• The Current State of the Self-Help Book Market in Taiwan (I)
    By Juliette Ting ∥ Translated by William Ceurvels
    Dec 07, 2023

    Emotional Blackmail is going to a second printing.” “Emotional Blackmail is now on its third printing!” “We can’t keep this book on the shelves, we’ll have to do a 5,000-copy run!” …

    This was the book-buying frenzy that ensued just one month into the publication of psychologist Chou Mu-tzu’s (周慕姿) first book, Emotional Blackmail (Aquarius Publishing) (情緒勒索). In an era when selling 5,000 copies qualifies as “best-selling”, Chou’s first volume not only sold over 10,000 copies in the first month, but it has also gone on to sell more than a total of 250,000 copies to date. Additionally, the rights for the book were also sold in Mainland China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

    The book, which teaches people how to recognize emotional manipulation and set social boundaries, was published right before Taiwan’s traditional new year’s festival, a holiday that sees family members all reuniting under one roof to ring in the new year. Clearly, this unprecedent subject matter, combined with the author’s forceful and clear-cut elucidation, deeply resonated with the afflictions of a readership that had just been subject to the precipitous increase in stressful social relations that accompanies the extended holiday.


    Emotional Blackmail


    The book became a kind of cultural phenomenon and its effects continued to ripple out to readers young and old—spotting an elementary school-aged boy leafing through the book at a bookstore, a colleague couldn’t help but wonder how many times the boy had been emotionally blackmailed by adults with the line “I’m doing this for your own good”?

    This bestselling tsunami inspired the publishing world to take the deep and expansive waters of the self-help book market more seriously and successive titles on a wide variety of related subjects helped improve the accessibility of the material. As more and more of these titles became available to readers, they began to realize they were not the only ones that felt the way they did, and gained new insight into previously unfathomable emotional worlds. This all helped to curtail some of the previous reluctance towards seeking out self-help books. Spurred on by these synergistic developments in the publishing world and readers’ predilections, self-help became a trending sector of the publishing market.

    Indeed, the world we live in can be quite a depressing place and commensurate feelings of emptiness and anxiety no doubt leave people thirsting ever more for antidotes and escapes! Prior to the publication of Emotional Blackmail (情緒勒索), the non-fiction market was dominated by books on business and finance, parenting and health—by contrast, other than professional reference books, and titles released by publishers that specialized in the subject, books on self-help marketed to the general public were few and far between. Thus, for a veteran publisher like Aquarius, the sudden, dramatic increase in popularity of self-help books was observed even more readily at that time.

    Starting with titles on the idea of “learning to love yourself” and expanding outwards, books by counselling/clinical psychologists became a mainstay of the Taiwanese book market. Soon, psychiatrists also entered the fray and a lively discourse unfolded between various schools of thought, each with their own strengths and specializations. This expansion and intensification of the conversation surrounding psychology in the book market led to an increasing specificity in the subcategories of subjects explored.


    Smiling Depression


    Subjects covered included setting social boundaries and understanding emotions (Particularly negative emotions, addressed in Don’t Let Negative Emotions Hold You Captive (別讓負面情緒綁架你) by the counseling psychologist Hu Chan-hao (胡展皓) and Smiling Depression (微笑憂鬱) by clinical psychologist Hung Pei-yun (洪培芸)), parenting, love, marriage and trauma from workplace relationships (See Cold Violence: The Pervasive Abuse in the Workplace (職場冷暴力) by psychiatrist Lin Yu-hsuan (林煜軒)), anxiety (Chronic Anxiety (慢性焦慮) by counseling psychologist Chuang Po-an (莊博安)), and even dealing with peers with personality disorders (See The Scumbag: A Personality Disorder (渣男:病態人格) by psychiatrist Wang Feng-kang (王俸鋼)) etc.


    Cold Violence: The Pervasive Abuse in the Workplace

  • An Imperial Edifice Born of the Xinhai Revolution
    By Lin Tzung-Kuei ∥ Translated by Mike Fu
    Sep 20, 2023

    Designed by Yang Cho-cheng of Hemu Architects, the Yuanshan Grand Hotel is a classic example of postwar architecture in Taiwan that is often cited for its symbolism and historical significance in the annals of architectural discourse. Scholars including Fan Ming-ju and Joseph R. Allen have analyzed the hotel using political, cinematic, and other frameworks. Given that most academic texts focus on the yellow glazed tiles of the hotel’s roof, the title The Red Mansion feels like a rediscovery that compels the reader to consider the overwhelming presence of red in the building, rather than simply gaze at the rooftop, where one’s attention may naturally be drawn when beholding antique palaces. This title uncovers the stories that take place within the walls of the hotel, and that exist beneath the contours of the building’s silhouette that remains so dominant in architectural history. Through a cast of colorful characters, the reader gets to know the fascinating history that this edifice contains.

    Why was the yellow roof such a striking feature during the era of authoritarian rule? To answer this question, we must return to Taiwan before World War II, when it was still a Japanese colony. By 1929, the 34th year of Japanese governance, Ide Kaoru had already long served as chief architect of the Taiwan Government-General’s Building and Repairs Section. In this capacity, he’d made many observations and formed insights into the architecture of the island. Ide believed that every metropolis had representative colors and palettes, such as the hazy hues of London, the vivid light of Paris, the earth tones of Rome, and so on. It was the task of the architectural designer to harmonize with the environment, rather than try to bend it to his will. In addition, the urban palette was created by not only static buildings, but the replaceable signage of shops and the dynamic movements of carriages and motor vehicles. Buses traveling back and forth on the streets were among the important elements that influenced one’s overall impression of a city, as well.

    Taihoku, as Taipei was then known, needed a long-term plan in order to create its own urban palette. Situated at a relatively low latitude compared to the Japanese mainland, Taihoku was well-suited for brick buildings in colors that would be enlivened by the bright sun. These facades would convey a sense of modernity and create a unique style for the city; they would also be easy to clean and maintain in such a humid climate. The brick buildings that were planned and designed under Ide Kaoru’s guidance included the pale green Taihoku Civic Hall (today’s Zhongshan Hall) and the High Court of the Taiwan Government-General (today’s Judicial Building); the tawny-colored Taiwan Education Hall (today’s National 228 Memorial Hall) and Taihoku Imperial University campus (today’s National Taiwan University); and the red ochre of the Taihoku High School campus (today’s National Taiwan Normal University). These structures have a cohesive style when viewed together, while each building also boasts its own colorful details.

    After World War II, Taipei’s landscape was shaped by architects who were well-versed in European and American modernism. They seemed to be on the verge of developing a unique urban palette for Taipei, but ultimately still fell short of Ide Kaoru’s ideal, which called for a blending of colors that could express calm and restraint while retaining a sense of vigor. Taipei’s postwar style instead deployed white tiles on building exteriors in order to convey a sense of spaciousness. The rapid economic development of this period produced mass quantities of buildings with uniform interiors and a limited range of exterior colors. The architects of the Republic of China were quite obsessed with white facades that emphasized volume, a modernist principle embodied most visibly by the New York Five in the 1980s. This group of star architects, also known as the Whites, was idolized and imitated around the world. We all know how the rest of the story went. In the rainy climes of Taipei, the white brick exteriors were not cleaned as regularly as the mighty building management committees had envisioned. They quickly became stained by exhaust and grime in the era of the automobile and no longer highlighted the spatial or structural features of the buildings as originally intended. The tiles were successively removed and restored, but no longer did they convey the modernist ideal of the city of white. In this city of pale hues filled with people of all social strata, how could the Republic of China’s blue bloods show off their elite status during an era of authoritarian rule? Landmarks with yellow glazed roof tiles thus became the symbol of a ruling class pining for their lost homeland.

    According to Professor Yang Hongxun of the architecture department of Tsinghua University in Beijing, Confucian temples and the habitations of the highest classes of the imperial family were the only structures allowed to use yellow glazed tiles during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Even the households of other nobles, including princes and lords, were limited to green or black tiles. The Kuomintang government took credit for overthrowing the Manchu Qing empire and leading the Xinhai Revolution. After relocating to Taiwan, the KMT used public resources to successively construct places like the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine, the National Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, and the National Theater and Concert Hall. In a twist of historical irony, these buildings all proudly make use of yellow glazed tiles, that most potent symbol of the imperial power toppled by the Xinhai Revolution. In the so-called Republic of China, the ruling party was essentially creating symbols to demonstrate they were the successors to the imperial palace. That the KMT inherited this mentality from dynastic times is absurd and paradoxical, a fact that has largely been overlooked beyond the communities of architectural researchers.

    If you looked out over the cityscape of postwar Taipei, you’d see glimmers of golden roofs in the midst of endless rows of white buildings, a brazen imposition of the shadow of the ancient Chinese capitals of Luoyang, Chang’an, Nanjing, and Beiping upon the Taipei Basin. The tallest of these buildings with yellow rooftops was none other than the Yuanshan Grand Hotel, the protagonist of the book in question.

    Ultimately, neither white nor yellow became a representative color of Taipei or the urban style of Taiwanese architecture. All that remains is the massive red mansion that still towers on Yuanshan, a location chosen for its excellent feng shui to house a shrine during the Japanese colonial era. The Yuanshan Grand Hotel has borne witness to tumultuous events like the establishment of the Democratic People’s Party, a great fire on its roof, the hiring of “lion-hearted” general manager Stanley Yen, and the controversy over the national flag during a Chinese delegation’s visit in 2008. The elite pretensions that the authoritarian government-in-exile vehemently maintained have faded away over time. A palace that once wielded immense power has ultimately reverted to the competition of the free market. Thanks to the stories recorded by T.H. Lee, we are able to glimpse Taiwanese history in the hotel. As for Taipei’s future and the question of how to create a national style, we’ll leave this in the hands of generations to come.

  • Helping a Beloved Mother Achieve an Autonomous Life Decision: A Combination of “Truth, Courage, and Wisdom”
    By Lai Chi-Wan, MD ∥ Translated by Mary King Bradley
    Sep 20, 2023

    This is a superb and truly remarkable book. It offers a meticulous record of how the author and her family fulfilled a beloved mother’s wish to hasten her end, a request that stemmed from the impaired movement and inability to care for herself brought about by a progressive atrophy of the brain.

    A specialist in rehabilitation medicine of many years’ standing, the author’s expertise in the field of life and death studies as well as in international laws and regulations on death have contributed to her wealth of writing experience in these areas. Only after looking through the entire text did I realize just how many aspects of life the book touches upon and thus come to understand the inner world of this mother. As fate would have it, she had a marvelous life in her later years despite the hardships of her youth. I applaud her from the bottom of my heart for the manner in which she voluntarily ended her eighty-three years of life.

    The author opens with the chapter “Genetic Screening for Cerebellar Atrophy”. Several of the author’s maternal relatives developed impaired mobility in middle age as a symptom of this disease. A cousin died by suicide, unable to bear its torture. Eventually, her mother was diagnosed with spinocerebellar ataxia. The author then writes matter-of-factly about her own torment from the worry that she, too, had inherited the gene. To rid herself of this emotional and mental shroud, she finally resolved to undergo genetic screening to determine if she had in fact inherited the relevant gene mutation. As a result of her own experience, she could better understand her mother’s unwillingness to face the purgatory of the lingering death experienced by other family members, and could empathize with her wish to bring her life to a timelier close.

    The next few chapters describe the ups and downs of the mother’s life, including her lack of opportunity to obtain higher education due to the family’s financial circumstances and the disrespect she suffered throughout her life because of an unfortunate marriage. Despite these difficulties, she demonstrated diligence and self-discipline, never forgetting the practice of generosity and always showing care for the environment. Although she later had many opportunities to visit and spend time with her children after her husband’s death, by her sixties the cerebellar atrophy that ran in the family had gradually begun to worsen, affecting her coordination. Unable to walk normally, she fell frequently and required supervised personal care. Ultimately, she chose the autonomy of “a good death”.

