Showing posts with label English_books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English_books. Show all posts

Thursday, November 14, 2019

You don't read every history book for history: a review of Su Beng's "Taiwan's 400-Year History"


I bought the anniversary edition of Taiwan's 400-Year History at Su Beng's 100th birthday celebration on Ketagalan Boulevard a few years ago, but having already read up on Taiwanese history, I hadn't actually read it. I knew Su Beng's life story - the whole Taiwan-Japan-China-Taiwan-Japan-Taiwan saga of it. I knew that he was not only beloved almost universally among active supporters of Taiwanese independence, but that he'd been much 'redder' in his youth (that is, Marxist/leftist, not pro-CCP).

So, of course I knew the story of the writing of this book: penning it after work in his Tokyo noodle shop, with the sense that Taiwanese should know their history. They should have access to a historical narrative that the KMT was trying to eradicate in Taiwan itself.  I was aware copies were banned in Taiwan itself, and it had to be smuggled in (I had not known, however, that Nylon Deng had been the one to do the smuggling, according to one of the prefaces of the book).

When he died earlier this year, I regretted not reading it earlier, and picked it up as a tribute to one of the greats. The English edition is heavily abridged from the Chinese - one slim volume instead of several fat ones - so it didn't take long.

Having finished it, I'm not sure what to say exactly. I guess I'd say this: this may be a history book, but these days, you don't read it to learn history. You read it to understand Su Beng's perspective on Taiwan's history.

That wasn't always true: when the text first became available to Taiwanese, it was so different from the China-centric narratives peddled by the KMT that it must have felt like after years of gaslighting, Taiwan was finally charged with electricity.

For those who felt no connection to China and had been bored in school learning about "other provinces", learning about their national history as one of colonialism - including calling the current regime "colonizers" - I cannot imagine how empowering and enlightening it must have been. Even though 'Taiwanese history' is more broadly accessible now and covered from a range of perspectives, we still read it now to understand more deeply what that initial rush of Aha! This is who we are! would have been like. 

A few things stand out in this book: the first is that Su Beng structures his narrative not strictly linearly (though the sections are ordered in a broadly linear way), but rather telling history as a way to make points about class warfare: the KMT and other colonial oppressors such as Japan, the Qing, the Zhengs and the Dutch and the wealthy Taiwanese who backed them, and the oppressed. That is, the proletariat, or working Taiwanese, with a focus on Hoklo Taiwanese. Although indigenous people are mentioned and, to put it charitably, Hakka people are not 'excluded' so much as not differentiated from Hoklo. Hey, I told you he'd been more Marxist in his youth. 

That's why you read it, to be honest. Using words like "vile" and "evil" to describe the oppressors (and I agree, they were oppressors and in many cases still are), and "hardworking" and "from their blood and sweat" to describe the indigenous and working-class Taiwanese farmers, you aren't reading straight history so much as an extended editorial on Su Beng's particular perspective on it.

Is that such a bad thing, though? While it's perhaps not ideal for the first 'history of Taiwan' that Taiwanese might read to 'know their own history' to be so ideological, is anything non-ideological? Would a straight history, without emotionality and strongly connotative adjectives, have been as engaging as Su Beng's editorial style? Would a text that aimed to be more objective have simply hidden its ideological bias better? At least Su Beng didn't pretend to believe anything other than what he truly believed in order to seem 'neutral'. That sort of honest critical perspective is actually kind of refreshing. 

The second, to me, is a bigger problem: the English edition is so abridged as to make you wonder what was left out. This is exacerbated by the fact that several parts are highly repetitive. Thanks to the semi-non-linear structure, sometimes that repetition occurs across chapters. I understand that this is a stylistic feature of Mandarin and was surely present in the Mandarin edition (I think the Japanese edition, however, was the original), but for an abridged English edition, it might have been smart to cut it in favor of more content.

Here's an example. Towards the beginning, the chapter on Dutch colonialism in Taiwan includes several paragraphs that state, in different ways, that the wealth the Dutch extracted from Taiwan was created by the hard work of Taiwanese laborers. That theme is repeated - with the same wording - in the chapter on Qing colonialism, when discussing how it was hard-working Taiwanese farmers who opened the land to agriculture. Then, later in the book, there's a throwaway line about how Lin Shaomao "gave his life for his nation", with absolutely no backstory. Now, I know who Lin Shaomao was, but someone who didn't wouldn't learn his story from this book.

In several places, this or that specific person, or group, is accused of being evil, thieving, bourgeois...whatever. Some names were familiar to me; others I had to look up. They probably were, and I love that Su Beng pointed fingers and named names, but no background is provided. No buttressing of the argument. No support. They're evil, these other people are good, and that's it. I don't know if those details are present in the longer original, but the academic in me wants to scream at its absence in English.

Of course, early Taiwanese readers would probably already know who those people were, and reading the names of people who had probably been portrayed as wealthy community leaders and scions of industry being called thieving  compradore collaborators and oppressors must have felt like the surge of a new zeitgeist.

This makes me wonder - why was it cut down so much? Was the original so repetitive that you basically get the point from the abridged English edition, or do they think foreigners don't care and don't need the details? I'm not sure. It doesn't help that the English has several typos and at least one wrong fact (saying Magellan died in Manila, when in fact he died in Cebu) that I hope are corrected in a future edition.

This leads to the deepest problem of all: sometimes Su Beng's ideology gets in the way of good history. I'm sorry, you old hero, but it's true (and I think Su Beng as an older man who was more pink than red might actually have agreed).

Towards the beginning, though the theme also echoes later in the book, Su Beng characterizes the class struggle as indigenous Taiwanese and Hoklo (and Hakka) farmers and laborers as 'the oppressed', who struggled against consecutive foreign governments and wealthy local 'oppressors'. Without using these words explicitly, he implied strongly that these oppressed groups made common cause in fighting against their aristocratic and bourgeois oppressors.

And I'm sorry, Su Beng, I don't care how 'Marxist' or 'revolutionary' such a reading of history sounds. It's just not true. Hoklo farmers and laborers treated indigenous Taiwanese just as badly as the wealthy ruling classes and landlords. They were just as oppressive and, frankly, racist. What those wealthy oppressors said about indigenous people, laboring Hoklo bought and upheld. They weren't very kind to the Hakka either.

It does no favors to anyone to pretend that wasn't the case.

Later in the book, he goes so far as to say that wealthy Taiwanese 'compradore' families could not be considered 'Taiwanese', as they were in the pockets of the wealthy KMT diaspora. While the latter is true, the accusation of not being Taiwanese reeks of a 'No True Scotsman' fallacy. If you decide that Taiwanese bad guys aren't Taiwanese, implying that all Taiwanese are noble-hearted and support a certain vision of Taiwanese identity, you take away the chance for Taiwan to reckon with the fact that as a nation and society, it has assholes just like everywhere else. And if you don't reckon with it, you can't do anything about it.

