Heavy Metal Politician Freddy Lim Is Fighting for Taiwanese Independence
The parliamentarian and Chthonic frontman talks rebellion, Trump, China, and why the Dalai Lama called him "a demon."
It's not everyday you get a chance to sit down with one of Taiwan's most famous politicians, especially when you're far more accustomed to squeezing into dingy basements or dusty bar corners to conduct interviews with headbangers of varying description. I was given the opportunity to speak with Freddy Lim, the founder of Taiwan's New Power Party and current member of the nation's Legislative Yuan (commonly referred to as Parliament). He currently serves on the Foreign and National Defense Committee, work which recently brought him to New York City, where he addressed the U.N. on the fraught topic of Taiwanese independence.
As a former leader of Amnesty International Taiwan, Lim has been an outspoken independence activist for many years, and while his work has gotten him into hot water upon occasion, he still radiates warmth, excitement, and steely resolve. He comes across as both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, as I learned when he gave me a crash course in Taiwanese-Japanese relations (in his words, "We have very good relationship, but strange feelings about one another).
With a publicist and translator in tow, Lim and I sat down on an overstuffed leather couch to chat about a litany of different subjects, from Taiwan's struggle for independence to the Dalai Lama. At times, a translator piped up to clarify a statement or help Lim grasp an English word that has escaped him, but primarily, Lim and I just talked. I only realized later that I'd been wearing a Cemetery PissT-shirt.
He didn't seem fazed, though—probably because he's a metalhead himself. Lim has spent the past twenty-odd years serving as the frontman for Chthonic, Taiwan's biggest and longest-running extreme metal band (sometimes referred to as "the Black Sabbath of Asia"). Known for incorporating Taiwanese mythology, demonic imagery, political commentary, and traditional instruments like the erhu, shamisam, and pgaki flue into their rousing, high energy blend of black metal, thrash, and symphonic metal, Chthonic has released eight full length albums as well as myriad EPs, and in recent years, has taken a turn for the acoustic, releasing several albums sans amplification. The band's most recent album, Timeless Sentence, came out in 2014; they've played a few festival dates since then, but as Lim told me, the band's been cooling on the back burner while he pursues his political career.
With his flowing black hair tied back into a ponytail, Lim may have to button up when he's working on government business and meeting foreign dignitaries, but he's way more comfortable in an Iron Maiden shirt; as he told me, he still doesn't even know how to iron his fancier attire. (According to his translator, on the way from the airport to Capitol Hill he had to stop by a laundromat to get his suit ironed). You'd never know to look at him, though—the man exudes a quiet confidence (and let's be honest, looks slick as hell). We chatted away for over an hour and a half, and you can read the highlights of our conversation below.
Noisey: Going off what you told me about the complicated history between Taiwan and Japan, what is your relationship with your Japanese fans?
Freddy Lim: The Japanese record market is the biggest record market in the world. We tour Japan for most of our shows. Taiwanese bands focus on the Chinese market because they think that China is the biggest market right now. Everyone wants to do business with them right now, [but] the Chinese don't buy records or tickets for concerts. In China, there are concerts that large corporations and the government put on, and you play on the street. You get a lot of money for that, but the downside is that you play for a bunch of people that don't care about music at all. If we go to the Chinese market, we can make money…but it's not about the music. In the US, Japan and Europe it's more about the music. People will buy your CDs and merchandise…they care about your music.
Is it tough for you to play in China because of your political stances?
We're banned! Full on banned. It's an honor. We're pleased to be banned. Of course it is not for our management; so many Chinese bands want to buy our CDs and merchandise online, [so] our management is trying to get us there. We would like to play for our fans from all over. I'd like to think, that as a musician, I'm proudly banned with System Of A Down, Radiohead and Bjork. Bjork went to China and said "independence for Tibet" and got banned again.
How do you find out if you get banned? Do you get a letter in the mail?
The promoter will tell us. They usually get a letter from the government that says that the artist cannot play in China. When we play in South Korea, Hong Kong and Macau, our Chinese fans usually come. But that means that only our wealthy Chinese fans can come. The tickets are really expensive for them.
When did the Chinese government catch onto you guys?
