She dazzled in a royal-blue diamante dress, framed by lights and wreathed in smoke, warbling a song popular in Shanghai 60 years ago. Only after she fluttered down to our table for a red envelope containing money could one see time's lines etched under the heavy makeup.
Most of the customers at the red envelope club (紅包場) called Red Top Artists Theater (紅頂藝人劇場) on Wuchang Street (武昌街), in Ximending (西門町), Taipei, were old men. There was a group of Japanese businessman in suits and a few middle-aged guys sitting on their own who looked lonely. At a couple of tables small groups of men and women chatted and laughed.
It was a touching scene, in some ways. Waitresses tended to the tables, offering plates of fruit, bottles of red wine and Johnny Walker whisky. A flower seller went around the tables hawking roses for the nightingales on stage. There was the illusion of love, but desperation and frustration too.
During a break in the performances, while the amps hummed, a singer in a clingy white dress, with heart-shaped earrings and matching buckles on her belt and high-heeled shoes, introduced herself to a gentleman by presenting her name card.
"Welcome, my name is Sunny. I hope you are enjoying the show. What's your name?" She sat down by the man and playfully touched him on the elbow. They small-talked for a while before the woman got up to leave. "Sorry I can't stay long because I have to sing. What songs do you like? Can I come back after I finish?"
Walk around storied Ximending on any weekday afternoon and you will see old men sitting around watching the world go by. They have been the subject of various unsavory rumors, but the reality is more prosaic. There is a pensioner's association on Hanchung Street (漢中街) , where old ladies also visit. There are many veterans because there used to be a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) army base nearby. Some of these people would go to a karaoke parlor, or red envelope club, when they open mid-afternoon.
For an entrance fee of around NT$300 and the disbursement of red envelopes to favored singers containing a minimum of NT$100, these veterans, businessmen and civil service retirees while away their free time in a nostalgic haze created by smoke and mirrors, song and fairy lights.
Ximending is part of Wanhua district (萬華區), one of the oldest areas of Taipei. Chinese immigrants from Fujian came here in the early 18th century to trade and established a bustling port dealing in tea and fabrics. When the Japanese arrived in 1895 they transformed the area into an entertainment zone.
The first theater was opened on Neijiang Street (內江街) in 1896 and showed Japanese kabuki opera. Many other theaters, restaurants, coffee houses and shops followed and the area became a center for cinema when the 2,000-seat Big World Theater opened on Chengde Road in 1927.
At the end of World War II the streets of Ximending emptied as the Japanese fled and an estimated 2 million KMT followers settled in their place. Tsao Chi-kuang (曹志光) of the Fong Da Coffee House on Chengdu Road (成都路), which was established in 1956, said the new immigrants were from all over China.
"They came from everywhere [in China], not like before when most immigrants came from Fujian. They took over the businesses in Ximending. In the Japanese period it was quite high class, but the newcomers had no money so the entertainments and atmosphere were different," Cao said.