Good day everyone. My name is Matt Wraxall and I am a former British man and current long term resident of Taiwan. What is Taiwan? Well, depending on who you talk to it is either a small country off the south coast of China, or it is a large Chinese city, located just off the south of the mainland. I tend towards the former and try not to get into the politics of the latter. And it is definitely not Thailand, which I still find myself needing to point out more often than I’d like.
I’ve been living here for almost 7 years, and I love everything about the country. Its people are warm, its weather warmer, it has some of the best food in Asia and a little money goes a long way; it is a safe and very comfortable place to live. The only real gripe I have ever had about Taiwan is that, until relatively recently, it lacked a sophisticated drinking culture. When I say sophisticated I don’t mean men with mustaches sitting around in smoking jackets with cigars, cognac and all the latest news from Prussia or that the locals are mindless alcoholics, I simply mean that there was not much choice to be had, and what there was tended to be bland and obvious, at least in terms of beverages; there has always been a lot of choice here about where to drink, just not a lot of choice of what to drink.
While drinking has always been popular here, it has never been the whole point of a night out as it often is in the West. Drinking is usually an afterthought that is tagged on to the act of eating. The Taiwanese love to eat and chat (it is one of the things I love most about them) and alcohol has usually been used merely as an accompaniment to this. A result of this has been a bit of a lack of imagination in drinks; they want all the flavor to come from the food, and just want the drinks to help soak them up and lubricate chatter. If you want a beer with your food, it is Taiwan Beer (a lager that I could go on at length about my desire to avoid, but I won’t here), and if you want anything stronger it is straight whiskey or rice wine. That’s kind of it.
Now, as boring as the drinks can be, the places where you can drink them couldn’t be less so. Drinking out with your friends and family in Taiwan can be a very interesting experience, and I just want to introduce a few of the places we go to, or went to in our youth, here. I hope you find them interesting.
KTV is essentially karaoke on steroids, and it is BIG business. It’s not like the West where you get up and drunkenly slur your way through Kiss From A Rose in front of a room full of strangers who hate you oh so very much right now. Here in Taiwan you go to one of the many, many office building sized KTV buildings and book your own private room for anything from 2 to 200 people. You pay a flat rate per person, per hour and get to ruin as many songs as you can before closing time. Which never comes. Most KTV buildings are 24 hours. You can also take your own beer in that your bought at the 711 rather than paying the marked up prices in the building itself, which makes this a really cost effective way to get your party on. Some of the best (and longest) piss ups I have had here have happened in a KTV building. No matter how crazy you get, what destruction you’ve wrought previously, you are always welcomed back with a knowing smile that says “worry not sir, what happens in KTV, stays in KTV”.
This is usually where the night begins for Westerners, and a favorite way for the locals to spend their nights eating, drinking, and chatting. Rechao is basically Taiwanese tapas. You go to the often open-air restaurant with all your friends or colleagues, sit around a huge, round, usually red table, and order a ton of little dishes to share between yourselves. The food is usually cheap as chips, plentiful, and tasty beyond measure. The beer is usually kept in 40oz bottles in self serve fridges, or brought to your table by promo girls and shared out among the table to be drunk in little jiubei glasses, which are about twice the size of a usual shot glass. At the end of the night the cost of all the beer is totaled and added to your food bill. It can be hard to keep track of how many bottles you’ve had, but it doesn’t really matter as the beer here is usually sold at little more than cost price to keep you there all night eating.
It seems that almost every street here has a darts bar. They are usually dimly lit with garish neon strip lighting, one or two electronic darts boards idling in the corner, and more staff than customers. Why so many of these places if they have no customers? Well, local rumor has it that many and more of these establishments are just fronts for the sizable underworld that Taiwan has lurking beneath the surface, and that they are more concerned with the business that happens “out back” than out front in the bar. I’ve been to one of these places twice (in my more naïve days). The first time was a nice quiet evening sat on my own, reading and playing darts, with a few bemused looking staff looking on as though they couldn’t quite believe what was happening. The second time started much the same, but ended in all out panic and chaos as a bill twenty times larger than I expected was handed to me by 300lbs of muscle poured into a 200lb suit, with the express feeling that I should pay now or when I got out of hospital. Luckily I have always been an athletic man and am quick off the blocks, as they say. There was a Matt shaped hole in the door and I was sprinting down the street before they even knew what was happening. Needless to say, not been back.
Just as with any place where Westerners gather en mass, you have bars and restaurants that cater to their tastes. The Western bars here are usually themed after good old British pubs, minus the charm and cigarette burns in the carpet, are large and very overpriced. This is partly because everything they sell needs to be imported, and partly because they know the Westerners here will pay to get a taste of home. Their beer choice is usually a little better than local bars, but you will still be faced with just big brand beer choices, and you’ll pay through the nose for them. A beer will cost you about $10US, which may not sound too bad, but is about 3 times the price in local places and 5 times the price of convenience stores. They are good for when you want to watch sports, or need somewhere to hold events, but I tend to stay away these days.
Speaking of convenience stores, when living in Taiwan you need to forget any preconceived notions you might have about drinking on the street or sat on the steps of a local store, as in Taiwan this is practically a way of life. There is no social taboo or law against drinking in public here, and this has lead to pre-gaming moving from peoples’ houses to outside of the local 711. On any given Saturday night you can find large groups of people hanging around outside convenience stores with their friends and a few cheap beers, waiting for the right time and right level of buzz to head to the clubs. The best things about Club 7, as it is known, are the prices and drink options. You usually have as much or more choice than in the local Western pub, and they will be a fraction of the cost. For example, a pint of Guinness in a Western bar may run you NT$250 – 350 or more, but will only cost around NT$70 or so in the 711. Sadly, the government has been trying its best to ruin any kind of fun Taiwanese people can have lately, and has been passing draconian anti-congregation laws which seem to be ringing the death-knell for drinking outside convenience stores, which is more of a shame than it sounds.
The best change that has happened to Taiwan in the time that I have been here is that a whole generation of Western expats are getting bored of the rat race and using their savings to drop out and open their own small bars in dark alleys, backstreets, and basements. These places are popping up all over the place and it is in them where the choice in drinks that has been so sorely lacking for so long is finally expanding. Whereas the big chain Western bars may hold a craft beer or two, they tend to just cater to big beer and mass taste. Not so in the dive bars. Finally, a range of small craft beers are becoming available here and owners of these bars seem to take it as a matter of pride to show off the fact that they have a more extensive range than the next guy and love telling you how they have the latest and rarest beers. It is really good news for beer fans in Taiwan, who are bored of the lack of choice and being forced into the “one lager, one stout, one cider’ choices of the big bars. It is great that I can finally have some of the beers I used to get back home, and have tried many, many fine brews that I wouldn’t have even had access to in England. Coupled with the emerging craft beer brewing scene in Taiwan, again being forged by expats and the new generation of more worldly, Western influenced young Taiwanese, the future of drinking in Taiwan seems to be very bright.
I hope you enjoyed the article, and if you ever want to come to Taiwan for a pint I will be happy to show you around. You can contact me and check out more of my writing on my own website, everythinghomebar.com
Cheers and bottoms up