Taiwan: living on the edge

Taiwan is the country with the most tenuous claim to be included on the list of independent countries I’m reading books from this year. It was a member of the UN until 1971, when the dispute between its government, the Republic of China, and the Chinese government, the People’s Republic of China, led to the UN voting to withdraw its recognition of the ROC and thus Taiwan. From that time onwards, although Taiwan governs its internal affairs independently and many countries around the world maintain informal diplomatic relations with it (the UK government sent a parliamentary delegation to visit the country in 2011, for example), the nation has officially been part of China. Only 22 UN members recognise it as a separate sovereign state.

I was curious to see what literature from this disputed land might be like, so when @markbooks suggested Pai Hsien-yung’s Crystal Boys, I was quick to add it to the list.

Claiming to be ‘the first modern Asian gay novel’, the 1983 book portrays the lives of a group of young male prostitutes in Taipei’s underworld. Following A-Qing, a teenage run-away who was expelled from school and thrown out of home for being found in a compromising position with a supervisor, the narrative explores the precarious lives of these young men, peeling back the layers to show the tenderness, vulnerability and hurt within.

The subject matter and suggestive cover picture of a half-naked Taiwanese youth set up an expectation of explicitness that is actually quite misleading. In fact, beyond passing references, the book doesn’t feature a single sex scene. Instead, all the drama and extreme experience is played out in the dialogue between the characters, in which cruel insults and desperate appeals are laughed off in a welter of banter. There is the boy Wu Min who talks about his plans for suicide only for his friends to think he is joking until he goes home to slash his wrists and the chief who pushes the youngsters into encounters with seemingly heartless abandon.

Yet, beneath the hard shell that nights around the lotus pond in Taipei’s New Park and later at the Cosy Nest café force them to develop, the boys possess a great deal of warmth and tenderness that often expresses itself in surprising ways. When Wu Min is in hospital and unable to meet his medical bills, the boys all donate blood to keep him alive – ‘what we share in common are bodies filled with aching, irrepressible desire and hearts filled with insane loneliness’, observes A-Qing, articulating the bond that ties him to his friends. In addition, A-Qing, who misses his younger brother Buddy, is forever adopting and protecting younger boys who remind him of home.

Indeed, by far the most daring and subversive aspect of the book is not its presentation of sexuality and prostitution but its use of those things to express ideas about nationhood, sovereignty and identity. As homosexuality was illegal in mainland China until 1997, it is effectively off-limits, out-of-bounds and dangerous territory in the book. This enables Pai Hsien-yung to use the crystal boys’ world as a powerful metaphor, as the opening lines of the novel show:

‘There are no days in our kingdom, only nights. As soon as the sun comes up, our kingdom goes into hiding, for it is an unlawful nation; we have no government and no constitution, we are neither recognised nor respected by anyone, our citizenry is little more than rabble. […] It’s as though our kingdom were surrounded and hidden by a tightly woven fence – cut off from the outside world, isolated for the time being. But we are always keenly aware of the constant threat to our existence by the boundless world on the other side of the fence.’

At times, the narrative becomes a little stilted and episodic, with too many characters crowding in one after the other. Pai Hsien-yung’s tendency to stress the emotional suffering of the boys can also be a little repetitive and could have done with some tighter editing.

However, none of this detracts from the fact that this is a courageous and fascinating work from a writer not afraid to speak out against the majority. The book is a gripping insight into a fragile and contested world. Powerful stuff.

Crystal Boys (Nieh-Tzu) by Pai Hsien-yung, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Gay Sunshine Press, 1995)

16 responses

    • Thanks Chris. Intriguing – could they be long lost cat cousins? The cat is staying with us while his owner is on holiday. His name is Mr Darwin and he’s a real gentleman. He also seems to like being photographed!

  1. I am going to put a very firm vote in that it’s a country. The reason that only 22 UN nations recognise it… I’m sure you can figure out why that is.

  2. I read “Crystal Boys” and can agree with various comments that you made. Thankfully, gay life here in Taiwan has come a long way since then…..more open, more free…a Lesbian couple was just married in a temple ceremony…of course the life described in “Crystal Boys” perhaps will never change….a life of hustlers on the margins…underground….the park the hustlers frequented in the book is there….still a gathering place for the gay community….interestingly Ximending nearby is quite the new place to hang out with many bars, clubs quite open in a fasionable shopping and cinema district….bars are no longer hidden away….but right out there…thanks for the book review and thoughful commentary…..


  3. Nice review! “Crystal Boys” was published in 1983, and it reflects the society at that time. If people would like to know more about today’s Taiwan, perhaps “The Man with the Compound Eyes” by Wu Ming-yi will be a good choice.

  4. Hi,

    I came here from your book (not done yet!), which is incredibly insightful. I do have to point out, though, that Taiwan’s legal status is not “officially” a part of China, since it was not nationalism or self determination but a civil war that separated the two—-a war still awaiting resolution. So technically Taiwan is in legal no-man’s-land (despite what fanatic commenters from either side of the Taiwan Strait might say below…).

    The above commenter recommends Wu Mingyi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes; I read it in Chinese and happen to know the translator, and to me it seems less “representative” of Taiwan as opposed to Taiwan’s polynesian aboriginal culture, which is only half of Taiwan, the other half being its Chinese culture. Pai’s works are a good choice for the latter.

    I personally recommend foremost Taiwanese modernist Wang Wen-hsing’s Family Catastrophe.

    Cheers from Taiwan,

  5. Also, since I don’t know where else to put this and don’t have Twitter, I notice that you quote Shu-Mei Shih in your book but don’t list her in the bibliography. What work did you cite?


  6. Congratulations! What a wonderful project and a good choice of story from Taiwan, perhaps the most progressive nation in Asia in terms of LGBT rights.

Leave a Reply to Chris Bronsk Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: