When I first arrived in Taiwan over 20 years ago and was looking for somewhere to live, one of the places I went to see was a room in the house of an elderly widow. Her house was one of those old one-story wooden Japanese structures that you could still see in Taipei in those days, before they were all pulled down to make way for department stores and high rises. Inside the house, except for the room to be let, were piled crates, trunks, boxes and old furniture: I had the impression the widow was at any time ready to move out. At that time my Chinese was non-existent, so I had a friend with me to do the talking. After our visit, my friend explained the luggage. The old woman was one of those who had come over from the Chinese mainland with her soldier husband in 1949 with the defeat of the Nationalists, and who had set up temporary base in Taipei. Many of them had never bothered to unpack, for they lived under the idea that one day soon they would retake the Motherland. 50 years later, even when it had become abundantly clear that this would never happen, many of these old Mainlanders had not really settled down in Taipei, and still cherished their dreams of returning to the places of their youth and of once more regaining their status in the world.
Taipei People is a collection of 14 short stories by the Taiwanese writer Bai Xien Yong describing people just like my landlady. Published separately during the 60s, and for the first time as a collection in 1971, the work is rightly regarded on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as a masterpiece of Chinese literature, a contemporary classic. The title is ironic, because the protagonists are not Taipei people at all, but waishengren, 外省人, those ‘born outside the province’, as the Taiwanese call Mainlanders, as opposed to those ‘originally born in the province, the ‘benshenren’ 本省人, as the Taiwanese call themselves. Nowadays, with the passing of the generations, these terms are losing their meanings and their bitterness, but for most of the last 50 years, Taiwanese society was divided along these lines, each side looking down on the other. Bei Xian Rong himself is waishengren, the son of a famous KMT general who formed part of the exodus at the end of the Civil War. The stories focus on those waishengren who fled with Chiang Kai Shek’s armies in 1949: the singsong girls, taxi dancers, prostitutes, Beijing Opera stars, cooks, batmen, industrialists, widows, airmen and soldiers, generals, scholars and minor government functionaries, all of whom are living out their last days in Taipei, victims of history, survivors of loss, nursing their reveries of bygone days, putting a brave face on grief, and coming to terms with exile and defeat.
Some of the stories are told by the protagonists themselves, others by an omniscient narrator. Bai makes judicious and expert use of free indirect narrative, blending reverie and memory with descriptions of current reality, using techniques taken from cinema, such as montage, and jump cutting. He is especially good on how a chance sight on the street, a random word overheard in a bar can spark a whole stream of memory and whisk off both reader and protagonist altogether elsewhere. His characters have a surface vivacity, but he also somehow manages to convey their secret loneliness and despair as they come to terms with the fact that they will never go back, that the past is irrecoverable. His dialogue is absolutely masterful, reproducing a whole range of different voices and accents from all over China, and conveying between the lines the things the characters would not dare to admit even to themselves. The text is a tapestry of styles in which ancient poems and songs from the Beijing Opera rub shoulders with colloquial proverbs and street slang. Bai is the master of the light touch, the telling detail, the miraculously well placed word which unleashes almost overwhelming emotion. I found myself frequently wiping away tears, and weeping openly especially at the tale called Winter Night, a story of two old university professors remembering the days of their youth as student rioters and activists at Beijing University in the heady days of the May the Fourth Movement, a study in failure, set in one of those old wooden Japanese houses smelling of damp tatami mats, mould and regret, with winter rain falling softly outside and the taxis wooshing past at the end of the alley.
The best stories set up a powerfully affecting contrast between nostalgia for the past and suggestions of a more optimistic future, a future in which divisions such as weishengren and benshengren are no longer so important, in which memories are not so bitter, and in which a new generation is stepping up to really become Taipei people. What links all the stories is the city of Taipei itself, the city of exiles, which Bai describes in topographical detail, in all its weathers and moods.
By the time General P’u returned to the courtyard, a wintry evening breeze had
come up: the purple bamboos rustled and shivered. In the western sky a dab of the setting sun froze blood-red. The old soldier strolled to a corner of the courtyard and paused... for a long time, his hands clasped behind his back, his full silvery beard unfurling in the wind. Reminiscences of long-forgotten episodes from the Year of Hsin Hai half a century ago came floating back to him again, until his grandson Hsiao-hsien came and tugged at his sleeve. With his hand on the boy’s shoulder, the two of them, grandfather and grandson, went in to dinner together.