Mike Chen (陳大宇) has a thing for World War II. He often dons the light gray uniform of the Chinese Nationalist Party's (KMT) famous Big Knife Troop (大刀隊) and reenacts anti-Japanese campaigns as a member of the Fukuo Association (復國會). Last weekend, he paid NT$100 and appeared in full regalia at the 2007 Taipei Hooha Military Toys Show (台北武哈祭冬季展), a three-day trade fair that occupied the third floor of the Taipei Youth Activity Center like a military invasion.
His replica Mauser C-96 "Broomhandle" pistol stuffed into an authentic wooden holster, meter-long Chinese greatsword slung across his back, Chen showed off his gear and posed for photographers on the catwalk at what was billed as Asia's largest convention for military buffs. More than 5,000 fans, many wearing complete US army fatigues or 1930's vintage Nazi German tank commander outfits, mingled with toy gun salesmen, purveyors of action figures and models wearing bikini tops and camouflage hot pants.
Though uniformed guests like Chen attracted most of the attention at last weekend's convention, the focus was on the sale of airsoft guns, authentic-looking replicas of real firearms that shoot plastic pellets and are used in combat sport games similar to paintball or laser tag. Airsoft originated in Japan and by the 1970s had become popular in Taiwan and other East Asian countries where possession of real guns is illegal. Airsoft magazines, or clips, hold hundreds of plastic 6mm BBs. Airsoft sniper rifles use 8mm BBs and can be accurate at distances of up to 50m. Being hit with one round stings, being shot with a sudden burst of pellets hurts.
Coober Hsu (許麗怡), an editor at Combat King (戰鬥王) magazine, the convention's organizer, estimates more than 20 serious teams are active in the greater Taipei area, with more than 300 scattered across the country. Most teams are comprised of around two dozen people, while the largest embrace up to 10 times as many.
The biggest airsoft events used to take place in Japan, Hsu said, but the killing of an old woman there with a BB gun that had been modified to take unregulated amounts of carbon dioxide for extra power prompted a government crackdown on the sport there. "This was Asia's biggest show this year," Chen said. "If not for the typhoon warnings, there would have been even more people."
While it is illegal to brandish a replica firearm in a public place anywhere in Taiwan, there are plenty of shops in Taipei and courses in Taipei County that cater to military re-enactors and airsoft players. Some enthusiasts, like Chen, are avid students of a specific conflict; in his case, KMT dictator Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) ultimately doomed attempt to defend the Great Wall of China (長城抗戰) against what the Japanese called Operation Nekka.
Most players, though, just like dressing up as soldiers - uniforms worn by the US army, police SWAT teams and the German GSG9 elite counter-terrorism unit being among the most popular styles - and shooting at people. Until a few years ago, it was possible to do this in the city, at an empty school in Dazhi (大直) and a former Army base near Taipei 101. Now airsoft players go to abandoned buildings in Taipei County, including a former bus terminal in Sinjhuang (新莊), or head to jungle courses in the southern suburb of Sindian (新店) or to the northwest in Wuchihshan (五指山). Most are men in their 30s or 40s, and 10 to 20 percent of players at any given course are women.