August is Ghost Month in Taiwan—a time to pay respects to the dead and avoid unlucky omens. Jing-nan, who runs a food stand in a bustling Taipei night market, isn’t superstitious, but this August will haunt him nonetheless. He learns that his high school sweetheart has been murdered—found scantily clad near a highway where she was selling betel nuts. Beyond his harrowing grief, Jing-nan is confused. “Betel nut beauties” are typically women in desperate circumstances, but Julia Huang was high school valedictorian, and the last time Jing-nan spoke to her, she was far away, happily enrolled in NYU’s honor program. The facts don’t add up. Julia’s parents don’t think so, either, but the police seem to have closed the case without asking any questions. The Huangs beg Jing-nan to do some investigating—reconnect with old classmates, see if he can learn anything more about Julia’s last years. Reluctantly, he agrees, for Julia’s sake. But nothing can prepare him for what he is about to learn, or how it will change his life.
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
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Read an Excerpt
When I found out the girl I was going to marry had been murdered, I was sitting on a foldout stool at a sidewalk noodle shop in Taipei’s Da’an District. My mouth went dry, my eyes blurred and I couldn’t stop shaking. It was the hottest day in July, and the island’s humidity was draped over me like a mourning veil, yet my body went cold and sweaty. Even my skin was crying.
I was somehow able to hold the newspaper still in my hands while reading and rereading the entire story of Julia Huang. It was only three paragraphs long. She had been shot in the head. She hadn’t been wearing much. She had been working at an unlicensed betel-nut stand in Hsinchu City, an hour outside of Taipei. The surveillance camera—Taiwan’s top crime-fighting tool—had malfunctioned, and no footage of the crime had been recorded.
I sighed and slumped over. I wished it hadn’t been my Julia. I wished it had been almost anybody else. I thought about some of our old classmates I didn’t care for. Why not one of them? But it was definitely my Julia. I touched the three Chinese characters of her name as I read them. Her name, Huang Zheng-lian, meant “positive light.” Everything she did I’d always seen in a positive light.
I hadn’t seen her in seven years, when I had left for UCLA and she for NYU. I hadn’t even known she was here in Taipei.
The two of us had grown up together, Jing-nan and Zhenglian, who became Johnny and Julia, two Taiwanese sweethearts with the same American dream. Our families had been friends for at least three generations, so it had been predestined that we would be close. As soon as Julia and I could talk, we talked to each other. We went to the same school and the same cheap cram schools and worked at our respective family night-market stalls, which changed locations over the years but were always near each other.
We did everything together. Everything. We knew we were in love by third grade. We knew we were going to get married by the fifth.
Next door to the noodle shop where I sat with my paper, in a store that sold altars, gods and goods for the next world, a man set up burning incense sticks at the feet of several deities. He brought a folding table out to the sidewalk, and I watched him set up offerings for human spirits: a three-layer pyramid of oranges, a bulk pack of instant noodles, a six-pack of Coca-Cola, a six-pack of Sprite and boxes of cookies and crackers. He slid a plastic bucket of water and a small towel underneath the table, so the ghosts could wash up before and after eating. He lit up incense for the table and sneezed hard twice. Finally, he touched his lighter to a sheaf of paper and dropped it in a metal bucket to the right of the table. Black smoke from the burning money for the dead snaked toward me.
A motorcycle-repair shop on the north side of the noodle shop simultaneously set up its offerings table. Judging by the outsized table and offerings, the owner was either less lucky or more fearful than the guy who ran the gods store. Incense smoke as thick as a movie special effect streamed out of a censer on his table.
The makeshift offering tables were meant to appease not only the spirits of one’s ancestors, but also those of people who died with no heirs. Supposedly if no one was around to pray for you and offer money and food throughout the year, you really suffered in the afterlife. You might be pierced with hooks, hung upside down and set on fire, depending on what your specific beliefs were. After eleven months of pain and hunger, these ghosts were looking to take out their wrath upon anybody alive.
I looked over at the gods next door and choked on the spiced air.
