The concrete tetrapods tempered the waves, and the space between them made room for love between boys.
July 30, 2021
Editor’s Note: The following stories by Yi-Hang Ma 馬翊航 are part of a notebook Queer Time, co-edited by Ta-wei Chi and Ariel Chu, which gathers contemporary queer Taiwanese literature in translation. To read the full Queer Time collection, visit its home here.
To read Siyü Chen’s English translation, click here.
A ROOM BY THE SEA
They showed Mickey Chen’s Fragile in Love and Boys for Beauty again in this year’s Taipei Film Festival. A former lover of mine had a role in Fragile in Love, as one of the extras partying under the blue aquarium light. His thin body and large, bushy hair didn’t quite fit the film’s more mainstream gay aesthetic, and in those brief moments he appeared on screen, he looked like an eel or jellyfish among a school of guppies. The first time I saw Boys for Beauty was in the winter of 1998, when I was attending high school in Hualien. In the twenty years that followed, Dabing, one of its subjects, would die young, and so would Mickey Chen, its director. In the karaoke lounge scene near the end of the film, Hu BB and Auntie Jiong get into a playfight in front of the camera, shoving each other’s faces aside as they exchange insults. I saw Hu BB’s stage play comeback when I was in graduate school and became thoroughly convinced that had there been drag shows in Taiwan’s bars, he’d have been a pioneer. Auntie Jiong was our costume designer for Splendid Float, and its wild, campy costumes won him Best Makeup and Costume in the Golden Horse Awards. We couldn’t have imagined any of this back in the day.
It was an all-boys school in blue. Our winter coats were an austere navy blue. Our ocean blue shirts were stiff like cardboard, and our slate blue trousers like the tails of rats. The boys’ uniforms had slight color variations depending on their age and material, sometimes hinting at their wearer’s social background. In the evenings and mornings, small schools of blue-scaled fish would flit through the street in thickening and thinning streams. The front gate faced a hill, and the back gate led out into the sea; some buildings had their wall skirtings painted blue, too, and the whole school seemed engulfed and submerged in seawater. Our teachers told us that many writers had come out of our school, such as Yang Mu, Chen Kehua, Wang Zhenhe, Chen Li… You, too, could have a chance. The only thing I actually enjoyed in Chinese class was “Notes from the Valley,” a story found in my second-year textbook. I began to collect every Yang Mu piece I could find in the bookstore, imitating or hand-copying his early work from the “JUVENILIA” section of Then as I Went Leaving. A sigh. A river. Travelers on boats. Suspended stars. A prophet. One of my teachers also taught Wu Daiying, and he told me that my poems, all written in my tiny handwriting, reminded him of Wu. In “Seaside Classroom,” Chen Kehua recounts how the students of Hualien High would run to the shore during lunch break and come home with bags full of colorful tropical fish. As third-years, we too moved to the building closest to the sea, but I still envied the natural sciences class for their view on the second floor. The distance to the sea was formulated and compressed; the waterline lapped the dusty windowsills. You could reach out your hand and feel the kiss of the waves; the sea’s real location was inconsequential.
The building by the seaside gate was haunted. They asked, do you know why the bathroom on the third floor of the Heping Building had its mirrors taken down? Do you know why they boarded up all the classrooms on that floor? The questions pursued those seeking answers. The mirrors would reflect things that should have been there, or things that shouldn’t have been there. Through them, a boy had seen a lone shoe lying in the bathroom—and another shoe on the shore, in the distance—before he went missing. Another story claimed that at night, a trumpeter would play Dvořák’s “Going Home” in one of the abandoned classrooms. How were those bathroom pipes connected to the shore, and why did the trumpeter play his song? A blank, empty nest was left on the ground, and a blue body rolled itself into a dotted line to envelop the lingering stories.
Youth was not the lack of knowledge or experience, but the lack of space. The shore was not a line. The hazy edges of space were bound to the seaside roads, fragments varying in shapes and numbers. Old garages. Banyan trees. Low walls. Dry dikes. Impassive bus stops. The concrete tetrapods tempered the waves, and the space between them made room for love between boys. My beautiful peers were experts in creating the stirrings of schoolyard romance. I was there to hear the stories being made, and despite everything, the sentences themselves were beautiful: they went to the place near the tetrapods after class. “The place” was a locomotive, followed by carriages of active verbs, some gentle, some obscene. Boy and boy made train after train, all chugging down south, all thrilling. When I returned during my graduate school years to apply for exemption from basic combat training, a friend pointed to the sea and said look, the shoreline has receded. That’s the place where we used to—
But was I in that place?
