• Opening a Dialogue with Western Narratives on the History of Infectious Diseases: A Review of THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE SPANISH INFLUENZA IN CHINA
    Sep 22, 2022 / By Sean Hsu ∥ Translated by Ed Allen

    At the end of 2019, as the scientific world, public health systems and national governments set about a vigorous response to the global outbreak of the new infectious disease known now as COVID-19, popular attention turned to books in the popular science literature market – Plagues and Peoples, Spillover Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, The Next Pandemic, and Guns, Germs and Steel. While publications on relevant pathogens, immunity, vaccine development and zoonoses were rapidly introduced or reprinted, the production figure for original Chinese-language works paled next to that of translations. New works mainly focused on health care and protection, varieties of care for young families, or simple compilations of materials, and their number remains limited even if we include systemic books on Taiwanese biomedicine. Compared with the unique aspects of essentially Taiwan-specific areas of biomedical research (such as snake venoms, hepatitis, and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)), other subjects lacked the depth and variety of perspectives necessary to succeed on the international market. There is, despite this, nothing lacking in Taiwan’s scientific research and ability to construct narrative. In the past decade or more, younger scholars have invested themselves enthusiastically in the task of making professional knowledge available to the public; special diligence has been shown in the interdisciplinary fields of STS (Science, Technology and Society). The Secret History of the Spanish Influenza in China appropriately reflects this present situation.

    The author, Pi Kuo-Li, is an Associate Professor at the Graduate Institute of History at National Central University and a specialist in the social history of Chinese medicine, history of disease, history of the body, and modern Chinese warfare and technology. Pi’s pre-pandemic research crystallizes in his work Medical Care, Diseases and Society: Understanding and Responses to Influenza Epidemic in the Early Period of Republic of China. Following more than six years of hard labor, this new book, with its underlying theme of the search for the disease and social response and mentality in popular culture, was published in February 2022. From the grand perspective of the global history of disease, this book compensates for previous Western-centered works on the Spanish flu – that great global public health system crisis – and their severe lack of content or grave misunderstanding of greater China during that time. The fatal disease, which raged from 1918 through April 1920, resulted in the death of at least 20 million worldwide (the highest estimate reaches 100 million). By share of global population China should have experienced millions or tens-of-millions of deaths, and yet searching relevant materials gives a number of only 600,000. What explains such an enormous gap?

    China at the time was in the chaotic and confused state of civil war, and was unable to produce accurate statistics on deaths or completed records pertaining the Spanish Flu (for the West, the Great War also significantly contributed to the discrepancy between real and estimated deaths), especially as it engaged with the clearer threats of plague, smallpox, and malaria. Yet Pi successfully analyzes medical books and journals according to multiple perspectives drawn from Chinese and Western medicine (these, intriguingly, united in their advance during these years, rather than struggling in opposition – a likely factor in reducing the harm caused by Spanish Flu), while pointing to comparative descriptions of real cases from daily life and popular culture. The book thereby enters a dialogue with classic Western works on the pandemic. The author describes this as a “diversity of medical history research” perspective – a search for the interactive links between elite medical views and intellectual constructs with daily life and material culture at the lower levels.

    In summary, The Secret History of the Spanish Influenza in China uses historical research to consolidate ideas on how, in the time of Spanish Flu, popular Chinese society and Eastern and Western currents of medical thought recognized and approached an infectious disease – one not far separated from the “cold flu” concept long familiar to TCM, though with a much higher fatality rate. In doing so, the book constructs a humanistic base for conversation amid the largely Western-directed history of infectious disease, which helps us prepare for the next unexpected and life-threatening plague.

  • “I Want to Preserve What Taiwan Is Losing”: Interview with PORTRAITS OF MASTERY Director Wu Chien-Hsun
    Sep 22, 2022 / By Alice Li ∥ Translated by Serena Ye

    Originally published at Readmoo: https://news.readmoo.com/2021/11/10/all-walks-of-life/


    “Think about it – he’s been doing it for so many years. As if he’d be scared of ghosts and think it’s a big deal?” Wu Chien-Hsun jokes that he had been the only person who, when interviewing bone collector Uncle Kun-Mu, didn’t ask whether he’d had any paranormal experiences. After all, what he wanted more than to satisfy public curiosity was to go beyond the artisan’s story and dissect the history and cultural context behind it. “I’ve always really liked studying temple culture, geography, and political and economic development. These are all connected with the development of local culture and history.” Wu used the developed ritual of bone collecting in Beigang as an example “because there used to be many ground burials of wealthy people in Beigang.”

    Wu and his team at Movingtaipei have, since 2019, captured the stories of many Taiwanese practitioners of trades, both new and old, as short films of no more than ten minutes each. Subjects include bone collector Uncle Kun-Mu, who has touched countless corpses; a Taoist priest who deals with the supernatural; and a beaded crown craftsman who works “along with the gods” making headwear for deities. The series showcases the true stories of professional artisans from many industries, from temple craftsmanship to metalworking, ink making, seal carving, and dough figurine kneading, preserving the marks of their time as these older industries are gradually being replaced.

    Visiting places all over Taiwan to follow and interview professional artisans inevitably means interacting with people from all trades and walks of life, so Wu’s down-to-earth nature comes in handy. Born in Tainan, Wu is fluent in Taiwanese Hokkien – “I’ve liked listening to my grandparents talk and imitate different tones since I was young.” This seemingly equipped Wu with a certain power to connect with people, and during the filming process, he is always able to guide the interviewees to tell their own stories. “Taiwanese Hokkien is more vivid and closer to the everyday than Chinese, with more depth and emotion, as well as better able to bring people closer.”

    Wu has the power to relate and get close to people, but where do the protagonists of the stories come from?

