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

“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.

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“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.”

Scroll through the slideshow to learn how to explore flourishing Taipei like KK Yeh.

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A Rock Queen's Guide to Hipster Taipei
The founder of White Wabbit, Taipei’s most influential indie record label and shop, KK Yeh finds inspiration in the city’s controversial art galleries, revolutionary teahouses, and red-light district temples.
Collected by Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
Sean Marc Lee
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    “This shop sells calligraphic tools like brushes, pens, and good-quality paper. You can also create your own name stamp using Chinese characters." —KK Yeh

    This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    Sean Marc Lee
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    "When bands are in town, I send them to the instrument shop ST Music, which is a five-minute walk away from the calligraphy tool shop, Geng Yen Jai. They sell an instrument called the pipa, which is like a Chinese guitar, plus Chinese flutes and very tiny Chinese hand cymbals.” —KK Yeh

    This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    ST Music
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    “This experimental gallery hosts multimedia exhibitions, including music installations. One of their recent shows was a complete introduction to drug culture, covering everything from drug use in ancient South American civilizations to the drug attitudes of the ’60s-era fluxus art movement. It was surprising and controversial.” —KK Yeh

    This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    Sean Marc Lee
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    “The Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei is a good place to see international modern art. One of my favorite shows was an interactive sound-and-light installation by the Taiwanese artists Yao Chung-Han. As visitors moved through the exhibit, lightbulbs would brighten and dim, and turn on and off. It was very cool.” —KK Yeh

    This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    Sean Marc Lee
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    “I love the beautiful old-style architecture of this serene exhibition space, which was built between 1920 and 1940, during the period of Japanese colonization. It’s located near other icons built at that time—including the Taiwanese parliamentary building and the Huashan 1914 Creative Park—and has a café and a small shop where you can buy artwork but, ironically, no poetry.” —KK Yeh This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    Sean Marc Lee
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    “This small mom-and-pop shop is famous for its Taiwanese fruit. The selection is seasonal, of course. In summer, try the mango, pineapple, or bananas. In winter, pears, melons, and grapes are best.” —KK Yeh

    This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    Sean Marc Lee
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    “In the 1980s, this teahouse was a gathering spot for artists, writers, thinkers, activists, advocates, and revolutionaries to talk about political reform and the ideal future. These days, it’s more symbolic—a tourist spot like the Café de Flore in Paris.” —KK Yeh

    This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    Sean Marc Lee
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    “Founded in 1890, Wang is the best place to experience tea culture in Taiwan. It’s in an elegant building that has red wallpaper and an old-timey Oriental atmosphere. Order a green tea and enjoy the live performances of nanguan, a type of traditional Chinese music.” —KK Yeh

    This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    Wang Tea
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    “It’s located in Wanhua, the former red-light district, but Lungshan is one of the city’s most famous temples. The atmosphere inside is solemn and serious. I like that contrast. Lungshan is also two miles from Ningxia Night Market, one of the most organized and tourist-friendly night markets in Taipei.” —KK Yeh

    This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    Sean Marc Lee
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    “Most seafood restaurants in Taiwan have big fish tanks up front. People choose what they want to eat and the chef catches and cooks it. One minute, you see the fish, lobster, or crab in the tank; one minute later, it’s on your plate. Addiction Aquatic Development is a younger, cleaner, more modern restaurant, market, and bar that blends Taiwanese and Japanese styles. People dine in, but they also buy sauces, seasonings, and seafood to go. I’m old-fashioned and like to order the sashimi.” —KK Yeh

    This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    Jonathin Lin/Flickr
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    “Craft beer has only been popular in Taiwan for the last three to five years. I go to this laid-back bar after work to order the house IPA and chill out. Sometimes I feel like I’m the foreigner here, because it draws so many Americans and Europeans. I even saw a group of Russians once!” —KK Yeh

    This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    Sean Marc Lee
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    “From the outside, this looks like a regular Taiwanese restaurant and bar, with traditional furniture and decoration. But upstairs is a performance area that accommodates around 100 guests. There are at least three or four performances a week; my band Aphasia has played here. The shows start very late—typically 9 p.m.—and go as late as 2 a.m. You can party all night!” —KK Yeh

    This appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
    By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
    Sean Marc Lee
—As told to Ashlea Halpern

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