Chthonic Megaport Festival 2021: (L to R) Dani Wang (Drums), Doris Yeh (Bass), CJ Kao (Keyboards/Synths), Jesse Liu (Guitar), Freddy Lim (Vocals)
Background: Special Guest Audrey Tang
All Photos Courtesy of Freddy Lim & Chthonic
The success story of the Taiwanese black metal band Chthonic (pronounced “Thon-ik”) and its frontman Freddy Lim could only be described as inexplicable. There are musicians who have become notable politicians, and there are heavy metal musicians who have achieved some degree of mainstream notoriety. But not only has Chthonic become a part of Taiwanese mainstream pop culture, but Lim is now a twice-elected legislator in parliament.
Let’s start with how a black metal band has become the most influential and beloved act of an entire nation. Chthonic found local success in the late 90s – early 00s. Their blend of black metal with Taiwanese historical themes, and use of the erhu (two-string violin), resonated immediately with a varied audience. When Chthonic won “Best Band” at the Golden Melody Awards (the Taiwanese equivalent of a Juno or Grammy) in 2003, it was regarded as an upset. That was arguably the beginning of their national artistic invasion. By the time the band started to gain significant attention outside Taiwan, Lim had already starred in a historical drama film, met with the Dalai Lama, and become the chair of Amnesty International Taiwan. As of today, Chthonic, a black metal band, has established itself as a Taiwanese cultural watershed, with complete penetration across all musical genres and artistic mediums.
“We played a remarkable show in the square in front of the President Hall in 2019,” says Lim when I reach him around 9am Taiwan time.
“We called it the Taiwan Victory Concert. It (attracted) 50,000 people. I think most of them, they sing along with some of our songs, even though they’re not ordinary metal fans. Even some pop artists, they cannot achieve that level. There are some pop artists in Taiwan they say they’re inspired by Chthonic, even (covering) our songs. We have gone some places we didn’t expect.”
The Victory Concert takes on an even greater significance when you realize that Lim was already an elected official at the time. Take a moment to think about that. Not just a heavy metal politician, but a black metal one at that. Lim was even encouraged by his staff during his first election run to not cut his hair, as the public was used to his heavy metal image. It sounds a bit mad, really. Like a some metalized version of an American comedy movie where the protagonist randomly becomes U.S. President. The unlikeliness of the situation is not lost on Lim.
“Yes, I think was it was quite dramatic,” he says laughing.
“Especially when I decided to run, there were a lot of people who (weren’t) serious about (it). They (thought) it might be a joke and I didn’t really mean it, but I meant it! So I carefully managed to win, and also try to expand the impact. That’s why I decided to form the new party. I was the representative of the new party in the beginning. The whole visual idea of the party, the logo and how we ran the campaign in the first year, it mostly was my idea. Also the art team for the party, those were (also) the art team for Chthonic. So in the beginning there were a lot of things going on with the Chthonic team.”
Freddy Lim speaking in the Legislative Yuan
The party that Lim is referring to is the New Power Party (NPP), which he founded in 2015 (he’s no longer a member, but we’ll get to that). Lim was already known for political activism, and he was often asked if he would ever consider running for office. It was assumed by many, including myself, that Chthonic’s use of Taiwanese history and mythology in their lyrics and image were tied to that activism. But to Lim, the 2 were always separate in his mind. Only now in his new position can he see why many took it the other way.
“Most of our lyrics are about history or mythology, so before I took the job I sang them with imagination mostly,” he says.
“But in recent years it’s kind of put 2 things together, imagination and the facts – the true world. In the old days when the fans would look between the lines to reflect (on) some of the meaning of the lyrics (and associate them with) the true world, I would always say ‘I respect your feelings, I respect your explanation, but for me it’s just imagination. For me it’s mythology and history.’ But in recent years when I sing all those songs, I can see why they see the reflection of the true world (laughs), because I’m in the true world, I’m trying to make the true world better. So I can see that some of the lyrics have the power to trigger the ear of the people (who want) to change Taiwan and make it a better country.”