That's not to say that the book is a total failure. I appreciated that unlike Ong Iok-tek in Taiwan: A History of Agonies, Su Beng never uses derogatory language to describe indigenous people. Understanding the mid-life thinking of one of the greatest Taiwan independence activists is a worthwhile activity, and it does help one understand how Taiwanese identity has such a strong leftist/Marxist component (when you'd think those who support a free and independent Taiwan would be wary of anything that had even a whiff of Communism about it). The prefaces and postscripts are interesting as well.

In other words, do read it. But don't think you're reading it to "learn history" - anyone who has a general concept of Taiwanese history already isn't going to learn anything new from it, and in any case it's not so much a history as a very long op-ed. As a narrative of the past 400 years, it leaves a lot to be desired, and yet it was a powerful touchstone at the time - a piece of literature more than an academic work. As a cultural artifact, it's fascinating.

Read it so you can get a sense, even if it's hard to recapture in 2019, that sense of the first lamps of Taiwanese consciousness being lit. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Crystal Boys (孽子): A Review

The gray square is covering the words "First modern Asian gay novel".
I don't know why the square is there. 

I continue to be vexed by Pai Hsien-yung.

Crystal Boys (孽子 or "Sinners" in Chinese), to be sure, was an easier read than Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream for someone who cares about Taiwan directly and viscerally, in ways that affect her life, and cares about China only in that fuzzy abstract way that one might be interested in foreign affairs. The sensitivity with which Pai writes about these characters is commendable - really the bottom rung of society, if not lower - mostly boys from families who were at the bottom to begin with, who have then been turned out by those families when their sexuality was discovered. Pai manages to both portray them sympathetically and not shy away from the daily indignities not only of their lives, but (in the case of protagonist A-Qing's family) the lives of the families who have kicked them out.

Other than police raids on "New Park" (now 228 Memorial Park) where the young, gay characters spent their nights, there is nothing overtly political in Crystal Boys, and what was there can be said to be more cultural than political. The protagonist characters were more sympathethic - although the Taipei that Pai describes is not the Taipei of today - the capital of the country on the cusp of being the first in Asia to legalize marriage equality - I can see its echoes in the Taiwan I know.

When I first moved to Taiwan over a decade ago, it was still common to use "228 Park" as shorthand for "hunting for gay hookups", with very little sympathy for those who may have gone there for that reason. I now recognize how homophobic such talk was, but I won't deny it was common (I haven't heard that particular reference in at least 5 years, however). The open-air gay bar culture around Ximen feels like an institution now, but it wasn't always there - I mean, Ximen's been a center of LGBT Taipei for some time, but I remember when it wasn't so out in the open. I don't know anyone who has been disowned or chased out of their home by their parents when their sexual orientation was discovered, but I do know people who have struggled when coming out to their families, or who still feel they cannot do so.

I just found myself feeling a bit put out that, with all the empathy Pai can convey when talking about the night kingdom of the 'glass community' (whose citizens were called 'glass boys' or 'crystal boys', hence the English title of the book), he doesn't seem to be able to extend this ability to write empathetically about Taiwan as Taiwan. All of the younger characters were born in Taiwan, but few of them had Taiwanese ancestral roots: to read this book, you would think that almost everyone in Taiwan who mattered either came from China or had parents who did. This...vexes me. Taiwan is more than the sum of people who came from China, but you wouldn't know that to read this otherwise exquisite book.

Pai focuses most of the story on the denizens of "New Park" - homeless or nearly-homeless men and boys who, while not the "hustlers" of Three Rivers Street (as Pai calls them), are essentially prostitutes. If one reads it without knowing Taipei or a sense of what it may be like to live as a gay man - and I specifically mean gay man because there are no Ls, Bs or Ts in this story, only Gs - one might get the impression that all gay men in Taipei are sex workers, which of course is not the case. A few of the characters are not sex workers, but they are involved in the sex trade, e.g. acting as patrons to the boys (or, to use baser term, as sugar daddies). Only through glimpses - cracks in the storyline really - do we see a Gay Taipei that is not centered on prostitution: the college students who timidly come to the park seeking their own, the patrons of the Cozy Nest bar. That's not a criticism of the book so much as a description, but there is a criticism to be made: I could well see someone recommending this book thinking it will open the mind of a potential ally who's on the fence, and having it backfire, because the reader finishes it with the (unfair and inaccurate) impression that "gay = prostitute". This isn't helped by the implication that all of the boys who are 'out', whether they want to be or not, are so because they were discovered in flagrante delicto with another man - which probably is how most closeted gay men were discovered at that time, but still, upon reading Crystal Boys, an unfair stereotype might be confirmed in the mind of the non-discerning reader that gay men are highly sexually promiscuous.

That said, there isn't as much of a plot, per se, as a typical Western reader might expect. It's more of a series of moody set-pieces in which the characters do move forward with their lives, but not a lot...happens really. Yes, (spoiler alerts) a bar gets opened, then closed. One characterachieves his dream of going to Japan. There's a penultimate reckoning between young gay man and stand-in father figure (not his actual father). There's a long-ago New Park love story that ended in tragedy which gets hashed out. But if you're looking for an action-packed storyline, you won't find it. Personally, I'm fine with the slower, more contemplative pace. I appreciated the deep exploration of the loyalties the Crystal Boys had to each other - they formed their own family and community among a society that had kicked them aside.

Otherwise, there are both personal and political threads running through Crystal Boys - although I could find no direct reference to Pai himself being gay, it seems to be generally known that he is, and the scene where Wang Kuilong (the "Dragon Prince") has an angry - and yet sincere and caring - discussion with Papa Fu, retired ROC military officer and benefactor of the boys of New Park and whose own son committed suicide after his homosexuality was revealed - can't be read as anything other than Pai's literary rendering of a real or imagined confrontation with his own father, in which he attempts to see things from his father's perspective. Of course, the perspective can only be read with any degree of sympathy in its own era: the idea that there is any merit to feeling shame because you have a gay son only works if you buy into 'product of his time'-ism. Reading it now, it comes across as trying to defend or find sympathy for, say, a father who is so ashamed that he turns his son out on the street for the crime of being a bit short or maybe a redhead. Pai does explore the ways in which society is kinder to orphans and people born with disabilities or bodily deformities than to gay men, implying that it's unfair to feel charitably towards the former but not the latter, but never quite comes around to making it clear that sexuality is not something you choose.

Politically, Crystal Boys has been read as an allegory of Taiwan as fatherless and adrift at sea - turned out by its father (China) and now skulking about in the twilight of international affairs - a 'sinner', 'monster' or 'bastard son' as the Chinese title implies. Even A-Qing's father comes into this: losing the war, leaving China, being kicked out of the military for having been taken prisoner, he sits in stasis in Taiwan, growing old and rotted: a similar metaphor for the ROC on Taiwan as was employed in Wandering from a Garden, Waking from a Dream. Taiwan (the ROC to Pai) as a 'sinner' adrift in a world that's turned it out on the street is even more notable given that it was published in the early 1980s, when the sting of shifting recognition to the People's Republic of China was still biting. Before Taiwan woke up and realized it didn't actually want to be recognized as 'the true China', but rather simply for what it was: Taiwan.

