The newest English translation of Lōa Hô’s fiction in Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô is a fascinating reminder that Taiwan’s literary history began well before the Nationalist Chinese retreat to the island in 1949.
To say this is not to downplay the importance of pre-WWII literature in Taiwan—far from it as the thoughtful and picturesque short stories of Lōa Hô (Lai Ho) evidence. Rather, when fiction from Taiwan is translated into English, these stories often reflect the contemporary social world where individuals both thrive and struggle in a nation that is not quite recognized as a state on the international stage. What little Taiwanese fiction is translated into English tends to be from the post-war period.
Lōa Hô’s life spans the period between the start of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1945). This middle period of Japanese occupation of Taiwan during the 1920s−1930s is the setting for all of Lōa Hô’s stories. Lōa Hô’s willingness to compose more in Taiwanese vernacular as he matured as a writer ended up preserving a unique perspective for later generations.
Lōa Hô’s short stories explore the day-to-day machinations of foreign power on a very small scale. These stories capture the sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic intersection of townspeople and villager life when confronted with foreign officialdom.
An endlessly entertaining aspect of the collection is Lōa Hô’s playful reproduction of local and artisan-specific dialect in the face of an alien bureaucracy. The second story in the collection, “The History of the Rich Clans”, illustrates this dynamic well with the interplay between a pair of talkative palanquin bearers and an overworked doctor. When gossiping about a local family, the palanquin bearers speak in their own ribald manner and language—one that is nearly impossible to translate into contemporary Chinese, let alone English. The doctor’s official mission seems superfluous to the irresistible tidbits of everyday rumor.
This disjunction between local joviality and impersonal administration is a leitmotif for many of Lōa Hô’s stories. In “A Disappointing New Year”, Lōa Hô’s tells the story of a colonial police officer Daijin Sa, who is seeking personal bribes to coincide with the Chinese New Year. When Daijin’s take proves to be less than previous years, he decides to break in on a group of merrymaking gamblers. As the gamblers scatter, Daijin is only able to lay his hand on one of the child onlookers. Daijin roughs up the boy:
He slapped him lightly and said, “Zip your lips. You’re not allowed to cry! Who was gambling?”
Many bystanders felt the injustice of the situation on the child’s account…So one brave person walked up and said: “Daijin! He wasn’t gamb…”
“Pig! Who gave you permission to speak?”
That child could have got off, but that well-meaning man’s pity dragged him down, most unfortunately. As far as the officer was concerned, the public had no right to question the way he did his duty… he agreed that the child had been treated unjustly, but even so, respect for an official’s authority was essential; an official’s authority must not be undermined. Now it was unavoidable: let the poor boy bemoan his fate.
The Kafkaesque situation is only resolved later when Daijin is hauling the child to the station and remembers that he would rather be drinking than fussing around with these matters. The child has no money, so he leaves the kid on a corner and returns to the precinct to get drunk at his desk.
The majority of injustices that Lōa Hô explores fall into the category of ordinary experience by common people. Enjoyable and highly relatable, Lōa Hô’s Scales of Injustice is a unique window onto the daily struggle of ordinary Taiwanese during the Japanese colonial period. Darryl Sterk’s updated and readable translation of all of Lōa Hô’s published work allows an international audience to enjoy these stories as well.