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Ted Su

Medium / The China News
Date / 11996.06.26

The lords of Taipei nightlife

¡@¡@You may not recognize them by name, but these men taught you how to party. KAREN RICHARDSON spins the tale of three buddies whose pubs and dance halls revolutionized Taipei nightlife.

¡@¡@You may not recognize the names Ling Wei, Gary Chen and Ted Su, but you almost certainly know their bars----Roxy, TU Jazz Mambo, Spin , the Edge, Music Kitchen and Apocalypse Now----just to name a few of the nearly 30 establishments these men created.

¡@¡@Their personalities have defined Taipei nightlife and made it distinct from the over-priced-and-embittered expat scene in Hong Kong, the grunge-and-hotel-lounge scene in china, and the apres-shopping scene in Singapore.

¡@¡@They came at just the right time for Taipei's nascent nightlife. After nearly half-a-century of martial law, and entire generation of yearning-to-party denizens were looking for places of their own, and these there filled the need.

¡@¡@Because of them, now foreigners and locals drink and dance together, pick each other up, and speak each other's languages. From teeny-boppers to people going through their mid-life-crises, they're all in the house.

¡@¡@And all of this came about because the three shared a hatred for one of the most popular discos in Taipei over a decade ago.

¡@¡@Ling Wei and Gary Chen met up at the now defunct----but still notorious----club buffalo town in 1984, watching foreigners crowd the dance floor after taking advantage of the fact that they could get in free. Not so for Taiwanese, who had to pay a steep cover to get in.

¡@¡@Fondly remembered by some nostalgic foreigners as "the sleaziest bar in Taipei," Buffalo Town was the bane of rock-loving locals Chen and Ling, who were then proprietors of their owned modest music pubs. Chen owned the Combat Zone pub Woodstock, while Ling owned the Kungkuan bar AC/DC, which later moved to Hoping E. Road and changed its name to the Roxy.

¡@¡@¡§Buffalo Town had a really bad reputation," said Chen, who was once the club¡¦s most popular DJ. "But it was big and the foreigners liked to dance there."

¡@¡@Said Ling, "I hated that place. They would charge Chinese NT$200 to got in and foreigners got in for free."

¡@¡@To correct this injustice, Ling decided to open a disco in 1988. he dubbed it Roxy ¢º, and Chen got on board as the weekend DJ. The duo was joined by Ted Su , a then-unknown interior designer. It would be the first of several cooperations between the three that would leave a lasting mark on the way people in Taipei-partied.

¡@¡@Like the Roxy ¢ºitself, nightlife in Taipei would come to reflect the diverse personalities of the three men who made it happen.

¡@¡@For Ling Wei , 43, music was and is the driving force behind his businesses. A rock radio DJ for over 16 years, Ling's ear was cocked to rock at an early age.

¡@¡@Despite being an only child in a conservative family that hoped their son would "just be a good boy," Ling became one of the rock-'n'-roll initiated agter being introduced to the Beatles by a classmate's elder brother.

¡@¡@In any one of his bars, from Roxy to the Edge, you can find a DJ booth stocked with vintage LPs and alternative CDs and probably Ling Wei himself at the turntable. Everything and everyone else revolves around the music. And that is how Ling wants it.

¡@¡@"I didn't know anything about bars or clubs [when I first got into this business]. I'm not even an alcohol drinker I opened AC/DC Rock House [his first bar, in 1982] because, as a rock DJ for a radio station, a lot of people were always asking me about music, so I thought it would be good to have a place for people who loved rock music to meet," says Ling.

¡@¡@Ling's love for "pure" rock music was a primary ingredient in the Roxy formula and immediately set it apart from any of the other discos that were then in existence. "I gave people a different type of music to dance to. The best dance music is rock and roll, not disco. The people loved it; it was great."

¡@¡@Gary Chen remembers the days when "only Ling Wei and I had places that played really good rock music." Their common interest would lead to a friendship and a joining of forces that saw the beginnings of the Roxy lineage. Chen, whose expansive smile and knowledge of English endears him to foreigners and locals alike, dates the beginning of his interest in rock music to junior high school.

¡@¡@"I was a really good student¡Xone of the best in Taipei. I studied really hard for three years," Chen said. "But then I got into rock and roll and good movies..."

¡@¡@By the time he and Ling met up at Buffalo Town, Chen had already opened a pub of his own Woodstock, in the Combat Zone.

¡@¡@"After midnight, I let the kids dance. There was martial law in those days, so it was even more exciting."

¡@¡@At Buffalo Town, Chen's weekly selection of Motown, classic rock and reggae drew in foreigners by the carloads and motorcycle packs, and by the time he agreed to join Ling Wei at Roxy ¢º, he had already become the Pied Piper of the disco scene, with a following of party-going club tats ready for anything he would dish out.

¡@¡@Chen's appeal lies in his easy-going personality and his ability to communicate with foreigners, not only through music, but also through language and attitude. His personality made it possible for him to bridge many cultural differences and potential clashes that pervaded the club scene, especially during the tenser times of martial law.

¡@¡@Chen's contribution to Roxy, and by extension Taipei nightlife, can still be appreciated at such hangouts as TU, where Chen presides over another successful, thoroughly-mixed, Western and Chinese following with his partner Ted Su, whom he met at Roxy ¢º.

¡@¡@Ted Su didn't think he'd end up designing Roxy ¢º when hi met Ling Wei at AC/DC. At that time he was a 24-year-old apprentice at an interior design company. He would eventually become part-owner of the next three Roxys.

¡@¡@"I was born in Taipei, with a completely Chinese education and cultural background," said Su, now 37 and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams as a result of his nightlife creations." and at AC/DC, Ling Wei opened a window for me that enabled me to 'touch' the foreign and nightclub culture for the first time."

¡@¡@Su, whose family are intellectuals from Anhui Province in China, declined his parents¡¦ offer to finance his study abroad when he was 17 to work part-time at a design firm instead, as a compromise for trading in his childhood dream of becoming an artist.

¡@¡@His exposure to foreigners, until that fateful meeting with Ling Wei, was limited to discussions with one American and one Japanese designer in his office.

¡@¡@But possessed with a keen business sense, as well as an interest in music, Su made the acquaintance of Ling Wei through a friend. Soon, Su gave Ling some ideas for Ling¡¦s new club, the original Roxy. A year later, Ling hired him to design Roxy¢º. Not one to miss out on opportunities that appealed to him, Su asked to become Ling¡¦s partner in what he knew would be a very successful venture. ¡§That was the real beginning,¡¨ says Su of his nine-year-old entertainment enterprise, Tedesign Entertaining Association.

¡@¡@It was also the real beginning of the Ling-Chen-Su collaboration and the new face of Taipei nightlife.

¡@¡@Roxy¢ºwould remain open for just two years, but its impact on the nature of Taipei nightlife is still felt today in terms of its unconventional approach to dance music, its bare-bones, anything goes atmosphere and its design. In fact, it's style has been so often imitated, it has become the archetype of what a Taipei pub should be.

¡@¡@But the Roxy¢ºformula, however successful, did result in some negative repercussions for the owners.

¡@¡@Ling's conviction for fairness and accessibility to music was a big change for foreigners who expected to be treated with the reverential treatment they always had received. According to Ling, many foreigners would drop his name at the door, expecting their "old buddy" from AC/DC and Roxy¢¹ to let them in for free.

¡@¡@"so I just had to be cool, and pretend not to know anybody," said Ling. He contends that it was from this point that his relationship with foreigners, which was initially very friendly, began to deteriorate and he eventually developed a "really bad reputation."

¡@¡@"They don't think of me as the old Ling Wei's anymore." He pauses a moment before adding," well, that's fair. That's fair."

¡@¡@After two years, Ling and Su, whose different perspectives helped make the formula so successful, began to grow apart.

¡@¡@"After awhile we just didn't get along" said Su. " you know the way Chinese can be."

¡@¡@Chen. Less diplomatic, put it another way: "I got the feeling they hated each other's guts."

¡@¡@It's easy to see why these men eventually stopped seeing eye-to-eye. With the lifting of martial law in 1987, Taiwan saw the introduction of more foreign pop music. This created a greater demand by young Taiwan locals for places to dance to their favorite Top-40 hits.

¡@¡@For music idealist Ling Wei, this must have put him at a disadvantage with the pragmatically-minded Ted Su. Chen notes that Ling was "not very open-minded" in terms of business, which caused problems between Ling and Su.

¡@¡@After jointly owning Roxy¢º, Roxy¢»and Roxy¢¼, Su and Ling parted ways. Su would go on to open stalwart party pit TU and be joined later by Chen, while Ling¡¦s attempt in that direction, BAM, would last only two years.

¡@¡@"Oh yeah, BAM. I almost forgot about that place," says Ling. "that was a disco," he adds remorsefully.

¡@¡@From that point on, the individual personalities of these men would pervade their personal creations. Witness Ling's commitment to live music, with his short-loved Feelmore Jazz Club and B-Side alternative music club.

¡@¡@The Feelmore was a place where local and foreign musicians jammed and played gigs in a laidback and enthusiastic atmosphere no longer felt in the so-called" jazz clubs" in the Shihta area today. B-Side experimented with an all-live original music formula before calling it quits and reopening as the disco The Edge.

¡@¡@For Ling, jazz, like rock and alternative, is the mood of the place, and the atmosphere builds up around it. "I love jazz. I'm a rock lover and a jazz lover." This simple statement embodies Ling's business philosophy.

¡@¡@Contrast this to Ted Su's more pragmatic approach to love music and jazz: "when I started [TU], I chose jazz, because jazz doesn't get out of control like rock and roll music. I didn't want my first step to make people think , oh, this is bad music." not only that, but he also dept crowds interested b mixing sets of live jazz with more accessible dance music.

¡@¡@Nonetheless, Su shines as a designer. The new Apocalypse Now has become the toast of design circles. TU will be celebrating its fourth anniversary of bringing live jazz to Taipei musicians. And those new mega-clubs KK in NanKang and Taichung, Su claims, are based on his original design.

¡@¡@Su's real contribution to Taipei nightlife is atmosphere. Walk into Wind, Apocalypse Now, Music Kitchen, or the New Orleans Jazz Cafe. The atmosphere, not the music, will strike your senses first. Note the high ceilings, bare cement walls, wood trimmings, faux leather chairs, black metal railings and track lighting...

¡@¡@After taking this in, you might then notice the music, New Age, jazz, Chinese pop and movie soundtracks, that the TV monitors at Apocalypse, which have Channel[V] on continuous play, are strategically-placed "for posing," as one has to strain one¡¦s head and body in unnatural positions in order to see them.

¡@¡@Even Su concedes, "I approach every place as a designer. I don't need to hire designers to tell me what I want. I can create the atmosphere by myself."

¡@¡@An avid traveler who garners many design ideas from abroad, Su saw the benefits of merging both local color and foreign influence in the clubs of Bangkok.

¡@¡@"the Taipei people can make their own place and mix it with Western culture. I thought I could do that too, for example, TU. It's a Chinese and Western mix, without any gap."

¡@¡@And as Ling Wei's insistence on good live music was contagious and caught on with Su, so did Su's creative tendencies infect Ling's hard-rock houses and give them a little ambience.

¡@¡@"I learned a lot about design from Ted, and I really appreciate that. And of course we had big influences on each other; for Ted, he learned a lot about music, and for me, it was design."

¡@¡@After the close of the original Roxy¢¹ early this year, a new brand of Roxy sprang up. The new Roxy¢¹ and Roxy East are still places where the volume of the music is disproportionate to their size. But each new Ling Wei place has an unmistakable design, a concept, some feeling that each place was conceived and developed, rather than impulsively hatched and left to survive with just a good set of speakers and a shelf-full of good tunes.

¡@¡@But it hasn¡¦t been all smooth sailing for the club owners. Occasional violence and the threat of shutdown by the police are a thorn in their sides.

¡@¡@"I have a lot of complaints about this country, about this government, "said Ling." There's no city plan. You can just build up whatever you like, anywhere, on any corner...but the government won't give you a license, so everybody is illegal.

¡@¡@"What can you do about that? They might force me to close anytime, I don't think I'm a lawbreaker; I don't think I'm a bad guy...Everywhere, every place you know, is illegal. It's ridiculous. What are we going to do about it?"

¡@¡@Ling says that the government has to come to grips that even pubs are an essential part of this island's culture.

¡@¡@" there are so many cities from east Asia to western Europe, and every city has bars. It's cultural. What's wrong with a bar? What's wrong with drinking beer? I don't drink beer, but I don't think there's anything wrong with it. Every city has nice bars. They are the attraction for visitors."

¡@¡@So what has become of each of these men? Is it fair to say, that after over a decade of making each other's acquaintance and building up the nightlife scene, that they and nightlife with them, have somehow "matured"?

¡@¡@"I used to care a lot about the music the DJs played, when I was a DJ myself. But now, I don't care that much anymore." Says Chen, who has become an antique and oil painting collector and Chinese porcelain enthusiast in the past few years. "Now, there are a lot of rap and techno and that kind of s--. I hate that kind of music."

¡@¡@Chen, known just as " Gary" to friends and colleagues and affectionately as "Uncle" to his employees, spends most of his days reading up on Chinese art and antiques, visiting museums, art galleries and auctions as well as shooting hoops at the Taita basketball courts. With yearly trips to the United States and an upcoming art-collecting trip to Europe, Chen is stoic about the club music scene, which he says is "worse than ten years ago, not better" and his relaxed involvement with TU and Ted Su.

¡@¡@"I think that running a pub should be done casually. Ted is a typical successful businessperson, with lots of meetings. I'm not like that at all. I like to have more private time. I'm glad he understands me."

¡@¡@Su, on the other hand, barely has any private time. Su gives himself just three more years before backing off from the day-to-day affairs of his business and handing them over to competent managers." I'd just come in once in awhile to look after important things. I don't have so much time for that other stuff anymore."

¡@¡@But with a string of 15 bakeries in china, plans to open restaurants and clubs in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles, as well as the opening of a new restaurant peace (named after the peace Hotel in Shanghai), a jazz club named Brown Sugar, and a hip cafe (another Chen-su joint) in Taipei next month, it may be longer than three years reins of his growing empire.

¡@¡@After nearly a decade in the club business, Su reflects on how his own personality and background have influenced the young inheritors of Taipei nightlife: " I've helped their eyes to see and their ears to hear...I've let Chinese know that every modern city, even Taipei, can have nice restaurants and nightclubs with lots of thought and concept put in."

¡@¡@As for Ling Wei, whose Roxy East has opened up another district in Taipei for his brand of nightclub, he has an agenda for Taipei nightlife:
" it's almost the year 2000 now; we've got to open our views and develop an international perspective...we have to help our young people have more contact with foreigners because we get a lot of ideas from them. And we have to let foreigners know about us. Communication is good," says Ling Wei, the hard-rocking idealist.

¡@¡@Vowing to stay in the pub business "as long as possible," Ling added the disclaimer, "but wouldn't it be really stranger if I was a 60-year-old man still playing disco?"