    After this warm-up to the book’s subject matter, the next chapter, “The Ultimate Love Is to Let Go”, details the mother’s understanding of the meaning of life and the fasting process. The information the author shares with her mother about Dr. Nakamura Jinichi’s views on “dying of natural causes” and his methods for accomplishing this are also shared with the reader. Both valuable and difficult to come by, this is knowledge that helps readers understand how to communicate with older members of their family about this inevitable and difficult final hurdle of life.

    The last few chapters describe the family’s highly creative approach to bringing this woman’s life to a perfect, sorrow-free end with a “farewell ceremony” that gave the entire family an opportunity to bid her a warm farewell. Her grandson compiled the many stories his grandmother had told him about her life, then shared them with her and the rest of the family. The ceremony also gave her the opportunity to share with all of them her perspective on life. “The Fasting Process”, which includes the family’s observations and the mother’s reactions to this final step, provides a detailed record of her last few days of life. It also explains the possible side effects of fasting and the care required.

    The book does more than share with us how the author’s family helped a beloved relative realize her desire to make an autonomous life decision with sincerity, courage, and wisdom. It also provides us with an introduction to several excellent books that assisted them in doing so. Among these is If You Want a Peaceful Death, Don’t Have Anything to Do with Medical Care: Recommendations for Dying of Natural Causes, by Dr. Nakamura Jinichi, the book that made them aware of “fasting to achieve a peaceful death”. In it, Doctor Nakamura explains how the peaceful death of an aged relative at home is far better and more humane than an urgent trip to the hospital for a “medically assisted death” involving defibrillation, emergency medical procedures, intubation, and long-term hospitalization after your loved one has become critically ill. The author also introduces Loving and Leaving the Good Life, by Helen Nearing. In this book, Nearing talks about her husband, Scout Nearing (1883–1983). She explains how shortly before his one-hundredth birthday, the retired professor and activist, who was a liberal and a naturalist thinker, announced at a meal with friends, “I think I won’t eat anymore.” From that point on, he no longer ate solid food, making a conscious choice regarding when and how he would depart this earth, using fasting to free himself from his body.

    Thanks to the real-life examples in this book as well as the material taken from two of the books that inspired the author to help her mother die well, I realized that a good book is the result of an author’s ability to share what she has read and personally experienced with readers. In doing so, the writer helps the reader to gain richer life experiences and mature in their thinking about the future.

  • Book Report: Man-Made Gods
    By Joel Martinsen
    Sep 20, 2023

    Imagine a role-playing game that uses weaponized Kantian metaphysics to tackle the legacy of Taiwan’s colonial past. Make the main character a gaming-obsessed student haunted by the death of a dear mentor, and you get a coming-of-age story told as a historically informed urban fantasy – where the stakes are terrifyingly real.

    Cheng Yi-hao is a college student majoring in literature who spends his free time playing tabletop RPGs, attending kendo exercises with his best friend Hui, and hanging out at the local game shop. When he receives an invitation to be one of twenty trial users of the “Deity Series”, an intriguing new product from Kuang-Shih Technology offering supernatural powers via a god-like personal assistant, he only hesitates a moment before signing the NDA. The device turns out to establish a link between his mind and a keepsake of his choice (dubbed an “Offering” in the instructions) and projects an AI avatar – the god, whom he names Diaolong.

    While Yi-hao is still familiarizing himself with Diaolong’s capabilities, he receives a warning that he’s in grave danger. Testers are being stalked, attacked, and kidnapped, and rumors of a beast man rampaging through Taipei may have something to do with it. At a hastily called meeting, he meets other testers whose gods have a wide range of capabilities, some more obviously useful than others, from invisibility, spatial duplication, and material fabrication to divination, spirit communication, and music. Although the testers don’t quite trust each other, they decide after a heated debate that cooperation is their only option – and that attack is the best form of defense.

    When the meeting concludes, Kagami Shizuka, a student from Japan whose father is in Taiwan on business, pulls Yi-hao aside and informs him that the true power of her god isn’t music but teleportation, a revelation that proves valuable when one group member is abducted during the group botched attack on company HQ. Shizuka teleports Yi-hao into the copy world the enemy has created where, as telegraphed by the prologue and the unusual interactions between the two earlier in the book, he discovers that his friend Hui has been tracking down and defeating other testers with the aid of his god of fighting. The two duel in the copy world, a deserted downtown commercial center, in a sequence that involves gods stolen from other captured testers: powers of telekinesis, hallucination, and rampant plant growth. It’s a spectacular battle that Hui doesn’t want to win (he’s not fighting of his own free will), so he engineers a situation that allows Yi-hao and Shizuka to flee the copy world with his god’s Offering, his treasured kendo sword.

    After this first battle, as the question of who is to blame – and who might be a mole – threatens to tear the group apart, the danger is no longer an abstract fear: their opponents have the ability to extract gods and render their former masters comatose. A second attempt fares no better than the first. Yi-hao falls into enemy hands and is rescued just in the nick of time by Shizuka and her bodyguard Mizukami Toyoya. Snippets of intel gained from these raids mean they haven’t been a total loss, but the contradictory information leaves the bigger picture frustratingly opaque. From Mizukami they learn that the technology, which enables thoughts to directly alter the fabric of reality via Kantian things-in-themselves, was stolen from JMM, a private mining company whose largest shareholder is Shizuka’s family. But info from Kuang-Shih tells a different story: an attempt two decades earlier to create an omniscient homunculus based on medieval alchemical principles left behind twenty fragments that can bestow supernatural powers on human subjects.

    In a quiet moment, Yi-hao and Shizuka bond over loss. Shizuka grew up feeling like an outcast because her family hated her Taiwanese mother – whom she recently learned may have been murdered on her father’s orders when she was very young. Yi-hao’s mother died three years ago, robbing him not only of a beloved parent but of the person most instrumental in fostering his love of gaming. For Yi-hao, the prospect that he can’t trust Shizuka complicates his growing feelings for her, but aided by the patient counsel of his god Diaolong, he realizes that he doesn’t want to treat her merely as an asset in a game and resolves to protect her at any cost.

