Campaign Trail: Freddy Lim rally on Ketagalan Blvd.

On Saturday evening, I went to Freddy Lim’s rally on Ketagalan Boulevard, right in front of the presidential building. This was one of the most unique political rallies I have ever attended. I had just come from a very ordinary DPP rally, and the transition from that utterly conventional event to this very unconventional one was jarring, to say the least.

As I’m sure you all know, Freddy Lim, who became famous as a rock star and a human rights activist, was elected to the legislature four years ago in the Taipei City fifth district. In that race, he defeated longtime KMT legislator Lin Yu-fang. Think of an old-time, conservative, stern, orthodox, intellectual KMT politician, and the picture you have in your mind is pretty much Lin Yu-fang. He has a PhD in political science from University of Virginia and taught at Tamkang University and some military schools. In 1995, he ran for and won a seat to the legislature representing the New Party. The New Party self-destructed with a nasty civil war, and he lost his re-election bid in 1998. After the 2000 presidential election, Lin joined James Soong’s brand new People First Party, and he won legislative races in 2001 and 2004 under the PFP banner. After the electoral reform passed in 2005, Lin saw the writing on the wall and, along with most PFP legislators, defected to the KMT. He won two more terms for the KMT, pretty easily defeating the DPP nominees in Taipei 5.

Taipei 5 covers Wanhua and most of Zhongzheng Districts. These two are very different places. Wanhua is the oldest part of Taipei City. When the KMT came to Taiwan after the war, it brought large numbers of people from China. These mainlanders were settled disproportionately in whatever “empty” space they could find in the cities. In Taipei, that meant there were lots of communities of mainlanders everywhere except for the already densely populated areas along the Danshui River, modern Wanhua and Datong Districts. Later, these older areas of the city became the crucible of the Tangwai movement and, when Henry Kao Yu-shu ran for mayor against the KMT in the 1960s, they were his strongest areas. During the 1980s and 1990s, Wanhua and Datong were the only places that the DPP could expect to win half the seats in city council races; the KMT dominated everywhere else. However, Wanhua drifted noticeably blue during the Chen and Ma years. As real estate boomed, new people moved in, and Wanhua become more like the rest of Taipei. The DPP could still hope to break even in Wanhua, but it was no longer able to run up big surpluses. Since the DPP faced huge vote deficits in Zhongzheng, Taipei 5 became a reliably blue district. Zhongzheng is a very different place from Wanhua. The northern half has been the center of government for Taiwan since the Qing era. Lots of elite bureaucrats – ie: staunch KMT supporters – settled in this area after the war. Most of the southern part of Zhongzheng is also in Taipei 5, and this area also had plenty of mainlander communities, though they were not quite as elite. Over the past 70 years, as real estate prices went up, most parts of Zhongzheng became quite expensive, so the people who moved in tended to be on the wealthy and highly educated side.

In 2016, the fledgling New Power Party announced that Freddy Lim would represent it in Taipei 5. The DPP designated Taipei 5 as a “difficult district,” and eventually decided to support Lim rather than nominating its own candidate. The race pitted the very square Lin against the long-hair death metal rocker Lim. The incumbent seemed bewildered by the challenger, never seeming able to believe that the voters would actually take such a person seriously. Lim’s supporters on social media delighted in making fun of the KMT’s inability to comprehend the changing world around them. Lin must have felt humiliated on election night, when the rock star beat him by about 6,000 votes.

Many NPP supporters took this result and the two other NPP wins as evidence of NPP popularity. After all, they had won in “difficult districts” where the DPP had previously been unable to even come close. In fact, “difficult district” label was misguided. The label was based on whether the DPP legislative candidate had been able to get 42.5% in the 2012 election, so many districts were labeled as “difficult” because the previous DPP candidate had been weak rather than because the underlying partisan balance was unfavorable to the DPP. (For example, Taichung 3, which was eventually won by the NPP’s Hung Tzu-yung, was actually one of the DPP’s strongest areas in Taichung, if one looked at the presidential results.) 42.5% was also far too low a threshold. Since Tsai won 45.6% in the 2012 presidential election, a district less than 5% below the DPP’s national average could be labeled as “difficult.” If they were going to win the legislature, they would need to contest most of these districts and win some of them. In fact, Tsai won 56.1% in the 2016 election, and she ended up winning a majority in several of the “difficult” districts. That is, there were enough green votes in these districts; all the legislative candidate had to do was soak up all the DPP presidential voters. They did not have to reach over to the other side of the political divide. Taipei 5 was one of these. Tsai won 53.4%, or about 8,000 more votes than Chu and Soong combined. Far from being an electoral standout, Freddy actually underperformed a tiny bit.

