Interview: Freddy Lim, Rockstar Turned Legislator, Talks “Metal Politics Taiwan”

Freddy Lim speaks about Taiwanese politics, music, fatherhood — and being the subject of a new documentary.

By , 30 Jul 18 01:09 GMT

“From heavy metal to politics” — that sums the remarkable story of Freddy Lim, perhaps Taiwan’s most unique legislator. Known internationally as the frontman for death metal band Chthonic, Freddy (as he is commonly known) was elected to Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (Parliament) in January 2016.

Combining his backgrounds in heavy metal and political activism (he previously led Amnesty International Taiwan), Freddy wants to inject fresh air into Taiwan’s two-party landscape through his New Power Party, which he and fellow activists founded after Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Student Movement.

Freddy is no stranger to challenging conventional wisdom. His band Chthonic’s music stands in sharp contrast with Taiwan’s usual reputation for dreamy lovey pop music. Chthonic’s songs attack difficult topics from Taiwanese history and mythology with both seriousness and humor. Examples include “Supreme Pain for the Tyrant” (which weaved the story of activist Peter Huang alongside KMT-Nazi cooperation during WWII) and “Defenders of Bu-Tik Palace” (which addressed the 228 Incident and White Terror). 

Now, a new film called Metal Politics Taiwan documents Freddy’s new life as a legislator. The documentary follows him through events like the 2016 US presidential inauguration, paying homage to Cheng Nan-jung (鄭南榕, a Taiwanese democracy activist who immolated himself for free speech), and meeting the Dalai Lama.  As we see in the film: while Freddy still writes music, his focus has shifted from performing onstage to changing Taiwanese politics. 

Cinema Escapist writer Emily Hsiang visited Freddy Lim at his legislative offices for an interview about his experience being the subject of Metal Politics Taiwan. In the process, Freddy also shared extensive thoughts on music, fatherhood, and Taiwanese politics.

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Freddy Lim alongside other activists. (Courtesy of Metal Politics Taiwan)

Why heavy metal?

There was never really a choice. I enjoy heavy metal. As a kid I played classical piano and participated in choir or singing competitions all the way from elementary to high school as a pianist. It had such an influence on me, that these days I still write my music with a keyboard.

By the time I got to fifth or sixth grade, I progressed to stronger and edgier music. I went from pop music to rock—Bon Jovi, Guns & Roses—to heavier music like Anthrax, Megadeath, Slayer, then to death metal, black metal, extreme metal.

I relished expression with loud music. In high school I formed a few cover bands. Whatever they wanted to play, I’d sing along. At the time I was also listening to a lot of extreme metal, and felt strongly for them. So after being many cover bands, I decided to form a metal band on my own. Chthonic was inspired and formed around 1996 during my sophomore year of college.

In the beginning, when we were trying to create songs for Chthonic, I referenced songs of bands that I liked. Many of them sing about vampires, Satanism, anti-Christ, and Nordic mythologies. While I enjoyed them as a fan, when it comes to creating music I just couldn’t find the motivation, that sort of deep desire, to write about these topics.

Writing about Nordic mythologies as a Taiwanese person didn’t sit right with me, it felt unfamiliar. These Europeans wrote songs like this because they had motivations of their own.

For example, a lot of Scandinavian bands write about local folklore and mythologies, but that’s because their cultures have been invaded by foreign cultures, including influence from Christianity. They believed that past mythologies, religion, and folktales are worthwhile to sing about, because they have the motivation to do so as Scandinavians living in Scandinavia.

I would only be imitating if I were to write songs about non-Taiwanese culture as a Taiwanese, so I wrote about stories that motivated me—stories related to Taiwan.

You went from more of a behind-the-scenes political activist to being in the front stage of politics by forming the New Power Party and working as a legislator. What was the turning point for this?

Other than being a vocalist for Chthonic, I also used to be the chairman for Amnesty International Taiwan, as well as being involved in different activist movements. So I would say I’m also an activist.

By the time the 2014 Sunflower Movement was happening, I believed that Taiwan needed a new political party (Taiwan, just like the US, is a two-party system dominated by the KMT and the DPP).

[Through the Sunflower Movement, Taiwan’s] activists youths proved that they could have a certain measure of political influence. At that time, many of our social activist organizations were having generational handovers. So I believed that a generational handovers should happen in politics as well.

Initially we tried to encourage the student activists and opinion leaders to start their own party—but then we realize that they might be too young. Most leaders had interest in starting a new party or political careers, but practically they couldn’t, because they still had obligations to fulfill. Some kids were still in school, or just got accepted into overseas schools, or they still have to finish their mandatory military service (in Taiwan, mandatory military service for men takes between four and eleven months).