I think it was 2003 or 2004. I organized a freedom concert with Adam [Horovitz of the Beastie Boys.] That is when I got banned. The Taiwanese artists that played got banned. The lyrics that we wrote cannot be found in China as well. They are very serious about this, but I don't think it's necessary.
Why are they so scared of you?
I think China shouldn't be scared of us. They should embrace free information. Free information and transparency will make your country stronger. Various values can get communicated. Better ideas will form through transparency. They are afraid of everything. They don't like the Dalai Lama, and they hate everybody. When Lady Gaga met the Dalai Lama the other day, all the Chinese fans were completely let down. Lady Gaga's fans were so angry, like "Why'd you meet the Devil?" They have been brainwashed by the Chinese government and they can't see through that shit. They can't use Youtube, Facebook, Google or Wikipedia. They have their own thing, but they need skills to get across their firewall. You can't search "Dalai Lama"—if you search it, you'll be on the government list and the government will have your personal information.
What if they search your band's name?
It's not a good idea to do that. I try to use Chinese Facebook called Weibo. I posted the Dalai Lama's photo, and it got removed in three hours. Then, I got a warning from the Chinese government. All I said was "Happy birthday." They said if I posted it again, then I would get deleted.
Have you experienced any repercussions outside China?
In 2003, we played in the US. Before we came to the US, we got a threatening email from Chinese students studying in the US. They told us not to come, and that if we played then they would kill us. We forwarded this to our manager and promoters. They said they couldn't censor all the Asian fans we had. Nothing happened. They always threaten but they don't really come. Especially when they see the metalheads. If they are true Chinese students, they could not stand up to the metalheads. This would not be the right place for them to make trouble. The metalheads are already beating up each other [laughs].
We also got a lot of emails when I got elected in the parliament in Taiwan. The people that send the emails call themselves Chinese students in Taiwan. For my family, I ask the policemen to watch the neighborhood. My family always asks me to hire a bodyguard. I am the most outspoken person when it comes to Tibet. I have also been on the board of Amnesty International Taiwan for four years and an activist for Chinese democracy. I might be the most outspoken advocate in the Taiwanese Parliament. That's not good because it's not safe. So far, I don't have any bodyguards. I've trained myself instead of hiring a bodyguard.
You've been doing this for a long time. What made you want to get involved in politics?
Let's talk about the history. After WWII, US troops were sent to rule the colonies. They were sent to South Korea, Japan and the Philippines and Okinawa. They were also sent to Russia and North Korea. The sent the Chinese Nationalist Party, what we call the KMT, to Vietnam. The Vietnamese said, "Don't send the Chinese…send anyone else instead." So then the Allies sent the French. The Taiwanese felt like the Allies were the good guys and that it should be fine. The Chinese Nationalist Party got defeated in the Chinese Civil War by the communists. The KMT's dictator, Chiang Kai-shek, had nowhere to escape so he stayed in Taiwan forever. Taiwan didn't have the chance like Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines to self govern. Chiang Kai-shek's government educated Taiwan. It was the total opposite story of our grandparents. We were the colonialists and China was the allies. That is the story of Taiwan against China. That is how Taiwan got bombed by the Chinese and US. The Taiwanese government told us that we got bombed by Japan. What we learned was wrong. I thought we escaped from Japan.
When I went to school during Chiang-kai Shek's rule, I was educated that we got bombed by Japan. We are the allies.
So they re-wrote history.
I misunderstood my grandparents. My grandparents always shared with me that they escaped from the bombings. I always thought they escaped from Japanese fighter jets. I was raised by my grandma, and I spoke Taiwanese with her. If you spoke Taiwanese during Chiang-kai Shek's era, you got fined if you spoke in Taiwanese. The educators told us that if you spoke in Taiwanese, you were lower educated people. They taught you to hate your parents and grandparents, and they taught you the opposite history. When I was 18, and martial law was lifted, and book bans were lifted, I was able to read a lot of books. I was able to read a lot of Taiwanese history about the government, which was the story of my grandparents. I was shocked. 18 years of my life were stolen by the government. I was so angry. I started joining campaigns that were against the government. I couldn't vote, but I could be a volunteer. I got more engaged with the social movements. I was able to debate and become educated. That was the time that Chthonic formed, in 1995. We wrote songs about girls, general rock songs. When I got into history and politics…I switched into heavier metal. It expressed my strong, heavy anger. I cried so much during those two years. It's not that easy to accept that you didn't know about your country and your history. I told my grandma that I was sorry. I was educated to hate her. When I realized her story, I tried to speak in Taiwanese in that time, but she couldn't understand me because she had Alzheimer's. She confused me with my dad.