This morning, each of the seven twenty-four-hour news channels had been going off on the betel-nut girl who was shot and killed, replaying computer-animated reenactments of the crime. If the surveillance-camera footage had been available, that would have been played in endless loops, too.
I had watched the cartoon shooting with indifference, numbed to the over-the-top violence, sex and sexual violence the news channels served up to compete for eyeballs. The woman in the animated reenactment looked more like a strung-out Marge Simpson than Julia. One version featured the gunman killing the woman and then spitting betel-nut juice on her face as a final act of indecency.
The girls who work at betel-nut stalls are usually in tough circumstances. It pays well and doesn’t require a college degree. You just have to be willing to wear next to nothing and to let the occasional big tipper conduct your breast exam.
How many disgusting men with ugly, red-stained teeth drove up to the stand and tried to grab you when you handed them their betel-nut chew, Julia? Did you fight back? Is that why he shot you?
Betel nut, or binlang, is a stimulant grubby Taiwanese men can’t get enough of. Binlang is utterly unacceptable in most social settings—even in easygoing Taipei—because users constantly spit out the bloody juice as it collects in the mouth, staining the teeth and gums. If you want to chew binlang, you have to not care what you look like.
There are many benefits to chewing binlang, though. It’s better than coffee at keeping drivers alert, which is why it’s so often associated with taxi, bus and truck drivers. It has a flavor that outlasts any gum, and it tops cigarettes in terms of effectively delivering mouth cancer to its users.
Best of all are the barely legal, barely dressed women who work at the betel-nut stands, the “betel-nut beauties,” or binlang xishi. Community standards and furious wives have kept betel-nut stands outside the city limits, relegating them to highways and off- and on-ramps. At night drivers will see stretches of young women in swimsuits and lingerie in their glass-enclosed stands. Visitors to Taiwan think all the women are prostitutes. As I understand it, only the less reputable stands are fronts for hookers, who also sell illegal drugs.
Nonetheless, religious and political leaders have often called for regulation in the industry. A Christian coalition called upon the women to completely cover the three Bs: breasts, butts and bellies. But then the tips wouldn’t be as good. Anyway, some of the privileged young women at Taipei’s throbbing nightclubs weren’t dressed that differently from socially and educationally disadvantaged betel-nut beauties.
Are the binlang xishi exploited or are they empowered? Maybe a combination of the two? It’s hard to say. Many of the women who work at the stands are from broken and poor families. Some stands employ aboriginal girls for a touch of the exotic. The income they earn is on the high side, but they are typically supporting an entire household. One thing is quite clear, though. There is money in it, and the binlang stands have a steady inflow from lonely betel-nut addicts. Drugs, tits and asses are recession-proof, and even the most forlorn binlang outposts are always hiring. I didn’t chew binlang, I didn’t go to the stands and I hadn’t cared about the undeniably seedy world that they operated in.
How could Julia, the valedictorian of our high school and the love of my life, have ended up working as a betel-nut girl? What the hell had happened?
The newspaper article was thin on details of Julia’s murder and ended with a call to shut down unlicensed betel-nut stands. I checked my phone to see if the story had been updated, but there was nothing new.
I dropped my phone in my shirt pocket and rubbed my thighs. A truck going by hit a pothole, and the vibration caused some of my soup to dribble over the side of the plastic bowl. I had eaten exactly one bite before I saw Julia’s name.
The woman who ran the noodle shop came out from behind the counter, and we regarded each other. She was maybe sixty-five years old and had once been the young bride of a retired soldier from the mainland, who started this beef-noodle-soup stand. Her face was still smooth but had some spots that were only getting darker. She wore Buddhist counting beads and a Taoist pendant around her neck, which had three long and deep scoops taken out of the flesh.
She noticed my puffy eyelids and tear-stained face.
“Ah,” she said. “I told you spicy was too spicy for you! And you said you could handle it because you sell spicy food at the Shilin Night Market!”
“I do,” I said to one of her spots. “Well, not everything’s spicy.”
“Look, you didn’t even eat any of it and you’re crying your eyes out! Let me make you one without chili peppers.”
“That’s all right. I’m not hungry.”
“A young man like you should always be eating.”
“I should be going now.” I stood up and towered over her.
“Hey, before you go, could you please help me? My son was supposed to be here an hour ago, and it’s getting late to set up the offerings for the good brothers. We use the table in the back, but it’s too heavy for me to carry. Could you please bring it to the sidewalk for me?”
“No,” I whispered.
“Do you want your money back? Is that the problem?”
“I have to go.”
She grabbed my arm. “This will only take a moment, and I need your help. Don’t deny an old woman!”
“Listen,” I said, a lot harder than I meant to, “I’m not going to help you set up your stupid little table for your stupid little ghosts!” I was shaking, and I cracked my neck in an attempt to settle down.
“How can you say that?” she said, her eyes brimming with tears.
Part of me felt sorry for her. Another part of me was nauseated, maybe from all the incense. I reached out and touched the woman’s left elbow. “Your son will be here soon,” I told her before leaving.
In both directions of Jianguo Road, the sidewalks were crowded with offering tables and streaming rivulets of smoke. I couldn’t handle it, not right now anyway. Luckily, Da’an Forest Park was nearby. I crossed the northbound lane of the street and walked under the Jianguo Elevated Road, listening to car tires moaning overhead like mournful spirits.
Why had Julia come back to this horrible island? Why was I stuck here now? We didn’t belong. After all, neither of us believed in religion or astrology, and Taiwanese are the most superstitious people in the industrialized world. For example, the Da’an District is home to the country’s top universities and brightest professors and young people. Yet these supposedly educated people would chuck their books and degrees into the fire if it made them more pious for Ghost Month.
Essentially, Ghost Month is the entire seventh lunar month of the year, when everybody on the island spends nearly five weeks indulging every crazy belief they hold about the spirit world. Supposedly the gates of the underworld are opened and spirits of the dead are allowed to walk among the living once again. It feels like hell’s doors have been opened, as the festival usually straddles the two hottest months of the year—July and August.
Why the hell did we need to appease spirits and idols? We Taiwanese are capable of so many miraculous things on our little rocky island, such as building the tallest building on earth and operating the world’s largest semiconductor plant. Yet we are also held back by our bizarre beliefs.
Car and house sales fall off during Ghost Month because Taiwanese stay away from big-ticket items out of fear that ancestors would feel they were being neglected. The ghosts could also “claim” such purchases by cursing them. Caesarian delivery rates go up the month before. It’s unlucky to give birth during Ghost Month, and if you’re unfortunate enough to be born during it, nobody will celebrate your birthday out of fear of offending jealous spirits.
All year round, Taiwanese avoid the number four because it sounds like “death” but love the number eight because it sounds like “luck.” Buildings lack fourth floors, and it’s not possible to get a license plate with a “4” digit. The way people drive in Taipei, you need all the luck you can get.
Taiwanese also believe China would attack the island should we formally declare independence, mainly because Beijing vowed to. So we maintain a flimsy fiction to the international community that we are citizens of a wayward Chinese province. In the
Olympics, we marched as “Chinese Taipei.” How embarrassing. We were like the perennial kid in the playground whose mother made him wear a sweater in the summer—only in our case, if we didn’t wear the sweater, she was going to invade and kill indiscriminately.
I felt a dull throbbing in my head as I waited for a spot to open up so I could cross the southbound lane of Jianguo Road and enter the park. Traffic was nuts.
All my plans, hopes and dreams collapsed into each other like sections of a blurry telescope being slammed shut. I realized the futility of the stupid life plan I had set for us. How Julia and I were going to live the American Dream and leave behind all the backwards thinking and backwards politics of Taiwan.
We loved America because it was the kind of place where religion and superstition didn’t dictate the culture. The US president didn’t burn incense to gods, bow down to idols in temples and worship his ancestors. The Taiwanese president did.
America also didn’t have the “black gold” problem that Taiwan had. Heijin—the practice of politicians working with the criminal underworld—was an embarrassment to any Taiwanese who truly believed in democracy. Vote buying was rampant. Gangsters openly ran for seats in public office—and won titles and immunity from prosecution while serving.
