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Gongguan Digressions // 公館漫遊

by Kevin T. S. Tang

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In his 7th floor apartment on Roosevelt Road, Wan Hao-hsien (溫浩賢) anguishes over his blueprints for a new kitchen god shrine.

If life imitated television dramas and commercials, Taipei would be run entirely by eager young college graduates with androgynous haircuts. But in reality, the city has endless ways of humiliating the young. Take Hao-hsien, for example – fresh out of National Taiwan University with an honors degree in graphic design, and all he can land is a pity commission from the neighborhood bubble tea café.

Forget about the city being your oyster. Youproud graduates of the class of 2008 – you are the city’s oyster.

“Still can’t find a job?” the mama-san at the café asks him one afternoon.

“No, I’m still waiting to hear back from Saatchi & Saatchi.”

啥乞?” she says. “Weird name. Never heard of it.”

“It’s a famous ad firm based in London. I have friends working there, some insider connections.”


Wan is always bragging about his college friends working at fancy foreign companies, his friends dating Brazilian supermodels, his friends DJing at Luxy and Barcode. At a college as selective as National Taiwan University, your friends are all quite necessarily future winners.


“That’s a pity, talented guy like you going without a job,” mama-san leans over his table, sighing as if pronouncing God dead. “President Chen’s screwing up the economy. Society is in a huge mess. The world is going to pieces.”


“President Chen has no shame,” Wan nods. He doesn’t know exactly why he has no shame, but anyone with any fashion sense said so. It’s the way the president sweats at the podium, his perspiration apologizing for his timid words in advance. The same unseemly sweating cost Al Gore the election. Nixon sweated enough to feed the Tigris and Euphrates. Shame and sweating — highly correlated.


“In that case, if you don’t mind…” she dry coughs a little. “We would love to borrow your talents. See, our kitchen god just isn’t holding up anymore.”


Wan stands up and studies the mini-shrine — nailed to wall at slightly above eye level in the café’s main lounge, a red-skinned and bearded figurine presiding in the center, two peach-shaped miniature lamps flanking the figure and a rusty copper gourd serving as an ashy pincushion for incense sticks. He can’t see anything wrong with it.


“Looks like a fine kitchen god to me,” he compliments. “Good composition.”

 

“Well,” the matron stashes away a private grin for herself. “The shrine just doesn’t quite fit the rest of our décor, though. We’re different than the other bubble tea shops. See, we’re trying to attract a sophisticated crowd.”


Resplendent in a lime green and neon orange motif, the bubble tea café is called:


SPUTNIK SWEETHEART

For reservations, call: 0943-2626

Couples dressed as Toru and Naoko on

Murakami Thursdays get a house-special

Norwegian Forest Cake for free!


Mama-san — like other café owners in the Gongguan District — is an unapologetic fan of Haruki Murakami.


A pack of suited men and women walk in, security key cards dangling around their necks. Mama-san glares at them, then shoots a wan smile in their general direction. They are not her target clientele. But nonetheless, the suits pick the table under the altar.


“Can’t believe we had to walk all the way here for lunch,” a woman with cropped hair and a black skirt says.


“Now, we’re the odd ones here. Who else other than students and pretentious bums hang around Gongguan?” a man says. “We should’ve had lunch break much earlier.”

 


The cropped-hair girl raises her hand. “老闆娘, 老闆娘—”


Wan and mama-san are too busy discussing ideas for a new kitchen god. The peach-shaped lamps would have to conform to an iMac color palette or it’d have to go, Wan decides. Mama-san disagrees. The rusty color of the incense gourd is her main grievance.


“Hey, 老闆娘! We’re ready to order—”


The cropped-hair girl stands up to secure the matron’s attention. For a Taiwanese woman in her mid twenties, the girl’s height measures at a freakishly tall 177 centimeters. Her height is a favorite subject of water cooler gossip among her coworkers, many of whom suspect that her towering stature plays a role in her continual failures in romance. The kitchen god shrine at the Sputnik Sweetheart stands at a freakishly low 170 centimeters above the closest dining table. Kitchen god meets the top of the girl’s head at a painful six kilometers per hour.


“Fuck!” she yelps. “Mother of fuck!

“Whoa, watch your mouth there,” her coworker laughs. “You alright? Tourettes working up a little?”