So many of my friends, including lawyers and people from Amnesty… we were in a good position to start a new party and start political campaigns. We decided to start this new party first, and then invite the student leaders when they were done with their obligations.

My campaign manager during my run for legislator, Wu Cheng (吳崢), was one of the student activist leaders during the Sunflower Moment. Pingyu Lai (賴品妤), who’s working in my office now, was also a leader. Wei-ting Chen (陳為廷), [another student leader], was the general director of our other candidate Handy Chiu’s (邱顯智) campaign.

These opinion leaders and student leaders could do a lot, even though they couldn’t run for elections yet. So to me, at the time, the most important task was to start this party. If we didn’t start a new party, all this momentum for political change might have been lost forever. If we didn’t start the New Power Party, by the time the election in 2016 came around, our political landscape might’ve remained the same as before — still dominated by the KMT and DPP. They might’ve recruited some of the student activist leaders but still, the change would be small.

Freddy Lim performing as part of Chthonic. (Courtesy of Metal Politics Taiwan)

Which album would you recommend Asian-Americans (or audiences abroad) to start with?

I would recommend Takasago Army or Bú-Tik. We are also releasing a new album later this year, so stay tuned!

Marco (director of Metal Politics Taiwan) mentioned that when he was filming you, you never had your hair down, always covered your tattoos, and asked him to not film your tattoos. To me it felt as if it’s also a kind of performance. So, what are the difference sand similarities between being a legislator and vocalist?

In terms of being similar, as a music performer and politician, you both need to deliver the same messages over and over again to different people.

When we were touring, often times the tour consisted of 30, 40 performances. You’re playing the same set of songs in new cities everyday, you’re constantly playing the same music, but you can’t let people think you’re bored of it. You have to channel that specific energy and do the same performance for your audience every day. Because unlike you, who has been performing for dozens and dozens of concerts, the audience is only here especially for you today. So you have to give them the perfect performance, so they could have that deep, profound experience they came here for. That’s performance in music.

When it comes to politics, it doesn’t matter if you are going on TV shows, on radio shows, giving talks on the streets, or talking to students—you’ll get opportunities to talk about the same topics. But you can’t let people know that you’re bored about this topic or that you’ve given it a dozen times on it earlier today. You can’t skip the talk. Not especially if you’re running for an election. The talk will be something people hear for the first time, so you’ll have to deliver it like it’s your first time talking about this subject. The process of channeling that energy to make sure your audience understands and empathizes with what you’re trying to convey, that’s similar to performing music.

As for differences, it depends on the person. When I’m making music, I’m making things I enjoy — channeling my truest, in-the-moment, most inspired moments. While not everyone will have the same experience listening to the song, I can always try my best to make sure the audience feels it. If someone doesn’t like it, it’s fine, people who like my music will come to my concerts, people who don’t like it won’t.

This is not true for politics. In politics, if you have an idea, you have to get people on the same page.

On one hand, you have to listen to what your voters have to say—the people elected you. It’s your job to be in touch with what the people want. Thus, you have to balance between your ideals and what they want.

On the other hand, you have to really communicate with your voters, to understand what they demand, what services they want, what kind of construction projects that they need—and this goes both ways. This used to be what I was most unaccustomed to, but now I’m used to it.

For example: as a musician, I would not want to be recognized on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit, Taipei’s metro system). If we were getting dinner, I’d sit at the deepest corner and place my back to the door. I didn’t want to be recognized and didn’t enjoy having to greet people.

But as a politician you can’t be estranged from the people. These days I sit facing the door when I eat, if anyone wants to greet me or talk to me, I’ll greet them. I make an effort to meet as many people as possible in public events. When I was making music, I don’t even try to hang out or go to after parties after performances, I’d go directly to the tour bus and work or read the news.

Politics can’t be treated like music. In politics, if people have things to say, it’s my job to hear them out as much as I can.

It feels like you needed to go from being an introvert to extrovert.

I’m not a particularly introverted person, but I didn’t like to socialize too much. As a politician, there’s this thing called “purely social”—which means there are a lot of folks who aren’t looking to gain anything from you; rather, they just wanted to talk to you and make sure they have been heard. You can’t bail on purely social people either. So this is a different situation from making music.

Freddy meeting the Dalai Lama. (Courtesy of Metal Politics Taiwan)

As Metal Politics Taiwan documents, you’ve recently become a father! What surprised you the most after becoming a father?

There are lots of surprises everyday as a dad.

[My son is] a little bit different each day so it’s hard to pick out one point that is the most surprising. He’s learning everyday, seeing things differently everyday. It’s especially fun now that he’s learning to speak, and thanks to him I’m currently learning how to bring kids on planes.

To me, to learn things that I’ve taken for granted with him together has been a magical journey. There’s so many things we think are easy that you realize are more complicated when you see a toddler trying to learn them. It’s truly miraculous for a person to grow up.

My son’s now one year old now, and he can’t even use a spoon properly. He’s so messy when he eats, but you can’t feed him because that’ll take more time for him to learn. So we let him learn on his own, by letting him make mistakes and grow from them.

Personally, I learned a lot from him. I believe people are like that. People have to keep making mistakes and learn. It’s easy for us adults to spot the mistakes he’s making, such as learning to eat and walk, because the mistakes are obvious to us. But what about mistakes you make as adults?

We have to continuously grow and learn, because children grow by learning to be better. But, when we become adults, do we slow down on learning, or do we stop learning?

My personal belief is that our natural instinct is to continuously improve ourselves. A person can’t be born as a chunk of mindless meat and stay forever as a chunk of mindless meat. It can be painful to face mistakes as adults, but toddlers are making mistakes every day—they don’t feel shame nor suffer from mistakes. So I re-learned a lot of things from [my son]. And because of him, I’m consciously asking myself if I’m learning and progressing.

Do you have new insights on Taiwanese society and politics, now that you’re a dad?

I do have more thoughts on nursing policies. We have to think about how to create friendlier environments for folks who might want to send their kids to nurseries, or folks who want to take care of their kids themselves.

Taiwan currently has a low birth rate problem—so serious that we’ve begun to refer it as an issue concerning national security. Because of this, our nation should especially support people who have the courage to have children. So how can we truly encourage people to take the plunge and have children? That’s a problem we need to think hard about.

It used to be that I couldn’t truly empathize with parents. I didn’t really want to have children before, so I would look at the system in a mechanical way. But now my wife and I both take care of our kid, with my wife’s sister helping us occasionally—suddenly things became realistic. Many things need to be taken into consideration. For example is your work environment supportive of having children around. If you want to bring your child to work, does your office have facilities to support taking care of a child?

My kid is older now so he’s not in the office as much, but I used to bring him along to conferences. I’d pack him up as we did our meetings. I had a crib for him to nap in the other room, which I brought myself, as this building didn’t have resources or space for it. The Legislative Yuan, a public institution, is actually full of inconvenience for the legislators or our assistants if we have children.

Sometimes our government thinks giving people money would solve our population crisis, as if giving parents money would be enough to encourage people to have children. Our society and the environment we live in aren’t exactly too friendly for those with children, so in many cases the lack of money isn’t the problem. This is my insight.

Freddy Lim participating in a traditional Taiwanese ceremony. (Courtesy of Metal Politics Taiwan)

What’s the hardest part about filming Metal Politics Taiwan, and do you have a good story to share about the filming process?

The hardest part was getting along with Marco (the film’s director), mainly because I didn’t want to be filmed.

Originally, I believed the filming would be over in a few months—what I didn’t anticipate was that he followed me for a year or two. Some events that I didn’t want him to film, such as meeting the Dalai Lama, he came and filmed anyways. Certain footage I asked him to not use, he ended up using it too. I think most of the difficulties came from miscommunication. But I do think he’s eager and has a vision.

The most memorable day during filming was meeting the Dalai Lama for the third time.

Working in politics can be rather toxic in Taiwan. There are extreme people who would attack you with lies and rumors. As a result, my family’s life had to change dramatically after I became a politician. My wife was pregnant for a few months, yet we didn’t dare share the news to any of our friends, for fear of leaks to the media.

The news of my wife’s pregnancy got leaked anyways, and we got a lot of comments that were toxic, even akin to curses; there are curses for our child to be born deformed, etc. That was why we had to keep things low, and it was very unfair to my family. That was also why the Dalai Lama was the first person from outside of my immediate family to know that Doris [Freddy’s wife] is pregnant.

That’s why, when I told him of our unborn child and asked for his blessings, I lost control of my emotions. Looking back now, I’m grateful that the child and mother are both safe and healthy. But back then we had to face a lot of extreme and unfair attacks, so my family really endured a lot.

What do you think Taiwanese-Americans can learn from this movie?

I don’t know, this will have to depend on the person watching the movie.

I didn’t have an agenda for this film mainly because I was in a passive role in making this film, so it really depends on what the director’s vision is and how the audience interprets it.

Hopefully, they can see what the daily life of a Taiwanese legislator is like. And hopefully this film brings some confidence to people when it comes to politics. There are lots of people in the world who are pure in intentions—including my staff. Young people are on the team simply because they want to make a difference and not for personal gains.

