WHAT DOES ROMANCE LOOK LIKE? In a Taiwanese “love motel,” the answer might be one or all of the following: a pile of pillows and blankets stacked improbably high in the corner of a boxing ring; bowls and chopsticks on a glass table, below an enormous image of a woman striped like a tiger and bending over to display her ass; or a knife used to carve a watermelon into slices, resting alongside a box of tissues and a pile of garbage.
Chen estimates that about 900 love motels are scattered across Taiwan, up from around 100 in the 1970s. The motels first emerged in Japan over 400 years ago, according to a 2010 study of love motels by UK researchers, though it wasn’t until the 1960s that proprietors began including some of the more recognizable features of today, such as electric beds and opulent themes.
Chen explains that she felt compelled to document Taiwan’s love motels after discovering her husband had had an affair—perhaps in one of the very rooms she would go on to photograph. She says that visiting the motels and photographing the rooms at their filthiest has allowed her to feel a kind of forgiveness.
“Given the exaggerated, surreal design of these motels, it seemed more and more that life on this island nation of Taiwan is on some level lacking,” Chen writes. “As I traversed the island from north to south several times to visit motels with every kind of theme, my sense of alarm and initially frantic shots shifted into a kind of sober, precise visual fascination.”