    The group’s third attack on the company is another failure: they arrive at the scene of a bloodbath and watch in horror as Shizuka’s father Kagami Masato execute the CEO. Now out of options, they’re relieved to make contact with the retired CEO of Kuang-Shih who vid-chats them from his home in England to lay out the back story:

    What began as an occult Axis engineering project in the Kinkaseki mines near Ruifang to gain homunculus-assisted precognition continued after WWII as part of the ROC’s civil war effort and later as a bulwark against Communism. Waning NATO support forced the company to seek out other sources of funding, leading to an alliance with the mining company’s Japanese successor. The testers are descendants of the twenty people chosen to provide DNA blueprints for the human abstraction required to interface with the essence of the cosmos, and their presence is necessary to revive the homunculus.

    Armed with this information, the group finally have a clear end goal: they must unite the homunculus fragments to revive the omniscient, omnipotent being – and prevent it from falling into Japanese hands. The lab, hidden deep within the mining facility now famous as the “Ruins of the 13 Levels”, has been sustained by the alchemical principles behind its construction and continues to be serviced by a phantom train running along the disused Shenao Line. Once again the Japanese are one step ahead of them, but Shizuka confronts her father and, having realized that she herself is her father’s Offering and the source of his power, shoots herself. Mizukami unexpectedly kills Masato, setting up a final, epic duel with Yi-hao in the bowels of the mining facility, while a healing god goes to work saving Shizuka.

    Things wrap up quickly after that. After the group briefly revive the homunculus to put everything back to normal, they received the ominous news that Kuang-Shih’s new owners are demanding they hand over their gods.

    Despite its door-stopper length, the novel moves along at a fast clip, alternating intense strategy sessions with gripping action scenes where new revelations topple seemingly sound constructions of logical inferences. A gamer’s outlook permeates the entire narrative: all choices are preceded by a thorough assessment of risks and have a distinct, quantifiable goal in mind; where information is incomplete, convincing arguments win the day; and characters explicitly name-check semi-cooperative deduction games like Shadows Over Camelot and Lupus in Tabula. In an afterword, author Xiao Xiang Shen reveals that he first ran the scenario as a role-playing game before revising it into a novel a decade later, by which point the resumption of service on the abandoned Shenao branch line of the title forced the book to be a period piece, with flip phones, BBSs, grainy video, and fax machines charmingly anchoring the narrative in 2009 Taipei.

    The inclusion of a few “interludes” in other characters’ voices gives insight into the complicated back stories they keep hidden – whether by choice or coercion – from Yi-hao and the other testers: beast-man Su Yu-lung grew up during the mine’s golden age in the ’70s and wants to prove that his life was meaningful rather than just an embarrassing relic of Cold War thinking; Wei Chih-ching used her divining god to win the lottery and save her family from ruthless loan sharks but became disillusioned by the temptations of wealth; double-agent Yan Chung-shu, weighed down by guilt, entered into a bargain that could create a universe-destroying paradox if the homunculus were revived; Kagami Masato, unable to protect his beloved wife from the machinations of his ruthless family, felt the only way to protect his daughter was to feign not caring about her at all.

    But ultimately it’s Yi-hao’s story, and as he navigates a shifting network of alliances and rivalries, he learns to appreciate people for more than just their strategic value. The evolution of his oft-stated “victory condition” to take into account the people he loves rather than simply the rules of the game subtly shifts the trajectory of the plot as well, leading to a climactic duel with a powerful rival, ostensibly for control of all of the gods, where his triumph hinges on the realization that they both share the same underlying goal – Shizuka’s safety and happiness rather than immense cosmic power.

    The eventual revival of the homunculus is a more muted affair, little more than an opportunity to reverse all of the damage suffered during the entire ordeal and restore status quo – except for Yen Chung-shu, whose very real death robbed the homunculus of an essential means of anchoring it to the human universe for more than a few brief minutes. And then there’s scarcely time to breathe before hostile forces are agitating for control of the gods, an unsettling conclusion that invites parallels to Taiwan’s unresolved position on the geopolitical stage even as it leaves the door open for another campaign.

  • Book Report: Working for a Crime Group as a Scriptwriter
    By Sarah-Jayne Carver
    Sep 20, 2023

    Things are going pretty well for 33-year-old Ho Ching-cheng: he lives in Taipei with the love of his life, Hsu Ching-chih, and together they support each other’s dreams of becoming a bestselling author (him) and a renowned actress (her). Then, just as Hsu’s acting career is finally coming together, disaster strikes. On their way home with his parents after one of her shows, their car is hit by a drunk driver, killing Hsu and Ho’s mother. The drunk driver only has minor injuries and flees before the police arrive which is a source of deep resentment for Ho. He starts to channel his anger into writing and publishes a series of stories online about a fictionalized version of Hsu and his mother who travel the world and have adventures. The stories gain a devoted following, then one day he receives a strange message from the director of an underground organization called Dark Fern: Come and help us rewrite people’s lives.

    Based out of a small izakaya, Dark Fern operates at the shadowy perimeters of the law to help people replicate the lives of those they envy. In exchange for everything that they own, clients take a piece of paper outlining their new life to the attic where it is reset by the Director. Ho joins the team and begins to help people rewrite their lives, with the novel focusing on three main cases. The first is a young woman with a disability whose doctor husband is always too busy with work, but after she replicates the life of an able-bodied friend, she realizes the various ways she was actually fortunate before and returns to her original life. The second is a middle-aged teacher who envies someone that bullied him in school but doesn’t realize the other man’s wife has clinical depression, so the teacher vows to make the best of his own life instead. The last case is Hsu’s former best friend who’d always envied her and inadvertently caused the car accident. As the ultimate revenge, Ho offers her the chance to copy Hsu’s life even though she will die. However, when they come down from the attic and it’s revealed that Ho has been the Director all along, he realizes he doesn’t want to hurt her and instead helps her live the life she always wanted.  

