Ghost Town

Kevin Chen (trans. Darryl Sterk)

October 27, 2022 
The following is from Kevin Chen’s Ghost Town. Chen began his artistic career as a cinema actor, starring in the Taiwanese and German films Ghosted, Kung Bao Huhn, and Global Player. Now based in Germany, he is a staff writer for Performing Arts Reviews magazine. He’s published several novels, essays and short story collections, including Attitude, Flowers from Fingernails, Three Ways to Get Rid of Allergies and other titles.

The first row of townhouses

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“Where are you from?”

That was the first question T asked him. T gave him a lot: a German passport, a new home, an escape route, and a lot of questions. Right from the start, T liked to ask questions. What’s your hometown like? How many brothers and sisters do you have? How hot does it get on the island in the summertime? Are there cicadas? What about snakes? What do the trees look like? What are they called? Are there any rivers? What about canals? When is the rainy season? Are there ever any floods? Is the soil fertile? What all gets planted? Why can’t I accompany you to your father’s funeral? Why go home? Why not go home?

The question marks caught on his hair and nicked his skin. T’s questions were hard to answer, so he didn’t. He dodged, or lied, until his made-up biography was full of holes and contradictions, like a badly written novel. And so he wrote one. The first chapter opened with a table on which a few objects had been placed: one gun, two knives, and three diaries. The gun would have to be fired in a subsequent chapter, the knives should be used to dismember and flay, and the diaries would solve the riddle at the heart of the story. But the novel of his life was a total mess. He wrote and wrote and forgot about the gun, the knives, and the diaries. Instead, he obsessed over an assortment of trash that was strewn on the table and littered his narrative with irrelevant clues, like a mural on a factory wall, a pair of bright red shorts, and a face with a plastic bag over it. When a person is rotten, his novel will be, too, full of holes.

He was a guy who was all holes from his mouth on south, holes he stuffed with everything he didn’t want to talk about— all the incidents that had made a mess of his memory and which he claimed to have forgotten. When the holes ripped, as they did from time to time, sundry stories would come tumbling out.

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How should he tell these stories?

Unable to get them off his chest and out of his mouth, he could only keep writing: I grew up in a small town.

A rural backwater in central Taiwan, his hometown was first settled by immigrants from Guangdong Province in China early in the nineteenth century. On level wasteland, they built their settlement, a street surrounded by homesteads. Soon the land was traversed by artificial waterways that probably resembled T’s German Kanäle. The oldest of these “canals,” or “ditches” had drawn muddy water from the longest river in the country since the late eighteenth century for farmers to irrigate their fields with. Early on, there were internecine brawls, not to mention never-ending disasters that put the fear of Fire and Flood in people’s hearts. No wonder the settlers called the place Yongjing. It was an expression of their aspiration for eternal (yong) peace (jing).

The terrain around Yongjing was flat not rolling, but gazing east you could see green hills and, on a clear day, the mountains of the Central Range beyond. Gawping west, you couldn’t see or even hear the Muddy Waters, but the old-timers used to say that if you walked thataway you’d eventually hit the Taiwan Strait. Few did. The inhabitants left this patch of prairie seldom if ever. Most of them never went mountain climbing, never saw the sea. They stayed home and farmed the land. The soil retained moisture relatively well and was passably fertile. Local produce included flowers, betel leaf, and rice. After several centuries of settlement, it still looked like a farming community. The buildings were low-slung, single-story. A few of the old, three-wing residential compounds were declared national heritage sites, but not many tourists made the trip. Prosperity still hadn’t arrived.

In the 1970s a contractor came to Yongjing and obtained a piece of land for a row of townhouses, a first for the township. Ten units, three stories each. The project was supposed to be a prelude to prosperity. When tall buildings start going up it means that a place is going to escape from poverty. At the time, a lot of folks had never seen taller! The building materials and methods were also unprecedented: reinforced concrete, ceramic flush toilets, and crushed granite floor tiles, Taiwan-style terrazzo.

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He grew up in one of those townhouses, the fifth from the left. The sixth from the left used to be his eldest sister’s place, but now it was sitting empty. The seventh was once a VHS video rental store, but now the whole building was charred black. There was a “For Sale” 出售sign on the balcony. The place had been “For Sale” for years. The top half of the second character 售had fallen off, leaving a yawning “mouth” 口that transformed “For Sale” into “Way Out.” The phone number on the bottom of the sign was too mottled to make out.

He stood looking at the sign, lost in thought. After many years in prison, he could really use a way out. Instead, he’d come back here. He knew better than anyone else that this place could never be a way out, not for him. Could that ruined sign lead him all the way back to those bright red shorts?

His eldest sister was the only one who stayed. She now lived in the fifth house from the left, his old home.

The small town was also a ghost town, to him.

A “ghost town” is deserted. His hometown was indeed out of the way, remote from civilization, far from any metropolis. Nobody had heard of it. When Taiwan’s economy ran wild in the 1970s, Yongjing didn’t keep up with the pace of development. There was a brain drain. When young people like him left the countryside they never came back. They forgot the place, they even forgot what it was called. They left behind an aging generation that could never leave. Originally a blessing, the name became a curse. Intended to signify Eternal Peace, Yongjing came to mean Always Quiet.It was really, really quiet.

