Hell’s Angels. The Outlaws. Sons of Silence. If you’re familiar with these names, you are well aware that motorcycle gangs in the States, some of which have clubs around the world, are some bad, to use a bit of vernacular here, mofos. The thought of running into a pack of these dudes in a dark alley—or even in broad daylight while visiting your grandma at a local nursing home—may send incapacitating chills down one’s spine. Decked in scruffy leather garb and mostly black apparel, with stereotypical wallet chains hanging from their back pockets, biker boots that appear stained with fading blood splatters, and perhaps with a well-used pair of brass knuckles or a habitually-sharpened switchblade protruding out from a vest pocket, these guys will intimidate you, even from afar, simply by appearance. Ubiquitous tats of Satan on a HOG, fear-inducing club mottos, or stats on how many rivals they’ve bumped off all abound, adorning knuckles, forearms, eyelids, you name it, all merely adding to their utterly terrifying mystique.
Though bikers themselves may instill in you a fear you’ve never felt before, their Back Warmers, the gals riding with them on their bikes, may even pack more attitude, spitting on your Honda as you pull up abreast at a red traffic light, and then adding insult to emotional injury by calling your Gold Wing a rice burner. To get into a confrontation with a biker would be foolish enough, but the prospect is even more daunting knowing that the Fender Bunny whom you just whistled at wouldn’t flinch at the idea of taking a crow bar upside your brain bucket (a.k.a., your helmet) and then leaving you in the gutter to rot. These gals run the full range of appearance, from bikini-clad hotties to tattoo-covered hags who’ve been around the block more times than they can count, but whatever their style or image, you simply should opt to stay away from them in a pressure-cooker situation. To confront both the biker and the babe on the back will result only in your imminent demise.
Hearing the snarl of a biker gang’s HD’s Big Twins approaching from a distance stimulates even more panic, for you know evil looms, yet there is an added suspense because you can’t visibly gauge what degree of wickedness is coming. A HOG’s straight pipes, continually tinkered with to roar even more excessively, will make your back hair stand on end and, perhaps, leave a brown stain in your shorts. Anyone with intelligence would know to send the children and women scurrying for the indoors at the first sign such a menace is coming. Shutter the windows. Bar the doors. If you know what’s best, you’d better get on your way, also.
However, these images, for me, are all just based on hearsay, ridiculous over-the-top movie scripts, and sensationalized accounts by the eager-to-make-a-buck media. Actually, there is some truth to their reputation and image, of course; however, for me, the reality is that I won’t experience anything or anyone like them firsthand while living in Taiwan, having lived here for six and a half years already. Instead, I periodically have the pleasure of coming into contact with Taiwan’s Scooter Boys, an altogether different sort of menace. Well, not a menace, really, but more a… nuisance. Scooter boys are, simply put, young pubescent, pugnacious punks who drive around recklessly, acting as much as they can like badasses, though the closest they get is usually more akin to a pesky mosquito that you simply want to swat.
Nowadays, you see them everywhere, recognizable by their more-often-than-not refusal to wear a helmet, a requirement here in Taiwan, their dyed-orange or imitation-blonde hair—with Fender Babes who do the same to their manes, and their zippy 125cc scooters whose twinkling blue or red neon running lights and similarly tacky flashing brake lights are instantly distinguishable. Lately, I’ve also heard them from afar because some have installed blaring horns on their rides that sound more like a blow horn on a steamship, loud enough to be deafening to a bystander on the sidewalk. Late at night and early in the morning (I’m sometimes working at a café at 6:30am) seem to be their preferred times for sounding their presence—and almost always, from what I’ve witnessed so far, it is sounded while running a red light.
Furthermore, they usually ride in packs, often take the mufflers off their rides, zip and zag in and out of traffic, continually run red lights, and, apparently, have no fear of the undoubtedly inept police here. On that note, a student of mine explained to me that the news once reported that these wannabe hoodlums will actually go to a police station, somehow get the attention of the cops, and then take off in order to impress their girls and to earn bragging rights with their puberty-pending peers.
