Playlist | Taiwan

“Heavy metal saved my life”

Heavy metal star - and politician - Freddy Lim knows Taiwan's music scene inside out. A conversation about Taiwanese music and the ten songs you need to decipher it

Metal star Freddy Lim is on stage during one of his concerts. He has a microphone in his right hand and sings. It is dark, the singer is dressed in dark clothes, he has long straight dark hair. Arms of his fans in the front row stretch out to him.

Freddy Lim performing with his extreme metal band “Chthonic”

Interview conducted by Gundula Haage

Mr. Lim, you’re the singer and songwriter of the Taiwanese metal band Chthonic – and a member of the Taiwanese parliament. How does that fit together?

I’d say I’m a musician who engages in politics. I discovered metal as a teenager. Back then, I had a complicated relationship with my family – and metal saved my life. I’d lock myself in my room and scream to the music, knowing that nobody could interrupt me. During school I played in a few bands and then founded Chthonic in 1995. Even today, music is my emotional outlet.

My life as a politician begun much later. In the 2000s, I got involved in human rights and ran for the chair of Amnesty International Taiwan in 2010. And in 2015, during the sunflower protests, I was very active. To ensure political change, I tried to convince some of the young activists to run for the parliament – but most of them were still too young, they hadn’t even graduated. They couldn’t just switch their entire lives around.

But I was already in my late 30s so I decided: I’ll run for parliament and they can join my campaign team. However, I had no idea how to run a political campaign. So we learnt together. In 2015 we founded the New Power Party, and in 2016 I got elected as member of the parliament.

The politician Freddy Lim speaks in parliament. He stands at the lectern. He gestures with his hands. He is wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a black tie. The floor is red, the furniture black.

Freddy Lim is speaking as a member of the Taiwanese parliament

What role does music play in your political life?

In politics, you have to deal with a lot different emotions. Sometimes, it is very frustrating if important political decisions just don’t work out or take much longer than expected. At the beginning of my political career, I often felt very hopeless.

“Taiwan is home to some of the most diverse and free types of music created in East Asia”

In such situations, writing songs helps. Music is my way of finding balance in my life. I actually don’t know how my fellow politicians handle it without such an outlet. If I didn’t have music, I’d definitely explode at some point! (laughs)

Your ten-song playlist brings together the sounds of Taiwan. What is special about Taiwanese music?

Taiwan is home to some of the most diverse and free types of music created in East Asia. Our region contains many authoritarian regimes and the cultural sphere is strongly influenced by this conservative and oppressed culture. Most artists cannot freely create their artwork.

But in Taiwan, it is possible, which is why the musical scene flourishes and is also very diverse. Many musicians from Hong Kong, Tibet or other pressurized regions also come to Taiwan to produce their music here. It is this mix of influences from different backgrounds which I tried to capture in the playlist.

A KULTURAUSTAUSCH playlist curated by Freddy Lim

The sound of Taiwan

Chi Lu-Hsia: Wish You Come Back Soon

This is a very typical traditional Taiwanese song. It is the love song of a wife who misses her husband who went to war. It was written during the Pacific War in the 1940s, when Taiwan was still colonised by Japan. The song became very popular, although it was eventually banned by the KMT government. Still, I think right up to today, most Taiwanese know this song.


Seven Wolves: Never Look Back

“Seven Wolves” are not a band as such, but seven very popular singers who came together in the late 1980s to perform this song. It was played in karaoke bars for a long time. I picked this song, because it inspired me to learn how to play the guitar. Back then, I started to listen to Western rock music such as Guns N' Roses and Bon Jovi – and in doing so, I also discovered Taiwanese music that was influenced by Western music, such as this song.


Yueh-Hsin Chu (aka Pig Head Skin): I Am a Maniac

Traditional Taiwanese music is mostly about romance, about chasing your dreams. But when I discovered this song in the early 1990s, it was a real shock: I realised that music can have deeper meanings, that it can be political. This song by famous Taiwanese singer Yueh-Hsin Chu addresses in a satirical way how an oppressed society, such as the Taiwanese under White Terror rule, goes insane. 


