鐵凝《永遠有多遠》- “How Long Is Forever” by Tie Ning

A 2009 English publication by Tie Ning

While I have read this book in its original language – Chinese – I have found a English translation selling at Amazon.com.  It is refreshing to read the work of a China writer in Traditional Chinese because given my very limited exposure to Simplified Chinese, my reading appetite is often confined to either authors from Hong Kong or Taiwan.

During this brief period of my renewed interest in reading in my first language, I have realized and begun to internalize the subtle differences in the choice of words and phrases amongst these three different locations – China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  In terms of language readability, of course reading works of a Hong Kong writer has always been a breeze to me.  Since I was born there.  Interestingly, I often have this impression that Taiwanese books are easier to read compares to books from China.  But it doesn’t appear so.  Perhaps it is because modern Chinese does not deviate too much from the not-so-modern Chinese that I have spent many years learning in school.

Tie Ning (鐵凝), the author of this book, has come with a long list of credential.  She is the current president of the Chinese Writers Association, the first woman taking on that post.  She has published close to 60 books, some of her works are translated into multiple languages, and some of her works have won awards.

The Chinese version of “How Long Is Forever (2007)” comprises of two novellas 《對面》,《永遠有多遠》 and four novelettes 《孕婦和牛》,《馬路動作》,《玛克力手印》,《暈厥羊》 (Note: ‘novella’ and ‘novelette’ are borrowed terms to describe the relative length of the story and not the actual word count as defined given the fact that these terms are used to measure English literature, not Chinese).  The English version (2009) seems to have the two novellas – “How Long Is Forever” and “Woman Opposite” – and not the rest.

I would describe Tie Ning as a realism writer.  Her characters and stories come alive through the day-to-day routines at the minute detail – intriguing, not mundane.  To borrow one of the critics’ observations from the book’s appendix, in our recent time, it is rare to see someone writing about the good people.  Not perfect, but good.  Like the narrator’s cousin in the novella “How Long Is Forever” who has endured and taken advantage by her ailing grandma, her boyfriends who needed a place to stay, and her own brother.  In the eyes of others, she has always lost out.  But all she does is to always think of others before herself.  Or like the pregnant woman in the novelette “Pregnant Woman And Her Cow”.  The main character is worry free, often take her cow for a walk.  One day she passes by a collapsed pillar that is of heritage value to the village.  The stones are engraved with words but she is illiterate, so is her husband and her husband’s family.  What if her child in the future asks her the meaning of these words?  Quickly she borrowed a pen and a piece of paper from a group of students nearby and started – first time in her life – to write.  And she intends to consult the wise people of the village later.  Such determination!  Tie Ning’s work is almost like a celebration of the not-too-perfect lives of the common people without dwelling into death, depression, desperation, delusion, and evil deeds – themes that could be more popular in today’s world.

In the preface penned by Tie Ning, she wrote that to her, ‘novelettes’ are like scenery.  ‘Novella’, on the other hand, are like stories.  And ‘novels’ are destinies.  I am certainly looking forward to reading the next book of hers.  Perhaps a novel for a change.

PS. Why would Singapore library classifies this book under romance?  I have no clue.

Additional Info and Links: Singapore library tag is TENG, ISBN is 978-962-8958-31-3, publisher’s website is here, and you can buy the English version from Amazon.com by clicking here.

夢枕獏《香魚師》- “Master Ayu Fisherman”, I Know Nuts About Fishing But I Enjoy Reading This

A Japanese novel in Chinese

It is only a matter of time before I revisit my childhood passion of reading Japanese novels translated in Chinese.  I read Japanese novels translated in English, such as Haruki Murakami.  Maybe there is a certain proximity between the two languages – Japanese and Chinese, I suspect that the Chinese translation is probably closer to the original flavor than English.  I do not read Japanese.  And hence, purely my speculation.

I know nuts about fishing.  I did fish once, or twice when I was young.  That was all the experience I have.  《香魚師》, which I would translate the title to “Master Ayu Fisherman” for reference here, is a fictional work that is all about fishing.  Not any kind of fishing, but a specific fish specimen – Ayu (you could read more about Ayu in Wikipedia here).  The preface has done a great job in giving an introduction on Ayu, the different kinds of fishing tackles – the fish hook that is called “hair rig” – and the environmental impact that affects the habitats of Ayu.

