Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Pail of Oysters II

[Note: I took this down for a while, but have re-posted it. Some of what is below is developed in more detail in my 2007 article, "Empathy and its Others: The Voice of Asia, A Pail of Oysters, and the Empathetic Writing of Formosa" (Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, 33(2), 35 - 60).]

In my earlier post I mentioned what little criticism or analysis I could find about A Pail of Oysters. Here I'm not going to summarize the entire novel, but I want to point out a few things that were interesting to me about the book.

There are four main characters in A Pail of Oysters:
  • Li Liu, a part-Hakka, part-Pepohuan (Plains Aborigine--or literally, "plains savage") who has been sent by his ailing father to bring back their god (a framed picture, possibly like this, which was stolen by some KMT soldiers);
  • Precious Jade, a young prostitute who escapes the House of the Laughing Gods;
  • her younger brother, a middle school graduate who is about Li Liu's age; and
  • Ralph Barton, an American reporter who is being dragged around Taiwan by KMT people so that he can write glowing accounts of how the Nationalists are running Taiwan.
After escaping the House of the Laughing Gods, Precious Jade finds her brother in the house of their adoptive father (the same man who sold her to the house of prostitution) and they both escape. In the process, Precious Jade's brother puts the identity cards of some of the other prostitutes in a place where they can find them and then escape. This, of course, makes his rich adoptive father very angry at the both of them, since the prostitutes are one of his main sources of income. He's also upset that Precious Jade's brother has escaped, since he had invested a lot of money in the boy in hopes that in the future he would have a son to honor him after his death.

The two run into Li Liu, who has accidentally ended up in Taipei after he hitched a ride on the jeep carrying Ralph Barton. Precious Jade's brother buys some food for Li Liu and invites Li to live with Precious Jade and him, despite Precious Jade's objections.

I want to dwell, at this point, on an interesting part in the story where Precious Jade's brother and Li Liu are talking and Li Liu asks the brother what to call him:
"...I was thinking. You call me by my name. You call me Li Liu, and I do not know what to call you."

"I see."

"You said you thought your name was Yamamuro at one time, and more recently Wang, but that you did not want these names any more. Truly, though, you must have a first name by which I can address you."

"The one who was supposed to be my real father used to call me Modiharu," the youth said slowly. "And the one who bought me named me Ching-Meng." He considered. "But I don't want those names either."

"Then what am I to call you?"

"I do not know. Would you want to call me nameless one?"

Li Liu shook his head. "No."

"I see." (120-1)
Eventually, they agree that Li Liu should call him "Didi" (younger brother), just as Precious Jade does. Later on, Precious Jade's brother gets a job at the Friends of China Club and meets Barton. The two of them get to talk a lot (Precious Jade's brother is trying to improve his English), and Barton gives the boy the English name Billy.

I don't know if Sneider intended it, but Didi's (or "Billy's") issues with his name and parentage (distinguishing clearly between "the one who was supposed to be my real father" and "the one who bought me") sound like a metaphor for Taiwan's situation at the time. The boy's confusion about his name involves the same confusion over national identity that people in Taiwan might have been experiencing at the time. The use of Japanese and Chinese names mirrors the problems of identification for the Taiwanese. Each "father" gives a different name that requires the child to reject the previous identity.

In the end, Precious Jade's brother rejects both his Japanese names and his Chinese names, settling first for the label "Didi", then also for an English name that is given to him by an American. Did Sneider mean this to be symbolic of the ideal American relationship with Taiwan--one in which the Americans would help the Taiwanese people establish an identity for themselves that would not only reject the oppressive identities forced upon them by the Chinese but also be friendly to the American people?

Another narrative thread in the book suggests that this conclusion might not be too far off. Barton also becomes involved with a Mr. Chou, the head of an architectural firm who arranges secret meetings with the American to tell him about the plans some Formosans have to try to reform the Nationalist government by getting rid of the "Communistic-technique" faction of the KMT. (Here Sneider alludes to Chiang Ching-kuo, not by name, but as a member of the "Communistic-technique" faction who "has lived almost half his life" in Russia [177]). Chou wants Barton to write articles about Formosa in order to let Americans know about the problems there so that the "Democratic-technique" faction can overcome the Communistic-technique faction. He also describes the Formosans' plans to build Formosa's democracy through economic development, specifically via "free enterprise," and their hopes that the Americans will help with this. Chou assures Barton that their plan to "build Formosa" will also "be helping to build all of Asia" (180). He argues that building a strong capitalist economy on Taiwan that breaks up government monopolies and allows for the participation of Formosans will help build a better society and more appealing alternative than that of Red China. Chou implies, then, that a democratic and capitalistic Taiwan would help further the U.S.'s fight against Communism in Asia.

