Bare Stick: The Story of Lao Sung, Retired Soldier退伍兵老宋傳
This is a biography of a retired soldier from rural Shandong, born in 1920, who fought the Japanese in World War II, then the Chinese Communists in the civil war between them and the KMT Nationalists, went with the Nationalists to Taiwan in 1949, eventually left the military, and worked as a janitor in the International House in Taibei, where I met him in 1976-1977. He retired to a squatters’ village of ex-soldiers from the mainland in Linkou in 1984, where I visited him every time I traveled to Taiwan until 2006. He died in 2009.
Table of contents:
(Click chapter headings to jump down the page.)
Staying with him in Linkou
Even up and dying isn’t so easy
Guerillas and Communist Bandits, 1987
1976 I went on my first trip abroad and lived in Taibei, Taiwan, where I
studied Chinese for a year. I lived
in a dormitory called the International House and there met a janitor named Lao
Sung 老宋, who
became my friend for the next three decades. Lao Sung had been a member of the
Nationalist army that fought the Japanese, lost to the Communists, and
retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Like
others who went with the Nationalists, he had no family in Taiwan, having left
all that behind in mainland China. Lao Sung was born in 1920 in a village
not far from the city of Qingdao 青島in
Shandong province, where he left a wife and children in about 1946 when he
joined the Nationalist army and began his long life of fighting in war, fleeing
to Taiwan, spending years there in the military, then retiring to work as
janitor, phone-man, and floor-chief at the International House in Taibei. He retired and moved to Linkou 林口 in 1984,
where I visited him until the last time I saw him in 2006. He died in 2009. At the International House I lived in a
room with three Taiwanese roommates. My first memory of Lao Sung is of him sitting at the phone desk (one
phone per floor) with his legs on the table, reading the newspaper with his
black rimmed glasses, stately bald, and looking somewhat like a genteel
Westerner. He was a distant version
of George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, distinguished, kindly, and
respectable, wise and full of dignity. He became friendly fast and after that liked to tell dirty jokes and say
racy things that no one else I knew ever said.
Although I didn’t know it yet, he spent his salary on prostitutes and strung himself along for decades until his 80s on women like them and others he found for companionship and sex. He was literate and knew how to behave in all contexts that occurred in the International House, which housed male students from Taiwan as well as foreign men who attended school in Taibei. Lao Sung was a step above the other janitors who were also retired military men but less literate and less couth. Lao Sung was smart and clever and always ready for a laugh. There was the quintessential Lao Sung, sometimes just a twist of his face or a hilarious sentence. He also spoke a more comprehensible Chinese than others. Though he had a Shandong accent, it was light. Some of the other janitors were much harder to understand.
We soon became friends. Sometimes when he saw me, he would say “bao yi bao” 抱一抱, “give me a hug,” and would stand in my way in the stairwell and hug me in a tender but thoroughly silly way. Hugging was not a common custom in the Taiwanese society of that day, but Lao Sung was a comedian, so he could imitate and invent any behavior he wanted. I think he also said I was “jemma piaoliang,” 這麼 漂亮so beautiful. I was too chaste for him, but he didn’t care. He always felt free to tell me the most intimate details of his sexual life, though he didn’t start doing that until my later visits to Taiwan. I knew him for the year 1976-1977 and after that always visited him when I traveled to Taiwan, which occurred in 1979, 1981, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, and the last two times in 2006. When I returned in December 2009 for a two-week stay he had not replied to the letter I always sent him a few months before a trip to Taiwan. I wrote telling him I’d be there and enclosed a self-
addressed envelope that he could use to write me back. No letter came, so I wrote to a friend of his whose address I had long since copied for such a purpose. The friend wrote back and told me that in the previous winter, Lao Sung fell ill, went to the Rongmin Hospital, and died on March 2, 2009. So one year later I am writing a zhuan傳 for him.
Staying with him in Linkou
first visit back to Taiwan after living there in 1976-1977 was in 1979, just
before my first visit to mainland China, where I lived
in Shanghai from 1979 to 1981. I
have no record of the 1979 visit, but on September 4, 1981, I arrived in Taipei
and stayed in the International House, where Lao Sung insisted on paying for my
room, even though I was staying in the more expensive part. As long as Lao Sung continued to work at
the International House, I stayed there and always sought him out. When he retired and moved to a small
house he had built in Linkou about an hour south of Taipei, he invited me to
stay with him. I enjoyed it so much
that we started many years of tradition in which I visited him, he gave me his
bed while he slept in the front room, and we spent several days talking and
napping, with him making all the meals and feeding me (breakfasts were steamed
bread in powdered milk, the famous Klim brand). He periodically left and went to other
friend’s houses to play cards, never telling me when he was going or how long
he would be away, but he always came back at a standard time and was glad to
see me. Sometimes he and his
friends played cards in his house, which lasted for hours and filled the room
For many visits I also visited other people I knew, including especially my former teachers from the language school I attended in 1976-77. But some visits were solely to see Lao Sung, and no matter what, seeing him was as important as anything else. After he moved to a one-room apartment, his final home, there was no space. He invited me to stay anyway, but the first time I went he had a “wife” 老婆, as he called her, a woman in her fifties who was a nurse at the hospital he had stayed in during an illness and had moved in with him. On later visits, after she had left, I stayed in other cities and spent many hours in taxis and busses going to and from where I stayed to his home in Linkou, where there were never very many foreigners. I got to know many of his friends who like him were retired from the military and belonged to the group he played cards and gambled with. All of those men were interesting in some way, but the best was Lao Liu, who had bushy eyebrows and spoke with a heavy Shandong accent. He had a gorgeous smile and nod of the head. His best line was once when he stood inside his back screen door while the rain poured heavily outside, “It’s raining!” 下雨了!!, he exclaimed joyfully, with his facing expanding and lighting up, his eyebrows rising and the corners of his mouth going out. It was exciting that it was raining and coming down hard.
After I lived in Shanghai, Lao Sung wanted to talk to me about China and what it was like there, and liked to tell me what he knew about it because every night he listened to radio broadcasts from the mainland. Even though the broadcasts were full of propaganda, he liked to listen to a voice from somewhere closer to home, plus he was always interested in politics and war. When I lived in Beijing in 1985-1986, he wanted me to contact his daughter in Heilongjiang Province. I managed to do so by mail and I think that was the first time he contacted her since he left her in Shandong many decades before. That contact prepared the way for visits he made to the mainland, where he saw his daughter and other relatives, gave them money, and became certain, as he told me emphatically, that he would never move back.
Sung was a character, and I’m sure many others remember him. My first note about him was from Christmas
day, 1976, as he and the other janitors waxed the floor in my room, continuing to urge me
to become president. You must start
on a small scale and “broadcast your views” to the American people 把你的意見發表一下, until
they all stop and say this man “really makes sense” 很有道理. My second note is from March 5, 1977,
when Lao Sung came by and told me about dodging bombs in the 40s, watching
friends die, acting in slapstick way, not trying to make me feel bad, but just passing
by, a comic actor miming an experience that came to his mind that he felt he
should tell me.
The last note of 1976-1977 was from my last day in Taiwan, August 16, when he said, “Who will I have to talk to after you go?” Well, I’ll write you, I said. “Will you?” Sure. Then of all things the American fellow whose doorway we were standing in while having this conversation rudely told us to go to the hallway to talk. I got angry and later looked for the fellow, but couldn’t find him until later when I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom and he came in. My voice was shaking and my pronunciation wasn’t even very good, but I said something to the effect that, “We have been living in the same hallway for two months and haven’t exchanged even a word and then there is this for the first exchange, what kind of civility is that?” He refused to respond.
The significance of the Christmas day note was that there was no celebration of that day in Taiwan, and Lao Sung carried on with his janitor work just as before. About the second note, Lao Sung liked politics and wanted me to be president. He always said that he liked democracy and of the American presidents he always liked the Nixons and the Reagans because they were tough with China. He hated the Communists. “The Communist Party killed too many people,” he used to say, 共產黨殺人太多. There was an allegory he told me one day. When the Communist Party cadre visited you at home – referring to the 1940s in Shandong when he had briefly returned to Communist territory – and he happened to break an ashtray of yours, normally it would be all right and everyone would forget about it. But the Communist cadre would make sure to reimburse you for your ashtray. This was one of the ways he summed up what he hated about them.
As for the March 5 note, I wrote that down because of the suddenness with which he told me a war story. I was in the reading room when out of the blue he began telling me about soldiers getting blown up, even acting it out. War stories became some of the best stories he told me, and he told them from the first to the last. I heard some of them many times, such as the time he helped rescue an American flier whose airplane had crashed, or how in Shanghai in the late 1940s he was not a very good person and once he hit a vendor with an iron rod because he thought the man was cheating him. He never cried or came close to it. In the way he related it to me, his war experience was often in the form of a joke. Being in the army was simply something you had to do. As he often said, the officers told you to cross a freezing river that came up to your waist, and you did it. They said, Sha殺!!! “Charge!,” and everyone charged. Men fell all around him but he never got hit. A bomb hit the water by the boat he was getting on during the retreat to Taiwan from Shanghai. “Whoosh, blam!,” he went, because he liked to act things out. “It was great fun!,” 很好玩, he said. The sight of a bomb hitting the water of the Yangzi River was exciting.