    “The first half of Portraits of Mastery mostly involved interviewing people we already knew well, while for the other half we relied on friends to pull a few strings.” Wu has worked on many on-location TV shows in the past, such as “Stories in Taiwan” and “Taiwan Gorgeous Delicacy”. “We were considered a very early on-foot show in Taiwan.” After leaving the network, Wu “wanted to do something different”, and with the trust and financial assistance of former comrade-in-arms at the network “Ah-Wang”, Wu fearlessly began planning Portraits of Mastery. The connections he’s accumulated are also one of his crucial assets, and the group of consultants credited at the end of Portraits of Mastery is the critical driver that allows these cherished stories to be preserved and published. “They helped find these people and stories,” Wu says.


    From Film to Writing: Preserving Non-Replicable Soul and Charm

    In fact, a career in the film and TV industry wasn’t always Wu’s goal.

    Wu once had a chance to visit a friend on set. “They were filming a Judge Bao crime drama, and I was lucky enough to see Kenny Ho, who played Zhan Zhao. I was helping to push the dolly on the track, thinking this seems quite fun.” This was perhaps what sparked Wu’s interest in the film and TV industry; he resigned from his job in China and returned to Taiwan “to find a media company just to hang around at.” This turned out to be the start of more than twenty years in the film and TV industry.

    “I was born in 1967, in the glory days of the three established TV broadcasters. But not long after I started in the industry in my twenties, cable TV appeared, and the internet followed shortly after. Who would still watch TV?” Wu lightly complains, though his passion for the film and TV industry wasn’t extinguished. “Have I thought about giving up? Of course, I want to give up every day. It’s so tiring,” he admits. But he chose to persist and break through, working with his team to create Portraits of Mastery.

    “To be honest, I used to almost never read books, especially those inspirational self-help ones – I thought they were bullshit!” Wu says candidly. Then Aquarius Publishing saw Portraits of Mastery video series and inquired about print rights. “I first knew Aquarius, then I started reading BigBrother’s books, and they were what got me into reading. I like bringing a book to flip through on my commute now. My eyes aren’t great since I’ve gotten old, so it’s not the best to scroll on my phone!”

    This time, Portraits of Mastery videos have been compiled into a book, allowing these stories to be narrated in a different format. “The short films are driven from the perspective of the interviewees, whereas the book takes the reader’s third-person point of view. It’s like reading Jin Yong’s martial arts novels – you’ll imagine those scenes yourself in between the lines.” Wu believes that through writing, readers can better understand the personal side of artisans outside of the profession: “The book is very different. Portraits of Mastery films take a more professional angle, but we’ve also been able to write their life stories into the text.”

    Wu and the Movingtaipei team’s videos and writing contain industry history, cultural context, and the stories of artisans. “I want to preserve what Taiwan is losing, to do something for the things that are disappearing. Those souls and that charm aren’t replicable.” Unlike rapidly popularized YouTubers, who chase views and follow trends to create entertainment-oriented content, Wu hopes that Portraits of Mastery can start a new discussion that “reaches young people. After all, this is the land on which we grew up!”

    Stories from all walks of Taiwanese life are respected and treated equally in Portraits of Mastery. Wu said that his team also wants to film an “old shops” series: “These deserve to be seen by more people.” By bringing their daily life to the screen, they hope to ensure that the stories of this land are thoroughly remembered.

  • “He Probably Bet That I Would Never Leave the Fish Stall”: Interview with Lin Kai-Lun, Author of FISHMONGERING: A MEMOIR
    Sep 21, 2022 / By Alice Li ∥ Translated by Kevin Wang

    Originally published at Readmoo: https://news.readmoo.com/2022/03/28/fishmonger/


    “I wanted to be a flounder too, hanging out in the sand and only having to jump up when there’s something to eat.” Lin Kai-Lun wants to live comfortably, but the “Fish Divination” system he developed gave him a different fate. “I’m actually a tuna, and tunas are workaholics. Fish with dark flesh can’t stop. They have to keep swimming.”

    Fishmongering is a laborious and time-consuming profession. A fishmonger works from three in the morning to one in the afternoon, buying wholesale and hollering to customers day in and day out in the fish market.

    Aside from selling fish, Lin Kai-Lun is also a writer. “I started writing around 2019 or 2020, when I felt like it was time to develop a side business. I also adjusted my workload to spend time with my children.” After finishing at the market, Lin uses his free time before picking up his children or after they go to bed to write. His labors have resulted in prize-winning fiction.  

    Now, Lin Kai-Lun has published his first book of essays, Fishmongering: A Memoir, which foregrounds his observations of life in the fish market.

    While his stories unfold immersively in lived reality, the narrator of his essays is more of a spectator. “We don’t just buy and sell fish at the market. Inevitably, we interact with people.” Lin does not speak for the people around him, but we still see the souls that he encounters. The things he notices are prosaic, but his words form the shape of a life.


    “He probably bet that I would never leave the fish stall”

    Selling fish is a family business that began with his grandfather. Little by little, the burden of the job fell on Lin, who had nowhere to escape. “My elders always told me, ‘Do a good job, and eventually, all this will be yours.’” A touch of helplessness in his voice, Lin notes: “Yep, and it was all debt.”

    The year Lin was born, his father won the national lottery. “I always wondered if he had used up all his luck and mine with unexpected windfalls.”

    When Lin was a child, his father ran a bubble tea store that brought in 700,000 New Taiwan Dollars a month. “Maybe earning money was too easy. He went gambling to pass the time.” Each bet was one or two hundred thousand dollars. Eventually, loan sharks that charged high interest came to the door. “I didn’t understand. I thought our family had plenty of money, so why did we have to deal with this?”