    This is a fast-paced novel with a lot of action and intrigue that keeps the reader emotionally invested all the way to the final page. It’s told from the perspective of Ho and you get a good sense of his emotions as the events of the novel unfold, especially the empathy he feels towards the characters in each of the cases that Dark Fern takes on. The parallel grief that he and his father go through from having both lost their partners but also having each lost another family member at the same time was well portrayed. It captured the similarities and differences between their experiences and the impact that their respective grief had on each other. The optimistic nature of the stories he writes about Hsu and his mother sets up a tonal balancing act where people are still able to find moments of hopefulness even in the hardest periods of life, and the author explores different variations of this as the story takes a series of interesting turns.

    One of the other highlights of the novel is the varied cast of characters. Aside from the Director, whose true identity is only revealed at the end of the novel, the team at Dark Fern is comprised of an interesting mix of personalities that makes them an easy team to root for. In a clever riff on the nature of their work, they’re each given a job title that corresponds with a role in a typical production crew. For example, Wu Ting-kang is the producer as he’s the one who secures the funds from the clients and is also in charge of managing the izakaya. You definitely wouldn’t want to double-cross him but most of the time you’ll find him cooking up a storm in the kitchen and making sure everything runs smoothly. There’s also the art director, Hui, a petite woman in her late twenties with a wicked sense of humor who looks like a university student. She designs the key scenes for the clients’ new lives and makes sure the changes go undetected by the police. Lastly, there’s Kevin, a freshman who dropped out of MIT and has his own complicated life choices to make as his father keeps trying to get him to move back to the US. He’s the cameraman who manages the logistics of the scenes that Hui designs. Some of the book’s most enjoyable moments happen when the team are just hanging out together at the izakaya during the downtime between cases.

    The three main subplots all build on each other before eventually combining with the main plot. The young woman with the disability is forced to confront the reality of copying her able-bodied best friend’s life when she realizes that the friend’s fate was always to die young from cancer. This embodies one of the main messages of the novel: that in life you have to take the rough with the smooth and remember that you never truly know what’s around the corner. The author builds on this in the next story, where the middle-aged teacher has envied the colleague who bullied him when they were children without realizing that the former bully is going through his own emotional turmoil. This realization makes him shift his whole attitude towards life and finally start the career in videomaking that he’d always been too scared to pursue. It’s a reminder that sometimes the biggest thing holding us back is ourselves. As for Hsu’s former friend, she realizes the sheer damage that her envy has caused but she also helps Ho understand that he needs to let go of the resentment that’s fueled him and start forging a new path of his own.

    It’s a satisfying ending with a Fight Club-style twist that maintains a high level of intrigue right to the end. Even though it deals with some heavy themes including grief, envy and discrimination, the narrative tone keeps the novel feeling relatively light. It doesn’t get caught up in the details of the speculative elements, with the sci-fi mostly there as a catalyst to ask broader questions about fate and the choices we make in life. The premise is reminiscent of Recursion by Blake Crouch but with an emphasis on the individual decisions themselves rather than their part in a huge macro conspiracy. Tonally, the novel has a lot in common with The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, albeit with more of a crime fiction bent. The Taiwan Ministry of Culture selected it as a recommended book for school students and I think the straight-forward language gives it a lot of crossover appeal for both YA and adult contemporary fiction. Overall, it’s an uplifting novel with a fast-paced plot, engaging characters and a gratifying conclusion that ties everything together.

  • Book Report: The Gap Year
    By Jack Hargreaves
    Sep 20, 2023

    Looking for the next office romance to sweep you off your feet? This book’s not that. But if scandal, smear campaigns, gossip, love affairs, cheating and lies are what you need, look no further than The Gap Year, the fifth novel from the historical and detective fiction writer, Lee Po-Ching. And, boy, does this story have them in the bucketloads.

    Intrigue is the name of the game here, and this is where Lee excels. The question is: is Alan, the novel’s young lawyer protagonist, his pawn, or are we? From an impromptu proposal seeing the girlfriend off at the airport to the return of an ex asking for Alan to be her divorce lawyer; from the killer legs of an old schoolmate he can’t keep his eyes off to the unexplained insertions of conversations with an unknown woman, the reader is kept guessing right to the very end: will Alan keep his promises and the marriage go ahead, will Alan’s character arc lead to redemption, is fate just not that kind, or is Alan really just a scumbag after all? The answer might not surprise you, but the big reveal will.

    You see, not everything’s as it seems – Alan tells us as much with his frequent references to Murphy’s Law. But Lee refuses to give too much away too soon and brilliantly leaves it up to the reader to find out on their own where they’ve been duped. This is the love story that tugs at the heartstrings for all the wrong reasons, and it hurts so good. It is also the detective story where nothing is too convenient – no tying up all the loose threads into a neat bow for the reader, happy ending or not, just more and more unspooling.

    So what this depiction of a white-collar world does very well is capture the messiness of modern life. Especially of a life spent, as so many are, trying to climb the greased rungs of a professional ladder. Law, acquisitions and mergers – these are high pressure circles to operate in. There are expectations to be met, quotas to be filled, contracts signed, and so much opportunity for things to go awry: rumors about illegal materials in a client’s products, a senior colleague stepping in to take some of the load off Alan on his first lead case, the appearance of his ex’s soon-to-be-divorced husband as his professional counterpart – these are only some of the challenges that threaten to jeopardize Alan’s progress in the world of work, and also to rock his cool, unbothered exterior.