September 1981. The time I visited him in September
1981, I was on my way back to the U.S. from two years in Shanghai, going via
Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy, and France. I had originally planned to return to the U.S. via the Soviet Union and
Europe. But Lao Sung had written to me in the previous December so finely and
touchingly that I decided to go to Taiwan instead. I arrived at the International House,
where Lao Sung had paid for a 300 NT per night room. Once I got there I went right off to
search for him in the dormitory in back where he and the other janitors lived
and where he was expecting me. I
had telegrammed the International House, not Lao Sung, to reserve a bed, but
they knew me there and told him, and he got me a better room than I had
He invited me to breakfast with him and the other men in back, most of whom were from Qingdao. We had rice porridge, steamed bread, and fermented bean curd, over in the far part of the I House restaurant. One evening we went to Ximending in downtown Taibei, which didn’t seem as exciting to me as before and had turned into a teenager town. Lao Sung told me about how he spent 1200 NT once for an hour and a half of massage, how he and the woman dallied for the first 300 for half an hour. Then he agreed to another half hour, then she got him all comfortable and said, “Why don’t we have some fun 玩一玩,” and there went the rest of his money, he moaned and laughed. He described purely and objectively how he fell for every trick in the book. 一個半小時花了一千二 – “I spent 1200 NT for an hour and a half!”
There was a night front deskman from Zhejiang who had a good accent and liked to tell me about old times in the mainland. He described temples much grander than anything in Taiwan, he liked to say, and imitated one of the fierce door gods inside a Buddhist temple, standing on one leg with arms out and a menacing face, towering above everyone. Another time he imitated a peasant carrying a huge load.
Before I left Lao Sung took me out to a Muslim restaurant where we had mutton jiaozi. A lady came up selling lottery tickets, as if she knew a customer when she saw one, because he took one look, then slapped his hand down on the table and bought one. He won 40,000 NT last year at the same time of the year.
The day I left he went with me in the taxi to the airport shuttle and paid for both. On the way he spoke of his retirement, then of comrades from Shandong recently buried, and how expensive it was to bury them, how every year you have to go and weed and sweep up around the graves. “Just throw me away,” he says, 把我丟掉. He says his will says that when he dies just take his ashes and throw them away in a mountain, or the sea was good too, and he says the word throw 丟 with a flimsy-flopping gesture, like get rid of me, don’t bother to bury me well. So we ended up gaily talking about death as we bore down on the shuttle terminal.
On the way to Beijing where I lived for a
year in 1985-1986, I stopped in Taiwan and stayed at the International
House. Lao Sung had already retired
and moved to Linkou. Lao Zhao老趙, whose
Shandong speech I could hardly understand, volunteered to escort me downtown to
the place where he put me on the Sanchong City bus to Linkou. I arrived in Linkou, got some stares
from people, but started out for Lao Sung’s house since I got to the station
before the appointed time. I
took a cab, whose driver stopped several times to ask directions since Lao Sung
lived in an out-of-the-way part of town. We finally ran into one of Lao Sung’s friends who saw me in the cab and
told me that Lao Sung already went to pick me up. So we drove back to the bus
station. Lao Sung was there on his
bike and sent me back to his place in another cab. When he saw me, up went his arms in a
cheer and he looked as though he was about to hug me, but we shook hands, and
didn’t worry about the crowd that had gathered. Then began a Lao Sung day.
He said that “the Commies killed too many people” 共匪殺人太多. The more you kill, the more power you have – that’s how the Japanese worked it and the Commies too, by sheer numbers. He was in the Japanese army for six months, he told me for the first time. He saw them cut off the head of a Chinese man. They killed anyone, big or small. He ran off and joined the Communist army for three months, then ran off again.
Why, I asked. He said that if he had stayed with the Communists, “I’d have died long since” 我死的早. He joined the KMT army, where plenty of times he saw people next to him wounded, but he made it. What could it have been like, but it’s only a story now. This is the first small thread of a sequence in his life, which I pieced together after many years and which I will never know very accurately.
His place in Linkou was in an area with
other retired soldiers who had built illegal structures (違章建築) amongst
the local people living in the countryside by tea plantations just outside
Linkou. His house had a narrow
front, cement walls, and a door in the center. To the side of the door he had painted
in black ink his address and his name in larger characters. There were some trees along the tiny
asphalt lane, and a bigger than usual tree that I had myself photographed in
front of. There were tea bushes
across the way. The place was
called Hunan Village 湖南村. The neighbors were a Taiwanese family in
a brick house.
It was a three-room house, each room behind the next. The front room had a cement floor, a table in the center and a car seat for a couch. There was a table back against the wall with the t.v. on it, then a door to the side leading to the next room which had the bed, as high as a kang, and with a bamboo mat on it, books, pillows, a lamp, and a window. There were blankets folded up along the wall, two cabinet closets, and a bedside table with a big tape recorder. Then there was another door to the kitchen, which along with the bedroom were tile floored. There was a step down into the kitchen, which had a refrigerator, a two-burner stove, a gas canister, a sink, and no hot water. He fixed me a meal for lunch, before which we talked and took a walk to
Even up and dying isn’t so easy
flew to Taiwan from Hong Kong after a summer in Beijing and Shanghai. I took a bus from the airport to
Taoyuan, where I changed to a bus to Linkou and got off and walked a kilometer
or so to get to his house, after asking a few people and half-recognizing the
Lao Sung was sitting outside talking to a neighbor, expecting me the next day but still happy to see me. He took me inside, had me take a bath in a big aluminum basin, prepared towels and wanted to have me wear his clothes (just as in the Ming dynasty novel Water Margin, I thought). I put on a pair of white boxer shorts, one of the extras he had accumulated over the years. He gets two pair per year as a retired soldier, along with 3000 NT per month, which at the current rate equalled $100.
He says I should get married. The reason is that single men like him are old now, he is like a leaf on a tree, it will fall off and float to who knows where, 飄飄的不知道飄到哪裏去. This is a Lao Sungism.
On women in Taiwan now, he says they are better than men. The women are more practical, they’ll go to work in a gas station, for example. So the men are lazy?, I ask. Not lazy, he says. They are “happy,” they give themselves airs. The women are better, more practical, less likely to commit crimes, less likely to gamble and take risks, 投機取巧.
He also reported to me about the changes in government in Taiwan and the possibility soon for direct elections of the president. As of now the election was done through the Legislative Assembly.
After a summer and the previous years in the mainland, Taiwan felt like a paradise, drunken with abundance and wealth. I felt I could go anywhere and felt like going anywhere. Unlike the mainland where each step is dependent upon many others who might have bought up all the tickets before you.
Taiwan wants to become a generic well-off place, with high-rise apartment villages of 2,000,000 NT per unit, yet I am here out of Taibei in a place built for maybe a few thousand NT in an illegal structure on land not officially allowed to build on.
I spent most of the time in Taiwan with Lao Sung. Sometimes he does too much of the talking and I can’t listen, but some of the stories are worth listening to, and the best thing is his way of joking. He is still a boy, as he says, his way of tilting his head and being unserious, as when he goofily acted out a friend of his from Shandong army days who had very strong arms, as thick as my thighs, he said, who would come up to someone with a friendly greeting and say “how are you today,” then sock him in the face.
“I was a soldier for 20 years” 我當了二十年的兵, he says, and fought many battles from Shandong to the Northeast even to Taiwan when he and eight others had to capture two armed deserters.
He is getting old, but still not 70, but he talks about aging always, as long as I’ve known him, ten years, and he always speaks of death before I leave: I hope I can see you next time, he says. Because his eyes trouble him these days. Or he never knows when he’ll die, but soon, and that’s it. The soul 靈魂 for him is two things: children and fame through the books you write. This he told me twice. He urges me to get married, though he says he is a pretty bad example.
Guerillas and Communist Bandits, 1987
Each stay in Taiwan brought more
stories or details about the same stories. This time I learned more about his times
in the 1940s. He was part
of what he called the guerillas 游擊隊,
anti-Japanese forces that he said he didn’t know were under KMT
leadership until the Japanese surrendered. Once they captured thirty Japanese. The way they did it was by gathering intelligence from Chinese workers
who cleaned and did other chores in the Japanese camp. It was as simple as that, he said. The Japanese surrender was very orderly,
and he respected them for that.
