Showing posts with label taiwanese_books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taiwanese_books. Show all posts

Monday, July 16, 2018

Like a Zen koan: a review of The Stolen Bicycle

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Qing-era map of Taiwan, coastal view. From Jerome Keating's The Mapping of Taiwan
(I literally just took a photo of the page)


I'm not sure what to make of The Stolen Bicycle, and I suspect that's exactly how Wu Ming-yi intended it.

I mean, I'm not even sure if the story follows linear time or not. The basic plot - the unnamed youngest son of a family whose father disappeared thinks he might be able to find his father if he can find the bicycle that went missing with him - does have something of a timeline. Nothing else does, nor is it meant to: because memories both individual and collective simply don't do that. That's what they are - scattered memories of scattered people, sometimes sharing with each other. To call them flashbacks would be reductive.

The thing is, not only does he find the bicycle fairly early on in the narrative - meaning that the story put forward in the synopsis is not the story at all, but the bicycle hadn't been stolen. His father had taken it when he left. And he had known that when he set out. Of course, that's the point. There are other stories: break-ups that lovers never quite get over, the story of elephants at the old Japanese zoo near Yuanshan and their march from Burma, a war photographer's ride down the Malayan peninsula on an old Japanese military bike. Past stories of stolen bicycles, at least one of which returned. Some stories conclude, some don't. People die or are damaged, some beyond repair. Others can be refurbished. The characters trudge on.

So what is the point? I don't think Wu intends to tell us: we are meant to meditate on this almost scrap-book like collection of memories, like journal entries, interspersed with notes on the history of bicycling and zoo animals and World War II in Taiwan, along with the occasional diagram. Like Shizuko's three-dimensional side-perspective map of the Taipei Zoo, you're not meant to see it as a treasure map to X or as a plot from a bird's eye view, but as though you are flying past it on a helicopter (or maybe approaching it from the Maokong gondola, which is explicitly referenced as not having been built yet when the map in question was drawn).

Or like those old maps of the Taiwan coast, that show the shore from the perspective they'd have approached it, from the beach back to the mountains which create the spiky horizon past which nothing can be seen.

I don't mean to imply that the book has no themes - although I've just spent several paragraphs waffling about without saying what they are. There is discussion of how lives, just like bicycles (or elephants) wear out with use: and those bicycles are like our beasts of burden. Some parts get rusty, others jammed, others fall apart, some parts need replacing. Some bicycles - like lives - completely crap out and are scrapped. Others, with tender care, can be refurbished. In Taiwan, the local bicycle industry started out by importing from Japan, then imitating it, then creating its own models.

There are butterflies - a fictionalized memory within a memory - linked to Taiwan's handicraft history (though I have never seen a "butterfly wing collage" myself). The more butterfly lives that are sacrificed, the more beautiful the result.

And there is World War II: a lot of lives were sacrificed in that. Was the result, when it comes to Taiwan, beautiful?



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I don't know how else to describe The Stolen Bicycle except in these scraps of thought, and I'm leaving a lot out (I still don't understand the scene that was either in a flooded basement or the bottom of a river, nor the relationship between fine craftsmanship and wild jungle animals - though I am sure there is one). I can't imagine it was meant to be any other way.

So if this review is a bit weird, forgive me. The book is a bit weird too.

I liked it, though. It rattles around in your head after reading, like a very long Zen koan. It's not meant to make perfect logical sense, I guess. It's Taiwan from a littoral view. It seems intent on pushing you to think in paradoxes, to reach a point where you can intuitively grasp an answer that is logically impossible.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

A review of Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream: Tales of Taipei Characters

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Every Saturday I tutor the younger daughter in a family I've known for many years. We get along well and I mostly facilitate extensive reading and writing, so not a lot of traditional grammar exercises (though in her own time she works through a huge grammar book and I'll check her work - her idea, not mine.) But, I noticed one day that she was struggling with use of various passive and past perfect forms, so I said I was going to check her knowledge of Taiwanese history using passive-heavy questions.

I wrote down a few questions along these lines, for her to render correctly before answering. Things like this:

Who __________ (live) in Taiwan when it ____________ (colonize) by the Dutch?
Who had been living in Taiwan when it was colonized by the Dutch?

She looked at them and back and me and said, "Can we change the topic to the history of China?"

"Why?" I asked. "Is that what you're learning in school?"

"Yes! So I know that! I don't know Taiwan's history so well!"

"Well...no. No we can't. That's another country - "

"Mm!" she agreed.

" - and while it's useful to know about the history of other countries, especially ones with some relationship to your country, it's also important to know your own history. So we're doing Taiwan."

Despite her protests, she basically got the questions right. Even the one about how 鄭成功 managed to sneak past the Dutch patrols and fortifications.

* * *

I took the bus home - it takes longer but it's direct. I realized I'd never listened to Timeless Sentence, Chthonic's acoustic album in its entirety, and it has occurred to me after meeting Chthonic frontman and super-cute legislator Freddy Lim recently that I should, so I thought that'd be a good way to pass the time riding through the streets of Xinbei and Taipei.

 
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Super Cute Legislator Freddy Lim and *me*

Every song on that album - culled from their black metal work and arranged acoustically - explores some aspect of Taiwanese history. Freddy, and the band as a whole, are unapologetic Taiwan independence advocates. Some of the historical issues they sing (well, scream) about are obvious ("Republic born of PAIN!") and some are less so ("Who now stands before me like a ghost within a dream? When did come the day when things became not what they seem?")

As these songs played, the bus crossed Fuhe bridge into Taipei. The sun was out; I leaned against the window and watched as the green median spokes were overtaken - some half-eclipsed, some fully - by the shadow of the bus. I was sitting at the back, so just as the darkened green pillars reached me, sunlight broke out again and drove out the dark.

As I watched this, I thought to myself that when I got home, before I started work on a paper that was coming due, I should read one more story in Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream. I'd been reading one a day as a break from academic work, and figured I could finish the whole collection fairly quickly.

I wasn't sure how I felt about it, though.

My main issue with Timeless Sentence is that Freddy is at heart a black metal singer. He is clearly going to some effort to re-modulate his 'voice' and 'style', and the layouts of the songs themselves, to fit an acoustic format. Sometimes it translates beautifully, sometimes less so.

I too felt I was having to reconfigure my mentality to read Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream. I am used to reading about Taiwanese history from a Taiwanese perspective. I had to reformulate and remodulate in order to read without judgement stories of fictional members of the Nationalist diaspora in the 1940s.

* * *

The foreword makes it clear: although the original title of this anthology of character studies was Taipei People (台北人), the people in it are not from Taipei. They live there, but every last one was a refugee from China in the Nationalist diaspora of the 1940s. Most of them didn't seem to really consider Taipei home and every last one identified with China, not Taiwan. The newer translation, then, is perhaps more accurate: Taipei Characters. 

Each of them confronts - or refuses to confront - memories of their life in China and squares them with their new lives in Taiwan. Some do better (Verdancy Chu in "A Touch of Green"), some worse (Yu Chin-lei in "Winter Night"). Some describe the pleasant, idyllic, even luxurious lives these characters led in China (Yin Hsue-yen in "The Eternal Snow Beauty"), others discuss the horrors they encountered in the Chinese Civil War (Lai Ming-sheng in New Year's Eve ). Each one is searching for their own version of peace. Although it is not directly stated, few find it.

The foreword also makes clear that these character studies are meant to do just that: study characters. Think of it as the ROC version of Dubliners (which I haven't read - I struggle a bit with Joyce). Not draw conclusions about the good or evil of the Republic of China or its effect on Taiwan. It makes these refugees human and shows them trying to rebuild some semblance of a normal life in their new home.

The arrangement of the stories is important: it starts with young (or young-seeming) beauties, one of whom seems hardly to age, who is associated with the color white (a white sun on a blue field perhaps?). As the tales continue, the characters grow older, grayer. They get weaker. They grasp at what they've lost, making the same noodles except "not as good", coloring their hair or losing everything trying to bring back loved ones (the proprietress and Mr. Lu in "Glory's by Blossom Bridge"). They start dying, some sooner than others. The first three and last three stories drive it home: starting with imagery of fresh bright snow and then spring green, followed by tales of great battles fought by people who are now older and weaker, and ending with autumnal scenes of faded glory propped up by wealth, the onset of a cold, cruel winter and finally, a funeral, they echo both the rise and fall of the Republic of China and the creeping realization that the Nationalists' current, dilapidated state is permanent and will only further decay. This also echoes Dubliners, or so I am told.

