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Credit: James Gui

Inside Taipei's flourishing underground club scene

With a close-knit community of DJs playing everything from heavyweight techno to deconstructed club and Mandopop, and a healthy selection of intimate venues to host them, Taipei’s club scene is booming with creative, futuristic purpose. James Gui travels to the Taiwanese capital to learn more

It seems that almost every DJ you meet in Taipei was once the kid in LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’, to whom the song’s narrator was, well, losing his edge. Just swap out the band references to the local Taiwanese context: Forests for This Heat, Touming Magazine for Nation of Ulysses. Taiwanese American DJ Jon Du quotes James Murphy’s lyrics when he introduces himself: “I sold all my guitars, started playing synthesisers, and now I use the CDJs.”

We’re chatting at FINAL, an underground club in the middle of Taipei’s Da’an district, fumes from yesterday’s cigarettes coating the red couches around which we’ve gathered. Du, who moved to Taipei over a decade ago, has had a similar trajectory to many other DJs in the city who started out in the indie rock scene: first shoegazing with Boyz & Girl and noise rocking with Forests, these days he mostly runs with the likes of Tzusing, Lujiachi, Meuko! Meuko!, and the rest of the regulars at FINAL, playing a mix of bass music, EBM and deconstructed club over its Funktion-One sound system.  

“Me, Pon [Meuko! Meuko!] and Jon all used to play in bands together,” says Lujiachi. “I remember there was a time Jon told me to come through to [now-closed club] Korner — I was just playing guitar at the time, then all of a sudden started going to Korner and started listening to electronic music.”

Korner was, in many ways, the birthplace of the current generation of clubs in Taipei: from its ashes arose the techno purism of Pawnshop and the dark eclecticism of FINAL. Located in the antechamber of live music venue The Wall, Korner was just about the only place for underground DJs to perform, catering to a mishmash of indie kids, techno heads, punks and bass junkies. Nowadays, there’s a bit more of a variety, with clubs like Studio 9 and GREY AREA filling out the ranks, but just over half a decade ago Korner was the nexus of the underground.

“A lot of people were throwing parties there and we all had different nights, but the crowd was open-minded, very mixed, and it was fun,” says Sonia Calico, a DJ and producer whose UnderU parties brought the likes of Bok Bok, Jubilee, and Air Max ‘97 to Korner in its heyday. “It would be like house events, techno events, minimal events, bass events, just a lot of different stuff. So when Korner finished, every genre kind of split off.”  

L to R: BENN, Meuko! Meuko!, Sandy's Trace, Lujiachi, Jon Du
Credit: James Gui

The Smoke Machine crew — the techno-minded organisers of Organik Festival — went on to start Pawnshop, while Hsu Chieh, another DJ and promoter for Korner, opened FINAL. Last year, Sonia Calico also organised her own event called Synergy Festival, which featured visual artists like XTRUX alongside a who’s who of Taiwan’s dance music crews, including the dubwise Frontline and Taichung’s Cave Records

“In the beginning, I just wanted to throw an event that’s outside of a venue or normal club, but then I got several partners together and they persuaded me to make it like a proper festival,” says Sonia Calico. “During Covid, people just tried to do things that they don’t normally do I guess, because you don’t know what the future’s gonna be. And my life changed as well, because I used to tour and play a lot of gigs outside of Taiwan. During Covid, I didn’t get a chance to do that.” 

Synergy Festival also featured NAXS Corp., a new media art collective whose work in VR clubbing gained further traction during the pandemic. The same weekend DJ Mag is in Taipei, they’re hosting a three-day online music festival with Sunset Music, featuring bands like Sunset Rollercoaster and Mong Tong alongside a DJ stage curated by the FINAL crew. 

It’s the kind of thing that might feel odd in other scenes, yet is more common than you’d think in Taiwan, thanks in no small part to the efforts of artists who straddled the club and indie scenes. “​​I used to throw parties as well, and I would book bands and DJs and try to make it more integrated,” says Jon Du. “But it always felt to me it was just almost impossible. So I think it’s been marinating for some time.”

Photo of the entrance to FINAL nightclub in Taiwan
Credit: James Gui

Four years in, and FINAL has come into its own. “Now we have five DJs and also producers that have tracks that we can put out. I think that’s a milestone,” says Hsu. Tzusing’s label Sea Cucumber dropped a compilation in March featuring those five FINAL residents: Meuko! Meuko!, Sandy’s Trace, Jon Du, Lujiachi, and B E N N. It’s a noisy, bassy affair, a culmination of the sounds that FINAL has been pushing over the past few years.  