Chthonic: Legacy of the Seediq

Metal star Freddy Lim is on stage during one of his concerts. He has a microphone in his right hand and sings. It is dark, the singer is dressed in dark clothes, he has long straight dark hair. Arms of his fans in the front row stretch out to him.

Freddy Lim performing with his extreme metal band “Chthonic”

This is a very personal song of mine. I wrote it in 2010 when I fully realised how heavily affected myself and my generation was by the KMT ideology. It meant that we were drilled to look down at our own local cultures and to look down at the Taiwanese language. In schools, it was forbidden to speak anything but Chinese.

When I started to write songs in the 1990s, I followed the footsteps of Western music; Taiwanese melodies seemed out of place in metal music. But when I finally realized how deep the devaluation of my own culture also sits within me, I wanted to change that. I started to embrace the uniqueness and beauty of Taiwanese melodies and use it in my songs – like in this one. If you listen closely, you will hear the pentatonic scales and the Asian two-string violin. 


Chthonic: Millennia’s Faith Undone

I got elected into parliament in 2016. I wrote this song shortly after, because I felt quite hopeless at the time. I was frustrated, because we were so close to finally legalizing same-sex marriage. The bill was discussed a lot in parliament, but the backlash from the anti-LGBT-fraction was too strong. I was struggling to figure out how to move beyond the difficulties. These conflicting emotions led me to write this song. 


Collage: Green Tara’s Thousands of Sorrowful Blossoms

The band “Collage” was anointed 'best newcomer in music' in 2022. Their song is about a wife waiting for her husband who was detained under White Terror. Since I’m in politics, I push for what we call “transitional justice”. We fight to have all the archives of the KMT dictatorship revealed so that people finally know the truth about what happened to their families under the White Terror regime. It gives me hope to see that these meaningful stories are making their way into music. 


Fire EX: Island’s Sunrise

Everyone who was at the Sunflower Protests in 2014 to fight for Taiwanese democracy knows this song: the punk band Fire EX wrote the theme song of the protest movement, the song of a generation. I remember one particularly touching moment: When the government finally agreed to stop the negotiations of Free Trade with China in 2015, all the activists who had occupied the parliament got together in the square in front of the presidential hall and thousands of people sang this together! Back then, I felt there was a unique force in the Taiwanese society and that this force will set us free from the authoritarian way of thinking. 


WuBai feat. One-Fang: Express Love Letter

As a politician, I attend a lot of local events in Taiwanese neighbourhoods. Often, I’m asked to sing a song – and usually I perform this very popular song by WuBai. It is a Taiwanese love song that everybody knows. I can’t sing my own music at such events. Metal is too noisy for most people, and in those local neighbourhoods, mostly elders will attend. I don’t want to upset them.


Amazing Show: Workers

Traditional music in Taiwan is mostly about romance. Which is nice, of course, but I am very glad to see that more artists nowadays address human rights topics – such as this song by Amazing Show, which is about the rights of migrant workers. In Taiwan, too, many people from neighbouring countries work under sometimes very precarious conditions. Their rights are rarely talked about, which is why the song is special.


Chthonic: Pattonkan

The newest song of Chthonic just came out in February 2023. The title, Pattonkan, refers to the highest mountain of Taiwan, the Jade Mountain, which is considered sacred by local indigenous communities. When I wrote it last year, I was frustrated. I’m a middle-aged man by now, I’m 47 years old. I just felt like I haven’t done enough to reach the goals that my democratic elders in the past had worked for.

But then I read the letters that a victim of White Terror had written, many years ago. He wrote to his wife while he was imprisoned, and before he got executed. Even so many years later, I could feel the love between them, the pure connection. And suddenly, I realised: We are all part of the same mountain. We try to guard this land, we fight for our loved ones and a better future. How dare we feel like my generation will be the one to reach a conclusion! It is a path, not a single destination. All we have to do is to make sure that we don’t give up. We are still on the right track, we just have to keep going, step by step.