Chou (or Sneider?) is at pains to emphasize that the opponents of the government are not Communists, even labelling CCK's faction of the KMT as the "Communistic-technique" faction. (I'm not going to argue with that characterization, though.) The future of Asia, it is implied, lies in developing a strong free-market economy in Taiwan, which will lead to a more democratic Taiwan that would be more friendly to U.S. interests.

This is, by the way, in sharp contrast to the impressions James Michener gives of the situation in The Voice of Asia, which was published only 2 years prior to Sneider's book. After interviewing a few Mainlanders on Taiwan (see my list of his interviewees here), Michener gives the following answer to the question, "Is the present Formosa Government responsible?"
It is probably the most efficient government in Asia today, not even excepting Japan's. It has solved the food problem. It has rationed goods so that everyone gets a fair break. It polices the island so that even white men can move about at night without risk of murder. It has launched an education program, prints liberal newspapers and insures just trials. Furthermore, in order to erase evil memories of initial Chinese occupation, the Government has specifically worked to protect the indigenous Taiwanese population. (106)
Michener's "Observations" section consists almost entirely of issues related to how and when the Mainland should be retaken militarily. He doesn't suggest any changes are needed on Formosa, and in the above paragraph gives unstinting praise to the KMT regime for reforms that the characters in Sneider's novel would say hadn't even happened. To Michener, the KMT government is taking care of the Taiwanese people and Americans don't need to worry about it. Sneider's book argues that American ignorance of the real conditions on Taiwan--ignorance exacerbated by reportage like Michener's--would be disasterous for Asia.

Toward the end of the novel, Barton finds out that Billy and Precious Jade have been caught by the "Peace Preservation Corps" and taken to a racetrack in Tamshui and shot. (Their adoptive "father" found out where they were and turned them in, accusing them of being Communists.) At first Barton is sick of Taiwan and wants to leave. Then, after he runs into Li Liu, he "borrows" a jeep and helps him escape back to the South before Li Liu can be arrested. As Barton drives, the car, he changes his mind about staying in Taiwan:
No, he told himself, he wasn't finished with this part of the world. His glance slid to the boy who held his god. He would stay here. He would learn all that he could. And then he would reveal--in articles and fiction--in any way he could, the utter stupidity, the ignorance of a small group who not only enslaved eight million people, but who endangered all of Asia. (304)
This is the last we see of him. And perhaps the alleged fate of A Pail of Oysters--pulled out of libraries then and virtually ignored now--might tell us what the fate of Barton's words would have been.

More here... [Not yet...]


Anonymous said...

I lived in Taiwan during the mid '70's. I remember my mother handing me a book, I only had a couple of days to read it, it must not leave the house, it was all so secret. I never read it. About ten years ago I started looking for the book I never read, never found it and forgot about it. A couple of weeks ago I searched again and found it. Yesterday I finish that book, A Pail of Oysters. So many things make sense to me now.
I remember when Chiang died. Everything stopped except for the black and white military TV broadcasts. One day at work, I asked a co-worker why our supervisor was crying, she replied, "Her president died." My co-worker remained dry-eyed and quiet.
I want to learn more about the native Taiwanese, can you offer any suggestions?

Jonathan Benda said...

Thanks for your response--I'm glad you were able to find Oysters again after all those years. And your story about your co-worker's and your supervisor's reactions to the death of Chiang is also quite revealing.

One book about the KMT takeover of Taiwan that gets frequent mention, and that can give a lot of background to Oysters, is Formosa Betrayed by George H. Kerr. This book was originally published in 1965 by Houghton Mifflin. It's also available online. Kerr witnessed the 2-28 Incident that Sneider describes in chapter 20 of Oysters. Douglas Mendel's 1970 study, The Politics of Formosan Nationalism, which was published by U of California Press, covers a lot about how native Taiwanese felt about the KMT government in the 1960s.

A more recent book, which I haven't read yet, is Jonathan Manthorpe's Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan. There's a review of that book here.

Hope this helps!