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Playing heavy rock by the rules

COUPLES fondle in public. A rock band tosses condoms to adoring crowds. Teenage girls gyrate in the streets.

Yet amid the pulsating rave music and free-flowing alcohol at Taiwan's Spring Scream music festival, there is also a sense of self-control.

"My parents used to nag me about coming," said 22-year-old drummer Vincent Liu, who sports shoulder-length hair and nails painted bright pink. "But then they got used to it. Kids simply have to be responsible for themselves so that their parents don't worry about them."

His resolution to play by the rules is common among young Taiwanese, even those in the usually sun-swept beach resort of Kenting, where Spring Scream has been an annual event for 15 years.

While Taiwan has become more open and progressive, it remains a bastion of conservative values.

"Taiwanese young people ... are influenced by the Confucian stress on acting properly," said Chang Yen-hsien, a former director of Taiwan's prestigious Academia Historica, alluding to the hierarchical principles that have dominated social relations in much of East Asia for more than 2,000 years. "Parents, society and schools all put emphasis on a sense of responsibility."

That observation seemed to set the tone as this year's Spring Scream got under way earlier this month in Kenting's Erluanbi Park.

The festival opened under uncharacteristically leaden skies, with cavorting groups of 20-somethings in floral print beach pants and flip-flops congregating in the streets.

Jerry-built beer stalls crowded the fringes of a nearby Taoist temple, and palm trees waved in the breeze.

In an ironic twist, the festival's main events coincided with Qingming Festival (the tomb-sweeping day) when Chinese honor their ancestors in somber rituals dictated by centuries of Confucian practice.

Under a light and intermittent rain, pulsating bands used Chinese lyrics to touch on hot issues for Taiwan's youth: nuclear power, the decriminalization of marijuana and faceless urban life.

"The odor of danger is permeating throughout the city jungle," intoned lead singer Chen Hung-yang of Lumay, named after a Japanese cartoon character. "My heart is crying and I am lost in the city jungle. I feel imprisoned and this feeling is expanding inside me."

Another performer tossed out condoms as he eyed his audience insouciantly and asked whether "anyone was getting any tonight?"

Spring Scream reflects "the impact Taiwan has felt as Taiwanese embraced liberalization on all fronts," said sociologist Lee Ming-tsung of Taiwan University.

Still, there was no confusing Kenting with Lalapalooza in the United States or the United Kingdom's Glastonbury. While small groups of people danced to the beat, most watched quietly on the expansive park lawn and clapped politely after each song.

To be sure, there have been media reports of drug abuse and other excesses at rave parties on the festival's fringes. But American Jimi Moe, who started Spring Scream with fellow Seattle native Wade Davis in 1995, insists, "We never had a drug or crime problem."

Vanessa Tsai, a petite, guitar-strumming 19-year-old, is learning her limits.

She spent the first night vomiting into a gutter after drinking more than her fill of cheap whisky.

"In the past couple of days I learned I have to take care of myself even when I am drunk," Tsai said. "I have to know my own limit and when to stop."

Liu, the long-haired drummer, struck a similar chord when he stressed that drugs and sex played no part in his band's act.

He added what most mattered to him were his civil engineering studies at Taipei's prestigious Taiwan University.


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