A few days before writing this in the early days of March, 2012, I came across a Scooter Boy (well, he almost ran my daughter and I over when we stepped out of the front entrance of a Burger King restaurant on YuChen Road), one whose appearance mirrored the common look of these obnoxious punks: skinny as a twig which the wind could blow away with the right angle, ultra-tight jeans that look more like they belong on a malnourished teen girl, stained-red-by-betel-nut lips and teeth, open-toed sandals, and a wannabe rocker/biker t-shirt. Their intimidation quotient pales in comparison to the bikers of the western world.
His gal on the back, just as emaciated, wearing the same type of jeans, with the same color hair, also had opted to not wear a helmet. Like many of these lassies, their backsides can’t fit on the scooters, even though they’re sticks themselves, because the motorbikes are often smaller 50cc models, so they sit in a rather uncomfortable slouching posture, as if positioned precariously over a squat toilet. For some reason, they simply don’t seem to mind. If they don’t appear to be concerned about their chosen companions being thugs, occasionally beating someone up because that person simply stared at them or drove too close to them, why on earth would they care about their posterior comfort? Perhaps they know better. Commenting to these goons, however placid or innocuous the remark may be, may just result in a black eye-inducing response.
Having gotten my daughter a BK ice cream cone to go, I held her hand as we stepped through the exit door out onto the sidewalk, which, as all expats who live here in Taiwan know, merely means another place where scooters can drive. Typically, walking on a sidewalk in Kaohsiung is just as dangerous as stepping out onto the streets. Consequently, cautiously, one must check both ways before coming out of a shop here, lest you get blindsided by some motorized idiot. So it should have been with us, but when we walked out, I knew there was a collection of parked scooters and a bench or two out in front of the joint, so I didn’t think anyone would be flying along on a motorbike. Much to my chagrin, I was wrong. Scooter Boy came zipping by to get a parking spot near the door (these aren’t official spots, but rather any place where one can squeeze into a sliver of sidewalk), and he didn’t bother slowing down as we innocently sauntered out with cool treats in hand. Whether or not he even noticed, let alone cared, is unsure.
Disclaimer: It must be said that I haven’t been in a physical altercation of any sort since 1991, the year I was at a party in upstate New York where a fight broke out in the garage. Since then, though I surely don’t bite my tongue when it comes to people cutting me off or those who ignorantly dismiss my inalienable right of way on the road (something that is naturally engrained in my deepest cultural recesses as a driver)—though I do wish I could bite my tongue, I have never felt it reasonable to stoop to such a level of confrontation.
Admittedly, I usually struggle with turning the other cheek completely in such a situation, verbalizing instantly instead, but when my three-year-old daughter is with me, I certainly am careful to not instigate anything that I would regret (I could never forgive myself if my stupidity in reacting to such trivial matters in such a way, whether verbally or physically, put her in harm’s way.). This was the case at the moment this discourteous dimwit flew past, for I knew—based on two memorable run-ins, once with some Scooter Boys in 2008 and once with a reckless driver who ran a red light in 2009, that Taiwanese men/boys can get pretty damn peeved if outwardly challenged, especially more so, for some, if questioned by a ‘wei gwo ren’ (Mandarin for ‘foreigner’).
However, if I had been alone, I do think I may have just punched the f&%*$. With daughter in tow, I knew better than to risk her well being, choosing instead to walk away. Mentally, though, through immediate imagination, I achieved glorious victory by deftly defeating the pseudo-thug with a few swift blows to the temple with my right instep (even at age 42 and being totally out of shape, I felt enough adrenaline flowing to enable my foot to get that high in a crescent kick). Outwardly, however, I coolly told my daughter that we just have to be careful in Kaohsiung about her stepping out onto sidewalks without first doing a “stop, look, and listen” check. She could make her own judgments. I bit my tongue until it bled.