Even our director and his team were pure in their intentions. Marco came to Taiwan alone initially and wanted people to help him with his project. As time passed, more and more people came and helped him on Metal Politics Taiwan. All kinds of people helped him out, Taiwanese, foreigners in Taiwan—as stubborn as I was, I ended up helping him as well. 

So if audiences, especially Taiwanese-Americans, can take away something from this movie—it’s that if you want to help Taiwan, it won’t be difficult to find others to join you.

Just look at the young Taiwanese in the movie and how they’re able to get things done together. Whether it’s from film, music, or anything specific to your profession, as long as you’re willing, you’ll find more people who are willing to help you too.

Is there anything we can do to understand more about Taiwanese politics and social movements?

A problem we have is that it’s difficult to find correct information about Taiwan, [even for Taiwanese-Americans]. For example, I was questioning our Foreign Minister the other day on why CNN is still reporting that “Taiwan views itself as part of China” [1 – see footnotes]When the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan, CNN was still reporting this false information.

I asked our Foreign Minister whether we have made the claim that “Taiwan is a part of China” [2] within the past 20 years. The answer was “No”. We haven’t been using that narrative ever since former President Lee Teng-hui took office.

Even President Lee had been saying the Taiwanese government only represents the 23 million people living on Taiwan. Therefore, Taiwan does not represent China. Taiwanese will not claim to represent China when we’re fighting for international recognition, Taiwan doesn’t think Taiwan is part of China.

When we’re talking about China here, does it mean the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China?

No, it means generally China [3].

Do you mean Chinese (中華), as a cultural concept?

Taiwan means Taiwan [4]. If the world talks about China, it means People’s Republic of China. Taiwan claims that Taiwan means Taiwan. Back in the Kuomintang era (pre-1987), we would claim that Taiwan, under the Republic of China, is the true China, that the People’s Republic of China isn’t the true China. That debate has since been let go because the claim just doesn’t make sense anymore. That claim is a paradox. You can’t convince anyone.

You can say that “Taiwan is the real China. China is not China, but Taiwan is China” [5], but that makes no sense. No one gets it, so we’ve stopped saying that. But the media still gets it wrong, stating that we think we’re [the true] China, or that we think Taiwan is a part of China. Overseas Taiwanese sometimes get it wrong too. 

Therefore—the best way of helping [Taiwan] is by telling people what actually makes sense. If you read news that contains information that’s out of date or inaccurate, email or comment and let them know the information is wrong.

As an overseas Taiwanese who knows English, you are in the best position to correct and call out incorrect information. It’s easy: “Hey, I think this information is wrong, can you check in with the Taiwanese government?”

This is what I think Taiwanese overseas can do. Or if you find something wrong, contact us or the Taiwanese government directly. “Hey, you guys should clear this up, looks like we’re being misunderstood again.”

Pressure from China is harder to handle. Some international companies are pressured by China to classify Taiwan as a province of China, so Taiwanese abroad started petitions online to protest against that. As a result there are a lot of online petitions right now. But, it’s China, so petitions aren’t always enough to change anything.  Of course it’s great if something good can come out of it, if not, this is something we’ll have to work on in the long term.

What I’m trying to say is:, there are many misconceptions when it comes to Taiwan, and doing something to correct them should be the bottom line.

China can say whatever China wants. We may not be able to change that in the short term, but we can definitely do something if Taiwan is misunderstood internationally.

We should clarify Taiwan’s position—at least that’s within our control. 

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General footnotes:

[1] ROC – Republic of China. In reference to this CNN article quote “Although both Beijing and Taipei view the island as part of China, neither government recognizes the legitimacy of the opposing side.”

[2] The “China” here refers to Republic of China. The Republic of China, ruled by the KMT (Kuomintang), was the ruling party in China until 1949, when it lost the Chinese Civil War to the Communist party and retreated to Taiwan where it continued to govern as a single-party state. Throughout the Cold War, both parties claimed internationally to represent the “true China”—which includes both mainland China and Taiwan. Today, when we refer to the Republic of China, we typically refer to Taiwan; when we refer to the People’s Republic of China, we typically refer to mainland China. Although both governments make a nominal claim to govern all of China, contemporary Taiwanese administrations do not reinforce that nominal claim (whereas Chinese ones do). 

[3] The Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China (collectively)

[4] Freddy supports Taiwan independence. Therefore he believes Taiwan is not part of either the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China.

[5] Freddy is referencing to the Republic of China’s previous historical claim that they are the legitimate government of China (and not the People’s Republic of China).

This interview was originally conducted in Mandarin Chinese, translated into English, and edited for clarity.

Metal Politics Taiwan is currently screening in Hamburg, Germany. Click here for more info.

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