I have recounted this electoral history in detail because the 2020 race is a rematch of the 2016 race. Lin Yu-fang is trying to retake his old seat. The only difference is that Freddy Lim has dropped out of the NPP and is running as an independent this time. This difference is superficial. Like last time, Freddy is effectively the DPP candidate, and his task is to soak up Tsai presidential voters. Freddy is the incumbent this time, but incumbency (probably) matters less in Taipei than in the rest of Taiwan. Taipei voters don’t expect the same level of intensive constituency service, and the more fluid nature of Taipei’s population (with people constantly moving in and out and fewer people knowing their neighbors) makes it harder for incumbents to build up networks based on favors. The biggest effect of incumbency might be that voters will not automatically dismiss Freddy as unqualified this time. He has proven to be a quite serious and respectable legislator. Still, just as with the 2016 race, this race will turn on the presidential outcome. If Tsai doesn’t break 50% in this district, Freddy will probably not win re-election. At this point, I’d probably bet on Freddy, but neither side should be very confident.


So much for the district and the race; let’s get to the event. The crowd was huge, though of course not nearly as cartoonishly large as the organizers claimed (and the media obediently parroted). A quick google search shows that the most common number thrown about was 50,000. Let me assure you, there were nowhere near 50,000 people there. I had just come from an event in which I could count heads, and I had a pretty good picture fresh in my mind of what 10,000 people look like. The venue for Freddy’s event was not all that large. By the standard of political events, Ketagalan Boulevard is fairly narrow. Unlike past events, the sidewalks were blocked off so people could only be in the street. Both sides were lined with tents and temporary toilets, making it even narrower. There was also a huge structure dividing the smaller front area from the larger back area. (People in the front half had to go through a security screen because President Tsai was coming.) Most people were standing rather than sitting on stools, and standing crowds are denser than sitting crowds. This crowd was pretty dense. I wormed my way halfway through the back part before I gave up and watched the event from there. I estimate there were about 12,000 people, though I’d believe any number between 10,000 and 15,000. It seems silly to have to say this, but since I know some readers will dispute my number I will. 12,000 people is a fantastic crowd. They completely filled the space that they set out to fill, and it was jammed to the gills. There were a LOT of people there.

I had just come from a traditional event, and I was one of the youngest people in that crowd. At Freddy’s event, I was one of the oldest. I spent a lot of the rally thinking about this age gap. The Sunflower generation confuses me and people my age. It’s not that they are apolitical; they are more politicized than any generation of youth since at least the Wild Lily era – and probably even more than that generation. However, they do not engage politics in the same ways as older citizens. They don’t do traditional rallies (They don’t seem to enjoy the Frozen Garlic cheer, but they do seem to think that sitting quietly on the ground is very powerful.), they aren’t closely attached to political parties, they don’t get their information from traditional media or political talk shows, and they care about different things (same-sex marriage!). They share a nearly universal identity of being Taiwanese and not Chinese, so, unlike older voters, very few of them consider the KMT a palatable option. However, also unlike older voters, they don’t think that requires them to vote for the DPP. The KMT has been totally unable to connect with them; the DPP has only done a bit better. Packed tightly in a thick crowd of people younger than me, I wondered what motivated these people to come out to this particular event? What was Freddy doing to unlock this grand puzzle of Taiwan politics? Progressive political ideals are certainly part of the answer, but I also wonder if this generation consciously wants to practice politics in different ways than their parents and grandparents. The current society isn’t providing the same economic opportunities that their parents enjoyed, so maybe they feel the need to do things differently. At any rate, this event was theirs in the same way the rally I had just come from was for their parents and grandparents.

I guess I have skipped one obvious attraction. The rally was actually a hybrid political rally / rock concert. I arrived after Fire EX finished performing. After them, four legislative candidates – Freddy’s squad, if you will – spoke. After them, Freddy’s band, Chthonic, performed for about an hour. After quickly changing costumes from death metal singer to serious politician, Freddy gave a speech. Finally, President Tsai spoke. I don’t think the young audience showed up just because there was a rock concert. While Chthonic played, I was curious to see how the crowd responded to the music. Maybe the hard-core fans all went up front, but back where I was, only about 5% of the audience seemed to be visibly getting into it. Some other people seemed satisfied to be there, though most were, like myself, politely waiting for it to be over. Some of the songs had political themes, and the crowd enthusiastically responded to that part. I think the overwhelming majority of the crowd was there for the politics, not the music.


Let me interrupt this post for a tangent on Chthonic’s music. This was the first time I had heard them, and they were fascinating. I wouldn’t call them good, musical, enjoyable, or even listenable, but they were definitely interesting. Chthonic plays death metal. I don’t mean heavy metal; compared to Chthonic, Metallica and Iron Maiden are for sissies. The drums, bass, and guitar are all laying down intense and heavy tracks, but none of them fit together in any conventional sense. It’s very discordant. You know how the lead singer for ACDC basically screams all his lyrics? Compared to Freddy, he sounds like an opera singer. How does Freddy “sing?” Imagine a lion roaring, but then scale that down to a smaller cat. Freddy sings like a lynx scowls. I honestly don’t know how he can do that for hours at a time; after a few minutes of listening, I wanted a throat lozenge.

Who cares whether I like them? Even I don’t care. After all, I’m not a music critic. What I found interesting was more the existence of this music rather than the music itself. To explain that, let me back up thirty years.

I first came to Taiwan in the summer of 1989, and one of the things I learned from listening to the radio, sitting in taxis, and from going with friends to KTVs was that Taiwanese listened to either sappy saxophone, accordion, and keyboard instrumental music or saccharine pop music. They loved Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Richard Marx, Air Supply, and a whole host of Taiwanese and Hong Kong pop stars who sang what Americans call Adult Contemporary. As an American teenager, something about this seemed wrong. There was something missing. It took me a while, but it finally dawned on me: there was no angry music! How could a society not have any angry music? Didn’t young people need to express their anger? Then again, all the young people seemed busy studying for university entrance exams and generally being very 乖 (guai: well behaved). There were blue collar workers and there were young thugs in the crime gangs, but even they seemed more interested in saving money than letting out some primal scream of rage against the world.

Granted, I am not the person to talk to for a comprehensive or even a cursory history of Taiwanese pop music. As a foreigner, you can’t learn everything about Taiwan, and years ago I decided that I wasn’t even going to try to keep up with pop culture. However, there were two points when I felt I could see Taiwan changing. The first was in 1994, when some friends dragged me away for a weekend in Kenting. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, so it was really an accident that I was present at the first Spring Scream festival. In later years, Spring Scream evolved into a polished event with famous stars and large crowds. In 1994, no one showered for three days, and the musicians were a bunch of nobodies, many of whom weren’t very good. They also weren’t playing the type of music we heard on the radio or in the KTVs. It was the first time I had ever heard Taiwanese people playing and enjoying real rock. Who knew that Taiwanese could tolerate something edgier than Wham! Years later, I read that first Spring Scream was a seminal moment in Taiwan’s music scene, as it was the first time many Taiwanese had met other Taiwanese with long hair and who liked loud music. The second thing happened a few years later, when I first heard Wu Bai and China Blue. Their music was the first time I had ever heard a mainstream musical act expressing, maybe not outright anger, but at least antisocial or counterculture themes. Instead of an air-brushed starlet singing about unrequited love (complete with a KTV video of a gorgeous person walking along a beach or staring forlornly into a brandy snifter), Wu Bai had a bad haircut, grimy jeans, and sang gritty songs about blue collar themes. [Unfortunately, Wu Bai later sold his soul and made a ton of money singing sappy love songs. Sigh.]

