Yang Ch’ing-ch’u (born Yang Ho-hsiung) is a prominent figure in the native Taiwanese literature of the 1970s. He is unique in not having had a formal education, but he received an extremely rich education and experience from the school of life. He was born in a rural village in South Taiwan, but like many rural Taiwanese in the past thirty years, his family moved to an urban setting. In his case, the move was to the industrial port of Kaohsiung when he was eleven. He has worked at many jobs, most notably in tailoring and in the oil refinery industry. His last job was as a middle manager in a Kaohsiung refinery. Recently he has been involved in political activities outside of the Kuomintang Party. He was arrested along with other dissidents, including the writer Wang T’o, in December 1979, and as of this writing, he is serving a six-year jail sentence.
The stories of Yang Ch’ing-ch’u are populated by the people he is most familiar with: rural folks rooted to the land and those who became urbanized, small-town tailors, city factory workers and bar girls, petty clerks and hawkers. His writings have been criticized for their crudity, vulgarity, and lack of objective and intellectual perspective. But in the opinion of some, those shortcomings are more than compensated for by the immediacy, sometimes raw psychic violence, and first-hand knowledge and empathy for the land and the people that characterize his writings.
Most of Yang Ch’ing-ch’u’s stories initially appeared in literary supplements of newspapers. They have since been published in the collections Virgin Boy (Tsai-shih nan, 1971), Wife and Wife (Ch’i yü ch’i, 1972), and Heart Cancer (Hsin ai, 1974).
“Born of the Same Roots” (Tung ken sheng) was first published in Literature and Art Monthly (Wen-i yiieh-k’an, no. 13, July 1970) and later in the collection Virgin Boy.
THE CAR PULLED up to the Imperial City Hotel, and the driver opened the door. Cloud got out, pulling her two boys after her. She tilted her head and looked up at the towering building. Wow! So high, so broad! One, two, three, four—window on window, window by window, windows, windows, windows, all perfectly square. She could not tell where each floor ended. Was it two windows per story? She counted from the top to the ground and from the ground back up to the top. Twelve stories, twelve stories! The spotlights on the edge of the roof illuminated the building from above, and the night shone blue and beautiful. The mercury lamps in the front of the hotel, which were flashing regularly to welcome guests, made the street as bright as day. Cars were lined up at the entrance. The taxis dropped off their customers and disappeared trailing ribbons of exhaust fumes. As one bus left, the next crowded into its place. There was a string of firecrackers hanging from the third story down to the ground, and a big wooden board with large black letters written on red paper. Cloud was illiterate, but she imagined they must say something along the lines of, “The Wu’s and the Chiu’s: a wedding.”
Her father was standing in front of the hotel door, beaming, shaking hands and chatting with all the guests. “Come on in, come on in, it’s just about time. How come your mother didn’t show up? What? Why didn’t you tell her to come along too? Your wife didn’t come? Why didn’t you bring her?”
The doors were automatic. Whenever people approached them, they slid apart, and closed by themselves again after the people went in. Cloud didn’t know where to find the switch. Holding onto one child with each hand, she stepped onto the rubber mat and after a moment the doors slid open. She quickly dragged the children in and when she turned, she found the doors were just sliding back to the center. Before they had a chance to close, the people behind her entered, and they slid back open. What kind of clever contraption was this? Sure was magical. Cloud was dumbfounded. She had never been through an automatic door in all of her thirty years. Her sister, Spring, was standing in front of the counter, laughing and greeting guests. “To the left, just turn left. It’s in the Ts’ui-hua Room.”
“Hi, Ah-fu, Ah-ts’ai!” Spring bent down and kissed Cloud’s two boys.
“Big Sister, didn’t your husband come?”
“He doesn’t want to come,” answered Cloud on the brink of tears.
“Well, I’ll be. Wait a minute and I’ll go fetch him.”
Cloud helped Spring take care of the guests. She tried to imitate her, gesturing and saying, “Turn left please, in the Ts’ui-Room, in the Ts’ui-what Room?”
“Ts’ui-hua Room,” Spring put in, telling the guests and answering Cloud at the same time.
“Oh yes, the Ts’ui-hua Room, in the Ts’ui-hua Room. Turn left, turn left, please.” Following the sisters’ introductions, the guests streamed to the left.
