Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Book Review: The Astonishing Color of After

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The Astonishing Color of After
Emily X.R. Pan


I like to situate my book reviews in the real world - whatever is going on in my life, I try if possible to relate it to what I've read. I do this because I'm not a professional book reviewer, and I want to offer something more unique than a bog-standard review you might read in a newspaper.

As it so happens, I read The Astonishing Color of After - which deals with depression and suicide - during a time when I was (am?) coping with anxiety, mostly related to graduate school. I don't have depression - anxiety is not the same thing - but what drew me in was a line towards the beginning of the novel - the colors around me were all wrong. I was lucky, if only because I was able to see that something was wrong in time to seek professional advice (it turns out that my case is mild and I don't really need anti-anxiety medication if I make a few lifestyle changes - breathing exercises, no social media before bed, that sort of thing). But what really helped me connect with this novel was realizing that while I'd always known intellectually that sometimes brains just don't work the way they're supposed to, I hadn't really understood personally - viscerally - what that could be like, even mildly. Now I do.

The Astonishing Color of After is, theoretically, YA (Young Adult) literature. The writing style is fairly straightforward, the first-person viewpoint character is a teenager dealing with teenage issues and it fits nicely alongside other YA classics. Because of this - and despite it being quite fat - it's a quick read for adults. I didn't realize that when I picked it up, but I'm happy things shook out that way - I'd just finished my dissertation proposal and needed some mental rest with easier prose. It surprises me that it doesn't seem as though this novel has gotten a lot of press among English-speaking Taiwan bibliophiles. I knew when Green Island, Lord of Formosa, My Enemy's Cherry Tree and Wedding in Autumn all came out, but hadn't heard of this book until I came across a copy at eslite. It's a shame, too - YA literature about Taiwan that can be enjoyed by anyone, even if they have no connection to Taiwan, is a niche that needs filling. That kind of soft power helps.

That said, because the narrator is a 15-year-old girl, the prose is written a bit too...muchly. There's explicitness where something might be implied, melodrama where subtlety and implication would suffice. It works, though - the story is told as a 15-year-old might tell it. You can almost envision what the journal entries of the narrator would be like.

Without spoiling too much, the story follows Leigh Chen Sanders, 15-year-old American-raised daughter of Dory Chen and Brian Sanders. When her mother, Dory, commits suicide, Leigh is convinced she's turned into a huge red bird, and eventually seeks answers to her mother's family history in Taiwan. Leigh not only grapples with her mother's death, family secrets and feeling lost in an unfamiliar country, but a father who can barely cope himself as well as a very common teen issue: wanting to do something creative with your life as one of your parents pushes you down a practical path that you are entirely unsuited for.

This struck home for me too. I'm not a teenager anymore, and I'm not in a 'creative' profession (writing is a hobby, not a consistent income source). But along with my dissertation, I've been grappling with exactly why I chose to become a teacher when I don't feel the money I earn really justifies my choice (and don't always feel appreciated in a professional capacity either). I know people think foreign teachers out-earn other professions here, but that's really only true early on. When you hit your thirties, gain experience and professional development and credentials, you start to notice that if you'd gone to work for some corporate machine you'd be earning more by now. But, as with art or music, there are other reasons to choose teaching.

Taipei is rendered as accurately - if generically - as post-smartphone suburban America, and the story is deeply engaging. Pan does a great job of narrating the difficulties Leigh has with Mandarin - a language she is familiar with but doesn't really speak and can't read at all - and Taiwanese, which is incomprehensible to her. The flourish of her Taiwanese mother not really wanting to return to Asia despite her American father being keen do to so - and that same American father speaking and writing fluent Mandarin as his Taiwanese wife avoids her native language - presents a flourish to the story that upends stereotypes readers may have. Frankly speaking, it's a circumstance I've seen play out in real life, and it was interesting seeing it depicted in fiction. It reminded me of how my own grandfather, himself not a native speaker of English, purposefully never taught any of his children Western Armenian. As a result, I never learned it either.