Once their group rescued an American flier who parachuted down. It was the strong man mentioned above who carried him, and it was they who got there before the Japanese did, who wanted the American too. It was as if they had come upon a “treasure” 寶貝. They didn’t know how to take care of him, how to feed him, and not one person spoke a word of English. They kept him for three or four months before turning him over to the Americans in Qingdao. It took that long because of battle movements and also the fact that they didn’t know what to do with him, or it may have been because the Americans weren’t in Qingdao yet. The Americans then supplied their unit with good weapons and ammunition. This was a treasure too, he said. The American had been scared at first, didn’t know what they were going to do with him and possibly thought they were Japanese.
He often talks about the Communist Bandits 共匪. He experienced them after the Japanese surrender when he went back home for two months. He sums it up by saying things like this: The KMT assigns duties by sending A or B to do such and such. The CCP says there is this to be done but doesn’t assign anyone. You are all supposed to be eager and run for it like a race. If you are slow you will be criticized. Then he recited a four-word formula summing up Communist methods: Struggle, Criticize, Beat, and Kill 斗批打殺. He ran away because he couldn’t stand it. I heard no more about this phase of his life until many years later.
Once he got into a fight with someone that lasted for half an hour, until they were completely exhausted. It was all because they ran into each other on their bikes. He pushed the other man into a ditch. Lao Sung says he picked up a stone and threw it at the guy’s head, which bled. Then the other man called the MPs.
Yesterday morning we went to a temple fair to “go to the market” 趕集, as he called it. It was a big open-air market on the fifteenth of the lunar month, full of people burning paper money, giving donations to the temple, then people selling clothes, underwear, straw mats, summer lounge chairs, and food. Some were playing music, including a tanned woman with bare shoulders playing an electric guitar and singing Taiwanese opera. But it was an unenthusiastic crowd. I thought she was wonderful -- husky, fit, and lustily robust.
Besides seeing Lao Sung, I attended a conference in Taibei where I gave my first talk in Chinese. The contrast between my two places in Taiwan was between the air-conditioned world of the conference in Taibei and the 90 degree air and cooling breezes of outdoor Linkou, high on a mountain from which you could see Mt Guanyin far away on the other side of the Tamshui. The basic house of Lao Sung versus the $120 a day hotel room.
He says that for years he would spend all his money on gambling, women, and drinking. He would lose all his money. When it was gone, that was all, and he would turn around and go.
has moved and built another similar house, but this one a duplex with Lao Zhang
next door. The old place had
hazardous chemicals nearby. Here as
in the other place the water frequently goes off, so he stores it in tubs and
Again first off he urges me to have children. This is what soul and afterlife 靈魂 are, nothing else.
There are all old soldiers here, Lao Liu across the way, Lao Zhang next door, all from Shandong. Lao Sung and Lao Zhang freely enter each other’s place to use the refrigerator or borrow food. As we are watching t.v., the topic of a comedy show is Madonna wearing underwear 內衣as outerwear 外衣.
Here is a sample of the miscellaneous topics:
Lao Sung likes to say “It’s no use being polite to Chinese people.” 你對他們客氣沒用. Whoever kills the most gets the power. It is like the story of Monkey and the Metal Headband. Chinese will do anything they feel like doing until someone applies force to stop them. When he was young he already didn’t believe in gods. He says, people can barely take care of each other, how can a wooden idol do it. Sun Yatsen advocated destroying all the temples, but only Mao really did it. Lao Sung believes in Confucius and Mencius, benevolence and justice 仁義. Then he adds, he was the youngest of three or four brothers and he had no speaking rights 沒有發言權. His family was very autocratic 專治.
He says he smoked opium when he was young but never got addicted. Another fellow tells of his times in Alaska learning to ski under the American military and how in one camp the Eskimo women joined them every night for a week or so, and how after they drank, they did as they pleased 喝酒以後甚麽都做.
Lao Sung had his head shaved yesterday by a neighbor widow who gave him a kiss at the end. “Like a current of electricity,” 真過電, he said. That is an expression he often used to describe how nice it was to be close to a woman.
He plays cards for money with his retired soldier friends. They are his “wine and meat friends” 酒肉的朋友. It’s a waste of time but he can’t just shut himself off, so he goes anyway. And he goes to see prostitutes a few times a month in the local hotels, which is where such things can be had, for 1200 NT (1 US dollar equals 28 NT this year).
When it rains, Lao Liu makes sure the buckets are set out to collect rainwater. Lao Zhang next door, 83 years old, enacted dying for me the other day. Sitting in the bamboo chair, he pretended to quietly die, as if he were taking a nap, nothing dramatic, just a simple honest demonstration. He is not a joker like Lao Sung.
A little more life history
The day I left he went with me to the airport and we stopped for lunch in Taoyuan, where we ate at a fancy three-story McDonalds. He liked the Quarter Pounder. Then he insisted we go to a department story to look for some boxer shorts that I mentioned I had wanted, but we didn’t find any.
Lao Sung’s in Linkou, same place, same people, same rain, but more cars. Lao Sung went to the mainland a while
back, all by himself. He took a
plane to Hong Kong, then to Qingdao, where he went up to a policeman and said,
“Mr. Policeman, I’m from Taiwan and I’m not familiar with this place. Can you find me a cab,” and that’s how
he went to his home village 200 RMB later. He brought $10,000 (U.S. dollars, he said) with him and gave his daughter
$6000. The village had no
electricity, no running water, and buckets for toilets. He said he couldn’t take it after nine
days, so he went back to Qingdao. His main relatives were his daughter, her
children, then the wives of those related to him.
He is glad to have me visit but is not a sentimental person in the least. There is still his humor. He tells of a man with an extremely tiny penis who asked him to write him a pass to go to the doctor. Lao Sung said he’d write the pass only if he could see it, and sure enough it was very tiny. The man supposedly stayed in the hospital a year or more, to no avail. It began to sound like a Lao Sung form of a joke. Much later he ran into the man and asked if he’d become a woman yet, and if so, then “marry me.” To which the man cursed him, but all was in the line of how you teased and got teased.
I asked him if there was any homosexuality in his home village, but he answered the answer I have heard before many times, no, none, but there was a “hermaphrodite” 陰陽人, you couldn’t tell which sex the person was. As for opium, since that was a topic I was writing about, I asked him about it. He smoked it and knew the whole process, but was never hooked.
Lao Sung looks like what I imagine an old libertine monk 花和尚would be. When I arrived this time, he wasn’t home. Lao Liu was tending his garden next to Lao Sung’s house and picking tiny green leaves to make for a meal. He opened the door for me and poured me some water. He didn’t know where Lao Sung was, so I waited a good while. Then he finally showed up on his bike, with all his layers of old man winter clothing (Lao Liu too, who wore silk padded pants for all of this 60 degree weather), and was his smiling and usual ready-for-teasing self right from the start. He had been at the barbershop so he had a fresh bald cut. The barber was at the corner I had just passed on the bus.
Last night another nice night of sleep, though he kept talking to me at 9 as I tried to sleep. He snores a lot, gets up to pee, or shines his flashlight on the wall clock to see what time it is or turns on the radio to listen to the mainland. Then he is up at 6 and won’t let me stay in bed much longer. Today he made some eggs, but the first egg he broke was rotten, the yolk all black, and he broke it into the wok, so the stench filled the room and the area in front of the house where he took it to dump.
One activity I like around here is the throwing out of the leftovers to the chickens and ducks that live outside by the lane. The last time I was here he threw out a large cockroach and the duck ate it in one bite. Lao Sung and I laughed. I looked at him and grinned, he grinned back, and he said something about how happy the duck was. “He ate it in one big gulp!” 一口吃掉了.
As he and I talk, occasional people pass by and peek in. One of them turns out to be someone showing Xiao Liu 小劉the way to Lao Sung’s house. Xiao Liu is the owner of the hostel I stay at in Hong Kong. He is trying to move to Taiwan and is visiting someone in Taipei,
where I delivered some things to him the day before
when he as gone. So he showed up today, and that is a happy event. He came in and stayed for a good while
and talked in his sonorous northern Chinese about his time during the Cultural
Revolution when he was sent down to the countryside in Yenan. Lao Sung talked about his time in
Shandong or in the army, and once things got going people warmed up and all the
lives start trading information.
Lao Sung opens up and comes again to his admission that though he is a very simple honest person right now 老老實實, he wasn’t a good boy 好孩子 before. And so here is how I learn still a little more about his past, which only gradually comes out and which I can hardly piece together, with one sentence of detail revealed once in a while and maybe returned to in a later visit. The sentence today was that his older brother was labeled by the Communists as a “local tyrant” 惡霸, one of the terms the Communists used when they took over and organized communities in the 1930s and 1940s. Lao Sung went to save him when he was locked up in a building with others, but he wasn’t clear about what his brother did. I supposed he was a landlord who lent out land or money to farmers who would pay up at harvest time. To Lao Sung this was just his way of “doing business” 做生意.