Then it happened in a flash: like a golden Bodhisattva coming down to the world, the bride entered, in a long pink evening gown, moving gingerly with the help of her mother and the matchmaker. Embroidered on her gown was a colorful phoenix of strung pearls with its head pointing at the collor of her powdered neck, its tail stretching down to the bottom of her train. A snow white fur stole was draped around her shoulders. Golden rings, bracelets and arm bracelets wound from her fingers all the way to her armpits. Golden rays flashed from her two golden arms. The most bedazzling of all was a pair of three-inch-wide dragon and phoenix arm bracelets. A pair of golden ankle bracelets shone faintly through the slit at the bottom of her swaying gown. Cloud studied the bride’s face and felt that the beautician had worked magic on her homely younger sister, redoing her inside and out. With a face loaded with stage make-up, she looked like a flirtatious singer fresh from the television screen.
In her wildest dreams Cloud never imagined she’d ever live to see such a magnificent bride. Her sister looked like a princess out of a play. Cloud didn’t know if she was happy or sad. Ten years ago, on her own wedding day, where was the fortune that could have made her a modern princess like her second sister? She had had nothing more than a new everyday wool dress. By comparison, she had really looked as destitute as a beggar’s wife.
As the bride trod slowly with short steps, Cloud and Spring followed behind.
“Sis, take a look at the bride’s handbag; it cost five thousand dollars—pure alligator skin. They got a guy to bring it back from America.”
“Five thousand dollars?” Her heart stopped beating and plunged into the depths of despair. She couldn’t imagine what made that dark brown, wrinkly handbag so valuable.
Mother turned to Spring, winked, and pursed her lips, signaling that she should not tell any more.
Mother doesn’t want to let me know, Cloud thought. Because of my second sister’s wedding, everyone treats me like a terrifying stranger, as if I’m going to steal her trousseau. Tears welled up in her eyes. My entire trousseau wasn’t even worth one of my sister’s handbags!
“Auntie’s a bride, auntie’s a bride!” The two children circled around the bride shouting.
“Don’t be so noisy.” The bride showed her displeasure.
“Don’t be so noisy,” Cloud pulled them over and admonished them.
You’re the children of a pedicab pedaler. How can you be worthy enough to call her “Auntie”? She blinked back her tears. Second sister has always looked down on her pedicab-driver brother-in-law and on her sister, a pedicab pedaler’s wife.
With him pedaling a pedicab we could still get by. But in July, they’re going to forcibly abolish all pedicabs. How can he make a living then? He worries day and night.
She rushed forward and sped into the Ts’ui-hua Room and wiped away her tears. The bride was assisted into an upstairs room.
“Come in, come in,” Spring was at the door helping people into the Ts’ui-hua Room.
“Spring, how much is Lotus’s dowry actually?” The more they wanted to keep the secret from her, the more she wanted to ask. Spring did not look down on the pedicab pedaler’s wife the way her other sister did.
“Don’t tell it’s me who told you; just pretend you don’t know. Father and Mother told me a million times not to let you know. All in all, there’s five catties of gold; a car; a hundred thousand cash and a house; plus a washer, television, refrigerator, dresser, and fabrics to the tune of about fifty thousand dollars.”
Cloud felt her blood course and churn throughout her body. She leaned against the wall in a daze. My whole trousseau wasn’t even worth one of her handbags!
“Sis, sis!” Spring shook her to her senses. “Pretend you don’t know anything. For God’s sake, don’t tell how much her trousseau is worth.”
“No, I won’t, I won’t,” she forced herself to smile vacantly at Spring.
The Ts’ui-hua Room! As swank as they come. All over, countless decorative chandeliers illuminated the magnificent hundred tables. On the stage, a red velvet curtain hung from ceiling to floor. The walls were covered with a dark blue material decorated with all kinds of patterns, interspersed with famous Chinese and Western paintings. An embroidered carpet stretched down the aisle of the parquet floor. When I got married, they put up a canvas awning in the front yard of our broken-down thatch hut. Five tablefuls of guests were invited. They didn’t have a chef, but just recruited two clanswomen to lend a hand.