    This is not to say that Alan doesn’t have his fair share of more ruffled moments, only it is hard to know whether in them he is wrestling with long suppressed feelings of being unworthy and unloved (see: absentee father and repeated failure to pass the National Judicial Exam) or simply worried that his conniving ways might finally get found out. Deciding which it is, is made all the more difficult by the welcome fact that Alan isn’t the only repeating car crash of a person in this brisk, riveting read of a novel. He’s just the one our lens is turned on. In Trick Mirror-esque fashion, The Gap Year shows how any of us can easily fall foul of the incentives that modern life thrusts upon us, and also how hard it can be to see ourselves clearly in our current, capitalist culture. Here are where comparisons to Netflix’s Love & Anarchy and BBC/HBO’s Industry also come into play. A cast of characters with no real idea where they are going or how to get here, making decisions left and right and center, seemingly with little concern for where they will end up. But how much of that is just the reality of life at times?

    It is tempting here to suggest similarities with Unsworth’s Animals too, especially in the books’ clear reminder that the life pillars of Relationships, Work, and Fun are precariously balanced, but the book only spills into Animals­-level chaotic during the fumbled “kidnapping” which Alan orchestrates, with the help of the kid’s grandmother, to reunite a child with his dad when the boy starts to miss him. Surprisingly, this leads to one of only several more tender moments in the book that it feels safe to trust, so much of them elsewhere being built on omitted truths, outright lies and ulterior motives.

    With a well-written and believable first-person voice and an endlessly engaging narrative, this book, for a time the best-selling work of “detective” fiction on Readmoo (the biggest ebook platform in Taiwan), sits right on the cusp of upmarket commercial and literary fiction. It has mass appeal thanks to the universal (morbid) curiosity for drama so many readers and consumers now share, and its TV rights are, it feels, as good as a sure thing – a twist as juicy and excruciating as this one practically demands to be played out onscreen.

  • Book Report: Before We Were Monsters
    By Darryl Sterk
    Sep 20, 2023

    Before We Were Monsters (Monsters) is in three parts. In the first part the protagonist Eve Yang, a crime scene cleaner with a preternaturally sensitive nose and a kink for decomposing blood and gore, deduces that a serial killer who signs each scene of the crime with a scent, a perfume called Madame Rochas, killed her brother Hans.

    In the second part Eve forms a friendship with Cheng Chun-chin (a.k.a. Triple C), Taiwan’s most infamous serial killer, who helps her develop her olfactory talent, encourages her to aestheticize (and eroticize) violent crime, as if murderers are artists, and murder an art, and leads her into a confrontation with a colleague of hers who happens to be a serial killer, just not the one responsible for her brother’s murder.

    In the third part Eve finally finds her brother’s killer only to realize that 1. Hans committed suicide but that 2. his killer “led him to the edge with scent” and that 3. the killer was acting on orders from his mother. The last paragraph of the novel, in a twist that I was not expecting, finally brings Eve face to face with the mastermind.

    Each part switches back and forth between two narrators, a third-person narrator who is associated with but not entirely limited to Eve’s perspective and a first-person narrator who turns out to be her brother’s killer, though his identity remains concealed until well into the third part.

    Monsters is explicitly intertextual, identifying its inspirations and influences with passing references, allusions, and quotations. The author grew up reading Detective Conan, Arsène Lupin, and Sherlock Holmes, and she has drawn on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Mathieu Kassovitz’s Hatred, and Janne Teller’s Nothing in the creation of this novel.

    This is not to say that Monsters is entirely based on the author’s imaginative reading of classics of genre fiction and film. She did her homework, by interning with a police investigator and by apprenticing to a crime scene cleaner and then to a forensic pathologist. The buzz that Eve gets cleaning up blood and gore is apparently a thing many cleaners experience. Monsters is as a result to some extent a C.S.I. procedural. To me it is compelling, and not derivative. Eve is a poignant anti-hero, a girl you can feel pity for, even shed tears for, as she’s getting ready to do something reprehensible. And Monsters is not just another work of genre fiction.

    The title Before We Were Monsters implies that traumatic childhoods can turn us into monsters of one kind or another. But the author doesn’t seem progressive, as if a reform in childrearing would turn the potential monsters into altruists. Rather, she encourages the reader to regard the source of monstrosity as the pressures of adulthood, which she puts in evolutionary perspective. After all, any adult carnivore, or even omnivore, has to do some pretty monstrous things to survive. So it is in Monsters, in which Eve, who has lost her brother, is identified with Talequah, a killer whale cow, who has lost her calf. Talequah bookends the novel, by appearing in a television documentary that Eve overhears as she is getting ready to go to work and then in the fantasy she indulges, in some of the most beautiful writing in the novel, as she is recuperating in hospital after a trial by fire. Eve identifies with Talequah not just because she is bereaved but also because she is a predator. Talequah has to feed herself and her young by violence, while Eve’s predation is sublimated into an obsession with hunting down her brother’s killer – her prey – and taking revenge.

    The novel is for a mature audience only, because in addition to all the blood and gore, as well as the cruelty and violence, it features a pederast who kills his victims after raping them. If this were a film it would have to be rated R.

    The novel is entirely set in western Taiwan, mostly in and around Taipei, but Eve is from a small city called Miaoli in central Taiwan, and she is not alone. All the main characters are small town girls and boys who try to make it in the big city. This was a common plot type in Taiwan, as novelists of the 1970s and 1980s reflected on the social and psychological consequences of the economic miracle. It has analogues in fiction from around the world, and should not be unfamiliar to readers of English language fiction. Here it is used to good effect in memorable descriptions of the sights and sounds of Yongho, the hardscrabble and strong-smelling suburb of Taipei where Eve settles down.

    Monsters is compulsive reading. I finished it to see if Eve would 1. have any more hot sex with, or get back together with, her doggedly devoted boyfriend Howard, 2. get herself murdered by Triple C, who notes that Eve’s surname Yang suggests that she is a sacrificial lamb, or 3. avenge her brother Hans’s death. In the end, only one of these things ended up happening, but I found the ending satisfying. Overall, Monsters is an intelligent, gutsy, sometimes thrilling reflection on the contemporary human condition by a promising young writer.