Each chapter of “Master Ayu Fishman” begins with a special title given for a particular “hair rig”.  The writing style consists of lots of paragraphs of short sentences and the translator or editor (茂吕美耶) has done a fantastic job in footnoting the novel at places that may cause confusion if you are  not a Japanese.  As I read the book, I suspected that it was originally published in newspapers or magazines and I was right (magazines indeed).  That are repeated references to previous chapters that initially I found it odd.  But it is not so odd if the original readers have to wait before reading the next installment.

“Master Ayu Fisherman” is about men’s obsession in fishing.  Ayu is often called “Sweetfish” for its special scent of melon and cucumber and “Year-Fish” for its one year lifespan.  Ayu’s life journey starts near the seashore and ends as they return from the sea to the seashore area and lay eggs.  There are seasonal bans in Japanese on Ayu fishing.  In the periods when the bans are lifted, enthusiasts would put aside their daily activities and fish.  There are various ways to fish Ayu, and many types of “hair rig” developed to tackle different situations.  I am not a fishing enthusiast, but I am intrigued by the passion people have on fishing.  In the story, there is this one particular rare hair rig called 黑水仙 (“Black Narcissus”), the only hair rig that can lure the abnormally huge Ayu that survives more than one year.  It is a story of two men’s obsession to go after that huge Ayu, almost like an addict.  In a strange way, I can relate (close friends of mine would know why).

According to the author, in Amazon, women incorporated their pubic hairs into the hair rig in order to fish a particular type of fish, long time ago.  That rare hair rig in the chapter, “Black Narcissus”, is created by just that.  Now, I have tried Google this bizarre concept.  There seems to be some applications of such setup but I am unable to verify the linkage to fishing in Amazon.  Nevertheless, I think Japanese does have some strange concepts and using pubic hair to create a fishing tackle may well be one of many.

Overall I enjoy reading 《香魚師》.  The Japanese author 夢枕獏 appears to be popular in Taiwan.  And he has spent four to five years in writing this book, being an avid fisherman himself during the period when this book was written.

Additional Info: Singapore library tag is YUMB, YLib official site, author official site and ISBN 978-957-32-6191-9.

王璞《補充記憶》- “Memory Refill” – And My Reading Habit

Another Chinese book I've read

How do you choose what to read from a library or a bookstore full of books?  When it comes to English titles, these days, I have a set of authors that I keep going back to.  As for Chinese titles, it is still this whole new experience of discovery and exploration.  Quite a few I have borrowed were returned to the bookshelf the next day.  One friend once asked, “Do you finished all the books you pick?”  For English books, it is a yes.  Because I often know what I am going into.  Book reviews are everywhere in the Internet.  There is even a great book I have – The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages – to help me decide what to read next.

In 1995, Cosmos Books in Hong Kong held a writing competition, on literature.  Not romance, thriller, short stories, or popular fiction.  But on literature.  First of its kind during that era, the book publisher had put aside a budget of US$60,000 to make it happen. 《補充記憶》(a translated title by me would be “Memory Refill”) by an author I have read recently came out as 2nd runner up.  There was no worthy winner so there were two 1st runner up winners instead.  What a strange way to round up the competition.  Nonetheless, the motivation of the competition was to rekindle the passion of  literature writing in mid-90’s Hong Kong.  That gets me thinking.  If the majority of the locals say in Singapore read materials created by the West – an inevitable reality of cultural influence (or shall I say domination?) – who will be there to support the local writing industry that would create works that represent a fragment of our society?

Back to Chinese book selection and this book “Memory Refill”, I pick this book to read because it is a award winning material – however small scale the competition might be – and it is a literature, not a popular fiction.  I would still say the author’s latter work 《嘉年華會》- “Carnival (2008)” – has a higher literature value.  Having said that, those who enjoy reading the short story 《啤酒》(“Beer”) would enjoy reading 《補充記憶》(“Memory Refill”).

The main character of the novel is a forty years old doctor Jung-ji 容易 (literally means “Easy”, a comical derivation – I suppose – by her promiscuity, or I would read it as 容兒 – a phonetically sounded female name) and her twenty-odd years old patient NO who has suffered memory lost after a car accident.  Is it a blessing in disguise that one losses his or her memory?  Jung-ji ponders.  As the doctor helps the patient to regain his memory, through unconventional means that are no lacking in humor, the doctor herself recollects her painful memory that she would want to lose.  Her failed relationships (or failing as a matter of fact) and men who simply would not stay.  The story development is not linear and it is a pleasure to read, for me that is.

