Thu, Jun 06, 2019 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Navigating the ‘bottomless depths’ of Taipei

While appearing on the surface to be a typical 1960s trashy sex-travelogue about Westerners seeking debauchery in Taipei, ‘Taipei After Dark’ provides a detailed account of the city’s rampant sex industry when it was still legal

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

The front cover of Taipei After Dark .

For a long time, Taipei After Dark was a collector’s item, its cover appearing on vintage pulp novel Web sites and rare copies fetching exorbitant prices on Amazon.

Even after the book was reissued in March for the 50th anniversary of its publication, virtually no background information could be found except for a post by Facebook page “Vintage Paperback & Book Covers,” revealing that it was just one of several “After Dark” titles published in the swinging sixties that introduced readers to the sex-tourism offerings from New York to Rome to Tokyo. Author Andrew Harris also wrote the Bangkok edition, but in Taipei After Dark he claims to have yet to find a city that could rival Taipei and its “bottomless depths.”

Touted as “narrative non-fiction with travelogue” in the introduction, this reviewer was curious to see if this book was just another sleazy trash publication from its era, or could it actually serve as a historical glimpse into a part of Taipei that people prefer not to discuss and pretend doesn’t exist, even today? It’s not every day that one gets to read a first-hand account of Taipei’s sex industry when it was legal and out in the open. Either way, it’s worth flipping through for those who have any interest in Taiwan.

People will undoubtedly have differing opinions on sex work, which, although no longer as blatant as the book describes, is still readily available in Taiwan despite it being illegal since 1991. This review will not delve into the morals or political correctness of what is unfolding.

As a history buff anything written about Taiwan’s past is interesting to this reviewer — but Taipei After Dark was, and still is not meant for a general audience and will make certain readers uncomfortable. But that’s the whole point of pulp erotica from that era, and the book should be read as such. Of course in such a book, women tend to be seen as exotic commodities and objectified, the less attractive ones are called “cows,” for example, and racial stereotypes inevitably abound, but hey, what were you expecting when you picked up a 50-year-old book about a Western sex tourist in Asia?

Publication Notes

Taipei After Dark

By Andrew Harris

125 pages

Bullocks Publishing / Paperback: US

With that all said, the narrative is surprisingly coherent and the prose is pretty good. There’s a feeling that the author exaggerates at times, but most of it is believable. Fortunately, the details are not so much about the sex itself — which Harris rarely describes explicitly like a soft porn pulp novelist would — but about his experiences navigating and cracking the cultural codes to thoroughly enjoying Taipei’s offerings in paid sex. In this sense, it really is closer to a travelogue than smut as it goes into immense detail about the industry, culture and the workers, from the government-run, 75-cent per session shacks in Wanhua District (萬華) to girlie bars catering to US soldiers to the higher-end hot spring “inns” of Beitou District (北投).

For example, Harris spends one paragraph describing the five-minute “service” he experienced in Wanhua, but two full pages detailing the background of Taipei’s “worst slum,” how the business works there and the general circumstances behind the girls who end up there, often casualties of the foster parent system that was common in Taiwan in the past.

In addition to his own observations, Harris interviews brothel owners and even scores a brief meeting with Madame Chen, the most famous mamasan in Taiwan. He also turns to long-time resident friends like a German social worker or a Shanghai businessman who help contextualize his experiences within Taiwanese society and culture. These exchanges are lengthy and insightful; the businessman, for example, explains how there was virtually no dating culture in Taiwan back then; hence such a vibrant sex industry. “Here before you get married you have a lot of sex, but it is all with professionals. You certainly would never go to bed with a classmate.” How things have changed!

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