I have a deep well of empathy for such situations: my own family was driven out of Turkey and then Greece - refugees twice over. For most of my life, these experiences were recounted by ancestors who held them living memory. Everyone has the right to leave dangerous, even life-threatening conditions and seek a safe existence elsewhere, to prosper and, if they wish, come to identify with their new home, as my grandfather came to identify as American. Similarly, although these characters are not real, their pain very much is.

And yet, I note that almost every time these characters interact with someone Taiwanese, they are snobbish and dismissive. Everything about Taiwan is inferior - the silks are coarser, the people more provincial, the weather worse, the food never quite as good. They treat Taiwan like a pigsty that they, high and low-class both, are forced to live in. They don't seem to realize that the people who are already here are people too, no less worthy of respect, and this island (this country) is their home, and it is beautiful if you'll just look. They don't see it, and they don't seem to be aware of exactly how their beloved Nationalist government treats the locals (as well as some of their own, although this is not mentioned in the book).

For every shadow cast on their lives, some of these "Taipei characters" cast shadows on the lives of others, and they don't even realize it. They keep to their own communities, denigrating Taiwan and yet acting as if they own the place - I can't help but wonder, if you hate this beautiful island so much, why do you insist it's a part of your country? - and as someone who loves Taiwan, it is hard to read.

This snotty condescension, this dismissiveness of Taiwan - I have trouble with this. My empathy shrivels a little, although not entirely. If the Nationalist diaspora wonders why it is not always fully welcomed in Taiwan, perhaps this attitude - which I have no doubt was very much real - is a part of why.

There are exceptions: the narrator in "Love's Lone Flower", who spends much of her time with two Taiwanese characters, Peach Blossom (with whom it is implied she has a relationship) and Third-son Lin, and does not appear to judge them in this way. In fact, the most empathetic of the Taipei characters are the lower-class ones: the taxi dancers (although Taipan Chin in "The Last Night of Taipan Chin" is dismissive of Taiwanese taxi dancer Phoenix, in the end she helps her as best she can), the winehouse girls. They seem to make local connections that the former high-and-mighty do not. I can't expect they would have necessarily known about the white terror their white sun government was inflicting on Taiwan. They're just doing the best they can, and they too have scars. My empathy grows.

The army veterans, the generals, though, perhaps the wives of those generals - they must have known. Some of them, if they were real people, would have been a part of it. My empathy shrivels. Let them break down and die. They consider themselves Chinese, so why should we let them have governance of Taiwan? Why should the Taiwanese have to live under a foreign government they never consented to? Don't we call that "colonialism"?

That said, every last one came to Taiwan's shores and built a life here, some more successfully than others. Although my circumstances were different - I'm no refugee - I did this as well. How can I - someone who would like to be the newest of the New Taiwanese - make any sort of judgements about who is and is not Taiwanese? This beautiful country has made it possible for me to call it home, and Taiwan is a settler state - who am I to say which settlers get to call themselves local? As far as I'm concerned, if you live here and identify with Taiwan, you are Taiwanese. These Taipei characters did not consider themselves Taiwanese, but many if not most of their descendants would. Maybe their grandparents weren't really "Taipei People", but they are.

That said, how many of the real-life people these characters are inspired by turned away when they knew what was happening? How many reported a neighbor or disavowed a friend? How many to this day remain pro-authoritarian, stalling Taiwan's reckoning with its history?

But then, how many might themselves have been victims of that same regime's purges of "Communists" in their own ranks? How many would have grandchildren who grew up supporting movements like the Wild Strawberries and the Sunflowers?

The key difference between my ancestors and the "Taipei characters" is that the latter dream about their lives in China lost, and are often disdainful of the island they now call home. My ancestors missed the home they lost, but never used that as an excuse to denigrate their new country.

* * *
I say all this, but I haven't even gotten into the historical and literary allusions strewn liberally throughout these stories. I have avoided writing about this, because I don't understand every reference. I write this review as a layperson.

In order to give this book the best review I could, I read as much about the book as I could find (unfortunately, the best source is incomplete - and the complete book is obscenely expensive). There is a lot to say about the title story, Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream, in which the narrator, after literally wandering in a garden, watches her old acquaintances enjoy a party in a mansion decorated with luxuries old and new, some having aged and faded and some seeming young and growing more vivacious, but still clinging, like a dream, to their lives in China. The narrator, a widowed general's wife whose stage name as an opera singer had been Bluefield Jade, is as faded as her dark jade-green qipao. The host's little sister, who helps trigger a drunken memory to her own younger sister, is more vigorous than ever. There are young lovers torn asunder by beautiful younger sisters, a snow-cave like dining room trimmed with vermilion table decorations (the ice-box where the KMT's dreams lie frozen in time, splashed with blood?) and allusions to three separate operas: The Nymph of the River Luo, The Drunken Concubine and Peony Pavilion (especially Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream from that story).

I don't know if I can even begin to break all of this down, and am not sure I should in what is meant to be a book review, so here are three quick takes:

The Nymph of the River Luo alludes to a young man's tryst not just with a goddess, but, by extension, the wife of the Emperor of China. There is also a strong implication that Madame Qian, the narrator and general's wife, either had an affair with one of her husband's subordinates, or wanted to (personally, I think they did), until her younger sister stole him away. Something similar also happens at the party taking place in the story's present.

The Drunken Concubine is about how favored concubine Yang Guifei prepared a feast for the emperor, only to find he'd visited another concubine instead. In jealousy she drinks herself into a stupor. Madame Qian, jealous, is also drunk - but feels it is her younger sister in the past (and her party friends in the present) who are responsible.

Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream involves a young woman falling asleep in a beautiful garden and dreaming of a sexual romantic encounter with a young imperial examination candidate. Waking up suddenly, she is so overcome with sadness that it was a dream that she dies (but is later resurrected...well, there's a lot going on here regarding old traditions and new thinking and the sadness of realizing the evanescence of life that I won't get into). Madame Qian literally wanders in a garden before being put in a dreamlike drunken state that invokes her own dream lover, and then "waking" to the reality of life wasted and happiness lost. The dream in the original opera takes place in spring - and Madame Qian's affair took place when she was young - but the party where she remembers it is in autumn, when she is much older. Her awakening echoes the awakening of the old Republic of China guard to their new, and rapidly declining, situation.

All of this is quite fascinating, and I read this particular story several times.

But what really struck me was what Andrew Stuckley, in the link above, said about a story earlier in the collection, The Dirge of Liang Fu. 

The two couplets in the study of General Pu seem innocuous enough, but call to mind an ancient story in which a leader needed to dispose of three great warriors who posed a threat to him. To do that, he offered two peaches, to be taken by the two best of them (there is an allusion there to the peaches of immortality). Of course, to take a peace was to show impertinence, but to not take a peach was also a great shame. All three killed themselves and the scheme worked.

In The Dirge of Liang Fu, the "peaches" are - according to Stuckley - communism (in China) and Westernization (from America). Each promises immortality, but each ends up killing you. To not take a peach is to fade into irrelevance, as General Pu has done.

"Hm," I thought as I read this. "I hadn't known that and I hadn't paid that much attention to the story the first time around. I definitely need to deepen my knowledge of Chinese history and literature."
But...

I live in Taiwan, not China. I spend my free time learning about Taiwan - Taiwanese history, Taiwanese literature. China is a different country. And yet, Taipei Characters is a work of Taiwanese literature.

I considered the Taiwanese students who regularly protest the "Sinicization" of history classes in Taiwan, prioritizing Chinese history - and implying that Taiwanese and Chinese history are the same - and demanding that more of Taiwan's own local history be included...

...oh.

In that moment, I realized how difficult everything really is.

How many of these Taipei characters - if they were real and you could ask them - would think Taiwanese history is Chinese history and would insist that the dichotomy my student and I perceive is false? How many would listen to Chthonic's Takao or Broken Jade, songs about the Takasago Volunteers (one small aspect of Taiwan's Japanese history which is not at all Chinese), and insist that it was the same history as that of a Republic that fought Japan as a mortal enemy? A Republic that still insists that it fought with the Allies to defeat Japan while governing an island that, right or wrong, fought on the other side? Who among them would insist that everything Chthonic sings about is both Chinese history and not as important as Chinese history, all in one ignorant breath?

* * *

Then, I thought back to one of the lyrics crooned in English on Timeless Sentence:

Let me stand up like a Taiwanese, only justice will bring you peace.

The Taipei characters were not at peace in part because there was no justice, in the end, for the wrongs done to them. But they seem blind to the injustices, like shadows, that their own government inflicted on the Taiwanese, as well.

I then recalled a minor sub-plot in Green Island, where the protagonist's father, after ten years' of brutal incarceration at the hands of the KMT for something that wasn't a crime in even the pettiest sense, can't help but suspect that his older daughter's husband - an ROC veteran from China - was reporting on him to the government. He wasn't - the spy in his home was his own son, and Dr. Tsai's son-in-law from China has suffered his own injustices and was just trying to do the best he could.

