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Life in the Bubble: Celebrating Pride in a COVID Free Country

THE MIXER | EDITORIAL

LIFE IN THE BUBBLE:

Celebrating Pride in a

COVID Free Country

sidewalkkilla

Foreword by Sidewalkkilla founder Alexey Kim

On October 31 of 2020, over 130,000 people took to the streets of Taipei to celebrate Pride, making it the world’s largest in-person Pride celebration that year. Taiwan has been extremely successful at curbing its COVID-19 infections and on October 30, 2020, just one day before the 18th annual Taipei Pride, the island hit a milestone of 200 days without any locally transmitted cases of the disease.  

A local photographer Kuan-Lun Chang set out to capture this year’s festivities.

“The theme for this year is ‘Beauty, My Own Way (成人之美)’, and it has a double meaning,“

he says,

“‘成’ means ‘adult.’ On the other hand, ‘成’ could be ‘成全,’ which means ‘consent’ or ‘help.’ Therefore it symbolizes helping others to accomplish their own beauty. This is very important. Everyone is different in their gestures, personalities, feelings, humility, and this is why we are similar but different. We have to find our own beauty and respect ourselves and others who might be different from us.”

In May 2019, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Kuan-Lun shares that he saw many families taking part in this year’s parade,

“It’s a great chance to tell their children that there are many people in the world, everyone is different, but unique and beautiful in their own way. After last year’s legalization of same-sex marriage, conservative members who oppose it always say they have no idea how to teach their kids about it; the parents who took their kids to the parade provide a perfect example of how to do this.”

Take a look at Kuan-Lun’s photos from Taiwan’s 18th Annual Pride Parade below and find out what it is like to live in a coronavirus-free country from Taipei-based drag artist Taipei Popcorn.


Life in the Bubble:

Celebrating Pride

in a COVID Free Country

My name is Nick, but I also go by my drag name Taipei Popcorn. I’m originally from New Zealand but I’ve been living in Taipei, the bustling capital of Taiwan, for three years now. I live here with my New Zealand-Taiwanese husband Henry, and I teach English and do a lot of drag. It has been an absolutely surreal experience to experience living here during this time of global turmoil. Taiwan’s COVID response has without a doubt been the best in the world. Despite this exemplary response, it is still barred from participating in the WHO due to pressure from China.

Due to rigorous preemptive measures, Taiwan has experienced no lockdown, just over 600 coronavirus cases and seven deaths, and zero community spread for over 230 days. This is all the more impressive when you consider Taiwan’s population of 23 million (more than Florida) concentrated in several dense cities on an island the size of Maryland. Additionally, it is only a hundred miles from China, the epicenter of the outbreak. Over a million Taiwanese live and work there, flying back and forth from cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Owing to their complicated historic relationship, Taiwan has a deep distrust of China and their government. This meant they began doing medical checks on flights from Wuhan in late December 2019 already, and were one of the first countries to ban flights from China altogether. Mask wearing was quickly introduced, and is still compulsory in most indoor spaces. Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang (who is from a hacker background and also happens to be trans) rolled out a highly efficient digital mask rationing system in a matter of days, while domestic mask production was ramped up over several weeks through government support of factories. The government also instituted a system of phone geo-tracking for incoming travellers undergoing compulsory two week hotel or home quarantine, ensuring they don’t break quarantine. This tracking automatically ends after two weeks and is subject to strict data privacy laws. 

Giant rainbow flag unfurled in front of Taipei City Hall

It is important to mention that these are not the draconian measures of an authoritarian nation. Taiwan is a multi-party democracy with a vigorous culture of protest, open internet, highly active human rights movements, healthy criticism of government, and a thriving queer scene. It is these very qualities that are the reason my husband and I chose to live here and get married here.This openness and transparency has been vital in Taiwan’s decisive and well coordinated national COVID response, and has allowed its citizens to enjoy freedoms which are presently unimaginable in other places. The same can be said of New Zealand and some Nordic states, while the opposite applies to countries under populist, anti-science leadership like the UK, the US and Brazil, which have seen confused public communication, internal political division, soaring death rates and economies in freefall. In Taiwan, restaurants, bars, schools and workplaces are operating at full capacity, people feel safe, and the economy is forecast to grow at a slower but still healthy 2.5% this year. The sense of dread and pity we get from reading the international news feels like something far removed from our daily reality.

Taipei Popcorn

It is with this backdrop that we celebrated Pride in October. It was a month of packed nightclubs, sold out circuit parties, extravagant drag shows, in person LGBT rights conferences and passionate political rallies. Taipei held its second annual Trans Rights March, which was attended by politicians and celebrities, and major companies like Tinder, Gap and Google sponsored floats in the main Pride event. The huge parade culminated in a city wide party which went on all weekend. Taipei was jammed with ubers, taxis and scooters as partygoers, drag performers, DJs and gogo boys hopped from one event to the next, temperature checkers worked overtime at nightclubs doors, outdoors stages blared music to roaring crowds, and countless Taiwanese dollars flowed. Not many people are aware that Taipei is secretly one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and the business elite and local government were surely rubbing their hands at the surge of consumer activity this injection of pink dollars provided. Taipei’s city council promoted Pride heavily, and major magazines like Vogue and Marie Claire invited queer celebrities and drag performers (including me!) to feature in special Pride month editions. 