My classmate L. came from Ruisui and had a rented room in Hualien. To the rest of us boarders from even further south, this was already considered a luxury. One day after class, he asked me to go to the library with him, and there he borrowed a copy of Unitas. He leaned aslant against the wall of our second-floor hallway, and he didn’t tell me why he had borrowed that magazine in particular. …Queer…literature…love… Other than Hualien Youth and our school publications, I hadn’t read that many literary magazines. That magazine remained propped against his chest until the school bells rang. The sun cast its pale rays on his ocean blue uniform. Pristine, a line of unobstructed sight, little fish swimming between his buttons.
The wall around my dormitory was thorned. White iron fences with spikes the shape of flower buds and sepals. Above the concrete slope was a brick wall, and above the brick wall were thorns—the tall wall seemed too harsh a sentence. Beyond the wall was a row of elegant residentials, handwritten duilians, bougainvillea, money trees, calico cats, and white dogs. Delicate vines coiled around the fences, and in a section behind the cafeteria, the thorns were bent and flattened, an opening left by our seniors. They say that to kill a snake, you have to hit it where it hurts. Our military officer did his evening roll call at 10 PM, and he knew exactly where to hit us. “I suggest you guys either do some studying or head to bed. Don’t even try to scale the wall. In a previous class, some kid got his balls snagged on the fence—” The boys burst into laughter, and in their laughter was a hint of nervousness. They didn’t dare scale the wall, hadn’t got the balls. Were afraid they’d lose their balls. I didn’t care about my balls. L. called me on the phone and asked if I wanted to come read and spend the night in his room. I decided to scale the wall, as well as whatever obstacles that followed. I had to smell fresh out of the shower, had to have clean and comfortable pajamas and underwear. I had to endure the compliments and mockeries of my dormmates, had to evade the watchful eyes of the military officers and prefects as I made my way behind the cafeteria, where I stepped back into a racetrack pose and launched myself, with the help of a stool (that somebody else had placed there), onto the concrete wall, holding tight onto the white fence the way I’d never held onto another person… I found a calico cat on the other side. Startled, it dashed under a car, revealing only a pair of wary golden eyes. My balls were safe, yet thinking back, I can still feel an unsettling phantom sensation of my body impaled on sharp objects. Love indeed required strength and foolhardiness.
Hualien first screened Boys for Beauty in the winter, and it was my first time seeing a documentary. I sweated in the dark, cold cave of the theater room as the boys on screen took out their powder foundations in Taipei’s 228 Park, their made-up faces bold like night-blooming cowslip flowers. They weaved through dark bars costumed and twirling polyfoam antennae, all solemn and beautiful interstellar queens. Boys for Beauty has its serious side, as Chen Li—who was in charge of documentary screenings and lectures at the cultural center—must have pointed out. The boys’ fear of disease, their anxiety over sex and love, their nervousness about coming out on the big screen (do I look pretty enough?). But I was fixated on wanting to be a Taipei beauty, and in my memories I always downplayed the discursive value of the film. I had no excuse; I simply wanted a room of my own.
The poet Jin Xianghai writes in “Looking for Friends:” “I’m twenty-four. / Almost the same age as the white pony in Yang Huan’s poem.” At twenty-four, I too had my own (rented) room. Within that room was an ambitious and somber lover, who would eventually become that strange fish in Fragile in Love1. I remained in my room, but my lover’s room was wide open. He told me he’d never tie himself to my room. Commitment opens the door to pain—this was his literary theory. He shared with me his stories from another room, perhaps hoping that I too would go exploring. The room he visited had poems and novels on its bookshelves. Its owner read, which gave him comfort. They ate happy little candies together, taking off when music surged out of their bodies. He was honest, for he loved me. In my own room, I listened to his stories and let my mind wander, watching grapefruit-colored lights glow against his pale collarbones. I hung myself on the wall, thinking I knew which part of the sea I would turn to.
1 The film Fragile in Love is loosely based on the poem “Looking for Friends.”
I’d heard a story in college. During a conversation between broadcasters Rosita Chu and Chen Hong, Chu said her confidence really took a hit when she first started working in Taiwan, because the audience complained about her Hong Kong accent. Chen comforted her: hey, at least they weren’t complaining about your sissy accent.
This had amused me, since anything that challenged or played up the idea of effeminacy was worth stowing away as ammunition for my private sissy arsenal. O to be more sissy than a sissy, fiercer than the baddest bitch. A philosophy and aesthetics of existence born out of impudence and resignation. Thinking back to it now, the appeal of the story lay in the fact that the two broadcasters’ accents were of completely different natures. One led to another place, one zeroed in on the here and now. Fingers extended like the petals of a blossoming lotus, one peeks out of the phoenix-eye-shaped gap between the thumb and middle finger, looking at others, seeing through oneself.
