Inside the building where Taiwan’s most powerful elected representatives hold office, Democratic Progressive Party legislator Lai Pin-yu sits patiently on a stool in her office while a woman dressed in full Lolita costume helps her put on makeup and a wig.
While most of her colleagues have chosen more traditional office fixtures like fluorescent lights, beige wallpaper, and framed pastoral art, Lai’s space is a bit unconventional—a reflection of her unorthodox approach to politics.
Her office is painted all black, dramatically lit with matching track lights on the ceiling, and decorated with a vitrine adorned with some of her favorite anime figurines. There’s a cut-out of teenage detective Yusuke Urameshi from Yu Yu Hakusho, one of the most popular manga series of the 90s, and a collection of the socially withdrawn clone Rei Ayanami from robot anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Across the hallway in her staffers’ office, the bookshelves are lined with manga books and even more anime figurines. Her entire set-up looks more like a start-up den than a typical politician's office. That’s precisely the point.
“I do my work. I serve the public and participate in interpellations, but I can also have my interests,” she told VICE World News. “It’s not like legislators all have to have hobbies like playing golf or reading books. There’s nothing wrong with those hobbies, of course. But there are 113 legislators and we all have our own interests.”
At 29 years old, Lai is currently the youngest legislator in the Legislative Yuan—Taiwan’s unicameral legislature—and one of the youngest in Taiwanese history. Elected into office in early 2020, she’s a freshman politician who campaigned on local issues of easing traffic and noise pollution in her district, and larger issues of gender equality and safeguarding Taiwan’s sovereignty—all while tactfully leveraging her long love for anime and cosplay to capture the youth vote.
“Before I started campaigning I already had tens of thousands of fans, and there were pictures already out of me dressed in bikinis and in cosplay,” she said. “I think if for the purpose of the election if I deleted them, I would be subject to ridicule and people would think there was something wrong. It’s a matter of integrity.”
During her election campaign in late 2019, Lai famously got up on stage during a concert rally in a glossy cherry red bodysuit and electric orange pigtails, cosplaying as child prodigy anime character Asuka Langley Soryu. The crowd screamed with delighted approval, and images of the event made the rounds in media outlets around the world. She quickly became known as Taiwan’s cosplaying legislator, a description she embraces even though cosplaying has always been strictly a side hobby of hers.
Her unconventional decision to bridge the two worlds worked wonders. Lai won by an extremely narrow margin of 2,780 votes. She responded to the win by posting a photo of herself dressed up as Sailor Mars on Facebook, which quickly got over 40,000 likes and news coverage around the world.
“I really feel like she is someone like me,” said Ray Hsu, a Taiwanese student at NYU Abu Dhabi who has been an ardent fan of Lai since 2014. “I find her more authentic than other politicians.”
While Lai may seem like an anomaly in the political world of Taiwan, her rise to power is part of a bigger movement within the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, and smaller independent parties to channel the youth vote.
“I think this is a sign of the times, where the DPP has finally realized that the young activists that were once a thorn in their side are now an asset to them,” said Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California, Irvine.
This shift inside Taiwan’s ruling party could have consequences beyond its borders. The youth-led movement within the DPP means growing resistance to Beijing, which is intent on drawing the self-rule democracy into its orbit using political and economic pressure. Unlike their predecessors, younger politicians in Taiwan are more likely to defend and fight for its autonomy. Their voters overwhelmingly identify as exclusively Taiwanese, whereas their older counterparts consider themselves both Chinese and Taiwanese.
During the election, Lai was recruited into a batch of young progressive candidates that were being marketed together as “The Frontline,” or occasionally—the “Taiwan Squad.” A mix of independent and DPP candidates, they were a motley group of unconventional politicians—many of them who were running for the very first time. The squad included Lai with her cosplaying background; Freddy Lim, the heavy metal singer and Lai’s old boss; Enoch Wu, a former investment-banker-turned-special-forces-officer; Chen Bo-wei, a former movie producer; and Hung Tzu-Yung, a former executive.
“Forming a group like that was a good way to help each other, especially for the candidates who did not have as many resources,” Lai said.
Campaign staffers ran with it. One of the most memorable official campaign advertisements that came out of that election was a poster of President Tsai Ing-wen in cat ears posing in front of Lai in her bright red cosplay bodysuit and Freddy Lim in his heavy metal band gear.
All three candidates won their races.
“I think young people want to see themselves in politics. Something that is still left over from the Sunflower Movement is this desire for the old guard to start to bring in younger people into politics, and give young people their space in political decisions,” Nachman said, referring to the 2014 protests in which hundreds of demonstrators occupied Taiwan’s legislative building for weeks to block a trade pact with China.
Quick-witted and photogenic, Lai is fluent at harnessing the power of social media to her advantage. She’s frequently fodder for memes, and when the memes are made to make fun of her, she’s great at spinning the rhetoric around to her advantage. On her Facebook page, she jokingly lists her job as part of the “Meme Democracy Progress Party.”