The reason I recount the month through such a capitalist lens, is that I am increasingly aware of a growing disconnect between this COVID free haven and the rest of the world. The unprecedented and wrenching impact of mass death and economic depression that so many countries are currently experiencing have coincided with massive social movements and calls for radical change. There is a growing awareness that the system was fundamentally broken, and the huge cultural, economic and political shifts that COVID has unleashed will change the world forever. From the Black Lives Matter movement, to calls for a Universal Basic Income, taxes on the wealthy, and expansion of welfare and access to affordable healthcare, the world seems to be questioning the exploitative capitalist systems which are the root of so many of the social ills that COVID merely exacerbated. 

It is this radical political component which I feel was missing from our Pride. As they say, the first Pride was a riot. I believe it should be a fundamentally radical event which embraces protest and anticapitalist values. I am guilty of flouting these myself this year, as I was paid by a major brand to ride on their float and promote them on social media, which led me down this train of thought. Of course, we are extremely privileged and blessed to be living in our bubble of safety and prosperity. We are privileged to be able to gather with our local queer community and party while our queer family abroad remain isolated at home, afraid to go outside and not knowing where their next paycheck will come from. 

I can’t help but feel that among the circuit parties and the corporate sponsorship, safe in our island paradise, we are oblivious to the extent of the rapid changes occurring in the outside world. We will never truly understand what the rest of the world is going through, and I fear we will always lack a certain empathy for the anxieties they faced. I hope that lessons can be shared both ways as the world reopens, that the deep social shifts occurring overseas reach Taiwan’s shores. I would also like Taiwan to share its advanced medical expertise and exemplary pandemic response with the rest of the world, even if that means going outside of the WHO system.

This pandemic has resulted in unprecedented international isolation, and as we gradually begin to open up to one another again, I feel we will be surprised how much we have all diverged and changed forever. How we bridge these new differences will be crucial for our shared futures. 

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Nick Van Halderen

Artist

Kuan-Lun Chang

Photographer

Categories
Events Festivals Timeline

Spectrum Formosus Carves Out Space For Techno Loving Queers In Mountainous Outskirts Of Taipei

EVENTS

Taipei, Taiwan

Spectrum Formosus

Taiwan’s music label Smoke Machine carves out space for techno loving queers in mountainous outskirts of Taipei.

sidewalkkilla

In 2019, Taiwanese-based music label and event organizer Smoke Machine celebrated 10 years of success in the music business. The label is mostly known for its annual techno Organik Festival. The 3-day event is celebrated on the black beaches of Hualien County on the east coast of Taiwan, surrounded by a stunning mountainous vista.

In 2017, Smoke Machine launched another festival, queer-centered Spectrum Formosus. The label didn’t stray too far from keeping it in nature: every year the 3-day techno / art / queer festival is held on a hilly Wen-shan tea plantation, just 30 minutes away from Taipei proper by car. 

“In an age in which nationalism and closed-mindedness seem to prevail globally, we offer a counter space. A safe space for all of those who support and cherish liberty, openness, love, and inclusiveness. A Space where all are welcome, regardless of race, background, class, sexual preference and gender identity,”

Smoke Machine offers explanation to Mixmag Asia for their latest venture.

Spectrum Formosus was originally intended to be an LGBTQ+ geared festival, but only became its queerest self the third time around. In 2019, the organizers of the event decided to involve queer collectives from Hanoi, Chengdu, Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and its Taipei home base.

On the Resident Advisor page of the festival, Smoke Machine states,

“The edition of this year will be a regional festival, celebrating the unity and shared visions. We asked these local collectives to join forces so we can share colorful experiences, learn from each other, celebrate and build a community reaching beyond the borders of our beautiful island.”

The festival included a stellar DJ lineup, matched with queer-centered activities, discussions, and performances. While Smoke Machine’s resident Diskonnected was playing on the Forest stage of the farm, on the other side of the farm a dozen attendees were peacefully creating watercolor portraits of live models—local drag queen by way of New Zealand Popcorn, and Mx. Vagabond who flew in for the festival all the way from New York’s Hudson Valley.

counter space

Over a hundred tents were sprawled in the middle of the tea farm, some of the visitors staying for the whole three days of the festival. On Saturday night DJs started spinning as early as 10 AM and went on until 5 AM the next day. One of the headliners of the festival, Paris-based Shlømo, played hard beats for the entranced eye-rolling, gum-chewing, lollipop-sucking, dirt-stomping barefoot crowd for over three hours.

Most of the people in attendance looked like brief visitors, just like me. Shockingly, 99% of the people I spoke to resided in Taipei. After what seemed to be the 100th person’s confession about living on the island, I almost grabbed him by the shirttail and demanded an answer why.