The day I left, Lao Sung made a big meal with sorghum liquor 白酒, and I had a good time with him and Lao Zhang, who is now 86. They told me about how they got married. They had never seen the girl before, weren’t nervous, and were promised to her at 13 with a set number of gifts such as forty steamed buns and so forth. Then they married several years later. On the day of the ceremony, before they entered the house they “bowed to heaven and earth” 拜天地. When they entered the house they had to avoid touching the threshold – so some people put a saddle over it – or either side of the doorway. Once inside they bowed to the ancestors, then his father and mother, then they entered the marriage chamber 洞房. The atmosphere was still quite serious at this point, 相當嚴肅的氣氛, as he said. Then the man took a pair of chopsticks and lifted the wife’s veil. Lao Sung said he was very happy because she was very pretty – though now of course he says she isn’t his wife anymore because she married two other men after he left for Taiwan. Then came the time when younger relatives played pranks on them for a good while, 鬧房, after which everyone left and the two were left to drink a ritual cup of liquor. Lao Zhang asked Lao Sung whether his wife drank it or not. Lao Sung said no but he drank a whole cup. Lao Zhang said his wife didn’t drink it and neither did he, he being a much straighter person. Then sooner or later they went to bed, about which Lao Sung said that of course “two young people actually do engage in some naughty things” 兩個年輕人不老實的事情真的是有的.
Lao Sung had been sick before his marriage from a session of card playing in which he held back his piss for too long or something like that so that when he got home he couldn’t eat for two or three days. It wasn’t very clear what happened but he was sick for a couple of months. The day he married, his brother gave him two puffs of opium which made him feel better. Then he acted out the smoking of opium – a pipe, an instrument to guide the opium into the pipe, and with a chopstick in each hand he acted out the pipe and the instrument. Opium was common, something you offered to a guest, just like alcohol or cigarettes. But he added that only nefarious people 不務正業的人 would do it. Still, Lao Zhang reacted to all this in his simple 老實 way that opium smoking was normal, not something to be secretive about.
Lao Sung’s daughter recently wrote to him asking him to move to where she was in Heilongjiang Province, where she could take care of him in his old age and then bury him next to
her mother. But he
didn’t accept the offer and was fine in Taiwan, and anyway she wasn’t his wife any
more. Then he acted out in Lao Sung
style how the grave would explode with three men, him plus the two she later
married, fighting over the wife in the ground. And if he went to Heilongjiang he’d meet up with his wife’s children
from the other marriages, who live in the same area, and he couldn’t stand
Yesterday we posed for pictures, he in front of his door next to which he hung a Tang poem in his calligraphy. His door also had New Years couplets in Lao Sung style: 嘻嘻哈哈度日子, 糊糊塗塗又一年 “Happy go lucky day after day, goofy doofy another year’s gone by.” Present also was a woman of about 50 who comes to see him twice a month or so for sex, he says. He met her playing cards; her husband is dead; and Lao Sung is a likeable man at 72 years old. Every time I arrive in Taiwan I never know if he is alive or well, but all was as before this time. But he had recently had another operation, something to do with his gall bladder.
Lao Liu with the bushy eyebrows lives across the way, raises loud-squawking birds, and tends his vegetable garden next to Lao Sung’s house. His place is where many card and mahjong games take place. He is 86 andpreparing to go back to the mainland for the first time.
Again, Lao Sung speaks of his youthful waywardness and how “good” 老實 he is now. One example is a time he was in the army in Shanghai when he was buying some fish. There were frozen ones and thawed ones and he wanted the frozen ones because he had a long way to go. But the vendor wanted to sell the frozen ones for more money. Lao Sung got mad, took an iron rod and struck the man across the chest, knocking him over. The vendor got up and ran away, 撒腿而跑. The next vendor over then sold him the fish.
We settle into a routine, up at 6:30, then he makes the breakfast of a big bowl of powdered milk with lots of undissolved milk powder, fried toasted steamed bread, scrambled eggs or an egg sandwich with wheat bread, accompanied by radio or t.v. news, then some good talking until 9:00 or so, when things wane and he goes on an errand or off to play cards, and I go to Taibei. He does a little calligraphy in the morning, some neighbors drop in, other grizzled tanned old men. If I stay all day, he disappears for a while then is back to fix lunch, dumplings or noodles, and some more good talk. Then more errands or cards, then dinner plus news. Baths occur at night. If I am alone there I watch t.v., nap, or read, this time 儒林外史. His place is remote and it is a long trip by bus into Taipei, so there are days when I don’t go beyond a 25 yard perimeter of his house. In earlier years I rode his old bike into the country, which was full of grave sites, but having no map I didn’t go very far for fear of getting lost or breaking down.
Lao Sung spoke of the ineptness of some of the old soldiers like himself, who when they go to Taipei get lost or get cheated out of money by swindlers or women who promise to take care of them. But they also manage to save up huge sums of money with their extremely frugal ways of living. He wantsto have a granddaughter of his meet me in Beijing so I can see what she is like. He has heard that she is outgoing, had said daring things against the government during the June 4th turmoils, and so if she is really that way he wants to get to know her. He likes interesting people, he says. But that meeting never occurred.
Lao Liu in his garden
time I arrive, at first I think there won’t be enough
to say or do. After the one and a half hour bus ride from
the airport to Linkou, Lao Sung turned out to be as happy as ever to see me, and we had plenty to say, though nothing stopped him from a
good long mahjong game with his friends in the front room the whole first
evening I was there. I fell asleep
anyway at 7 or 8 in the middle room while they played, knocked out by our first
meal and all its sorghum liquor. He
bought a huge amount of food and fruit, but still all in all I felt natural
enough there, and glad to hear him say he was happy 高興 that I had
I took notes on what he said over the days of the 25th to the 30th. He didn’t mind and took no notice of it. Except for a Sunday trip to see an old teacher in Taibei, I stayed in Linkou and mainly in his house, for the usual routine, up at 5:30 or 6:30, chatting through the morning, sometimes taking a morning nap, on my own quite a bit, reading, then early dinner and more chatting and maybe watching t.v. together. He is a news-ophile, and Taiwan has interesting t.v. news, unlike the mainland.
He has no worries now, no 煩惱, he says, which is amazing to me to think of someone with no worries. Except when I’m sick, he says, I have no fannao. Everything drops off into the past, and there are no worries ahead, which now means even the possibility that the whole area he and the other old men live in will be demolished to make way for Linkou commercial expansion. He will have to move to a four-person room in a retirees home.
He said and described many great things. Of the Chinese peasant of the 30s and 40s, he said they were senseless and apathetic, 萎靡, but they aren’t that anymore. Then they would do anything they were told. If someone’s car broke down, the rich owner would simply order the peasants to push it wherever he needed to go. No one dared question him. A man like that would pound his fists if action wasn’t fast enough.
On sanitation in the mainland now, he described the toilets in the northeast, with waist-high walls so that you could see anyone who was inside. So he joked and imitated someone saying, “Where is Ma Kemeng 馬克夢 [my Chinese name]? Oh, there is he in the toilet!!,” as he acts that out in his antic way. Once when he visited the home of a local cadre, the toilet was right inside the front gate to the left, so that you could see anyone the second you walked in. He asked them why they put it there of all places. They answered something to the tune of, it’s all the same, it doesn’t matter. I asked him what the mentality behind that was. He said it was a matter of coping, convenience, and of having nothing 應付, 方便, 一無所有. It was as if they were waiting for the Communists to leave, and meanwhile they were saying, “We will degrade ourselves and live this way day by day,” with no time for shame or aesthetics or sanitation. “We have nothing anyway.”
In his youth, as he has told me before, he became convinced there were no gods and that it was no use worshipping at temples or burning incense – though in his recent trips to Shandong he has had mounds re-built over his parents’ graves and has burnt paper and incense for them. He believes in parents, marriage, and children, though he never re-married after leaving Shandong, and never had a son. He once knocked off the head of a deity in a temple, then imitated for me the stance of a guardian deity at the entrance of a temple. He did that when he was ten years old. He also once stole a figure of an earth god and took it home with him. When the local priest requested that the thief return it, he threw it in a pond and no one discovered it. When he was about 17 or 18 he thought about death a lot. He saw rain wash away graves and
this fall visit to Lao Sung’s, the sounds of Linkou where he lives are roosters
crowing – my friend Simon could hear them over the phone from
Taibei. All around is love of life,
happy cheerful singing, children’s voices, women’s voices from the families
that live nearby, a little utopia, just so you don’t forget that there is also
lots of debris, junk, trash, and mess too. It’s a mixed bag, and for me to be here is not quite natural. I always felt foreign,
sometimes too self-conscious to even go out for a walk, too out of place.
