Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In my attempt to read in both of my primary languages simultaneously, I recently read the short story collection Taipei People by the Taiwanese novelist Pai Hsien-yung, or Bai Xianyong in Pinyin transliteration. I’d grown up hearing about the book but somehow never got around to reading it until now.
The standard English translation of the book’s title is arguably not the best. I might have translated it as “Taipei’ers,” but for the unfortunate awkwardness of the apostrophe and cluster of vowels. Bai titled his book thus in clear allusion to Jame Joyce’s Dubliners, out of which the story “The Dead” remains the apparent gold standard for what the ideal short story looks like, at least according to the American academia.
And that is one reason that Bai Xianyong remains an interesting writer. Taipei People, written in the 1960s, is an exercise in applying Western modernism to classical Chinese literature, or in fusing the two, a point that Bai underscored by alluding to Joyce.
Bai was the perfect person to do so, having studied at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop after receiving the kind of classical education one finds in well-to-do and scholarly Chinese families.
Bai’s father, a devout Muslim also known by his Arabic name “Omar,” participated in many of the conflicts in early-twentieth century China from the revolution of 1911 through WWII. He rose to the rank of four-star general and served as Minister of Defense for the Republic during the Civil War against communist forces before escaping to Taiwan with his family after the defeat of 1949. There he raised a son who was brilliant if much the opposite of the father: a writer, not a fighter, who turned away from the strictures of his Islamic upbringing to embrace Buddhism and his LGBT identity.
Bai’s stories reflect his background, to the point where I almost cringe at the title of his story collection. Almost all of his characters in the stories are refugees from Mainland China rebuilding their lives in Taipei in the wake of the Civil War. My grandparents and parents shared similar circumstances, so I can identify with these characters on that level. But in reality they would have constituted only a quarter of the Taiwanese population and were hardly representative of all “Taipei People.”
Indeed, his characters are even more specific than mere refugees: Many are military officers and their families, like his father and family, struggling still to process the magnitude of their loss and the meaning of their defeat. A number of stories concern socialites and club hostesses displaced from the splendors of pre-war Shanghai and now grasping desperately for past glories in newly straitened circumstances, in Taipei dinner parties and nightclubs that are but pale shadows of what they used to know.
As unrepresentative of Taipei people the stories of Taipei People are in terms of demographic reality, the refugees that constitute Bai’s characters supply the theme of displacement that is arguably universal. The longing for a lost home, the quixotic insistence that it’d be only a matter of time before the triumphant return, the struggle to come to terms with the true nature of one’s circumstances, with loss, with defeat, with tragedy — it’s a melancholy read, but through a very historically and culturally specific lens, Bai gets at the essentially conditions of being human.
Read him if you will. Taipei People is available in English translation.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."