Meet the Queen of Taipei’s Hippest Subculture

Indie rocker and local legend KK Yeh on her sonic education, the shocking rise of the local underground music scene, and founding the Taiwanese capital’s most influential record label and shop.

Meet the Queen of Taipei’s Hippest Subculture

Revolver, a restaurant, bar, and music venue where Yeh’s band has performed.

Photo by Sean Marc Lee

“I was born and raised in Taipei. The city has changed so much over the last 20 years. My father loved nature and didn’t want his family living downtown. So when I was little, we lived on Guangfu Road, on the border of the Xinyi district. Back then, it was all farmland; now it’s the fanciest and most expensive shopping area in Taipei. Living in the country was my father’s interest, not mine.

“As a teenager, I attended the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University. It is known for its liberal atmosphere and energetic student activities. Some of the school’s most famous alumni are members of Mayday, which is now the biggest rock band in Taiwan. I went to school with them in the mid-‘90s, when they were just getting started. One day, I saw one of their performances, where they played Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me.’ It was very shocking! Rock music may not be a big deal to American teenagers, but it was very rare in Taiwan at that time—and it was especially hard to find independent or provocative rock. Until 1987 the country had been under martial law, which banned freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. But in the decade after martial law was lifted, everything changed. So many new bands, like Mayday, were started. Listening to them, I realized just how interesting music could be.

“I started my own band, Nipples, soon after. Although I could buy CDs from record shops, it wasn’t easy to see bands play live, especially if you were under 18. There were only two venues in Taipei back then. I dropped out of college to work for a year in a legendary record store named Cosmos. My purpose was to listen to as much music as possible. At the end of the one-year break, a customer from Cosmos loaned me money to start my own record shop. My friend Freddy Lim was a singer in a Taiwanese band and the owner of a live-music house called Zeitgeist. He’s now an elected official, but is still the frontman for his band, Chtonic. I asked him if I could open my record shop in his venue and he said of course. His space was very small, so I turned the men’s restroom into a record store. It was a very feminist move.

White Wabbit attracted real, real weird kids. At the time, most people still listened to American music. Nowadays, people listen to Taiwanese bands. My store even has a section dedicated to old Taiwanese music. So much has changed.

“After releasing two albums under Nipples, our band changed its name to Aphasia and stopped singing. Aphasia just released its third instrumental album in July. Our music is heavily influenced by Sonic Youth. We play shows with audiences of 800 or 900 people, and the kids keep getting younger and younger. Taiwanese born after the end of martial law are especially open-minded and free. They embrace all kinds of independent and experimental art.

“White Wabbit is also a record label, and whenever we bring foreign bands to Taiwan, I love to show them the creative side of my city. Art, music, food—everything is flourishing.”—As told to Ashlea Halpern

Check out KK Yeh’s Guide to Hipster Taipei.

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Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, New York Magazine, Time, Esquire, Dwell, the Wall Street Journal, and Midwest Living. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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