Lao Sung says normal sex takes twenty minutes to half an hour, no need for more, otherwise “there’ll be problems” 出問題, he says unspecifically. But once he had smoked opium and the sex went on for an hour, to the point that his girl friend got annoyed 她都煩了 and wanted him to get off. The man who has screwed his way through life now takes the wise man’s route and tells me that you don’t want to succumb to temptation. Someone like me, he says, has to especially watch out because at some time or other there will be that woman who will come right up and sit in your lap, and you HAVE to resist. You have to knock yourself on your head and rub your eyes, which he acts out for me comically. And on top of this he urges me to have a child of my own, which he most sincerely tells me is the most important thing, me having stepchildren but none of my own. Lao Sung so serious is the same man whose every other word is “bastard”王八蛋.
This time I got very drunk because at one of the meals there was whiskey. Fortunately one of his friends had heard that it was good to drink with ice cubes, which would not have been something available in the past and would not have been something Lao Sung would have known about.
Lao Zhang asks me when I’ll be back next time, because he says he may “move” 搬家. I ask where. He says, “Far away, I can’t tell you” 搬到很遠 … 我不告訴你, at which point Lao Sung says, you know what he means, don’t you. The words that don’t need saying are that he’s about to die and will be moving so far away that you won’t be able to find him. Now the camera which so loves to think it can capture everything won’t yet ever have captured the delight on Lao Zhang’s face when he looked through Lao Sung’s screen door and at first didn’t know who I was but then discovered it was me after he opened the door: delight, shaking of the hand, long time no see. Lao Zhao, Lao Liu, Lao Zhang, and Lao Sung – these were the main four in the gathering we had, with a couple of others from down where Lao Sung used to live, including Lao Wang, the Zhejiang fellow with the motorcycle (the one who knew about the ice cubes and the one who wrote me that Lao Sung had died). How did Lao Sung get Lao Wang to come to the meal that day? He tricked him into coming by calling him on the phone and saying that there was an emergency and he needed to talk to him right away. This was because Lao Sung knew that, if he invited him outright to come over and eat, he wouldn’t come. So he fooled him and got him to come. Once he arrived and saw that there was nothing wrong, he phoned back home to reassure his family. His daughter-in-law even showed up with her children on a motorcycle to see what was up. Lao Sung wasn’t sorry at all. Once you’re here you’re here and that was how to arrange the impromptu meal, of which I still have a photo in my study.
Lao Sung told me a piss story. A man was about to piss in public when a policeman grabbed him and said, “What are you doing? You are about to take a piss, aren’t you?” The man said, “No, I was just taking it out to look at it. I’m still free to do that, aren’t I?” It was a good joke so Lao Sung added other endings, such as, “I can look at it whenever I feel like it, can’t I,” and so forth. Also again he told the story about why men can’t keep cats and women can’t keep
dogs. Why? He acted it out and pretended to be a man
sleeping, snoring, with his finger representing the penis moving up and down
with the snoring, and how the penis moving like that will attract the
cat, which then “bites and scratches,” 連咬帶抓, which was
his way of putting it, the best part of the joke, which got me to
laugh. He didn’t finish the dog half
of the joke, but I remembered it from the last time.
When I asked him about preventing pregnancy, he gave a rough account of the rhythm method, which he seemed to have known about for a long time. He also spoke of buying and mixing an herbal abortion medicine in Shandong, but has never been able to find the same herb in Taiwan. Women want sex as much as men do, he said. A woman will be saying no but undoing her pants at the same time. And if they get pregnant they come kowtowing to you, all the village women he was with, anyway. As for prostitutes, about whom he always says something, they want you to finish, the sooner the better. “You’re not done yet?” 你還沒完?, he imitates them saying in a cold, impatient tone.
He used the word “half-human” 半人類 to describe people with no education. If there is no education for three generations in a row, then people turn into 半人類.
I asked him about opium again. He drew me a picture of a lamp and pipe. He didn’t smoke it as an addict but certainly enjoyed the 飄飄 floating feeling it gave. There was an itchiness of the skin on the arm, but one wipe and it would go away. He said that people still grow it “for fun” in the northern countryside of the mainland and that it’s good for curing coughs.
He says he never made high rank in the army even though he knew more than many of the officers. He spoke too directly if some order or situation didn’t make sense. After 1950 there was a central command forbidding physical and verbal abuse 打罵by superiors, so he could talk more freely then, and that’s what got him in trouble. About other things he did a lot of complaining 發牢騷 this time, about getting old and more again about the filth of the mainland, the lack of privacy in the countryside, and the lack of modern toilets.
Sometimes I used to look through his books. He had a copy of Deng Xiaoping’s speeches. In the front he wrote, “Perhaps you have some good policies.” In another book of his, the “Thirty-six Strategies,” he wrote on one page: “Should I go back to the mainland to stay for good?” This was followed by a repetition of words to the effect that this was a hard one to decide. And Lao Sung’s final word, according to him when I asked him about it, on the traditional art of the bedchamber in China 房中術 and its theme of the conservation of essence: “Utter nonsense” 胡說八道.!!
Lao Wang, Lao Sung, Lao Zhao at the emergency meal
Lao Zhao, Lao Sung, Lao Liu
This time I
stayed in Lao Zhang’s place, now vacated. The last time I was here he told me he wouldn’t be here the next time I
came. “What about Lao Zhang?” 老張呢, I said to
Lao Sung on the night I arrived as he helped me get situated. “He’s gone,” 走了, he
replied, his way of saying it.
I recognized the bus stop in Linkou in the dark and got out and walked back along the wider lane into the narrow lanes that led to Lao Sung, who was still up and waiting for me. The next day we had a meal with Lao Liu, whose phone I used to call my family in the U.S. In his living room he had a glass display case in which there were porcelain liquor bottles, a porcelain cannon, and a grimy blonde Barbie doll. Above it was a picture of Chiang Kai-shek and next to that a picture of a little girl praying. During the meal the next day, he showed me a little block of opium extract that he had brought back from relatives in the mainland, for “medical use,” he said. It works 100% of the time for diarrhea, he said. You can also add it to food for better flavor. He told me all this after we had some liquor and when the topic came up, he ran over to his place to fetch the little block. He said that people in out-of-the-way places still grow poppy. He tried it in his garden here but the soil conditions weren’t right. No one would have noticed, he added. In the old days, a relative of Lao Sung’s grew it for profit, as did many in Lao Liu’s old village. After Lao Liu left, Lao Sung implied that Lao Liu had gone a bit too far in showing me his opium extract, though since I am studying the topic these days I was delighted to see and hear about it. And now that we were talking about it, it turns out that there was a little bottle in the room that held some liquid extract, mainly for diarrhea, coughs, and colds. As for smoking it, he again acted out for me the way you smoked it in the old days and how good it felt. He also confirmed its effectiveness in sex and said that smoking it once a week or so would not lead to addiction. The topic came up to begin with because I had mentioned to them the prominent sign at the airport in Taoyuan announcing the death penalty for those caught drug trafficking.
As Lao Sung made the dough for the skins for the dumplings 餃子, he affirmed how he could do everything but give birth to children. That was something only women could do. I said that if he could give birth, he wouldn’t have had to be a soldier. This comment somewhat chimed in with a discussion I had with a 27 year old cab driver. After charging me the local rate, he also told me that airport taxi drivers typically added 50% extra. After the ride was over he wanted my address to come to see me some day. Our convergence was a matter of “destiny” 緣分, he said.
During a meal that included a fish Lao Sung made for me, Lao Zhao came in and we invited him to eat and drink with us, but he had something to announce. He was sick, but as usual with him he is hard to understand and now I discover that even Lao Sung finds him hard to understand. Zhao said his bit then left, and declined the food and drink. He left very unceremoniously, which was unlike him, though on his way out the door he still gave me a wave and a glance. I have known him since living in the International House and remember him especially for the time he stripped naked to hose down the bathroom, a kind of Li Kui 李奎 style, simple and true blue, but in his case not prone to violent rage. He was a “simple fellow” 老實人, as Lao Sung described him, but a little confused in his way of dealing with things. Shortly after, Lao Liu came by all pepped up but with something to report, namely that Zhao had been by his place too to announce that he was sick but that Lao Liu couldn’t tell what the matter was either. “He’s sick” 他病了, Lao Liu said in his profoundly concise but drawn-out way, tilting his head
and continuing to ponder aloud the mystery
of Old Zhao. They spoke of Zhao and
others like him having difficulty getting things done and very reluctant to
part with money, though Lao Sung always said that the money Lao Zhao gets per month,
10,000 NT (divided by 27 to get the US equivalent), was more than
enough for someone like him. Lao
Sung was the one who took care of getting Zhao set up in Linkou, and wanted no
compensation for it, though Lao Zhao wanted to give him 5000 NT and
still often asks him if he wants any money. He never married and was always a good
fellow, but there was no joking and no camaraderie with him. Lao Liu wanted Lao Sung to go to Zhao’s
place and show that he was concerned, but then Lao Sung got into a long story
about his heroism in the Anti-Japanese War, caught between serving in the ROC
and the Communist armies, but which I found too hard to follow since I was more
concerned with Zhao, as was Lao Liu who finally got up to go to Zhao’s,
ignoring Lao Sung’s story. Lao Sung
finished, though, and went over to Zhao’s too. After all that the report finally
and they got Lao Zhao squared away, but I never knew what happened.