The firecrackers began to explode and dinner was served. In came the bride and groom. The groom was handsomer by far than the bride. He was tall, with a large head and face, a high nose, and a striking air about him. You can just tell he’s been a graduate student in the States! Of course, he’s not to be compared with the pedicab pedaler I married. My man’s not bad looking either, just a bit timid and not suave enough.
A self-satisfied smile formed on the bride’s thick, protuberant lips. Her high cheekbones exuded the haughtiness of a daughter from a wealthy family. What could such a good-looking groom see in her? Could it be that enticing dowry? Or Father’s two factories? Ah! Second sister graduated from professional school—although it took her three tries to pass the college entrance examination—not like me with no education. Father is loaded and so he could keep on hiring tutors for her; and after being tutored for three years, she got into a home-ec college to learn how to be a bride. Thus they plated her with silver and managed to catch a son-in-law gold-plated à la America. They say that after the wedding they’re off to the States. And me? Still a pedicab-pedaler’s wife.
A drum roll sounded from the stage and the music began. The red curtains slowly parted. Although it was a brisk spring day, the singers were wearing chiffon evening gowns with exposed shoulders. It was enough to make you shiver.
“Sis, let’s go over to the bride’s table. After all, we are sisters.” Spring came over to the corner table where Cloud sat.
“No, you go ahead.”
“The chauffeur is back. Should I tell him to go pick up your husband?” Spring grabbed the chauffeur and ran out with him.
He wouldn’t come, no matter what. As his wife’s father’s buildings grew higher and higher, the son-in-law became more and more estranged. Then an acquaintance said to Father: “Mr. Yungchi, sir, when you go out you ride in your own black limousine in high style, beep beep beep. I ran into your son-in-law, the pedicab pedaler, on the overpass a few times. He had a customer and couldn’t get the pedicab across. So he had to climb down and push with all his might, bent over with one hand gripping the handlebars and one on the seat. He was all out of breath when he got on the overpass. Sweat coursed down from his brow, stinging his eyes, and he kept taking a towel from the back of his pants to wipe it away. Poor guy! A fat cat father-in-law like you should help him out a little bit!” Father began to feel that he was losing face because of this no-account son-in-law, so gradually he began treating him differently.
And hadn’t Father tried to help him out? He told him to work at his factory and that he would support the whole family. But the pedaler said, “My limbs are strong, why should I go depend on relatives? I couldn’t stand having to be at Father-in-law’s mercy to get by from one day to the next. Can’t I make a living from my pedicab just the same?”
There was nothing Father could do. Next he found a man who knew the fabric business, and Father put up some money for him to open a shop with the pedaler. His son-in-law promised to learn the business. But the shop went under in less than a year. The man dissolved the partnership and opened his own shop, while the pedaler went back to his pedicab.
Father chewed him out: “You’ve always been just a no-good pedicab pedaler. That guy took you for a ride and you didn’t even know it. I’ve lost face ‘cause of you. Don’t even pedal a pedicab anymore; don’t do anything. I’ll give you three thousand a month to support your family.”
“I can’t let you support my family my whole life. If you’re afraid you’ll lose face ‘cause I’m a pedicab pedaler, you’d best disown me as your son-in-law.” He hung his head and completely refused Father’s offer.
He never visited his father-in-law from then on. Was it because he was too proud? Or was his sense of inferiority too deep? When his wife and children went to visit his in-laws, he took them in the pedicab to the corner of his in-laws’ street, dropped them off, and pedaled back.
The singers came and went, holding the microphone, singing, twisting and dancing through their incomprehensible numbers. A girl wearing a traditional Chinese gown with a slanted lapel and wide trim came onstage and sang the Taiwanese folk song “Waiting for the Spring Breeze.” That old song from Grandma’s time has never gone out of style.
A lonely night, alone beneath the lamp
The spring breeze blows on my face.
Seventeen, eighteen, eager to marry,
Waiting for a young man . . .
The voice was soft and sweet, soaring to the ceiling and circling around and around, drifting back to the luxuriant green fields of home, floating through the bamboo thatch hut, wafting into and gently ruffling the needlelike leaves of the horsetail plants along both sides of the dirt road. Carrying Lotus on my back, with one hand holding a basket and the other hand a rake, sweeping up the fallen leaves, rocking Lotus on my back. “Waiting for the Spring Breeze” was a song of the firewood collectors. I was just at the age that my heart would flutter slightly upon seeing a young man.