“Memory Refill” is not a love story.  It is a journey of a woman seeking closure to the relationships of the past.

Additional Info: Singapore library tag is WGPU and ISBN 962-950-209-7.

張子璘《早苗》- “Zoumiu”, Again, 9 Short Stories


This has to be a coincidence.  I randomly picked four Chinese novels to read from the library.  The previous book is a collection of nine short stories.  This books is also a collection of nine short stories.  Relationship, especially in the form of divorce, is one of the themes of the previous book.  Same for this book.  The previous book writes in a certain style of surrealism blurring reality with illusion.  This book, same.  And when one of the stories from 《早苗》Zoumiu” – note that I translate based on the pronunciation because the title is derived from a female name – has a scene of the main character pondering with a glass of cold beer, I flipped.  It was as though I was reading 《嘉年華會》(Carnival”).  The beer, the divorce, the surrealism, the same number of stories – either it is a common trend in today’s Chinese literature bear in mind that “Zoumiu” is written by a Taiwanese writer while “Carnival” by a Hong Kong writer, the coincidence is simply, surreal.

Before I comment on the “Zoumiu”, I would like to write a bit on what I observe on the languages of these two geographic locations (can’t really say countries, can I?).  Hong Kong and Taiwan are most likely the only two places in this entire world that the people still write in Traditional Chinese.  I sincerely wish with all my heart that Traditional Chinese will not vanish, swallowed by the Simplified Chinese so commonly promoted by China.  For those who wonder what the difference between the two is, it is as though “Simplified English” becomes official and words such as ‘wot’, ‘happend’, ‘wif’, ‘btw’, ‘u’, ‘tt’, ‘impresn’ become the endorsed language.  Imagine English classics printed with those simplified forms.  The analogy may be crude and not entirely correct.  But the essence is there.  And that is how I feel when I read Simplified Chinese.

While I was reading “Zoumiu”, I realize that the choice of words between these two places – Hong Kong and Taiwan – can be different.  An analogy could be the subtle difference when you read British novels and American novels.  Both are written in English.  But there are differences between the two.  I, for one, read Hong Kong novels at a much faster pace.

At times, I am not sure which culture is more dramatic in nature – Taiwan or Hong Kong?  “Zoumiu” is prefaced by two I supposed reputable writer and editor in Taiwan.  Full of over-the-top promises that set my expectation sky high on “Zoumiu”, before I have even started reading the book.  The author 張子璘 has won the 1st prize of the Taiwan’s “Save the Literature” award.  “Zoumiu” is a story of love, and death.  Death is the center theme.  The nine stories are: 《早苗》《那個中午》《夜裡》《活者的記憶》《背影》《陌生人》《等待》《嫉妒的漂浮》《緩慢的自由》.  Again, for ease of reference, I would translate the titles to “Zoumiu”, “That Afternoon”, “In the Night”, “Memory of the Living”, “View of the Back”, “Stranger”, “To Wait”, “Jealousy Afloat”, “The Slowness of Freedom”.

“Memory of the Living” has perhaps the most impact on me.  In the story, the main character’s mother often stares outside the window, every passing moment of the day, holding a little black box.  One day, the main character returns home and discovers his mother has committed suicide.  He then opens the box and understands what his mother meant by: “I will tell it to you one day, until you mother is too tired, cannot hold it any longer, and I will pass it to you”.  My heart sunk when I too discovered what it is.

Another favorite story of mine is “Stranger”.  One day, a girl discovers a corpse like stranger appears in her home.  And through interacting with this stranger, conversing on the topic of her first divorce and second marriage, the stranger does not seem that foreign any more.  An extract of the story below (the author puts an extract upfront at the beginning of each story, interestingly).


The rest of the stories, like these two, explore on the decisions people make, on love, at times observed from a distance, almost like reading from a spirit’s view, or indeed from a spirit’s view.  Some stories are inconclusive leaving me to ponder on what is real and what is not.  One story, “Jealousy Afloat”, the main character is obsessed with the memory and illusion of his lost love decades ago, keeps revisiting old places until he sees her, together with the younger him.  The writing style of that story could seem extreme, but I tend to think that the author is gifted in bringing human interactions alive.