  • Memoranda for This and the Next Round of Taiwanese Independent Nation Builders: Reading Chu Yu-Hsun’s Secret Testimony
    By Chou Sheng-kai ∥ Translated by Mary King Bradley
    Sep 20, 2023

    (This article is originally published at Okapi)

    In historical overview, every change of Taiwan’s government has been determined by the outcome of a war. Had a victory gone the other way, Taiwan as it now is would not exist. History is irreversible, and to fantasize about “what ifs” is futile. Instead of lamenting the past in his novels, Chu Yu-Hsun looks to the future, contemplating how Taiwan might negotiate its next historical fork in the road and build a better Taiwanese national community.

    Chu has borrowed the trappings of science fiction, collecting wartime testimonies in the style of a documentary novel. As a literary genre, science fiction can be highly political, constructing utopias or dystopias that criticize reality. Chu’s novel is difficult to compare to these works, being in a style all its own. Unlike Andrew Yeh’s Green Monkey Syndrome, in which the tide is turned by non-existent weapons, Chu’s is ultra realistic, the narrative’s advancement and resolution owing nothing to the constructs of science fiction. The book’s borrowings from various literary genres and its interplay between fiction and reality are in fact used to assist readers in better understanding the author's conjunctural analysis. Chu clearly believes the current reality can serve as a methodology, in this case for continuing Tsai Ing-wen’s strategy of nation-building.

    The bones of Secret Testimony are an analysis of Taiwan’s present reality, with five sets of narratives fleshing out Chu’s imagined Taiwanese national community. His focus for these is on accounts at odds with the national community’s narrative.

    The first set of testimonies, “Memoranda for the Taiwan People’s Liberation Front”, draws on the 1950s-era Taiwan Province Working Committee and Lü Heruo’s account of the Luku incident, but unlike the members of this former underground party, the fictional members of the “TPLF” (Taiwan People’s Liberation Front) have no left-wing ideology. In their narratives, a socialist motherland is simply the motherland; in the absence of socialism, however, the characters’ emotions are of less substantial, the narrative tension weaker. The story becomes more of a commentary and interrogation of the existing leftist line: will nothing but an empty Chinese nationalism remain? Yet it also evokes Taiwanese history, represented by the Luku incident. The Nationalist government’s comprehensive campaign against left-wing elements and the onset of the White Terror, leading to the future breakup and vulnerability of the left-wing, was prompted by the double edifice of the international cold war and the civil war between the Kuomintang and Communist party. The ambiguity of the narratives illustrates the multifaceted nature of textual interpretation.

    To negate the grand unity of Chinese hegemony does not automatically justify a comprehensive envisioning of the Taiwanese national community. Chu employs several additional testimonies as reverse discourses on areas where this national community should be more tolerant:

    ● The Chinese prisoners of war who become “new nationals” in “When Will You Return” correspond to Taiwan’s current second-class citizens, its “new residents”.

    ● “Last Day of a Private Art Museum” describes state violence during mobilization for war.

    ● “News from the South” alludes to Liu Liankun’s espionage and the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996; the characters are descendants of the Kuomintang in northern Thailand, and latent communist longing has become the key to the reversal of victor and loser in a stealth attack on chauvinism.

    ● In presenting an individual narrative viewpoint that differs from that of the mock author’s preface and critical introduction by fictional Chinese scholars, “Ghost Temple or Hall of Valor?”– the fifth and final testimony – problematizes the idea of a single linear national narrative.

    Interestingly, the political advisors in “News from the South” have advance knowledge that China will launch a foreign war as a result of internal political strife, so they rush to save their wives and children by sending them out of northern Thailand. Taiwanese president Chiang Chih-yi’s resolution to deceive the enemy requires the simultaneous concealment of the Taiwanese people, use of extreme force in the form of war, compelling the loyalty and solidarity of the Taiwanese people, and carrying out preparations for mobilization under nationwide conditions of total war. The section “Ghost Temple or Hall of Valor?” is even more explicit, showing that Taiwan could have prevented the Chinese army from landing and so reduced casualties, but that in choosing to lure the enemy farther in, it was able to wreak destruction on the People’s Liberation Army. In exchange, Taiwan attained its future independence and more space. This costly strategic operation was in fact the doing of the United States, prompted not by the well-being of the Taiwanese people, but by US political interests rooted in its desire to remain dominant in the international order.

    Clearly, a small country survives a conflict between larger countries by simultaneously acting as both a lever and a pawn. How can freedom, democracy, openness, and transparency come from power games carried out in the shadows? War means that deception is the rule; in exceptional conditions, this is even more true.

    The question for the critique becomes, is a nation-state constructed for the people or for the state? The interests of the state are not equivalent to the interests of the general public. A more inclusive, tightly knit Taiwanese national community would expand and strengthen the country’s mobilization system, thus drawing a lesson from the colonial period, when the Japanese empire actively sought to assimilate the Taiwanese people for the purpose of recruiting greater numbers of loyal Taiwanese soldiers. Are the casualties of a generation to become the heroic spirit of national mourning, or nonentities written in lowercase? The death penalties decided by those in senior positions, China’s internal instability, and the calculation of US national interests are almost like fate. The Taiwanese people, collectively and individually, live and die based on these circumstances. Is there no brighter path? This question may be equally difficult for author and reader alike to answer, both within the context of the book and in that of the larger world. In either case, the only solution is to confront the current reality and make a choice.

    As discursive fiction, Secret Testimony employs clever mechanisms and allusions that read as just a bit too politically correct. Compared to the castle-in-the-sky aesthetics of the ivory tower, however, literature’s practical social intervention is more powerful. Regardless of whether readers accept Chu Yu-Hsun’s political stance and aesthetic style, it is difficult to deny that Secret Testimony successfully demonstrates “the novel as topical analysis tool” at its pinnacle.

