there must be more to life than cats

Last evening in Taipei I decided to drop by a bar I haven’t been before - a speakeasy kind of place.

It was everything a bar on a Monday night would be - a Murakami short story minus the missing cat and half-tragic mystery. Well, okay, take those things away, it actually won't be much of a murakami short story. So let’s be honest - it ain’t no short story, just a nothing-happening account of strangers at a bar on a Monday night.

The lady who let me in through the hidden door was Russian. The long-haired dude pretending to do his pretend at the shopfront smiled. Russian ladies they are a bit bossy - you know, they always look like they will shout at you for no reason or maybe something more violent may happen. Anyway she spoke English with an American accent, so I figured it was safe.

There were 2 white men at the bar counter. The bartender is a good looking Chinese boy with waist length stringy hair in a ponytail and a nose ring. He wore a faded Radiohead tee the way I wear a faded Beatles tee. He also has an American accent. 

The Russian lady says there isn’t a menu but they can mix me something I like - and would I like something herbal, fruity, sour, spicy or alcohol-forward,… Later that night I asked and she confessed that yeah, they don’t actually make things up, but they have a kind of menu or recipe book that they have to memorize. I said make me a dark and stormy-like drink, but with a white alcohol and not a dark rum. I didn’t want a sweet drink. 

On my left is a young couple - a Chinese boy and a pretty white girl. They disappear for a smoke and when they came back, they introduced themselves. She’s from Kentucky and he is Taiwanese but had gone to school in Brisbane. She is teaching English and dance in a Taiwanese public school and had come to Taiwan a year and half ago on a Fulbright because she heard “it was easiest getting selected for Taiwan”. Next week she was going back to America to audition for the Trisha Brown company. The boy is a whiner. He plays his guitar and works sometimes at the street front of the bar pretending a pretend. He whined about how he wants to be a guitarist but the music scene in Taiwan was “fake and commercial”. He wanted to be like his teachers in Brisbane and just jam in bands whenever. I listened and made sympathetic noises. She said he played the guitar really well. I hope she is not really in love. He got lucky.

A red-haired bearded man walked in and sat on my left in the only empty seat. He is also an English teacher. Almost every white foreigner in Taiwan is an English teacher. He has a Brazilian girlfriend and she worked in tech in Dublin where he is from, although I suspect she may also be teaching English here. He is friendly and likes to play on weekends a kind of Irish handball game that involves a lot of drinking. We are in this conversation because both the Russian lady and Taiwanese bartender are talking about how busy and drunk everyone was last weekend. Drinking is the common experience here. They do look knackered.

My food arrived and the Chinese cook who came out with the chicken wings from the kitchen also spoke with an American accent! Later I found out he used to live in San Francisco, but during Covid he smoked too much weed and ate so much junk food he put on 100 pounds. And that was when he decided if he was going to waste his life away he might as well do so at his family home and so he came back to Taiwan. That evening was his birthday. The bartender poured everyone a shot to celebrate. I decided to make the cook happy and wished him happy 21st. He looked 31 at least. Weed and junk food, they age you.

At which point the bartender asked me to guess his age. And I said between 21 and 23. He is 22. 

So we got to talking about being 22 in Taipei. He says his friends are all feeling hopeless. Hopeless is a strong word. He joined his high school alumni chat group recently and the first call he got was from an ex-classmate trying to sell him an insurance plan. He didn’t finish college. He was enrolled in a graphic design programme then. That of course piqued my interest so we continued chatted. He said he got fed up with school because every term there would be 10 assignments but every assignment was a group project with 10 other classmates. This was because his lecturers weee lazy and wanted to grade fewer projects. He hated project work. I empathized - in real life, I told him, while visual designers often work in multidisciplinary teams, you probably have to do your bit alone, so his teachers were indeed real lazy. He hated how everyone just designed what was trendy and cute and there was no “critical thinking”. At this point he looked and me and said - “there’s just a lot of stuff with cats!” He liked to be more expressive and he didn’t like working with an expected grid. I told him my experience at the Taipei art book fair where there were indeed a lot of illustrations and projects with cats, as well as what I described as “cute horror”, a sort of psychedelic grotesque that tried to look adorable at the same time. He said that all that cute lame design was just a form of escapism. I thought that was quite a sharp observation and encouraged him not to give up. 

“My parents - most people in Taiwan - are very conservative. They really hated me being a bartender. Even my sister. She’s 12 years older than me and still living with my parents. But I am independent and I make more money than all of them. My sister finished college and she’s selling washing machines! She is married and still lives in my parents’ home - her husband, he was lecturing me about not finishing college, and I told him if he’s so great why is he still sleeping in MY room!”

I did think to myself if I had had a kid with J the year we met, this could have been my kid. And J wouldn’t mind a boy like that because at least he looked cool. So I said to him kindly - “if you enjoy making art, just continue doing it when you have time.”

He said he will and enjoys messing around customizing tshirts. 

The Russian lady jumped in and said she passed him her Putin tshirt and he has promised to do something with it using bleach. She also affirmed my suspicion that it’s impossible to murder Putin but was hopeful he was suffering from a terminal disease. Her Russian view was that China would never invade Taiwan by force but it would be a coming together of economic inevitability. The Taiwanese bartender nodded. 

He asked if I was from Japan and did creative work. I said I was Singaporean and worked in the arts. The Irish guy said I also have an American accent - so I spoke to him with an English one. The bartender laughed and said he really thought I was a Japanese designer. Must be the leather jacket. We were simply a parade of stereotypes to one another, behind or before the bar counter. Five ingredients make a cocktail: one spirit, one flavored liquor, one fruit or fizz, one spice or herb, one garnish. You didn’t need a menu to read a man or woman at the bar. It is also a kind of escapism. 

The young couple had left some time ago.  When the Irish guy and the other 2 white men finally left, we could speak even more freely. The bartender was really chatty about design and it turns out the Russian lady has a Masters in fine arts! She was dismissive about it though, suggesting somehow that it was just an excuse for her to get a student visa to Taiwan and out of Russia. 

They could end the Monday night early so I said I would leave them be. The bartender says that however tired he was, he would automatically wake up at 10am - and sometimes he would make himself a pasta to take to work. His mom taught him well. The Russian lady yawned and looked at him with fake admiration - waving him away with “damn I wish I was like you!”. They said they were expecting a group of rowdy Germans who have become regulars to turn up next. All the more reason for me to run away. I wished them well. And they said see you soon, next time. 

Next time, could it be that Putin and men like him would be bleached off tshirts? Next time - who knows when would next time be? Next time, cats may really be running the world. 


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