What you need to know
Joe Henley talks to Keith Menconi about his new book, 'Bu San Bu Si: A Taiwan Punk Tale.'
Even longtime residents of Taiwan could be forgiven for ignorance of the vibrant but little-known punk rock and heavy metal scene that can be found, with characteristic screaming vocals and thrashing mosh pits, throughout a select handful of the nation’s bars and clubs.
But after his arrival in Taiwan a little over a decade ago, Canadian author and musician Joe Henley managed to find his way into the scene fairly quickly, and he has been captivated by it ever since. Playing the role of participant observer, he has both performed in a number of local bands including death metal outfit Revilement as the group’s lead singer, and has also written about it extensively as a columnist and freelance journalist for a number of English-language publications.
Those years of experience are brought to bear in his second novel, "Bu San Bu Si: A Taiwan Punk Tale" published by Camphor Press. The novel offers a gritty but sympathetic portrayal of Taiwan’s hardcore rockers as it follows young guitarist Xiao Hei, whose dreams of punk grandeur are left unsatisfied by the beer-soaked concert halls his band calls home. Xiao Hei’s wayward ambition eventually gets the better of him when his attempt to give his career a boost draws him in over his head with Taipei’s criminal underworld.
Concerts that end in fist fights, modest means and challenging circumstances met with musical obsession, a counterculture struggling to carve out its place in a disapproving society, "Bu San Bu Si" provides a glimpse at what the rockstar lifestyle means for the punks and the metalheads of Taiwan’s underground music scene.
The News Lens recently sat down with Henley to talk about his book, counter-culture in Taiwan, and writing authentically about a place that you did not grow up in.
TNL: This is your second novel. Your first, "Sons of the Republic," was more of a crime thriller. Why did you decide to move away from the fanciful, and instead to turn your focus to this music scene, a subject matter that is obviously much more rooted in your own experience?
Henley: It was something very close to my heart, and I’ve been involved in it for over a decade now, and just like being in bands, I’ve been a promoter, I’ve been covering the scene as a journalist, and I thought it’s something that people outside the scene, outside of Taiwan, would not know much about. And I thought it was a good opportunity to present Taiwan to those people that don’t know a lot about this country and don’t know a lot about the underground subcultures here, or even the people here who are not aware of this subculture because it is something that is very niche, and something that is very under the radar aside from bands like Chthonic or people like Freddy Lim and Doris [Yeh] who are celebrities [both prominent members of Chthonic, Taiwan’s most famous metal band], but other than that, people won't know a lot about that.
TNL: Was there any additional research you needed to prepare for this book?
Henley: It’s just from living it. I’ve been going to at least one show a week for over a decade now. I’ve lived there basically. My weekends have been spent in these places, so the research has just been living life in the scene, going to shows, playing shows, promoting shows, writing about shows for newspapers or what have you. That’s been the research, so it was a very natural thing for me to write about because I’ve been living it basically.
TNL: In this book, you are writing about and from the perspective of Taiwanese people. Now while you’ve lived here for many years, obviously these are people who grew up very differently from you: different culture, different language, different schooling. How did you think about the question of authenticity when you wrote this, and how did you make sure that your portrayal of this scene and these people was something that they would recognize?
Henley: That is a really good question and I’m glad that you asked that. I really sound like a politician right now. I did spend a lot of time grappling with that, and like you say, I am not Taiwanese and I would never ever represent myself as such. I’m not assimilated here. But I have in a way kind of grown up here. Like I came here fresh out of college as a 22-year-old kid, and I’ve grown up in this scene. In a lot of ways I’ve become an adult here in Taiwan, and I’ve now spent over a third of my life in this country. Everything in the book, everything that the characters say is based on conversations I’ve had with Taiwanese people. I’ve never wanted to have them say something that was coming from my head. It was something I’ve heard from them.
I’ve been in the scene for over a decade. I’m married here. One of the people in one of my bands is actually my brother-in-law, so I’m talking to my Taiwanese family all the time about issues relating to Taiwanese identity, Taiwanese politics, the music scene. I will never represent myself as being Taiwanese, or even as being representative of Taiwan, but I do believe honestly that what I’ve written in this book is quite faithful to what reality is here. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have even attempted it; I wouldn’t have put it out.
But it is something that is tricky, and you know I’m a white male writing about Asian people, Taiwanese people, and especially now in this day and age, that’s a very sticky sort of situation, but I hope that people will be able to see the authenticity in it because I do feel it is there.
TNL: Well you did get an endorsement from Freddy Lim, which readers can see on the front cover of the book. If anyone would know whether or not you messed something up it would definitely be Freddy Lim.
Henley: I hope so. Freddy is a friend, but he’s a straight shooter, and if he was uncomfortable with it in any way, he would have just told me straight up. He did me a really big favor in putting his name, his brand, right there on the cover, so I’m really thankful for him doing that for me.
TNL: So as you’ve said, you’ve written extensively on this topic before in a journalistic context. Why did you feel like it was important to put your knowledge and your observations into a novel?
Henley: I think it’s a story worth telling because a lot of people on the front lines of a lot of contemporary movements in Taiwan are artists and musicians and they come from the punk scene -- they come from the metal scene. I’m not going to say all of them are, but a lot of them are, and I thought it was important to present this to an English-speaking audience because that’s the way that people learn. They might not necessarily want to watch or read a journalistic article about Taiwan. They might just click on through to the next thing. But if there’s an entertaining, engaging story that they can get wrapped up in, then I think they’ll take more away from that, and they might become more invested. They might even become passionate about something like Taiwanese independence, or learning about Taiwanese identity, or just Taiwanese history, Taiwanese culture, anything.
TNL: What were you trying to get across to readers about this music scene?
