A crowd of several thousand people bangs mustard-yellow thunder sticks and cheers as two stilt walkers in colorful, bird-like costumes twirl in front of an outdoor stage. Two dozen percussionists pound out a Caribbean rhythm as a 20-foot papier-mache statue of a pregnant woman, symbolizing hope, gazes down on the festivities.
Heavy metal band frontman Freddy Lim bounds onto the platform. But the audience isn't here to listen to the 39-year-old Taiwanese musician and his group, Chthonic (pronounced Thon-nick, a Greek word meaning "spirits of the underworld"), thrash their way through songs like "Broken Jade," "Supreme Pain for the Tyrant" or "Quasi Putrefaction."
These days, Lim leaves his black combat boots and white face paint at home; his jet-black mane is pulled into a neat ponytail. His tattooed biceps are covered by a black turtleneck and yellow jacket. Raising a microphone, Lim launches not into song but a stump speech.
"Let's get rid of those old, untrustworthy politicians," urges Lim, who is running for Taiwan's parliament. "Let's use all our power, in this last week, to strengthen and develop the New Power Party!"
"Yes!" the audience answers in sync, pounding the thunder sticks into a cacophonous din.
Lim is perhaps the most unconventional legislative candidate in Saturday's elections, which will see Taiwanese go to the polls to elect a president as well as the 113-seat legislature. But his move to found the New Power Party last year and run for office is emblematic of a new wave of political activism on the island — mostly by younger, liberal Taiwanese animated by concerns including gay rights, environmental protection and government transparency, and fed up with conventional two-party politics.
The island has seen a huge number of new parties founded in the last few years; of the 28 fielding candidates on Saturday, just eight participated in the 2012 legislative election.
Less than two years ago, some of today's would-be national lawmakers were staging a sit-in inside the chamber, protesting a trade pact with mainland China. Now these veterans of the so-called Sunflower Movement and other activists say fighting the establishment from the outside can get them only so far.
"We've found that social movements have limits, so we've joined parties," said Tseng Po-yu, a 24-year-old Sunflower veteran who is running as a Green Party candidate in New Taipei City. She's going up against a 16-year incumbent from the ruling Nationalist Party, as well as a candidate from the Democratic Progressive Party, long the country's main opposition.
When considering what party to join, she said, "no one who wants to change Taiwan would join the Nationalists. And the DPP is too big, as a newcomer can't have much power. You can do more in a third party."
Like Tseng, Lim is aiming to oust a Nationalist Party incumbent who's a generation his senior. Lin Yu-fang, 64, has held his Taipei seat for several terms; his district covers the run-down, aging area of Wanhua, as well as parts of Zhongzheng, the capital's heart of power, home to the presidential office and the central bank.
The incumbent has sought to emphasize his experience and trustworthiness. But Lim has been endorsed by Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP's presidential nominee, who is ahead in the polls — and whose party is not running a candidate in Lim's district.
Things have turned nastier as the race comes down to the wire. Lin sparked controversy last week when he called his rock star opponent "mentally abnormal" because his hair is "longer than a woman's."
Such comments, Lim says, only reveal the outdated attitudes of the Nationalists.
"Most of us, we have long-haired friends, right? Not everyone, but most of us," he said, sitting in the cramped basement of his campaign headquarters, his voice raspy from nonstop electioneering. "But he attacked me, saying, 'You have long hair, you are a long-haired man, you are not normal, you have something wrong in your mind, you're crazy.' Nobody can accept that."
Chthonic formed in 1995. The group, sometimes referred to as Asia's Black Sabbath, has long had politics on its mind. One of its songs, "UNlimited Taiwan," calls for the United Nations to acknowledge Taiwan as a sovereign nation. Taiwan has been excluded since 1971, when the world body recognized the Communist-led government in Beijing as the legitimate representative of China, a status held until then by the Nationalist-led government in Taipei.
We have the land, the strength, the power.
Rise up, overcome, take it over.
Ignored too long, we became stronger.
Tear down the walls and let us run over.
The band has toured internationally and the government has even paid for it to perform abroad as a cultural ambassador. Besides geopolitics, Chthonic has sung about Taiwan's tribal minorities, and Lim served four years as chairman of Amnesty International's Taiwan chapter.
Though seeking to become, in essence, the establishment may seem the antithesis of heavy metal, Lim says: "The political landscape in Taiwan in recent years has been very energetic.... But I'm worried if we don't have new parties, we will lose this energy we have, and it will return to the traditional bipartisan landscape it was before." By running himself, Lim believes he can set an example and motivate others.
Lim is not the only nontraditional candidate hoping to break into the legislature. Wuer Kaixi, a member of the Uighur ethnic group from mainland China who was a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests, is running with the small Constitutional Reform Fraternity Coalition.
The Nationalists have responded with some fresh blood of their own. Among their candidates is Lin Li-chan, a native of Cambodia who came to Taiwan as a bride almost 20 years ago barely speaking a word of Chinese.
Touring as a rock star and campaigning have some similarities, Lim says. "Every time you have a show, you need to have the same level of enthusiasm.... As a politician, you are giving the same speeches in front of different audiences, or you are meeting people on the street. You also need to maintain consistent enthusiasm. It's sort of like being a preacher."
But as a musician, he says, he rarely liked to party with fans after a performance, and when he would go out in public, he would don a hat to avoid being noticed. "Before, if anyone recognized me on the street, I'd try to run away. Now, I greet them," he said.
If he does make it into the legislature, his priorities are "deepening democracy" by reforming the referendum process and creating an impeachment mechanism to get rid of unsuitable politicians, he said.
Longer term, he wants to "normalize" the political status of Taiwan, which is officially known as the Republic of China. Taiwan has been self-ruled since 1949 when the Nationalists fled the mainland after losing China's civil war and set up their own government in Taipei. Since then, the island has been trapped in a sort of political limbo.
Beijing regards the island as a breakaway province that must be reunited with the mainland someday. But the island's constitution, brought from the mainland, is also a historical vestige, asserting that the Republic of China controls the entire Chinese territory.
"Taiwan is functionally an independent country. We don't pay taxes to anyone, we have our own money, our own government," Lim said. But it's not in the United Nations, and most countries — including the United States — do not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, because of pressure from Beijing. "This is a very awkward situation for Taiwan."
Lim has converted many of his music fans into political supporters — along with people who may not appreciate heavy metal but like his politics.
"We are going to vote for Freddy, because we care about our children and the future generation," said Tsai Yu-hsiu, 72, chairwoman of a volunteer group for Lim's campaign. "He's capable."