I'm of two minds about Pan's depiction of Taipei. Everything was accurate - the alleys, the doors, the weather, the parks, the house slippers, the apartment shrines, the shops and temples. The depiction of supernatural events fits fairly well within Taiwanese religious beliefs, and the touch that Leigh's mother would visit both a Taoist and a Buddhist temple and not see any problem with that sort of syncretic belief (a fairly common thing to do in Taiwan) was a thoughtful flourish. Leigh's grandparents could be any number of older couples in Taipei city.

But...but. I wish she'd been more specific. Which street with brick arches did she reference? Was it Dihua Street? If so, the temple she described looks nothing like the most famous temple on that street. Was it Longshan Temple? It could have been. But if so, what street? What neighborhood did the Chens live in? Which spot on the North Coast did they actually go to? (Jiufen is referenced but then not much more is said about it or what the scenery is like.) One thing I love when reading novels that take place partly or entirely in Taipei is reading about the author's description of very specific places that I can go visit, if I like. When Pai Hsien-yung talks about Longjiang Road and a park which is obviously 228, I have specific mental images I can conjure up to give life to the story. There's something to be said for referencing a generic residential lane, a generic neighborhood park - the Chens could be anyone and there's literary merit to that - but I like my fictional Taipei to be grounded in a reality that I can personally reference.

I was intrigued by the very common Taiwanese family story of the Chens - a grandmother born in Taiwan and growing up in poverty, and a grandfather who came with the ROC military from China. Leigh's grandmother speaks Mandarin and Taiwanese (her grandfather's linguistic background is less clear). When we start to see flashbacks of Leigh's mother's life in Taiwan, one reference concerns her marrying someone "Chinese" (me: not Taiwanese?) but later that's references as "Chinese or Taiwanese". Which...huh.

There's a lot of digging that could be done into family political dynamics there, a lot of engagement in that particular issue that Pan - and by extension Leigh - could have pursued. But it's left there; there's no further discussion of issues of Taiwanese linguistic, historical or cultural identity. I suppose that'd be a bit much for a YA novel not necessarily marketed only to readers familiar with Taiwan, but it would have been interesting to explore.

Where the novel does a little better is discussing Taiwanese religious beliefs and superstitions, especially regarding ghosts and the afterlife, and Ghost Month in particular. Although I wish the novel had actually gone to Keelung for Ghost Month after explicitly referencing it, beliefs about ghosts roaming the earth and burning items for them to use in the afterlife, I think foreign readers will find these descriptions interesting.

All in all I'm happy I read The Astonishing Color of After, especially when I did. Its ideas and plot threads came through at a time when they could resonate especially strongly for me, and its clear prose was an inviting fictional place for my mind to escape to when it very much needed an escape.

Even better? I think you can still buy it at eslite!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Misery Loves Company: a review of "Ghost Month"

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Ghost Month

Taiwan, you monsoon-pissed on yam of the Pacific Rim! How many nations have sought and fought to possess you in a game of hot sweet potato! The Republic of China, the diplomatically shunned nation of my birth! You seismically challenged tiny leaf trembling at the real China's doorstep!

This is the first half of the absurdly angry screed that Jing-nan, the protagonist of Ed Lin's Ghost Month, published in his high school yearbook. The tone is perfect: high-school-aged Jing-nan's contempt for his homeland is real, and yet also absurd in the way only angsty high-schoolers can get away with.

This comes several chapters after Jing-nan admires the country the Taiwanese have managed to build in the face of every obstacle facing them, not least of all an angry China, but several chapters before he admits to having called the place "stupid Taiwan". In between, he reckons with his views on religion (also stupid according to him, but maybe it's not great to be in everyone's face about how dumb their beliefs are all the time?), muses on everything from architecture to rule of law, and compares Taipei during the day and at night (he prefers night). An image of the Tamsui River at night cuts across these metaphors: looking at it late at night, conflicting currents render the water as slow black sludge trudging in one direction, and colorful vibrancy swooshing in another.

