The author Gan Yao-Ming(1972-) is from Shitan Township, an ethnically Hakka area in Miaoli County. He grew up listening to and absorbing the countless stories about northwestern Taiwan’s spectral heritage. When Shitan was settled by Chinese immigrants several hundred years ago, the original Saisiyat inhabitants of the area moved further inland into the mountains. It was into this landscape of intersecting cultures and languages that Gan came into his own, blossoming as remarkably aureate and esoteric author. Gan’s exceptional command of both language and narrative rhythm further gives his works their distinctive character.
The Water Ghost Academy and The Motherless Otter
The Water Ghost Academy and The Motherless Otter tells a tale of a group of kids that keep an otter in a swimming pool, imagining it to be a sea monster. They create the Water Ghost Academy to teach the otter to read and talk. This ‘children’s fable’, however, cloaks a story of thoughtless cruelty. The kids had earlier bullied a newly transferred-in classmate into going for a swim in this pool. The classmate drowned. Hoping to alleviate their guilty consciences, the children told themselves that the soul of their classmate had inhabited this ‘sea monster’. Moreover, the Water Ghost Academy would help the boy interact again with the living world so that he could rejoin and comfort his grieving mother.
Although the sea monster serves as this tale’s main character, it appears only in the narratives told by the other characters in the story and never directly to the reader. The children are using the sea monster to avoid facing their grave offense. Over time, the children come to accept this and gradually build up the courage to admit their sin to the dead classmate’s grieving mother. They indeed may have never found the courage to do so without their imagined sea monster. The Water Ghost Academy and The Motherless Otter considers how stories of the paranormal help the living learn to accept and overcome tragedy and even become more mature and responsible in the process.
Night of the Mong-Shin
Mong-shin is a Hakkanese word used to describe the supernatural woodland energies that trick children into the mountains at night to play games by moonlight. Night of the Mong-Shin relates that children who are tricked into such night rendezvous must participate in a temple ceremony and vow no longer to be ‘friends’ with their mysterious playmate.
The main character in this story is a teenage girl who loves colorful, pretty things and dreams of merry-go-rounds and big, exciting cities. One night, she answers the beguiling call of a mong-shin and wanders alone up into the wild hills. When she finally finds her mysterious summoner, however, what she sees is not a mong-shin but a wounded leopard cat.
Unlike most tales of this genre, Night of the Mong-Shin flows like a children’s fable. The mong-shin here beckons kids to play, even taking human form and singing mirthfully off-key renditions of children’s songs. Gan portrays mong-shin as an animal amalgam and ‘nature’ personified. Different from the mischievous mong-shin of old, these creatures often prove to embody better values than their human foils. When the protagonist finally meets her mong-shin, she perceives it to be a leopard cat wounded in a hunter’s trap. In contrast, the untamed and cruel world beyond ‘civilization’ is described as an idyllic landscape carpeted in flowers. Do the mong-shin reside in the protagonist’s imagination or does nature have the power to manipulate our minds? The author leaves this question for the reader to answer … or not.