One time my shoulders were killing me so I undid Lotus and put her down under a tree on a field divider. That way I could concentrate on raking the leaves and twigs. Lotus had just started to walk and she toppled over, puncturing the corner of her left eye with a branch and bleeding profusely. When I carried her back, Grandma beat me all over with a bamboo switch. Afterwards Lotus had a seven or eight centimeter scar by the corner of her eye. When it was time for her to take notice of the opposite sex, she often held me to blame for her disfigurement. How could she possibly sympathize with her family’s poverty then! Mother had to work in other people’s fields, and I, her big sister, had to carry her to the fields to gather pig-feed grass, sweet potatoes, and firewood. If I slacked off even a little, there was Grandma’s unforgiving bamboo switch.
In the last twenty years, Father’s business took off like a skyrocket. Father started out fixing woks and aluminum buckets by the side of the road. He was too poor to ever afford three meals a day. Three years after Taiwan was reverted to China at the end of World War Two, a mainlander who had just come to Taiwan from Shanghai brought a leaky kerosene stove for Father to patch up. At that time there were no kerosene stoves in Taiwan, and Father acted as if he had discovered a gold mine. He asked the man to pick it up in two days, and that night he brought it home and excitedly leaped around and told Mother, “Cloud’s Ma, I’m going to strike it rich! I’m going to strike it rich! This kerosene stove from the mainland is the latest thing and it’s perfect. Go borrow some money and buy me some aluminum sheets from the city. I want to make one like it and sell it. I’m sure it’s going to make a fortune!”
“Let’s see the fortune, then talk.”
Skeptically, Mother went out to borrow money for Father and brought back the aluminum. Father worked day and night, night and day, hammering and soldering, and he finished the first batch of five stoves. Cloud and Mother took them to sell in the market. They gave a demonstration: lit the fire, cut up vegetables and cooked them right in front of the people.
“Come on! Take a look at this new product, a kerosene stove. It’s convenient and practical. It’s from the mainland! From the mainland! Cook a complete meal in only an hour!”
Mother and daughter jabbered on, stressing all the good points of the kerosene stove. Sales were beyond all expectation. From the village markets to those in the cities, they sold as many as Father could put out. Half a year later, Father hired five boys to help; after another year, he hired ten. He expanded from selling himself to wholesaling. Production couldn’t keep pace with demand. Father ran around scraping up money to buy machines and a lot for a building in order to open a steel plant to produce in large quanities. Cloud happened to get married hastily just when Father was burdened with debts. Right afterwards, Father’s fortunes took off rapidly.
When the era of the kerosene stove had ended, gas stoves took over. Father expanded his steel plant’s equipment and retooled to make gas stoves. Again, he made a bundle. At present, Father owned a steel plant and a hemp factory, with over two hundred employees.
“Ladies and gentlemen, today we are very happy to attend the Wu’s wedding reception. The groom is so handsome and the bride so beautiful. A match made in Heaven! Now let’s ask singing stars I Hung and Pai Mei to offer flowers to the bride and groom and wish them a happy honeymoon and eternal marital bliss.”
After the mistress of ceremonies finished, the two songstresses, accompanied by the orchestra, offered flowers to the bride and groom. A burst of applause resounded in the hall.
Cloud watched the bride put on her lei, flashing a toothy smile with her thick lips turned outward and cheek bones thrust high. She thought her sister looked ugly. She got goosebumps at the thought of the word “beautiful.” By all accounts, Cloud was the prettiest of the sisters. At the age of nineteen, her face flushed from working out in the sun, she was like a bud about to blossom. Everyone who was introduced as a prospective match loved her. The first man’s family owned a fabric shop, and he was almost ready to marry her. But when he learned that she had no schooling, he said that she couldn’t even help out with the bookkeeping, and that was that. That man owns a small textile mill now. The next two men were also lost because she had no schooling. Grandma began to regret not having let her go to school.
The matchmaker introduced a pedicab pedaler as the forth prospect. Father said, “As long as he’s honest and wants to get ahead, even a pedicab pedaler can succeed.” Without even seeing the guy, he steeled himself and agreed to it. Well, since she hadn’t gone to school, she was lucky that the guy wasn’t choosy. It’s all fate any way. It wasn’t until the wedding night that she saw his face clearly. He was pretty good looking but straightforward to the point of being slightly doltish.
