Stanley Tsai (蔡長泰) doesn't look like a man with uncontrollable obsessions. Sitting at a table in his Fatimaid cafe, dressed in a button-down shirt and wire-framed glasses, he could pass as just another Taiwanese office worker. But carefully tucked beside him is a model of a busty, doe-eyed Japanese anime character needing days of work to assemble and paint.
Tsai is an otaku, one of a growing number of Taiwanese devoted to the geeky Japanese subculture of mostly men obsessed with anime, comic books and other forms of escapism. Their spiritual homeland is the Tokyo neighborhood of Akihabara, a nerd's nirvana and possibly the best shopping place on earth for electronic gadgets, computer parts and anime-related goods.
For Akiba-types who can't make the pilgrimage to otaku town, Fatimaid is the place to be. A direct copy of Akihabara's meido cafes, in this fantasy escape, young women wearing French maid costumes pamper customers with exaggerated humility and carefully scripted dialogue — just like the heroines in maid romance anime and comics. "Welcome home, master," says a maid, greeting a guest.
Fatimaid is moe — sounds like "moe-EY" — a popular concept among otaku that means "burning," as in the innocent, sexy-cute anime characters who excite a passionate love or nurturing desire in their fans. The slang is represented by the character (萌), meaning "to sprout."
You can be moe for lots of things. In Taiwan, for example, there are military otaku who reenact World War II battles, car otaku who know everything there is to know about cars, and a huge number of female otaku who draw and trade homoerotic Boy's Love comics. The local twist: otaku who dress up as their favorite bu dai xi, or puppet, characters at cosplay conventions.
Want to ‘otaku’?
Fatimaid is located at Taipei City Mall (台北地下街美食一區3號) near the No. 1 North Entrance (北一號入口). For more information call (02) 2559-2620 or log on to www.piware.com/fatimaid.
Moe Moe Center is located at 2F 17, Ln 114, Zhonghua Rd Sec 1, Taipei (台北市中華路一段114巷17號2樓). For more information, call (02) 2311-9788 or log on at www.moe2.com.tw.
Roughly translated, otaku means "nerd." Geek chic took off in Japan with the Train Man film, in which a nerd successfully wooed a girl by collecting advice from the Internet. But some otaku are so obsessed and homebound that they can't interact with the opposite sex, so the next cultural innovation was the maid cafe, where men can live out their fantasies as if they were characters in an anime film.
There are three maid cafes in Taipei, and one each in Kaohsiung and Tainan. Opening late last year in Ximenting was the Moe Moe Center (萌萌動漫資訊館), with bookstores, a maid cafe and a shop where cosplay fans can get made up to look like their favorite anime characters. Nearby is a large concourse devoted to the sale of Gundam robots and other anime action figures.
Tsai first realized moe could provide a viable business model eight years ago while on a trip to Akihabara. Then head of a cosplay club at National Taiwan University, he accompanied a friend to a convention for a Japanese "girl game," video games where players date — and sometimes really fall in love with — computer-generated women. Once there, the friend burst into tears. Why? The real-life actress portraying his computer crush was hopelessly inadequate.
Tsai's first maid cafe failed after his partner's mother and sister refused to wear maid costumes. No chance of that at Fatimaid: the maids are always in character. "It's a stage where [anime fans] can live in their dream," Tsai says of his cafe. "The more they believe in this dream, the happier they feel."
Dabblers looking for a more relaxed approach can visit Moe Point, the maid cafe in Ximenting's Moe Moe Center. Here, customers not exhibiting otaku behavior are greeted in an ordinary fashion to avoid making them feel weird. Recalling an early mishap, manager Lin Tzu-yi (林姿儀) says: "One of our waitresses addressed a pregnant woman as 'mistress,' and she ran out the door."