The celebrated Japanese novelist and poet Haruo Satō published a series of works set in Taiwan after he visited the island in 1920. Satō’s exquisite prose unfurls like the rising tide upon the shore, catching the reader off guard as it envelops and overwhelms the senses, sometimes to the point of intemperateness. Strange Tale of the Bridal Fan (Jokai ōgi Kidan) , Haruo Satō’s retelling of a traditional Chinese story about a female phantom, and Demon Bird, his version of an indigenous Atayal ‘warning’ story, are presented in this exhibition to highlight the imperialist perspective of contemporary Japanese colonial writers.
Strange Tale of the Bridal Fan (Jokai ōgi Kidan)
Strange Tale of the Bridal Fan (Jokai ōgi Kidan) is a gothic horror novel set in Tainan City. While exploring a derelict building in the once-affluent, but now run-down Kutsutoukan District, the main character, an apathetic Japanese reporter working for a local newspaper, and his Taiwanese poet-friend Shih Waimin are startled when they hear a young woman’s voice calling from upstairs. “What took you so long?” the disembodied voice said in lilting Hokkien Chinese from the darkness above.
After running out of the building in terror, the two encountered a neighbor woman who insisted they see an exorcist to cleanse themselves of this spectral encounter. The building, she said, was once the home of the Shen clan, a once-wealthy family that had lost their fortune in a catastrophic debacle that had left them penniless. The Shen’s eldest daughter fell into madness and spent her remaining years in mournful oblivion, fruitlessly awaiting a husband. Thus, any man who crossed the threshold of the now-abandoned house was invariably accosted with the same spectral welcome: “What took you so long?”
Encountering fidgety spirits in rickety old buildings is a hallmark of the gothic horror genre. However, in the second half of Strange Tale of the Bridal Fan, elements more common to detective and mystery novels are introduced that work to shed the light of reason on the ‘disconsolate spirit’ of Kutsutoukan District. This novel, suffused with Japanese imaginings on Chinese culture, is representative of the contemporary Japanese effort to interpret Chinese traditions. This is why author and scholar Kinji Shimada (1901-1993) categorized Strange Tale of the Bridal Fan as “gaichi bungaku” or “literature of the outlands”, a literary genre that interpreted the strange cultures and ways of Japan’s colonial possessions through an idealized and often romanticized perspective.
Haruo Satō’s Demon Bird retells an indigenous Atayal folktale of the same name. The author reputedly first heard the story while hiking to the Yushan (Mt. Jade or Niitaka) ridgeline. He believed it to be a legend based on a true story.
Legend holds that living among the Atayal were people who secretly kept “Demon Birds” – birds that could inflict death and misfortune at the behest of their masters. The tragedies and adversities that occasionally struck Atayal villages were easily blamed on these supposed Demon Bird keepers, inspiring manhunts to root out perpetrators and put them to death. In the story Demon Bird, Pila’, an Atayal woman who hadn’t tattooed her face as tradition required, was fingered as a keeper of a Demon Bird. Although the entire affair was ultimately proven to be a great misunderstanding, the accusation led to attacks on her parents and to her brother Qulih’s banishment.
While cleaving closely to the original Atayal story of the Demon Bird, Satō also introduced carefully crafted insights on the Atayal worldview into his narrative. To prove her family’s innocence, Pila’ showed that her family would ultimately cross the ‘rainbow bridge’ to Atayal heaven and be spared the ignominy of hell. Moreover, she testified that a siliq (fulvetta bird) had guided her brother in his flight from the village, ensuring his safe passage.
Although this was a story Satō took to be based in fact, his chosen ending for Demon Bird came wholly from his imagination. He finished the story by describing Qulih’s death on Mt. Niitaka. Thus, in abandoning ‘fact’ for ‘fancy’, Satō betrayed the true status of Japanese writers like himself as outside observers.