Such an encounter, consequently, instantly triggered recollections of the aforementioned run-ins. The first I’ll save until later, for it was with a band of Scooter Boys and it is more entertaining to tell about, well, in retrospect at least. The latter, following here, was just with some vehicular moron.
In 2009, I will forever vividly recall, I was holding my nine-month-old-or-so daughter in my arms while crossing NanPing Road one afternoon. Innocently and endearingly, my focus was on carrying my fragile little package, so I was ever vigilant in making my way around the sidewalks and across the crosswalks. Unfortunately, no amount of cautiousness can guarantee pedestrian safety in Taiwan. Advancing prudently into the zebra crossing after waiting the recommended few seconds before proceeding across any road here, I had made it halfway across when a maroon mini CMC van ran the red light, coming straight for us.
Though able to safely dodge the inconsiderate bastard, anger spontaneously prompted a certain gesture with my finger, one that implies particular emotions aimed towards the receiver, as you know. From what I recall, then, said driver did a U-turn further up NanPing and came back to order tea from a stand on the side of the road to which I had headed, the same stand I had actually gone to to patronize (I had no clue if he had seen the “bird” waving in his direction in his rearview mirror). Still fuming, I stepped aside after ordering to let him do the same. Admittedly somewhat sarcastic, but undoubtedly not belligerent, I used my best Mandarin to even apologize for the question I was going to ask, and then asked if he had seen us.
I then queried as to why he ran the red light, or I at least tried to ask that, struggling with the right vocabulary and grammar in Chinese. Literally, the guy didn’t look at me, looked away, actually, and then ignored me. I pleaded once again for an answer. No reply. Because I was met with such indifference, his way of perhaps saving face, I pressed the issue, and then, after still no response, remarked enthusiastically, still in Chinese—as I was walking away—“impossible!” As those words escaped my mouth, with my back turned already to him and the tea stand staff, he screamed out something I didn’t comprehend, but by the manner in which he did, I understood. To describe him as irate is an understatement.
Lambasting me in Mandarin, or was it Taiwanese(?), he came in my direction, with testosterone a’blazin’. Both livid myself, and surely worried about my girl, who was by this time completely befuddled, I am certain, I positioned my body to at least guard against this thug’s reach, wondering what the hell I could do to both protect her and defend myself against him, knowing that any contact he landed could have been harmful to her. Instead, peripherally noticing that even the security guard at the nearby apartment complex, in his booth ten feet away, wasn’t going to help me, I hastily went into apology mode, repeating countless “duì bù qǐ,” or “excuse me” pleas, pointing to her to at least show she was innocent and didn’t deserve such threatening abuse. To take my eyes off of him would have been foolish, so I simply steadily made eye contact with him and tried my best impression of a hostage negotiator’s voice, hoping to soothe the situation and to appease him.
As it was with my mental visions of the most-recent Scooter Boy encounter, I simultaneously entertained notions about this guy, on a Walter Mitty-esque scale, however, of how I would have reacted differently if my daughter were not with me. Envisioning how I could have taken him out with even the most basic recollections of techniques I’d picked up in high-school kung fu classes 25 years ago, college tae kwon do workouts in the early 90’s, and in my two-month’s worth of karate training in Japan ten years prior (in addition to all the moves I am certain to have picked up by watching MMA these past few years), I actually preferred that my daughter weren’t with me at that point. Indeed, rest assured, I don’t believe I would have turned the proverbial other cheek.
The encounter with the aforementioned motorist simply served as a learning experience: Never directly react to or openly question a Taiwanese about his/her driving habits while holding a child in your arms because saving face is so deeply entrenched in the societal psyche here. However, I don’t think I learned to not flash the bird at someone, for I occasionally still do. Sometimes, the absurdity of others’ driving mannerisms here begets an immediate reaction of similar proportion, however petulant and petty that seems. To remain reticent about the roadway practices here has long been a challenge for me, and after six years plus, I simply haven’t learned to just dismiss said vehicular indiscretion and behavior.