Meuko! Meuko!’s contribution is titled ‘Rebels of the Neon God’ after Tsai Ming-liang’s classic film (also the origin of a party series of the same name at FINAL). Her productions feel as ritualistic as their titles suggest, and this track channels a haunting ambience reminiscent of her 2018 record ‘Ghost Island’. “When I was young, I lived next to a temple, so I would always listen to that kind of music,” she recalls. 

Though she’s lived in Taiwan her whole life, she’s embarked on multiple world tours and held a five-year residency for NTS from 2017 to 2022 — a scene veteran both locally and abroad. In high school, she joined the indie pop band The Shine&Shine&Shine&Shine “through a mix of luck and opportunity”, later leaving to pursue her solo electronic music career. From hypnotic sets at Pawnshop to DIY parties under a highway overpass with the Rave Fun Taiwan crew, she’s held it down at an impressive range of gigs in Taiwan. 

But the two newer names on the compilation, Sandy’s Trace and B E N N, are also making their mark on the scene. “[Sandy’s] very talented. He’s very young, and he’s just started, but he’s very driven and passionate,” says Hsu. “When we first met him, he was only DJing, and over the past few years we’ve already seen a lot of progress [in his productions].” B E N N is a bit older, having left his previous job after saving enough money to fly to London and learn how to produce. He’s pushing his take on deconstructed club music through his label OverMyBody, a sound that’s evident in his contribution to the FINAL compilation. “He knows what he wants to do, to put out songs, to build the scene,” says Sonia Calico. “I think what he’s doing is exciting, and I’m very supportive.”

L- R: Sonia Callico and Tzusing
Credits: Ash Lin and James Gui

With scene veterans sharing their know-how with newcomers, the FINAL crew is moving into the future. “Early on, people would come here and be like, ‘Wow, these guys don’t know what they’re doing’,” Tzusing remembers.  “Or [think what we’re playing is] not sophisticated because it’s not ‘real’ dance music, because sometimes we’ll even play pop songs." "[They’d say] this is not a real underground club,” adds Hsu. The first time they did an actual Mandarin pop-themed party, however, about 700 people showed up. “We couldn’t even light cigarettes in here because there was no air inside,” says Hsu. 

But on a normal night, you’ll hear Mandopop mixed in with more conventional club fare; on our first night at FINAL, DJ HaiLongWang mixes Jacky Wu’s ‘I Will Miss You’ into Mechatok’s ‘All The Time’. His set is a discombobulating journey that somehow weaves the best of Mandopop and indie with breakcore, 2-step and club cuts, a musical narrative with a uniquely Taiwanese emotional pull. 

“As a local Taiwanese, I think I need to think about how to present a mix that only belongs to me,” says DJ HaiLongWang. “I always combine all types of music that I've been obsessed with recently.” But it’s not just a potpourri; there’s a rhythmic DNA that informs his transitions between trap and dancehall, trip-hop and jungle. Amid the smoke and lasers, it’s one of the most refreshing mixes we’ve heard in a while.  

Of course, not every set at FINAL jerks your ear every which way. The next time DJ Mag comes through, up-and-coming collective PURE G have brought Berlin-via-Seattle heavyweight CCL for a packed Saturday night crowd. Though they're known for their genre-spanning mixes, those genres typically stay within the purview of dance music — their mix tonight is more focused than DJ HaiLongWang’s, channelling the hypnotic kineticism of electro, broken beat, and schranz to the 200-capacity club. Supporting them are PURE G’s co-founder XIИ (Xinping Lin), Pawnshop regular YuY and Sulk, a Taiwanese-born DJ who cut his teeth at Shenzhen’s renowned OIL Club. CCL finishes around 150BPM, which Sulk bumps up to 160, finishing off the night with a blistering round of footwork and jungle.  

“This year, we started working with Hsu, the owner of FINAL, to throw a festival in November,” says Lin. Eel Festival, as it’s going to be called, “is a one-day indoor event focusing on forward-thinking electronic music and avant-pop music”.  “I wanted to call this club Eel in the first place, actually,” Hsu chimes in, “but Tzusing thought it was maybe too dark. And I wanted to have an actual eel in a fish tank somewhere in the club. But [FINAL’s manager] Fu Yu said no, so we didn’t do it.” 

When it came time to name the festival project, Hsu floated his original idea and it stuck. “I thought that [holding a festival] would be a good way to book artists that I couldn’t have at FINAL: perhaps bigger names, or just different kinds of music. We’re also gonna [book] live acts, like singers or rappers.” 