“Older politicians tend to be political elites and highly educated. There’s nothing wrong with that but I don’t think the entire legislature should be filled with these people. It’s not democratic,” she said. “Our society is diverse. I think that Taiwan is constantly changing and people need different types of legislators.”
But while her eccentric costumes may have propelled her to international fame and into one of the most important offices in Taiwan, Lai was not plucked out of obscurity.
Some say she was born into the world of politics. Her father was an influential DPP legislator and her mother was a journalist, though she said her family connection is often used against her in blatant sexist attacks. “People have asked me who I slept with to get my dad’s job,” she said.
“A lot of people think my political career has to do with my family’s background, but I don’t think it's directly correlated,” she said, noting that her parents never talked to her about politics growing up nor did they want her to get into it because of the long working hours. “But it’s also not completely irrelevant, because one’s values are related to how your family raises you.”
If anything, her mother helped foster her love of anime, an interest she had as early as kindergarten. She recalled going to school dressed as the main character from Hunter × Hunter.
Meanwhile, her foray into politics, she said, was accidental. In high school, she frequently spent her spare time reading anime and cosplaying threads on the bulletin board system PTT—one of the largest social media platforms on the island.
“I just wanted to look at anime, but the news section was the biggest section so I started reading that as well,” she said.
Eventually, Lai made friends on the platform and was invited to attend a protest regarding a land dispute in 2012. She said her wake-up call was when she watched in horror as the police “lifted up protesters like pigs” and drove them away so that they could not protest. “According to the law, police have to use police cars to take people away. But that day, they used a bus. That’s illegal,” she said. “I was quite naive. I thought that since it was Taipei, the police would abide by the law. But I was wrong.”
From then on, she started regularly attending protests and eventually became a well-known activist involved in a broad swatch of political movements including the 2014 Sunflower Movement, where she was nicknamed the “Goddess of War” for occupying the Legislative Yuan with hundreds of other protesters, getting into a physical altercation with riot police, and being arrested for chaining herself to other demonstrators to block traffic.
After that, she cut her teeth as a legislative assistant for Freddy Lim—a politician and lead vocalist for one of Asia’s biggest death-metal bands.
In 2019, a short three months before the 2020 election in Taiwan, Lai was recruited by the DPP to run against Kuomintang (KMT) candidate and former Taipei City deputy mayor Lee Yong-ping for the same district that her father had represented nearly a decade ago. Lee, a seasoned politician with a wide network, was twice Lai’s age.
“They really wanted to find a young person that would be different from her. So they chose me,” Lai said.
By then, Lai was already a skilled public speaker who could push back on the snide attacks—both well-intentioned and not—that would inevitably come up on the campaign trail.
When supporters came up to her and told her she had to “work earnestly” if she got elected and not become distracted with marriage and kids, Lai snapped back with a list of male legislators who had kids in the last term. “[These male legislators] really crossed the line,” she would retort back sarcastically. “Should we go ahead and deduct their salaries?”
When journalists asked her about her dating life, she’d deflect and point out that more than half of the legislators in office were married or had a partner. “Is there a problem with me dating?” she said. “The problem isn’t me, it’s you asking me this question.”
Today, Lai remains poignantly conscious of the patriarchal double-standards that she faces as a young, female politician. “If you have kids and get married, you'll get yelled at. if you don’t have kids and don’t get married, you'll get yelled at,” she said.
Corn Huang, a student at National Taiwan University and long-time fan of Lai, said she appreciates how Lai fights back.
“She uses a really unique method to deal with all kinds of questions about her academic qualifications, appearance, and relationship— which was difficult for many female legislators to do in the past,” Huang said.
As a freshman legislator, whether or not Lai is effective at pushing forward laws and moving budgets is too early to gauge. What is undeniable, though, is that she has an army of young fans behind her watching her every move.
“One of her most important qualities is that she has a lot of influence among young constituents on the internet,” said Yang Kuei-chih, the founder of Plain Law Movement— a popular content platform that breaks down complicated legal concepts to the layperson. “Her speciality is bringing young people into politics and informing them about issues that they would never otherwise see.”
When asked about the thought process behind the anime characters she cosplays as, Lai insisted that she just goes with the characters that she likes, and that there aren’t any hidden meanings behind her cosplaying decisions. “People see cosplay as a way to escape from reality but I never thought about it that way. I’m someone that lives in reality,” she said.
But as someone who has been in the spotlight for over a decade now, she admitted that she is cognizant of her clout—both as a public figure cosplaying as demon slayer and as the youngest politician currently in office.
“I am aware of my image and know that a lot of women think I’m powerful,” she said, when asked what advice she would give to younger fans who emulate her. “But I wouldn’t say what I'm doing is brave. I think that term is dangerous. Some people grow up in conservative households and just don’t grow those wings to fight back. That’s fine. Just take care of yourself first. When I fight back, it’s not just for myself. We're all in this together.”
Additional reporting by Joanne Guo.