We’ve let our shelf of Taiwan-themed fiction at home grow and grow and I have yet to read most of it. The image above doesn't even show half of it. Apart from Bu San Bu Si below, I’ve read three Taiwan-themed novel written in English (Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island, Patrick Wayland’s The Jade Lady, and Vern Sneider’s A Pail of Oysters).
On top of that, I’ve read a handful of translated full-length novels, most recently Rose, Rose, I Love You (see below).
In case anyone is wondering, my ability to read fiction in Chinese, while not exactly nonexistent, is still hovering around “graded readers for foreigners”.
Bu San Bu Si, by J. W. Henley
When I picked up J. W. Henley’s Bu San Bu Si, I knew two things about it: it was an English-language novel set in Taipei, and it was about punk music. I was tentatively interested in the first thing, as I’ve lived in Taipei for over a decade. But I was much less interested in the second thing, as I’m not really into punk music, or even Taipei nightlife. I happen to be one of those boring people who prefers to be home well before midnight. I don’t even like nightclubs.
As it turns out, Bu San Bu Si (named for a Mandarin-language expression that means something like “shady and disreputable people”) is not an exploration of Taipei’s punk music scene. It is much more than that. This is a novel about a talented young artist who makes a series of very bad life decisions, with very unfortunate consequences. It gets violent and sad, and it’s not a cheerful read, but it is a very engaging and well-written one.
Xiao Hei is a young man who plays in a punk rock band with his friends. They have real talent, and they have achieved some modest success in Taipei’s punk music scene. They dream of making the jump to something bigger. But it never seems to happen. Xiao Hei’s lack of a work ethic doesn’t help: to the frustration of his long-suffering mother, he seems constitutionally unable to hold down a steady job to help pay the bills. It’s hard to argue that this is because of his single-minded dedication to his craft, as he spends his off time in various stages of drunkenness.
It's hard to blame Xiao Hei for his disenchantment. A corrupt KMT city councilor who blathers on about the greatness of Chinese culture has targeted the punk music scene for eradication, blaming it for the corruption of the city’s youth. You can see why Xiao Hei doesn’t have faith in his chances to get ahead by playing by the rules. Still, he’s responsible for his own decisions. And when his life collapses around him as a result of these decisions, the novel’s barely half over and we have a ways to go yet.
The aforementioned city councillor is, of course, an iteration of an old trope: the authority figure who tries to stamp out the music these young’uns listen to nowadays in the name of traditional values. Henley skillfully makes this trope seem natural in the modern-day Taiwanese milieu. There is a political undercurrent to the book, as we hear older characters discussing their time under the old KMT dictatorship and there are references to the Sunflower movement which is taking place elsewhere in the city. None of this comes across as forced; it all flows very naturally from the plot and is valuable to set the context for Xiao Hei's life.
J. W. Henley is a writer I intend to keep an eye on. It seems he’s written one other novel, Sons of the Republic, which is also set in Taiwan and which Amazon is willing to sell me for more than eight hundred U.S. dollars. Thank you for that, Amazon.
Rose, Rose, I Love You, by Wang Chen-ho
The Vietnam War is raging, so it’s presumably the 1960s or so. Our story is set in Hualien, where a boatload of American GIs looking for some R&R is set to dock soon. The city’s business leaders want to make the most of this opportunity, and high school English teacher Dong Siwen pompously takes it upon himself to train local prostitutes in the arts of pleasing international clients. What follows is a comedy stuffed full of bawdy humor and double entendres.
This is the minimalist plot of Rose, Rose, I Love You, published in 1984 by Wang Chen-ho, who would unfortunately die in 1990. As the translator Howard Goldblatt makes clear in the English-language preface, Wang’s original was full of wordplay and cross-linguistic punnery, deriving much of its humor from unexpected collisions of Mandarin, Taiwanese, Japanese and English. Goldblatt does an admirable job salvaging as much of the original humor as he realistically can, but I get the feeling that any translation would still merely be a shadow of the original. Since I doubt I’ll ever have the linguistic competence to appreciate the original, the translation will have to be good enough.
And it’s funny. A lot of the humor comes off as dated or possibly diminished in translation, but many of the set pieces still work. My personal favorites are the local politician who makes a name for himself through his impromptu stripping on the campaign trail, and the painful demo English lesson that Dong Siwen gives at the end, which should have all competent language teachers cringing.