Taipei People-to-be (extract)
By Chen Yu-Chin
Translated by Kevin Nian-Kai Wang
When she was in grade three, Chen Xiu-Zhen’s teacher made them write an essay under the title “My Father”. I don’t think people write using titles like this nowadays, since not everyone has a father and mother, and even if they do, they might not see them often. The teacher was basically giving a hard time to the kids who were brought up by either a single parent, their grandparents, or those who were living with other relatives—asking them what they thought of their fathers and mothers? Why not ask them what they thought ofSpongebob! Returning to our story, Chen Xiu-Zhen at that time had, like most families did, a father and mother, but it was a pity that she had less of an impression of her father than she did of the anchorman of the evening news: the anchorman, at the very least, would always appear at seven o’clock sharp, but her father would always come home after she had slept, as a sliver of light underneath the door. Although this “My Father” essay was not her first writing assignment, it was the first where she felt she had nothing to say. Good thing this was a take-home assignment, so she could ask her mother later. Her mother, Wu Li-Li, was not Taiwanese, and knew hardly any more Chinese than a third-grader did, but she said something full of wisdom, and this was something all serious novelists were likely to be doing: See how others write.
Opening up a compendium of model essays, Chen Xiu-Zhen quickly found a written image of a father, and copied it into her essay book. She felt worried whenever she thought about it the next week, because not one word of what she wrote was real—it was all copied from a book. Yet the teacher not only gave the essay a high grade, he also awarded it with many Taipei People-to-be (extract)good student stamps. With this, Chen Xiu-Zhen realized that reality can be fictionalized. We can therefore say that this girl began writing novels at the age of ten, and the teacher was actually in the right in assigning this topic, because he understood the art of the novel. If all teachers knew this from the start, all kids would without a doubt be very happy, since they could write all their secrets down, and then laugh them off with a “Ha ha, fooled you,” and even earn lots of good student stamps in the process.
Wu Li-Li had studied with a private tutor for some years when she was Chen Xiu-Zhen’s age, but she had long since forgotten the Chinese she picked up at the time, and had to relearn everything when she came to Taiwan. A foreigner in a foreign land, she only had an old garbage collecting woman to talk to; but often before Wu Li-Li had spoke three sentences with the neighbors, this old woman would interrupt, “You know, she’s from Indonesia.” One day, when Chen Xiu-Zhen was having a nice chat with her classmates, out popped the old woman from the garbage dump, and asked, “Do you know your father collects trash for a living?” This was the first time Chen Xiu-Zhen faced such brazen and crude malice in her life, and she didn’t know how to hit back; but her teacher often said she did a good job at reworking sentences, so she said, “Do you know you collect trash for a living?” I don’t think Chen Xiu-Zhen knew the power of this sentence at the time, but she might have realized the power of repetition earlier than other children, throwing the problem of values back to the person who brought it up in the first place; the old woman was thus beaten by her own malice.
People not familiar with Wu Li-Li often said to her, “Missus, I don’t think you’re Taiwanese.” To which she would reply, “So what do you say?” Following would ensue a string of guesses: she was from Hong Kong, she was from Guangdong, she was enthic Hakka, and Wu Li-Li would become Hongkongese, Guandongnese, or Hakka. But Hong Kong people speak Cantonese, Guangdong people don’t speak the Hakka language, and some Hakka people speak the Southern Min language; strictly speaking, Wu Li-Li was an Indonesian Hakka-speaking Chinese immigrant whose ancestors originated from Mei County in Guangdong. Wu Li-Li often spoke of “us Chinese” in general, and she told Chen Xiu-Zhen: You are a child born to an Indonesian Chinese immigrant and a former soldier from Mainland China; this makes you a mixed-blood child, and mixed-blood children are especially smart and cute because their parents have different genes. Because Chen Xiu-Zhen found this to be in her benefit, she strutted into school the next day and proudly told her classmates that she was mixed-blood, and everyone thought that she knew a lot, because she knew something her teacher hadn’t taught them. In order not to be one-upped by her, everyone asked their parents where they were from when they went back home. Simply saying that they were mixed-blood Taipei people was not enough, since one could still distinguish between Taipei City and Taipei County, and Taipei County could be further broken down into Tucheng and Xinzhuang; Southerners might have mixed Nantou and Taixi blood, and even if some of them had blood that mixed across Taiwan’s central mountain range, no-one else had blood that mixed across the Pacific Ocean, so Chen Xiu-Zhen’s first place status was thus cemented, which of course deserved bragging rights.
Now we should talk about the path these mixed-blood children took when they left school, which had a foul odor about it, since both sides of the road were mostly patches where people grew vegetables, and at least some fertilizer was inevitable. There were even semi-open public toilets right under the road bridge, which were just shacks built using wavy sheets of plastic with no doors, much like coffins opened up and propped up straight. Chen Xiu-Zhen always thought: How could you go to the toilet with your back to the road and no other protection? If you really needed to go, you ought to at least squat on a sewer opening behind a car. But the men who emerged from these public toilets always seemed well at ease, not afraid the least that someone would stab them from behind. Chen Xiu-Zhen gradually found such nonchalance to be quite attractive, and held them in respect. The vegetable patches were demarcated simply with mattress springs, and the entrances were jumbled patches of wooden boards, much like a tangram puzzle. In addition, the path had a shrimp farm where visitors could fish for shrimp, a factory, and a mom-and-pop store which served children exclusively, and where the students would gamble, buy snacks, and sip on packets of winter melon punch. Beyond the road bridge, where a few apartment blocks rose out of the ground, was where the groups of children would disperse and go home. Between the apartment blocks were construction sites surrounded by iron mesh fences with tall grasses growing from the ground, forming a perfect place to play hide-and-seek. When the children got out of school early, such as after their monthly exams, and didn’t want to head directly back home, they would pull apart the wooden boards at the vegetable patches, silently creep past the black and yellow dogs keeping guard, and head toward the deep and dark forest behind the vegetable patches. Here the mighty ferns rose up as high as trees, and bamboos knit themselves into close patches; footsteps on the dry bamboo leaves would produce “shh-shh” sounds, and if you looked up, you couldn’t’ see the sky. In the forest was an old building consisting of iron mesh and a traditional three-part house built with red bricks; election banners were spread on the ground to collect rain water, and all those “We Need Your Vote” slogans and photos of smiling candidates were coated with mud. Here it was cool and beautiful, with no sight of the school nor the apartments, and they would open their eyes to look around, fearful that someone might spot a dumped corpse, but also highly anticipating that, if there were a dumped corpse, they might race to collect a prize far greater than handing in lost money. In the middle of the forest was a little shrine to the land god, and these children would respectfully offer prayers to the land god, so that their misdeeds would not be discovered by the grownups. The forest was actually very large, and Chen Xiu-Zhen and her playmates only ever managed to cover a small part. Further on was a slaughterhouse, a store selling bamboo, wood and tiles, a red-light district, and a village without running water or electricity. In fact, this forest was a long path called the Erchong Flood Diversion Channel, which had been long neglected by urban planners. It wasn’t until decades later, when the Metro went past the area, that the forest was leveled to a vast tract of land and rubble; only then did Chen Xiu-Zhen realize that even if she ran, it would have taken her at least an hour to cross this forest.
When she was ten years old, Wu Li-Li and her family had to flee from the troubles, and moved from a village in Borneo to live with relatives in the big city, and whatever she wore and used was always old stuff handed down to her from her relatives. At that time, fleeing was a relatively simple task: you just had to pack up your pots and pans and clothes, and ride a truck for a very long time. Wu Li-Li’s family was one of the luckier ones, since the family at the very least had stuck together. When she grew up, Wu Li-Li talked to her coworkers at the clothes factory, and some had to either gather up bits and pieces of their father’s body by themselves, or had their entire families wiped out, save for an uncle and a grandmother. During this time, Wu Li-Li went to school in Jakarta, and those without a place to live would stay by the roadside and the temporary shelter. Sanitary conditions were terrible, and every day someone would die, and their stretchers covered in white cloth would be placed in the middle of the road. The temporary shelter was only as big as a small park, but it was packed with hundreds of people. Fellow Chinese immigrants who had also fled and were now reduced to begging would beg for her to give something, but she had no money at all to offer. When she was able to earn money, she would buy pretty cloths for the tailor to make a dress for her; otherwise, she would buy gold, which was something that could actually be taken away when fleeing. Platinum would be even better: Chen Chiu-Sheng’s wedding ring was made of platinum. Diamonds she would rather not have, since when fleeing diamonds weren’t as easy to pawn as gold. This fact speaks to Wu Li-Li’s mindset, that she was always ready to flee, even when she was in another country.
In addition to buying new clothes, the young Wu Li-Li liked to travel and play all around the city. Although the Chinese were protected by the Dutch defense forces, she nevertheless felt that Indonesia was not the place for Chinese people, even though her people had been there since they came to Borneo to fish, farm, buy land, and harvest rubber, and up to now when her elder brother established a clothes factory all by himself. When she was twenty-five, a relative took her and tried to marry her off to a Hong Kong person, but it required a deposit, and she didn’t have the money. Not until she was twenty-nine did she have enough money, and by that time it was the trend to be married off to Taiwan. Thus she sold off all the gold she had (which was actually enough for her to buy a house in Jakarta), and bought a one-way ticket to Taiwan. When she was in the market on Lixing Road, she would sometimes remember her times in the little fishing village, and although those rare beans and fish didn’t take the plane, they nevertheless found their way Taiwan, either by wind or by sea current. Thus she would often contemplate for a long time, buy some, and head back home to tell Chen Xiu-Zhen about it.
