Rocker has eye on politics

A poster of singer David Bowie hangs in the office of Freddy Lim (left), who has put his music career of more than two decades on hold to serve as a member in Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, or parliament.
A poster of singer David Bowie hangs in the office of Freddy Lim (left), who has put his music career of more than two decades on hold to serve as a member in Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, or parliament.PHOTO: NYTIMES

TAIPEI • In a land renowned for its singalong pop songs and bubble milk tea, Freddy Lim has always been something of a black sheep.

A prominent figure in Taiwan's underground music circles, Lim, 41, was until recently best known as the head-bashing frontman of heavy metal band Chthonic, sometimes called the "Black Sabbath of Asia".

Veteran British rockers Black Sabbath have a devout following, with their line-up once including Ozzy Osbourne.

But for the past year, Lim has put his music career of more than two decades on pause to redirect his energy to serve as a member in Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, or parliament. "My fans keep asking when I'm going to do a metal scream in parliament," he said.

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While he has traded in his black leather and face paint for more traditional bureaucrat attire, echoes of his musician alter ego remain on display in his office.

An electronic drum set. A black-and-white poster of David Bowie. A photo taken during a packed outdoor Chthonic concert and campaign rally in Taipei's Liberty Square in 2015.

Another holdover from his rocker life is the long hair, which he has made a point of keeping ever since a politician from the rival Nationalist Party urged people not to vote for Lim as his hair "is longer than a woman's".

Fast-forward a little more than a year.

That ponytail is now the trademark feature of a man who has emerged as one of the leaders of a growing youth-driven movement pushing for change and independence for Taiwan.

"Freddy is a rock star and he's very charismatic," said Mr Huang Kuo- chang, chairman of New Power Party, the left-wing political party that Lim helped start in 2015.

"He has helped us attract people who did not care about politics at all in the past."

Lim's turn towards politics began in 2014, when hundreds of students occupied Taiwan's parliament to protest a trade deal with China that they feared would make Taiwan more vulnerable to Beijing's influence.

As the lead vocalist of Chthonic and chairman of Amnesty International Taiwan at the time, Lim was among the best-known figures at the demonstrations.

His stand is that, to be Taiwanese, it means much more than merely being Chinese.

That belief in a separate Taiwanese identity has also become a constant thread in Lim's music.

"As a Taiwanese, I felt strange singing about the typical extreme metal themes like vampires and Satan," he noted. "Instead, we used Taiwanese mythology and folk stories as source material. It became a way to build up my identity and go deeper into Taiwanese history."

With his band, Lim toured the world for years, introducing heavy metal fans to what the band called "Orient metal".

In 2007, Chthonic snagged a rookie slot on Ozzfest, Osbourne's annual tour of hard-rock and metal bands, becoming one of the first Taiwanese metal bands to tour the United States.

Randy Blythe, lead singer of American metal band Lamb Of God, recalled seeing Taiwanese- Americans - some in their 60s and 70s, and often wearing black Chthonic T-shirts - at almost every stop on the tour.

"I think for Taiwanese-Americans, it was a real source of pride," Blythe said in a telephone interview.

"In our world, a lot of people can yell and make angry music and be like, 'The system sucks,'" Blythe added. "But Freddy did something. He took a concrete step to try and change things for the better."

After a little more than a year in office, Lim and the New Power Party are still in the process of making the transition from activists to politicians. With only five legislators in Taiwan's 113-seat parliament, the party is still a long way from its stated goal of displacing the Nationalist Party and becoming one of Taiwan's two major political parties along with the Democratic Progressive Party.

Still, rocker Lim is on a roll and is in harmony with his beliefs. "I'm so, so happy," he said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline 'Rocker has eye on politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe