Latinos in Taiwan Pt. 3: Chicano hip hop scene

Posted September 22, 2009 2:48 am (about 3780 days ago)

It’s no secret that people in Asia are fascinated by hip hop, with countries such as Japan cultivating a massive scene including sub-genres such as Chicano rap. Although Taiwan’s scene is not as developed, it’s steadily growing and makes huge strides every time I visit. As far as I can tell, there’s relatively little that’s been written about this scene so I wanted to explore a little bit. But to properly address this issue, I need to set up some personal context.

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To be upfront, I’m pretty leery of anything “hip hop” these days, although it continues to permeate nearly every aspect of my life. At this point, I’m like one of those jaded old men. I actually like some of newer MCs, but whether it’s music, dance, or art, show us something new! I like b-boying, but don’t show me your best rendition of something that was done in New York 30 years ago! By extension, I don’t like seeing people who claim to “represent hip hop” merely copying others, especially other countries trying to imitate the U.S. Rule number one is originality! Hip hop has been commercialized for so long that as I’ve gotten older I’ve had less energy to sort through the garbage to get to the gems. But for the record, I picked up some Taiwanese hip hop records by the likes of a Kou Chou Ching. These guys are way beyond 2nd rate American imitations.

Regarding Chicano rap, it’s a broad term referencing hip hop done by Mexican Americans, often with more West Coast sounds (in terms of samples and production styles) and it’s often associated with gangs. In a general sense, I associate it with three cultures: hip hop, Chicano/Mexican American (as opposed to Mexicans from Mexico) and street gangs. In this context, you can’t separate the three. Although not all of it is gang-related, and some deals
with community upliftment, my association with Chicano rap is often with urban, crime-related tales.

My first exposure to Chicano rap in Asia was through Japan.
American artists often tour over there and there are locals with Latino names such as, uh, El Latino, and Sad Girl, and Chicano-themed tattoo parlors. At first I was fascinated, but quickly felt insulted. Among other things, there was no distinction between street gangs/crime and Mexican culture. People were emulating “gangsters” out of respect for “La Raza.” Would they feel that Americans or Mexicans respected them if we all started dressing like geishas and mimicking yakuza, to “honor” Japan?

I saw articles about “The Mexican Way of Life,” which merely talked about gang life. One reason I found this to be so insulting, beyond being Chicano, is that I’m in a career that’s devote
d, among other things, to giving youth alternatives beyond gangs. I work at a high school in a community with high gang activity and we have a zero tolerance policy. We have both wannabes and active members at our school and I’ve known some in my personal life. Nearly everyone, including the hardcore gangsters are trying to get out of this lifestyle! The ones who aren’t tend to be really young, are often the most depressed ones and are often putting on a front. This depression may come out as anger or pseudo-masked by drugs and alcohol, but I’ve yet to meet a gangster, at least at the street level, who’s truly happy. It’s a hard life to lead. Gangs, urban life, and Chicano/Mexican culture are not interchangeable terms. In my particularl community gangs and crime do exist, but they don’t define us.

Having said that, I get why gangs exist and their appeal. Nearly everyone wants to be part of something bigger (fraternities, sororities, nationalism, etc) and I spent a period of my life idolizing gangsters as well, making some very poor decisions in the process. But was I a bad person? I like to think not, and I’ve turned out OK, although I wasn’t that caught up. Stil, I recognize that my life could've easily gone down a different path. My point is that it’s more complicated. I hate the negative impact that gangs have had in my community, yet recognize that many of these individual members are part of the community. While a few are serious psychopaths that only understand violence, many feel that they have limited options. Why would anyone in their right mind choose a path that leads to death or prison? I say that with respect, as someone who at one point saw lock up as a rite of passage and violent death as immortality. Yes, I get it, but also recognize that it’s a pretty dysfunctional outlook on life. Still, without being an apologist for criminal behavior, I try to see the humanity and internal struggles in people, which is why I chose a career in education. Furthermore, most gangs are about more than merely committing crimes and address some people’s sense of identity and stability. The key is to offer realistic alternatives and recognize that the term “gang member” encompasses a wide range of affiliations and lifestyles, often having nothing to do with crime and complete with all the usual human contradictions. Limiting people to these labels doesn't allow for these complexities.

At any rate, while my initial response to Chicano hip hop in Taiwan was interest, then offense, I finally realized that I should talk to
some of the locals and get their perspective. If life’s taught me anything, people aren’t two dimensional!  I wanted to find out why they were so fascinated by this subgenre, whether this extended to a larger interest in Mexican and Latino culture, if they actually related, and if there were active Taiwanese cholos. In Japan it’s not hard to find people with tattoos of Latino gangs or to straight buy clothes with gang names on them. Often times, these are people who’ve never been to the ‘hoods they claim to be representing and even squares like me could slap around. It’s like some weird Halloween party gone bad! There’s some serious history with Mexican gangs and there aren’t a whole lot of parallels for the average Asian youth.

So, that’s the perspective I bring when eyeing hip hop, especially
Chicano rap, which obviously shapes the following. And just to be fair, Asians aren’t the only one’s who fetishize or stereotype others. We all do it, which doesn’t excuse it, but I could write a book on insults I’ve heard growing up, from people of all backgrounds, and many people still think that not only do all Asians look alike, but we still all know karate, can’t drive, all Asian women give massages, and we speak funny English. Let’s not get started on the eye jokes or insults about our manliness. Also, it’s not a compliment to think we’re all good at math. On the right, check out one of the Asian “tributes” I picked up in Mexico, complete with rice paddy hats and lines for eyes. Yeah, there are a lot of conversations that need to happen all around.

But time to move on to some Taiwanese locals!


1. Eric said at September 23, 2009 3:53 pm:

I'm going to put it out there...I'm a former Gang Memeber here in Oakland...the reality is that thats not the life style you want to follow it is not a trend, its not whats in this year, its not the best thing to do...yea people wanna look the part, act the part, but when it comes down to actually pulling a trigger, stealing, beating, you see the real person...I've seen incidents where we would be out on "Missions",late night rides around town looking for trouble,and when it came down to doing the actual crime they backed down...the reality is that everybody is fascinated with the Black and Latino scene. Here in the US, you see white boys who are from the suburbs, those who have all they want, and yet they wanna dress "GHETTO", they want to speak "Slang", have the "Phattest" ride. But they have never been to the "Hood", they never had to go for days without food, money, never had to hustle their way in life. But they are fascinated because for them its what's in, they see rappers and they wanna imitate them. To cut it short...when you are little its fun to act parts to "IMAGINE" you are something your not, because you felt you had powers, o you felt unbeatable, you felt the best out there...well its the same now with grown people they wanna act the part, they wanna "IMAGINE" they are something they are not, because it makes them feel they are something, maybe feel important, noticed, powerful, whatever the case is they just wanna imitate, they wont really do time, they really wont kill another human being, they wont steal,they just want what comes with that part, without doing anything...whether it is girls, being noticed, being terrified of, whatever they think they can get from it they want it without actually being a gang member, without the consequences...these are my 2 cents on this topic...

2. Daniel said at September 23, 2009 9:48 pm:

Eric, I think a key thing is understanding why so many are attracted to gangs, while others are not. With your example, I think people are fascinated by "the other," while in general, I think people are looking for purpose, identity, and power. As you said, people want to imagine who they'd like to be. Too many males are tied up in illusions of power...big trucks, muscles, guns, being hyper agressive...What's harder? Dropping out or finishing college? Robbing someone or making your own money? In the long term, that fast "easy" life actually becomes the hard one. I'm sure that anyone who's done time and/or tried to create a life after dropping out can attest to that!