L- R: PURE G's Xinping Lin and Yinhao Lien sat on a bench in a club. DJ HaiLongWang DJing
Credit: James Gui

Outside of parties and festivals, PURE G also host a podcast series as “an international platform to exchange and share interesting sounds, media arts and visual arts”. They’ve had mixes from an array of global talent, including Zvrra, ¥ØU$UK€ ¥UK1MAT$U and Schacke, but it all started three years ago in a basement at Shih Chien University. “It was a very private party, and we just invited all of our friends,” says Lin, who co-founded the collective with Yinhao Lien (AKA L1H). 

Their first public party was at PIPE Live Music, a venue typically used by the city’s thriving indie music scene, but that’s also home to hip-hop shows and the occasional OTAKUNI anison party. As Lin explains, “At that time, it was more like gabber, hardcore, Thunderdome-type stuff.”

Lin then went to FINAL’s opening party, a New Year’s affair that ushered in 2019 with Tzusing playing ‘A Whole New World’ — both the Disney and SOPHIE versions. The rest is history: PURE G had their second party at FINAL, which has since served as their unofficial home base. “I think the FINAL crowd is very open,” says Lin. “They’re open to many different things, for example in January we invited Oli XL, and his music is not as clubby but everyone still stayed.” 

That party was a rare collaboration with New York’s Blake Leigh, DJ and founder of the monthly Club Night Club rave. “I really liked [Taipei] because in a lot of ways it’s the opposite of New York: everyone seems so chill, it’s really clean and easy to get around, and just generally very pleasant,” says Leigh over WhatsApp. Bonding with Lin online over the ins and outs of throwing parties — not only curating music but also things like lighting — their in-person collaboration sprouted naturally from conversations about the PURE G podcast. 

L - R: Hsu Chieh and Fu Yu sat in a room while white tiled walls. Meuko! Meuko! sat on concrete stairs
Credit: James Gui

Leigh continues about Taipei’s nightlife culture: “It’s kind of interesting because there’s all these karaoke spots, and it’s pretty normal to just go out with your pals and kick it late at a karaoke spot after dinner or the club, while, kind of in a funny way, there’s not anything like that in New York.” 

At around 5AM, after PURE G’s event, DJ Mag does just that, heading to Party World KTV to sing some Mandopop ballads and pop punk anthems with another promoter, Allen Huang, who DJs as Hojo. Taiwan does karaoke a little differently, as Leigh notes — along with your favourite songs, you can queue up beef noodle soup and dumplings straight to your room. Post-club snacking is on a different level in Taipei, with a slew of late-night eateries slinging stinky tofu, rice porridge and other local favourites.

Huang books for 23 Music Room, a club located in the large Taipei Expo Park on the city’s outskirts. Earlier this year, he brought New York mainstay DJ SWISHA to play here on a Thursday night, packing out the small club. But tonight, we’re here for Queer Trash, a bi-monthly party thrown by Zheng Yi Sung, AKA Byronica. As DJ Mag arrives, there’s a mess of people spilling into the large open space outside the club — we can hardly believe all these people have come for 23 Music Room, which can house perhaps 100 people, max. 

Sung explains: “I think what makes Queer Trash different [from other queer parties] is not only that it’s free for everyone, but also that you don’t need to be queer to attend.” The mood is festive: a diverse mix of foreign and Taiwanese clubbers are getting down to Taylor Swift and Leona Lewis. Then, DJ Loc drops some Mandopop, and the club turns into a mass KTV session. “In the beginning, I just wanted to throw a birthday party with only pop songs,” says Sung, “then it became a regular event, once every two months.”

L - R: Byronica DJing and Queer Trash. A photograph of the crowd dancing at Queer Trash
Credit: James Gui

Queer Trash has been nurturing its residents since 2020, taking over 23 Music Room every other month with a mix of pop, house and techno. “Our resident DJs, Sympathy and Target Employee, are definitely my favourite queer DJs in Taipei. I literally can’t think of anything they can’t do,” says Sung, who also played in rock bands at legendary venues like Underworld, and has a perspective on underground music similar to those at FINAL.

“I’ve always had a wide range of taste in music and one of my beliefs is that all genres and styles complement and can blend with each other,” he says. “Music isn’t so rigid like that. So I’ll always be a rocker, I’ll always be into electronic. [They’re] just different modes of expression, like being able to speak different languages.”  

At Queer Trash, we run into a lot of familiar faces: Sonia Calico, Tzusing, Allen Huang, B E N N, DJ HaiLongWang. With longstanding scenesters partying alongside newer blood, the gathering tonight might be a microcosm of the past, present, and future of Taipei’s underground club scene. And if our experiences over the past two weeks here are any indication, that future is bright.

Want more? Read DJ Mag's feature on the new Miami underground here

James Gui is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @_zkgui