夭壽喔,” she pinches his right ear, aping elementary school English lessons, “I’m—fine—thank—you—and—you—?”

“Ow ahh-Okay, okay stop it what are you doing?” the man begs in a plaintive nasal yawl. The table erupts in sitcom laughter.


We might as well give her a name now. She is Gloria Ying, a secretary at AceTech Software, which specializes in educational language-learning computer game development. She is always the first to arrive at the office every morning, though she never does any productive work until well after lunch. Before lunch, Gloria prepares coffee, sorts mail, plays online chess with her former college roommate and rearranges her iPod playlists. After lunch, Gloria returns to her cubicle and updates her MSN Messenger screen name:


*Glorii* - attacked by teahouse kitchen god… 痛啊啊啊~ T-T

has just signed on to

Windows Live Messenger!


A new chat window pops up on her computer screen.

 

[Jen-E] says: heyy

[Jen-E] says: lol wtf attacked by teahouse?

[Jen-E] says: what happened??

*Glorii* says: just a dumb accident at a café =_=

*Glorii* says: their kitchen god shrine is a deathtrap for tall people. A real scalper

[Jen-E] says: hahaha

*Glorii* says: I could’ve been a Mortal Kombat fatality. Brains everywhere, Jen. Brains everywhere.

[Jen-E] says: okay i’m gonne google what that even means.

*Glorii* says: Lucy Liu in Kill Bill. The monkeys in Temple of Doom.

[Jen-E] says: Haha think I’ve heard enough Gloria.

*Glorii* says: This is a million dollar American lawsuit we’re talking here.

[Jen-E] says: concert still on tonight at The Wall?

[Jen-E] says: let’s do dinner first.

*Glorii* says: mmm… Thai diner near NTU sounds good?

*Glorii* says: the concert isn’t until 9pm

*Glorii* says: let’s meet at Exit 2 of Gongguan Station @ 7pm?

[Jen-E] says: sounds good. Anything to help me forget another day.

[Jen-E] says: hey, you mind if Eric comes too??

*Glorii* says: Eric what?

[Jen-E] says: Eric Barton. Tall 老外 we met at Club Wax on ladies night?

[Jen-E] says: afterschool English tutor at Hess, Florida State grad?

*Glorii* says: the guy who swore he could sing every Jay Chou song ever?

[Jen-E] says: haha yeah. We went to karaoke last week. His Chinese was pretty impressive… pretty cute : )

*Glorii* says: i don’t know, don’t you find that a little weird?
*Glorii* says: like he has another purpose for learning all this, ah...

[Jen-E] says: always the cynic, gloria. this makes me sad.

[Jen-E] says: ‘other motives.’ haven’t met anyone in months and that’s all you say.

*Glorii* says: Fine, fine.
*Glorii* says: But either way, I only bought 2 tickets. It’s Tizzy Bac’s first performance after their new album so tickets are probably sold out by now…


The bottom of the chat window informs Gloria that
[Jen-E] is writing a message… [Jen-E] stops typing, deletes her message, chooses her words for a long time.
[Jen-E] is writing a message…

[Jen-E] says: he says he doesn’t mind lining up early and trying to see if they still have more tix.

[Jen-E] says: only if you’re okay with it, of course.

[Jen-E] says: box office lady is his English student, apparently.

*Glorii* is typing a message…

*Glorii* says: you invited him already?

[Jen-E] says: mmm…well he said he’ll find seats and sneak in some booze for us.

[Jen-E] says: you know how much The Wall charges for a drink haha.


Gloria has been planning this night for too long to allow for third wheels. It was supposed to be their night together, theirs alone. She imagined the audience dispersing after the concert, her hand grazing Jen-E’s, the dim light of the venue and the warmth of the alcohol steeling her nerves for her confession— she will need to be numbed and alone with Jen-E for this.

[Jen-E] says: aiyo, anyway, he’s not that terrible lah.

[Jen-E] says: And besides, I think there might be something going on between us…

*Glorii* says: exactly what I don’t want to hear.


*Glorii* is writing a message…

Last message received from [Glorii]: 2:58PM 12/9/07…

*Glorii* is writing a message…

*Glorii* says: but suit yourself. I need to go, boss is calling.

*Glorii* says: talk to you later, kay?

[Jen-E] says: you sure it’s okay if eric comes?

---*Glorii* is offline. Messages you sent will be delivered when they sign in.---

[Jen-E] says: Gloria.

On the other end of the miles of fiber optic internet cables separating them, Jen-E sat cross-legged in the Shida University library, guessing the words cut off and lost in the digital void. She is a librarian, though not in the sense of English tea time and cat-pampering curmudgeons. Mostly she specializes in consulting cultural theory grad students in their research and decorating the themed monthly bulletin boards at the library’s entrance.


“Jenny.”


Jen-E recognizes the flat voice as her supervisor’s. A learned defensiveness about her digital privacy jolts through her, the basal ganglia of her brain firing synaptic responses reminding her that ALT+TAB meant minimize chat window.


“Yes?”

“Hope I didn’t interrupt any of your hard work.”

“Oh no, not at all. What is it?” She replies, her taut grin hiding daggers. If I have to deal with his passive-aggressiveness one more time— Jen-E thinks tragically to herself. She always felt vaguely guilty at work and she didn’t want to feel that anymore.

“So, about this month’s bulletin. Thought of a theme yet?”

“I think it’ll be about 韓良露 and her South Village project,” Jen-E answers. “Unitas Press is running an entire issue for her short stories in their magazine. An entire issue. You’ve heard though? She’s campaigning to rename Gongguan Market to ‘South Village’—”


On the laptop computer behind her, a chorus of digital dissent churns across countless blogs and online PTT and BBS forums:


韓良露 wants to turn Gongguan into the Lower East Side.

韓良露 wants to sell Gongguan to La Rive Gauche.

韓良露 wants to elect herself deputy Gertrude fucking Stein of Taipei.

韓良露韓良露韓良露韓良露, who will be her Picasso and Hemingway?


“Anyway, I think her oeuvre would make a timely theme,” Jen-E says.


Jen-E’s bulletin board suggestion hangs in mid-air between them. Her supervisor blinks slowly, offers a perfunctory smile and walks away without saying a word, which means that he’s chewing on the thought for further consideration. She understands that the graying 五年級生 generation weren’t raised on compliments and felt little need for dispensing them.


A new instant messaging chat window sprouts on her computer screen as the supervisor vanishes behind concrete corridors.

JT 角頭 says: hey bitch

[Jen-E] says: -_-|||

[Jen-E] says: WTF do you want JT

JT 角頭 says: saw the boss giving you a hard time

[Jen-E] says: yeah he gave me that dead fish smile again

JT 角頭 says: I’m so bored. Falling asleep.

JT 角頭 says: let’s go out for a 7-11 break??


Jen-E stands up and stares over to JT’s desk, which she can see on the floor below. JT winks at her. She nods.


“I meant bitch in an affectionate way,” JT says as he approaches her desk.

“You’re weird.”

“Let’s get some coffee?”

“Yeah, some Mr. Brown won’t be amiss. Get me out of here.”


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In front of the main gateway of the Shida campus, a flock of students stood in a stiff circle, all blue wigs and cardboard samurai swords and gothic Lolita frills. They call themselves cosplayers, an embattled fandom of people who dress as their favorite Japanese cartoon characters. A scrawny boy arrives in a shock of aluminum gray hair and white kimono, a lacquered medicine box slung over his shoulders. He orbits tentatively around the group before gathering his courage.


“Excuse me, is this… are you guys…” he cannot bring himself to say it. “Are you all members of the Moé World Forum?”


A girl dressed up as Chun-Li from Street Fighter rolls her eyes. No one responds.

“Is this the monthly otaku meet?”

“What’s your screen name?” a flat voice demands.

銀古24,” he says. Ginko24. Normally, the scrawny boy is an undergraduate chemistry major. In a white kimono, though, he is the itinerant spirit-world traveler, a world savior, liberating medieval Japanese villages with sass and pizzazz.

“You’re at the right place,” a pirate says, extending a sweaty hand. “I’m Luffy-X.”


Ginko24 accepts the proffered hand suspiciously. He remembers that in a heated cyber-debate about the superiority of shonen comics to shojou, he had called Luffy-X a “total noob” and “irascible homo.” Given Luffy’s clout among the veterans of the forum, Ginko’s online popularity quickly plummeted to a new low.


“You know, Ginko’s not supposed to wear a kimono,” Luffy says. “That’s what makes him special. He wears western clothes.”

“Is Shin-sama here yet?” Ginko changes the subject, disentangling his hands.

“No, we’re waiting for him to get out of class. Then we’re going to Shimending.”


Jen-E and JT squeeze past the cosplayers as they exit the campus gates, cigarettes dangling from their fingers. JT eyes the cosplayers, elbows Jen-E to secure her attention, takes a long drag and blows a mouthful of smoke into Ginko’s face.


“Jay,” Jen-E says. “What are you—”

“Look, Jenny,” JT chortles.


Ginko is not sure how to react. The group stares at JT through neon bangs and mascara eyelashes. Luffy-X relishes an exquisite mental picture of Ginko’s face getting punched in, teeth flying everywhere, Ginko sobbing, Ginko pissing his pants, Ginko begging for forgiveness as Luffy’s magnanimous figure steps in to his rescue.


“Jay, don’t be an asshole.”

“They’re standing in our way. They’re the assholes, Jenny.” he says. “Hey kids, can’t you be weird somewhere else?”

“Jay,” Jen-E says.


A delivery boy loads a newspaper stand with fresh issues of Pots Alternative Weekly as he witnesses the standoff. His hands are stained menstrual-red from the smearing of tabloid ink (this week’s Pots cover story: “Sawat di Pi mai! Celebrating the New Year with Illegal Thai Laborers.” The cover art features a blood-soaked Thai flag). Dangling from the delivery boy’s neck is a flimsy laminated press pass:


YEN Chang (Pots Weekly editorial intern)


The 5PM bell sounds across the Shida University campus. JT and the cosplayers’ spat elevates to an uncomfortable 70 decibels as college students pour out of classrooms and cascade around them. In his head, Yen decides on an article pitch: Fear & Loathing in Taipei’s Cosplaying Subculture. He digs through his messenger bag for his digital camera. The word ‘cosplay’ conjures up a chain of associations in Yen’s head: cosine—Harajuku—Gwen Stefanie—Orientalism—tarmac—breast implants—shame.


His cell phone rumbles in the pocket of his jeans. Caller ID: 吳慕清 // Editor Wu.


“Yen, how’s the paper route going? Are you done filling up all the Shida University newsstands?”

“Yeah. And I also have a question...”

“Fire away.”

“So all these anime geeks are having a mini-convention in front of the university gate right now, right? And I was thinking— have we written about the Otaku subculture?”

“Only a billion times, Yen, and decades ago at that. Otaku fashion’s a consumer fad, flavor of the week. Leave that bourgeois fluff topic to The Eslite Reader,” Wu says. “So anyway, all done with the paper route?”

“Aw c’mon,” Yen sighs. “Yeah took care of the newsstands, already told you.”

“Well I have great news then. A real hands-on assignment. Yen, The Wall just booked Broken Social Scene for a concert in Taipei. I want to set up an interview with Kevin Drew, so I need you to head over to The Wall right now and talk to the manager about scheduling a time. Can you do that?”

“Holy shit,” Yen said. Broken Social Scene is his favorite band.

“Yeah, right? Can I trust you to do this?”

“What’s the manager’s name?”

“Oris. Or Mr. Buo, if you want to be all suit-and-tie about it, but he doesn’t really give a fuck. Tell him you’re吳慕清’s assistant.”

At the underground cavern of The Wall, Oris sits behind a reef of PA system control panels. The buzz of tattoo pens and muffled thumps from drum rehearsal rooms can be heard from the outer hallways. Oris’ throne is elevated above the scratchy hardwood dance floor, an isolated perch seemingly detached from the music club. The three members of Tizzy Bac practice a synth-heavy piano rock number on stage. They don’t pay Yen any mind.


Oris takes a sip of the house special cocktail — appropriately named Oris真雞歪, or “Oris, Douchebag Extraordinaire.” Shot of absinthe, club soda, triple sec and grenadine. It is designed to embolden gushing college fans to annoy their favorite bands.


“So 慕清 wants to interview Broken Social Scene?”

“Yeah, and he was wondering if he can interview them here.”