When she was asked by a distant older relative who had been married off to Taiwan before her, Wu Li-Li said, without a shade of doubt, that she wanted to go to the city, and thus gave up on all the possibilities in Neili and Yangmei. The relative understood Wu Li-Li’s personality, and said, “Sis, old Chen is good natured, doesn’t hit women, and has a house and a job. If you marry him, you don’t have in-laws you need to take care of, and you have the freedom to work if you want to.” It was this one word, “freedom”, that led Wu Li-Li to cast her lots with a man older than her father.
As she had wanted, she married into a house, or rather, she chose a city—that is, if one could call Sanchong a city. A new country, a new language, a new life. The thing she felt most happy about was that now she had a key to her own house, since when she used to come home late, she would either be locked outside or had to take shelter at a friend’s house. But now, when she fell ill, she would have to take care of herself, and cook her porridge all by herself. When she first came to Taiwan in the eighties, her first job was stringing beads; once, when she was pregnant, she fell down the stairs by accident, but simply dusted herself off and stood back up, and the people around her were even more nervous than she herself was. When she was about to give birth, her mother came and helped to take care of her after the birth. Her mother stayed as long as her visa would allow her, and then it was all Wu Li-Li on her own. She was determined not to let her child suffer the way she had, so Chen Xiu-Zhen did not have a curfew, and had her own set of keys to the house when she was in the first grade. Wu Li-Li had no idea how the Taiwanese brought up their children, so she would watch and learn. She heard that the fair grounds were at Yuanshan, and the zoo was at Muzha; even though she didn’t know how to take the bus, she could still hail a taxi, and she even bought a simple camera so that she could take photos for her daughter as a sort of souvenir, although the lens was often blocked by her finger. She also liked origami, and she was thrilled to find a printing factory near the market. The workers there would leave some scrap paper for the young wife to take home in her shopping cart, and she and her daughter would often fold paper cranes, airplanes, boats and balls in the living room. In 1998, Wu Li-Li saw on the news that riots broke out again in Indonesia, and made a long distance call back home. Her younger sister said that their community was O.K., but she asked about Taiwan’s political situation, since she also saw on the TV Taiwanese legislators having a fist fight. Wu Li-Li replied that Taiwan had both peace and freedom. Freedom was a running theme in Wu Li-Li’s life.
Wu Li-Li brought her child up as she was doing handicrafts and pushing her stroller across the street. The happiest time she had was during Chinese New Year, when she would take the money Chen Chiu-Sheng gave her, and hop down to Wanhua train station to buy new clothes. With all the bags of clothes piled up on the floor, the shopkeeper had to use all his might to find a suitable size, and Chen Xiu-Zhen also grew tired trying out all the clothes. By this time Wu Li-Li almost never bought her own cloths for tailors to make into dresses, yet she could not fit into her old dresses anymore, which lay quietly in the luggage sitting atop her closet. But she would be proud whenever someone else asked her where she bought clothes for her child, and she wouldn’t care about what she herself wore, as long as her child wore the prettiest clothes and spoke articulate Mandarin, not like herself.
When she was five, Chen Xiu-Zhen went to Indonesia with her mother for the first time, and wandered around her relatives’ homes. She saw her uncle’s clothes factory on the second floor of his home, with about a dozen workers inside, and also a small servant’s quarters on the fourth floor. When they went back to Taiwan, they brought a lot of spices, tropical fruits and seafood, and also delicacies like bird’s nest, shark fin and sea cucumber. These delicacies were put inside the television cabinet Chen Chiu-Shen brought home from the street, and Wu Li-Li hoped that they could cure her child’s tonsillitis. But sea cucumbers needed to be constantly stirred, and picking out shark’s fin and bird’s nest was hard on the eyes, so as she grew older she couldn’t do it as well. It was only after she grew up that Chen Xiu-Zhen realized that not all children were able to eat bird’s nest several times a year. We can say that the only thing lacking in her early life was that she never ate bear’s paws.
Chen Xiu-Zhen’s Mandarin had not the slightest accent, since her Mandarin teacher was a news anchor, instead of Chen Chiu-Sheng or Wu Li-Li. When each participant in the speech contest took their bow, they would invariably begin with “The principal, my teachers, my fellow students, good day to you all,” no matter if they were good or not. What was strange was that being talkative in a speech contest was a good thing, while being talkative in class was a bad thing. In order to cancel out all the bad marks she got for being talkative in class, Chen Xiu-Zhen would always strive to get as many good student stamps as she could, and she ended up being the student with the most good student stamps in the entire class. Part of this was that she saved up on these stamps, but another part was because she was not a good student at all. After school, Chen Xiu-Zhen would tell Wu Li-Li how many good student stamps she got that day, much like how Wu Li-Li would count how many handicrafts she had completed. There was a magical power in these gradually climbing numbers—but when Chen Xiu-Zhen learned that these stamps could be exchanged for presents, this magical power suddenly vanished, and she at that instant grew up.
Vermont Studio Center