No go-go zone

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2011, 12:00am

Shuang Cheng Street has seen its share of combat. In the 1970s, US soldiers on leave from the front lines of the Vietnam war would head to its cluster of boy meets-bargirl nightclubs when in Taipei. They joked that the boisterous pubs were the only place to find a fight in Taiwan.

'Back in those days, just about the only places to go for just drinking were the girlie bars,' recalls Dirk Bennett, an American who lived in Taipei for more than 30 years. 'So, it was natural for the first pubs to open in this area.'

In the decades since the end of the war, Shuang Cheng and its neighbouring alleys have weathered a steep drop in business, noise complaints from residents and an ill-fated effort to reinvent the strip's seedier side. Instead, most of the bars closed, leaving boarded-up holes and just 20 or 30 hard-boiled survivors.

It's no wonder the Shuang Cheng bar district is best known as Taipei's 'combat zone'.

But a cluster of cosy international neighbourhood bars has risen from the rubble. These are places where hosts and their repeat customers, still largely from overseas, take pride in knowing one another's names.

Granted, the seedier side persists - bargirls from places such as Volcano and Miami Pub have been known to launch skirmishes at passing men - but these days it is more a sideshow than the main event.

Some of the tenants of the zone's narrow alleys that come alive around 9pm are wholesome watering holes where the same crowd of expatriate North Americans, Europeans, Filipinos and Japanese go regularly.

Often, just after work, they sit down for a quiet drink with locals and the occasional mainland Chinese tourist as the zone lights up in neon and music pulsates from inside.

'Wild it's not; relaxed it is,' says Richard Vuylsteke, a Hong Kong-based business official who visits the bars when in Taipei. Bar staff recognise him from when he lived in town. 'Over the decades the area has shrunk in size and become less boisterous, but it still remains an oasis for expats and locals alike, who can find good Taiwanese snack food nearby and share a few beers and relaxed conversation together in an economically priced environment,' Vuylsteke says.

At My Place, an indoor-outdoor restaurant-pub combo, staff chat with drinkers. Across the street at the Manila, a senior Filipina hostess memorises the orders of repeat customers and keeps the free popcorn coming all evening.

Hosts at one-room bars such as Peace Jazz and Malibu West also make an effort to get to know the customers, even cooking special meal requests.

'This is a bar where people never get ripped off, never get cheated, no girls who you have to buy a drink for. People feel comfortable,' says William Gan, manager of the 14-year-old, 58-seat, wood-panelled Malibu West, which is known for its Californian and Mexican food. 'The foreigners, they just keep coming back. They sign their names on the ceiling. We're running out of space up there.'

The zone remains cheap and downmarket - the upholstery may be torn or the air conditioner might be noisy - compared with bar districts in newer parts of Taipei. Happy hour beers cost as little as NT$75 (HK$20). Bars that open after 9pm still allow smoking, a thing of the past elsewhere in town. Music volumes increase as the hour gets later.

What's left of the zone, which is located just behind the landmark Imperial Hotel, parties late into the night as customers find their second wind. Crowds fill the friendlier bars on weekdays as well as weekends.

'It is the way we serve customers. That's one reason they keep on coming,' says Jackie Sotelo, hostess at the ever-packed Manila Bar, where beers are cheap, snacks free and barmaids remember just about everyone's name.

Action stations

What: low-end, high-energy bar district going back to the 1960s

Where: Shuang Cheng Street, Lanes 25 and 32; near the Imperial Hotel

When: A few bars open early, but the district's peak hours are 9pm to 2am


Malibu West: global menu, Western music, open early, regular crowd

Manila: regular crowd, cheap beer, non-stop music

My Place ample space, Western menu, outdoor seats for smokers

Patina: dart boards

Peace Jazz: cosy one-room bar; manager gets to know customers

Supergirl: dark, cosy; hostesses work male customers to buy them drinks

Wala Pub: pool table, competitively priced Taiwanese beer