His response was simple:

“It’s beautiful, the people are nice and it’s safe.” 

There might be a few more reasons why Taiwan is a hit with expats though: the cost of food and accommodations is very affordable compared to major Western cities; English teachers are in demand, racking up a salary high enough to afford comfortable living; excellent public healthcare if you are a student or on a work visa. Another undeniable draw of Taiwan is tolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community; not only was it the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in 2019, it also introduced the Gender Equity Education Act to schools in 2004 following the mysterious death of 15-year-old Yeh Yung-chih. The Act was “formulated in order to advance genuine gender equality, eliminate gender discrimination, safeguard human dignity, and soundly establish education resources and environments that epitomize gender equality.” The Act requires all public and private schools to “provide safe and gender-fair campus learning environments, and respect and give due consideration to students, teachers, and non-teaching staff members who have different genders, gender traits, gender identity, or sexual orientation.” Even though a large chunk of the population still opposes same-sex education in elementary and junior-high schools, Taiwan is leaps and bounds ahead of even the most progressive countries when it comes to LGBTQ+ legislature and education. 

The festival itself attracted a slew of interesting people from all over the world. I spoke to Lenny Naakt, who was the only nudist and exhibitionist at the event. Lenny is adamant that people understand there is a distinction between nudism and exhibitionism. He identifies as both.

“Most nudists would not like to be associated with exhibitionism,”

says Lenny,

“In my case it’s both. Nudists just enjoy pure freedom of being without the burden of clothes. I grew up as a nudist (my parents would prefer ‘naturist’ but I don’t make that distinction), but I figured out the love of exposing myself and the effect it has on others when they notice my nudity. The exhibitionist would be enjoying when somebody watches them naked or could potentially see them unexpectedly. That’s more of a sexual aberration.”

Isabella, a Brazillian model turned drag king who currently resides in Taipei, shared that the reason she started dressing as a man was to escape harassment on the streets of her home town. Birmingham-born Esta Ricardo moved to Vietnam to find/mother GenderFunk, a queer collective that creates inclusive spaces for drag performance in Ho Chi Minh City. JC found himself stuck in the middle and not being able to build close relationships with people from the drag scene as a guy doing male drag:

“Some people wanted me to be a drag queen, but I just think that I already have this JC brand and if I will do female drag people will want to see more, and my drag guy career will fade out. I really don’t want that to happen, because this is my unique side. Actually, I just found out there are people out there who are doing the same thing and calling themselves Drag Prince.”

Lenny Naakt

The personal highlight of the festival for me was the “Taipei Is Burning” mini-voguing Ball organized by Popcorn and her husband Henry. Almost everyone from the drag and Ballroom community of Taipei made an appearance and participated in the Ball’s categories. Big Ninja, the father of Taipei’s chapter of House of Ninja, was the only assigned judge for the Ball. Right before the “Sex Siren” category, he got up from his throne, approached me in the middle of the crowd and whispered in my ear

“You betta work it kitty girl.”

I had never walked in a Ball before and I was shitting in my boots, but I couldn’t pass up on Big’s challenge. After five rounds of floor grinding, neck licking, and ultimately getting my ass naked, I secured the “Sex Siren” trophy, officially making me the sexiest person at the festival. 

Resident Advisor has put it best:

“Techno events in East Asia reflect something at the core of the region’s cultural DNA: zen philosophy. While Western parties and the artists they book tend to emphasize the heavy side of techno, their Eastern counterparts favor more hypnotic and spiritual sounds, suggesting a state of transcendence and, when heard in the striking outdoor locations where some of these events take place, a heightened connectedness with nature.” 

Man vs. Nature

Popcorn (top) with Nymphia Wind

Mx. Vagabond (right) with a friend

Even though Taipei hosted a 10,000-person concert in August of 2020 when the rest of the world was still reeling from the effects of coronavirus, this year’s Spectrum Formosus was cancelled.

“It relied so heavily on international guests from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan etc. But the group that organizes it is still holding big parties at their nightclub which opened in December, so they’re getting by okay. Obviously, they took a hit but at least we can still do events here,”

says Popcorn, who was enlisted by Smoke Machine to help organize the festival from its inception.

Taiwan has been one of the most successful countries in curbing the virus. On October 30, 2020, just one day before the 18th annual Taipei Pride, the island hit a milestone of 200 days without any locally transmitted cases of the disease.

Before Taipei Pride 2020, Popcorn predicted that the festivities would still go on, but on a more modest scale,

“Obviously it will be smaller than previous years without the foreign guests, but we can still do the parade and some parties, which is super lucky. Not a lot of people are doing major events because no one is quite sure what the scale will be… It’s all very up in the air, but I’m sure it will be special and local.”

On October 31, 2020, over 110,000 people took to the streets of Taipei to celebrate Pride.   

NOTE: The article was updated with Lenny Naakt’s quote on 11-18-2020

Alexey Kim

Founder