The Kabukicho, Changhua, Taiwan, 2013

Under the Covers at Taiwan’s Tacky ‘Love Motels’

When her husband cheated on her, this photographer didn’t get mad—she went to a love motel.

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.

In 2012, photographer Chen Shu-Chen began documenting the aftermath in recently vacated “love motel” rooms, capturing something melancholy and desperately human in images in which actual people do not even appear.

“When guests have just left a room, these spaces exhibit peculiar and surreal characteristics, like residual marks, lingering odors, leftover food, and rumpled beds,” says Chen, writing about her work for Topic.

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“This all invites individual creativity, transforming the act of viewing into a photographic practice.”

Of course, “love motels” aren’t necessarily about romance so much as they’re about sex—and other things. Used by locals and tourists alike, these establishments offer a refuge from crowded urban housing and lack of privacy; in Taiwan, it’s common for children to live with their parents well into adulthood, fueling the market for spaces where people can be intimate … and alone. Guests usually pay for short stays that run from $30 to over $80 for a couple of hours, depending on the lavishness of the rooms, which also play host to people simply looking to relax, party, or make private (sometimes criminal) transactions.

Spider-Man, Taipei, 2012


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.

Love Intersection I, Taipei, 2013
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Superman II, Taipei, 2016
Heineken, Taoyuan, 2013

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.

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“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.”

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