Greater Taichung has been quietly leading the special municipalities in a reassessment of how to regulate bars, KTVs and nightclubs after a tragic fire at the now-defunct ALA Pub on March 6 killed nine people. Under Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強), the municipality has initiated a series of spot inspections on pubs that have resulted in the closing of dozens of establishments, to the dismay of patrons and owners alike.
What is behind these closures, and why can’t the Greater Taichung Government think of a way to address the situation without closing down scores of businesses, throwing many people out of work and leaving the city’s nightlife barren?
Before the ALA Pub fire, hundreds of tiny bars dotted Greater Taichung, many of which were virtual death traps, with tiny entrances, small floor spaces, including many that were below street level, and decorations or paneling that obscured exits and were often highly flammable. Yet on an average weekend or holiday night, they would be packed with dozens of customers. The ALA Pub was no different. On the night of the fire, there were 70 people inside, even though the pub had a floor space of just 30 ping (99.17m2). That is about as cramped as a rush hour MRT subway train in Taipei.
The ALA Pub, like many of the others in Greater Taichung, was not actually registered as a pub. Officially, it was a restaurant, despite the fully stocked bar, loud music, dancing revelers and fire shows. Imagine for a moment what it would be like to try to eat at a table in a 30-ping restaurant with 70 other people talking loudly over the already loud music and swinging mugs of beer around, and you can see the absurdity of the legal loophole in the restaurant/bar scene in Greater Taichung — and many other cities and towns around the nation.
Shortly after the blaze, authorities conducted surprise safety inspections of 45 bars, KTVs and night clubs in the five special municipalities. Only five passed safety inspections; the main reason was most were registered as restaurants, either to save money or because the paperwork was easier, or both. Bars that could not pass inspections, especially in Greater Taichung, were told to shape up or shut down.
This is where the controversy arises. Whose fault is it that pub owners, who in some cases had been operating openly for 10 years or more, used a legal loophole set up by the government? Now that this loophole has been closed, many pubs registered as restaurants are being forced to close, with their owners taking the loss — all because government officials turned a blind eye for years.
Of course, with the presidential and legislative elections coming up in January, Hu needs to look tough to help the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and the bar owners make a great scapegoat. Moreover, foreign patrons who complain that their favorite nightspots are being shut down cannot vote, so Hu does not need to worry about angering them.
Many bar owners are losing out in the “Great Pub Shutdown,” but many knew all along that they had questionable registrations. Loyal bar patrons — local and foreign — feel the Greater Taichung Government is cheating them by taking away their favorite establishments. However, this begs the question: What kind of government would allow known death traps to continue operating?
While the Taichung authorities involved in the crackdown may have less-than-altruistic motives, in the end a government has to establish safety regulations and enforce them, even if going from no rules to some rules is a painful process — and leaves a city’s nightlife more boring for a while.
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