    Lin’s father kept gambling, though his debts mounted. Without a day in the clear, the family fell into a bottomless pit. “It seems that as long as people believe they have a certain kind of luck, they will bet everything on it.” Lin saw firsthand how gamblers always try to turn their fortunes around in one throw of the dice, having forgotten that none of it would be necessary if they had not made the first bet.

    His family lost the store and his parents divorced. Lin’s addicted father also gambled away his child’s life.

    Lin has not had a holiday since junior high school. While his peers were having fun, he was at the stall, buying wholesale, killing fish, and calling to customers. “My father probably bet on my never leaving the fish stall.” He wanted to continue his education and teach sociology, but when he called his father to announce that he had scored the highest marks, his father asked indifferently, “Are you still coming to sell fish this afternoon?”

    Lin shouldered the burdens of the fish stall and his family’s debt, thinking that if he accepted his fate and worked hard, everything would eventually get better. “But my father was still gambling.” Lin told his father that he could pay off the debts and keep him clothed and fed if he would just stop gambling. “He wouldn’t do it.” He secretly borrowed money from friends and relatives in his son’s name and spent the hard-earned savings as though it were a matter of course. “I didn’t understand. How could he treat me that way?”

    Lin’s father stabbed him in the back as he was trying to carry on the family business and get his life back on track. Lin once believed that he could forgive his father endlessly, but his heart gradually grew cold. “I don’t know if he saw me as a son, or just someone he could use.”


    If you can relate, why would you discriminate?

    “Those of us with this kind of childhood in which our family lives were seriously deprived, all want to make up for these shortcomings without repeating them.”

    Lin wants his son and daughter to become responsible for themselves, so that they can find what they love to do and live a happy life.

    Does he want his children to take over the fishmongering business? Lin thinks it’s not necessarily a bad idea, but nurturing them properly is the priority.

    Most fishmongers do not want their children to take over the business. In the eyes of society, fishmongering is a seemingly inferior profession. “Does being a fishmonger mean being dirty, smelly, and poor?” From Lin’s perspective, the fish market is just another kind of workplace, one requiring an understanding of subtle emotions and a familiarity with styles of transaction between different generations. The work is not at all lowly and should not be taken lightly.

    “Everyone thinks fishmongers are poor, and that they sell fish because they’re uneducated,” Lin says. Although Lin himself took on the family business because he had no other option, most young fishmongers today are not lacking in education. In fact, they make the choice to sell fish after a great deal of careful thinking and planning. “Fishmongers may have a low image in society, but we are actually in a higher stratum in terms of financial capability,” said Lin, adding that fishmongers can save money quickly if they are willing to work hard. It is the traditional framework of society that has created this unfair perspective.

    Are street vendors necessarily worse than white-collar workers? Lin wonders, “Isn’t this just like how we ignore the people at home who are quietly serving us and giving us their time?” Service workers aren’t lesser than anyone else, and physical labor can support a family as well as a salary based on brainpower. “We must learn to have confidence in other people’s work and to respect each person’s life choices.”

    Fishmongering: A Memoir is a book that clearly demonstrates Lin’s craftsmanship. “Everything I write about is ordinary. I hope people can understand me and the identity I represent through this work.” Between the lines, we can smell the fish market, hear the exchanges between fishmongers and customers, and feel the ways in which we are bound to others. “I believe even if you’re not a fishmonger, you can still relate to the book. And if you can relate, why would you discriminate?” Lin laughs. every morning, as dawn turns the sky fish-belly white, he plants his feet on the ground and moves forward with life in the fish market.

  • A Legal Thriller That Combines Genre Entertainment with Social Issues: Review of Freddy Fu-Jui Tang’s PORT OF LIES
    Sep 21, 2022 / By Sean Hsu ∥ Translated by Kevin Wang

    During the decades between 1970 and 2000, the introduction of Japanese detective fiction through translated novels, manga, television dramas, and movies profoundly influenced Taiwanese creatives. Some who wrote literary fiction found inspiration in the social observations and realist techniques of Seichō Matsumoto, and applied them to their own native subject matter. Younger writers were deeply inspired by the induction-driven stories about master sleuths such as the manga series The Kindaichi Case Files and Detective Conan, as well new examples of classical detective fiction by Soji Shimada and Yukito Ayatsuji, whose mystery novels focus primarily on the mechanical aspects of crimes and the persona of the great detective. Since then, the continuous, systematic introduction of recent British, American, and European works have inspired creators to expand their narratives and subject matter, increasing the popular appeal of stories while deepening their potential for discussion. It is within this greater context that Freddy Fu-Jui Tang’s novel Port of Lies has risen to prominence, bolstered by its win at MirrorFiction’s second Million-Dollar Award.

    The novel’s main character, Tung Pao-Chu, is a seasoned public defender of Amis ethnicity who has been working in the judicial system for many years and knows all the tricks of the trade. His superficial sloppiness belies a deeper level of clarity. To win the most favor for his clients, he is always able to strike his opponents with a precisely calibrated question while their guards are down. His latest task is to defend an Indonesian fisherman who killed one of Tung’s childhood friends, a decision that causes others from his Amis indigenous community to spurn him. The case, a murder of a family of three, is filled with treacherous unknowns. Does the convict, who cannot be understood due to a language barrier, have a mental health disorder, or is he refusing to disclose ulterior motives? The enormously complex and profitable offshore fishing industry seems indirectly to have caused the incident. Even the Minister of Justice and the President’s inner circle become involved in the investigation as political calculations in the face of an election and a controversial debate over the retention of the death penalty push them to intervene. Lien Chin-Ping, a recent graduate in alternative civilian service whose father is a senior Supreme Court justice assists Tung in his defense, while Leena, an Indonesian care worker commissioned to interpret for the defendant struggles with the question of how deeply she should be involved. In what should have been a simple criminal defense case, the characters, in their search for the truth and desire to uphold justice, find that the chips on the table may decide the fate of the whole country.

