things related to electronic music.

BH:  Is your DJ name Victor Cheng?

VC:  Yes, but back when I started, I was DJ Victor when I played more rave, electronic music, and when I played disco or house, I DJed as DJ Victor:ia.

BH:  How did you encounter electronic music then? And how did you begin to DJ?

VC:  When I first started to DJ, electronic music hadn’t really entered Taiwan yet. It was 1988. House had just begun a few years ago in the US. We could hear music like that when we were record shopping, so I bought some but never had a chance to play it. The club I worked for at the time just wasn’t the right place for it.

Influenced by my sisters, I started to listen to Disco and New Wave at a very young age. I have always been a fan of music. In 1987, I was 17 and went to a nightclub for the first time. I was blown away by how DJs could connect/mix between songs smoothly. I thought it was quite amazing so I started trying to figure it out on my own, the beat-matching and mixing. That’s how I started.

The first time I played in public was in 1988.

BH:  How did you decide to start the Paradise parties?

VC:  To discuss how it started, I’ll have to talk about the first nightclub in Taiwan that focused on electronic music, which was called Twilight Zone. It was on Songjiang Road, near the Guanghua Market. The decor was very dark and strange in a good way. Later on, with more investors, they decided to change it a bit and make it larger. And, they changed the name and it became known as Underground, which was located in the same venue and had the same owners. But there was definitely Twilight Zone period and an Underground period.

During the Underground period, the boss suddenly asked me if I had interest in throwing a gay-focused party, because other nightclubs didn’t have this at the time. I felt that, okay, it would be interesting, because places for gay people to go out and dance were mostly in bars with small dance floors. There might be two hours of dancing, with the rest of the night being cha cha, slow dance, tango, or karaoke.  We thought that we could create a space for gay people at Club Underground, a place where there was a proper nightclub set-up. I asked my good friend Jimmy Chen to join. He played at Funky then, a famous gay bar. Of all the DJs there, he was the one who focused on playing house music. I asked him to work on this together. That was how we started the Paradise Party.

We usually had our drag performances on stage around 1AM. Back then, there weren’t a lot of people doing drag, nor was there much of a budget for this. This was very DIY. Most of the performers were my friends who dared, and were willing to put on shows in front of the crowd.

There were some people who were doing more professional drag back then, but I preferred people who were less commonly seen in Taipei’s nightlife. I also told performers to avoid doing Mandarin pop songs, which might sound weird now, but what I was trying to do was to give the party goers an experience of House Music, electronic music, night club and “Dance all night”. The Mandarin pop songs in the mid-90s just weren’t a good fit. Also, I want to be different from the other gay bars in Taipei.

In terms of the flyer design/ promoting the party, two or three friends and I did this ourselves. I designed the party flyers, photo-copied, cut, and handed out flyers myself. It was quite a DIY beginning.

BH:  The parties took place on weekends then?

VC:  On Wednesdays. We managed to fill up the venue on the very first Wednesday, which shocked me.

BH:  Levin brought it up as well, that there were more events on Wednesdays in the past, but this is less common now.

VC:  That’s right. Taiwan only had Sundays off then, with Saturday being a half-day of work. So it had to be on Wednesdays. It made the week feel like it went by faster.

BH:  What was more common in terms of music back then? You mentioned wanting to introduce more house.

VC:  Nightclubs usually played American Top 40s, as well as hip hop and R&B. As for house music with the 4/4 beat format, around 75% of the time it would clear the dance floor. The crowd just didn’t get the repetitive drum machine beats and the lack of “main vocal”. When we tried to play house music, we usually would think of a few songs that would definitely bring people back on the dance floor, in case that happened. It was difficult to play electronic music back then.

BH:  People became more accepting of house music later?

VC:  That took years to happen. When we were at Underground and Twilight Zone, before we started organizing gay parties, there were some people that heard of this place and went there, but had no previous contact with electronic music. Some people would enter, find the music alienating, and leave. Only after many years, a crowd built up.

BH:  Underground was a pretty unusual situation then.

VC:  It seemed like perfect timing for Taipei to have a night club like that, playing electronic music all night. There were already electronic music followers like me in the city but nowhere to go on the weekend for the music we loved. There were DJs trying to throw some house music parties but it never succeeded until after “Twilight Zone/ Underground” happened. It seemed like Taipei needed a place where electronic music fans could go every weekend, or everyday, where a community could grow.

BH:  What was the difference between Twilight Zone and Underground, in terms of the clubs?

VC:  The interior design was different. It was on the second or third floor in the basement of the building. You had to go down a stairwell, next to where the guard was, walk down a long staircase, and enter where the bar was. It felt like a regular bar there, the celling wasn’t very high or anything. It was all black and there were black lights. It might sound very normal now, but back then, it was very special.

You would hear techno, breaks, trance music. I thought it was great then. But I wondered the first time I went why there was no dance floor. Later on, you would find that there was a door that people were often entering or exiting from and there was smoke flooding out of it. Then I realized that the dance floor might be inside. I opened the door and found that it was also all black, it was a square-shaped space that had two-story high ceiling, with lights and powerful speakers pumping electronic music loudly.

There were only lights, smoke, and music. There wasn’t anything else to distract you. I thought the set-up was very cool. The ceiling outside in the bar was normal. But when you entered the dance floor, there was suddenly two stories, you were surprised that there could be a space like this around you.

That set-up maybe felt too strange for some people. Later, after renovating, they knocked down the celling in the bar area as well, so the entire club opened up. It felt larger and also a little bit more commercial. But the name was “Underground” and they borrowed the logo of the London underground for the logo of the club.

