This is how long ago I moved to Taiwan: When I got here, there were no smartphones. Facebook wasn’t even a thing. If you wanted to make friends, you had to find a place with other people in it and make yourself appealing.
Since 1997, the best place to make friends in Zhongli has been The River. Legend has it that some of the people you’ll find there have been occupying their stools lo these twenty years…
Sometimes I come here and I have to remind myself it’s not 2006 even though so many of the faces are the same. Other times I look around and the only things I recognize are the murals on the walls.
I used to spend four or five nights a week here. I couldn’t sleep unless I had a beer at the River. I might have been an alcoholic by some definitions, but just having a beer didn’t count: I had to check in at the River.
For those new to Zhongli, I put River as number one on the list of things to do because it’s a great place to meet people who know how to get food, a house, a job, and a scooter. It’s also your best chance of finding people who are doing something besides going to the River every weekend.
River has had the reputation of being the “foreigner bar” for as long as I’ve been going there. The owner and the staff always speak English. Kim didn’t pull weird tricks like having a mandatory minimum charge like some of the local-local places used to. You only have to get yelled at once in Chinese about paying a minimum NT$500 for each of your friends who already left before you decide that the River is much more suitable…
That doesn’t seem to happen much any more, and there are more great local bars than ever and right in the neighborhood, but none of them have been around as long as the River. And even though the bar has recently changed hands, there’s no reason to imagine it won’t be here for another twenty years.
Now, down to brass tacks: River is a well-loved dive bar cum community center. Sometimes it’s the after-hours spot, the only place left in the city that will take us when we stumble in at 3 a.m. Sometimes it’s a sports bar and everyone sits somber as churchgoers on pews watching rugby or football on the big screens. Sometimes it’s a comedy club or an art gallery. Now and then, there’s live music. Sometimes you have to pay a cover.
Beer is relatively cheap. It’s $150 for a pint and has been since about 2006. There’s Carlsberg and Taiwan Beer on tap. You can get bottles of Corona, Taiwan Beer, Hoegaarden, some South African cider, some other imports, etc., from the cooler, for around NT$200 a pop.
Standard cocktails are no problem: your vodka tonics, your rum-and-Cokes, your Long Islands. The current generation of bartenders are experimenting more and coming up with some fun concoctions that are delicious but dangerous. What River doesn’t do is the fancy and overpriced drinks.
I can also recommend places with better music. The River has always had a kind of identity crisis when it comes to music. Most of the time, they are playing the greatest pop hits from like 1998-2003. Like Nelly Furtado’s Promiscuous Girl still gets played once a night on a playlist that includes Bon Jovi and Akon. Sometimes they have a DJ, sometimes he or she is good. Sometimes they have live music and a cover charge like a real bar.
I can pretty much guarantee that when only the regulars remain and the staff has given up on trying to make people behave, that it will end up like every house party ends up these days: a bunch of drunk people trying to get you listen to their YouTube playlist.
I know people who couldn’t find what they were looking for here, but for me, the River was the only constant during my tumultuous twenties. Now that I’m old enough to feel hungover even on days when I don’t drink, I don’t make it out as much. I already have enough friends, and if I keep going to River, I risk making more.