Some try to find both local (e.g. Taiwanese) and international (e.g. ROC vs. the world) strains of political ideas in it - I have to say, I don't really see that. I do see how Wang Kuilong's and Little Jade's different experiences abroad: one cynical and tragic, the other optimistic and bright, relates to the future (from the book's perspective) of gay life and LGBT activism in Taiwan, and how that was impacted by international cultural forces. However, I do see a surface-level exploration of Taiwan's cultural love affair with former colonial master Japan in Little Jade's quest to go there and find his birth father - Little Jade being the smooth-talking 'bastard' son of an overseas Chinese with a Japanese name, life and family. It's hard not to see colonial allegories in that sub-plot.

But Pai's exploration of this always turns its gaze back to China - Taiwan, the bastard son of China, an international pariah (another way one might translate 孽子). Never just Taiwan as Taiwan, its own mother and father, its own identity and its own family. The Crystal Boys form their own little kingdom and support each other just as the Chinese diaspora in Taiwan did (and does) - but this story of pain, shiftlessness and support is a metaphor with its sights locked firmly on China, not Taiwan.

So - I loved it, but reader, I am vexed.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Review: From Far Formosa


Loyal readers of Lao Ren Cha might think it impossible that I would have had the time to read From Far Formosa while I've been working on my final paper for my first term at Exeter. These astute fans are correct! However, I would like to share a few impressions of George Mackay's classic of writings about Taiwan, in which he describes life, people and missionary work in Taiwan from his experience living there for over twenty years. First published in 1896, it is one of the most fascinating accounts of what life was like in Formosa at the very end of Qing colonial rule in Taiwan, and my 2002 SMC edition includes a number of interesting photographs and maps. Unfortunately, the pleasure of reading it is somewhat hampered by Mackay's failure to mention the most pivotal Taiwanese cultural institution of his - and our - time.

That said, From Far Formosa is a brilliant read - I was especially struck by the way Mackay describes his "first views of Formosa" and how they were later echoed by Janet Montgomery McGovern in Among The Headhunters of Formosa about two decades later, when the island was firmly under Japanese control. Mackay writes:

Beautiful indeed was that first view of North Formosa, as seen from the deck of the steamer in the harbor at Tamsui. We all stood and gazed, deeply impressed. In the evening we wandered out over the broad table-land and the downs toward the sea. The fine large fir-trees, not found near Ta-kow, attracted Richie's eye and reminded him of his Scottish home. But when he saw the situation of Tamsui, standing over against a solitary mountain peak that rose seventeen hundred feet, and backed on the east and south by range after range climbing two thousand, three thousand, and four thousand feet high, his soul was stirred to its depth, and sweeping the horizon with his hand he exclaimed: 
"Mackay, this is your parish."

A stirring way to introduce Taiwan - anyone who has come to understand why this is called Ilha Formosa (the beautiful island) will understand how that moment must have felt. This is why it's befuddling that this heartfelt rendering of the first views doesn't include his first impression of what must have been a visceral, soul-illuminating experience. What I'm trying to say is - how could Mackay not have written about the toilet restaurant in From Far Formosa? What could be his motivations for such a glaring error?

In fact, how can anyone claim to have visited Taiwan if they never went to the toilet restaurant?

So, while I enjoyed the book, this was the one thing I just couldn't shake - how is it that Mackay catalogued everything he had learned about Taiwan in such meticulous and loving detail, and yet never once mentioned the most distinctive feature on the island, the one thing any visitor to Taiwan would immediately become aware of and be drawn to? The one thing that wave after wave of foreigners who once came to Taiwan by boat and now arrive by plane have been compelled to write about?

Was his omission deliberate, perhaps a consideration brought about by his religious faith? I considered this as I read on, not believing that he'd leave such a crucial facet of traditional Formosan culture out of his masterwork. That didn't make a lot of sense, though: as far as I'm aware, Christians have massive and inexplicable hangups about sex, gender and sexual orientation, but aren't particularly bothered by bowel movements. What about a toilet restaurant might be such a taboo for them - after all, surely even Jesus relieved himself in the usual way (though perhaps not in a Modern Toilet as we envision them). However, although I was raised Christian, I was never particularly interested in it as a belief system or philosophy, and as such don't know much about it beyond some core beliefs of the church I was raised in. Scripture and catechism and all other matters ecumenical are not my purview - perhaps someone better-versed in these areas can weigh on in the late 19th century view of Mackay's particular strain of Christian faith on this matter.

What is further confounding is that Mackay declines to mention the toilet restaurant when talking about both Formosans of Chinese and indigenous descent (this is true across all tribes discussed in the book). When it comes to Chinese, he neglects entirely to discuss the careful placement of toilet bowl seats according to the ancient precepts of feng shui, or to compare Taiwanese toilet-restaurant seating feng shui to its slightly different accepted interpretation in China at the time - in China, toilet seats made of plastic with embedded glitter were typically placed facing the till, in order to facilitate the flow of money according to the movement of qi around the restaurant. In Taiwanese feng shui, rules about glitter or non-glitter plastic toilet seat covers are not stressed as much, but the north-south placement of miniature squat-toilet bowls filled with spirals of chocolate ice cream when served to customers is of the utmost importance. After more than twenty years in Taiwan, surely Mackay - who observed religious customs closely - noticed this small but important difference.

Mackay's toilet-restaurant-related blind spots are no better when discussing his travels among the indigenous. One memorable passage, he describes a trek into the mountains with a group of "savages" (in a chapter titled "Savage Life and Customs"), writing:

Higher and higher we wound and cut and climbed. Far up we reached a little open space among the tangle, and could see that the next day would take us to the topmost peak. Below could be seen all the ranges, with their intervening valleys, All around was the wild luxuriance of cypress and camphor, orange, plum and apple, chestnut, oak and palm, while the umbrella-like tree fern rose majestically some thirty feet high, with its spreading fronds fully twenty feet long.

After such a luxurious description of wild mountain nature in late 19th-century Taiwan, how was Mackay not immediately inspired to compare the natural wonders around him with the man-made wonders of the toilet restaurant? The two bring to mind a dichotomy of images so similar that it is difficult to comprehend how an astute observer such as Mackay would not have made the connection. He continues, describing the trek being unexpectedly pinched off before it was completed:

But after that night of ecstasy came the morning of disappointment. With the snow-capped heights of Sylvia almost within reach, the chief announced his decision to return to the "Huts." He had been out interviewing the birds, and their flight warned him back. There was nothing for it but to fall into line and retrace our steps. Reluctantly, bit with much more rapidity, the descent was made, and we arrived at the village in time for the braves to participate in the devilish jubilation over a head brought in during our absence. One ugly old chief, wild with the excitement of the dance, put his arm around my neck and pressed me to drink with him from his bamboo, mouth to mouth. I refused, stepped back, looked him sternly square in the face, and he was cowed and made apologies. When we left then they were urgent in their invitations to their "black-bearded kinsman" to visit them again.