Some share owners had just been to the Ministry of Sound in London and wanted to replicate some of the atmosphere with the lighting and high celling in a smaller space. There was less house played by the DJs there as well, compared to Ministry of Sound, it was more house or techno, and deeper music. Around 4 AM or 5 AM, there would be trance, progressive, and breaks. Paradise parties were in the range of house, tech house, and techno.

BH: Were there any challenges organizing the Paradise parties then?

VC:  There weren’t any challenges. Paradise Party was probably among the first gay party held in a regular venue at that time. The willingness of gay people to go was quite high, because there were just a handful of gay bars they could go to each week otherwise. They didn’t have any opportunity to go a nightclub to listen to electronic music, house music played from large speakers, with a proper sound system, lights, smoke, and drag shows. And be themselves.

The biggest challenge was that each weekend, I would have to go to places where people gathered, where there were gay people, to see who I could give the flyers to or who I could give a free pass to so they could bring their friends along, since I felt that they may be the customers that I wanted. Thinking back now, it sounds tiring doing it all by ourselves, but I didn’t think so at the time.

BH:  Where did you go to advertise back then?

VC:  Near NTNU or other gay bars. Thinking back, maybe I shouldn’t have done it that way. But, back then, I was young and didn’t understand the underwritten rules of nightlife, so I would go to other people’s venues to promo my event. Also, my friends would bring their friends and the rest was spread through the word of mouths.

BH:  What do you think changed about Paradise parties as time went on?

VC:  We were in Underground for about a year. It wasn’t too long. The reason was the owner of Underground didn’t want to keep doing this, having encountered some issues with police and drugs.

Later on, Paradise Party became bigger, because the new venue we found.

BH:  What about after Underground?

VC:  After Underground closed, we stopped for a while. Later on, Jimmy Chen started working in a different nightclub called @live, which was located near Gongguan. That was a venue renovated from a movie theater. So there was a proper main-room stage and high celling.

Back during the “Underground” period, the space was smaller, so there was no requirement for having a so-called big room sound. Some house music is meant for a large venue. You see it as a category on Beatport nowadays, “Big Room.” But Big Room then was different from now. Less cheesy, I would say.

At @live, it was still on Wednesdays. The party goers once again packed the club. I was shocked then, because it could fit 2,000 to 3,000 people, way more than before. Yet, it was still really packed.

The owner was quite happy. I originally wanted to organize the party once a month, since I wanted to preserve a sense of freshness. I thought people might get tired of it if I did it every Wednesday, not to mention that our drag performers would have difficulties covering four sets of performances a month. The material for the shows that they did couldn’t be reused, each number would only be performed once.

But the owner, seeing how good business was, wanted to have it every week, so I gave in. Some of the drag queens that performed also wanted to have more work. So we decided to do it each week. That was every Wednesday there, in a large venue. More people found out about in the entertainment industry, so some of our drag queens appeared on television shows as a result. The show was broadcasted at the prime time Saturday, I can’t remember the name of the program though.

Paradise Party at @LIVE became a bit more commercial, larger, and more mainstream. Where we play house, tribal, deep house and techno with a dash of diva vocals. For drag shows, it went from two or three songs, to a half-hour performance, or there were two sets of the show. One at 1 AM or so and another at 2 AM.
It became a larger-scaled event and we had a budget to properly print the flyers.

BH:  What were you most proud of regarding the Paradise parties?

VC:  What left the deepest impression was the first night at Underground, as the first gay party, as I brought up before, the owner of Underground was a long-haired rocker guy in his 30s or 40s. He was a rough-looking straight man.

He was standing by the entrance then. When we were going to start letting people in around 9 PM, he found that there were already around one to two hundred people outside, waiting to enter. He opened the door and shouted, “Hey, you all know today is a gay party, right? If you’re not gay, you can’t come in! How do I know you’re all gay?!” [Laughs]

And people shouted back in response, “I’m gay! I’m gay! Let me in!” I felt quite happy when he told me that story later, because back then in Taiwan, being gay was something that we wouldn’t say out loud. People were very low-profile about it. Speaking openly that you were gay and that you wanted to go and party, I thought it was a small step for the progress. It left a deep impression on me.

It’s hard to think of what else. When people bring up the Paradise parties, they talk about how fun it was, that it was a great time. It makes me happy.

I have two friends that met at the party, as well. Later on, they got married, and they’re still together now. That also warms my heart.

BH:  Have you thought about holding Paradise parties again? They were holding “Return to TeXound” events not too long ago, for example.

VC:  I currently don’t have any plans, particularly since I don’t live in Taiwan now. I’m not sure if I would have the opportunity, I wouldn’t rule it out, but I don’t have any plans on it currently.

BH:  Do you have any views on queer parties in Taiwan now? Or is there anywhere you see the influence of the Paradise parties?

VC:  Paradise parties stopped in the early 2000s, and nothing happened for a few years. Drag shows disappeared in gay nightlife for awhile, up until RuPaul’s Drag Race, and some bars started to hold drag performances by the Red House.

The owner of Dalida, Alvin, frequently came to the Paradise parties in the past. The queer parties he did in the past were similar to Paradise, but I don’t think I had any real influence, it’s a new generation. If Paradise Party had influenced him in any way, I’d be honoured.

BH:  Is there anything you would like to say in closing to readers?

VC:  In the past, I never thought that gay people would be as widely accepted in Taiwan as in the present, including that gay marriage can take place. I felt quite proud when gay marriage passed in Taiwan, being the first country in Asia. I’m proud of you, Taiwan.