Looking for the clown in the 1980s: the melancholy clients in the Taiwan teahouse and their memories of being a ‘nobody’

I-ting CHEN

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


This article analyses the teahouse client’s frustrated love stories and feelings of being a ‘nobody’ through the portrayal of the clown in Taiwan of the 1980s, the heyday of such portrayal in films and songs. In the erotic teahouse (mō-mō-chá) where I conducted my fieldwork, a client once mentioned to me The Clown, an old song he used to sing. Intrigued by how such a song depicts a particular male image that echoes the client’s untold feelings about his life, I was prompted to trace the popularization of the clown, the male character prevailing in Taiwanese popular culture of the 1980s. In this article I examine how the lower-class man’s livelihood and sexuality are complicated by the idea of indignity, vulgar jokes, and self-ridicule found in the stories about the life trajectories of a clown. I argue that the formation of the popular image of the clown in such representations signals a process in which the gendered subjectivity was formed under specific social, economic, cultural, and historical conditions. For example, in the movie titled The Clown and the Swan (Xiaocho yu tian-er, 1985), the legendary Taiwanese comedian Hsu Pu-Liao (許不了, 1951-1985) depicted a frustrated clown who faces difficulties being with his beloved nightclub dancer. His vulgar profession as a clown and the poverty and precarious life that came with it make this lower-class man too ‘shameful’ to desire a lover, a relationship, and marriage. The cultural representation of the clown was consumed by the melancholy clients in the teahouse as they reminisce about their own pasts or sing songs in the karaoke rooms. Significantly, through enacting the melancholy clients, the clown figure offers a different lens in comprehending the otherwise ‘faceless’ male participants in sex and intimacy-related industries.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)320-333
Number of pages14
JournalCultural Studies
Issue number2
Early online date15 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

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  • Taiwanese erotic teahouse
  • The clown
  • intimacy
  • longing for love
  • masculinity
  • subjectivity


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