Every now and then, I won’t be able to ignore what happens on the road, as was the case with a pack of Scooter Boys in 2008 though that wasn’t about some driving-related peccadillo. It was that encounter that first opened my eyes to them. Before, I never took notice. Since, I detect their presence immediately, with a great distaste for them rising to the surface from the deepest recesses of my being. That these “boys” left an indelible impression on me is undeniable. The fact that they don’t deserve the moniker men or, individually, man, is a given.
On a particularly warm weekend afternoon that year, my girlfriend (who is now my wife) and I were coming back from the National Sun Yet Sen University and nearby harbor area of Kaohsiung when we came across them. We were driving north on GuShan Road, in our topless Jeep Wrangler, and we were forced to slow down to a snail’s pace because a gaggle of these boys, numbering seven or eight total scooters, was driving at around 10kph, in a 50kph zone. Stereotypically, some of the boys had their helmetless Fender Babes on the back, while others had two blokes sharing one scooter, so it is impossible to say how many boys (and girls) there were in total.
Before detailing any more of our encounter with this group, it must further be explained that these “gangs” are becoming more and more notorious, enough so that Al Jazeera ran a piece on them in 2009! Our own little Kaohsiung, the provincial, second-always-to-Taipei-in-almost-all-categories-of-living-the-good-life second largest city in Taiwan, was the setting of the brief documentary, now found on YouTube. The segment reveals much of what I’d already heard and known—and experienced firsthand, though the actual footage of a beating at the hands of our aforesaid new pals is, thankfully, more than we ever experienced. Admittedly, I wonder every now and then how imminent a similar fate was waiting for us.
Because these blokes often drive erratically (even on the night of writing this section of my blog, I was cut off by a Scooter Boy on the way to my favorite café in my Honda when he cut in front of me, causing me to hit my brakes lest I hit him and then get blamed for it), by weaving in and out of traffic like a pro skier maneuvers around the flagged gates of a slalom course, often at breakneck speed, they create much panic on local roadways. At such speeds, even if I wanted to flip them the bird, they wouldn’t even notice, for they’d be blocks ahead by the time my sensory responses even triggered such a reaction in my finger.
However, on the unfortunate day we ran into our friendly fellows, they had somehow decided to inch along GuShan Road, chatting with each other as they did, not caring about who was behind them—yet they were still weaving apparently, ever so slowly, for when I turned right after one of them (two guys on one scooter), heading eastward on WuFu Road, the driver actually turned back to complete the entire wavelength of his weave—continuing to head north on GuShan, instead. Though not intentional at all, the bumper of our Jeep nearly made the personal acquaintance of this guy’s motorbike’s fender (in retrospect, I wish it did, and that I then accidentally ran over the pair).
As they completed their meandering curve, with a startled, jerky, last-second response to the Wrangler’s approaching bumper, the passenger returned an intense, don’t-mess-with-us glare. Because I knew his intentional attempt at fierceness was individualized, I cared not, though I instantly muttered, “whew, that was close,” realizing that his pack was soon to follow and quick to respond if need be. “So be it,” I thought. “He’s pissed. Too bad.”
However, as we continued heading down WuFu Road, I kept glancing at my rearview mirror, and what I saw aroused an anxiety I hadn’t felt since being confronted by a man brandishing a handgun in my face on a desolate street in Split, Croatia at 1am, back in 2004 (though the feeling begotten by looking into my rearview mirror was nothing close to the intensity at which it came at gunpoint years ago). A weakened and diseased on-the-run wildebeest calf might very well experience similar emotions when it looks back to see a pack of African Cape Hunting Dogs closing the distance. Simply put, I knew an open-top Jeep would do nothing to protect us if these guys truly meant business, and by their speed in catching up to us, I sensed they did.
