Sex & Taipei City by Yu-Han Chao (Red Hen Press, 2019).
The Taipei of Yu-Han Chao’s debut story collection Sex & Taipei City both bustles and glistens. It’s a city of industry and aspiration—skyscrapers and metro trains, prep schools and department stores. Yet beneath the veneer lies something seedier and more lurid. Not the karaoke bars where “princesses” in high heels rent out their attention by the hour, nor the betel nut booths in which young women flaunt their bodies beyond the neon lights. No, in Sex & Taipei City—a captivating, panoramic portrait of intimacy and isolation—the most perverse and secretive place is the human heart.
Take the character of Lee Lei, who rebels against her abusive husband by spitting into his omelet, releasing her resentment “little by little, so that I can still like him.” Or Lily, a music teacher who loses her students one by one because she refuses to wear a bra, attempting to subvert Taiwanese mores by “[not] acting all ashamed of the female body.” Or Sonnie, a bachelor in his thirties who remains closeted because in Asia, “the word ‘gay’ did not really exist unless you were making fun of someone.”
This rich, diverse collection is less about sex than it is about longing and loss. The characters of Sex & Taipei City—who run the gamut of age, gender and class—are more repressed than fulfilled, their desires often stifled by the East Asian values of modesty and politeness. There’s no “true love” or “happily ever after” in these stories, yet Chao’s technique is so nimble and her touch so light, the collection as a whole manages to resist both pity and pessimism.
That said, the sex that does occur in these stories takes many forms. It can be transactional, like in the story “Yuan Zu Socializing,” where a school-age prostitute drugs her johns and steals their possessions as misguided revenge against her own father’s adultery. Or it can be aspirational, like in “Simple as That,” when a young woman willingly contracts HPV from her American boyfriend, falsely believing that such a sacrifice can only lead to marriage. Sex can also be ruinous, like for the piano student in “Fifteen” who becomes pregnant by her star violinist classmate, only to be sent to a boarding school in southern Taiwan where she loses the child and never again sees its father.
Just as common, though, is the character who has little need or desire for sex. In the story “Daughter,” Lin is a sculptor who once had an installation at the Taipei Professional Art Academy. Yet upon becoming a teacher, she curtailed her ambition, producing only a small assortment of sculpted clay bunnies. And just as Lin is content in her career, so is she content to remain alone:
Lin demonstrated in the past twenty or so years of her life that it was possible for a marriageable, healthy woman living in Taipei to avoid most human contact and potential suitors by not socializing at all and not talking to colleagues except when absolutely necessary.
Lin was forty-three and regretted nothing in her life. She did not want to change her days, her routines—long baths, irregular but fancy homemade meals, unlimited rental movies, and the occasional satisfaction one got from sculpting a furry clay bunny.