Oris takes a drag on his cigarette.

“Not a problem at all. Tell him VIP lounge as usual. But tell him, only on one condition…”

“What condition?”

“Well,” Oris licks his upper lip. “It’s a little complicated, see. 慕清 already owes me a few favors. How bout we talk about this over a few drinks?”

………………………………………..


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It’s minutes before Tizzy Bac’s first set and Yen wakes up in a urine-saturated toilet stall. An incessant knock on the door wakes him up.


“Anyone in there? Can you hurry up? I kinda need to go real bad—“the accent sounds garbled, roundish, foreign.


Yen’s surroundings come into focus. Before he can reorient himself in the conscious world, his attention is arrested by the scrawled handwriting on the bathroom wall.


操妳祖宗十八代 — fuck your ancestors eighteen generations up.

[It’s unclear to Yen what anyone could do to deserve such an ancestral event.]

 

溫浩賢,假文藝青年 — Wan Hao-hsien is an insufferable hipster.

 

段考失敗 殺了我吧 囧rz||| — Failed my general exams. Kill me now.

 

1F73號一直報警的雞歪阿婆我咧幹你娘咧!

 

[Knock knock— this time in English now: “Dude, hurry up!”]

Yen feels for his sharpie in his front pocket, pulls it out and scrawls “Oris aint got shit on me” on the door. He is proud of sneaking in this jab at Oris in his home turf. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, the sourness of vomit tickling his nasal cavity. Yen leaves the stall. A tall foreigner — Eric Barton — stares down at him.


“Next time go jack off somewhere else,” Eric Barton says. “不夭在車所大手槍好不毫??”

媽的美國佬

“Piss off, kid.”

Yen climbs the stairs to the entrance of The Wall, walking past an interminable line of concert-goers that wind beyond his vision down the back alley. As always in the endless interiority of the city, night comes suddenly. He brushes shoulders with Wan Hao-hsien, who paces around aimlessly at the door of The Wall, a bottle of Taiwan Beer in hand. Hao-hsien does not know what to do with the night, so as usual he strolls down Roosevelt Road in search of large gatherings, traffic accidents, student protests, break dancers.

先生, are you looking for a ticket?” a woman’s smoky voice calls for Wan Hao-hsien. “Do you want to buy one off of me?”

Hao-hsien shrugs. “I have no one to watch the concert with though.”

“Either way. I was gonna go with a friend, but she went in with someone else,” the tall woman says. Against the aggressively hip crowd of Gongguan bohemians, her suit seems starkly formal. Hao-hsien would guess that she’s an accountant or secretary.

“You can still go anyway,” he says.

“No, I really don’t want to. Not in the mood anymore. You a fan of Tizzy Bac?”

“Well, I like their breakthrough album, but their latest is completely overproduced baroque-pop twee,” Hao-hsien says. In truth, he’s never heard the new album, but he’s read the Pots Weekly album review.

“They’re only performing the first album and 都是我害的 tonight,” she lies.

“Much better then,” he says stupidly, just to keep up the judicious charade. “That sounds solid. Alright.”


Out of embarrassment, Hao-hsien trades a $400 NT bill for her ticket and descends into the warm dark womb of The Wall. At the bar, Hao-hsien trades the ticket stub for a Miller. Tizzy Bac does not perform “Sideshow Bob,” the only song of theirs that he recognizes. The night passes unremarked, and soon Wan is home again. When he doesn’t know what to do, he buries himself in the small details of life reorganizing his drawers, researching his stamp collection, obsessing over a small graphic design project. He walks through the city at night like a ghost, talking to no one. This was the lonely vision of adulthood his parents raised him on.


In his 7th floor apartment on Roosevelt Road, Wan Hao-hsien (溫浩賢) anguishes over his blueprints for a new kitchen god shrine.


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Kevin T. S. Tang' photo

Kevin T. S. Tang recently graduated Dartmouth College with a honors degree in English, a post-bac in saying hi when you’re actually waving at the person behind him, and a M.A. in retracting his greetings awkwardly and running away. Besides his short stories and book reviews, Kevin has also published a translation of Huang Fan’s short story on Words Without Borders. He is now an MFA student at Columbia University. You can also find Kevin’s design portfolio at: http://kevintstang.com/

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