In 2014, we spoke to Pai Hsien-yung, the author of Crystal Boys, a novel about a gay high school student in 1970s Taiwan, the gay subculture, and his father, an old soldier. We also spoke to the director and actors of a stage adaptation. Below is a transcript of the podcast, which you can listen to above.
On November 30, 2013, supporters of traditional marriage–people who believe that marriage consists strictly of a man and a woman–gathered at the Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei. They were there to oppose any changes in the law that would allow gay couples to marry and form families.
During the rally, placards evidently showed how these people felt: that children should only be raised by one father and one mother, that homosexuality is unnatural, that they are fundamentally different in their capacity as parents, siblings, and human beings in general. The organizers claimed 350,000 people attended the rally.
At the same time that the rally was going on, actors were rehearsing at the National Theater, a few streets south. It was a group of young men, stage actors, plus a handful of veteran film and TV thespians. Using fold-out chairs as place markers, the actors danced and flipped around them to music, expressing emotions through their movements. They were rehearsing for a play based on the 1983 classic Crystal Boys (孽子) by author Pai Hsien-yung (白先勇).
Perhaps not coincidentally, Crystal Boys is a story about homosexuality. It follows the journey of A-Qing (阿青), a student who runs away from his father and enters the world of Taipei’s gay subculture, centered around the lotus pond at the New Park. The difference is that A-Qing grew up in the 1970s—during martial law, where there was no freedom of expression, much less freedom of sexuality.
Dedicated to “the kids who have nowhere to go but wander alone in the darkest night”, Crystal Boys tackles the collective struggle of a group of youngsters ostracized by the society because of their sexual orientation. In addition to A-Qing, played by long time theater and film actor Mo Tzu-yi (莫子儀) and A-Qing’s father, played by veteran TV and film actor Lu Yi-long (陸一龍), there is Master Yang, the band of boys’ chief, played by kua-a-hi (traditional Taiwanese opera) actress Tang Mei-yun (唐美雲), and a host of young men who each has a story to tell.
Crystal Boys opened at the National Theater on February 7th and run until February 16th 2014, only two months after the anti-gay marriage rally. Our Betty Wang and Christy Pan went to a press conference a few weeks ago and interviewed the cast, the director and Mr. Pai himself.
“I think this is a great time to put this story on stage…because, why does the LGBT issue have to be so sharply divisive? Can’t we turn this issue, their stories, into an art form, a performance, so through the storytelling people can try to understand each other? I think that’s the biggest meaning for the Chrystal Boys stage production.” Said Director Tsao Jui-yuan (曹瑞原), when we asked him how putting on this play now will affect Taiwan’s audience.
He continued: “I think us Taiwanese are very blessed. We can come to the nation’s top stage, to watch a story about homosexuality, and use the arts as a way to dialogue and to better understand each other. I think that’s just wonderful.”
It has not always been like this. Ten years ago, Tsao had already adapted Crystal Boys into a television mini-series for the Public Television Service. Even though the series was critically acclaimed, it did not receive a wide viewership and was perhaps even a little bit ahead of its time. We ask him, how have things changed after 10 years?
“The art form is different…the stage is different from television. But as for the ten years, I have more to relate to the characters, because I have gone through more things in life. I am also grateful that the entire Taiwanese society is more open. Actually, ten years ago many actors had reservations playing gay characters. And I think because we successfully put the TV series together, and the society has changed how it sees our LGBT friends, so when I was casting for the play, we actually had a lot of interest. I think that’s good, I think that’s progress.”
And how are the actors dealing with the material, both in 2003 and in 2014? How has it been different understanding what the characters are thinking and feeling?
“Actually when I was shooting the TV series, I was also very afraid that I didn’t understand their feelings and their lives. So I took the cast to a few gay bars to do…field research if you will. But we didn’t get anything out of it; and I realized, I can actually do it. I realized we are really all just the same. Our love, hate, lust, anxieties, hope, our human nature, are all the same. So I became confident that sexuality is not the whole story, that human nature within us is all the same.