That was the time when I listened to heavier metal. I had to play loud music in my room and bang my head. I started to write songs, because there was a lot of anger in me. Not just songs about girls. Before Chthonic, there weren't a lot of original bands. Most of the bands cover Western heavy metal bands, like Metallica. I started to write our own songs because I had my own anger. We are one the first metal bands in Taiwan. At the same time I joined social movements as a volunteer. I didn't think that I would run for office at all. I thought I could be a musician and support other people's campaigns. With the band becoming more popular in Taiwan, I thought I could help other people's campaigns. In 2010, when the Taiwan section of Amnesty had controversies, I was elected as the chair, and that was the first time I was elected as a chair of an NGO. I expanded the section, changed the office, and got supported by the headquarters in London. I'm good at helping other people communicate with each other. My friends and I organized a new party. I tried to convince the younger generation. I am almost forty and I don't consider myself the younger generation. The younger people who want to change the Parliament are Chthonic fans. I can help you, but I can't occupy the Parliament as a musician. When [the Sunflower Student Movement] occupied the Parliament on March 18, 2014 fighting free trade with China, a lot of fans messaged our Facebook asking where I was. It's not a party, but the fans are great. They're in action.
What was your next move?
After that movement, I tried to convince them to run for office and create a new party. The movement hasn't been properly claimed. They need to finish planning, finish their military service. They can't just form a new party. I realized that, and I talked to my friends that are into social and political movements, and I told them that we need a new party and a new generation in the Parliament. The student leaders aren't ready yet, so we decided to do it ourselves. We built a platform so the student leaders could join our campaign. My campaign manager was only 25, and he was only a student leader. He didn't know how to run a campaign. So many student leaders participated in the party. I think that's the strength of the party…the young people and fans. They are the key motivation for me. I am a bridge. I need to be the bridge to build up the platform, until the young people are ready. They have the bravery and networks with all the new technology. Now you're using Instagram and Twitter. The young people are the power of Taiwan. I can be the bridge for the young people. I will always be here and waiting for the young people to be ready. There are a bunch of people joining the party, and they will influence Taiwanese party. The party has a lot of exposure, but we only have 5 seats in the parliament out of 104. Where we come into play is our influence and our popularity with young supporters. I can see the potential of the party, but I see it growing in three or four years when the younger generation joins the office.
Do you worry about your political career eclipsing your music career?
This year I've concentrated on my political career. I'm trying to make the party more structurally sound. I'm trying to get used to this kind of life, and trying to find time to write songs. I am angrier this year. I feel a lot of anger debating with the KMT. I think it's a privilege that I can write songs about my anger. I think I will find time to write songs, especially during the off-season of the Parliament. I hope that next year we can play some festivals. We got a lot of offers this year for festivals. I think a lot of people will want to see a Parliament member scream at them! Last year, our fans were yelling "dangxuan," which means to win an election in Taiwanese. This was the cool thing to yell when a congressman was on tour. We got asks from the United States and Europe too.
You said you clashed with some of the older members of parliament. Did they write you off as "just a heavy metal guy"?
I think some of them hate me a lot, and some of them have children who are my friends and fans. It is quite interesting. I will have a serious debate with a congresswoman, and afterwards she'll talk to me about her kids and her tattoos. All those people are old, but they hope that they can get young voters as well. They feel like they can see recent trends, and they want to be friends with you. They don't want to seem so anxious in front of me. Once a congressman asked me why I had the same tattoo everyday, and if it was a sticker [laughs]. I didn't know how to answer.
How does it feel to switch from being a congressman to being onstage?
I'm still the same person. I try to stay natural, as a human being, not as a politician or a musician. Before we played the festival, Ryan Reynolds came to Taiwan to promote Deadpool and tweeted about being the new Chthonic vocalist. He said that he wanted to audition to be the new vocalist in Chthonic. When we played the festival, I played in a Deadpool suit. I think our congress supporters thought that was funny too.
