Before this year, I’d never read a book from Taiwan, but today’s post makes it three reviews of Taiwanese fiction in as many months. However, while the first two looked at (relatively) modern works, this one goes back to the first half of the twentieth century to examine some shorter fiction by one of the island’s big names. New ground for me, then – but why does it feel oddly familiar?
Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô (translated by Darryl Sterk, review copy courtesy of Honford Star) does exactly what it says on the cover. The book provides a comprehensive overview of the career of the Taiwanese writer, who is also sometimes known as Lai He. Pei-Yin Lin’s introduction looks at the author’s life and career, emphasising the importance of Lōa’s work in the struggle for independence from the Japanese colonial rule. Yes, Taiwan was another of Japan’s colonies, and Lōa has much in common with several of his Korean peers (such as the writer I looked at in my previous post). Many of the stories here focus on the occupiers, particularly on corrupt policeman, and it seems that they just couldn’t help but make the locals’ lives as difficult as possible.
This is clear in pieces such as ‘The Tragedy of the Deep-Fried Doughstick Seller’, in which a young boy selling food door-to-door falls foul of a sleepy copper, and ‘A Lever Scale’, where a poor farmer’s attempts to make money for the new year festival are thwarted when he offends the local policeman by expecting him to pay for his snack. It’s only fair, though, that the writer should give the officials the right of reply (ironically, of course), and that comes in ‘A Disappointing New Year’, a story narrated by a policeman who feels the world is against him. He laments the lack of gifts brought by the season and the natives’ bad attitude towards those ‘keeping them safe’. Given his behaviour, including beating an innocent child, there’s little chance that the reader will empathise with his woes.
There are plenty of other nasty folk around besides the Japanese, though, with another common theme that of the rich exploiting the poor. One example of this is shown in ‘The Story of a Class Action’, featuring a brave soul who decides to stand up to his former employer, a man intent on squeezing money out of people and corpses alike. ‘Bumper Crop’ is a similar tale, with a poor farmer’s dreams of a rare pay-day shattered by the sobering reality of big business in action.
Another of Lōa’s favourite subjects is the plight of poor women, with ‘The Poor Thing Died’ representative of this topic. A hard-working girl is sold out to another family to make her fortune, but when the plan goes wrong, she finds herself forced to make a difficult decision:
A-Kim had decided to sacrifice her body, but now she was no longer so calm. Her mother had told her to think it over, and she didn’t know what to think. At once her past memories and hopes for the future came cascading through her brain. She thought of her birth parents, who had disappeared from her life. She thought of one concubine she knew and how proud she was of herself. And she thought of another concubine, who was abused by the first man’s wife. Was this her road to freedom and good fortune? Or was she about to fall into a pit of fire?
‘The Poor Thing Died’, p.63 (Honford Star, 2018)
Whichever way she goes, the reader suspects that life is unlikely to reward her. For the poor protagonists of Lōa’s stories, affairs rarely end well…
While Lōa generally focuses on the plight of others, several of the stories comprising Scales of Injustice are more personal affairs, with some touching on his studies and subsequent career as a doctor. ‘Going Home’ follows a bored student who discovers that there’s nothing for him to do in his home town, whereas the protagonist of ‘A-Sì’ is far more active, taking up a job in Taiwan after completing his medical studies overseas. However, he soon discovers that despite his Japanese education, he’s still a second-class citizen:
His ‘hokyu’, his salary, shocked him: less than half of what a Japanese colleague would make. Moreover, the comptroller told him there were too many doctors from ‘the interior’ in the dormitory, so ‘there’s no place here for”you lot”.’ He had to go and rent a place on his own. The ‘shukusharyō’, the dorm allowance, was fifteen yen, but because he was Taiwanese it was cut four tenths to nine, less another three tenths because he was single, for a total of just over six yen.
It’s little wonder that the doctor (like the writer) soon moves on to activism, encouraging his fellow natives to stand up for their rights.
Several of the stories then expand on this theme, such as ‘Going to the Meeting’, in which a worker for independence overhears two very different conversations on the train journey to his meeting, raising doubts as to how effective the efforts for independence actually are. By contrast, ‘Getting into Trouble’ is a clever two-part story illustrating power distance from different vantage points. Here, another educated local (probably Lōa himself) fails dismally in his attempt to persuade the people to rise up, having to bear the humiliation of seeing those who had promised their cooperation bowing their heads before the Japanese.
As mentioned, there are similarities here with the work of Korean writers from the same period (Kim Tongin, Ch’ae Manshik, Yi T’aejun), and it’s interesting to compare the events in the two colonies. In fairness, though, I’d have to say that I wasn’t quite as taken with Lōa as with the Korean writers mentioned. For one thing, many of the stories were fairly short, and not overly developed, and although the book generally reads well, it can be a little stiff in places. In fact, the overwhelming feel of Scales of Injustice is that of a rather academic text. Sterk provides copious end notes, but most of them will be superfluous for anyone without a high level of Mandarin and/or Taiwanese. The stories are entertaining enough, but there’s a sense that Lōa is more important for his role as an influence on Taiwanese literature than for any real genius in his writing.
However, Sterk and Lin would probably beg to differ, and they certainly know more about the subject than I do. Besides, there are some interesting stories included in Scales of Injustice, with the book also providing some more background information about events mentioned in my other Taiwanese reads. I’m not convinced this one will be to everyone’s tastes, but I’m sure there’s an audience out there for a writer whose work has inspired many others to take up their pen. If so, you know where to go 🙂