Their scooters gunnin’ full throttle, their orange and artificial-blonde hair blowing in the wind, they speedily drew near as we came to a stop at the next red light at ChiShen Road. Though we were the first vehicle at the intersection, they made their way in front of us, positioning themselves in a cluster practically under the overhanging red light, where the delinquent who’d shot his menacing glance at us to initiate the whole hunt had a prime spot to stare back at us once again. Although such sources as online articles and the Al Jazeera video clip—and quite a few of my students here in Taiwan have said one shouldn’t stare back at these boys (or even look their way), I did. Naturally, he wasn’t fond of my inability to yield to his aggression. Aggravated, he continued to give us “the look” even when the light above turned green; the boys then stayed put, anticipating our next move, even with the traffic behind us eager to proceed down the road (and probably to get away from this developing situation).
Having to decide on the spot between driving forward, perhaps even over the lot of them, and our seemingly only other option, staying put, was an arduous task. I didn’t want to be a sitting duck, yet it wasn’t feasible to run them over even though we may have been found innocent of all charges since the police would have probably celebrated the notion of having a dozen less Scooter Boys on the roadways of Kaohsiung. Though an antagonistic voice inside me begged for me to resolutely drive forward at the first sight of the green light, it dawned on me that I could actually drive north on ChiShen Road, by taking a swift left turn. Thus, with all 2.5 liters of our thirteen-year-old, 4-cylinder Jeep pumping, we blasted off in a northbound direction to elude the sinister presence of our newly acquired “friends” (who am I kidding, it was more like a newly-born sea turtle dragging itself groggily through the sand while heading from its nest to the open ocean).
In broad daylight, being midday on a weekend, these punks were audacious enough to continue their pesky pursuit. Within the confining frame of my rearview mirror, as we drove north on ChiShen Road, their approach again played out, much like, regardless of the size of the mirror, a big screen biker movie zooming in on a pack of HOGs streaking into some dinky western township, sending residents scrambling. However, these teens don’t cast the same measure of fear conveyed merely by appearance although a pack of them is enough to excite the senses, if you will.
Though I didn’t have the time to envision such metaphors, our experience reminds me of hikes in the woods as a kid when my friends and I would be swarmed by a cloud of annoying gnats that, no matter what direction you moved or how many steps you darted forwards or sideways, would still be there. Actually, their zippy scooters were reminiscent of a swarm of gnats, too, prompting me to consider that it would have been manlier of me to be intimidated by the thunderous roar of a band of Hells Angels. Embarrassed, I admit that I was starting to grow a trifle worried.
From hearsay stories and now via video clips posted online, I know that these guys will pursue innocent, and often outnumbered, victims with baseball bats—or even without, relying simply on numbers to overwhelm. Surrounding a car on a road, because the occupants had cut them off, didn’t yield the right of way to them (when they didn’t actually deserve the right of way) or had merely looked at them the “wrong” way, which could be taken only as a glance by other, more-rational folks, these gangs will often beat a car with bats or, occasionally, drag the passengers out to inflict harm in some other manner, all as their Fender Bunnies look on with indifference. In retrospect, our situation was growing desperate. At that moment, we still hoped that they’d just quit.
Having accelerated as fast as the aging Jeep could go, we quickly ran out of escape routes, for another red light awaited us a few hundred meters north of WuFu on ChiShen Rd. Instead of cutting us off when they arrived for this second round of cat and mouse, they, this time, pulled alongside us in a loose formation, some just apparently expecting only to watch and others on the prowl, questing for more action.
That I was increasingly frustrated is a given; that my wife was growing terrified was expected, especially because they had pulled up on her side. There, the original boy who was the first to feel affronted alighted from his partner’s ride and stood next to the Jeep’s passenger side door. Having gripped his helmet straps in his hand so that he could swing the helmet at her or at the vehicle augmented his overall image as a tough guy, at least in his friend’s eyes. In my eyes, my disdain for the hooligan only grew.
