It has been months since I put my pen to paper. Words keep struggling against my emotions, the range of my imagination jammed up in literary reflections. As I sat with an open book in my lap, Huang Chun-ming’s characters gazing right back into my face, I pondered on the thought of how human survival becomes magnified when human condition thrives at the lowest rung of the societal ladder. Marginalised people, forgotten lives overlooked by the socioeconomic indicators, suffering at the hands of their affluent counterparts and their stories steeped in inherent universality, hesitant in finding an ardent voice to uncover the social process of basic human survival conflicted in a world of contradiction and confliction.
“ Ah-cang , the next time you come home, try to bring a fish back with you. It’s not easy getting a saltwater fish up here on the mountain. Bring a big one if you can.”
The cooked bonito wrapped in taro leaf swayed heartlessly into fragmented happy endings. The saltwater fish fairly symbolizes the temporary victories harboured by a child on a threshold of youth, only to mercilessly fade into a vague far-fetched desire bearing harsh realities of trust and resentment. Self-doubt, a sense of personal inadequacies creeps through the rickety windows of paranoia. A yearned escape from loneliness and fatigue seeks a satisfying reprieve in an infant’s smile. A loving father on a verge of a mental breakdown dons his “sandwich-man” costume for he has always been his son’s ‘big doll’ “Oh! I’m Ah-long’s big doll, his big doll!!”
Trepidations over birth control and poverty find a respite in the scaly outlines of ringworms patterned on infected bodies. Minor events captured in everyday subsistence become majorly momentous in these impoverished lives. The currency of luck shines in most dreadful ordeals. A looming tragedy compensating a family’s fortune, an unforeseen affluence now a commonplace in penurious existence is filled with a surge of anxiety and guilt over bewildering kismet. The sour taste of the apples devoured with a demure crunch was sweetened with every bite as the thought of a luxury unknown heightened with the chorus of noisy munching.
“Principles I’ve held on to tenaciously for many years and that have formed my unique personality and temperament – are they to be cast aside now? Then why have them in the first place? It wouldn’t seem like the real me without them. “
Caught up in an ambivalent world of mangled moralities, a mask of pleasantries worn to handle two onerous affairs makes a young office employee question the value of adhered ideologies and the inevitability of primary survival. The wounds of a tragic Japanese-Chinese history (1930s) conflicted with the provisional role of a “pimp” to entertain visiting Japanese businessmen , a quest to move from the bitter past resulting in artful linguistic diplomacy and friendly sayonora/zaijian greetings in a rapidly changing societal mores.
“Memories of the past are always fond ones and this was especially true for these men in their twilight years; only their past instilled a sense of pride.”
With the advent of modernisation and Pedi cabs, the aging men of a rural village, the gong-beaters of a quaint town, migrant workers and the unaltered rural landscapes, all caught between the old and new are propelled into a state of hopelessness, a feeling of invisibility blending into the inability to adapt to change. The present seem to be crumbling into prospects of an innovative future overshadowing humble heritages and traditionalistic customs. Amid the peals of laughter, the drowning of an old cat demarcated the irreversible modernisation and a tale of stubbornness of a man and his rebellion. A world of absurdities and turmoil is formed when two-sign painters get entangled in the web of technology and media in metropolitan culture. The beats of Han Qinzai’s gong succumbing to the monopoly of pedicabs, a desperate man holding onto the last crumbs of his fading fortune seeks salvage in ghost stories and a group of vagrants for a momentary boost of a dignified life. For, when fortune goes missing from one’s life, all a man has left are the remains of his reputation, a final refuge to belong somewhere in this societal structure. The concept of losses and gains and a lackadaisical attitude spun chronicles of two pressure cooker salesmen in a little coastal town. The thin line between faith and deception quivering between courage and cowardice hurls unforeseen folds of events wrecking illusions of perfection. The disfigurement of harsh reality lay bare underneath Xiaoqi’s cap signalling underlying societal metaphors.
..………. I figure that the hardest compromise to strike would be with myself, for if I put a side my principles, what would I have left?
Huang Chun-ming’s short stories penned in circa 1960-70s, exclusively focuses on the intricacies of the then thriving Taiwanese society; its rural folk being the crucial element. The so-called “ordinary folk”( a term I detest to use, for these very people exhibit extraordinary grit of survival), societal rejects who are witnesses to a hostile socio-economic milieu, coping with effects of illiteracy , debilitating poverty , migration to urban cities, adherence to conformist dogmas , muddled self-worth , modernisation and callousness of urban life. Human existence at its most detrimental stage. Nevertheless, what is remarkable about these engaging stories is the array of characters that come alive through the subtle yet sincere prose narrating their unique tales, their robust presence felt throughout numerous incidents spanning across their lives from the countryside to the metropolitan cities. Huang neither pities his characters nor want his readers to do the same. In the despair of an obsolete existence what is desperately searched is wisdom and dignity, a need to be acknowledged and cherished in a world where remorse overpowers elation, where the reservations of the past are carried in a shaky present, dreaming of an uncertain future and all a basic survival needs is a true sense of humanity.