In Taiwan I stumbled upon this novel by Wang Chen-ho (王禎和) about Taiwanese brothel workers, led by a bombastic English teacher, who must undergo “cultural training” to prepare for American GIs on R&R during the Vietnam War. The text was written in Mandarin Chinese, with parts in Taiwanese and English, but the translator Howard Goldblatt (who made his name translating Mo Yan’s corpus) deserves credit for much of the wink-wink wordplay that seems both familiar and full of Taiwanese sass (if really that’s a thing). Words like “motherhumper” pop up frequently and seem to match the jovial game of insults. My being language-challenged (a privilege and a handicap at the same time) should make it clear that I have no idea what I’m writing about, except having read the book in translation, and enjoyed it immensely.
The book’s title is based on this song:
As the book is set around a prospective visit of American GIs to Taiwanese brothels, it’s often unsettling for American readers, who are clearly the butt of many jokes. On that note, American racism. In the introduction to the manager/pimp Black-Face Li, Wang describes
a man who looked like a stick of charcoal, with a face as dark as the bottom of an old wok, a rail-thin body (excessive masturbation, perhaps?), and his customary black martial-arts outfit. In the days to come, whenever an American GI on R&R ran into him in the Hualien bar, the startled comment would inevitably be, “Aha! So there are Chinese negroes too!” Well, our Chinese negro was standing beside Stumpy courtesan, chewing incessantly on betel nuts, his mouth stained with the red drool as if he’d vomited a bowlful of blood” (9)
[The prostitutes] said things like, ‘I’m not going to sleep with no American! We don’t speak the same language, they’ve got yellow hair and blue eyes, and their noses are like beaks. You expect me to sleep with freaks like that? Aiyo! Don’t make me puke.’ (58)
“(Here Big-Nose Lion went on to describe the way he punished the girls, and believe me, it’s as shocking as you might imagine. I’m not going to repeat it here–I don’t want to scare you off, and I sure don’t want to give you any ideas. Painful as it is, I’m going to delete this “stirring” passage completely. I hope you understand.)” (59)
The English teacher, Dong Siwen, pushes the brothel managers to spend countless dollars on preparing for the GIs. His admiration of American power/money makes the English teacher seem immoral, even to the extent that the abusive pimps find his proposals offensive to the gods. As in when Dong tries to convince one of the pimps to have his own son sell his sex for a prospective GI “homo case.”
In the very least, the book operates as an encyclopedia of ribald humor and prostitute banter, which can be pulled out like weeds and re-planted to upset any social conversation.
“making money is like they say in that laundry soap commercial: Two shakes and you’re ready for the next load. Isn’t that right?” (173).