I know this story in my history too: the person who reported on my great grandfather to the Turkish government was another Armenian. The leader of the group sent to apprehend him saw who he was ordered to take into custody, recognized my great grandfather as his old schoolmate and they embraced as friends. He was never arrested - the captain was Turkish. Things are not always so cut-and-dried, the good or evil of a group is not so easily transferred to individuals.

Of course, Pai Hsien-yung understood all of this - and he was not uncritical of the "dreaming backwards" of his Taipei characters, their ignorance of Taiwan and their slow decay under a veneer of wealth. I mean, the collection ends with a winter night passed by two threadbare academics, and then a funeral. He took his own stabs at the white sun on a blue field. He knew that they not only were dreaming, but that it was time to wake up. I can't believe he wasn't also aware of the way their isolated, dream-like state affected the island they had fled to.

I didn't feel entirely comfortable reading Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream, but I will say this: it is excellent, a masterpiece, and I am happy I read it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A well-curated shelf

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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 books.com.tw 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.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

東施效顰: A Review of Rose Rose I Love You (玫瑰玫瑰我愛你)

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I was delighted to get my hands on this short and snappy Taiwanese novel from the 80s. Both the writer and the novel itself are well-known, and in the latter case perhaps infamous, here. Yet, among my foreign friends, I can't name another person I know of who's read it.

If you don't think about it too much, this 180-page story might come across as a vehicle for every vice and bodily function, a thin plot providing the backdrop to fart-and-armpit porn, with prostitutes who never actually have sex, at least not in the events set out in the novel. It may seem fatuous if not self-indulgent, as if Wang Chen-ho's idea of being daring in 1981 was to include as much reference to body parts and bodily functions as possible and leave it at that.

You'd be wrong, though. Now, I love a good fart joke and would describe my sense of humor as bent and filthy - I was born, not raised, this way - which those closest to me know and love, or at least tolerate, about me. My dirty mind and Rose Rose I Love You felt like a match preordained, a matter of fate, not luck. In fact, please enjoy an excerpt from this classic novel:

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One of my first impressions was this: if you were in any way inclined to think that Taiwanese culture is 'conservative' or 'traditional' in a Western sense, you will be promptly disabused of that notion just a few pages into Rose Rose I Love You. It details a society that is interesting in how not conservative it is. I've written about this before, and it's worth going to have a read. Even Taiwan's tendency to be more friendly to Western ideas and cultural exchange is explored, to some extent, beyond all the prostitution, bawdy jokes and straight-up farting.


My second impression: there is a lovely phrase in Chinese that is, plainly, ~就是一個屁: it translates to "it's just bullshit/it's nonsense" but literally means "it's just a fart". I am, then, not so sure that the farting is in there for comic effect alone. Wang seems to be reaching fragrantly through the pages to impart to us the main point of his book, the universe, and everything: it's all farts. All of it. 

After checking out the 2014 Taipei Times review of the same book (and learning a new phrase - 肥唧唧), my takeaways are a bit different. Perhaps because I have never read the original, so my knowledge of what the original language was and what it signified in a deeper sense is therefore limited to what the (excellent) translation provides as well as my Taiwan schemata, I missed certain aspects of this somewhat opaque story about a fat, clownish, provincial English teacher going to great lengths to plan a training course to turn common Hualien prostitutes into high-class bar girls for some visiting American GIs (whom we never meet - the novel ends as the training begins). I had to form a lot of my own impressions in something of a vacuum in that way.

Yet, throughout the novel, one cliched idiom kept popping into my head: "trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear". This saying has similar connotations to a Chinese idiom about an average woman - Dongshi - trying to look beautiful as a classic Chinese beauty - Xishi - but ultimately failing (東施效顰).

Teacher Dong (董斯文, though this is not stated in the English version and I spent much of the book thinking his name was 東斯文, or Eastern Refinement), thinking himself a dignified, educated and worldly gentleman, peppers his speech with English words and phrases - which the other characters repeatedly mishear or make fun of in bawdy Taiwanese or Mandarin puns - for example, turning position, as in a sexual position, into 破理想 or destruction of morals. He constantly reaches for an appearance of worldly refinement only to suffer from chronic flatulence, have his language misheard or derided by others and be repeatedly mistaken for a famous fat clown.

The prostitutes he is trying to turn into high-class bar girls - whom he envisions wearing gorgeous traditional dress - both Chinese and aboriginal - are, to be frank, rather common whores, and act the part as they are pressed into joining his training course. A few weeks of talks on hygiene, Christian prayers, "thirty English sentences", "global etiquette" and more are meant to turn these women into something they simply are not, in order to impress - and make money from - visiting American GIs. They are chosen based on the size of their breasts (like pomelos, not small oranges), age, looks, health and lack of menstruation. Councilman Qian, who makes several appearances, is supposed to be a brave and selfless servant of the people, having been elected in what would have been one of Taiwan's first local-level elections (full democracy didn't happen until 1996, but local by-elections were taking place as early as 1968, when the book takes place), mostly got elected for stripping on stage and showing everyone his rather large set of equipment. The bar the girls will work in is being built, and is described as being modern and inviting, yet towards the end it's noted in a parenthetical aside that there are no bathrooms and the only nearby ones are maggot-infested squat toilets. Even the song the girls are to sing as the American GIs arrive - Rose Rose I Love You - is given a double meaning, as a virulent strain of gonorrhea called "Saigon Rose" is quickly gaining notoriety among the denizens of Asia's whorehouses. The rich and popular town doctor sexually harasses, and quite probably beds, several of his male patients. It is implied that he has an armpit fetish. Teacher Dong himself, towards the end, basically spouts a repackaging of Audiolingualism as his own language-teaching invention that nobody else had taken notice of yet.

Nothing is too gross, or too low-class, for Wang to include to describe the seamy underbellies of every character parading around, acting as though they are better than they are.

It's hard not to read a complete takedown of urbane worldliness, beautiful women, educated teachers and even democratic elections in this. Everything in the novel is a sow's ear. Every woman is Dongshi, not Xishi. The teacher is a fat clown, not Confucius. The American GIs that everyone prepares for excitedly are probably swarming with venereal disease. And yet they are all pretending to be more than that - or at least Teacher Dong and Councilman Qian are, and everyone else is along for the ride.

I too read it as a satirical stab at Wang's memories of 1960s Taiwan - the prosperity and refinement of the Japanese colonial era fading (yes, I know, colonialism sucks, but the Japanese do have a very refined asthetic), modernization not yet begun, with Taiwan, its clothing patched and identity in shambles, trying desperately to impress a bunch of foreigners. It's hard not to read into it a full-on prison shanking of 1968 Taiwan, a sow's ear perhaps in Wang's estimation that is trying to be a silk purse on display for the Americans, that doesn't even know it's not. Not even one character makes it to the level of a joke - at best they are all punchlines.

This may sound bleak, but Wang also imbues these sow's ears with potential. Teacher Dong might well speak very good English, and what is essentially repurposed Berlitz is still better than whatever passed for typical English teaching at the time. Several of the bar girls are described as being quite beautiful, one is referred to as a "modern-day Lin Daiyu", almost as a Homeric epithet. The food that Big-Nose Lion and his aging prostitute girlfriend A-hen eat sounds delicious. Councilman Qian (I don't know which character it is, but it is a homophone with 錢, or "money", and I doubt that's an accident) seems to have a genuinely impressive member. These tiny droplets of hope glint across the narrative as though Wang is saying, in effect, "yeah, I know it looks bad now and these guys are a bunch of fools who think themselves kings, but don't give up on Taiwan. We really do have potential!"

Or, perhaps, he was saying "Stop trying to show off for the West, figure out who you are and celebrate it!"


And, of course, from the perspective of 2017, I can see that he was right.

I would love to comment more on the identity questions that were likely laid bare by the original text, but not having read the original, I'll let the Taipei Times review have the last word: 



It could also be a searching look at a protracted moment in Taiwan’s history — one extending to this day — of testing out many trappings of identity, often for the purpose of outside consumption. But the novel is open-ended, offering no glimpses of its true self: In the final scene, the prostitutes intone the Lord’s Prayer and Teacher Dong launches into a reverie: The Americans are coming, greeted by 50 world-class bar girls wearing cheongsams or eye-catching Aboriginal dress. The ladies sing the titular song, Rose, Rose, I Love You, first in Chinese and next in English. Each is a shimmering ambassador of an ethnic identity none wholly inhabits, and no one is so sure of who she is.