Back when Chen Shu-Chen’s husband cheated on her, she tailed him for a whole week before confronting him. She followed him as he frequented what are famously known in Taiwan as “love motels” – safe spaces for couples to snatch time alone. They are cheap, convenient and can be rented hourly with a premium paid for privacy.
That was 12 years ago.
In an unexpected twist to the tale, Chen, now 57, grew obsessed with these love motels, which are distinct from brothels where sex is for hire. She went on to do a photography course and produced what she called the “After Series” – a sort of record-keeping of the aftermath of lust. She even wrote a 60,000-word academic thesis on the topic.
“Initially, I was confronting these motels painfully but as I kept shooting, I found that love motels were fabulous and interesting,” she said from her studio in Zhonge in northern Taiwan. “Gradually, I created my own piece of art.”
The “After Series” comprises hundreds of images that Chen shot over two years from 2012 in motels across Taiwan. She would enter rooms about 30 minutes after patrons checked out and photograph the space.
“I chose an artistic way to heal myself,” she said. “I chose to stand in that space, confront my complicated feelings and decide to fight it.”
Coming from India, where staff at hotels in small and big towns often demand to see marriage certificates from couples looking to rent rooms, I found these Taiwanese love motels that offered a way out for lovesick and lust-sick couples with no questions asked wildly intriguing.
On a warm Tuesday morning, my interpreter-friend Yuan Chao Yuan and I took the subway across the river in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei to the Banqiao district in search of a love motel. After several failed attempts at interviewing hotel owners, Yuan decided to change tactics and asked to rent a room instead at the Meng Qi Hotel (which means “colourful dream” motel).
Within minutes, we were back in the parking lot, turned away by a grumpy woman at the desk. “Ke man le,” she snapped at us in Mandarin. Full. We stood there reading reviews of the hotel that noted: “No foreign guests allowed.”
Others wrote: “Most of the TV channels cannot be watched, there are noises, and they are not ok. There is an adult channel, which is not suitable for family viewing.” Another simply said: “The soundproofing is not good.”
Since I was unable to actually get into one of these motels, I decided to interview people who had some experience with them.
Chen said that on her very first visit to a love motel, she was stunned. “I stepped into a room and then took three steps back,” she said. “It was a space for lust, designed solely for men. It had sexual decorations with images of naked women in the mirrors, on the walls, on the ceiling.”
She remembers her nostrils being overpowered by the stench of perfume and the stale smell of cigarettes. She began to wear masks to work.
One of the most interesting photographs that Chen shot was of milk cartons placed around a jacuzzi. “It was shot at a motel in Taoyuan,” she said.
“At that time the milk brand Lin Feng Sing was facing a boycott [due to a food scandal concerning the parent company],” she said. “When I walked into the room, I was shocked by the piles of empty milk boxes in the corner. They probably used the milk to take a bath. I rearranged the boxes for the scene to look aesthetic and surreal,” said Chen.
The love motels that Chen photographed had older reflections of Japan, where the concept originated. There, the love motels were originally designed in the style of tea houses.
“When couples arrived in the teahouses, their shoes and possessions would be collected as a security deposit before they paid the bill upon leaving,” wrote Kevin O’Gorman and three collaborators in an article published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management in 2010.
By the early 20th century, these tea houses had been replaced by two establishments that offered similar services. “Machiai were places that offered minimal facilities with a tatami, or mat, for private activities,” the researchers wrote. These were especially popular in Tokyo. “The other type of establishment, sobaya, were noodle restaurants equipped with rooms upstairs for rent.”
The idea of love motels made its way to Taiwan, modeled around American and Japanese motels. Taiwan was also colonised by Japan for five decades, from 1895-1945. The growth of Taiwanese love motels, experts say, evolved due to increasing liberal attitudes towards sexual practices. Depending on how extravagant the rooms are, guests pay between NT$250-NT$2000 (Rs 650 - Rs 5,500) for a couple of hours.
Over the years, some especially exuberant incidents have made their way into the media. In 2018, at one of the most lavish love hotels in Taipei, Wego Boutique Hotel, the police raided a “birthday orgy”, arresting 28 people. A 34-year-old stockbroker was in the process of throwing his girlfriend a sex party for her birthday. The couple had even set up a group on the popular messaging application Line titled “Lots of people in the room” to invite people to the event.
The organisers were booked for breaching the Act on Offences against Sexual Morality and those in attendance faced fines for violating the Social Order Maintenance Act.
Chen said that people even hold graduation parties at love motels and the place “looks like it has been bombed” after. In some of the “fairy tale-themed rooms,” she said, “there are images of mermaids and Cinderella and parents bring their kids to these rooms”.
Marco Hsiao, a private investigator, has frequented hundreds of love motels in an attempt to provide evidence of adultery for divorce cases – 80% of his cases pertain to cheating spouses. He said the rooms are also used for drug deals, interviewing new workers entering the sex industry, and money-laundering meetings.
In my time in Taiwan, I repeatedly heard about love motels from friends who had either voluntarily stayed at one “for fun”, accidentally checked into one or were forced to stay at one when all other places were full. Everyone smiled a little strangely when they mentioned the “motel”.
One friend, who had accidentally stayed at a motel with her family, described a large room with a massive jacuzzi that took centre stage and a television fixed at one end offering an endless supply of pornography. On the table next to the queen-sized bed were condoms and lubricant, and across from it another wall-mounted television, with more pornography.
Inside a smaller room, adjacent to this larger space, was a faux leather chair with stirrups: “Kind of like the ones they have at the OB-GYN [obstetrics and gynaecology],” she said. The chair could be adjusted into various positions and across from it was a vending machine with sex toys, lubes, and underwear.
“We didn’t take our clothes off on that chair,” she laughed, “but we definitely messed around with the settings. It vibrated.”
I asked Marco, the private investigator, what memorable escapades he has investigated at love motels. He described an incident in a 2,000-square feet love motel room that had an individual game room, massage room and a swimming pool. When they went looking for the couple, the massive room was empty. After searching for a while, they found the couple hiding in the swimming pool.
Since the years when Chen was photographing love motels, a lot has changed in the world, including a pandemic that has made it harder for humans to lust after each other without catching a sore throat (or worse). When Chen shot her images, Taiwan had roughly 900 love motels peppered across suburbs, outside large and small Taiwanese cities.
“Generally, every year the number of new love motels increases,” she said. “But after the pandemic it stopped, especially the ones with special themes, which cost a lot to build.”
One after another, the motels that Chen photographed have been closing their doors for good. During the pandemic, some became quarantine hotels where travellers entering Taiwan had to be isolated for 14 days.
Chen said she has spent several nights at love motels while working on her project. But did she sleep well?
“I slept terribly,” she responded. “The rooms were very cold and the special themes and the strange lighting kept me from falling asleep. There are also weird noises since the walls are not all made of concrete,” she said. “Concrete costs more.”
Sowmiya Ashok is a journalist and was studying Chinese in Taipei, Taiwan.
The author would like to thank Yuan Chao Yuan, a student of journalism at National Taiwan University, for helping interpret for this story.