We didn’t think America was perfect, but it was better. It was a country with ambitious people doing great things, not a tiny island that was getting more crowded and dirty every day.
Tens of thousands of Taiwanese attend college in the US. A lot of them intend to come home and become big-shot bankers, lawyers and politicians. In fact, the last three Taiwanese presidents were all Ivy Leaguers. That wasn’t our thinking at all, though. Julia and I were done with Taiwan. We thought we were as destined to settle down in America as we were destined to be together forever.
Now, and only now, I realized that it was the stupid teenage dream of a stupid teenager. I was just another in a long line of men in Taiwan talking big and delivering nothing.
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek said he’d regroup his military and retake the Chinese mainland. He ended up dying here in exile.
Chen Shui-bian promised he’d fight corruption. Now the former president was in jail for embezzlement and bribery.
I had promised Julia we’d be happy and somewhat successful in America. But in the end, she had been reduced to working at a betel-nut stand, and I was running my family’s crummy food stall at the Shilin Night Market.
I checked my phone again. Two more details had been added to the story. Julia hadn’t graduated from college, and she had apparently returned to Taiwan a few years ago.
So neither of us had finished school. Damn.
How could she not have graduated? Julia had been the smartest person in high school and possessed an intuition about things that can’t be taught. For example, she could guess the number of beans in a glass jar with a single glance. Too bad she hadn’t been able to see that I was missing a few marbles.
I punched myself several times in the stomach as I continued pacing on the corner.
“Stupid, stupid!” I yelled. People edged away from me. If a cop were here, he might try to shout some sense into me.
I had bigger things to worry about, like what was I going to do now?
Until I’d learned about Julia, I had been working on Plan B. I was going to return to the US, finish my degree at UCLA, get a great job and then we’d get married. The details of the plan were always a little murky.
Now both of our lives were over. There was no future and the dream was dead. Like my father and my father’s father, I was an uneducated yokel cooking up skewers at the night market.
The only girl I’d ever loved was dead, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I couldn’t even cross the fucking road.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This novel is as complicated and inscrutable as the Chinese, and probably could have been split into two or three books. It is a detailed history if Taiwan, a deep look at the culture and its people from the original aborigines to its more recent takeover following the civil war on the mainland and the settlement of the forces led by Chiang Kai-shek. Then it is a love story of sorts. And lastly, it is a mystery. The story takes place during Ghost Month, a period in which the dead are commemorated. A haunting time. The plot tells of the love of Jing-nan and Julia ever since they were toddlers and what happens to them when they grow up. They pledged themselves to marriage, but then left for the United States and college on separate coasts with no contact. When his parents died, he was forced to take over operation of the family food stall at a night market. She returns to Taipei only to be shot dead, and he undertakes to find out why and by whom. While the writing is clear and concise, I found the various digressions overwhelming, making it hard for this reader to maintain any kind of pace. It might have been a better read if the novel had been simplified, omitting a lot of extraneous albeit interesting information of the peoples and history of the island. The book is recommended for those who enjoy such a deep and penetrating picture of Taiwan.
This book was not what I expected, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact it can turn out to be a wonderful thing. And I am glad I read it. However, I felt that the author bit off more than he could chew. At first, I was enthralled by the immediacy of the Taiwan setting - the author places you right in the midst of the action - you can feel the hustle-bustle of people and activity, while practically tasting the many flavors of the late-night restaurant district where the main character works. And the eye-opening history of Taiwan and its people provided by the author was a definite plus, but it became too much of a good thing after awhile. (In the second half of the book, I began to skip over several of these passages.) The story begins with the young man learning of his past love's death and his attempt to learn how/why she died. However, the mystery becomes secondary as the story transforms into an extended road trip / coming of age /millennium-gen romance. This is where I eventually became disengaged from the characters and the plot. It felt like the story jumped off track somewhere, and was trying to be too many things? I don't know if that makes sense nor do I wish to dissuade anyone from reading this book because I rated it 3 stars.