I found this to be the perfect novel to read while I recovered from a particularly severe head cold: literally, but also metaphorically. I picked it up two days after 2018 midterm elections here, where the moving currents of my own feelings about Taiwan were in the greatest conflict they'd been in years. They still are. (And I'm still recovering from the head cold.)

To be blunt, Jing-nan doesn't like Taiwan very much. He doesn't seem to hate everything about it, but he's clearly far from happy with his own existence here. He's trapped carrying on the family business (in more ways than one), and feels hemmed in by the superstitious beliefs of people around him. He feels assaulted by bad Asian pop music (his own musical tastes, specifically for Joy Division, play an important atmospheric and symbolic role in the book) and cornered by soulless office buildings and high-rises on one side, and hideous illegal shanties on the other.

His malaise runs deep - though he does eventually come to terms with it - whereas my own was a season of ridiculous optimism capped with a feeling of being absolutely, devastastingly crushed. This past weekend I had hoped the people would not vote to remain a 'trembling leaf' at China's doorstep, but to continue to stand up for themselves. Instead, newly-elected KMT mayors are talking about doing an end-run around the national government and recognizing the 1992 Consensus on their own. (These elections were not a referendum on how Taiwan feels about China, but try telling the rest of the world that.) I had hoped they'd recognize stupidity for what it was: either by those pink-shirted anti-gay jerks or Kaohsiung mayor-elect and guy who beats people up for no reason, Han Kuo-yu. Instead they voted for hate and idiocy.

This country really has accomplished so much despite every obstacle set against it, from geography to military dictatorship to diplomatic isolation. After the anti-gay referendums passed, there was an outpouring of not only grief over what their fellow citizens had done, but also support and love for LGBT friends from almost every Taiwanese person I know. I know Taiwan is capable of better than this, but it can be hard to feel it through the greasy stink of homophobia and populism. There's all that vibrancy and color moving in one direction, but it's hemmed in by turgid black sludge.

In short, Ghost Month is a moody piece of Taipei Noir that more or less perfectly aligned with how I've been feeling about the place myself these days.

There's a story, too. An interesting, fast-moving one. I'm not writing about it because while it intersects with Taiwanese culture in ways that set it apart from typical thriller/murder mystery novels in the West, at the end it's...a story. Don't get me wrong - it's a good story. It kept me up until 3am reading and drives the book nicely without feeling tacked-on. I won't describe it here - you can read a plot synopsis on Amazon. The Taipei Noir aspects of the book are what drew me in, but they couldn't exist without the story, and the story couldn't exist without them.

Lin more or less perfectly captures the vibe of Taipei - the layout of the city, its neighborhoods, communities and haunts (and I don't just mean in geographic terms). It gives a solid, accurate survey of Taiwan's cultural landscape to readers who may not be aware, and very clearly moves away from the overly-Sinicized "Republic of Chhhiiiinnnnaaa!" view of Taiwan that a lot of people who don't actually know this country are happy to ignorantly embrace. It is very clear that Taiwan is Taiwan, and China is China, and those who would sell Taiwan out to China are traitors, without being overly sympathetic to a misty-eyed 黃昏故鄉 view of the place (in fact, problems from shoddy law enforcement to political corruption to sexism are laid bare without making Taiwan seem like a horrible place, and Lin does a great job creating complex characters that defy stereotypes.)

Because it captures Taiwan this well, the tiny ways in which I knew Ghost Month to be inaccurate got to me, even though I know they shouldn't matter. From a reference to a 50-kuai banknote (!! Those have existed but aren't exactly a normal thing) to entering the Taipei 101 office tower without needing an access card (not possible) to references to being sunburned after some time in Taipei (how? it's basically always cloudy) to the notion that Taipei is blanketed by Western tourists (there are tourists, but honestly if you're a Westerner here I basically assume you either live here or are visiting someone who does), I found myself nitpicking in ways I wasn't proud of. None of these details matters, and yet, because I live here and am fiercely protective of the place, they matter to me.

I also found myself thinking "Jing-nan's charming, has interesting tastes and an independent mindset, and is obviously meant to be pretty good-looking, but he's not that bright, is he?" Of course, as a first-person narrator, he admits this, saying his (dead) love interest had been far more intelligent than he was. For example, when a betel nut girl is killed on the job, you can be pretty sure gangs are involved. And if gangs are involved, you can be damn sure the police won't be much help. And if you know that, why the hell are you going to the police as though you can talk to them like some Big Man? I'm not even from here, my dude, and I know that's not how it works! And don't even get me started about Ah-Tien and the scooter. You just don't know when to listen, do ya?

In the end, I was grateful to come out the other end of my post-election funk (and head cold) with the end-of-novel reckoning Jing-nan experiences. To be honest, everything he feels about Taiwan, I could say about the US, just in a different way (excuse me sir, do you have a few minutes to talk about how we should fuck the police?) I won't say too much about this, as you should read the book instead of my ramblings about it. But, by the end, you come to realize that it's possible to care about a place, even love it, while not always liking it very much.

Which, as I wait to see what happens now that the people of Taiwan have rejected the basic humanity and right to equality of their LGBT brethren, is pretty much exactly how I feel about the place. I consider this superstitious, parochial and weak - it is not the Taiwan I have come to know and love. It hurts to find out there is a lot I either didn't know or have been ignoring about this country.

In other words, I have been miserable these past few days, but at least I had some good company.


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Come for the nudity, stay for the underpants: a book review of Lost Colony

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Come for the nudity. Stay for the underpants.


Drunken German traitors. Bum-waving Swiss farmers releasing streams of foul expletives. A missionary in dirty underpants. Naked swimmers, a Chinese general who (probably) had syphilis, slaps, mad rages, racist colonial caricatures getting all up in each others' grills, a two-timing translator/con-man, fire ships and booby traps (no actual boobies it seems, though). A war whose outcome may have been decided on the relative discipline and adaptability of each side's leaders, or on what technology and food supplies they had...or maybe it was just the weather.

These are the colorful details that illustrate Tonio Andrade's meticulous historical account of the defeat of the Dutch colony in Formosa by another kind of colonizer - Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga). Well, sort of - calling it "a meticulous historical account" is actually doing Lost Colony a disservice, although it could easily pass muster as an assigned text in an academic setting. It's also a rollicking good read.

Don't let that lull you into a belief that it's a light read, though. The book explores some heavy themes, ultimately challenging the old and, to be frank, kind of racist assertion that Western colonial powers won wars because they were more disciplined or had a technological or perhaps tactical edge. (Andrade doesn't call it racist; I'm calling it racist.) The central question is worth asking: if Western powers really had all of these advantages, and that's why they conquered so much of the world, how is it that they lost Taiwan?

Through the story, Andrade discusses and compares the relative merits of Dutch and Chinese warships, military technology (including artillery, weaponry and fortifications) and military strategy. He discusses the evolution of those ships, too, based on weather conditions sailing in the Atlantic and around Africa as opposed to Asia, with its monsoons. Don't think this means that Lost Colony is a boring military history though. It's got military elements - it kind of has to - but they don't slow down the story. Hell, I loved this book, and I'm just not that into military history.

This isn't because I'm a girl who doesn't like Big Manly Weapons because they're So Big and Manly, by the way. I grew up around guns and books on military history and have a healthy respect for firepower used intelligently.

Naw, it's because I'd rather we didn't need militaries at all. Too bad we don't live in that world. Anyway.



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I like...big...guns and I cannot lie
(me & a howitzer from our trip to the Matsu islands)



It's no wonder that writer Joyce Bergvelt chose to novelize it in Lord of Formosa (although Lost Colony was not available to her as a source when she did). I called that fictionalized account "cinematic in scope", and frankly, for a work of non-fiction, so is Lost Colony. Count me among those who say that this story should be made into a film as a way of exporting Taiwanese soft power abroad.

That's all well and good, you're saying, and I love a good story about conniving translator-businessmen and foul-mouthed bum-slappers, but how is historical account about something that happened in the 1600s relevant to my life? 

Well, it's a well-worn adage among those who know Taiwan that the coming-to-Taiwan stories of Koxinga and Chiang Kai-shek share many parallels, which invites consideration of the present day seeing as the Republic of China has still unfortunately not given way to the Republic of Taiwan. I'm not going to talk about that, though, because everyone does. I'm more interested in how Andrade's telling of what happened when the military apparatus of a Western country met an Eastern one, and what that has to tell us about Taiwan's biggest foe. 


The Art of War figures heavily in the narrative as well - and in fact, when hearing about the various axioms Koxinga was known to employ in practice, I could not help but think of the current tactics of the Chinese Communist Party in trying to convince the West that it is not an ideological foe - when it absolutely is - and bring Taiwan to heel. 

By the time I got to the end, Andrade seemed to agree with me:



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"Today, a Chinese regime rules Taiwan"...I think I officially have an intellectual crush on Tonio Andrade.
Freddy's still my guy in the end, though. 


After all, as Andrade notes, just because we think the West as a military advantage over China in terms of both technology and numbers - the US spends several times more on its military than China does - that doesn't necessarily mean we will win a potential future war. Frederick Coyet (the last colonial governor of Dutch Formosa who lost the war with Koxinga) had plenty of advantages - Renaissance fort architecture, big ships carrying heavy artillery that could sail at a closer tack against the wind than Chinese war junks, a potential alliance with Koxinga's enemy, the nascent Qing dynasty, and advice from Chinese defectors. For several potential reasons explored in the book, including a false belief in the superior discipline of his troops and his failure to listen and adapt, he lost anyway. We might too, and it's more than just Taiwan at stake.

Lost Colony tells its story with a remarkably clear-eyed look on the past. In much of Taiwan and parts of China, when Koxinga's conquest of Taiwan is discussed, there's an undertow of a sort of ethnic pride that one of their own (I suppose) kicked out the red-haired foreign colonizers. 


The Dutch are no longer hated in Taiwan, per se - their colonial rule was so short-lived, involved such a small slice of Taiwan, and happened so long ago that it would be odd if they were - but Koxinga is seen by many as a hero. To be frank, it's a way of thinking I also find common to the Western left: of course someone like Koxinga would be the "good guy", relatively speaking. He was Chinese, Taiwan is Chinese (it's in Asia, anyway - same diff to a lot of Westerners), and Western imperialists were, and are, evil.

Western imperialism was and is evil, of course. Imperialism sucks. But this doesn't make Koxinga a comparatively "good guy" or a "hero". He was a warlord too - a colorful, brilliant warlord, to be sure - but still a conquering colonizer. The Chinese in Taiwan at the time were immigrants, not native inhabitants, and Taiwan subsequently became a settler state. Of course, your average Westerner probably has no idea who Koxinga was, but the big-picture implications of this kind of thinking are troublesome. Andrade understands this, I wish more Westerners (and Asians) did, too. He tells the story without picking sides. He made a case that we shouldn't dismiss the history of Asian military technology, training and strategy, while pointing out objectively who seemed to have advantages in what areas. 


Andrade ends on an ominous note: the seventeenth century, when all of this took place, was one of the most tumultuous in human history, in part because of a spate of climate change that started wars, decimated populations and caused governments to be overthrown.

The climate change facing us in the twenty-first century, he notes, is likely to be several orders of magnitude worse than that. How will we face it? 


Don't let all that doom-and-gloom scare you off, though.

There's also the aforementioned cursing Swiss bum-shakers, drunkenness, nudity, a fair number of references to testicles (one person got a cannon-ball shot straight through his) and a missionary in dirty underpants. There was a surprisingly detailed account of exactly how and when the Dutch, holed up in Fort Zeelandia, could go to the bathroom, and how often body parts got blown off by enemy fire in the process.

Read it because it's serious, but also read it because it's fun. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

You don't adopt Taiwan, Taiwan adopts you: a book review of Formosa Moon

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I used to believe that I’d adopted Taiwan, but the truth is, Taiwan adopted me, taking me in when I was in my early twenties and giving me a series of increasingly interesting reasons to stick around....Six months ago, I brought the love of my life to Taiwan. The idea was ostensibly to convince her to love Taiwan much in the way that I did. In this I believe I’ve met with some success.

- Joshua Samuel Brown, Formosa Moon 
(by Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman, ThingsAsian Press, 2018 - buy it here - and if you're in Taipei, there's a launch party this weekend)


I've heard people say that the best travel writing to read is about places you've never been: places foreign and "exotic" (how I hate that word) that you know next to nothing about, but come to understand in some small way through a guided journey by the author. If I'd ever quite bought into that, Formosa Moon cured me of it, reminding me that there is an earthier satisfaction in reading other peoples' experiences in places you know well.

Although none of the places mentioned in Formosa Moon were new to me (well, some of the hotels and restaurants mentioned were, such as the Dive Cube hotel), there's a certain beauty in reading about a place you're so familiar with that you can smell the air, see the details of the parks and unkempt sidewalks, picture the mountains, know intimately what kind of trees are growing all around and what it's like to live your life in a series of tiled buildings.

A section of the book takes place at Sun Moon Lake. Been there, didn't love it. Another one describes National Chengchi University. My sister studied there for a year. The Dome of Light? I was there two weeks ago. Tainan? I go every time I get the chance. Jiaoxi? Several visits, soaked in the public hot spring too. Huwei? I'm one of the few foreigners who went to Yunlin for fun over a Dragon Boat weekend just to see what it was like.

But there's something deeper about Formosa Moon that I just get. I think pretty much everyone who's made a life here - that is to say, many if not most of my closest friends at this point - understand as well. Taiwan is like a cat: you don't adopt a cat. A cat adopts you.

You might come here thinking you're going to just "go abroad for a few years" and do that privileged First World thing by teaching English to fund your time in Asia (you're probably not an actual English teacher). You might stay for 1, 2, 3 years: most of the cram school crowd seems to turn over in roughly those increments. Some of you won't get it: the traffic - there are traffic laws, I swear - the pollution, the ugly buildings (you will almost certainly live in one of these), the humidity, the long or weird working hours and greatly reduced career options, the crowds will all collude to gently push you out. Or maybe none of them will, and you'll enjoy your time here just fine, but when the clock is up it's up, and you were always going to return to the place you know is home anyway. Taiwan didn't adopt you. That's OK.

Some of you will fall in love here, or find your groove, or take an interest in Taiwan's unique history, or build a community. Or it'll be the damp hills, the palm trees, the local aunties, the 7-11s, the traditional markets. Or you'll watch a major social movement unfold up close and realize Taiwan is a place and a cause worth fighting for. Something about life here will speak to something inside you, and you'll stay. You probably didn't consciously choose to. You were adopted.

In this way, I found it appropriate that Formosa Moon heavily featured cats, though they popped up in the narrative for no particular reason, and certainly not in any planned thematic way. It just did. From the cats of Houtong (another place I know well, and have started hikes from) to the painted cats (among other fantastic creatures) of Rainbow Grandpa to Joshua's friend's cats which provided a cozy sense of home to Stephanie - the other writer of the book - I found the unexpected feline leitmotif to fit. Taiwan not only adopts you like a cat (or it doesn't), but it can be as cool, beguiling or mercurial as a cat, or as winsome and homey as one too. You know your cat loves you, but you're never quite sure how much.

Or, to put it another way:


Taiwan is kind, to its native born, adopted children, and short-term guests alike. But Taiwan doesn’t change its tempo for you. Instead, you must change your tempo to adapt to Taiwan. And this will make all the difference.



Of course, you get to wax lyrical about all of this because you chose to come for reasons other than making a basic living. Supporting yourself may have had something to do with it, but you could have done that where you'd come from. You're aware that exponentially larger numbers of foreign residents in Taiwan had no such privilege. (You are aware of that, yes?)

All this is not to say that only those who know Taiwan should read Formosa Moon. I'll certainly recommend - if not outright purchase as gifts - copies of the book for loved ones back home who perhaps don't get it, most of whom because they've never visited. It describes the country well, and even the pictures (which are very "homey", not glossy professional shots, which I see as a plus) show in accurate detail what life in Taiwan is like.

As the book itself points out, cities like Kyoto (or Shanghai or Singapore or these days, Seoul) beckon to the Western traveler who is planning their first trip to Asia. Most travelers don't think of "Asia" and immediately think "Taipei". So they don't come, and therefore, they don't know. Formosa Moon, I hope, might tempt some of them into finally visiting to see for themselves why I've chosen to stay for most of my adult life.

And not only that, I'll recommend it for its unique perspective. Every other piece of Taiwan-focused travel writing on my bookshelf is by a white guy. I haven't cracked them all yet, but will. I'm sure they'll be fantastic; people whose opinions I trust have told me so. But, so much travel writing is done by white guys hitting the trail alone, and other narrative voices enrich the genre. I don't think I've seen a travelogue written by two partners in a relationship before, each with views that play off or add depth to the other.

As someone who also moved to Taiwan and then six months later convinced the love of my life to move here too, that appeals to me - as a woman and a person in a committed relationship. Ours took a slightly different route: he didn't know he was the love of my life when he moved here (I kind of did, but didn't tell him so right off), and our relationship evolved here, not in the US. I didn't "love Taiwan" when he moved here: my first six months here weren't that great, to be honest. I am sure I have had success, however, in convincing him to love this country as much as I do. We show it in different ways, but I know.

More poignantly, Formosa Moon captures what it's like to be both in a relationship with a person, and with a country. We never had to face the challenge of Brendan liking Taiwan; he did immediately, on his first visit here. I wasn't sure then how much I liked Taiwan: I didn't decide to make the commitment until three years later. That was when I'd been planning to decide if I'd stay or go; it also happened to be the year we got married. I suppose our somewhat weirdly polyamorous love grew together.

Of course there's a bittersweetness to every love story. You know how they say that in a relationship, someone always loves more, and the other less? And the one who loves less has all the power?

Although I know I can never truly be "a local" (forget not looking the part: it's just not my native culture), I want to stay and advocate for Taiwan, and gain legal rights - not just privileges accorded me out of courtesy as a permanent resident, which can be revoked. I don't expect a perfect life here. It would be nice, however, if in my relationship with Taiwan I didn't always feel like I was the one who loved more. I like to think that by opening myself up to Taiwan, that Taiwan has opened to me a little. I'll never know how much, though.

I'll end, then, on a particular salient quote from co-Stephanie Huffman:


Taiwan and I were certainly friends but had we really progressed to a love state? I didn’t know even know how Taiwan felt about me and I certainly wanted some indication of her feelings before I made any commitments.




Yup. Except I did that thing that relationship advice columnists say never to do: I made the commitment without knowing quite how she felt about me.

Still here though. You see, I was adopted. 


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Taiwan: A History of Agonies - a review


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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.


IMG_7707
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.