While I find it a bit unsettling that Mackay was so openly rude to a tribal elder - intoxicated or not - I am even more flummoxed by his complete failure to mention the importance to indigenous Formosan societies of the toilet restaurant. A traditional sharing from the urinal-shaped glass out of which Taiwan Beer is sold can help make amends for any social gaffes that occur, and Mackay and the chief might have entertained themselves more amicable in this fashion. (A portable urine container also filled with Taiwan Beer is a second acceptable option among most indigenous tribes, but not all - a visitor to these areas is well-advised to note the differences in local customs.)

All in all, From Far Formosa is an interesting read and valuable time capsule. However, it doesn't escape the flaws of other books about specific periods in Taiwanese history in its baffling omission of the toilet restaurant as central to Taiwanese culture. Some observant writers are wise to include this critical cultural touchstone: in Lost Colony, Tonio Andrade, for example, is wise to include the importance of the toilet restaurant in the series of events that led to Koxinga's taking Taiwan from the Dutch, and George H. Kerr notably discusses the pivotal role the toilet restaurant played at length when describing the horrors of the aftermath of the 228 Incident in Formosa Betrayed. Manthorpe only includes six paragraphs on the toilet restaurant in Forbidden Nation, but his brevity on the subject can be forgiven, considering the sheer amount of Taiwanese history he covers. From Far Formosa, too, would have benefited from the understanding of the key cultural role of the toilet restaurant in Taiwanese history and modern political economy that these other writers have displayed.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Taiwan: A History of Agonies - a review

A History of Agonies alongside symbols of some Taiwanese social movements I have been here to witness
and participate in. It all ties together. 

Anyone who truly loves reading has become so emotionally engaged with a book that it makes them cry, often at the most inconvenient times. It stays with them and affects how they feel, think and interact with the world for some time after the reader has finished with it. Occasionally, this effect is permanent.

This happened with Green Island, a book I highly recommend to everyone and which made me Ugly Cry in my favorite coffee shop, and would say is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand 20th century Taiwan. I expected it would happen with Taiwan: A History of Agonies as well - I mean, the agony is right there in the title. Taiwanese history certainly contains enough tragedy to make anyone with a heart sob for hours.

So, I was surprised when that ended up not being the case.

Please don't misunderstand - it's not that it left me cold, or I found it uninteresting. I certainly had an emotional reaction to reading the words of a Taiwanese person describing what to him was not always "history": Ong Iok-tek lived through much of the events of the later chapters of the book. I was also intellectually engaged in reading history from a decidedly Taiwanese Hoklo nationalist perspective, especially in a book written in the mid-to-late 20th century. A lot has changed vis-a-vis Taiwanese identity since then, and comparing the two was an illuminating exercise. 

I will say that I learned quite a bit. Ong was especially interested in providing as much detail as possible about the various rebellions during the Qing and Japanese eras, because they proved his point that the Taiwanese never took being colonized lying down. I learned a few interesting details about the Zheng era, and quite a few famous names from history whose contributions I hadn't been clear on were discussed. Ong also spends a fair amount of time on every home-rule movement of note, which makes this a good source of knowledge for anyone hoping to refute the ridiculous yet oddly common notion that "Taiwanese identity" did not exist before the 1970s.

It was also interesting to read from that mid-century nationalist perspective. I'm aware of its existence and the general worldview of that generation of pro-Taiwan activists, as well as the generation after them which pushed through to democratization. I am aware of some of the problematic beliefs they often held, from thinking indigenous people were inferior to believing that nobody who came over from China in the 1940s could ever really be Taiwanese (and extending to views on women and homosexuality as well, although these aren't issues that come to the fore in this book - the only thing I remember being striking in that regard was Ong's reference to the "men" who fought and died for Taiwan.) It was quite another thing, however, to read from that perspective in the words of someone who was one of them.

It's not that Ong said much in this vein that I found new or surprising - for example, along with his focus on rebellions and home-rule movements above, he was dismissive of indigenous (mentioned above and to be mentioned again), focused almost exclusively on male luminaries (with a few exceptions), was critical of the Qing but not so much of the Japanese, and wrote from a clearly - but I think entirely deserved - anti-KMT perspective.  I don't recall Taiwanese Hakka being mentioned at all - if they were, it was too brief a reference for me to catch.

I was surprised, however, at his criticism of the 1895 republic, a blip in history that is interesting to me for no particular reason - I think it may be because I just like the flag. It's not that I think the Republic of Formosa deserves effusive praise, but I would have expected a Hoklo nationalist to give it just that. I recall reading that there was a concerted effort to bring back the symbols of that time - particularly the tiger flag - as symbols of the Taiwanese independence movement later. But, instead, he said that the republic's foundation day declaration "lacks style and refinement for a declaration of independence", was pointedly critical of their kowtowing to the Qing emperor, and of the scrambling of many of its leaders to evacuate to China when the whole thing fell apart later that year.

I did enjoy comparing Ong's views to the views of the young "naturally independent" pro-Taiwan generation of today. They have people like him to thank for giving them shoulders to stand on, and they are aware that they are connected to the luminaries of the pro-Taiwan social movements of history, but it is clear they'd find a lot to criticize in his words, especially in his love for Japan and derision of indigenous people.

I really love this tiger flag, it's the best flag

And, finally, I have to admit that this is the first comprehensive history of Taiwan book I've ever read. I've devoured others such as Taiwan's Imagined Geography and Accidental State, but they focus on certain periods. Reading one author bringing it all together was a positive experience.

I didn't cry, however. There is no single reason why. In some places, the writing was a little wooden, which I blame on the translation (I got the distinct feeling that it flowed better in Chinese). How does one start sobbing at lines like this?

Thus, China's relationship with the Kuomintang transfigured itself from a hostile contradiction to a non-hostile contradiction.

Areas where Ong editorialized, even when I agreed, didn't make me stand up and cheer as I thought they might - perhaps because I like my history as un-editorialized as possible. "We Taiwanese are seeking the helping hands from the free camp to rid ourselves of the oppressive rule of the Kuomintang" and similar wording, while I agree with it as an accurate sentiment stemming from the state of affairs when this book was written in the 1970s and to some extent of more modern eras as well, doesn't do anything for the nerdy historian in me. It would have been more powerful to simply present history as it was and let it make the oppression of the KMT very clear.

It could be that the translation was clearly not copyedited by a native-like user of English, as small grammatical mistakes, as well as issues with register and collocation, abounded. A personal favorite:

"The Tai-kang fallen, the fortress was totally isolated. Cheng Ch'eng-kung summoned the Dutch to surrender: 
My Dad opened up this island, Taiwan. Now that I need it, kindly get out!'

That was rather an odd message."

Gee, ya think? 

And, the all-time most amazing phrasing in the world:

"Everything began when the Cairo Declaration made Taiwan a booty for the Kuomintang to claim."

That sort of thing tends to jolt one's mind out of the narrative and back into the real world. 