Additional Info: Singapore library tag is ZGZL, Wisdom Books official site, and ISBN 978-957-450-508-1.

王璞《嘉年華會》- “Carnival”, 9 Short Stories‏


Almost in a similar period when I appear to have given up eating meat all of a sudden, I have this sudden urge to rediscover my Chinese root.  Reality is, nothing is ‘all of a sudden’.  I have been wanting to give up eating meat for ages.  And I have been wanting to brush up on my Chinese for ages.  Reading Chinese novels is merely a first step of my long term ambition to regain my innate linguistic ability to its fullest and beyond.  I want to be able to read, understand, and pronounce 100% of the words found in a modern novel, able to write in Chinese, and able to create literature in Chinese.  After all, I believe all my friends who remain in Hong Kong are able to do all these.  I am merely playing catchup.

The joy of reading Chinese books is indescribable.  Language-wise, I am able to understand almost all the words and expressions (versus English novels).  But mere understanding is not my primary aim.  I want to be able to pronounce them as well (unlike the Western language, you can’t really pronounce a Chinese word if you don’t know the word).  And that is when modern technology helps a great deal.  I have found a site that helps me to find out how to pronounce a certain Chinese word in Cantonese.  With my mobile phone that allows me to enter traditional Chinese in handwriting mode, I can look for a word wherever and whenever I need to.

Beyond words, I believe some of you who read both English and Chinese literature would agree with me that the ‘feel’ of the two is very different.  It is the vividness of drama and sound, the emotional complexity, the culture and values, and much more that makes reading Chinese such a joyful experience.  One could take a piece of Chinese literature, translate into English, and to me, the essence is simply lost.  How could one translate the literal meaning of “scrap my eyes and see”, “rub in oil and add vinegar”, or “white as the cleanliness of jade and the clarity of ice”?  Sounds so strange when translated literally but sounds so good when read in the original language.

Back to 《嘉年華會》- one of the four Chinese books I have borrowed from the library recently, the author 王璞 is born in Hong Kong, has lived in China, and since 1989, stationed in Hong Kong.  I have deliberately chosen a Hong Kong writer because I reckon I can relate better – both in terms of the writing style as well as the locations and culture. 《嘉年華會》is a collection of short stories – 《希臘拖鞋》《嘉年華會》《收藏家》《跳房子》《悼念綠旗袍》《河邊少婦》《我的高麗同學》《啤酒》《流氓是怎樣煉成的》.  For the ease of reference, I would translate these titles to: “Greek Sandals”, “Carnival”, “Collector”, “Hopscotch”, “Mourning of the Green Chinese Dress”, “Young Woman by the River”, “My Korean Schoolmates”, “Beer”, and “Thugs are Made of This”.

Some stories such as “Carnival” and “Thugs are Made of This” are rather short, like a few pages.  “Beer” is perhaps the lengthiest of all for it takes up half a book.  If there is a common theme amongst these stories, that would be an attempt to mix the reality with illusion.  Another theme would be the loss of something.  The author would try to convince the reader something exists only to later on blur it into illusion.  Or a relationship that is well and good and then out of nowhere, a huge quarrel breaks out (that reads like watching a typical local TV drama) and the couple parts way.

In most of the stories, divorce seems to be a main topic.  I wonder why.  Relationships do not seem to work out.  In fact, nothing works out in all the short stories.  The story “Beer” is perhaps one of my favorite.  It has the depth and complexity that I enjoy reading.  The story’s main character is someone who has experienced four divorces and a childhood crush on a train that still lives vividly in her.  To chain the plots is her passion to drinking beer.  To add onto the plot is the main character’s mission to locate her missing father.  All these plots are told not in a sequential manner, but rather randomly picked as the narrator recollects her life story.  The most amazing thing is how the main character – a writer – creates and distorts the story of her childhood crush, in the form of short essays.  That creates a story within a story – an exploration of what happens when love in reality meets with love as an illusion.

I am glad that the book ends with “Thugs are Made of This”.  In just 16 pages, the author tells a story of an apartment owner from being Mr. Nice to someone rude and nasty after a series of unfortunate events.  Such quickness in plot development, what a way to end the book.  I will certainly look for more books written by 王璞.  And one quote from the book to end this entry.


Additional Info: Singapore library tag is WGPU, Cosmos Books official site, and ISBN 978-988-211-977-2