I think people want to see the humanity in politicians. What brought you to New York?
A lot of people see "Made in Taiwan" and think that it's just a normal country. When I told people that Taiwan is still not a member of the UN, people were shocked. That means that we can't participate in organizations like the World Health Organization. It's a globalized world right now. Everything in our lives are related to international relations. Taiwan needs to be drawn more into the international community. Taiwan has a very strong hospital system, and we can help with epidemics. So many Southeast Asians and Chinese fly to Taiwan for healthcare. We can contribute with healthcare.
Why aren't you a part of the UN? Does it have to do with China?
Yes. They are threatening a boycott. I can see that it isn't that easy for Taiwan to join because of China's important role. That is why we need to get our voices out. This kind of interview is helpful because they can help get the word out. More people should be aware of Taiwan's story.
Why is China still so hostile?
They play this game with Nationalists to suppress their inner problems. They can point their fingers at Taiwan, Japan and Tibet to forget their inner problems. Taiwan is the closest nation, it's the easiest for them. They blame Taiwan all the time. The next one is Japan.
China has been talked a lot about here in the US. Have you been paying attention to what's going on over here?
Yes. I can see that it's difficult for people. Taiwan has a female president—you should have one too. But Hillary Clinton is kind of a boring person. She isn't able to attract me like Obama, because she's not very charismatic. Compared to the other guy, though. I would vote for Hillary of course, not because I like her but because I'm afraid of Trump. Because she's a female president, she'll be a milestone for American history.
You're a pretty progressive dude. You're center-left, anti-death penalty, and pro-marijuana legalization.What kind of pushback do you encounter on those issues?
No one will try to listen about legalization. You need to be smart to push these progressive issues. Taiwan is fighting about the death penalty. We have to challenge the government rather than the people. It would not be smart to show off that you're progressive, because of that, someone might get executed. If you are a musician, you try to educate the public. As a politician, you try and get things done. Being a musician, or an NGO activist, you can get support from 5-10 percent of people. You'd be popular. As a politician, you are elected by your district. We need 50% of people with us.
Right now, metal is struggling to figure out where it stands politically—there's pull from the far right, from the far left, and then everyone caught in between. It's fractured. Do you think politics have a space in metal?
It depends on the genre and the county. In Taiwan, we're angry about politics, so we need metal to express our feelings [about that]. In other countries, they might have different angers related to culture and religion. Metal can sometimes describe anger in a wrong way, though. It is a music form that is supported by young kids and teenagers that want to look tough. Look at classic metal bands—when the band members aren't teenagers anymore, people lose interest. It's like manga. Twenty years ago, manga was brutal. Those kids are all grown up and they still read manga. It's like me. I read different stories, I can't handle brutal stories in the manga, I read deeper stories now.
It's done a lot of growing up. The genre has been around for 40 years. Why do you think metal gets such a bad rap?
My opponents in the election said that all I do is yell. They don't consider metal as a culture. I think that is because people are afraid of what they don't know. The conservative politicians don't like nightclub or hip hop culture. I would say it's a working class culture. The older politicians don't even like anything, and they seem to look down upon what young people are interested in. They can accept mainstream pop, but not metal, punk, hip hop, nightlife, app video games or tattoos.
Is there a strong metal scene in Taiwan now?
I would say that Taiwan is in a post-colonial state. There are tons of metal and indie rock bands. Everyone is trying to find their own identity. We are trying to find our own culture right now, because we have been controlled by our government. We have tons of bands, but they follow the steps of the Western bands. Some of the young kids struggle finding their own identities. I was one of the first Taiwanese musicians to write in Taiwanese, a lot of kids find it difficult to mix their own Taiwanese culture in their music.
How did you get ahold of heavy metal records in the first place? It seemed like there was a lot of censorship when you grew up.
All of my music was from pirate cassette tapes. If you want to officially get music, you would have to go through the censorship. The government censored the lyrics. Western metal was not that easy to find. People bought cassettes in pirate shops from Japan. Businessmen would mail order stuff from the US, copy them and sell them to us. The metalheads in Taiwan listened to American and European bands. Metal is a more Western genre. It started in the Western market, so people think it's the original place and listen to it.
There's so much killer Asian metal, though! What advice do you have for other heavy metal fans who'd like to get involved in politics?
You should vote, and consider it seriously. If you really want to change something, it's not a good thing to debate on the Internet. It's a waste of time. Work hard on organizing. Be influential so other people will listen to you.
How can people that want to support Taiwan and support the independence movement become more involved?
There are courses related to social issues. Students should share Taiwanese and Tibetan stories. Send me messages on Facebook. If you need information, my staff will give you information. After my American fans listen to Chthonic, they share stories about Taiwan. Taiwan is in the frontline against an authoritarian regime, even geographically.
As a person, do you feel a lot of pressure? You have so much on your shoulders.
During the election? Yes. But not so much anymore. During the election, people didn't think we could defeat the KMT. Now I feel more relaxed.
How long is your term?
Four years. I can't say that's too long for me, because people will want me to serve more. I think I'll be serving four or eight years, but I'd like the most important changes to happen in the first four years. Then, the younger generation can help build a new political movement. After eight years, I'll be 50 and back in the metal business!
Do you have any more actions you're planning to do here? Are you planning to come back to the US anytime soon?
We worked on a movie two years ago. Before I decided to run for office, we made a movie. When I ran for office, the producers stopped post-production of the movie. They don't want it to be too complicated. When I got elected, the movie company restarted the project and now it's in the process of post-production. It's a comedy about a kid in South Taiwan who likes Chthonic. At that time, Randy Blythe came to Taipei to work on a project with us. I became good friends with Randy, and he went to a protest with me. [So] I plan to come back not just for the movie, but also for the parliament. I'm always assigned with these kinds of trips. I went to Washington DC two days ago to meet with congressmen. We exchanged ideas, and hopefully gain interest in supporting Taiwan. I have to do that. But this is more casual for me. We can talk about politics and music, but with them it's very serious. No metal.
When you were talking with the congressman here, how did they receive your message? Did you get any kind vibe from them?
I think most of them were with us. The US has always been very supportive of Taiwan joining international organizations. We just have to make sure that they will let Taiwan be more than just an observer; we want Taiwan to be a full participant in the organizations. I want to share with them that the younger generation wants us to be an independent state. The older generation might not care so much. Because we live in a globalized world, the younger generation will do business and exchange ideas via the Internet all around the world. We do treasure our relationships with other countries. The younger generation wants us to play a part in international relations and communication.
As you should!
I just think [China] is pissed. The Chinese Government says that the Dalai Lama is evil and extremist. If I invite the Dalai Lama to Taiwan, they say it will damage our relationship.
So you're going to do it anyway?
Yeah, I don't care. Next year. It's always exciting with His Holiness, he's very warm.
Seems like a pretty nice guy.
Especially he is a man who carries such a heavy burden, having six million brothers and sisters being held hostage by China. He can still remain calm and peaceful, accepting new ideas and being compassionate. I cannot imagine if I was him. How could I handle all these burdens and expectations? With all these things happening in Tibet. He still has to be optimistic. I always look up to him.
You guys probably have a lot to talk about.
Fate is playing me. When I met him the first time, I was just a musician and he was the political leader of Tibet. He shared some political ideas with me, but I couldn't really see what I could do in Taiwan because I was just a musician. I cannot be like in the US or Canada or the UK, where there are parliamentary groups for Tibet. But, as a musician, I could organize concerts…but that's it. Last time, I was a musician, so I could only change things culturally and not politically. This time, I am a politician. He just retired from his political role in 2011. He didn't talk about politics at all during the conversation. The third time I met him, I shared the good news that I was organizing the Taiwanese parliamentary group. He couldn't respond to this, because he is a spiritual leader now. Our paths have just crossed. I wanted to just share some political news, but now he's not a political leader! But when you wanted to share political news with me, I was just a musician!
The Chinese government always calls His Holiness a demon, so the first time he saw a promo photo from Chthonic, he told me, "No, you are the true demon, not me!" [Laughs] Then I said, "Yes!"
That's such an interesting relationship to have with such an icon.
I can see how he reacted when I shared the news with him this time that I was organizing from the parliament committee on Taiwan. I saw in his eyes that he was happy.
Portraits by Jason Favreau
Other photos courtesy of Freddy Lim
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; follow her on Twitter.