My lack of emotional outburst might also have been because, although I have sympathy for any person who lived through that period of history in Taiwan, I lost some sympathy for Ong after his derogatory marks about indigenous people (which the editors acknowledged in a preface, but ultimately left in the work so as to preserve it as authentically as possible). To wit:

"When the Taiwanese say that Taiwan belongs to the Taiwanese, some Chinese quibble that Taiwan belongs to the indigenous people and they alone have the right to their land. Behind this line of argument by the Chinese are seen glimpses of their scheming design to label the Taiwanese "aggressors" and shamelessly enjoy their share of the spoils..."

Yo, Ong, I know you're dead and Imma let you finish, but...I think this, or at least I think the country belongs to the "Taiwanese" who are of all different backgrounds including indigenous, and indigenous people have earned certain rights and reparations due to the historical wrongs done to them. And I absolutely detest the Chinese government and see Taiwan as fully independent.

Also, insisting that Taiwan's history is a Hoklo history rather than an indigenous one into which others later entered is actually closer to China's current rhetoric that you are "all Chinese". 

"The indigenes in Taiwan made their living mainly by fishing and hunting and occasionally engaged in farming, though of a rather primitive style." (Ong goes on to quote Georgius Candidius' super racist take on indigenous people, calling the women "complete drudges" and the men "idle by nature"). 

So, no mention of the complex trade networks that the indigenous took part in?  No mention that women often enjoyed higher status in indigenous societies? None of that? Just drudges and idlers?

And worst of all - it makes me want to puke in my mouth a little bit even typing this out:

Those of us who are used to the scenes of American Indians shot and killed in Western movies are liable to wrongly assume that primitive (ed: UGH) aborigines are doomed to fall in number at gunpoint. In reality, however, massacre is not necessarily the main cause of population decline (ed: yes, it was, along with other forms of overt oppression) A decadent sex life may be one of the causes; unsanitary lifestyle another (ed: **** you). Unpreparedness against hunger and contagious diseases also triggered population decline (ed: hunger and contagious diseases wrought by the way in which indigenous were treated by every colonial wave to enter Taiwan, perhaps?

In short, I have nothing good to say about Ong's view of indigenous people, and it was certainly a big part of what hardened me to the rest of the book a bit.

It is telling that he begins the book not with a brief recap of what we know of indigenous life before colonization, but with the Chinese knowledge of the island and then, the Dutch. 

The editors included an explanatory note to essentially apologize for this, and I understand keeping it for reasons of portraying Ong's voice historically accurately, but...this is not the sort of book that is going to deliver an emotional gut-punch, with nonsense like that.

Finally, I found A History of Agonies hard to follow, because names popped up and disappeared regularly, sometimes with scant biographical info, other times just dropped into the narrative. I did not necessarily know who every person was (although to my credit, I had heard of quite a few). It was also difficult to figure out what Ong was talking about sometimes: he spent quite a bit of time talking about the "Ch'ao-chou", "Chu'an-chou" and "Chang-chou" "gangs", and it took me some time to realize that he was talking about people who themselves or whose ancestors had immigrated to Taiwan from Quanzhou or Chaozhou in Fujian (he also mentions "Chang-chou" (Zhangzhou). Perhaps he needn't have used Pinyin, I know that system has its detractors, but the Wade-Giles - as it usually does - makes it difficult for me to figure out how to pronounce certain things and makes a lot of words, to be honest, all look kind of the same. I know my opinion is not universally accepted, but we can all agree that including characters after any words rendered in Chinese or Taiwanese would have been a good, and helpful, idea.

Of course, I knew this because I know a fair bit about Taiwan. Can you imagine how someone reading this as a beginning text on Taiwanese history would even begin to decipher what Ong meant by the "Ch'ao-chou and Chu'an-chou gangs"? Such a reader might think these are gang names rather than the cities of origin of rival groups of Taiwanese immigrants.

This really cemented my overall impression of the book: this is not something to read as a primer or basic history of Taiwan. There must be better options - it will be confusing for neophytes, and overly simplistic for those with background knowledge.

Instead, I would say, by all means read this book, but do so knowing what you're getting into. Read it as a personal perspective, as a specific take on the events of Taiwanese history from the point of view of a certain kind of Taiwanese nationalist of a certain era. In that sense, it is illuminating, but a clear and readable history, I am sorry to say, it is not. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Are there false churches, too? A review of The Man With The Compound Eyes (複眼人)

The Man With The Compound Eyes (復眼人)
Wu Ming-yi
(available at eslite)

As I plow through books on Taiwan before my leaving date (about a month from now), I've been intentionally alternating between fiction and non-fiction. After finishing Accidental State (and breezing through The Mapping of Taiwan), I came upon this small volume with a gorgeous cover. After hearing high praise for the quality of the translation, I decided it would be the fiction filling to my Accidental State / Taiwan's Imagined Geography sandwich.

And it's true, the translation is wonderful. If I hadn't known it hadn't been written originally in English, I wouldn't have guessed as much. It's engaging and eminently readable, in fact, I'd say it is a pleasure to read on nearly a conscious level.

The characters, especially, are well-drawn, their backstories draw you in, although I had to smile at the trope of the novelist making the main character of their novel an English professor who is also a writer - write what you know, I guess. I appreciated that, for a novel set in Taiwan, most of the characters were in fact not ethnically "Chinese": the novel was heavily, and purposely, aboriginal and yet not exclusively that.

I'm not quite sure what to make of the story, so I'll start with this: it was engaging. I only actually give books perhaps 50 pages to draw me in; if I'm not hooked by then, I usually don't finish. I have better things to do than read a book I'm not that interested in. The Man with the Compound Eyes had me from page one.

But what was it about exactly? I'm still not sure. The clearest theme seemed to be that of god as nature, and different people's relationship to it - the god of this novel is one that not only does not live up in the sky and have a beard and rain down hellfire, but rather who lives in the mountains, the jungles and the oceans, but also one that is not an active creator or intervener. Somewhat simplistically, those with the strongest relationship to nature/god seem to be the Taiwan indigenous and fictional island characters (I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong, although I don't believe in god, it's just something of a well-worn trope), with Westerners and ethnically "Chinese" Taiwanese being furthest from.

Caution: ahead there be spoilers

I'm also not sure, other than another "untouched natives living simply with nature and no knowledge of the outside world" narrative what the journey of Atil'ei was really supposed to mean for the larger story: did his meeting with Alice, at which point he as a fleshed-out character nearly disappears from the narrative, serve to bring her to some deeper understanding of nature? If so, perhaps that could have been explored a bit more. I am generally a fan of subtlety but rather than picking up subtle cues about the point of the story, I ended up feeling mostly confused, as though a missing, hidden chapter I was supposed to have read, but didn't. A lot of ancillary characters seem to do a lot without really adding much to the narrative if you don't make big metaphorical leaps in trying to consider what it all means. I felt in one case it really could be boiled down to "engineer who helped build the Xueshan Tunnel heard a weird sound back then, returned to Taiwan, and decided he should not try to find out what that sound was". Okay, I guess?

