Underworld was initially opened by Lin Tsung-ming (林宗明) in 1996 as a simple rockers’ bar. Then two years later, Ho and Randy Lin asked him if they could have bands play on weekends. Ho is now an investor in the club, and Randy Lin is a regular DJ.
Underworld has been threatened with closure before. The last time was in June 2005, when city regulators said its business license didn’t allow for live performance. Gigs stopped for almost a year, but eventually Underworld was given a special certificate from the-then Council of Cultural Affairs declaring “an important space for artistic and cultural performances.”
“It was basically the central government telling the city we were a good student,” says Ho. “But it wasn’t really a solution to the problem, because it was just an exemption. The laws didn’t change.”
Last year, Witch House (女巫店), a folk music pub in a nearby neighborhood, encountered a similar problem. Again, culture authorities — this time the city’s Cultural Affairs Department — intervened and succeeded in creating a new business license category for “music performance spaces.”
The new “music performance” category however didn’t offer any protection to the mostly legal live houses in Taichung following a bar fire in March, 2011, which killed nine. Taichung’s City Government reacted by indiscriminately shutting down scores of bars, including all of the city’s venues for original live music.
The new license also doesn’t necessarily allow for the sale of alcohol, which may require additional licenses, depending on how regulators see things. Underworld has so far managed to exist using a small restaurant license (小吃部) and, since 2006, its good-student certificate from the national government. Regulators now say it operates as an unlicensed pub (飲酒店) and will be fined NT$60,000 if it stays open.
Underworld’s problems are hardly unique. This year scores of area businesses have closed due to pressure from a group of cranky citizens called the Shidahood Self Help Association. In October, they began lobbying Taipei City to clean up the noise and mess of the nearby night market, and its member-residents now actively seek out and report violations related to zoning, fire codes, noise, business licenses, signage and other regulations. They identify targets and report progress on their blog (shidahood.pixnet.net) and claim more than 350 of the 650 businesses around Shida Road are illegal. The group has so far taken credit for shutting down nearly 100 businesses, almost all of them small, boutique-style restaurants, cafes and clothing shops.
The association imagines its neighborhood to be a quiet residential area, perhaps filled only with sounds of birds chirping. Yet they also happen to share the area with six universities and around 60,000 students (including 4,000 international students), all located within a 2km radius of Shida Road, with Underworld right at the district’s heart.
Nevertheless, Shidahood has so far this year successfully lobbied Taipei City to remove the words “Shida Night Market” from local bus stops. It has convinced the city to stop promoting the Shida Night Market, the Yongkang Street and Qingtian Street areas as officially recommended tourist spots. It is also fighting a university proposal to create special pedestrian zones in the area, like those in Ximen.