Lōa Hô (賴和, 1894-1943), as his Taiwanese romanization renders, is known as “the father of New Taiwanese literature” in part for his remarkable decision to write in Taiwanese while living under the yoke of Japanese rule.
Yet his Chinese fiction, which he began writing in earnest circa 1923, is also resolutely patriotic and borne of a “Taiwanese cultural enlightenment” – an intellectual counterthrust to Japanese imperial rule — that is instantly recognizable to modern day students of Taiwan for its endearing modesty and heartfelt drive.
“Scales of Injustice” brings together Lōa’s complete fiction in English translation for the first time, amounting to a richly evocative collection of poetic short stories that is replete with insight into the vagaries of colonial era Taiwan.
As explained in a compelling introduction by Lin Pei-yin (林姵吟), Associate Professor at the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong, “Scales of Injustice” chooses to group Lōa’s fiction in themes: “In the Olden Days,” “Old Meets New,” “(Resisting) the Police Lord” and “Lōa Hô’s Story,” to name a few, a decision translator Darryl Sterk told The News Lens he took so the collection “would end on a positive note, as [Lōa ‘s] life did not.” Lōa died from an illness contracted in jail after being arrested for his political activism.
Lin sets Lōa in historical context and charts the various stages of a literary life that closely informs his writing, notably in the posthumously published “A-sì,” which tells of a “callow” and “idealistic young man” who awakens “from the bliss of ignorance.”
That ignorance is the assumption that Taiwanese subjects of the Empire of Japan would eventually enjoy equal rights as citizens, a misconception crushingly realized through Lōa’s experience being treated as a second-class doctor by his Japanese peers on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
His profession brought Lōa face to face with the human cost of overbearing Japanese rule, and he is a consequently vocal champion of Taiwan’s downtrodden underclasses.
His natural sympathy takes on a political hue when he enrolls in the Taiwan Cultural Association (TCA), a group of Taiwanese elite intellectuals dedicated to agitating for representative government.
But this ambition proves futile, and the writer later switches focus to the quotidian struggles of the laboring classes, a lens that roves over gangster-strewn bar brawls, enigmatic tea house encounters, opium den Go games, market stall debates, and temple fair flair.
His eye for scene is beautifully exhibited in “Raising Hell”, or 熱鬧 in the original, which Sterk informs us is translated as “loud and hot” in Taiwanese (rather than “hot and loud” in Mandarin):
“In the polished azure of the evening sky, flecked with a distant wisp of cloud or two, a gleaming moon crested an indigo ridge to slide overhead and wrap the world in her chilly, silvery radiance. The market street below was shrouded in a cool haze. The traditional paper lanterns hanging off the eaves of the shops, along with the street lamps on the utility poles along the way, started to dissolve in the moonlight, twinkling aloofly like the remotest of stars. A draught wafted through the desolate calm of the end of the street, lifting a few somber strains of a tong-siau [a Chinese wind instrument] into the expanse of space overhead, as if to announce that tonight would be a nice night to take in the moon.”
What follows is a marvelously boisterous and richly idiomatic depiction of a town, in fact Lōa’s hometown of Changhua in central Taiwan, preparing to celebrate the sea goddess Matsu.
Lōa speaks to us from Taiwan’s agrarian past, painting vivid scenes of life in a country making an uneasy transition into modernity, grappling with the contradictions of superstition and modern medicine, lit by gas lamps and traversed by bike, train, or ox cart rather than motor car.
In Lōa’s tales, oppressive Japanese policemen – the Daijin or “great men” – lock up kids out of spite and take pleasure in keeping good men down; stomping all over the hopes and dreams of a farmers and child hawkers alike.
Those stories are unrelentingly sorrowful but avoid the truly lamentable fate prescribed to A-kim in “The Poor Thing Died.”
A daughter of “a poor family of laborers,” A-kim is sold as a child bride only to see her new mother’s son and husband expire after a failed labor protest. She is then farmed out as a concubine, impregnated and discarded, only to drown by accident while doing the laundry.
Giving voice to such suffering is Lōa’s stock-in-trade, but such miserable depictions of societal injustice are tempered by a playfulness that make him a joy to read.
He frequently writes in an avuncular free indirect style – what Roland Barthes called “the reference code” or that naturally understood set of cultural cues and communal wisdom – which affords space for the withering irony and satire that underpins his political allegory.
Lōa is constantly nodding and winking at the reader in a way that is remarkably intelligible – and often very funny – given our distance from his time and text.
This apparently natural affinity is facilitated by Sterk, whose translation of “The Stolen Bicycle” by Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi (吳明益) was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.
His notes provide invaluable insight into the circumstances under which Lōa was writing and the difficulty in translating him, particularly from Taiwanese. Careful decisions have been made as to when to intercede with contextual or linguistic background and when to leave the reader free to enjoy the narrative.
His willingness to set out his reasoning when making difficult interpretative decisions engenders a sense of shared discovery in a bygone world that is at times nothing short of thrilling (at least it was for me).
Sterk illuminates Lōa’s skillful linguistic manipulations – designed to outwit the censorious Japanese officials who vetted the various journals in which he published, invariably under one of several pen names.
His translation is also wonderfully rhythmic and displays an ear for the sing-song back and forth that marks conversations here, and which move the narratives along at high speed.
It is hard to read Lōa and not shake your head at how little has changed in human relations in the intervening 90 years or so.
He consistently shows how easily the poorly educated and underinformed are divided and ruled by Japanese colonial officials and their sympathizers.
The way aggrieved sugar cane farmers are misled into “following agitators they heard could negotiate,” only to be shafted by the higher ups who have a vested interested in maintaining their poverty, echoes U.S. President Donald Trump’s manipulation of America’s farmers.
There is also a timeless sadness in the difficulty of rallying the oppressed around political ideals, as neatly summed up in a conversation A-si, a proxy for Lōa himself, overhears on a train to a TCA meeting: “Rather than striving on behalf of the Taiwanese people, [the TCA] could be a little less domineering to their tenant farmers…” The poor don’t care about politics, they just want to put food on the table, a situation that eventually renders Lōa disheartened in his efforts to rally the population towards self-determination.
But there is a resolute humanity to Lōa that transcends politics, illustrated by his expert capture of the frailties of a man entirely unsure of what he wants in “Hope for the Future”, who sees his hopes for a “vigorous male heir” raised and dashed as a result of dabbling in quackery.
The man in question, “Bigshot Bruin,” winds up uncertain whether his son will grow up to be “normal” after a difficult labor, one that could have been avoided had he relied on modern medicine rather than chabuduo ( cutting corners in) the baby’s delivery by phoning in a relative to take on the duties of midwife.
Such vignettes reflect a passionate concern for the future of Taiwan and its people, both of which Lōa clearly loved with a paternal affection befitting of the title “father of Taiwan’s modern fiction.”
Editor: Nick Aspinwall
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