Thu, Nov 20, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Brewing more than coffee

“Activist” cafes such as the ones owned by former DPP politician Luo Wen-chia and Sunflower movement participant Lan Shi-bo, are part of the growing trend of activism as a fashion

By Dana Ter  /  Staff reporter

Lan Shi-bo, the owner of Cafe Backstage.

Photo Courtesy of Lan Shi-bo

Politics has a way of creeping into our lives whether we like it or not. Especially in Taiwan, where it’s commonplace for people to wear their political beliefs on their sleeves, there are signs of this phenomenon everywhere — from snide remarks directed at Chinese tourists by the Taipei 101 to protest art. With the Sunflower movement a few months behind us and the local elections taking place next week, politics has become somewhat of a fad.

Even coffee can have political subtexts. Sipping a latte in a cute cafe in Taipei’s Da-an District (大安) for instance, one can’t help but notice the turquoise-colored “Taiwanese Independence” (台灣獨立) poster tucked in the wall behind the barista, or a yellow Hong Kong solidarity headband fluttering from a dimly-lit ceiling light. It’s tantalizing to wonder about the political concoctions that brew in these sorts of coffee shops.


Individually-owned hipster “activist” cafes are nothing new — they have been sprouting around liberal pockets in Taiwan over the last few years. Or as Lan Shi-bo (藍士博), who owns Cafe Backstage (後門咖啡) near National Taiwan University told the Taipei Times, since the Wild Strawberry movement (野草莓) in 2008. Cafe Philo (慕哲咖啡) on Shaoxing North Street (紹興北街), which opened in 2010, is the most famous of the crop. Known for its Friday night salons, Cafe Philo has been a breeding ground for social and political activism, and they have even expanded their forum overseas.

Lately however, there seems to be a parallel trend as more of these small, individually-owned coffee shops are rebranding themselves. Although they might have been established within a certain political context or with the intention of providing a support base for social movements, oddly enough, politics is sinking into the background.

The Taiwan independence posters and other Sunflower movement regalia are still there, but they are, for the most part, ornamental — mere eye-candy to keep up the hipster vibe and compete with other fashionable “activist” cafes.

Whether these posters, pamphlets or paraphernalia are spurring customers to go on to instigate social change or protest against the government is hard to quantify, since the choice is ultimately up to the individual. The bottom line is that these coffee shops are not directly instructing their patrons to do so. Instead, the vibe increasingly seems to be activism as fashion, rather than action — and perhaps this new direction isn’t as bad or as lazy as it sounds.

Cafe Backstage is a little white-and-brown paneled coffee shop on Fuxing North Road (復興南路) with elongated windows to draw attention to their impressive cake display. Inside, the wall of the counter where waitresses brew coffee is covered with stickers of popular slogans from the Sunflower movement like, “If we don’t stand up today, we won’t be able to stand up tomorrow” (今日不站出來,明日站不出來). Patrons at Backstage love to study as much as they love cake and coffee. The crowd is highly intellectual, comprising mostly of NTU graduate students. At the back, there’s a small library on a raised wooden platform with books on philosophy and social movements.

The owner Lan Shi-bo is quite the intellectual himself. A humble and endearing PhD candidate at National Chengchi University, Lan muses over the historical figures who inspired him and his friends from NTU, where he did his undergraduate degree, to open Backstage in June of last year. The list is as diverse as American sociologist Erving Goffmann who coined the “backstage theory” to Taiwanese political activist Su Beng (史明) who has been dubbed the “Che Guevara of Taiwan.”

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