I remember once talking with two DJ friends about the two rooms at Korner, once the only devoted underground club in all of Taiwan.
“It’s always foreigners playing in Korner,” said one of my friends, who I won’t name. “And Taiwanese play in Outer.” Korner was the name of the main room. Outer was, well, the secondary room. “It doesn’t feel right.” She was remarking on that Taiwanese DJs were put in a position of less importance compared to international DJs, always relegated to the secondary room.
“Still,” the other friend commented. “When we tour it’s the same way. We’re in the main room then. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that.”
I don’t have any great answers either. But this proves a telling anecdote, maybe, pointing to some of the racial issues under the surface of club culture. It’s a bit funny to me that underground culture likes to view itself as some kind of pluralistic post-racial melting pot sometimes. The same dynamics that exist in society at large often themselves are replicated in the club—or any form of music scene, frankly.
This differs from the self-image of club culture. Certainly, I’ve noticed over the years that many like to point to the origins of underground club culture in black gay clubs in Detroit, to suggest that there’s something inherently radical about underground club culture. And articles are aplenty about, say, queer parties in otherwise highly conservative Ukraine or raves in Palestine, aimed at suggesting the subversiveness of club culture.
It is the case that club culture can be subversive and radical. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Still, as a club owner I interviewed recently commented to me, remarking on the self-perception of club culture as radical, it’s generally my suspicion that underground culture isn’t really as progressive or radical when it comes to matters of race as it likes to think it is.
Though most of the world has been on lockdown and unable to party for much of the past year, the eruption of Black Lives Matter into the popular consciousness has led to increased discussion regarding racial diversity in the club scene. This was true in Taiwan, during which I saw a few BLM and Black Trans Lives Matter-themed parties in the last year, as well as elsewhere. But these are conversations that should long since have been had.
Going back to the opening question at hand, why is it, anyway, that we bill DJs with their nationality next to their name? Certainly, there’s joy in having touring artists come in from abroad, to share their experiences, ways of looking at the world, and ways of playing music—a joy we’ve been denied during COVID times, for the most part. At the same time, being from a foreign country represents cachet—a form of social capital, if nothing else. This has been particularly visible during COVID-19—travel being more difficult, this increased the cachet of foreigners already here.
Sometimes I’ll be surprised to see relatively inexperienced DJs get bookings in places that a Taiwanese peer with a similar experience or skill level would never be able to. But I guess it shouldn’t surprise though, since the club scene can be about appearances, too—people that look cool or different can get farther, regardless of skill level, and that’s simply how it is, regardless of what people claim about club culture being open and welcoming to all and not valuing superficial appearances. Exoticism—even self-exoticism—sometimes is what gets people places.
As someone who only really got to know the underground in exclusively Asian contexts, it often strikes me that the same aesthetic transposed to another context might not be as radical. There are a lot of aficionados of Berlin techno, of people who went to Berlin, fell in love with club culture there, and sought to recreate that where they came from. That’s definitely one of the strong trends of the electronic music scene in Taiwan. For others, they fell in love with the Japanese underground scene and wanted to bring that home. Taiwan was a former Japanese colony and still has close cultural ties to Japan. Or it could be China, Taiwan’s much larger neighbor across the Taiwan Straits.
The criticism that can be directed against those that have sought to import these aesthetics from elsewhere is that they sometimes try to reproduce other scenes rather mechanistically. And it is, in fact, quite....post-colonial. What strikes me about this phenomenon, particularly regarding aesthetics derived from scenes in western countries, is that you see something that might be radical or subversive in a western context reflect distinctively culturally colonialist dynamics when transposed to a different context.
Heck. This might have to do with the phenomenon of listening to electronic music in a non-western context itself. The origins of modern house, techno, and trance are diverse, ranging from everything from YMO to Kraftwerk. That being said, today’s dominant electronic music genres all originated in western contexts before spreading to non-western contexts. This is also true of other forms of music such as rock or hip hop, for example.
Historically, the spread of music genres often reflects colonialism and imperialism. The spread of rock or hip hop in many parts of Asia traces its origins to American GI radio stations after World War II, often spreading from bars and nightclubs near military bases.
The spread of electronic music reflects similar trends. Sometimes diaspora played a key role in this, such as with Taiwanese American producer DJ Jerry’s large presence in Taiwanese electronic music in the 1990s and 2000s. So at the heart of it, it goes back to the fundamental relation of electronic music with non-western contexts, maybe.
It’s also the case that the scene invariably reflects existing inequalities in society I remember my dad, who grew up in Indonesia in the post-war period and played in bands, remarked to me once that when he was young, he had to cobble together parts for amps from random electronics that he found. By contrast, kids who were the children of embassy workers could afford more expensive equipment.
It’s sometimes unsurprising encountering a disproportionate number of expat performers in the scene because of higher salaries compared to locals—allowing them to purchase better equipment, among other things. Professional-grade DJ equipment is out of the reach of many, particularly given increasingly low salaries in Taiwan for young people. This kind of trend regarding equipment is something I’ve noticed in more than one scene, though. Other times it can be felt in the financial capacity to rent out venues for performances.
There are likely no easy answers—decolonizing the club is easier said than done, and it invariably ruffles feathers. Some might not even want to discuss the issue. Still, it’s probably an overdue conversation.