I don’t go up to Taipei much, simply because life in small town Taiwan is very relaxing, and makes one quite lazy. One of the few times I did head up there, I was fortunate enough to meet a guy who worked as a camera man for a local TV station and a police captain who works in Taipei. We kept in touch over the months, and hung out once in a while. During one of these times, I got an invite to a formal dinner. It was described as being a gathering of the “local power” – which I took to mean the local boys in blue.
Being no stranger to gatherings of this sort, I knew what to expect. Getting together with a professional fraternity of men usually results in copius consumption of alcohol, loads of snacks, stories of braggery and other such enjoyable nonsense. It may start out professional, but ends up with plenty of drunken camaraderie, possible wrestling matches and invariably, shot downing competitions.
Well, in Taiwan, substitute karaoke for wrestling, and beer shots for liquor shots.
So armed with an appetite, some of my best stories (not all of them fake) and drinking shoes, I went to the hotel where this shinding of excess was going to take place. The restaurant itself was quite fancy, and the “local power” had reserved the entire left wing of the place. Young to middle aged Taiwanese men (presumably cops) were gathered in groups chatting and laughing. This was going to be fun!
When my police captain friend saw us arrive, he came over and ushered us to a table. Introductions were made in Mandarin (which I didn’t understand) and I smiled and nodded like the polite foreigner. A few guys approached me and chatted in very basic English (my Mandarin was non existent at the time), but most of my conversation was with my camera man friend.
As the night wore on, we were served an abundance of great food. Boiled lobster tails, black bean shrimp, fish simmering in lemon and garlic, tender, pepper basted pork loin, garlic beef flank, buttered scallops – you name it, it was there. Booze was flowing around the table, and in true Taiwanese style, everyone kept filling everyone else up. Beer went around for the first hour, then the bottles of whiskey showed up. My glass was never less than half full of the whiskey-water mixture they so love to drink here. These cops had it going on.
After the dinner, (I was informed that the tab was picked up by a local politician who was also in attendance) we were ushered into a taxi and whisked away to a KTV (one of the clean ones). More snacks and whiskey arrived, and here the boys really let loose. A cowboy hat appeared from somewhere and they were belting out Mandarin songs like crazy. Dancing ensued (well more like drunken swaying) and a great time was had by all.
Fast forward to a few months later. I was re-telling this story to a Taiwanese friend of mine in town when he enlightened me on a crucial fact that I’d missed. I confirmed this with my camera man friend later. “Local power” doesn’t refer to cops. It’s apparently a special word used here to refer to the representative of the underground – gangs – who also happens to be a local member of congress. A politician who represents the interests of the gangs. Wow! I was partying with what could have been some hardcore Taiwanese mafia types!
So this blew my mind.
I’m aware that the line between the authorities and outlaws is not always solid, and a lot of co-operation goes on behind the scenes between the two to prevent a full out escalation. Both parties give and take to maintain the peace, but I was under the impression that this sort of thing is ALWAYS in the shadows, outside the public eye. So to have a big party out in the open, and affirmg relationships between politicians, cops and gang members was quite the jolt.
Evidently, this is not an uncommon thing in Taiwan.
There are 3 main triads in Taiwan – The Bamboo Union, the Four Seas Triad and the Celestial Way. And all of them have ties with politicians in power. This again, isn’t surprising – gangsters and politician have always made good bed-fellows. The relationships between the gangs and politicians in Taiwan have deep roots, stretching back to the mainland.
What is surprising is that it’s so publicly shown. For example, in this article rival gang members and politicians were visibly rubbing shoulders at a funeral (of another gang boss). Something I don’t think happens in the west. You’d hardly see the leader of Satan’s Choice or the Hell’s Angels having dinner with your local MP would you?
In this article Manabu Miyazaki, author of a critical biography of White Wolf, the head of Taiwan’s largest underworld gang, the Bamboo Union says that the underworld gangs in Taiwan have very close ties to normal, everyday people. If this exists in the west, then I’m pretty ignorant of it. I’ve never seen a party at a local restaurant where the two get drunk and sing karaoke together. But here, it seems to be a well know and socially accepted fact.
Maybe the perceptions of the underground is different here. Perhaps these two forces have been in cahoots for so long, that your everyday Taiwanese doesn’t blink an eyelash, as long as his regular life isn’t interrupted. Could be that this is a more honest society, when it comes to dealing with the devil, and the Taiwanese are much more matter of fact about it; they don’t see any point in hiding what everyone knows is happening.
Just reminded me of that scene in Scarface where Al Pacino gets all drunk at a restaurant and creates a scene screaming, “I’m the bad guy, but you all need me!” This would simply not happen here because all the realtionships are out in the open, and no one seems to care.
Whatever it is, it’s accepted. Gangs run their business, influence policy through the politicians and cops go about chasing the bad guys. And in between all this work, when they get thirsty, the whole lot sits down and has a drink together. Either way, people get on with their regular lives, and Taiwan marches on.