I offer a brief sketch of her career only because, despite being a towering figure in Taiwanese literature, she does not have a high profile in English-language translation, and it's not unforgivable to have no idea who she is. Chu T’ien-wen started as a writer but is possibly more famous now for her work as a screenwriter, collaborating with Hou Hsiao-hsien on 1983's Growing Up (directed by Chen Kun-hou) and going on to write or co-write almost every film he made after, from The Boys from Fengkuei. It was after she began writing for the screen that she broke away from the style of her early work (most notable there are: The Modern Stories of Magistrate Ch'iao《喬太守新記》, Legend 《傳說 》) and was able to produce her best work. Fin de Siècle Splendour《世紀末的華麗》, published in 1990, and Notes of a Desolate Man《荒人手記》, published in 1994, have hints of her former lyrical, romantic style, and still show a debt to Hu Lan-ch’eng 胡蘭成 and Chang Ai-ling 張愛玲, but also point in a new direction, influenced by film, the new political and cultural environment after the lifting of martial law in 1987, and her own intellectual discoveries over the past decade.1 I offer a brief sketch of her career only because, despite being a towering figure in Taiwanese literature, she does not have a high profile in English-language translation, and it's not unforgivable to have no idea who she is.
You know, I met her once. There isn't an anecdote here. It was almost ten years ago. She had an aura. I was in awe of her. I stood at a respectful distance while she spoke with Josephine Chiu-Duke and a few other professors, and then I said a brief hello after being introduced by Christopher Rea. I was too nervous to say anything else.
I can find in my email archives a record of that night, in an email I sent myself, and I can find a very bad undergraduate paper I wrote about Notes of a Desolate Man. I don't have an actual memory of that night, at this point. The archives can tell me when and where I was at any given time (and I can read pathetic emails sent to crushes, the upbeat checkings-in on exes, job applications, threatening letters from collections agencies, the occasional summing-up-the-past-five-years emails to friends I'd fallen out of touch with, emails to myself in the form of stories or drafts of posts typed out while standing at a liquor store register in St. Albert or riding the train in Guangzhou, etc. etc.), but actually holding the book, it's like another window into memory, some kind of prompt... I remember the mildew smell in the Asian Library at UBC, and when I look at the cover with its image of Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows, I always see it with a background of the floor beside the bed of my one-room rental across from the McDonalds on Number Three Road in Richmond. I have a memory of finishing Notes of Desolate Man one afternoon, sitting in the park outside the Buddhist temple in Richmond, the smell of manure from the fields to the south, a gazebo with a ceiling of wire mesh to keep sparrows out, a tape loop of chanted sutras, the trickle of water into the turtle pond... I was on my way to work, maybe coming from school, or maybe it was on summer break, and I used to get off the bus early, at the end of Number Three Road, walk down Steveston Highway, and read in the park.
Notes of a Desolate Man, it strikes me, reading it now, is not a young man's book. It's told from the perspective of a man approaching middle-age, with his life mostly behind him, watching a friend die of AIDS. It's a book about nostalgia and mourning and the passing of youth. The sadness of it is almost oppressive. I don't know what I got out of it, then. It packs an emotional punch, undeniably, and, maybe, as someone that hoped to someday make a living as a writer, who spent a bunch of time typing out short stories to email myself, I liked the feeling that it gave me, that Chu T’ien-wen was enjoying herself while writing, and just out of university lectures, headed toward a shit job selling auto parts, sitting for a while in that garden, seeing names I knew from class used in some practical and beautiful way, Eliot, Fellini, Ozu, and all those exotic places like Shinjuku, Venice, Kamakura, that I could barely imagine visiting...
Listen, the high-pitched sounds of a flute came and went as if creating musical signs in the air. Enchanted, we looked up to decode the signs; we chased after the drum troupes amid the sea of cherry blossoms day after day. Listen, heavenly drums and earthly flutes. The musical signs in the air confiding their secrets: three thousand kaleidoscopic worlds, a thousand rulers, a country of many fragrances, the femininity of India.
See, there's Lévi-Strauss. He said, Islam, on the contrary, has developed according to a masculine orientation.
Yes, the abstract, the unified, the monotheistic.
The destruction of idols started with Abraham, and when the Ten Commandments appeared, all other gods disappeared.
We left the drum troupes and stood before a high platform, enchanted by dancing shamans in vermilion robes and short white coat. It was an unknown shrine, with the musicians sitting on both wings of the platform, dressed in ancient clothes, playing flutes and beating drums.
The vermilion of the shamans' robes was that of the caste mark between an Indian woman's brows. The white of their short coats was that of a Yin dynasty carriage, the white of the Shang Dynasty. The white of the white robe and headdress worn by Hatsheput, Queen of Egypt, who ruled upper and lower Egypt in the fifteenth century B.C. The vermilion and white were a white ox pulling a vermilion wagon in The Tale of Genji.2Now, rapidly approaching the same age as Hsiao-Shao, it all means something different. I've been to Kamakura and Venice and I live a short train ride from Shinjuku. My youth, too, has passed.
After I finished Notes of a Desolate Man, I went and read the stories from Fin de Siècle Splendour that had been translated by Eva Hung, Fran Martin, and Michelle Yeh. The email archives can't confirm dates or reaction, but they direct me towards my first mention of the collection, in a short story I emailed to myself in 2012, where a young woman has on a child's plastic chair that she uses as a bedside table, a pack of ESSE Menthol, a TV remote control and a copy of Fin de Siècle Splendour, and I'm not going to show you the paragraph where those details come from but the paragraph itself seems to reflect the influence of Chu T’ien-wen-ish attention to mise en scène.
But so when I exhausted the translations, I went to the originals. I sat in the dank upper floor of the Asian Library at UBC with a Chinese-English dictionary beside me, trying to work my way through the stories in Fin de Siècle Splendour. I couldn't do it. It would be years before I worked through even the shortest Chu T’ien-wen short story. Even now, sitting down with my favorite story in the book to attempt a translation, there's always something missing, some bit of language I still can't grasp the subtleties of, some references which are probably over my head. Another benefit, too, of coming back to a book, with a decade of reading and living in between... Chu T’ien-wen was about my age when she wrote these stories. But also, reading in a second language, coming back to a book a decade later, that transformation can be even more dramatic. I know most of the time that I could pull out some meaning and follow the story, but I couldn't appreciate the writing. I knew they were special, though. It's hard to put into words, even now, what makes Chu T’ien-wen's writing unique and powerful. If pressed, I would say: the intense focus on mise en scène, nonlinear narratives and cinematic staging, possibly learned from her time working with Hou Hsiao-hsien, visual impact, the mixing of high and low registers, like the poetic, classically-influenced descriptions of the commonplace and the superficial and absurdist descriptions of the holy, and the mixing of Taiwanese local language and standard Chinese with Taiwanese characteristics and English and Japanese and Cantonese...
There must be some better, more representative passage, but here is one chosen at random from Fin de Siècle Splendour's "Bodhisattva Incarnate"《肉身菩萨》and Fran Martin's translation:
The body is a burden, let it be pared away and disappear! But he felt a pair of eyes watching him.
It's no use. After the violence of passion like a lightning strike, there remained only boundless, limitless, endless soundless ennui, a desert like a sea of sand engulfing his spirit. He laughed coldly to himself, I'm not interested. Raising his monk's eyes, he looked toward the eyes that watch him.
For an instant, they looked at each other. There in the wide latitudes of a vacant heart, he met him.
It's no use. It's the shadow of an imagined bubble; it's dew; it's electricity. He said this to the tremulous melancholy voices that arose within him. But those eyes, those eyes were like the eyes that had stripped him of his innocence when he was seventeen, saturated with a narcotic scent that pulled him strongly. Dragged by its force he went with him, as natural and fated as a flower with bee.
High up on the tenth floor they faced each other naked. A highway overpass swept by outside the window with lights that radiated a sheet of tangerine; the passing traffic sped over their heads in a roar of orange. He extended his hands to embrace him; he did the same. They each embraced the other, both wanting to give at the same time. It was a confused and hasty union that came to an end soon after.
They lay side by side on the pillow. It was dark inside, and outside the lights on the bridge made an orange sky and a tangerine sea like twilight on the wasteland, reflecting inside to paint a layer of rusty verdigris on their naked bodies. They'd made a hash of it, and he avoided looking at him. His was an authentically manly physique, solid and strong.