Three days in Linkou, where the water stops every day, where the trash is everywhere, and where each time I come over the last few years they tell me that their places will soon be plowed under for city expansion and that they will move to a home for retired soldiers in Taoyuan. Just before I left for the airport, two cute but very active little girls came by wanting to visit the “foreign uncle” 外國叔叔, so they climbed over me and Lao Sung and wouldn’t go home when we tried to coax them to. I took a picture of them with Lao Sung, the one picture of the trip. I wanted to take one of Lao Sung and Lao Liu but Lao Liu was at his place playing mahjong. His house is older and has a traditional roof, which leaks. I saw him making cement one day to patch it. “It’s got a leak” 漏水了, he said in his beautifully concise way.
Lao Sung’s daughter in the northeast wants him to go live with her, but he says he won’t go. She cried five times the last time he visited, but he tells me about the old guys he knows whose families in the mainland took their money and treated them badly, including one who came back to Taiwan with hardly any money and had to live in a poor home because he was no longer registered as a retired soldier. When you move to the mainland, you break off from the system in Taiwan and get a lump sum. Lao Sung gets 12,000 NT a month. When he retired he had 1,000,000, I think, but he has spent a lot of that, though 12,000 a month is more than he needs.
The local trash king, my name for him, is a neighbor who collects trash to recycle. His wife helps him, but they are one of five couples nearby in which retired soldiers married mentally deficient women or, in the trash king’s case, a mute. They have a spendthrift son whom we see driving out and back, according to Lao Sung using his father’s money to have fun. The topic of the retired soldiers who marry “mentally-off” women 精神不正常 came up when a clan of beige dogs went by and a woman trailed behind them leading a small cart. There are lots of stray dogs around, 流浪狗, and the woman was one of those women. Some of their children have “low intelligence” too, Lao Sung reports.
Lao Sung wanted me to stay longer, as he told me when I was about to leave. It was common that we would be talking at the table after eating, then break for something like going to clean up or to rest for “a little bit” 一下子, then I’d go next door to Lao Zhang’s, but when I returned to Lao Sung’s, he would be gone and the door locked, and you didn’t know where he went or for how long. The day I left we had a good full breakfast at 7:00 to 7:30, then he went to buy two bottles of sorghum liquor and brought food out at 10:30 for a parting meal, but unfortunately I could hardly eat it. But a few more fragments about his Shandong past came out,
such as when he was in his early
20s and a woman whose husband had died and whom he was visiting said that he
could stay over night in her bed with her, which he said that he did but never
touched her and she never touched him. She had a little child, he added. Then he said that he told an older male friend of his about it, her
brother maybe, who said that was your business not
mine. This fragment was connected
with bits about young women in his early Taiwan days who for 3 or 5 NT would have sex with you. Then there were women who were friendly but, because of military rules
against fraternization and marriage, you could be friends with them but no
more. There was one woman in
particular who especially liked him and took care of him when he had an
accident once, but he never had sex with her. There were ones who would even come up
and sit on your knee, but he wouldn’t touch them. He was afraid to get them pregnant and
of the trouble that would get him into. Also when he was in the military you weren’t allowed to go out but he
would sneak out to find prostitutes. And then he said this: the desire was so strong, you’d go find a
prostitute, but after you did it, then it was over and done with 完了没事. “What power women have!” 女人這麼么有力量!, he chuckled, as if they were the ones who made him do
what he did. He needed to do it
often when he was young, but later on he didn’t care about it so much. These were the fragments he strung
together. He always gets to these
topics, this time just before I left.
The other topics were his daughter and family in the mainland and then political issues. For example, he is in favor of democracy and is glad a president can now be changed every four years. He also mentioned a few times how some supporters of Taiwan independence spoke openly about sending all the mainlanders back to the mainland and reviled all the retired soldiers 退伍兵 as bumpkins and lowlife, and he wrote out the insulting terms they used for them: 芋頭，地瓜，漢雞.
The trash king
Lao Sung’s house
Lao Sung’s on the left, Lao Zhang’s on the right
Coming here this year I was not
sure he’d be there since their houses were supposed to be destroyed and the
whole village flattened, including the tea plantations. But Lao Sung was still there and as
usual glad to see me. He said he
had been to the emergency room several times in the last year with high blood
pressure and a bad heart, but he looks well enough at 79. He still bicycles around but will soon
move to the group room at the soldiers home. China’s strong point, he says, is lots
of people. Here, cut my head off,
he offers, then another then another.
Lao Liu has died, my other favorite. He was the man who showed you that you needed no education to live happily. He died of lung cancer, but according to Lao Sung never knew what he had because he had no understanding of such things. His abdomen had to be drained of fluid and once the tube squirted liquid across the room, as Lao Sung described, like “water out of the tap”自來水, so we had a laugh at Lao Liu’s death because Lao Liu kept saying he felt fine and just wanted to go home. After the liquid squirted out, he was ready to take out the tube and get up and go. Lao Sung was the one who noticed he was thin and unenergetic, so he had him go for a check up, which then turned into one month and three days in the hospital, until he died, April 6, 1998. He says that he goes every year at New Years to pay respects to Lao Liu and Lao Zhang at the place where their ashes rest. Hearing that instantly brought about suppression of tears in me.
I stayed again in Lao Zhang’s half of the duplex. As I walked from one side of the house to the other I encountered a woman standing under the eaves, dirty, pants open all the way up the back. I said, “oh,” and she said, “oh,” then walked off. Lao Zhang, who died in 1996, lived in the mirror image of Lao Sung’s half. I spent many hours of this trip reading and enjoying complete release from the world. At six a.m. the second day I peeked out the door and saw Lao Sung already off on his bike to get breakfast. He returned with buns, dough sticks, and hot soymilk 燒餅油條 and 豆漿, all very good.
Lao Sung and I sit together and eat, drink, smoke, and talk. About Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, he says that the Republicans went too far. He says that 100% of men can never stay with just one woman. Clinton may have been a little incautious, but “men are just that way” 男人就是這樣. Lao Sung is like other men I know: “no woman will control me,” they are as if to say. There is no having cake and eating it too. They will have cake and then have more cake. Friends of his stop by on their way to a card game, big fun. One stands outside and doesn’t come in. Why, asks Lao Sung. He says “It’s cooler out here.” Lao Sung says, “Then take your pants off and be cooler.” That is a Lao Sungism.
When I first arrive Lao Sung is in a sort of childlike happiness to see me, which mingles with a mode of big brother/fellow bad boy, that is, the mischievous quintessential Lao Sung in his humor. Then he also becomes father-lecturer: Have children, listen to the wisdom of history and war.
For the days I was there I listened in on the numerous discussions about the impending move from this squatters’ area, which must take place within the next month. Lao Zhao seems utterly frustrated and doesn’t know where he will go, very depressed, “It’s difficult to explain,” to literally translate his words, 很難講, which he often says. Lao Sung figures he will go for the old soldiers’ home in Taoyuan, but others entertain him with the notion of a group of five or six of them renting an apartment, or as the Zhejiang fellow suggested, Lao Sung could build an add-on on the third floor roof of a building that the fellow owns. They talk about all the possibilities for a while, then Lao Sung always comes back to the soldiers’ home. There is a finality to that,
no need to go out and buy food, or to ever move again, plus it’s
free. The rental idea would cost
more than he is used to paying per month.
I roamed through two other homes of the squatters’ jerrybuilt variety, the quintessence of male nests, well-built shacks, boys’ paradises. The men who live in them are between 50 and 90. They almost all smoke, a few wheeze and gasp and cough the smoker’s phlegm, but otherwise focus their energies on their passion of playing mahjong. Somewhere every day a game is going on. That is their form of partying.
As usual, someone drops by, sits or stands for a while, then leaves by just walking off, no goodbye or anything. There are dogs everywhere, mostly stray. Twice one day Lao Sung walked up to a pile of debris under which a dog had gone and he pounded on the top just for the hell of it. “I’m driving the dogs out,” 我趕狗, he said, as he picked up a couple of rocks, then climbed on the precarious pile of wooden slats with nails exposed and ready to break and collapse if there was too much weight on them. The squeals of what must have been puppies came from underneath. It must have been a dog’s nest. Lao Sung prefaced this jaunt by saying, “They are driving me out, and I’m driving the dogs out.”
The only men who have places to go are the married ones. The rest never made or saved enough money to be able to do that, thus fulfilling the definition of squatters.
