Ah-ming and Ah-lui

A 40-year Literary Partnership

Howard Goldblatt

From left to right: Huang Chunming, Lin Mei-yin, Sylvia Lin and Howard Goldblatt
Photo provided by author 

I'm no good at pinpointing dates, so I can't recall exactly when I first met the Taiwanese writer and cultural figure Huang Chunming. Nor am I sure of the circumstances surrounding that meeting or my first impression of a man who would one day become one of my dearest friends. I can, however, recreate in detail my first encounter with his work.

In the spring of 1974, during a Fulbright year in Japan, I took a break from my doctoral dissertation and traveled to Taipei, where I'd begun my study of Chinese a decade before. There I met Nancy Chang Ing, who edited and published The Chinese PEN, a quarterly magazine in which contemporary writing from Taiwan appeared in translation. Nancy offered to publish my translations of essays by Zhu Ziqing, a writer from the Republican era, in exchange for agreeing to translate an essay by a contemporary Taiwanese writer for her magazine. I agreed, and she soon sent me three short stories by writers I'd never heard of—no surprise there, since I'd never read any fiction by a Taiwanese writer.

Weeks or months later, Nancy mailed me a longer selection that changed everything. It was a story that presented me with a translation problem right off the bat: the title was "Sayonara*Zaijian," or "Good-bye, Good-bye," in Japanese and Chinese. The Japanese word was widely known; the Chinese—in whatever spelling—was not. I considered calling it "Sayonara*Good-bye," but ended up leaving it just as it was given; it remains one of my least satisfying titles in English, though, for obvious reasons, it works in Chinese. I sat down and read it immediately, and then had a moment of pause. Why? Well, it was a story about Japanese men who go to Taiwan on sex tours, a satire in which the "subaltern" does in fact speak. The protagonist, a young, Japanese-speaking Taiwanese, has been assigned interpreting duties for a group of contemporary "samurai" whose ideal it is to sleep with a thousand women and save one pubic hair from each. The young local displays considerable postcolonial angst as he carries out his distasteful task, but succeeds in befriending the prostitutes and, in an extended Socratic dialogue, making his foreign guests reflect on their country's 20th-century misdeeds and their own despicable behavior. The dilemma for me was that I had been the well-treated guest of a Japanese university, and felt somehow disloyal; but, of course, no one there could possibly know that I was translating a story that placed some of their countrymen—and not the best representatives—in a particularly bad light.

The story, written by Huang Chunming in 1973, the year before I visited Taiwan, was published to some acclaim in Nancy's quarterly and appeared soon thereafter in Japan in a Japanese translation, where it received much negative attention, especially from women's groups that condemned the organizers of and participants in the sex tours. It also sparked my interest in the author, who was a year away from seeing his first collection of stories in print and, like me, was in his 30s. While my dissertation kept me busy during the days that followed, I spent many nights reading everything I could by Huang Chunming, and discovered the anomalous nature of the story I'd translated. Nearly everything else I found was demonstrably different: stories of local Taiwanese, as opposed to transplanted Mainlanders; stories set in Taiwan's towns and villages, not in Taipei. Having done almost all my work on writers and writing from the Republican era, mainly the 1930s, Taiwanese writing was new to me, and I consider myself lucky to have been introduced to one of the leading voices of the "nativist" group of writers in my first encounter, a writer who had emerged as one of the participants in a prolonged literary polemic with the modernist school of writers associated with National Taiwan University (Huang had attended many schools, with decidedly mixed results, and definitely not the elite NTU). Martial Law was still in effect at the time—it would end in 1987, prior to the death of President Chiang Ching-kuo—and writers had to be careful of what they wrote. Of course, censors, being censors—zealous literalists—had no interest in stories of an oppressed populace struggling to get by, so long as those stories refrained from being openly rebellious and avoided certain terms and concepts. Huang took advantage of that by masking his accounts of repression with humor, folk wisdom, and other devices: a strategy that became his trademark.

I finally met Chunming not long after I began teaching at San Francisco State University. Huang, a free spirit like his father (who had come to the US without knowing English and opened a Chinese restaurant somewhere in the Midwest), was traveling around the States in a beat-up, uninsured car he would later abandon when it crapped out on him. We had corresponded briefly, through the good offices of Nancy Ing, so he simply showed up at my flat one day, and that was the beginning of our friendship. I don't know what we talked about, other than his stories, several of which I had read and was interested in translating; I'm sure he regaled me with his storytelling talent. He would pepper his Mandarin, which I understood, with Taiwanese, which I didn't, and yet I would always know what he was saying. That talent has stayed with him over the years, and he has become, in my view, the archetype of a speaker of the hybrid language—a mixture of the two languages, with a smattering of English or Japanese—that is contemporary Taiwan's lingua franca.