Even considering those changes, nothing prepared me for the existence of Chthonic. Chthonic is above and beyond anything I would have ever expected from Taiwan. Hell, it would startle me in America, too. This band simply could not exist if Taiwanese youth had not become far angrier and far more creative. They wear full makeup, and one of them wears a Silence of the Lambs-style mask. You can copy some of that from hair bands. However, the guy in the pig mask is something new. Freddy’s singing voice is something new. The extreme discordance of the music is new. The combination of it all with Taiwanese lyrics and themes is uniquely their own. Most surprising of all was the 5% of the audience that was absolutely jamming to their music; twenty or thirty years ago, there were no young people in Taiwan who could have understood, accepted, or embraced this type of music.

Oh, one more thing. One of their songs commemorated the great, recently deceased Taiwan historian, Su Beng. Everyone should hear a completely sincere death metal tribute to a Marxist historian and failed terrorist at least once in their lives.


Back to the political part of the rally.

I got there while Hung Tzu-yung was speaking. I can’t really remember anything specific that she said. My only impression was that she didn’t seem to make any emotional connection with the crowd, and that surprised me a little. I had expected that, after nearly four years as Freddy’s closest political ally, this young audience would know and like her. Instead, they seemed pretty indifferent to her. I’m not sure what to make of this. It probably doesn’t matter much for her re-election prospects; she will succeed or fail based on the normal considerations (the partisan balance in her district, constituency service, performance in the legislature, etc.) rather than on her street-cred with young, ultra-progressive voters. She’s probably in better shape than the three other legislative candidates on the stage that night. Still, she was the least popular of Freddy’s squad on Saturday.

The second person in Freddy’s squad was Lai Pin-yu, the Sunflower activist who is running in New Taipei 12. I went to a KMT rally in New Taipei 12 on Sunday night, so I’ll do a full write-up of that race in my next post. For now, let’s just talk about Lai Pin-yu’s outfit. She went full cosplay, decked out in a red leather Japanese cartoon cute girl and/or superhero costume. (Is Kawaii Manga Girl an appropriate look for a death metal concert??) Everyone laughed with surprise when she first appeared, but I could tell right away that people were questioning her judgment. In her speech, she railed against her opponent. Her opponent is telling voters that Lai is too young and unqualified, while Lai retorted that her opponent has lots of experience making bad choices and doing harmful things. However, Lai was basically presenting herself as a cute, immature girl, thus playing right into her opponent’s attacks. When she finished speaking, the emcee said something to the effect of, “Lai is very brave! You have to have a good figure to dare to wear something like that in public.” It struck me as the emcee trying to say something nice while thinking, “What the hell are you doing?” [Note: You should know that Lee Yan-jung, the emcee, is a young woman, so that comment didn’t sound creepy the way it would have if you are imagining the emcee as an old man.] Later, when President Tsai showed up, Lai came on stage still wearing her full costume. Tsai gave her one of those weary looks out of the side of her eyes that professors give students when they are making terrible personal choices that we can’t say anything about. Lai’s choice was cute, fun, energetic, and totally inappropriate for a person in her position. If her opponent fully exploits it, this outfit might end up costing Lai the New Taipei 12 seat.

Next up was Chen Po-wei, who is representing the Statebuilding Party in Taichung 2. This is a tough race. Taichung 2 is a bit less green than the other districts in the old Taichung County, but the partisan balance is not the primary obstacle. The problem is that the Yen family owns this seat. The current incumbent is the son, but the key figure is the father, Yen Ching-piao. Before the elder Yen entered politics in the 1990s, he had (allegedly) already established himself as the most important organized crime boss in central Taiwan. Taichung 2 is his personal turf, and other politicians are wary of challenging him. President Tsai made a joke about taking out a life insurance policy for Chen Po-wei, except it wasn’t really a joke. You need to be young, fearless, idealistic, and a little stupid to challenge the Yen family.

Chen Po-wei might just be that person. I’m more and more impressed with him every time I hear him speak. On Saturday night, got a rousing ovation from the crowd when he was introduced, far beyond anything that Hung or Lai received. Once he started, it got even better. Charisma is impossible to define, but Chen Po-wei has it. He had an instinctive feel for the audience. He was sarcastic, he sang a little, he hit a few talking points, and the crowd ate it all up. This guy oozes political talent, and I’ll be watching his career over the next few years.