    Port of Lies gains narrative power from the process of criminal litigation, which involves the search for criminal motives and arguments between prosecution and defense. British and American works may also depict a twelve-person jury (Taiwan does not have a jury system, though it is in the process of implementing a system of citizen judges). The novel can be categorized as a legal thriller, written with great conviction by Freddy Fu-Jui Tang, who has a legal background that includes five years of experience as a lawyer. Human rights issues that have taken center stage in Taiwan in recent years, including judicial reforms to abolish the death penalty and grant equal rights to indigenous people and foreign migrant workers. These issues are skillfully presented through the novel’s murder case, prompting readers to raise questions of their own. The differing positions between characters create fascinating dramatic tensions that also reflect the various views of the general public. Was the murder of the boat captain’s family premeditated or done in the spur of the moment? Why does the killer deliberately drown the helpless girl in a bucket of water? What role did the dodgy shipping company play? Does the involvement of high-ranking politicians suggest dark forces behind the scenes that cannot be exposed? The design of these various mysteries strikes a clever balance between entertainment value and socially relevant themes.

    Another aspect of the novel’s charm probably derives from its author’s training in cinematic directing at the California Institute of the Arts, which he began after leaving his lawyer job. This gives the novel a smooth and lively tone without compromising credibility earned through the use of reliable sources and specialized knowledge. Freddy Fu-Jui Tang demonstrates an admirable storytelling ability that retains local Taiwanese characteristics while contributing to the international genre of crime fiction.

  • Inside THE SUNLIGHT TRILOGY: Author Joey Yu Talks About His Inspiration and Creation
    Sep 21, 2022 / By Joey Yu

    INSPIRATION: Why do you want to write an epic fantasy like this? Where did the inspiration come from?

    Snowboarding has always been a popular sport since my student life in Vancouver, Canada. I used to listen to epic fantasy music while riding the snow waves, thinking just how cool it would be if I could hold blades in my hands and fight monsters with my boarding buddies while navigating through trees and powder.

    It was during that time that I began some sketches and wrote down rough story ideas that would eventually turn into one of the first scenes in the books. Then I realized a magic system was needed as the high concept, and a world ecosystem to accommodate that.

    The next decision was whether to set the story in a familiar world. I thought the Earth we knew would be cool, with recognizable cities blanketed by perpetual snowfall (I actually had a concept drawing of the snowclad ruins of Vancouver). You know, impossible locations for such climate – Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Solomon Islands – all of which you will all get to see in the story. Isn’t that cool? A city in the tropical zone you thought you knew, but now entirely snow-choked. They become precious monuments to explore for our protagonists. There’s something awe-inspiring to it.

    Ideas grew, and it became apparent that one book wouldn’t be enough; it had to be at least a trilogy in order to cover the world map. I’m a fantasy fan, so I love looking at maps and imagining the “what-ifs”. Took me years of planning, research, and actual writing.

    Book 1 starts in New Zealand, Southeast Asia, and Taipei. A primal world where no electricity could be produced. People hunt with blades and dress in furs. Pure fantasy setting.

    Book 2 opens up the world, taking us further north to Shanghai (China) and Sakura Island (Japan), introducing a new civilization that leverages the snow magic – or the “snow spirits” – but in a very culturally unique way.

    Book 3 goes to the far west – the European continent and a future city called Avalon – which have invented technologies to harness the same snow magic but use it in an industrial, scientific way.

    There is, of course, a “looming danger” throughline that threatens all remaining civilizations on the snowball Earth. And to uncover it, our characters must make journeys to rediscover our fallen world, connecting present events to myths of what happened five centuries ago.


    Can you talk a little more about the Shade Riders?

    They take on most of the fighting in the books. They are humans whose souls are bonded with Ling – spirits that make unpredictable appearances around deep snow, looking like miniature aurora borealis.

    A Rider’s apprentice must go through a culturally unique ritual for the binding process, locking a spirit inside their riding board crafted by an artisan.

    In the face of danger, a Shade Rider may summon their spirit out of the board, having it wrapped around their chosen weapons inscribed with silver runes – and always with two pieces of weapons, one in each hand, to balance the riding stance.

    Every Shade Rider is unique. With different snow spirits coupling with various chosen weaponry, we get to see many combinations of combat styles, all done while they’re riding the snow in high speed.


    PROCESS: You published the first two books about nine years ago, then there seemed to be a hiatus before you published the final book last year. Why the gap? Did it have to do with your creative process?

    Mostly it was just life getting in the way. A couple years back I tried game writing, and wrote a Kickstarter comic on the side (also a futuristic fantasy setting). So, Sunlight was placed on hold.

    On the realistic side, there was a waiting period before a new publisher could take over. You know, contractual issues. The new publisher was instrumental in hiring a professional artist to conceptualize my world-setting, creating the posters you now see.

    It’s the kind of story that no one’s seen before, hard to categorize as any traditional genre (Well… I call it futuristic fantasy), so coming up with visual posters really help readers to quickly envision the setting in their minds. Mr. Lu DongBiao, a great film concept artist, has totally captured the mood of this world.

    On top of all these, I knew the final book of the series must be both intellectually and emotionally rewarding to the readers, who wanted to feel that all the time invested in reading the first two installments would be worthwhile. So, I set a super high bar for Book 3. I don’t think I’ve done this much research before in my creative career, trying to design whole civilizations across three continents based on Sunlight’s high concept and power system. The process was really fun, and the results paid off (according to my readers). Typing up loose threads, plotting dramatic escalation, designing revelations that go hand in hand with our heroes’ emotional journeys...all these took time. I just never expected them to take that many years.


    So you have three, or four new civilizations on a planet that is entirely covered by snow. The scale of work seems daunting on many levels. But what does this mean to the heroes of the books?

    I have a passion for world-building, so those came natural to me. But good stories still come down to the characters’ choices and transformation.

    Most of the POVs are Shade Riders, who begin their journey in one specific location on the map. Subsequent civilizations are revealed through the characters’ discovery of them, so we experience the story through their eyes just as they’re making sense of a world that’s been silent and sunless for the past 500 years.

    With each discovery, characters old and new are confronted with important questions. How do we bring Sunlight back? Does it even exist behind the clouds? If people finally get to see it with their eyes, will it damage their faith? – These are just some of the questions the characters are asking themselves as they navigate through the snow-covered world.

    What does Sunlight mean to each surviving civilization? How about the Shade Spirits? And the monsters? Why did they appear? Each POV character will derive a different interpretation from their chosen journeys. And a lot of this reflect on our current environment, the way different cultures could view the same thing so differently.

    And maybe there’s a beauty to that. Why do cultures and individuals form vastly different interpretations from the same intangible ideas? Or even from concrete facts. Under miles of thick snow, that might just be the core of truth we’re all trying to explore.


    WORDS TO READERS: Anything you’d like to say to readers overseas?

    Sunlight is a “futuristic fantasy” story – where fantastic elements emerge on Earth five centuries into the future. There are sci-fi elements, too, reinterpreted and reimagined. I trust that readers of different tastes will all find joys from these books. It also suggests a world that dangerously resembles a future when climates go wrong.

    At the core, though, Sunlight is still about the spirit of adventure and exploration. About the bonds we share as humans no matter which culture we’re originally from, or which historical roots we are born into. I am curious to know how American readers, African readers, European readers, and readers from various backgrounds might respond to the story. Will be nice to hear their opinions, to be inspired by their interpretations.

    So hopefully I can invite you to come into my world, to ride through a thousand icy terrains with the Shade Riders, finding lost relics and rare remaining Soul Woods, unravelling climate-altering mysteries, and witnessing the almighty Sunlight for the first time in 500 years.

  • The Archaeology of Posthuman Love
    Sep 21, 2022 / By David Der-wei Wang ∥ Translated by Kevin Wang

    Science fiction is the most important phenomenon of twenty-first century Sinophone literature. By the end of the last century, Hong Kong’s Dung Kai-cheung and Chan Koonchung; China’s Liu Cixin, Han Song, and Wang Jinkang; Taiwan’s Lucifer Hung, Chi Ta-wei, and Andrew Yeh; and overseas writer Chang Shi-Kuo, among others, have all written about time travel, interstellar war, alien monsters, biochemical weapons, the earth in crisis, utopias and dystopias, and other subjects outside of mainstream realist fiction. Large-scale works such as Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and Han Song’s Tracks and Hospital either conceive of the last struggles of human civilization in the face of extinction by alien invasion or reflect on the Kafkaesque confines of the human condition. While these works engage shrewdly with grand themes, they also lead the reader into unknown worlds and give access to unrevealed visions. Dung Kai-cheung’s Histories of Time offers retrospective accounts from the future of a submerged Hong Kong, while Chan Koonchung, who once lived in Beijing, concocts a socialist heterotopia connecting past to future.

    Science fiction in Taiwan has not been able to develop its own climate, but this has not prevented dedicated writers from experimenting with form and imagining alternate realities. Lou Yi-Chun’s Daughter deploys a knowledge of quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence while reversing typical understandings of moral realism and gender roles. In Kuang Chaoren, Lou incorporates the astrophysics of black holes and white holes into a creative landscape wherein pathological changes in the human body create cracks that allow glimpses into celestial storms. The setting of Lou’s Ming Dynasty pays homage to Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. In the story, a robot transmits data on the Ming Dynasty to another galaxy as the blueprint for a future civilization. Egoyan Zheng’s Ground Zero imagines the causes and consequences of a Taiwanese nuclear power plant explosion and the strange visions brought about by the catastrophe, no less than a tribute to the novel The Ruins of Taiwan by Sung Tse-lai, a writer of a prior generation.

    All these works can be categorized as science fiction, but they have won the attention of readers not only because of their authors’ fantastical imagination and how they cross the boundaries of realism. As science fiction theorist Seo-Young Chu reminds us, the subjects tackled by science fiction narratives are not themselves fantastical. On the contrary, they may be more real than the realities of realist fiction. Chu even believes that all literary creations are works of “science fiction” that turn vulgar matters into magic. The techniques of reenactment and mimesis that realist fiction relies on are only the first step. Science fiction’s ability to reflect on and reconstruct inconceivable, inexplicable reality is what truly demonstrates the power of literature to turn the imaginary into the real. More important, Chu argues that the basic unit of science fiction is the poetic or lyric metaphor – it uses the complex twists of figurative language to turn the “dream world” into narrative expression.

    If so, what are the metaphors in Egoyan’s science fiction compared to that of his contemporaries? Liu Cixin is concerned with the state of emergency before the collapse of human civilization; Han Song is always mired in the claustrophobic syndromes of a black box (China!); Lou Yi-Chun specializes in abject and impossible to unravel ethical farces; the clock of Hong Kong under Dung Kai-cheung’s pen ticks haphazardly; Chan Koonchung’s world is filled with conspiracies that appear in the full light of day. In contrast, Egoyan’s works are more involutionary, like Rubik’s cubes or Russian nesting dolls, spiraling, overlapping, and recursive. Historical, political, ethical, and gender issues all revolve around his surveys of intimate relationships, and all his plot points and characters ultimately point toward the topology of love.

