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.