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The summer he got out, there was a drought in central Taiwan. The roads were like stovetops in the afternoon. He could fry eggs, stir-fry rice, or simmer congee on the asphalt, no need to fire up the range. It’d been so many years, but everything matched his memory of the place. The weather certainly did. Boy was it hot! The afternoon heat could slow the second hand of the clock. The trees took an afternoon snooze, the wind died down. If you held your breath and listened you could hear the earth snore, the thick, heavy sound of hibernation. Not until the next rain would the land even consider waking up. As a boy, he’d find a tree and fall so deeply asleep in the shade that absolutely nothing—neither the crowing cock nor the throbbing cicada, neither the squealing pig nor the hissing snake nor even the baaing sheep—could wake him. Truly, he slept like the dead. But after he grew up, he often suffered from insomnia, especially as an inmate. In prison the scarcest commodity is noise. You can’t hear the rain fall or the wind blow. The fluttering leaves are inaudible. He told the prison doctor it was too quiet, how was he supposed to get to sleep? Would medication help? He thought of asking if there was a pill that could help him hear the rain. Back home, the rain struck the “ironskin” roofs, playing a bright, brassy, percussive symphony. If he heard rain falling on sheet metal shingles, he could fall asleep for sure.

He came back because he really wanted to hear the rain.

What he heard now was a sewing machine.

That was his eldest sister Beverly.

As her foot worked the treadle, a midday soap opera played on the television beside the sewing machine: the nasty mother-in-law had just slapped her poor daughter-in-law on the cheek. Cocks were crowing, electric fans whirring. He faintly heard firecrackers from the next neighborhood. He hadn’t slept in a quite a few days. He’d taken quite a few connecting flights. His mind was so muddled he didn’t know where he was, but the sound of the sewing machine was unmistakable. He’d really come home to this ghost town.

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Ghost towns are deserted, but where are the ghosts? Are there any?

There were a lot of ghosts in the countryside, living in people’s oral accounts. Folks used to tell him never to go near the copse of bamboo out in front of the townhouse. There was a lady ghost lurking in there, a poor daughter-in-law who was driven out of her husband’s home after her chastity was compromised. She walked into the bamboo and hanged herself. She had haunted the bamboo ever since, hanging in wait for young men to seduce. When the dogs howled at the moon, they were “blowing the dog conch” according to the Taiwanese idiom, meaning the beasts had seen a ghost. So go to sleep, Mother would say, and don’t open your eyes, cause if you do, you’ll see it, too. Even if you see it, you can’t say it. If you see it run away—try to outrun it if you can. Don’t look when you should not, if you do, you’re gonna get caught. The kids said the most ghosts were to be found in the willow trees that lined the irrigation ditch along the field. Don’t touch the leaves, they used to say, or you’ll get mixed up with a ghostly maiden. You’re certain to get zero on every examination, and the only way out of the mess would be matrimony. The maidens in the willows were actually lonely old spinsters waiting for some unlucky sod to come marry them. There was another ghost in that ditch, a beautiful lady who jumped in a well after she was abused by a Japanese soldier. She was rescued, but then she got raped by the doctor she was taken to. In the end she drowned herself in the Muddy Waters. But instead of being washed out to sea, she ended up stuck in the irrigation network. She floated all the way to Yongjing, where she stopped in the middle of the ditch. There she stayed, no matter how fast the water flowed. A temple in her honor was built on the shore, at the foot of the old town wall. His friends said that the moss along the waterline was fresh green blood from her ghostly body. The ditch reeked so bad because of her ghastly stench. As for the mushrooms budding on the banks, don’t touch them, let alone eat them, those are her nipples. If you touch one, your luck will turn. If you eat one, your guts will become a haunted house. You’ll die, blood spraying from your eyes, before seven days are up. If you see a red envelope on the road, don’t go anywhere near it. It contains the Eight Characters of that lady ghost’s birth. If you pick it up hoping to find money inside, you’ll have to take her to wife.

Later on, another lady ghost joined the others, a member of his own family. She ran around disheveled, yelling her head off, until she drowned in the ditch.

That reminded him of an old saying, “hang the cat in a tree, throw the dog in the stream.” One time, Mom rode her scooter with him on the back and a pet dog in his arms. He was supposed to toss it in when they got to that irrigation ditch. Afraid of the ghosts, he cried and cried. His mom told him to hurry up. Here, the ditch was practically a slough, because the locals treated it as a gutter: it was clogged with dead dogs and hogs, rotten watermelons, old scooters, even a betel nut stand. Everything stank in the hot sun. A million flies cavorted in celebration, enjoying an all-you-can-eat feast. He made out the putrid carcass of the neighbor’s dog, Yeller. Crying, he’d refused to toss their dog in. He said he wanted to bury it and erect a grave marker. Mother grabbed it out of his arms and threw it into the dead water with a splash. A cloud of flies scattered and immediately reformed with an ear-splitting buzz, as if to say thanks. They hadn’t finished with the rotten dogmeat and here they’d been served fresh.

How was he to tell T? That this was the kind of hellhole that he was from?

How was he to tell T about his absurd upbringing? Five elder sisters, one elder brother, a father who never talked, and a mother who never stopped. The snake killer. Red Shorts. The irrigation ditch. The Wedding of the Century. The bishopwood tree. The White House. The hippopotamus. The Eternal Prosperity Pool. The secret basement. The starfruit orchard. The temple to the Lady at the Foot of the Wall. The Tomorrow Bookstore. The silver water cistern.

In jail he often dreamed about the doggie cemetery behind T’s place. As a boy, T raised three dogs, which he buried one by one in the backyard. On each wooden grave marker he pasted a picture. That was the kind of dog burial he had fantasized about growing up in Taiwan. He’d finally seen it in Germany. He also dreamed about the slough Mother threw the dog into, but he never saw a shadow of a ghost. Now that he was all grown up, he didn’t believe in ghosts anymore. He was no longer afraid of them. Ghosts weren’t scary, people were. The living were the cruelest, not the dead.


From Ghost Town by Kevin Chen. Used with permission of the publisher, Europa Editions. Copyright © 2022 by Kevin Chen. Translation copyright © 2022 by Darryl Sterk.

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