Can't stop the music
Despite a major government overhaul, festival season in southern Taiwan promises plenty of fun, writes David Frazier
Since Jimi Moe and Wade Davis threw the first Spring Scream music festival for about 300 fans near the Taiwanese beach town of Kenting in 1995, the event's popularity has soared.
Police estimate that last year about 100,000 visitors flooded into the area over the 10 days of the festival, many of them young Taiwanese coming for at least a half a dozen big outdoor parties and concerts, as well as families arriving for the beginning of the beach season marked by the Ching Ming grave-sweeping day.
Moe describes it as 'Fort Lauderdale party central meets Taiwan's biggest night market' and 'Vegas without the casinos'.
This year, the scale of the music events continues to grow. From April 5 to 7, parties called Spring Scream, Spring Wave and Spring Love will burst into life, with about 200 acts playing at Spring Scream's traditional indie band showcase, including Mando-pop stars Stanley Huang Li-xing, Faith Yang Nai-wen, and Cheer Chen Chi-chen, Ibiza dance music phenomenon Cafe del Mar in their Taiwan debut and the old-school beats of Japanese hip hop maestro DJ Krush.
Hong Kong bands have made regular appearances at the event over the years and this year local acts will include the Sea Monsters, Snoblind, the Darlings and the Train. Andy Warburton and Jim Breese from Britain's Hed Kandi label and two more DJs from parent label Ministry of Sound will play at a fourth event, the Moonlight Party.
But because organisers have to obtain permission from local authorities, the event has at times seemed threatened - which may sound odd to anyone who has attended any of the Kenting concerts over the past dozen years.
A general lack of enforcement is what originally allowed the parties to flourish and Kenting's tourist economy to boom (local businesses generally haul in the equivalent of a month's receipts or more in one three-day weekend).
But overcrowding also led to 84 traffic accidents last year, a number of party-related deaths, a huge traffic jam, mountains of rubbish and bad publicity related to drug use. This year, the government is stepping in. 'We don't want to interfere with these events,' says Pingtung county chief Tsao Chi-hong. 'We just want to allow them to prosper.'
Last week, Tsao and the head of the other government agency with jurisdiction over the sprawling festivities, Kenting National Park director Shih Chin-fang, headed to Taipei for the first press conference publicising Kenting's spring weekend. Organisers of the three spring-themed festivals were also there to introduce their events.
The main change they announced was the removal of music festivals from central Kenting, where they were previously clustered. Instead, events will be held within a 30km radius of the town in several new venues to alleviate traffic snarls.
Spring Scream will leave the grassy lot it has occupied for the past eight years and be split up to run at two sites. A little off the beaten track, the ranch-themed Kentington Resort will host eight indie music stages over three days, on-site camping, and include everything from loud local punk to more than a dozen indie acts from the US, Canada, Japan and New Zealand, including American rockers Mates of State and popster Ramona Cordova.
Spring Scream's other venue, near the Olanbi Lighthouse marking Taiwan's southern tip and more on the tourist trail, will host acts with broader pop appeal, including Yang, Huang and Chen.
Moe says the campsite Spring Scream used to occupy was in a grey area as park officials became more concerned about light, noise pollution and temporary structures.
'We would have loved to stay, but we were becoming less and less comfortable being in such close proximity to the town,' he says.
Moe says that in the year since the last festival, he has discussed with a range of government officials how the weekend's general chaos reflects poorly on the reputation of all of southern Taiwan. Shih, a local who took up the post of park director only last year, was also keen on a change of direction.
The authorities decided to invite bids for festival venues, perhaps the first time a tendering process had been used for rock concerts in Taiwan. Spring Scream was allotted the organisers' first choice of venue, the Olanbi site, and Spring Wave, a second-year event, won the only other site inside the park, a field overlooking the ocean at Maobitou.
The site occupied by the Moonlight Party since 2002 is inside the national park and this year
isn't listed for event use. Moonlight Party's organisers say they're consulting a lawyer, but the park authorities plan to be firm in keeping the concert out of the park. 'If they challenge the government, we will deal with them,' says Wu Jun-zhang, a park official.
Several events will also take place outside the park, including Spring Love, on a beach, at which DJs from Taipei's top dance club, Luxy, will pump out trance until at least 5am on two nights.
Spring Scream will differ from its bohemian early days, when it was as much about spontaneous hippie camps as music. Twice in the past three years the festival has been made to last 10 days in an attempt to recapture its old free-and-easy vibe, but its cohesion suffered each time. This year, Moe is taking the opposite approach, squeezing Spring Scream into three days and trying to capture what he calls 'the bell curve'.
'We're just trying to offer what most people want,' he says, even if that means campers will have to pull up their tents and vacate the resort grounds by noon on the Sunday, for which he's unapologetic.
'This year it's going to be kind of like School of Rock meets Club Med,' Moe says. 'We're getting bigger and so many things are changing around us. Doing the same festival just wasn't possible any more.'