Over the years that followed, I made a point of seeing Chunming (whom I called Ah-ming; he called me Ah-lui, the Taiwanese pronunciation of a word in my first Chinese name. I'm now known by a name I like better, though Ah-lui retains its charm) each time I visited Taiwan. On one of those occasions, he and I set out on a hair-raising motor scooter ride to the north of Taipei and up into the mountains to see some important sights, including the building that housed the brothel in "Sayonara*Zaijian." Though I'd done some traveling around the island over the years, this was my first intimate view of the Taiwan with which he most closely identified, and the people and places that populated most of his stories. The trip ended at a sidewalk teashop—run by local Taiwanese, of course—where I caught my breath and we smoked some cheap cigarettes and drank tea with the proprietor. On our way back down the mountain road, he pointed out scattered packets of spirit money someone had released for a relative who had died on the twisting, dangerous road. I returned to Taipei with mixed feelings, still somewhat shaky after the nerve-racking ride. I haven't been on a scooter since.

In 1980, Indiana University Press published my collection of Huang's stories, The Drowning of an Old Cat, which included, in addition to "Sayonara*Zaijian," some of the finest stories ever written in Chinese, and one, "Fish," that I consider virtually perfect, on par with Raymond Carver's "A Small, Good Thing," Alice Munro's "The Runaway" , Lu Xun's "Kong Yiji," and a bunch of stories by William Trevor. It did not include the raucous novella "I Love Mary," a dust-up of the slavish attitude of many Taiwanese toward the US, which was published soon after Taiwan was kicked out of the UN and President Carter shifted recognition from Taiwan to the PRC. Ah-ming and I never talked about "Mary," but he did sound off when he heard that I had translated the brilliant comic satire Rose, Rose, I Love You (1994) by his friend Wang Zhenhe, which dealt with a similar topic—prostitutes in an eastern Taiwan seaport who are subjected to the idiocies of a so-called teacher in order to learn enough English to entertain GIs on R & R from Vietnam. "I did that long before Zhenhe," he complained, "in my novella The Little Widows (1975). Why didn't you translate that?" Gulp! Actually, I'd been commissioned to do the Wang novel by Columbia University Press, which would publish Ah-ming's second collection of stories, The Taste of Apples, in 2001. He forgave me, in part because there already was a translation of "Mary" available; I considered retranslating it, to which he reacted enthusiastically. I still haven't gotten around to it.

Ah-ming and I have not spent a lot of time discussing either his stories or my translation of them. Lamentably, I have only once had the opportunity to work closely with a writer who is proficient in English, Pai Hsien-yung (Bai Xianyong), and he was mostly proficient in English gay slang. While I have read complaints from translators that authors who know the second language can be difficult to work with (notably Carlos Fuentes and Milan Kundera), having the good fortune to hammer out nuanced language with the author would be welcome; other than Pai, none of "my authors" have afforded me that opportunity. The most common substance of my exchanges with Ah-ming, who understands more English than he'll admit to, has been the use and spelling of Taiwanese words, phrases, and names. Taiwanese is a language I have gained some modest proficiency in, but I missed the opportunity to really learn it when I had both the capacity and the time to do so. That had something to do both with my need to learn "Chinese" (Mandarin) and to the official discrimination at the time against the "local dialect."

There was one issue we needed to deal with together in the finely structured and heartbreaking story, "His Son's Big Doll." Kunshu, the protagonist, ekes out a living as a sandwich-board adman, dressed in clownish military attire. He eventually takes on a more "respectable" job that doesn't require him to dress up. When his son rejects him the first time he sees him without his makeup, Kunshu begins re-applying face paint. Asked by his wife what he's doing, he responds ambiguously: "I . . . I . . ." In a later version, however, the ending has been clarified: "I . . . I want him to recognize me." While I personally preferred the earlier version, either Ah-ming or the publisher talked me into using the fuller ending. I still wonder if I made the right choice.

I returned to Taiwan in the summer of 1980, after giving an invited talk in Hong Kong. I planned to spend most of the summer there, and was living in a rented flat. While there, I received a telegram that had been sent to San Francisco inviting me to visit the Northeast Chinese author Xiao Jun in Beijing. I was ecstatic; it would be my first trip to China. I flew immediately to Hong Kong―after being sent off by Ah-ming, who reminded me to take lots of pictures―where I was issued a Chinese visa. I went first to Beijing, staying the better part of a week, meeting writers, critics, publishers, and translators, and being stared at—a lot. I begged my hosts to be allowed into Northeast China (Manchuria), the topic of so much of my research, but still an area that had not been opened up to foreigners. I either wowed them with unassailable logic or earned their pity, for I was granted permission to visit the major cities in the three provinces of Manchuria and to stop briefly in the town where my favorite author was born. It was the highlight of the trip and is still one of my fondest memories. I took lots of pictures. Then it was on to Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, before I re-emerged in Hong Kong, where I gathered my thoughts, tamped down my emotions, and bought books.

