The thing with travel is that you’ll find yourself realising that all people are the same. Children from America and China both whine to their mothers for more candy and young adults are all struggling with the concept of love. Though grandparents very much would behave much like any other, as I learned, Taiwanese grandparents don’t celebrate their birthdays in the most traditional of ways the same…
So, this lone foreigner discovered what makes traditional Taiwanese birthdays so special!
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It was the end of April, and I had my one-way ticket to London already in place. Jess’ close friend kindly invited both of us to attend her grandfather’s birthday party.
“Wouldn’t that be weird?” I cried. I didn’t know the man and hadn’t the slightest connection to him. Isn’t it very strange to gatecrash an old man’s birthday party?
Despite that, Jess quickly grabbed my attention by stating it was a highly traditional event and one that was rarely practised anymore other than in some southern regions. If not for anything else, it would be a cool last cultural event to partake in before we left. She was absolutely right.
The Man of the Moment
The man himself had quite the reputation. He was known almost as a village elder, a wise man who was responsible for taking care of others in his area. Thus, plenty of people would be in attendance to show their gratitude for everything he had done.
Better yet, he’d be celebrating his 80th birthday, a very auspicious age in Chinese culture. The number 8 in Chinese sounds very similar to the word for “prosper”, making an 80th birthday quite a big deal. Yet, I didn’t quite understand why an 88th birthday wouldn’t have been even more auspicious…
The party took place on the outskirts of New Taipei in the heart of the rice paddies and highways. At first, I was terrified of the prospect of walking into someone’s birthday event (whom I did not know) as the only foreigner in the room. Turns out, that wouldn’t be such a problem.
The event was held in an open courtyard with a sheet metal roof that looked like it belonged at the back of a farm. Turns out it was the village’s local “community centre” where special events were held.
You soon forgot about the rustic setting because, on that early afternoon, the area had been transformed into an open dining area. At a minimum, there were 20 enormous King Arthur-style round tables scattered about and 200+ people in attendance. Suddenly, my lone pale white face lost itself in the crowd.
Even then, that wasn’t the most jaw-dropping thing that was to come…
Give it up for G-G-G-Grandpaaaa
You might envision a grandparent’s birthday party to include a frail-looking individual struggling for life as they try to blow out a ridiculous number of candles. Thus, you can imagine my surprise when I turned the corner to see an enormous portable stage decked out in flashing lights, a fully-equipped DJ booth and the heaviest drum and base tracks known to mankind blasting its way across the open courtyard.
I sat there in ultimate bewilderment at how in the almighty hell would a mobile, epilepsy-inducing rave would be appropriate for an 80-year-old man’s birthday?! But to my joy, Jess ensured us we were only getting started.
Welcome Ladies and Gentlemen
As if the stage itself wasn’t enough of a surprise, soon after the crowd has settled, a hostess popped out from behind the DJ booth. A woman on the wrong end of 40 dressed in a skimpy cocktail dress and with a badly done tattoo above her breast which screamed of failed dreams.
She would be the presenter for the evening, conducting what would become the show and overall entertainment. Much before that, men kitted out in fully professional-level TV cameras to capture the moment and the afternoon’s events.
The family were brought on stage and the man of the hour had his moment in the spotlight. The hostess chimed in with the comedic timing of a drunken aunt as she tried to move the events along.
And STILL, things were still about to get wilder…
A Shmoosing Politician
Soon enough, a severely balding man in a luxurious suit came strolling into the courtyard which attracted the attention of the numerous cameras. He was constantly surrounded by a number of strikingly obvious lackeys and hangers-on as they all way between the tables like Moses parting the sea. It was clear he was a big deal, but who was he?
Turn out he was a politician, quite a significant one at that – Su Tseng-chang, the former premier of Taiwan, who essentially served as the second in command to the president!
It would lead you to believe that the old man must have known him, perhaps in a past life. Apparently not. He was only there to curry favour with his constituents for the upcoming elections. Thus, attending an event to celebrate a beloved member of the local community was the perfect place to do that.
Not long after his arrival, he joined the celebrating family on stage and took a moment to address the crowd. True politician bullshit at its finest!
Afterwards, he and his posse began walking from table to table to toast all his potential voters. Though that did not compare to the absurdity of his side-kicks who enthusiastically rode his coattails.
Now, We Dine
Chinese cultures certainly have a bit of gluttony when it comes to dining. The tables are always filled to the brim with the best traditional fare. As this was a traditional celebration, it made sense to keep it authentic!
With military precision, the gathering of waiters would bring over monumentally large dishes of all the Taiwanese classics. Fresh seafood, traditional sticky rice, noodles, pork knuckles, the lot!
Better yet, my prayers would be answered. As soon as I arrived, I was desperate for a drink. Such madness like this would be so much more incredible to enjoy with a slight buzz.
As if a guardian angel came down from heaven, a man with a box of clinking boxes made a beeline towards our table and he looked at me as if he knew I had been waiting for him. With two litre bottles of beer and a full bottle of whiskey, my wish was fulfilled. And just in time for the real show…
Each time I thought it couldn’t get weirder, it just got better. That included having another lower-level politician rocking a fedora and blasting the saxophone through the crowd. However, the pièce de résistance hit me in the face like a tonne of bricks.
As I tucked into my mouthful of noodles and sweet Taiwanese sausage, out came a young slender lady dressed in the miniest of skirts and exposed midriff.
“What in the almighty hell is this?” I exclaimed to Jess.
“Oh yeah, that’s normal in traditional birthdays like this,” she said.
Yeah, that’s right. Traditional Taiwanese birthdays typically feature scantily-clad ladies entertaining the crowd. This was a grandfather’s birthday with old-minded aunties and impressionable children running about. And here she stood, a sexually provocative woman for us all to enjoy.
Following the lady’s introductory song, she disappeared behind the DJ booth for a moment before returning in nothing but a bikini! She proceeded to slowly walk amongst the tables, shaking the hands the guests as her arse grazed passed the shoulders of grannies.
Not long after she had tip-toed through the tables, she was replaced by a second (obviously cosmetically enhanced) big-breasted lady who took to the stage and had her turn entertaining the crowd.
As shocked and transfixed as I was with the performance, I was told this was actually pretty mild to normal standards.
Jess was keen to tell me that during truly traditional Taiwanese birthdays, it wasn’t too uncommon for the ladies to be completely nude. Oh, and if I was interested, you can have them for funerals too…
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