    Egoyan believes that love is the most wondrous variable separating humans from non-humans. Each story in the collection sets up a dialogue or argument about love. In “The Masaki Nikaido Virtual Idol Scam”, the main character willingly invests her life into a lover she meets in dreams. She has no regrets, having asked herself: “Am I afraid of a life without love, or am I afraid of a life without companionship?” In “The Rest of My Life”, an actress and director couple pursue the zero degrees of separation found in perfect love, unable to bear the compromise of anything that “also counts as love”. They experiment with their neurobiologies and do not hesitate to replace their lives as human beings. In “The Dream Projection AI Uprising Against Humanity”, The Phantom, an imprisoned AI creature, shows disdain for humans but is speechless when asked, “You have no desire to reproduce, so are you not capable of love?”. In “Lights in the Mist”, the prevailing church of “Global Consciousness” look negatively on all beliefs, as well as the human capacity for rationality and cognition. They work hard to purge all notions of divine will and all prior philosophical ideas about transcendence in order to become a cleaner species. But while the survivors of the slaughter speak eloquently of their anti-faith beliefs, they are at a loss to explain the origins of “sentience” and its associations with love.

    A dialogue within the fake book’s fictional afterword is rich with meaning. A reporter meets with a virtual pornography mogul to discuss the ways in which human dreams are put into practice. While the survivors of the Global Consciousness cult express their doubts about human cognition and propose cutting the body off from the soul as a way to achieve zero degrees of separation, the porn mogul chooses to go in the opposite direction and uses the most advanced dream making techniques that customizes for all erotic needs, attaining zero degrees of separation through fantasy and pleasure. The climax of their dialogue reveals a shocking clue that leads to another variation of the love-dream debate.

    The first story in Zero Degrees of Separation, “Say I Love You Again”, points to “unfulfilled dreams and the deprivation of love” as the origin points of human trauma. In the story’s climax, a scientist obsessed with cetaceans at the neglect of her child suddenly says “I love you” to her son while in the final stages of developing a cetacean neurobiology. These are human words spoken in the language of orcas. The moment presents a convergence of death and life, fire and light against the night roar of the sea, a place where happiness and the end of happiness are indistinguishable. Is love a miracle? Is it the perfect culmination of a made-up dream? Or is it the most mysterious aspect of being human? Egoyan voices the baffling questions of the posthuman era in the most lyrical terms without giving a definitive answer.

    “The source of love is not known; it only grows deeper.” The bewilderment and lament of the pre-modern dramatist Tang Xianzu still echoes in our posthuman century. In Tang’s classical romance, love’s greatest dimension is that the living may die of it, while the dead may live again through it. If so, a work of science fiction like Zero Degrees of Separation subtly tells us that a posthuman life is always the life of a survivor: the meaning of love begins with picking up the wreckage of (imagined) love.

  • Let’s Be “Muggles”– Taking a Trip to East Asia: Interview with Author of WISH YOU WERE HERE Essay Liu
    Sep 20, 2022 / By Anting Lu ∥ Translated by Serena Ye

    Most Taiwanese readers know screenwriter Essay Liu from the 2010 film Seven Days in Heaven. Over the years, she has continued to write scripts, essays, and novels, bringing works that have captured people’s hearts and attention. But whether her subject is love, food, or life, her readers can often glimpse elements of travel and exotica in her writing; now, the avid traveler has finally decided to write a story about traveling.


    Fiction Close to Life

    Kyoto, Japan; Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet in China; Hualien, Changhua, Taichung, and Taipei in Taiwan. After reading Wish You Were Here, readers will have followed the protagonists on a full-circle tour of East Asia. When asked whether her writing was based on lived experience, Liu smiles and says, “I have to say that if I haven’t been to a place, I doubt I would be able to write about it.” As a novelist, she is well accustomed to turning life experiences into creative fuel, and this fuel often comes from travel.

    In the opening chapter on sky burial, “Shmashana (Charnel ground)”, one can almost see the swooping vultures and smell the stench of corpses permeating the air through her words, which immerse the reader in intense and unsettling sensory information. The sky burial ground left a profound impression on Liu; she describes bodies on the burial ground left for anywhere between two to seven days, assaulting the nose with an odor stronger than any excrement or waste she had ever smelt. It was also the first time that she realized, “So this is what death smells like,” and decided to write this visceral experience into the book.


    A New Kind of Travel Brings Unexpected Inspiration

    When she first decided to write Wish You Were Here, Liu, who is used to basing her writing on personal experience, originally planned to revisit all the places in the book and write while traveling, integrating old memories with new discoveries. However, the disruptions of the 2020 pandemic forced her to forego her travel plans.

    Staying in Taiwan to write, she turned to Google Maps for inspiration. She went online to the cities she had traveled to, and while using Street View and its timeline to browse what places looked like past and present, she suddenly wondered: “Could I be captured by Google cameras while walking on the street one day, and become a part of Street View?” Therefore, having done her “fieldwork” via Google Maps, she gave her protagonist Hsieh An-Te the ability to check Street View, which becomes a major clue in the journey to finding his mother in the narrative.


    To Broaden Your Writing, You Have to Broaden Your Horizons

    The travel-loving Liu loves stories about journeys, including classics like On the Road and Eat Pray Love. Although these “grand trip” stories ostensibly write about travel, their focus is ultimately the fundamental changes effected on the traveler’s state of mind through interaction with people, events, and objects on the road. This sense of transformation fascinates Liu, so when she thought she had enough travel and emotional experience to accomplish this type of work, Wish You Were Here was written.