Fierceness is something that has to be learned, and the art of beautiful fighting has its own lineage. In Beautiful Fighting Girl, the Japanese scholar Tamaki Saitō identifies at least thirteen subgenres of fighting girls in manga and anime, such as the magical girl, the roommate girl, the cross-dressing girl, the witch girl, and the girl from another world. The first beautiful fighting girl I remember was Jun the Swan from Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, as well as the pink warrior from the Taiwanese knockoff Space Warriors (after some Internet research, it turned out that her official name was Jin Feng, which sounds rather like the name of a seafood shop proprietress). According to Saitō, fighting squads like these would fall under the “splash of crimson” subgenre, referring to the one drop of pink among a sea of men. The girls’ slapdash costumes have the texture of rayon; wielding malleable weapons such as whips and bows, they kick and leap their way onto their motorbikes before speeding off in a trail of dust. Due to either the fogginess of my own memory or the limits of the production budgets, the fight scenes all had an industrial quality, the silvergrass on top of dirt piles trembling as the monsters plunged into the earth. Jun’s eyelashes seemed to have the ability to pierce through her acrylic mask. I liked her cape, liked its pink zig-zag hem flapping in the blue sky, the kin of sea snails. When the group called upon their firebird power, she’d close her eyes and let out a battle cry, her forehead drenched in sweat as she hovered along the brink of death. Pain was indeed the price of beauty.
Back in college, I was severely underweight and had a mitral valve prolapse in my heart, so I’d assumed I’d be exempt from military service—all I had to do was wait for burial, no need to ever set foot on a battlefield. To my own surprise, by the time I had finished my master’s thesis, my physical exam results showed that I weighed nearly seventy kilos and was healthy as a heifer. In the real world, there were no splashes of crimson among space warriors. I was just a more effeminate shaved head among hundreds of shaved heads.
I stocked up on military themed jokes before I began my service.
Maggot, what’s that you’re holding?
Sir! It’s my sissy-gun2, sir!
As it turned out, there was no need for jokes. Get up in the morning, stand at attention, clean my gun, get down on the ground, field strip, reassemble—all this took up most of my time. I began service at the tail end of October, the weather alternating between sweltering autumn heat and pouring autumn rain; my only relief was that the green raincoats assigned to us were in the form of cloaks. Oversized and free-flowing, my raincoat became a classic cape (like Mrs. Yee’s in Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution), a secret runway already in place the moment I joined the crowd and marched to the cafeteria. Body in the raincoat, beauty in the soul. It was time to disband might and machismo! Under the cover of my cape, I stepped onto a secret catwalk, my disobedient tongue repeating new, silent commands. One, two, one, two. Elegant! Virtuous! Lascivious! Sweet! Soft! Flirtatious! Leisurely! Uproarious! Sharp! Untamed! Liftoff! Dance— Oh right, it’s illegal to privately carry ammunition.
Basic combat training included a class on camouflage, and we went out to the training field, searching for wild plants to stick on ourselves so we could pretend to be bushes. They gave us black and green paste to paint our faces. This is Project Runway! I screamed internally. The theme of the episode: Call of the Wild. The contestants shall construct an evening gown out of beggarticks, fireweed, silvergrass, Kans grass, and other wild plants. The time limit: fifty minutes. Extra budget: zero yuan. Of course, nobody made a mad dash for the raw materials like the contestants did on the show. We moved slowly, languidly, like a herd of rain-soaked cattle. I picked up plants I couldn’t name and decorated myself into an ordinary, vaguely zig-zag-shaped bush that resembled neither Beyoncé nor a fiery, orgasmic pineapple. I strip my gun and get down on the ground, I clean my gun and there’s magic all around—and so I sang to myself. I took great joy in my puns, but I never opened fire.
Perhaps what attracted me was not the splash of crimson, but the idea of a fighting girl squad. Like Sailor Moon meeting Sailor Mercury and Sailor Mars, like Hikaru Shidou from Magic Knight Rayearth meeting Umi Ryuuzaki and Fuu Hououji. I later found a compatriot in Sister Hong. He never forgot to put on his colored contact lenses, even for morning assembly.
A fellow soldier asked: Hong-jie, why are your eyes so bright?
He tossed his (non-existent) long hair: because I’m just that beautiful.
That was the sissy-gun he handed me, my moonlight Pandora’s box. But even the most beautiful fighting girl has to retire someday and disband her squad, leaving a world of crystals and magic for a reality of earth and water. Later, when more friends of mine got drafted, I became the new trailblazer of the fighting girl squad. I opened the text document I’d prepared and sent out a packing list titled “Fierce Babe Beauty Book.” It contained everything from conscription notices, candid shots, and headshots to magic markers, electronic watches, and mosquito repellent. At the end of the document, there was an optional checklist: lip gloss, stockings, circle lenses, makeup pads, folding fans. These rose-colored items were not strictly necessary, but perhaps those receiving my list could use them to step through dimensions and fire off a shot inside the closet.
And make that space seem less formidable, less mundane and futile.
2 The words “gun” and “accent” are homophones in the original Chinese.