By Afore Hsieh

Chu Han, a 25-year-old Taipei resident, never thought that one day she’d step into a hostess bar, where men buy overpriced drinks to have young women accompany and flirt with them.

And yet there she is, sitting in a dimly-lit, Japanese-style hostess bar with two dozen people, to discover the secrets of this declining, mysterious industry from Siena, a middle-aged lady who has been working in the hostess bar industry for more than ten years.

Taipei Walking Tour Siena
Siena (centre) introduces the Japanese-style hostess bar industry to visitors. Photo: Taipei Walking Tour.

In Taiwan, hostess bar ladies, homeless people and migrant workers are some of the overlooked social classes. To many others, they are seen as a group of disgraceful social outcasts. But lately, these underprivileged people have been given a stage to express themselves, with the help of the emerging walking tour trend in Taipei.

Over the past five years, Taipei has seen a budding walking tour market, with about ten new walking tour companies entering the field.

Launched in 2012, Taipei Walking Tour is one of the earliest and most well-known walking tour companies in Taipei. The company works with people from different professions and invites Taipei locals to explore their hometown through the eyes of different social classes.

To the younger generation in Taiwan, a hostess bar has always been viewed as a mysterious place, where only men with deep pockets would pass through that luxurious-looking door.

But with Siena’s guidance, Chu and others also have a chance to see the world hidden behind those doors. “I want to overturn others’ impression of Japanese-style hostess bars,” says Siena during the walking tour.

taiwan taipei
Photo: Daymin, via Flickr.

Most people associate the hostess bar industry with sex service, but Siena emphasizes that they only provide customers with their company, not sex.

When Siena first cooperated with Taipei Walking Tour, she was thrilled to show the visitors around the hostess-bar area. “I used to see my job as a disgraceful one, even though I really love the job… I was surprised to see many visitors showing interest in the daily trifles of our job.”

After taking on the role of a guide in the hostess-bar area in Taipei for about one year, the excitement Siena once felt has gradually subsided, but she still enjoys sharing with the visitors some of the skills she has learned in the hostess-bar industry, including how to toast with customers, how to win a customer’s heart and how to deal with sexual harassment.

“In the past, most people thought that hostess bar ladies could make money just by sitting there and drinking with customers, but Siena showed us how much effort the job requires,” says Chu.

Besides hostess bar ladies, Taipei Walking Tour also works with migrant workers, LGBT activists and social workers to tell stories of Taipei from different perspectives.

Chiu Yi, the Chief Executive Officer of Taipei Walking Tour, says locals in Taipei are not familiar with the city they live in. That’s why the organization has provided a platform, on which different communities can present how they see Taipei in their own way and visitors can also get to know Taipei from a variety of viewpoints.

Visitors taking part in the tours tend to be people who “pay close attention to the diversity of a city,” says Chiu. These visitors are normally aged between 25 and 45, with more women than men.

Hidden Taipei is another walking tour organisation which focuses on breaking the stereotypes about the homeless, while providing the overlooked with some income.

taipei walking tour
Photo: Hidden Taipei.

At Hidden Taipei, the homeless are not regarded as a category, but as individuals with names, emotions and stories. As these special guides are leading the walking tours visiting different areas in Taipei, visitors also learn how these guides’ life stories have intertwined with those streets and blocks.

“Hidden Taipei helps me see the lives of the homeless without discrimination,” a visitor says after the tour. Over 80% of the visitors at Hidden Taipei say that the tour has increased their understanding of this socially vulnerable group.

“Taking part in the walking tour has helped our guides to improve their self-confidence,” says Li Jia-Ting, the social worker managing Hidden Taipei. “It also helps our guides to expand their social networks.” Li mentions that Chun, one of the guides at Hidden Taipei, used to have a very small social circle, but now he has many visitors and youngsters as his new friends.

 Hidden Taipei
Chun, one of the guides at Hidden Taipei, is sharing his life story with visitors. Photo: Hidden Taipei.

The walking tour market in Taiwan is still at an early stage, but as more communities are getting involved in the growing trend, more voices will be heard, stereotypes will be reduced and stories hidden in Taipei streets will be uncovered.

Afore Hsieh is a freelance journalist based in Taipei. She has a strong passion for telling human-related stories. Afore has reported news and feature stories both in Taiwan and abroad.