Sun, Aug 28, 2005 - Page 17 News List

Combat Zone fights for it's future

Once the frontline of Taipei nightlife, the Combat Zone now sees little action. It will take grassroots efforts and government help, pub owners say, to re-energize the area

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

Neon lights flicker and music spills out of the pubs lining Taipei's Shuangcheng Street. Girls in high heels and short skirts saunter onto the blacktop and wait. Then wait some more.

"Beer only NT$99," one calls out to a passerby.

"Happy hour. Two for one," says a girl form a pub across the street.

The problem is that the bar hostesses greatly outnumber the potential bar guests. Wednesday nights or weekends, the situation is the same. Though it used to be the nucleus of Taipei nightlife, the Combat Zone, as the area popularly called, is now fighting for its future.

FROM HIGHLIGHT TO RED LIGHT

The area got its moniker for being the favorite R&R spot of US soldiers stationed in Taiwan decades ago. With the closest fighting thousands of kilometers away in Vietnam, the joke was that the only action soldiers here saw was in the bars of the Combat Zone.

When the troops pulled out of Taiwan in 1979, the Zone suffered its first big blow. But it was still a popular nightlife location among the remaining foreign community and even gained in popularity among locals after the troops' withdrawal, according to long-time pub owners and patrons.

"It all started at the President Hotel," said Diane Liu (劉明明), who met her husband at the Farmhouse disco and live music venue in the early 1990s. "Green Door was the first of the bars, I think, but Farmhouse was a great place to hear rock bands. Their house band, MIT, was very well known. Wu Bai and China Blue even played there. ? But the feeling of the whole area changed."

That change, many say, was the appearance of several hostess bars that sprung up next door to the more traditional European-style pubs and eventually outnumbered them. The area slowly became less a place for singles of both sexes and began catering to career men.

Girls lure in patrons who are then obliged to treat the hostesses to thimbles of "red wine" -- usually grape juice -- that is topped off several times at maybe NT$300 or more each time. While most all the bars in the area are staffed with young woman who will sit and chat with customers, it's only a minority of them in which you don't pay for the privilege.

"It never used to be like that," Liu said. "Yes, there were also a lot of bars back then, and even hostess bars, but you saw couples in the area and girls who had come to have fun. Now you don't see that."

As the mixed crowd shipped out, platoons of professional men marched in, keeping bar hostesses busy and bar owners happy. The traditional bars, too, still saw a steady stream of customers, albeit of reduced numbers.

SLIM PICKIN'S

"Even three years ago business was good," said Corina Yung (泳美歷), the owner of Euro Pub at the far end of Lane 32, the busiest lane off Shuangcheng Street. "Of course SARS scared everyone away. And after that the economy was still bad. But people just seem to have forgotten about the area."

"A friend at one of the bars up the street was joking with me a while back. She said, `Corina, you're in a bad location. By the time the pot gets to your end of the street, there's no meat left, only broth.'"

With over 30 bars along Lane 32 alone, she said, some nights there appears to be more pubs than punters.

Rick Monday, a disc jockey on radio station ICRT and 21-year resident of Taiwan also remembers the Combat Zone's golden years. Standing outside what used to be Montana Pub, across from Yung's bar, he recalls when the establishment did big business.

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