  • Glove Puppetry and a Storyteller’s Dreamy Journey: An Interview with Puppet Dreams Author Chiu Tsu-Yin
    By Itze Hsu ∥ Translated by Michael Day
    Sep 20, 2023

    Chiu Tsu-Yin first encountered glove puppetry at around the age of five. In the early 1970s, “Scholar-Swordsman Su Iam-bun of Yunzhou”, part of the Golden Light series of TV puppetry broadcasts, made waves all around Taiwan. Nearly half a century later, he has forgotten many of the particulars of the program, but the image of Su Iam-bun rising from the dead, face obscured by disheveled black locks, remains emblazoned in his memory. And he dimly recalls that his boyhood toybox contained a puppet of Su Iam-bun, as well as another that was (he thinks) Bucktooth Habe, a clown-like character. Asked to recall why puppets captivated him, Chiu says, “I guess because you can slip them on and play with them, make them dance around like miniature people in the palm of your hand.” Puppets entertain us, but they are much more than toys. They provided Chiu with the seed of a story.


    A Last Glimpse of a Dying Art?

    Whenever he is asked where he got the idea for his novel Puppet Dreams, Chiu always mentions the documentary his good friend, director Yang Li-chou, spent ten years shooting, Father – the film focuses on ninety-two-year-old master puppeteer Chen Hsi-huang. At one point, over a shot of the puppeteer’s bare hands, the director’s voice instructs the audience, “Take a good look. It may be the last time any of us ever glimpse this.” The audience is at once both taken aback by the raw expressivity of the puppeteer’s hands, though there is no puppet anywhere to be seen, and overcome by grief, knowing this traditional art form is on the brink of extinction.

    Chiu’s main occupation is arts and culture journalism, and he began covering the documentary early in the production process. Left waiting for long periods, he was struck by the idea of writing a story about glove puppetry. As he had interviewed numerous glove puppeteers, writing a work of non-fiction would have been simple enough, but he chose to write a novel because it was the puppeteers’ indomitable spirit, their refusal to give in when times got tough, that moved him the most. A novel, he thought, would be the best way to encapsulate the character of the Taiwanese, their “ever-increasing courage in the face of increasing difficulties”.

    Having completed the outline of the novel, Chiu spent two years studying with Master Chen and his disciples, learning numerous puppetry techniques. As an enthusiastic amateur, Chiu found it an extraordinary experience to study with a master, something like learning basketball with Michael Jordan. Chiu disagrees with scholars who scorn crowd-pleasing Golden Light puppet shows and acknowledge only traditional glove puppetry as art.

    Through field observation, Chiu realized that glove puppetry was an art form that had always been in flux. Early glove puppetry was accompanied by slow, leisurely nanguan music; later, as acrobatic fighting shows came into vogue, this was replaced by beiguan music played by large percussion and trumpet ensembles. The form of glove puppetry Master Chen had inherited from his father, Master Li Tien-lu, had transformed, too – had in fact been transformed by Li, a lover of Beijing opera who fused the lyrics of ballads from Fujian with operatic northern vocal music, setting his shows to background music by Beijing opera ensembles.

    After the Second World War, performers innovated to survive, coming up with Golden Light glove puppetry. The shows got past censors thanks to their wholly imaginary settings, and crowds loved them: they featured easily understood, black-and-white conflicts between good and evil, and the florid, flamboyant sound and lighting effects inspired by Hollywood movies were a sight to behold. Though Golden Light shows diverged dramatically from traditional glove puppetry in terms of both the appearances of the puppets and the structures of the stories, the performances did adhere to tradition in numerous other ways, such as the spirited demeanors of the characters, the singing-speaking nianbai style of delivering lines, and the use of unique opening lines for each character. Through this process of change, glove puppetry, originally a product of China, became a truly Taiwanese art form, and in recent years, the production values of Golden Light shows have become ever more exquisite; this ancient art has never stopped evolving.

    Thus, Puppet Dreams focuses on the colonial period and the post-war period, depicting how puppeteers overcame challenging circumstances and physical obstacles, adapting to survive. By the end of the novel, which traces the early development of Golden Light glove puppetry, the reader senses clearly that Chiu approves of this historical transformation.


    Story: The Art and Magic of Time

    Despite having extensive access to real-life puppeteers and other materials, it took Chiu a full five years to complete Puppet Dreams. He jokes self-deprecatingly that novel-writing is a peculiar, malignant affliction – and it is true that he lavishes peculiar care on his work in pursuit of an ideal level of polish.

    Regarding the form of the novel, Chiu has interwoven Chien Tien-kuo’s life and memories with the stories of sixteen different characters, employing a unique narrative style free from traditional temporal restraints, granting great vitality to the characters and exquisitely balancing their roles in the unfolding drama.

    Further, Chiu has taken full advantage of the special characteristics of the novel’s fictional format. Parts of the book originate from true stories, but most of the characters are original creations, for instance, Chien: “You’ll never find a blind glove puppeteer in Taiwan.”

    Additionally, Chiu loves inserting fantastical elements into his tales, and this too requires special care. In the book, Chien Tien-kuo leaves home and spends years wandering, encountering all sorts of difficulties and dangers – at times like these, Chien leans not only on the kindness of others, but on guidance from a puppet with a childlike face called Huatung. The reader ultimately realizes that the appearances and disappearances of Huatung mark phases in Chien’s internal psychological growth and resonate with the “performances” and “dreams” in the novel.

    The key “peculiarities” at the core of the novel also originate from Father – after seeing the official trailer, Chiu was inspired to invent names for two ultimate glove puppetry techniques, “Empty Hand Chasing the Wind” and “Observing the Divine Descent”, and ended up rewriting the whole book after revising the text of one-hundred thousand characters (approximately seventy-thousand English words) numerous times. The trajectory of the novel was completely altered: in the finished work, Chien loses his sight in a disturbance related to the theft of secret puppetry texts.


    A Storyteller’s Pursuit

    Chiu, having written a novel filled with tears, laughter, and dreams, calls himself a “literary peasant”. He explains that his creative philosophy is the same as the dramatic philosophy described in Puppet Dreams – he hopes that his works will be “like Chinese novels written centuries ago – no one knows who really wrote them, but they are great stories everyone remembers.” He plans to use the same approach to continue telling tales of the struggles of other Taiwanese traditional artists.