Overall, I felt the backstory leading up to the arrival of the trash vortex on Taiwan to be the most satisfying, and the most engaging in terms of reading about how another person views and sees certain aspects of life in Taiwan, most notably, I felt a lot of my own sentiments reflected in the description of the east coast town, the shantytown by the river in Taipei, and what it means to have a "homestay". The characterization was likewise enjoyable - the friends-or-more relationship between Dahu and Hafay was handled with subtlety and grace. Backstory was well-handed: engaging, thoughtful (each person has their own 'island'), not overly cumbersome but deep enough to count.

I was less satisfied with the story of Atil'ei's island love, Rasula. Her story felt like it hit a big random dead-end and served no real narrative purpose other than to keep her in the story a bit longer. I had expected they'd either meet again or she'd encounter some sort of worthwhile adventure, or that we'd find out what happened to Atil'ei as he left Taiwan and began sailing back to an island that (spoiler!) will no longer exist by the time he gets there, if he ever does. Neither comes to pass. It just ends. It doesn't feel like that story thread ever fully gels with the rest of what's going on in any satisfying, conclusive way. I especially feel that we're forced out of Alice's headspace - even in a first-person narrative told by her! - for that part of the novel, and never really get a sense of the impact Atil'ei has had on her.

Yes, this story comes with a twist - but I'm writing about it at the very end because it probably had the least impact on me in any deeper emotional sense. It could have worked in a longer novel, but here it felt unearned, like Wu felt he needed something like that to happen, so *poof*, it did. Alice's experiences after finding the cliff where her husband died felt rushed through, the realizations not supported much by the narrative that had come before.

All in all, The Man With The Compound Eyes is worth reading (and honestly, it won't take you long. It is not a tome by any means). It feels very Taiwanese, and very connected to this country and the experience of living here, and specifically very 21st-century Taiwanese, with its focus on local, non-Chinese culture, environmentalism, small towns and everything that sort of embodies a post-industrial Taiwan that is so very over Taipei, choosing instead a smaller city or one's hometown.

It also feels very Taiwanese in its narrative subtlety. It is entirely possible that I didn't feel I fully understood the integration of the storylines because so much was left purposely unsaid, and I was meant to connect the dots in a way that someone of this culture might perhaps be able to do, but which eludes this straight-to-the-point, no-stone-unturned New Yorker.

By all means, read it, and if you figure out What It All Means on a deeper level than I've tried to express here, let me know.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A well-curated shelf


The English-language books on Taiwan available at Bookstore 1920s on Dihua Street

There are a few things that consistently soothe my jangled nerves: flannel pajamas, a purring cat (especially sitting or laying on me), a hot cup of good coffee - yes - coffee. Art projects, especially those that involve intense concentration on details, such as highly-detailed drawings or jewelry-making with small beads.

And books.

But not just any books - in my experience, it's an immediate lift to a hurt, melancholy soul to see a shelf of well-curated books on a subject one is passionate about.

It is oddly difficult to find books about Taiwan in Taiwan - the best selection at good prices can be found on Amazon, but in many cases the sellers don't ship internationally. or don't ship to Taiwan. There are books available at Camphor Press and on and a limited selection sold at the two largest eslite bookstores (I haven't really spent much time in the smaller ones), and of course there is always the wonderful Taiwan Store, But, in general the selection is limited and in some cases (especially at eslite) the most interesting titles are eschewed in favor of less engaging works.

So, when I walked into Bookstore 1920s with my friend Cahleen the other day, I was so happy to see - uplifted really - that although their section on books about Taiwan is small, it is beautifully, carefully curated by someone who knows what they're doing and cares about selling quality literature.

We own many of these books: Far From Formosa, Taiwan: A History of Agonies, Out of China and The Mapping of Taiwan. Each one is wonderful in its own way - the first for its old-timeyness, the second for its nationalist take on Taiwanese history, and the fourth for its gorgeous maps and illustrations: it's a gorgeous choice for a coffee table book (I haven't yet read Out of China). I walked out that day with that copy of Taipei: City of Displacements, because I haven't seen it anywhere else.

Social and political affairs have been rough this week, between learning that according to the Taiwanese government that I'm worthless and would be more valuable if I found Jesus and started teaching locals about how God hates gay people or something, and the atrocious comments made by Minister of Fuckstickery, Chiu Tai-san. Beyond wearing my favorite PJs and cuddling with my cat, I actually find my spirits lifted looking at this shelf.

In a world that doesn't care about Taiwan, and in Taiwan which doesn't think I'm worth dual citizenship, at least someone cares enough to compile a beautiful little collection of books with great attention to detail and quality. Small comfort in uncomfortable times.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The country is broken, but the mountains and rivers remain: a review of Green Island


 I don't do book reviews often, but as I have recently taken an interest in expanding - and doing a better job of reading - my Taiwan-related book collection, writing more about what I've been reading is pertinent. It's rare that what seems like the entire expat community in Taiwan starts talking about the same book at the same time, but I picked up Green Island quite some time ago because that is exactly what happened. I couldn't not read what everyone else was talking about.

I'm happy - no, grateful - that I did.

Historical fiction is often more fiction than it is historical: I would not recommend that anyone get a feel for, say, Tudor history by reading Philippa Gregory. Green Island is a bold exception - the history, to my eyes, is more or less accurate, and the ways that the various (fictional) characters engage with it are often enrapturing. It is not a true story, but it may as well be - and in fact, a few peripheral characters are clearly composites of real Taiwanese historical figures. With the exception of a few overly florid language choices that can be distracting, a reader might imagine any one of them as somebody's real friend or relative living through real historical events. It felt more like a good friend narrating true family history than a novel.

The unnamed narrator is born on 2-28 (February 28, 1947), a cultural and historical flashpoint burned into the collective memory of Taiwan. I appreciated (and hope I correctly sussed out) the subtle reference to Midnight's Children, where the protagonist is likewise born at exactly the moment that India gains independence. Her father, as a result of actions we all take for granted as basic human rights, finds himself imprisoned on Green Island, where many political prisoners were held through the White Terror era following 2-28. The reverberations of that - an action that the brutal, authoritarian government does not acknowledge let alone apologize for - affect the family deeply. You might say they never fully recovered. Again, this will be a feeling quite familiar to many Taiwanese. For expats, remember that any given local friend might well be affected by a similar family background.

You will learn from this, then, not just the historical events as dates and descriptions marching across the page of a textbook, but the feelings and memories they created and how they affect the national and cultural psyche of Taiwan.

On a personal note, I am no stranger to historical events coloring, like a dollop of red dropped into a bowl of white paint, the history, relationships and outlook of a family. My own family's story takes place a generation before the events of 2-28 and has nothing to do with Taiwan, nevertheless it does allow a particularly personal platform for empathy, not that I need one to feel it. My grandfather's parents escaped from the Armenian genocide in Turkey, my great-grandmother after untold trauma and my great-grandfather after spending some time as a freedom fighter. My grandfather grew up in pre-war Greece, coming to America with his family in his primary school years. I never personally experienced any of this, yet from the food we ate to the language of the hymns in my grandparents' church in Troy, New York (Armenian) to the language my older relatives spoke with each other to common topics of conversation as well as the basis for the anti-Muslim sentiment of that generation - and my generation's subsequent pushing back against that while still being empathetic to what my ancestors lived through - everything up to 2017 carries the tinge, lighter and lighter but still there, of what happened in 1915.

