The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming Yi
I’ve been passively trying to find a good Taiwan book for years and recently became more proactive in preparation for the upcoming trip back. I’ve always said Taiwan is like Japan with Chinese people. Whether or not that’s fair, this book made me realize how much modern Taiwanese history is shaped by years of Japanese occupation.
1) “Nobody knew how my father really felt about this episode, because he never expressed any opinion, just like he never commented on current events when he read the paper, never shared his memories and never chimed in when my mother shared hers.”
Why are 90% of Asian dads like this? And why am I likely to become one of them?
2) “For the first two days of my fever, my parents didn’t take me to the doctor, because it was simply too expensive.”
40 years later, in one of the richest cities in the richest country, I do the same.
3) “Pa would give the spring on the kickstand a kick – boing – then another kick, and it was up, the heavy iron horse ready to go.”
Kicking the kickstand is one of the most satisfying feelings.
4) “I read the email twice and sat there staring at the screen, upon which some nameless insect settled, like a comma.”
This one line convinced that they will turn this book into a movie at some point.
5) “Once essential to daily life, these bikes have again become status symbols, a way for folks to flaunt their style. The people who bid on these bikes aren’t fanatics. They’re just rich.”
The lesson is to hoard and not throw anything away. Everything will come back into fashion.
6) “Chary of the rubber barons, whose fabulous wealth made each a lord in his own demesne, the British did not dare to demolish the plantations to build defensive fortifications. As a result, the jungle, which should have slowed the Japanese advance, was full of holes.”
In retrospect, this book somehow crafted an intricate story that linked WWII with bikes, butterfly collages, and elephants.
7) “When I woke up, K’nyaw’s body was covered in peanut-sized ants, palm-sized beetles and snot-like leeches. While the rain thundered outside the hole in the tree, I could almost hear the beetles gnawing on K’nyaw’s flesh.”
Out of all the subplots, I liked the jungle one the most.
8) “Little Hsia once told me that the whole process of finding an antique bicycle somewhere in the street, asking after the owner, locating him, waiting until he was willing to meet with you, listening to the story of him and the bike, finally persuading him to let you have it, inspecting it, seeing what parts are replaced, damaged or missing, locating replacements and finally mounting them is the source of his obsession.”
Sometimes it’s more fun to do things the hard way. What have we lost with the one-click buy button?
9) “The hide was slightly shrunken and shrivelled from the tanning and freezing, so that the personnel had to keep whittling the body and stretching the skin until it fit every part like a glove.”
This eerily reminded me of my latest dumpling-making session.
10) “When I asked her where my uncles’ sons had all ended up, she gave me an account from her sickbed. My eldest uncle’s two sons were abroad. Second uncle didn’t have any sons. Third Uncle and his whole family had emigrated to Canada. Fourth Uncle had been bedridden with kidney disease for years. Fifth Uncle was killed in an accident several years ago. His son was willing to affix his name chop, but was unwilling to help.”
Asian dramas are Asian dramas, but they are grounded in some truth.
I’m unsure how I feel about this book. Overall I definitely enjoyed it, but I was thrown off by whether various events were fictional or real. Claims about warbikes and butterfly collages sounded legit, but Googling didn’t return promising results. Most likely, random pieces of Taiwanese WWII history just aren’t searchable in English. The only fact I was able to confirm was Lin Wang the elephant. Besides this uncanny valley between fiction and non-fiction, I also had trouble following all the back-and-forth between different time-place-people. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure which character I was reading about because translated Chinese names never register in my head. That said, all the individual deep dives were great, and I found the story quintessentially Taiwanese.