Their dogs were curs, lowly looking and dirty, slinking along, and they gave me a look as if knowing that I wasn’t from there. They would follow me then bark if I approached them or run away if I chased. Petting them was impossible since they were too suspicious. They were scavengers.
Lao Sung doesn’t believe in the Buddha or any religion, doesn’t accept Chinese medicine, and promotes “democracy, freedom, and equality.” Now he has added: opposition to imperialism. The KMT is no good either, he says, but he left the Communist Party long ago because it was too cruel to landlords, both the bad ones and the good ones. He says he has always been one to speak his mind, 愛說話.
One day we were up at 5:00 a.m., then went out at 6:00 on bikes. It was a cool day with blue sky and we rode a few blocks, about a half a mile or so, to a breakfast place of the same variety that has always existed, that is, basic and not too clean. We had soymilk and buns by the edge of the street, fabulous, with people stopping by on their way to work.
One character of the Linkou scene who disturbed me more than I care to admit was the woman I encountered who wondered about in complete filth with her naked body exposed beneath her ragged clothing. She sat for hours folding and unfolding a piece of newspaper, stared in through the window at us or the t.v., and giggled now and then. Lao Sung gave her a piece of watermelon. I waived her away once when I was talking to my wife at a public phone nearby. She was maybe 30 years old.
This ended up being the last time I stayed in the old man village, with its bamboo groves and the trash and junk everywhere, with its scavenging dogs and quiet madwoman. Whenever I left, it stayed with me for days afterwards, hard to get out of my mind. While there, I spoke only Chinese and saw no foreigner for days in a row. When I left, I usually stopped next in Beijing, which was always a much rougher and cruder place, though the village was crude enough.
this time the cab again has a hard time finding Lao Sung’s new place, but he
and I finally rendezvous on a street near the old center of Linkou. Now the details begin to unfold about
his new setup. First, he has a
“wife” 老婆 now, and he lives in a one room
efficiency flat, so I clearly see that I can’t stay with him this time. They are not really married, but he
calls her his wife, and she is an aboriginal Taiwanese who works at a hospital
and comes home once or twice a week. When he was sick a year ago he had to stay in the hospital where she was
a nurse. She took care of him and
felt sorry for him, she says. They
struck it up and decided to live together, or if you go by one of his versions,
she just moved in with him. She is
divorced with two grown children, about 53 or so, he 81. She had no place else
He tells me that he doesn’t tell her about his many other girlfriends in Linkou and quotes a saying, “You toss it, I grab it” 你丟我撿, which I later discover was used in the anti-litter campaign of the 1960s, the same time there was one when I was a boy in Indiana.
So the problem now is where to stay. We walked the narrow streets of Linkou’s main outdoor market to a place called Linkou Inn 林口旅社, an unmade-up place, dark inside, with a hallway that went straight back. The room was dank, windowless, and dirty, the sheets unclean, but it was close to his place, so for whatever reason I decided to stay there, for 600 NT a night, with cockroaches mostly small ones but one big one in my bed. I spent the first two afternoons napping from jet lag, sleeping in such a way as to avoid contact with the sheets, using my windbreaker as a shield from the pillow and two clean hand towels they lent me for my body to lie on.
The spirit of Lao Sung is something healthy to be around and worth going out of your way to seek out, even if it means staying in a lousy hotel in order to be near where he lives. To others he is Uncle Sung 宋伯伯 or “Sung Beibei” as it sounds in the Taiwanese accent of the wife of the fellow from Zhejiang.
Lao Sung was extremely ill two months before, which is when he got to know his new wife. She says that she thought he was so “pitiful” 可憐 in the hospital, with no relatives to take care of him, that she decided to move in with him. He always says he is poor but he does own the little apartment after all. They aren’t legally married so she can’t inherit it, he told me. The Zhejiang man, Wang, held out his hand with the index finger curled over to indicate that Lao Sung almost died. “It’s all over for me” 我完了, Wang quotes Lao Sung as telling him.
Another time Lao Sung told me he had a stroke that paralyzed half his face. Then he imitated in his goof way his face half drooped. One time when he got sick he was outside on the street and had to stoop down and couldn’t get up he was in such pain. So he waived a cab and told him to take him to the hospital.
When I was in the dirty hotel he would show up in the morning nice and early with a bang and a knock at my door. “Let’s have breakfast.” Then we would go for soymilk and the usual. Later at noon or dinner he’d come too, unless I went there. His apartment building had a gate and doorman and other old men also lived there, including Lao Zhao, who had a “wife” now too. So something worked out after all in their move from the squatter’s village, though I did not learn how it happened.
I asked him how it was when the KMT army retreated from Shanghai to Taiwan, figuring that it must have been a grave event. He said it was the fun of getting on a ship and the huge lob of a bomb landing in the water nearby. More of his goofdom came out when he, Wang, and I
went to check another hotel that was better, for possible future
use. The elevator had mirrors on
the opposing walls so Lao Sung exclaimed how we could see a thousand Lao Wangs. “Look!! You see? There are a thousand Lao Wangs!!!,” as he almost jumped up and down. Another time as we watched t.v., there were commercials about breast enlargement and
aphrodisiacs for men. The Chinese
aphrodisiac was better than Viagra, which made the man’s heart race as he sat
up in bed in his pajamas clutching his chest with his unsatisfied wife sitting
nearby. Symbols of good and bad
erections were trains racing or gun barrels drooping. Lao Sung goofed a cheer when the t.v. showed a train racing. Meanwhile his wife said “He’s just like a
little boy.” He claimed that he’d
heard that if you kiss someone your mouth will rot
away. “He’s being naughty and
silly,” she said.
He told me that women seek him out. He has had many girlfriends in Linkou, all of whom sought him out. As he repeated, “You toss it, I grab it” 你丟我撿. As for Tian, the wife’s name, “She just moved in, goddamn it他媽的,” he says, but he’s happy. Maybe he likes to look as if he’s his own man. As Tian says, she likes him because “He doesn’t have a bad temper,” 他不發脾氣. He said she was very shy and avoided people, but she was nice to me. Her son was coming over the day I left, Mother’s Day, but I didn’t see him. Lao Sung began to tell me how Zheng Chenggong arrived in the 17th century, after which the Chinese began to drive the aboriginals out of the plains into the mountains. Tian didn’t mention any of this. Her first husband who died was also from Shandong.
I also spent some time at Wang’s place. He left home at 16, he said, to be in the KMT army, then a year later left for Taiwan. He smokes, drinks, looks like Martin Sheen, and is in his late 60s. He’s crusty and got a little feisty when a waitress asked him not to smoke in the noodle restaurant we went to.
year I stayed in a guesthouse at Tsinghua University in Hsinchu and in order to
visit Lao Sung took the bus from the front gate of the university to a station
in Linkou from which I then took a cab to his place.
He noticed my mustache with its white hairs. He was in marvelous spirits right away. “I like it when you come” 我喜歡你來, he said. “I like to bullshit with you” 我喜歡跟你吹牛. He likes to say whatever he feels like saying.
I got a little clearer about the sequence of his soldiering in the 1940s. He was first in the guerrilla band 游擊隊 in 1943 or so, but his group was “defeated” by the Japanese and had to surrender. Then he was in the Japanese army for six months. During that time he dealt in smuggling bullets issued by the Japanese that he would sell to the other guerrilla bands who were still fighting the Japanese. Then came the Japanese surrender, which he called 光復, after which he worked for the Communists for two months but then left because he “didn’t like them.” Why he chose to leave seems complicated and a bit involved, but the best I could put together was that his uncle, that is, his mother’s younger brother, his 外公, was labeled an “evil tyrant” 惡霸, so the stigma attached to Lao Sung too. You were potentially guilty of many things, he said, including all your past crimes. But the CCP liked him and had him working in the Communications Office 通信辦 because he could write and there weren’t many like him. But at the same time he thought that the KMT had superior weapons, including fighter planes, and so would be the ultimate winner. Even though he “could have” been a cadre in the CCP if he’d stayed, and he would have done well, he kept saying, still, he joined the KMT, even though they turned out to be utterly inept.
We ate some meat dishes he bought and drank some sorghum liquor, then I napped a bit while he went outside to sit. Later he talked politics, saying how corrupt Chen Shuibian was and how he should be impeached. Then he went into his old topic of experiences with prostitutes and women he met over the years who initiated or tried to have sex with him. One in particular was a woman who told her mother to leave so she could have sex with Lao Sung. That was an eternal “souvenir,” 紀念品, as he repeated a few times using that expression. Other times he had to say no because either others would see them or because he was a soldier and couldn’t marry. He would have had me stay for dinner and sleep the night, but the room was very small and he didn’t insist. He always lets me do as I will without pressing.
He also talked about a time he almost died when in the northeast he had to cross a river or else be captured and killed by the Communists. The ice had just melted, so it was still very cold. When you got in up to your stomach it was shockingly cold, but then it was all right. He acted it out twice with an expression on his face of how cold it was. It was the Taizi River 太子河, which is a major river in Liaoning Province. Then there were battles in which thousands of KMT soldiers died, in his view due to inept KMT officers.
I learned a few more dates of his life. He was born on February 26, 1920. He retired from the military in 1962. He says that in 1954 he was demoted because of speaking too openly. He told an official who was illiterate that he was not up to the job, whereas Lao Sung wasliterate and knew quite a range of worldly facts and history. He is from Jiaonan County 膠南縣, Baoshan District 寶山鄉, Linzi Village 林子村, which he says is now underneath a man-made lake.
for gradual loss of virility, he put it nicely, as if it was like “slowly going
down hill” 慢慢走下坡. Women like younger men, he says. If you are old, you have to pay. Still he had four girlfriends during his
20 years in Linkou, a year or two each. One used to visit him at 10 at night and leave at 4 in the morning but
wouldn’t tell him why or where she was going. Four things are the most pitiful, he said: an old soldier, an old prostitute, an
old actor, and an old hawk. We had
dumplings today and both sorghum liquor and Shaoxing wine. He got extra happy and so even went out
to buy cigarettes, of which I had two. The flavor reminded me of when I was a
kid and first smoked. For this
might be the last time we are together, he said. Then I told him that writing to him
before each of my visits to Taiwan was a way of seeing whether he was still
alive, which he acknowledged, but this was not in the least a morbid moment. When he was ill and in the hospital a
few years ago, he thought he was going to die, so he gave a large sum of money
to Tian and was going to give a sum to Wang too. He let her keep it. She is gone now. She lived with him for a while, but perhaps he didn’t like her demands for money. It was not clear. “I told
her to leave” 我叫她走, he said,
or “She ran off” 她跑掉了, somewhere
between the two.
He told me about a caller on a radio show who said that all the retired soldiers should pack up and leave for the mainland. Then he recalled how tough it had been for him when he got to Taiwan. There was a bad typhoon in 1951 when he and other soldiers were ordered to carry stones and wrap them in wire mesh to make dikes. All this he says they did with no shoes, just shorts, and no hat, for one month, for which they got 4 NT extra, enough for a pack of cigarettes.
He first came to Taiwan in 1949 to Jilong 基隆, then Penghu 澎湖 right away for one month, then for awhile on a little island called Wangwan. Then he went to Zhongli 中歷 for six months. After that he went to Zhoushan Island 舟山島, which I suddenly realized was the set of islands off from Ningbo 寧波. That was when the KMT army tried to re-invade the mainland. He stayed there for several months until 1950, with not much fighting, then they went back to Taiwan. They kidnapped a dozen or so young men from Zhoushan. He said the KMT army often did that. Then he went to Zhongli and Hsinchu. What lost people the kidnapped men must have been, he said, like “Pigsy looking at himself in the mirror; he’s human neither inside nor out” 豬八戒照鏡子, 裡外不是人. The following years were: In 1955 to Fengshan near Gaoxiong where he stayed for six years as a proxy agent 代理, which was something like an officer, he said. In 1955 and 1957 he was hospitalized because of gallstones. He has had four operations to date and shows me the incisions. 2002 was the last one.
He recalled his childhood when I told him how the cigarette reminded me of when I was a kid and smoked, the flavor and smell when it was still mild and fragrant. Then I told him of how I used to get in trouble for petty vandalism, to which he said that was nothing, it’s normal. His father was strict, he said, and would whip him. When his father came back home, the children all had to be quiet. At New Year’s festival, each received a red envelope: 十個銅板, he said, “ten copper coins.” He did not have pleasant memories of his father.
As he escorted me to the bus stop when I left the last time, just before the bus came he said, 我有一個感想, “I have the feeling” that Linkou has been overbuilt and “is sinking down,” 在陳下去. Then he pointed to some buildings far off: “See those? You used to not be able to see them but now you can.” The bus came, I gave him a pat on the shoulder, managed to look back at him once and then it got going, through the maze of streets and swarms of vehicles over to Changgeng Hospital, not an area of sweet milling and eating and enjoying. I called him from the airport the day I left. 你在那裡, “Where are you?,” he always first says. Then when he
understands that I am leaving, he says, 可惜我不能送你, too bad he can’t send me off, and that he hopes he can still see me next time.
my last visit to Lao Sung, in December 2006 while I attended a conference in
Hsinchu, he told me more about his early life and his flight from home in
Shandong after a year as a low level cadre for land reform. He couldn’t stand thought control of any
kind, whether it was belief in local gods or the Communist Party.
In 1945 he was back home after the end of the war, during which he was in a guerilla band, as he called it. The CCP was in charge in his home village, which was only a three or four hour walk from Qingdao, where the KMT and Americans were. He was a cadre in the county government, which was carrying out “land reform” 土改 and “re-assignment of land” 土地分配. It was 1946 and he earned 3 dollars a month in Beihai money 北海錢三元, plus 30 days worth of grain ration tickets 糧票 for his family (which included both crude and refined grain, 粗糧 and 細糧). His job was to grade the land, with levels from 2nd grade to 8th grade, where 6 was the best in his area. He added that no one could afford the “public grain” tax.
He left his family after one year without telling them. “It was too awful” 太利害, the struggling and criticism that occurred with the “local tyrants” or “evil hegemons” and “good hegemons” 惡霸, 善霸, even beating people to death. “No one was good” 沒有一個好人. “You couldn’t be good.” There was always struggle between people. Everyone watched everyone else and reported to everyone. You had to confess what you did right and what you did wrong. You had to be “open and honest,” 坦白, but whether you were or not was not for you to decide. He was the fourth child in his family. His elder brother, 三哥, was jailed after a struggle session. He was the one Lao Sung rescued and liberated. His maternal grandfather was struggled to death, as were others.
He has no regrets, he says, ever. His wife could not leave home without someone escorting her, he said. She had bound feet and outside the house had no sense of place. “It was no use telling them.” He just left. After liberating his brother he went to Qingdao and became a soldier and was sent to the northeast. That was between 1946 and 1949, when he went to Taiwan. The flight to Qingdao was on foot for three or four hours, then he slipped across at night. The checkpoints made it impossible to do so in the day. When he arrived in the city he got a temporary permit from the KMT government and gave his purpose as looking for a friend, whose name he had to give. He said that the Americans arrived in Qingdao in August of 1945 or 1946, the KMT in September. He arrived in August (of 1947?). While there his permit was checked from time to time and he was classed as a “refugee” 難民. There was a hostel for refugees supplied with American flour, with thousands of people, but he didn’t go there and instead lived with the friend, a merchant. But after a month or so he felt “embarrassed” 不好意思, so he joined the army. He looked for that friend when he visited Qingdao in the 1980s, but no one had heard of him.
The way he got into this story was first by saying that the Islamist militants were as if they were controlled by a metal band around their heads, like Monkey 孫悟空. The story of the Journey to the West西遊記 meant this to him: there was absolute freedom or else there was the ring around your cranium that gave you a great headache if you overstepped the limits. He was a
good boy, 乖, until age 18, then that
was it. His enlightenment compared
to those in his family and among fellow villagers was that you could leave your
home and not farm. He read
newspapers, even if they were old. They were still news from the outside.
Three last tidbits from Lao Sung, one from the days at the International House, one a philosophical observation on war, and one about how much money he gave to his relatives in the mainland. There used to be a tennis court on the corner of Xinyi and Xinsheng Roads, next to the International House. That spot was the site of a bomb crater from 1945 or so when Taiwan was still in Japanese hands. On war: The other day as we were watching a program on the Discovery Channel showing men fighting, he said “Normally people don’t like fighting.” But when you are a soldier and they tell you to charge and that you’ll be shot if you don’t, then you go. He imitated the bugle call and then the motion of charging. No one was afraid, he said. You just went with everyone else, with people falling left and right. He was never even wounded, 沒服過傷. At his retirement he had 2,000,000 NT, of which he gave half, he said, to his relatives.
My next trip to Taiwan was in December 2009, but I had not received a reply to the letter I sent and his phone number was no longer in service. I sent a letter to Lao Wang, his friend from Zhejiang, who wrote back and reported that Lao Sung had died, that everyone sooner or later had to die, and that it was sad that Lao Sung had no family to take care of him in his last days. His money and belongings would be sealed for three years, after which family members in the mainland could apply for rights of inheritance. Lao Sung’s ashes had been placed in the Temple of Loyal Heroes 忠烈寺, which is converted from a temple constructed during the Japanese period in Taoyuan, Taiwan. He always told me just to throw his ashes away. What have I learned from Lao Sung? The main thing is that it is worthwhile to visit a friend like that for as long as you can.