As I told a friend recently, perhaps this is why I care so much about Taiwanese history. It's not my history, but in terms of the broad strokes of the effects of events like the White Terror or the Armenian genocide, it's not that different.

Back to the book. As a long-term expat, reading the descriptions of life in Taiwan at that time felt photo-realistic. Anyone who has spent time here and engages with the cultural geography of Taiwan will practically hear the Taiwanese pop music - you know, the stuff taxi drivers like to play - running through their head as they read. The slightly cloudy jars of local candies and sweets? Yeah, they're still around. The house with the banyan tree that the family lived in? Many of those remain, and I could imagine exploring one that's open the public on my trips outside (or perhaps even within) Taipei. The bicycles, the beer, the books, the typhoon, the outdoor parties, locally called ban dou? The story may be set in mid-century Taiwan but every last one of these things calls forth a host of sense-memories in the early 21st.

If you have a strong grasp of Taiwanese history, you will cry. I did, and I'm not a crier. You may have to put it down at times - it can get raw and painful. As you read it, you might feel you are engaging not with a book but with the agonizing history of a nation that has, at every turn, been beaten down and treated unfairly.

Green Island has been criticized, mildly, for its florid descriptive language. I can't fault it too much for this: the Taiwanese landscape almost begs for it, and I appreciate the intricate descriptions of emotions. All too often the stereotype of people from Asian cultures is that they are staid, reserved, perhaps even emotionless. It might be easy for someone who isn't exposed to it much - even one who lives here but doesn't engage much locally - to assume that this comparative lack of outer expression, at least as seen through a Western lens, corresponds to a lack of inner emotion. In truth, I have heard people make preposterous claims like "Asians don't get angry!" (Wait, what? How is that even...what?) In places perhaps the language is overwrought, but it provides a strong counterpoint to this ridiculous stereotype by giving, and then lovingly describing, the full range of inner workings of some characters, and implying the emotional state of others.

I also appreciated that the book, while clearly written from a local Taiwanese perspective in terms of the characters whose lives it chronicles, is quite fair to the Nationalist refugees and soldiers who came to Taiwan in the 1940s and whose government was responsible for the tragedy visited on Taiwan during and after that time. There are marriages between "locals" and those who fled China, and, without giving away too much detail, there are betrayals from unexpected places. In the end, Green Island respects the humanity of every character, even ones you might not expect to be sympathetic.

That said, the book's perspective is laid bare towards the end, with a flashback to how the narrator's father and mother met. It references the connection of the Taiwanese people to the land, and how that has remained constant no matter how badly the country is broken: the people are the mountains and the rivers. Green Island prods you not to forget this.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Delta Module 3: The Reading Rainbow

So, I've had a terrible few months, but would prefer not to dwell on it here (as longtime readers know, I lost my mom in December), and will get right down to business.

As the magnificent shitstorm that was my life ramped up in October and November, I was also working through my Delta Module 3 extended assignment with The Distance Delta. For those who don't know what this is,

I chose Business English as a specialty and used one of my more unusual classes as the group of learners (I didn't do this purposely - they were the only Business English group class I had at the time). In the end I got a Pass With Merit (yay!) but was extremely stressed out (boo!).

After this challenging class, I have some thoughts and words of advice. I started out with a recommended pre-course reading list (as in, what to read before the module even began so you'd have more time during the module to design and analyze your course and learners) with advice after it, but the reading list grew so long I decided to turn it into its own blog post.

So, here's the reading, stay tuned for the advice.

1.) Pick a specialism early and read up on it before you start. 

Some common specialties are:

Exam Classes
Teaching Young Learners
Business English
Teaching One-on-One
ELT management
English for Academic Purposes
Teaching Monolingual Classes
Teaching Multilingual Classes

...and more.

I can't recommend what to read in every specialism, but I can speak to Business English (my choice) and Exam Classes (my husband's choice). For Business English, before you start the module, read either or both of these:

How to Teach Business English by Evan Frendo
The York Associates Teaching Business English Handbook by Nick Brieger

The former is shorter and easier to digest for someone who has never taught BE than the latter. The latter will be meatier fodder for the experienced BE teacher. Both are worth reading as both will give you the citations you need when writing the paper. Used copies are fine, no need to get the latest edition.

As English as used for business is pretty solidly in EIL (English as an International Language) territory, you may also want to get your early reading party on with Teaching English as an International Language by Sandra McKay. I read this late in my work for this paper and wish I had read it earlier.

There are also tons of articles you can read in ELT journals - most classes will give you access to their subscriptions so unless you have one or have access to one already, these can wait until the course begins.

For exam classes, start out with  Exam Classes by Peter May - Brendan found this a bit pedantic but it's useful for anyone new to the specialism, and great for citations.

Both BE and Exam Classes fall under ESP (English for Specific Purposes), and I do recommend reading the seminal work in that area by Hutchinson and Waters. It's reasonably engaging as academic works go and is fantastic for citations.


Because you will have to do a lot of reading for this course, we're talking a few books a week. Most of them you can skim or read shallowly, but it's still a mountain of material. If you know you're going to do this and you know what your specialism. In addition, if you are not experienced in your specialism, this will give you an inkling early on regarding whether it's right for you.

2.) Module 3's written assignment is in 5 sections plus appendices. Read up on some areas covered in it before you begin.

The 5 parts of your main assignment are:

1.) An overview of your specialism (specific to the specialism but not the class)

2.) A description of your needs analysis and diagnostic tests of your class with a short class profile, including results.

3.) A description of your designed syllabus including justification for your choices

4.) Formative and summative assessment and how it will be carried out

5.) A conclusion tying everything together

All of these areas require a minimum number of works cited and all fall within strict word limit guidelines, which were designed by sadists who will burn in Hell. You can find all of that information here. 

Again, will greatly reduce your reading list down the line, giving you more time to create, administer and analyze diagnostic test and needs analysis results, devise a class and write about it. You want that time. You need that time. Take that time by getting the reading done early.

Some recommendations:

Part 1: See #1 for two specialisms, I can only say so much here

Part 2: 

Syllabus Design by David Nunan (there's a chapter on needs analysis)
Designing Language Courses by Kathleen Graves - great for needs analysis

I would not recommend reading the entirety of the final three books - pick and choose your chapters. The first book is short and easily digestible, though a bit dull (David Nunan knows his stuff but isn't, shall we say, the most engaging writer).

Part 3: 

Actually, what you might read in Part 3 is similar to Part 2 - move on from the chapters on assessing needs and read the ones on creating syllabuses.