3. hopes4 said at September 25, 2009 2:14 am:

im also a former gangmember from east oakland and its very interesting the way that the sureno culture travels world wide the essense of the pachuco and the dickies or ben davis are a true esential to our chicano culture and as you can see its gone world wide just like in japan and even in iran this culture of old school dressing and baggy pants are truely the essential of a culture who tried to identafy them self diffrently from other cultures even if other people saw it as an act of revelion the true essential for this was to identafy each other by the lingo and the way they dress i see this as a break threw sense alot of people judge from the way they see you dress now they can see that just like hip hop or gangsta rap became a part of history so is the pachuco and gangster aperal i love my culture and the ways that we made a style that suits every one who likes to wear it. and also the way that people mis judge because of what you are wearing i think that having this style world wide is really kool

4. Amado said at September 25, 2009 4:38 pm:

To start off, I think that this whole Chicano/Latino identification to gangs is extremely misleading. I believe that a subject like "Minority-related gangs" is a very complicated matter to discuss, since it involves such a great amount of people coming from all kinds of backgrounds, not only racial, but also related to their family background. I think that even though gangs have a wrong end, we may never judge a gang member or someone that wants to be affiliated, since we don't know where they are coming from, what their life is like, and how it got to that point. On another note, Latino gang "Culture" has well become a very interesting and absorbing matter in so many places in the world. The cars, the clothes, the music, and everything related to the Latino Gang scene is very flashy to the eye, I could say that by experience. However, people sometimes misinterpret the background behind it, simply because of mere ignorance at times. Again, I will say that no one can judge the opinion or the view of others, since we don't know where their interest is coming from. In any case, in places like Taiwan or Japan, although the "style" is becoming very popular, the ignorance about the Latino gangs and the culture behind it make it very misleading when they try to represent such a culture and when referring to the Latino/Mexican/Chicano community as a whole. In any case, it is always to be well informed about this, since it has become a major aspect of all minorities in the United States, that although misleading, is its the sad reality for many of us.

5. Daniel said at October 4, 2009 9:28 pm:

I think you reiterate my point that there's a lot of history and context that goes into gang culture and why so many people are drawn to it. It's very easy to make people into cartoon characters, romanticizing them as Robin Hood characters, or demonizing them as monsters. The truth, of course, is more complicated. I'd also argue that gang life is often times a reflection of what's happening in broader society...people seeking power, jobs, etc and gangs often fill those voids.

6. Chicano Rap said at February 3, 2010 9:44 pm:

Good article. I'm going to Japan next month, Tokyo to be exact so I would like to know if anyone out there is familiar with any type of venues or "hang outs" for this type of music scene. I would like to meet a few locals who know about Chicano Rap.

7. Chicano Rap said at February 3, 2010 9:44 pm:

Good article. I'm going to Japan next month, Tokyo to be exact so I would like to know if anyone out there is familiar with any type of venues or "hang outs" for this type of music scene. I would like to meet a few locals who know about Chicano Rap.

8. CHRISTIAN D said at March 6, 2011 7:31 pm:


9. big chuco said at June 16, 2011 11:07 pm:

japan has always supported my music, i have a couple contacts that buy cd's from me..always tripd me out..but all good, as long as they enjoy the music..its available on and search big chuco ..also check out the videos on VIVA LA RAZA!!

10. Daniel said at June 19, 2011 10:08 pm:

Chuco, it's crazy the ways that culture spreads and the internet has made things explode. It'll be interesting to see how things continute to develop.

11. MONI said at July 16, 2011 3:37 pm:

CONEJO is a RAPPER, from Los Angeles, unarguably one of the most influential artist in Chicano rap. His uncompromising and often controversial urban storytelling depicts the reality of real life gang-members in Los Angeles (and throughout the rest of the world). His lyrics capture not only the toughness and brutality of Gang life, but also the unity and family as well as the emotional hardships of loss and tragedy. A True Master of his Art! Constantly evolving, and getting stronger with each release , undoubtedly his most Impressive LP to date, the hot new album. (“The Puppet Master Curse”) will be in stores from ( July 11th 2011 ) on Felony case entertainment ….

12. Chicano Tattoo Art said at August 1, 2011 7:52 pm:

While I sell this stuff online I have come to known and realize that this chicano gang culture is very popular in many other countries, my best customers are from other countrys such as Australia, German, United Kingdom, Brazil, France, Russia, and even once in awhile the middle east, I dont get much buys from Asia due to they dont have to buy online since they have there own stores I would guess? I realize that this is a big thing all over the world, I sell Chicano Rap cds, Chicano Urban Clothing, Chicano Magazines to lots of people in other countries, I even get customers from Bankok, Italy, Ukraine and the list goes on so its not just a thing in asia. Thank you for this article.

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