Now they’re going to forcibly abolish pedicabs, so they told him to learn how to drive a taxi. He learned how to drive all right, but after seven tries there was no way he could pass the written test for his driver’s license. Every day he had a man who could read come over to teach him: no left turn, pass on the left . . . He memorized the traffic signs so well he’d never forget them as long as he lived. But he couldn’t read two-thirds of the test. He knew the names of the signs but not how to write them out. He’d finished six years of primary school but wasn’t much better at reading than Cloud.
When she was a child the teacher came to persuade Gradma to let her go to school. Grandma said, “What’s the point of having school? No matter how much knowledge she’s got, she still ends up getting married, raising children, and doing the cooking.”
From the age of eight, she’d never eaten a meal at home she hadn’t earned. She carried her first brother on her back till he was grown, then the second brother. When he could walk, the third brother came along. And then she carried the second sister and third sister.
Could she blame Grandma? Whenever she went home for a visit, Grandma would stuff three or five hundred dollars in the childrens’ pockets. If any of the kids looked down even the slightest bit on the pedicab pedaler, Grandma’s cane would get him. As Grandma lay dying, she held onto her last breath till Cloud came back. And when she came close to the bed, Grandma took her hand and said, “Cloud . . . Grandma’s so sorry … I didn’t let you . . . go to . . .” Without finishing, she died, carrying her regret with her.
If I were a young daughter in my parents’ home now, how nice that would be. I’d live in a house with a garden, a maid, and a car. I’d go to school from kindergarten on, all the way up through elementary school, middle school, and college. With all the money in the family, if I could pass the test to study abroad, Father and Mother would surely let me go. At least, if for nothing else but an enticing dowry, I’d never end up marrying a pedicab pedaler. But can the clock be turned back?
Spring returned to the hotel and told Cloud, panting, “Sis, your husband’s got me so mad …”
Spring said that when she got to their house, Cloud’s husband had just come home for dinner.
“Brother-in-law, don’t eat anymore, let’s go to the restaurant.”
“No. Your sister and the children have already gone. That’s good enough.”
“Your sister-in-law is getting married, and you, as a brother-in-law, should come and help out.”
“I’ll have to work the night shift.”
“I’ll give you ten times what you can earn in a night. Quick! Go change and let’s go.” He just mumbled something. Right then, a man on the street clapped for a pedicab, so he put his rice bowl down and hopped onto the pedicab. Dingdong! He rang the bell and pedaled off with all his might.
“Sis, now isn’t that enough to really make you mad?”
Cloud choked. She threw down the piece of eel, rushed into the powder room and sobbed, leaning against the wall.
“Are you all right?” Spring followed after her.
“Your brother-in-law is afraid that Father will lose face if he comes. He just can’t bring himself to come.” Cloud couldn’t suppress her grief any longer. “He’s always been a no-good pedicab pedaler. They’re forcing out pedicabs in July!”
“Sister. You’ve worked so hard for the family since you were young. You got married just as we started to move up. I’ll graduate from college in July, and I’ll be getting married soon, too. I’m going to ask Father for a dowry worth as much as Lotus’s. And I’ll give it all to you.”
Spring started crying too. Cloud held her, weeping, her words choking between the sobs.
“No. Father would never go along with it. Anyhow, anyone who marries a girl from a rich family like ours expects a big dowry.” A married daughter becomes part of another family. How dare she think of things that don’t belong to her? She wiped her tears and eased Spring out the door. “Don’t worry about me. Go take care of the guests, and keep an eye on my children while you’re at it. I can’t eat anymore.”
When Cloud walked out of the powder room, a human pyramid was being erected onstage. All the guests held their breath, mesmerized. Cloud slipped out through the emergency exit and walked toward the street.
Taxis scurried along the asphalt road which was illuminated by fluorescent street lights. On the long stretch of road, you couldn’t see even one pedicab. Pedicabs will soon be extinct. They’re going to forcibly abolish them in July. Well, one thing good will come of that, he won’t make Father lose face anymore.
She considered flagging down a taxi to take her home, but thinking about him pedaling so hard on his pedicab, she couldn’t lift her hand.