"I can do more things, not just to win the seat but to prove to Taiwan that my way of fighting, my way of doing things works."
Lim was inspired by the wave of young people running in the 2016 election, and despite some initial concern about his chances, he was able to defeat the 5-term ultra-conservative incumbent in the Zhongzheng–Wanhua constituency. The Legislative Yuan is Taiwan’s parliament/congress, and like many countries, it’s dominated by 2 parties. The centre-left Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is currently in power, while the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) sits in opposition. Aside from winning his own seat, Lim managed to lead the NPP to third-party status in the Legislature, with the goal of using their new position to influence DPP policy. But in 2019, once Lim was no longer party chair, the NPP considered nominating a presidential candidate for the 2020 election. It was this discussion that would lead to Lim leaving the party he founded.
“The day I decided to leave the party… it was kind of difficult for me,” he says solemnly.
“At the press conference, a journalist asked me ‘How do you feel?’ I stopped. For almost 30 seconds I can’t say anything. My tears almost dropped. (laughs nervously) But I collected my emotions. I put myself together in a short time. It was difficult because my district is a very conservative district, and according to the polls I was behind my opponent who was the (same as the first election). According to the polls I was quite a huge distance behind him. I knew the only thing I should focus on is (being) re-elected in my district. That’s the most important thing. I can do more things, not just to win the seat but to prove to Taiwan that my way of fighting, my way of doing things works. (The) idea to nominate a presidential candidate, I was pissed by that. We don’t even have enough staff to run the party, how are we going to run the country?! I had 3-4 jobs in the party. We should take things seriously. It’s not a joke! You can’t do things this way or you will lose people’s trust because all the citizens know that you are a small party, (that) you’ll run out of hands. So I decided to leave. I told them the only way is to support President Tsai (Ing-Wen), especially when (her) opponent, which was the KMT candidate, was very pro-China. The Chinese government (have) tried their best to infiltrate Taiwan, and the only way we can stop the infiltration is to stop the KMT candidate. Which means supporting President Tsai.”
Freddy Lim Resigning From The NPP (2019)
A number of key NPP party members followed Lim and left the party, and he was re-elected as an independent in his district in 2020. As an independent, Lim can only receive a limited amount of political contributions, but the upside is that he is able to move more freely and establish bi-partisan organizations within parliament. After his re-election he was visited by pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong, who urged him to form a caucus in support of their movement. He now chairs that caucus which includes representatives from 4 parties.
“The Chinese communists, they always say that the Hong Kong democratic activities were supported by the DPP, (and) it’s not true!” he says emphatically.
“It’s excuses always used by the Chinese communists. So as an independent, it’s much easier for me. The 2 major parties, they have strong conflicts. They confront each other hard. Sometimes we need to be neutral and need to show the united power of Taiwan with (bi-partisanship). That’s what I should do in this phase right now.”
"I think for people like the Hong Kongers, they got oppressed by the Chinese government much more than me. So I just have to take care of my own safety, that’s not that difficult."
Lim has never been quiet about his opinions of the Chinese government, and it does seem that the feeling is mutual. In 2018 Chthonic was denied a visa to perform in Hong Kong with singer and activist Denise Ho, who duets with Lim on the track “Millennia's Faith Undone.” Lim was also physically attacked in parliament by a KMT legislator who wanted to disrupt the confirmation of committee members nominated by President Tsai. On his way to vote Lim was assaulted as the KMT member attempted to grab the vote from his pocket. There are of course, larger safety concerns. Lim rarely speaks about his family or relationships publicly, and has become even more cautious after entering politics for fear of pro-China extremists, whom he says are backed by both organized crime and Chinese governmental agents. Despite this knowledge, Lim shows little fear when speaking about any potential threats.
“Yes, my friends always ask me to hire more bodyguards, (laughs) for me and my family,” he says casually.
“With the infiltration of China now in Taiwan, some Hong Kong activists (when) they travel in Taiwan they are attacked by some… I don’t want to say they’re spies, but they’re hired hands. Definitely, sometimes I’m concerned with my own safety as well. But I think for people like the Hong Kongers, they got oppressed by the Chinese government much more than me. So I just have to take care of my own safety, that’s not that difficult. They have to get exiled, or arrested if they are in Hong Kong. So yeah, I think I’m fine. I’m concerned about my safety a bit, my family too. But yeah, we’ll be fine.”
Freddy Lim performs at Roar Now! Bankgah (2020)
With the hopes of so many on his shoulders this begs the question, when do Lim and Chthonic find the time for metal activities? Their most recent album, 2018’s Golden Melody-winning Battlefields of Asura, was arranged by Lim and guitarist Jesse Liu from material written in 2013. The band doesn’t play more than once a year, and the shows are posted in their entirety on YouTube and Facebook. With the pandemic largely under control in Taiwan, their next performance is this Saturday, March 27th, at a masked and socially-distanced Megaport Music Festival.
“Chthonic will play just to support, because don’t have international artists for the festival this year,” says Lim.
“Most of the local artists will play and we will headline. Our rock and dance music festivals are still being put on, and our traditional ceremonies and feasts are still being put on. Religious rituals are still going. Department stores, shopping malls are open. People go sightseeing like usual, but just with masks and social distancing. I think we are very lucky, because we are so close to China. We implemented pandemic prevention mechanisms very fast and early. The pandemic didn’t affect Taiwan too much. The local cases (as of March 3rd, 2021), we have only 9 deaths, and 77 local cases. We are one of the countries that have contained the pandemic best. We kind of continued daily life, the ordinary way, but of course with masks and social distancing.”
Aside from posting it online, the band plans to release a live album of their set at Megaport, including a physical edition with a special Chthonic “Made In Taiwan” mask, since Lim feels masks are now part of our fashion culture. He also hopes he can encourage other metal bands to have their masks made in Taiwan as well.
"Although Taiwan seems far away from you, please understand that Taiwan is the frontline against the Chinese tyrant authoritarian regime."
It's a lot to take in. Lim and Chthonic have managed to achieve symbiosis between extreme metal music, mainstream culture, and national politics, all while under the eye of an authoritarian power. I first met Lim on the road about 13 years ago, and although he spoke passionately about his beliefs and causes, there is a distinct difference now. When Lim speaks now there is a grim determination and a sharpened focus that shows his passion has become intent, because change is actually within his reach.
If Chthonic does ever play outside of Taiwan again, it won’t be for many years. As such, I wanted to know what Lim would say to foreign fans of his music, who might feel detached from his current job and political efforts.
“First of all I hope you will still enjoy all the songs and videos that we post online, (because) we don’t have time to tour around the world anymore,” he says.
“Although Taiwan seems far away from you, please understand that Taiwan is the frontline against the Chinese tyrant authoritarian regime. (There are) a lot of infiltrations that you might find in your own country. I know in Canada, in the United States, or in Europe you can see a lot of different Chinese agencies in schools and in communities. They’ve been seen in different industries. Even in Hollywood, you can see that a lot of movies have been made to obey the Chinese government’s standards. They have to change the storyline of the movie just to follow the rules of Chinese communists. You might (think) that Taiwan is very far away and threats from China is something that you might not need to care about. But actually things have got a bit different in your own country too. It makes your life different. It changes your freedom, your free way of living. So try to know more about what happens in this region, in this so-called ‘Far East.’ (Not just) because you want to care more about the people under oppression, but also (because you) want to protect what you have in the free world right now. I do believe if the people in the free world, if we work together, if we are united, we can make the world better, and we can find a better way to deal with the biggest authoritarian government in human history, and to change them.”
Chthonic will play the Megaport Music Festival this Saturday, March 27th. You can watch the full 2019 Taiwan Victory Concert below, or you can listen to it via Spotify. The band also has tons more content on their YouTube page.