A couple of weeks later, I was back in Taipei. The powers that be were not terribly pleased that I had visited Red China. But for Ah-ming, the excitement of seeing how those damned Communists lived and what they looked like was overwhelming. He bombarded me with questions, dragged me to a photo shop to develop many rolls of film, and, I think, began planning his own visit to the Mainland somewhere down the line. He eventually made it, of course, but by then it was part of a larger travel itinerary; nonetheless, he is someone who never does anything by halves, and he got as much out of me and out of his later trips as humanly possible. I don't know if he's ever written about his travels in China, but if he has, I'm sure his recollections of his travels are more insightful than mine.

Ah-ming all but stopped writing short stories in 1974; for years he talked about the novel he was planning—I still remember parts of it, and have to laugh whenever I think about them—but he never ended up writing it. I think it would be, or would have been, a terrific read, but I guess he couldn't sit still long enough to get it done, and that is our loss. Over the next decade, diverse collections of his early fiction appeared, as did films of some of his stories, involving many of the big names in cinema—Wu Nianzhen and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, among others. Ah-ming himself wrote the film script for at least one of the film adaptations. Over that period, his energies took him in several directions, some cultural (children's books and plays, sponsoring events in his hometown of Yilan) and some not (marketing bottled spring water). We met, briefly, from time to time.

Then in 1986, he was back, with three stories published over six weeks in the United Daily News (Lianhe bao). Once they were out and had been discussed by others, the poet Ya Xian, longtime editor of the paper's literary page, invited the two of us to lunch at a café on Dunhua South Road for an on-the-record conversation about Ah-ming's new "nativist" stories: "Blind Ah-mu," "Mr. Nowadays," and "Swatting Flies." To my eternal discredit, I was cruelly candid, saying that while I enjoyed all three, I thought they fell short of the brilliant stories of the 60s and 70s. At one point, I went so far as to remark that their author, my friend, seemed sort of rusty. You don't tell a woman she's put on a few pounds, you don't tell an athlete he's slowing down, and you never tell a writer his works don't measure up (although, interestingly, people do that all the time with translators).

Needless to say, the conversation did not make it onto the literary page, and a friendship that had developed over more than a decade hit a road bump. Ah-ming was understandably frosty toward me after that, and our meetings grew less frequent. A couple of years later, I was asked by Nie Hualing, co-director, with her husband, poet Paul Engle, of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, to edit a volume of Huang Chunming's stories in Chinese for a Hong Kong publisher. I saw this both as a chance to make his work more easily available to Chinese readers outside Taiwan and to ease the strain I'd created in our friendship. I asked Ah-ming for a list of his favorite stories, to which I added some of my own favorite stories of his to make an even ten. He did not include the sensitive three that we had fought over, but I made sure they were in the book, along with a reprint of a long essay I'd written about his fiction and a short but glowing introduction; he supplied photographs. Happily, we were back on track, and though we were both crazily busy with all sorts of things, we managed to stay in touch, sharing a meal whenever we could manage.

In 2004, the sad news reached me that Ah-ming's younger son, a talented writer in his own right, had taken his own life. There was, of course, nothing I could do or say to lessen the grief that he and his wife, Lin Mei-yin, whom everyone calls Yumi, suffered then and for years to come. Being designated a National Literary Treasure (Wenxue guobao) didn't help much, but it did acknowledge the central role Ah-ming has played in Taiwanese culture for half a century. In recent years, he has kept busy with his children's theater and with a literary journal named Jiuqu shibawan (Nine Twists and Eighteen Turns) in his hometown of I-lan (Yilan), traveling back and forth from Taipei every week. Having spent much of his time in the early years at the Mingxing (Astoria) coffee shop and salon in Taipei, he has decided to recapture the atmosphere by opening his own coffee shop and salon across from the Yilan Train Station. During our last meeting with Ah-Ming and Yumi, in July of last year, my wife and I were invited to drop by the coffee shop the next time we were in Taiwan. Not long ago, I broached the subject of a new collection of stories with him and the Chinese University of Hong Kong Research Center for Translation. I selected a number of translated stories that had never been anthologized and translated others, including one of his latest, which he forwarded to me. I'm hoping that some of his fine artwork, including his paper-cut silhouettes, will find its way into the collection, which will be published in late spring under the title Stories.

Ah-ming and I are now in our seventies, but neither of us is about to slow down; while it's not a competition, we're both eager to show the other how much is left to do and how we're going to go about doing it. And when that novel is finally written, I stand ready to translate it, in part to help burnish an already enviable reputation, but also to remind me how enjoyable collaborating with him has been through the years.

Click here to read Huang Chunming's "The Pocket Watch," translated by Howard Goldblatt for the July 2012 issue.