He arose to put on his clothes, and he, too, got up to dress. The room was filled with the sounds of dressing, belt buckles and key rings making a wild clanging and jangling, terrifying. Then suddenly it all stopped; in an instant noise ceased and the silence was suffocating. He saw a truck with EVERGREEN written on it soar by outside the window.
Evergreen, said Little Tong, breaking the silence.
What? he asked.
I've got a friend who worked like a dog for Evergreen, Little Tong said. Evergreen sea freight. My friend was at sea for two years, then came ashore and got married.
He said, My name's Zhong Lin, what's yours?3Over the years, I've gone back to the seven stories in Fin de Siècle Splendour every few years. A few days ago, I found a copy of the collection in a used bookstore in Jinbocho. I have to admit that I didn't buy it, but I went home and re-read "Red Rose is Paging You"《紅玫瑰呼叫你 》.4
Like Notes of a Desolate Man (and Jia Pingwa's 贾平凹 Abandoned Capital《废都》and White Nights《白夜》come to mind, too, since I'm working on Jia Pingwa at the moment, but there are many other examples), "Red Rose is Paging You" reads very differently after a decade of reading and living.
While the other stories in the collection have Chu T’ien-wen-ish beauty throughout, "Red Rose" is purposely less beautiful, less erotic, less coherent. Writing the carnival world of Taipei's nightlife is another one of those places where, reading Chu T'ien-wen, you can almost feel the joy she gets out of describing the PDKs and KTVs and nightclubs. It is resistant to translation or makes translation tough because of the many vernaculars spoken throughout (the many languages of Taiwan, including Japanese and English, the CB radio lingo5, the language of the nightlife, slang from the world of film and TV).
The story is about a Chinese-Korean man named Hsiang Ke. When he's not working, Hsiang-Ke is going out into the Taipei nightlife with his "open collar Yves Saint Laurent shirt with a white silk scarf, and suede Ballys" to hang with United Bamboo Gang-connected legitimate businessmen, smoke weed, hunt for casual sex, and sing karaoke (I should ask Jia sometime if he's read this, since I think there is something in common, in a concrete and a more abstract way, between Abandoned Capital and Chu's "Red Rose," since it is also about a horny culture industry man—a guy working on primetime soap operas rather than novels, but still). He is married but sees his wife and two sons rarely.
The story opens with Hsiang-Ke out at a KTV, reminiscing about a hookup and contemplating his one-hitters:
Hsiang-Ke! This is Hsiang-Ke's song! they yelled. Hsiang-Ke picked up the microphone, climbed over their legs and strode to the center of the room, ready to sing his new signature song, Zhang Gui's "Little Clown." Everyone was waiting for him to hit the chorus, little clown, little clown, but he knew how to ride the melody, speeding up here, then stretching out a line there, as if he were riding a wave—then there it was: little clown, little clown. His body surrendered up his spirit. He rode on the wings of song up into the heavens. Yes, I nailed it this time.
He basked in the glory, in the glow of KTV victory and a marijuana high and an XO buzz. If it wasn't for KTV, he would never have known he could sing. The weed helped, too. It was strong stuff. He had started to feel it after one hit. He'd had to take a few hits off a J, huddled in a corner. ... He would have loved to bring out his pipes. His favorite had been a pear-shaped one-hitter that fit right in the palm of his hand. He often studied the intricate carvings across its surface. One time, while cleaning it, he'd found a busted cod liver oil pill in the bowl. When Longhair finally confessed, Hsiang-Ke had leaned his son over the bed and whipped his ass three times with a bamboo switch. After that, he switched to a brass pipe that looked nice but didn't hit as smooth. And after that it was a sandalwood bat. It was one of his hobbies. He could spend hours cleaning each pipe under the light of a Tizio desk lamp, swabbing them with rubbing alcohol and a wiping them out with a clean cotton swab. After they were all clean, he’d then line them up for inspection.
Goddamnit, our tenth anniversary. What the hell am I going to get her?