Enoch Wu Yi-nung was the fourth and final member of Freddy’s squad. Wu is running against Wayne Chiang in Taipei 3, in what is unquestionably the most glamorous and most consequential legislative race this year.

If you went into the laboratory and tried to create the perfect candidate, you might create something like Wu. He’s smart (Yale degree), successful in business (lucrative job at Goldman Sachs), patriotic (quit Goldman to return to Taiwan), idealistic (took a low paying job), handsome (see picture), and has become an expert in a critical policy area (national security). And yet, Wu is somehow less than the sum of those parts. Onstage, he is painfully raw. He could barely get through two sentences without awkwardly stopping and repeating himself. He tried to do call and response with the audience, but his delivery was so confusing that the audience didn’t know what response they were supposed to give. I don’t like the way he has let the media frame his race either. Instead of framing it as a contest between someone who inherited everything and sacrificed nothing and someone who sacrificed everything to dedicate his life to Taiwan, Wu has watched passively as the media presents this race as a superficial contest between two handsome guys. During Wu’s halting and uncomfortable speech, I started to wonder if, even with his superstar resume, his future is really in electoral politics. Maybe this just isn’t what he is cut out for. If he does stay in electoral politics, he is going to need to get a lot smoother with a microphone in his hand.

I should note that back in Taipei 3, Wu might be making progress. Most pundits think that Chiang is a clear favorite to win re-election, but a new poll shows the race tied. That isn’t good news for Chiang. Chiang is the established brand who has spent the past four years doing constituency work and amassing favors. He is unlikely to win any new support at this late date. On the other hand, Wu is the new guy still introducing himself to voters. There are still lots of voters who don’t know about Wu’s fantastic resume, so Wu might still have room to expand his support. It’s just one poll, but if I were in Chiang’s camp, I’d be sweating nervously for the next couple weeks.

After Wu finished speaking, Chthonic performed for about an hour. During their last song, they were joined onstage by Yu Tien, who is chair of the DPP New Taipei branch, candidate in New Taipei 3, and also a pop star. Yu Tien’s music is about as far from Chthonic’s as you can get. He is an old-fashioned crooner, Taiwan’s version of Tony Bennett or Dean Martin. He’s always a big hit with the grandparents at traditional political rallies. Yu did not perform on this night. His job was to waste time while Freddy changed from his rock star costume to his serious politician costume. Yu didn’t really give a full speech either. Instead, he went into variety show host mode, making a series of bad jokes. Thankfully, it didn’t last too long before Freddy was ready to return.

Freddy’s speech was excellent, and the crowd was extremely involved. [This crowd halfheartedly recited the ritualistic Frozen Garlic cheers, but when Freddy and some of the other speakers engaged them in more spontaneous ways, they were as loud and energetic as any Han rally of the past two years.] Freddy was simultaneously charismatic and substantive. One thing that surprised me was the balance between progressive and sovereignty issues. He did the progressive agenda first, but he went through it fairly quickly, ticking off items that he had worked on in the legislature. It was a good list, and it painted him as a serious and effective legislator. However, he seemed to be trying to get through this list as quickly as possible, because he really wanted to talk about sovereignty. When he finally got to Hong Kong, he slowed down and started really hammering home points with the audience. Perhaps his emphasis on sovereignty reflected a need to justify his decision to leave the NPP. At any rate, my mental evaluation of Freddy ticked up another notch after Saturday night. His future political career is entirely fuzzy right now. It could be over three weeks from now, or he might still have a long and influential career ahead of him. However, I don’t think he has maxed out his potential in his current role as an ordinary backbencher in the legislature.

President Tsai showed up at the end of the event. Her speech was frivolous, reminding the crowd to vote and quizzing them on candidate numbers. I have seen her speak dozens of times, and this might be the first time that she was the least substantive person to hold a microphone. I mean that literally. Every single person who said anything, including Chthonic’s bassist, Doris, who only uttered about three sentences, said something more substantive than Tsai did. On a night that set my disoriented mind wandering in a thousand different directions, it somehow seemed appropriate that Tsai – the most serious, scholarly, wonky, thoughtful, visionary politician of this generation – would also do something totally unprecedented and speak entirely in fluff.


