Taiwan is about to lose its answer to New York’s CBGB. The Underworld (地下社會), an underground rock club that has been a driving force in Taiwan’s music scene, will close for good after two final nights of gigs and parties this weekend. Today, two bands that cut their teeth on the dingy B1 stage before going on to greater popularity, Sugarplum Ferry (甜梅號) and 88 Balaz (八 十 八顆芭樂籽), will play a sold-out final show at 9pm. Then today after 11:30pm and tomorrow from 9pm to 5am, the bar’s owners will join fixture DJs like Randy Lin (林志堅), Fish, Dizzy, Floaty and others for free parties.
The legendary club will go out with a bang, though it will be a begrudging finish. The decision to pull the steel shutters for the final time comes after more than a year of battling government inspectors and a neighborhood group bent on evicting the bar.
Underworld’s eviction is most directly the result of a decision by its landlord, who has chosen not to renew the lease, despite the club’s 17-year history at the same location. The landlord was pressured into the decision by the Shidahood Self-Help Association (師大三里里民自救會), a non-profit group which claims to represent area residents. The Association began lobbying the Taipei City Government in late 2011 to clean up the neighborhood and its rapidly growing night market. So far at least 150 businesses have closed in the neighborhood including landmark bars, restaurants and cafes.
“We can understand the pressure on the landlord. Last year the landlord could resist pressure from the Self-Help Association, because our protest led him to believe the government would step in,” said Ho Tong-hung (何東洪), one of Underworld’s owners.
Last summer, city inspectors found problems with Underworld’s business license and safety facilities, and the bar suspended live music for a month. Protests followed, including hundreds of rockers flocking to the Legislative Yuan. Behind a wave of popular support, the bar upgraded its facilities and returned to business as usual.
“We were good tenants and never had a problem with public safety,” Ho continued. “The police also know this. But now it is a year later. The city government has been inconsistent and the fines have started to shake him.”
Despite the upgrades, frequent inspections continued. It seemed the city was nitpicking, looking for any violation that could give the bar problems.
“What’s more, the Self-help Association has continually harassed [the landlord] and has threatened to make legal claims against violations on another of his storefronts. So he has decided to no longer support us,” said Ho.
This is the third time in its history Underworld has announced it will shut down — the first time was in 2005, when an improper business license led to suspension of live music for about a year, and the second was last year — but this time there appears to be no recourse. Ho says there are no plans to reopen or relocate. In other words, this is truly the end.
“In the very beginning, our investment was only about NT$150,000,” says Ho. “A lot of the equipment and lighting came gradually through money we made and donations. If we were to reopen now, we would have to spend several million NTD, but the shareholders don’t have any money.”
Underworld was established in 1996 as an idealistic gambit to provide Taipei a home for underground music.