Carnation handed him a business card. Hsiang-Ke, call me a taxi. It was one in the morning. He knew she wanted him to take her home and he knew what she had in store for him. A girl in her twenties is always horny. The night before, after he'd fucked her, he passed out and woke up in her bed at four a.m. He had been sleeping so deeply she could have clipped off his nuts and he wouldn't have felt it. As soon as he came to, he jumped out of bed and rushed home as fast as he could. He told himself he wouldn't fuck her again. I’m almost forty for fuck’s sake. He made the call then went out to take a piss. Instead of going back in, he lay down on the sofa outside the room and pretended to pass out. He watched the attendants out in the hallway, rushing back and forth. With their their bright white shirts and black bowties, chattering into their walkie-talkies, he thought they looked like magpies building a nest. He smelled her pussy before he saw her. She reached down and grabbed his crotch. Are you ready to go? He snored theatrically. She walked away. He hadn't expected her to just leave like that.Hsiang-Ke's nighttime carousing is contrasted with his wife's own private world of dance group in the park, DPP politics, and Japanese lessons. When he returns home one night to find his kids are growing up without him, he decides it might be a good idea to spend some time with them:
Saturday night was once again set aside for the kids' baths. Longhair, Fuzzy, and the kid that lived next door—three little pigs sharing their bath with a hairy baboon. He ran the water and dumped in bubble bath, then climbed into the tub. He ducked down among the towering bubbles and listened to the trillions of tiny snaps and pops they made as they popped. It was joyous. While the boys played below him, he sat in the tub and used a pumice stone to rub every square inch of his feet. He looked like an immortal sitting among the clouds. He wouldn't even have known that their roughhousing had carried them out of the bathroom and they'd soaked the hardwood floor of the hallway and then the living room sofa. He led the boys back in, rinsed them off, then called for his wife, and left her to towel them dry.
He toweled himself off and took in the scene. My kingdom, my Garden of Eden... He was happy. He called over the neighbor boy. Get over here, let Uncle Hsiang have a taste. The boy went over and smiled up at Hsiang-Ke. Hsiang-Ke picked him up and gave his plump cheek a nibble. He set the boy down and called over Fuzzy. His youngest son was so boney that he looked like a root of Korean ginseng. He picked Fuzzy up, flipped him over and bit his ass. Help me! Save me! the boy shrieked, giggling. The biting game continued until his wife told the boys, Hurry up and put some underwear on.Hsiang-Ke also begins to fall in love with his wife again. He finally catches her dance group performing in the park, all the wives with "kneecaps like Thai guavas" bobbing along out of time to pop music. She catches him watching and somehow appreciates that he's finally gotten out to see her:
His wife was in the back of the group. She danced boldly, without caring what anyone thought. But when she saw her husband's car, she froze. Even from across the parking lot, Hsiang-Ke could sense that his wife was happy that he had seen her. He had finally seen her dance. He recognized the smile. It was that strange, ambiguous smile that seemed to show frustration and pleasure at the same time. He had been seeing it less and less over the years. How many times had she used it on him, back then? It used to make him melt. That had been one of her ways of seducing him. He thought back to those years, before they were married... They used to do everything short of fucking. He used to suck her earlobe until it turned red. Sung-tzu didn't believe him when he told him. Hsiang-Ke had no choice but to marry her.
At first, there had been complaints about the dance group, that they were too loud, but eventually they came to own that stretch of road. If anyone parked their car in their territory, they would get a visit from one of the womens' sons or sons-in-law and they'd never encroach on the dance group's turf again. The women eventually decided to put up a metal pavilion out there, so they could keep dancing even when it rained. Nobody on the block dared to go against them, but the local authorities were not keen on the idea. They told the women that the police would be called if they attempted to build the pavilion. Hsiang-Ke's wife came in the door around ten that morning, out of breath. Come and talk to him for us, she told Hsiang-Ke. I want you to help negotiate.
He slid his hand up her leg. Longhair was at school and Fuzzy was at his kindergarten. There was nothing in the world he wanted more than to pull down that tennis skirt. What the hell... This isn't a skirt, he realized. He slid his hand up her culottes.He attempts to rekindle the romance with his wife. He helps her out negotiating with the local government. But it's too late, though. He returns to the nightlife. He knows that he can't go home.
Sung-tzu had once made him swear, when he got old, if he ever got Alzheimer's, Hsiang-Ke should snuff him. It had been so many years ago. They were still so young. They used to fuck girls in the same room then switch them. The girls used to always say, Sung-tzu's way bigger than you. Fucking bullshit.
He went to call his wife. He woke her up. It's our tenth anniversary. Thank you.
What time is it? Do you want me to wait up for you? I can make you some noodles when you get back.
It's almost two. You go to bed. If I get hungry, I can make myself something.
He wasn't worried about Alzheimer's. He knew that long before dementia got him, he would no longer speak the same language as his wife or his sons. They were already speaking Japanese. He'd seen how fluent his Longhair's Japanese had been when he'd answered the call from his wife's Japanese teacher—better than his Mandarin! After that, perhaps they would speak the American English that Fuzzy was learning at his Montessori kindergarten. He would no longer be able to understand them. It would be humiliating. He would wither away, jealous and ashamed. That was how Hsiang-Ke imagined his future as he faced the glass KTV rooms with their twinkling lights like a million stars and the wall of screens showing MTV.
The neon lights were coming on outside. The nightlife spread like wildfire through the city. And somewhere above him, he knew that there was another city, one that could be heard but not seen. It was a city carried on radio waves. As the night deepened, the transmissions would grow more frantic, until the sun rose and the sound vanished. Red Rose, calling Blue Stocking. All he hoped was that even while he was withering way that his wife might let him find some temporary solace inside of her.If this isn't just an excuse to translate my favorite parts, maybe I should venture some serious reading of it... Like, Hsiang-Ke lives by the cultural logic of late capitalism. In urban Taipei, fresh out from under martial law when Chu T’ien-wen wrote "Red Rose," the old autocracy has been replaced by something more insidious. The nightlife is no longer a subculture or something in resistance to the mainstream, but a total world that he can escape into. His wife escapes instead into progressive politics and NHK documentaries and her dance group. His family life and his marriage should mean something but he can only remember rather than experience them. He is not a father or a husband, anymore. There is only nostalgia left. He escapes into the nightlife and he fucks but the only fleeting joy he feels is with his wife and son... Sex with his wife is passionate and it reminds him of when he was human, in a way that the unerotic trysts with various women cannot (the fucking scenes are deliberately joyless and dull and the lasting image from those meet-ups is a scene where Hsiang-Ke fucks a girl doggystyle and is transfixed by the way her ass likes like a watermelon when the bars of shade and sunlight coming in through a Venetian blind hit it) (this is a common theme throughout the collection, thinking of Master Ch'ai in another story, trying to stave off decay by seducing a much younger woman). He is only waiting to die.
The whole thing, for me, hinges on the scene in the bath. It's been on my mind since I re-read the story a few days ago. I hope the translations captures something of the tone of the original. It's beautiful. I can't explain why without sharing too much about myself. I'm sorry. But I like what it does, within the story. She puts the scene near the beginning, so it lingers, while you watch Hsiang-Ke wasting his prime in a KTV or a nightclub, making it easy to sympathize with Hsiang-Ke, who is an irredeemable piece of shit but deep down a good man, and creates a nostalgic melancholy that hangs over the entire thing...
1 Please read "Chu T'ien-Wen: Writing 'Decadent' Fiction in Contemporary Taiwan" by Hwei-cheng Cho, a SOAS doctoral thesis, available with a quick search.
2 This is from Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin's 1999 translation for Columbia University Press. I may have disparaged Howard Goldblatt's skills as a translator in the past and I stand by those nonspecific remarks, but this is his and Sylvia Li-chun Lin's best work. It's not perfect but it's close enough.
3 This is from Fran Martin's translation in Angelwings: Contemporary Queer Fiction from Taiwan (University of Hawai'i Press, 2003). I encourage you to find a copy. Angelwings introduced me to Ch'en Hsüeh and many other writers I would have never heard of otherwise. I think the Chu T’ien-wen translation is particularly good, too.
4 I'm using the most common translation of the story's title. What else could it be? I'm not even sure. Maybe "Red Rose is Calling You," since "paging" calls to mind either a pager or a public address system announcement.
5 The story mentions walkie-talkies but also handheld two-way radios 雙頻手扒機 used to talk on CB radio channels.