Lai Pin-yu torpedoes her own campaign.

Chen Po-wei dazzles the crowd.
These pictures aren’t very good. Since I couldn’t get to the front section, I had to take pictures of the video screen in the middle of the street rather than of the people on the stage.

My best picture of Enoch Wu Yi-nung is a bit out of focus, which seems fitting.

Freddy soars.

In between songs, Freddy suddenly shapeshifted and made cogent remarks about politics, melting my poor brain.

In purely technical terms, I think the drummer might be the best musician in the band.

This fellow haunts my dreams.

Taiwanese nationalism and progressive values proudly displayed at a rock concert / political rally. Freddy Lim, in a nutshell.

The whole crowd, taken by a drone and projected on the videoboard. The crowd did not extend out into the traffic circle, so it ends right at the bottom of this photo.

I like the symbolism of this picture, with the presidential building in the background. I think CKS, CCK, and all of the Japanese governor-generals would have puked at the thought of such an event in such a location. Today’s Taiwan, however, celebrates pluralism and diversity.

One more picture of Freddy in full glory.

Yu Tien gets into the spirit. He joked that he wasn’t wearing any makeup — he just has dark bags under his eyes from campaigning so hard.

The Tibetan flag. One of Freddy’s biggest cheers came when he talked about abolishing the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Council, which surprised me since I don’t usually think of that as one of anyone’s top priorities. This generation has different ideas about how to engage with peripheral PRC areas. Older Taiwan nationalists are afraid to get too involved, since asserting the right to have an opinion about Tibet or Hong Kong could be seen as an admission that Taiwan is like them and part of China’s domestic politics. These kids, in contrast, don’t hesitate to express solidarity with democratic forces in those areas.

Wait, weren’t you just?? Actually, Freddy admits, it’s hard to clean up so quickly, and he is still wearing the same pants and shoes.

President Tsai looks bewildered by Lai Pin-yu. Like Freddy, Lai has also changed into a more appropriate costume for the president’s endorsement. She was originally cosplay manga kawaii girl, and now she is cosplay manga kawaii candidate girl. Yeah, that’s much better.

In a nearby alley, a banner for Freddy’s opponent, Lin Yu-fang. It reads, “protect the children: keep a distance from cigarettes, drugs, and bullying.” Two nearby banners with similar layouts read, “foreign affairs and national defense: let an expert do it” 外交國防: 讓專業的來 and “for the ROC: win this fight” 為中華民國: 打贏這一仗

8 Responses to “Campaign Trail: Freddy Lim rally on Ketagalan Blvd.”

  1. Rev. Michael Stainton Says:

    What a great Christmas present to us all. Like Freddy you have outdone youself. Who knew you are a music critic!

  2. Guy Beauregard Says:

    A great read. Thank you!

  3. Tim T. Says:

    You should listen to some of Cthonic’s acoustic performances instead.

  4. MW Says:

    In 2016, the fledgling New *Power* Party announced that Freddy Lim would represent it in Taipei 5. The DPP designated Taipei 5 as a “difficult district,”

  5. Paul M Says:

    Excellently insightful, 谢谢!

  6. Katie Yang (@katieshootsfilm) Says:

    Wu deserves some time to grow into this terribly new role – President Tsai was exactly like how you described him when she first came into the limelight.

  7. csempere109 Says:

    Yeah, I spent a long time looking for rock music in Taiwan, but I wasn’t ready for black metal. My first thought when I discovered Chthonic was, couldn’t we have something in between this and all the sappy stuff? Japan has a much larger variety of rock music; I got into it because of the occasional music video that would play on the Japanese TV channels my grandparents in Taiwan would watch. But I can listen to a little bit at a time, and I enjoyed seeing Chthonic live in SF a few years ago. I like their use of traditional instruments.

    LTK Commune and Kou Chou Ching are worth checking out for some underground music from Taiwan. My friends who can understand Taiwanese think a lot more highly of their lyrics than Cthnonic’s.

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