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, who was recently interviewed for the newly-released documentary Sunflower Occupation (太陽,不遠) on his experience occupying the Legislative Yuan, tried to downplay the political nature of Backstage as he thumbed through a thick binder consisting of the names and information of artists, musicians, authors, writers and activists who had performed or gave speeches at the cafe since it first opened.

“We are not choosing to hold events simply because of their political nature, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will avoid holding events because they are political in nature,” Lan said, referring to the weekly evening discussions at Backstage.

A recent talk at Backstage earlier this month centered on the need for Hong Kong and Taiwan to stand up together against China. As such, the cafe was still decorated with yellow Hong Kong solidarity banners and headbands, which initially made Lan’s words hard to believe.

Lan spoke with a sincere tone though, saying that “it wasn’t because of the Sunflower movement that we decided to put up these posters — in fact, the establishment of our cafe was inspired by Taiwan’s long history of social movements.”

Formerly an active member of the NTU Dalawasao club (臺大濁水溪社), which churned out a fair batch of “wild strawberries” in 2008, Lan says that the design and atmosphere of Backstage was certainly influenced by these political events and movements.

“However,” he adds, “I want the dining experience to be depoliticized and play up the vibe of providing students with a relaxing atmosphere to mingle and study instead.”

BEYOND BOOK-SMARTS

While Backstage could be described as a bookish coffee shop, Buffalo Books, Co (水牛文化事業) is more of a bookstore that’s trying to make lofty ideas more relatable to the general public — while selling coffee on the side. The Taipei branch, which opened in September 2012, is a 15-minute walk from Backstage on Ruian Street (瑞安街), and is furnished with comfy swivel chairs and communal study tables. A connecting door opens to the organic food store and restaurant next door and another door at the back of Buffalo Books leads to a massage area complete with various massage oils.

The owner of the bookstore-cafe-spa-organic restaurant is none other than Luo Wen-chia (羅文嘉), famed Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politician, and one-time assistant to former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Although in his late 40s, Luo has a baby face and amiable smile which makes him look much younger. He spoke with simple eloquence, articulating his thoughts clearly, without the air that some politicians have.

When asked about the growth of individually-owned “activist” cafes around Taiwan within the latest few years, he said, “democracy is not just a political system, it is an attitude.”

Luo added that “the act of opening a coffee shop is like an assertion of one’s own democratic right to run a business as you please, and a lot of these coffee shops are evocative of such freedom of expression.”

“The atmosphere,” he says, “depends on the owner’s personal taste and they design it according to whatever social issue influences them the most.”

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