Taiwan’s music label Smoke Machine carves out space for techno loving queers in mountainous outskirts of Taipei.
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,”
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.
“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.
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,”
“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.”
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.
“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
JC the Drag Guy
Big Ninja judging “Bizarre” category
Mx. Vagabond fire dancing
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