Henley: I just wanted to paint a picture of people who would be perceived as outsiders here, because to be a punk or a metal head in Taiwan is not an easy thing. So I wanted to just put across how by making some simple choice -- as simple as listening to this aggressive, some would say frightening, outsider style of music, how that is basically choosing to go completely against the dominant culture and the dominant values. For a lot of them, they’re going completely against what their families want for them, and family values here are paramount. You’re supposed to grow up, get a good job, make as much money as you can, take care of your parents in their old age. By growing your hair long, having tattoos, having piercings, it’s hard to get a job if you look that way.
The guitar player in my band has struggled for years just because he has long hair. That’s it. He’s educated. He has a degree -- smart guy, hard worker. But he’ll still go into a job interview, and they’ll just see his hair. That’s it. They think he’s some kind of gangster or low life because he chooses to have long hair.
So I just wanted to put that across, just the outsider element, which is not the same as in the Western world, because you know in Europe nobody cares if you have tattoos or long hair. You can work front counter anywhere. You can be in the public view. It’s not 100% gone away, but here it’s more extreme I think: the conformist sort of mentality that people have. You’re supposed to go with the grain.
TNL: And that’s where the name of the book comes from, correct? [Bu San Bu Si or 不三不四 is a Chinese expression that literally translates to “not three, not four,” and is used to describe those of dubious character.]
Henley: That’s right. Not three, not four: You don’t fit in. You’re not this, you’re not that, you’re nothing. What are you? That’s the question that these people are maybe not faced with verbally on a day-to-day basis, but when the stares that they face, the looks, the judgments that they endure, that’s what they’re dealing with on a daily basis. And it’s just because they have this very human feeling that they want to be themselves, and for whatever reason, punk and metal music has spoken to them at some point in their lives, and they love it, and it’s very innocent just to fall in love with a form of music.
It could have been any form of music: It could have been folk music; it could have been something a lot more soft-spoken, but they fell in love with heavy music, and the reasons for that are as varied as the amount of people that listen to it. But they fell in love with it. They don’t want to apologize for it. They don’t want to have to justify it. They just want to be who they are. But to do that, they have to be Bu San Bu Si, and so they make that sacrifice.
TNL: Your novel explores that tension between this subculture and the mainstream expectations of society. It also looks at how economic pressures and family pressures affect these artists. But are those pressures in any way unique to Taiwan? All artists face these tensions to some degree.
Henley: I think it’s playing out in a more extreme sense here. I had a friend in one band, and they were one of the biggest bands in the metal scene, and they were playing a show at Legacy, the biggest venue you can possibly play at as a metal band, 1,200 capacity, huge show. This guy is a guitar player. His dad was outside the venue, and his dad was painting outside, so he was an artist himself. But I got to talk to him: He wasn’t going inside, even to watch his son, so I asked him, “Why are you here?” And he said, “I’m here to make sure my son knows that music is just a hobby.” So he stood outside.
And he painted beautifully, but that’s what his art was for him too: It was just something that he did to pass the time. He could have been an artist in my opinion if he could have somehow found a way to make a living off that. But he said no, this is a hobby for me, so playing guitar, being in a band for my son, that’s only going to be a hobby, and I’m going to be here to make sure he knows that.
So I think that’s more extreme and more pervasive here. Parents will encourage their kids to study music as children, play the piano, play the violin, play the erhu, play whatever, but as soon as you’re out of university, that’s done. That’s a childish pursuit. You can play it on the side, but you're focused now on working, making money, having a family, taking care of your parents. Those are the priorities. Music is not even secondary: It’s an afterthought.
TNL: For somebody who is skeptical about this music scene, maybe they’ve heard some Mandopop, they weren’t too impressed, they don’t know what to expect here, what would you say to them? What is it about this scene that has captured your interest for all these years?
Henley: I think the circumstances that surround it are what makes it interesting. The political situation, the question of Taiwanese identity, of what it means to be Taiwanese, of what Taiwan is in the world -- a country that according to the majority of the world is not a country -- and that informs the music, that informs the lyrics, that informs the people that have to deal with this on a day-to-day basis in their lives. This is them getting their voice out to the world. This is the medium that they’ve chosen. A lot of the music here in metal and punk is highly political [predominantly leaning toward the pro-independence side of Taiwan’s political spectrum], which is not uncommon in metal and punk, but it’s what they have to say to the world, and the reason why they have to say it. Their country is under the gun twenty-four seven from China, so that’s what informs the music. That’s what gives it the immediacy and the passion. They want to be heard, and they want people to know what they are and how they feel every day, and the pressures that they are under.
It’s also the cultural pressure that they are under -- the family pressure, the economic pressure. The salaries are stagnated. It’s hard to find a high paying job if you’re young. They are under a ton of pressure, and in a lot of ways, if you’re a young person today in Taiwan, the outlook is somewhat bleak, and they need a way to get those emotions out, so I think that’s what makes it interesting to me. It’s not some trust fund kid out there saying how hard his life is. It’s somebody who’s under a ton of political pressure -- identity is a big question, economic pressure -- that’s the person who you’re listening to. So I think that’s what makes it unique.
TNL: What would you hope that readers who are not familiar with Taiwan might take away from this book?
Henley: I would hope they would come away with a sense of the passion and the dedication of the musicians -- of the struggles internal and external that they have to go through just to play this style of music, just to remain committed to it beyond their school years.
Just the struggle of it and the reasons behind the struggle which are not the same as the struggles musicians will go through in the Western world. It’s a very different thing. There’s a lot of common ground, but it’s not the same thing. So I would hope they would come away with a greater understanding of punks and metalheads who come from a different place, culturally, linguistically, politically. I would hope that they come away with a sense of all of those.
Editor: Edward White
Photo Credit: Ciou Wei Li Photography