Taking my eye off him wasn’t easy, for I wanted to not only maintain a constant eye on him so that I could counter his moves if necessary but I also had an incredible urge to stare at him so as not to back down in his eyes. Allowing him to curse at us in prolific proportions wasn’t easy either. Yet, I was option-less, it seemed. I couldn’t exit the vehicle to go confront him. His buddies would have been on me in a heartbeat, it stands to reason. To actually get at us, or specifically my wife, he only had to jump into the open backseat or up and over the Jeep’s roll bar into the front seating area. Sitting ducks we were, and that, consequently, caused more concern as the moments of his belligerent barking grew.
Whatever he was yelling at us, as he continued to clench the helmet straps in his hand, was an unknown to me. However, my wife got the gist of it, enough so that tears welled up in her eyes. Practically stammering, she pleaded that we go, but we were stuck behind cars in traffic, and other vehicles had since pulled up behind us. (I did wonder momentarily if anyone would come to our rescue or even notify the police if this guy jumped at his chance.)
With no other options, I cranked on the steering wheel to the greatest degree possible and hit the gas to catapult us into a quickly maneuvered U-turn. Well, if it had been a late model 4.0L Jeep Rubicon, perhaps that would have been the case, but it really wasn’t all that much of a catapult. Perhaps it was more akin to a Granny swinging a fly swatter in a wide arcing pattern, but, nevertheless, off we were again to the races.
With them in my review mirror once more, for the boys had indeed followed in pursuit, I headed south on ChiShen, back to WuFu, yet seeing another red light ahead, I decided I didn’t care this time, however law-abiding I tried to be in the land of red-light runners that is Taiwan. We headed through the intersection as cautiously as possible, as a horse might proceed through a rocky streambed even though it had just disturbed a nest of mud daubers, which then swarmed their oversized victim. Oddly, our safety with regards to other traffic was still a priority.
As we entered the intersection, we, with great relief, noticed a police car driving along WuFu, heading away from us, but there was no way we were going to let us get away. As if we were eager puppies following their master, we continued after him until we could pull up alongside, beeping the horn emphatically as we did. When waving at him to roll down his window, I simultaneously caught a glimpse of the Scooter Boys also coming into the intersection, yet at the last second, they zoomed off in the opposite direction when they saw us riding next to the police cruiser, our savior it turned out to be.
Eagerly and excitedly, I asked in Mandarin if he could help us, and then my wife swiftly interjected to explain what was happening because my Chinese, especially in a hurried, stressful situation, probably came out instead like, “Can you please pass the butter?” or some other erroneous misinterpretation of my English thoughts. Perhaps nervous himself, the cop offered to escort us as far as his jurisdiction would allow, which was a good kilometer up the road near the Love River. Without hesitation, we took him up on the offer, making a beeline, following closely behind him, of course, to that point until he could go no further.
I actually had wished his police cruiser had been a flatbed tow truck that could have hoisted us up and carried us, like a mother carries her trembling child, until we were out of harm’s way. Minutes later, my eyes continually on the rearview mirror, I appreciatively waved goodbye, and we then cautiously continued on to JongShan Road, one of Kaohsiung’s main thoroughfares, which was our final escape route home. Along that last stretch of WuFu, I believe I even tried ducking down in the seat so that they wouldn’t notice us if they came a’huntin’ for us once again.
Alas, never again did we meet their acquaintance, these Scooter Boys, at least not the same pack, and never again would we want to; however, when recalling these hair-raising moments or when one of them is obnoxiously cutting me off on the road or zipping along the sidewalk in front of Burger King, I still harbor some Walter Mitty-like notions of how I would like to meet our aforementioned helmet-wielding nemesis from that day in 2009, yet without my wife nor his entourage in tow. Swatting at the individual gnat that’d strayed away from his swarm would surely be easier and more effective than escaping the whole bunch of them, for no matter which way one turns, they’re forever there, annoying their latest victim.