Part 4: 

Learning About Language Assessment by Kathleen Bailey - some solid info on diagnostic testing
Testing for Language Teachers by Arthur Hughes

Part 5: 

This is a conclusion - no extra reading required or desired

Again, this isn't a comprehensive list of what you will have to read, this is a pre-course list of books you might consider. You may not have time to read all of this - I know I didn't. If I were to put together a shorter list for someone with a BE specialism, it would be:

How To Teach Business English (Frendo)
Syllabus Design (Nunan)
Testing for Language Teachers (Hughes)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Strories of Expat Women in Asia" launches today!

Guess what!

I'm currently in Seoul - not permanently, just for a short vacation - on the way to the USA to attend my friend's wedding. After our tour of the DMZ, we took refuge from the afternoon rain in a traditional hanok (think like an old-school courtyard house of the similar type found in many East Asian countries, but this one is Korean)-turned-coffeeshop. I'd post photos, but blogging on an iPad is not easy, and I'll have to skip that for now.

And guess what else!

"How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia" launches today! It's available on Amazon as an e-book and paperback, through Barnes&Noble, Apple and several other outlets (check the editor's blog for more information) and coming soon to select bookstores in Hong Kong.

If you're interested in knowing more about the anthology, and my contribution to it, check out Taiwanxifu's review of the anthology focusing on my contribution, titled "Gods Rushing In". 

It's not available in paperback in Taiwan unless you want to pay preposterous shipping charges, so if any Taiwan based folks want a copy in paperback - if e-books just don't do it for you or you want to show off to your friends by having it on your bookshelf - let me know (you can leave a comment with your e-mail address here. I won't publish it, because I bet you wouldn't want your e-mail address broadcast to the world as a spammable or hackable account, but I will get back to you and can arrange a paperback copy).

I'm really excited about this - I'd known it was coming for awhile but it's something different for it to be real, for the book to be available. Even one story in an anthology is something, especially as it is the first thing - other than job reporting on local issues in a regional newspaper in high school - I'd ever really submitted for publication. I saw the call to submissions on a lark, I thought about writing something and put it off for weeks...then on the day submissions were due I sat down in a coffeeshop and hammered mine out. I didn't even proofread it - I gave it to Brendan to read, made a few adjustments as per his recommendations and sent it a first draft. What the hell, right? May as well see what happens.

One always imagines writing as a career - or a side hobby, or freelance gig - as something that you have to toil at for years, submitting manuscripts, stories or pitching ideas, and facing rejection after rejection before you get one fateful acceptance. And I know that while I can write, I'm not the most talented writer ever to walk the earth - I can write, but so can millions of other people. There is nothing particularly unique about my writing ability. So, given all this, I certainly did not expect that my first draft "what the hell" submission would be accepted. I was, frankly, surprised to be proven wrong. What the hell indeed!

I may have written all of that in a post before - I can't remember - but it's what I'm thinking now.

So, I hope you'll check it out. Everyone who contributed to "How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit" put a lot of work and a lot of heart into their contribution, and I do believe - after having read it myself - that it is worth your time.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Updated Post - Used English Books

I've updated a long-ago post about used English books in Taipei - here it is! Most notably, Whose Books (the best selection by far, at least rivaling Bongo's) has moved to Gongguan.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Used Bookstores in Taipei (with English books!)


Just wanted to provide a rundown of places in Taipei to buy and sell used books, since it's a question that gets asked a lot and definitely deserves a solid answer available online. You might think that a city like Taipei wouldn't have these options - we're not a backpacker haven like Bangkok (thank the gods!) nor are we an expat hell like Seoul (again, I thank thee, O Heavenly ones). Options do exist, however, and these are the ones I've found so far:

Whose Books
Update: this storefront is gone. Whose Books' main store has moved to Gongguan. The sign is visible on Roosevelt Road right where Xinsheng S. Road terminates and the entrance is in the back (enter the lane and turn in to get to the entrance at the back).

Another branch can be found in Shilin - MRT Shilin, main exit, but after you exit make a U-turn to the right to backtrack down under the elevated track and it's at the back of that public square area. English books are upstairs.

Both stores buy used books (but don't give much)

Best selection of used books in Taipei, and seems to be getting bigger. They've got something for everyone - nonfiction, sci fi, old guidebooks, cheesy chick lit and romance novels, serious fiction for serious people, Booker Prize winners, backpacker fare, self-help, technical manuals, whatever. You can sit on ledges or on the floor and there are 3 tables in the back. Coffee and water available. Will provide a "VIP Card" for discounts, and will buy books but not at a competitive price (if your aim is to get rid of old books and make space for new ones, not to make money, it's a good deal). With the tables, good selection and windows in the back, it's a great place to spend a rainy Saturday, finishing with some wine and a smoked salmon sandwich at the cafe down the street.

Mollie's Used Books I
Taipower Building MRT - take the southernmost exit on the west side of Roosevelt Rd and walk down past the actual Taipower Building. Turn right in the lane next to the building painted bright yellow (used to be Asto Gelato if you know the area, now it's a Bossini). Walk down past Karma and the Buddhist Library and turn left in Alley 10. It's down a little ways.

Of the three Mollie's, this one has the best selection of English books, but that's not saying much. There's a small selection mostly of self-help and business "How to Re-Engineer Your Blue-Sky Deliverable Envisioneering" wankology and some cheap sci-fi paperbacks, among a few books actually worth reading (not that I'm dissing "The Return of Xargax" or anything...oh wait, yes I am). But they make OK coffee for 50 kuai, have used CDs that are sometimes good and sometimes horrific (Chumbawamba?). Downstairs there are a lot of cheap kid's books in Chinese, good that's where your Chinese reading level is. Finally, downstairs there's a decently eclectic selection of old guidebooks. They say they buy books but they wouldn't take ours. Strange, as our books are better than what they've got.

Mollie's II
South side of Heping East Road between Shida and Xinsheng S. Road. I don't remember exactly where but it's a basement entrance and very easy to miss, so look carefully. It's near that Chinese restaurant that looks Italian, which is next to an actual Italian restaurant.

This one has a few tables and benches, and they don't mind if you use the floor. They also have 2 cats and seem to provide coffee. One small nook on the far righthand side of the store has English, German and some French books, and there are a few used CDs. This is a fun place to grab random stuff and read away a day, but don't come expecting to find anything. I've never tried to unload old books here.

Mollie's III
Somewhere in the crazy lanes of Gongguan Night Market - good luck. It's near a Vietnamese restaurant.

The only English selection seems to consist of old textbooks and manuals, but they have a pretty good used CD collection. Doesn't matter as nobody can ever find the place.

Grandma Nitti's

Update: the books at Grandma Nitti's are gone. Gone gone gone. Now, go to Bongo's.

Update: Bongo's
This place is in Gongguan, and I am still awful at telling people how to get there. If you go to Wenzhou St. Lane 86 and then keep walking north on Wenzhou, turning left in the next lane, at the end of that lane where it meets the next street, you'll find Bongo's (you can also get there by walking one block over, away from Roosevelt Rd., from Sai Baba).

Bongo's has a larger selection now that it's taken over for Grandma Nitti's and is worth a visit just for the books (the food isn't really all that fantastic, but pretty good as backpackery Western fare goes).