Taiwan’s Newest Gay Novel Explores Decades of Sex, Drugs and LGBTQ Activism in Taipei
The late 1990s and early 2000s heralded a new era of increasingly transnationalized queer space in Taipei. As I have written elsewhere the city of Taipei during the past two decades has become one of the main urban sites of gay play and possibilities in Asia. Ruled by a one-party dictatorship for over 40 years, Taiwan began its democratic transition in the late 1980s; as the book Perverse Taiwan points out, “The flowering of tongzhi (the preferred term in Chinese akin to LGBTQ) literature, culture, communities, politics, and media representation” began quickly thereafter in the 1990s.
Although sexual liberation in Taiwan shouldn’t be cast in a simplistic linear fashion, visible forms of Taipei’s gayification have undeniably accelerated since then. Taipei started holding its gay pride parade in 2003—now the largest and most anticipated annual gay event across Asia. Not only did Taiwan become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage last year but it has also made recent global media coverage for its effective public health efforts in curbing transmission of COVID-19 (including Stephane Ku, “a Taipei doctor and advocate working to improve gay men’s health in Taiwan,” helping lead the fight); this is no simple feat for an island nation that is not only a mere 90 miles away from China but also banned from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Given all these positive developments, it’s only fitting that Taiwanese gay writer Jay Liao’s new novel Urban Lights and Fantasies (my unofficial translation of the Chinese title 幻城微光 ) would not only depict chemsex culture and home sex parties but also activism and gay marriage. In doing so it offers a semi-fictional, complex, and beautifully rendered account of gay life in Taipei over the past two decades.
For some readers Liao’s novel conjures up images of Starr Wu’s 2018 film The Story of The Stone about gay life in contemporary Taipei. Replete with thick, erotic descriptions of three main characters attempting to find love and self-fulfillment within Taipei’s sensual playground, the novel centers around the protagonist ‘Patrick’ (many Taiwanese use English nicknames) and follows his trysts, both trivial and serious, with Taiwanese as well as men from Japan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.
Patrick is local, but his sex life in Taiwan’s capital knows no boundaries. The unabashedly raunchy narration and celebration of Patrick’s carnal appetite throughout the book are suggestive of Alvin K. Wong’s concept of ‘perverse use-value’ which critiques the stigmatization “of queer bodies as risky, socially non-productive, and hence perverse” and seeks to capture “the queer potentiality to remake lifeworlds” in late capitalist societies. Liao’s riveting writing style deftly portrays the peculiarities and universality of raw emotions, bodily desires, and self-discovery in the globalized ‘lifeworlds’ of middle-class gay men in Taipei.
Referencing popular yet now defunct gay bars like Funky and the legendary club teXound, Liao’s novel traverses Taipei’s gay development in the early 2000s (the author told me in an interview that he considers that period the heyday of fast-paced gay clubbing in the city) yet also delves into the world of PrEP play and even the ‘marriage urge’ that younger Taiwanese gay men are more accustomed to these days (spoiler alert: Patrick turns down his lover’s marriage proposal at the end of the book; this isn’t a sappy, homonormative kind of read).
Unfortunately the novel, released this past January by Reading Times (Taiwan’s largest publishing house), is currently only available in Chinese. Liao’s masterful prose and captivating story, which won him the Emerging Writer Award from Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, are crying out to be translated. Rumor has it the author is keen to see this happen. Fingers crossed it won’t be too long.