    But even though the focus is on self-pursuit, the biggest difference between Wish You Were Here and traditional travel and on-the-road works is that Liu spends more time dealing with the family experience of the characters. “I wanted to audaciously explore the idea of ‘don’t be restricted by your family’ in the story.” She says that dealing with family dynamics is the biggest issue for every character in the book, and only after letting go of their attachments and reconciling with their families can they truly embark on their own life journey.


    A Journey on Paper Through the Eyes of the Traveler

    As the interview nears the end, we discuss the work’s potential for international development. Liu mentions that themes of travel and self-discovery have no borders, and hopes that international readers can temporarily forget about the author’s nationality when reading the book, and travel around East Asia, like “Muggles”, through words on the page.

    So which of the places in the book is the most worth visiting? Liu smiles, “If it was a place that you could visit again and again, I’d recommend Kyoto, but if we’re talking a place you have to visit at some point in your life, it’d definitely be Tibet!” Given its complicated entry process and the dangers of traveling at high altitude, Tibet particularly tests people’s physical condition – it’s a place you “may not be able to go to even if you wanted”. Before tourism in East Asia revives, and you can pay a visit to Kyoto or Tibet, why not first read Wish You Were Here and embark on a journey of self-discovery with the characters! 

  • CASEY AND HIS GAS SHOP: A Gasman’s Daughter Tears Off the Mask to Expose the Cruelty in the Saying “Jobs Are Neither Noble Nor Humble”
    Sep 20, 2022 / By Hong Chee Shan ∥ Translated by Dong Li

    Originally published at The News Lens: https://www.thenewslens.com/article/158988


    The Guerrilla Female Perspective: Breaking Through the Monotone of the Masculine Narrative

    Casey and His Gas Shop is based on the story of three gas shop owners: Casey, a newcomer to the city of Yilan; Wang Zi-Jian (“Prince”), whose business is going downhill; and Lin Tu-Tou (“Peanut”), whose business is booming. The book tells of their conflicts and the local customs of Yilan. One expects a story featuring three male characters to be masculine, but author Hao Ni-Er does not stop there. She expands the narrative to include the perspectives of Prince’s wife Yeh Shu-Ching and daughter Wang An-Ni; Peanut’s wife Lin Su-Yu; Grandma Fang, a customer, her son Fang Hsiang-Chun, daughter-in-law Hsiao Mei, and granddaughter Fang Huai-Hisang.

    Amid this cacophony, the female perspective stands out: Wang An-Ni’s teenage adventures, Yeh Shu-Ching’s housekeeping, Lin Su-Yu’s quiet observations, Hsiao Mei’s struggles with her desire and infidelity, Fang Huai-Hsiang’s bewilderment at Casey’s pursuits. These scenes come alive in Hao Ni-Er’s narrative to paint a holistic picture of the ecology of each company. For instance, here’s a scene in which Yeh Shu-Ching urges her husband Prince to collect the money from their customer:

    “Yeh Shu-Ching told him over and over again not to take credit. Halfway there, he received a call. It was her repeating: ‘Get a deposit at least.’” But at the doorstep of the less privileged, Prince cannot hide his soft spot: “Though embarrassing, a gas bottle that is worth a few hundred dollars would allow these people to last a few more weeks, to have hot water and warm meals, as if it would prevent their life from tilting too fast.” Thus, he assumes his wife’s reprimand. Seeing that she is about to scold him, he quickly thinks up some excuse, but does not expect that “she just picked up two bags of fruits and walked away. As she turned around and saw that Prince had not stepped out of the car, she asked, ‘Everything alright? Could you give me a hand?’ He says of course and helps her carry the vegetables and fruits.” Unannounced, a family drama ends. It is touching to read the couple’s tacit understanding of each other.

    Instead of accepting a typically masculine portrayal of women as being focused entirely on petty profits, the novel offers a realistic and unpretentious restoration of familial interactions, making the otherwise stiff and sweaty gas shops wonderfully human. This is what makes Hao Ni-Er’s novel so powerful. The novel goes at length to set up the story, but ends in a precise and beautiful way, reminding us of all the compromises and helplessness in life. These last scenes give us a truthful close-up of the locals’ daily lives.


    Jobs Are Neither Noble Nor Humble: Grinding Matters for the Workers

    In her afterword, Hao makes clear that “I was raised not to believe ‘jobs are neither noble nor humble’.” As the daughter of a gas worker, she wants to describe in writing the cruelties of that particular world. This makes Casey and His Gas Shop special in that it pierces the facade of appearance. Wang An-Ni, the daughter of Prince, has to face all kinds of gossip and suffers great humiliation because of her father’s profession. “Good grief! He works so hard to earn a living, but look at his daughter!” However, Hao Ni-Er deliberately allows her character to have the resilience of resisting this flawed and stereotypical narrative: “If I were a daughter of a civil servant, would anyone say such things? What if I were a banker’s child? What’s wrong with a gas worker?” On reading this, readers might loosen up and feel sympathetic toward the cruelties behind a phrase like “jobs are neither noble nor humble”.

    Although workers need more respect, they often remain silent. In fact, at the very beginning of the novel, Hao Ni-Er already provides such an insight – Prince thought that his daughter’s rebellion is “because of the gas smell all over me?” To everybody’s surprise, the daughter rebelled only because her father’s name sounds like the name of a brand of instant noodles, and she worried that he would be ridiculed by her schoolmates. The smell of natural gas permeates the novel; before he delivers gas bottles to restaurants in Dongshan, Peanut always bathes, noting: “The boss detests the smell of gas, so I cannot go without a shower.” When Casey stands before someone he likes, he has nowhere to hide the smell: “Casey certainly knows what he smells like. The gas workers, no matter how thoroughly they wash themselves, have nowhere to hide the smell, when the others wrinkle their nose.” That odor, a constant, baleful presence in Casey and His Gas Shop, is a reminder to the novelist herself as well as to the readers that matter how much you want to maintain a peaceful surface, it is better to admit that some smells cannot be washed away.

    This is what makes Casey and His Gas Shop so special: it is honest, straightforward, and unapologetic. Hao speaks for the workers, not just to harvest popular acclaim, but also to make us reflect on whether we are being hypocritical when we blurt out “I understand” and “I know” in response to every observation, and whether we overlook the importance of honesty and sincerity. “Sincerity is the most moving sound,” the author writes; this is precisely what Hao Ni-Er’s Casey and His Gas Shop has taught me.   

  • The Characters of Her Novel Beating in Her Mind for Thirty Years, Ku Yu-Ling Exhausts the Field of Her Life to Capture the Unspeakable: An Interview with Ku Yu-Ling on Her Novel MARGINS OF TIME
    Sep 20, 2022 / By Hao Ni-Er ∥ Translated by Dong Li

    Originally published at Openbook: https://www.openbook.org.tw/article/p-66274


    Known for her literary reportage, Ku Yu-Ling has recently released Margins of Time, her first novel. The book reads like a series of memory exercises, describing Taiwan’s wounds and scars, interpersonal bonds and burdens, as well as individual pains and sorrows.

    Unable to forget our grief, we live more like a collective nation than a generation.

    The novel is valuable for more than Ku’s ability to stick a needle where it really bleeds. Her memory exercises also work like daily conversations that take place between the moments of meals, movements, and quiet looks. Following a plot as plain as water, the readers realize that strength and vulnerability co-exist – those lives shattered by explosive events that happened decades ago have not died, instead, they strike on the here and now quietly like aftershocks. 


    Fiction Fills an Unknown Past.

    Speaking about her creative process while writing Margins of Time, Ku Yu-Ling said she deployed results from a life of field research, because “fiction, in fact, does not reveal what is already known, instead, the characters often go to places that are unfamiliar to us. Quite often, I had to stop and think where they were taking me.” This is all new to Ku Yu-Ling. She said with a sweet smile: “I call the time spent on the novel ‘sweet hours’. Every day, I looked forward to an unknown journey.”

    These “sweet hours”, however, took thirty years to reach fruition. The phrase “field of her life” is, in a larger sense, no exaggeration. Many characters in Margins of Time took shape when Ku graduated high school; one of the protagonists, Chang Chin-Shan, is an example.

    “This character was modeled after my high school geography teacher. In his youth, he endured Japanese rule. When people in my generation read history, it told us that World War Two is all about fighting against the Japanese. That conflict seemed to define everything. But the fact is that Taiwan participated in the militaristic expansion at the time. This part was not included in the materials we had read; everybody was just happy to celebrate the victory. I did not have the opportunity to read other versions beyond the history of fighting against the Japanese until after the lifting of martial law.”

    Ku was so shocked by her findings that even today she can only use adjectives like “explosive” to describe the “other world” that she saw after the lifting of the martial law.

    “I started to wonder what the adults I knew, and what my geography teacher, or even my father had actually gone through,” Ku Yu-Ling said. Her reflection came to a shattering conclusion: “I knew nothing about their past.”

    Ku said when she was younger, she thought about adults only in terms of “the annoying and the not-so-annoying”. The onset of a new era brought all kinds of materials to light. What she “desperately wanted to know” was not just the information in history books, but the stories of individual lives. “But then you realize there is no way of knowing people simply through your intelligence, you are sometimes constrained by the framework of the era. Of course, I later also benefited from the era.”

    Ku Yu-Ling recalled reading classified historical records from the White Terror together with someone who had been a political prisoner then. “We read left-wing political economy and Marx. For a child who grew up with anti-communist sentiments, a whole new world opened up, the adults around us became three-dimensional, and I began to imagine more. A novel can contain that kind of imagination.”


    A Small Step Toward Reconciliation, a Big Step Toward Understanding

    All the wounds and scars in Margins of Time, no matter how big or small, are caused by the aftershocks of politics and class structure. Therefore, what most concerns Ku in the midst of these aftershocks is how these people lived their lives.

    In the process of reading the book, readers may be easily drawn in by the propelling plotlines of war and politics. But Ku also spends an equal amount of energy laying out pressing issues like housing, labor, and environmental protection. “If we are able to understand the constraints these people felt, the choices they made, and the consequences they had to bear, then we should also reflect on our own life.”

    More than thirty years have passed since the lifting of martial law. The children born then are now old enough to start their own families. Ku Yu-Ling’s desire to write awakened those three decades ago. The characters beat in her mind day and night. And she hopes to launch a new dialogue with readers in their twenties and thirties.

    “This generation is very different from ours. They have been to all kinds of memorials and museums since their youth. My greatest fear is that after they finish reading the long historical records, they would say: ‘It is good that it is over. It is good that it is different now.’ What I fear most is the perfect tense of democracy, not knowing its inadequacy, not having the strength to resist.”

    In this way, Margins of Time remains unfinished. The curiosity, patience, and suspicion of the characters, though different in their own ways, ultimately reflect an era. Some cannot find the right words at the moment when something happens; time then passes on like water, and the pain becomes an unspeakable wound, a fog in the mind. I hear some are eager for reconciliation, as if the fog could be controlled or dispersed completely.

    “I do not write to reconcile, far from it,” said Ku Yu-Ling. She meant that she writes to understand.

    Now she understands that “sometimes, the pain of individuals cannot be relieved or reversed by other forces, but demands the whole social structure to relax in order for them to find relief.” Therefore, writing is a must, no matter how far the so-called “truth” as we understand it departs from reality. Ku Yu-Ling is willing to let her inquiry and her work become a part of the “collective” forces to that end.