Sun, Mar 25, 2012 - Page 13 News List

Playing it safe

On March 6 last year, a fire tore through the ALA pub in Taichung, killing nine people. The government responded by passing strict safety codes that have, 12 months on, resulted in scores of bars, restaurants and live music venues shutting up shop

By John Evans  /  Contributing Reporter in Taichung

Yuki Chang performs with his band Broken Flowers.

Photo: John Evans

Just over one year after a fire at the ALA pub in Taichung claimed nine lives, and forced the resignation of the municipality’s then Economic Development Bureau director Chu Hui-lan (朱蕙蘭), a government crackdown has resulted in shuttered bars across the city.

“Culturally, Taichung has been devastated,” said Courtney Donovan Smith of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taichung.

In response to the blaze, city officials expanded the Recreation Services Management Regulation (臺中休閒娛樂服務業管理自治條例), which now requires bars to be at least 50m away from residential zones and 200m away from schools and hospitals in all but the city’s Central District. The regulation has pushed bars out of residential neighborhoods into more commercial areas.

About 150 to 200 of the city’s bars and restaurants have closed, according to alcohol supplier estimates that were given to the American Chamber of Commerce in Taichung,

Some of the bars were closed down by the city government, others were shuttered by their owners, who faced the prospect of heavy fines for safety code violations.

Smith estimates that up to 10,000 people have lost their jobs because of the policy.

Greater Taichung Secretary General Mark Huang (黃國榮) said the Ministry of Interior Affairs’ stricter regulations have made the city safer.

“We are confident that [Taichung] will be better in the future,” said Huang. He added that most people he has spoken to support the regulation.

Some nightspots that used to stay open to 2am, now shut their doors at 10pm. Still others have stopped serving alcohol and hosting musical performances.

“The city had to drive the pubs to a safer place,” said Anna Wang (王瑩), director of the Industrial Development and Investment Promotion Committee of Taichung City (台中市工商發展投資策進會).

Safety is of paramount importance, she said.

However, several business owners said the amended codes, which apply different criteria to bars and restaurants, are vague and inconsistently applied.

“We haven’t been given a clear set of instructions,” said Keiron Hogg, a former owner of FuBar restaurant, which closed in June after operating for three years on Soho Street (蘇活大街).

Police and fire officials inspected FuBar at least a dozen times, Hogg said.

On one visit he was cited for having an illegal dumbwaiter, on another inspectors said the bar was too high off the floor. Hogg said he often asked diners to keep their empty dinner plates on the table in case inspectors arrived. They were looking for ways to classify the venue as a bar, he said.

“It was a witch hunt,” said Hogg. “The enforcement was selective.”

When FuBar closed, 10 employees were laid off. Hogg estimates FuBar’s financial losses at several million New Taiwan dollars.

But it’s the fate of neighborhood bars that concerns Joseph Wang (王羅晴), a concert promoter who owned 89K, a now closed live music venue that hosted bands and DJs.

At the expense of the small bars that once dotted residential areas, the city’s nightlife is now dominated by big discos and KTVs, he said.

The regulations dictating where a bar can open are too restrictive, said Wang.

Though the amended rules allow bars and restaurants to open in the city’s Central District, several business owners said they were reluctant to move to that area because it is largely populated by older buildings, which are costly to renovate and make safe.

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