One of the issues highlighted in the story is the entanglement between father and son, and we talked to actor Lu Yi-long, who plays the protagonist’s soldier father. He said that he could relate to the father because he himself comes from a military family where expectations were on him to follow traditional steps.
“This character…this father must be suffering on the inside. He was a soldier in China, was captured and stripped of his rank. After retreating to Taiwan, his military life was basically over. As a soldier, it must’ve been a painful. After he married a Taiwanese woman, she too ran away. He put all of his hope on his son to go to military school to inherit his profession, but he was gay. At that time, it wasn’t something you could tell other people.”
At the end, when we zoom even closer from street view into each character’s life, they are more complicated than the labels we give them. Whether it was a young man just discovering himself, or a father losing everything around him, the stories run deeper than slogans on placards. In the 1970s, the world was about to change, and Taiwan was going to never be the same.
Making art about homosexuality is already a challenge, but the medium of a stage play adds its own layer of unique difficulties. Lu talks about the lack of funding as a major issue in Taiwan’s theater:
“Someone else can put on a stage production for 10 million dollars, maybe in renminbi, maybe in US dollars. We’re lucky if we get 10 million in Taiwanese dollars. With this kind of situation, you can’t afford to hire good actors, you don’t have the software and the hardware you need. With anything, like TV, movies, stage, commercials, the basic requirement is your funding. Without money you can’t really have anything good.”
Speaking a bit more in depth about the development of theater in Taiwan, however, Mo Tzu-yi, the lead actor who plays A-Qing, says that theater in Taiwan faces the same challenges as theaters globally:
“When I first entered the field of stage acting, that was about 1994. At that time, the theater grew rapidly because of the lifting of martial law, but later because of a number of factors…including things that all theaters around the world has been facing…including the impact from television and movies, and whether the government has the ability or the desire to help with artistic creation. So in the late 1990s the theater in Taiwan was in a sort of recession, if you will. The recession continued for a while…even though you might have a few years where a new group forms and things got busier, but they weren’t sustained.”
But he is still optimistic, because
“the past couple of years, because on the one hand, we have all of the talent that we have nourished, and on the other hand a lot of our predecessors started to train the next generation after retiring from performing. These next generation became the pillar of the theater today. And because of Taiwan’s freedom and openness, towards culture…actually I feel like our generation, we are anxious, because we are comparing ourselves to the other nations in Asia…but the past couple of years I am excited about our talents, because Taiwan is a multicultural society, and we want to absorb not just Asian but Western and other nations’ cultures.”
At the end both Mo and Lu agree on one thing.
“Our stuff is definitely better than anyone else’s. Definitely.” Mo sums it up when he says, “culture is not investment, or entrepreneurship. Culture, is culture. It is the dignity and the honor of a nation.”
Crystal Boys is about a tribe of boys navigating Taiwan’s gay subculture in the 1970s. But the story is also about authority. It is about how absolute authority was on the surface, but how fragile it was in truth.
A story about a father and a son; a boy and his love; a chieftain and his tribe; a society and its taboos. The novel that the play is based on was itself published in 1983, and describes the 1970s, a time when muttering the word “freedom” will get you a lot of trouble. It was a time of oppression, when any form of disorder and disobedience was prohibited, and authority was everything.
Authority, however, was also beginning to crack under the immense pressures of history. In 1977, because of election tampering, angry protesters took to the streets in Chungli (中壢). Two years later, the government’s authority would again be challenged by both the United States, which stopped recognizing Taiwan as a state, and the editors of the Formosa Magazine, who organized a demonstration on Human Rights Day, only to be later arrested, tried before a military court, and sentenced to life in prison.
Against this backdrop, the story in the novel was born. It is hard for any of us today to imagine being in that kind of society, much less being gay in that kind of society. We ask the author Pai Hsien-yung himself about how the society has changed since he first finished writing this story:
“The society has become much, much more progressive for sure. Taipei is pretty much the most LGBT friendly city in Asia.”
He would know. Being gay himself, he also had a father who was a well-known general, and the Minister of National Defense when the Republic of China government fled to Taiwan in 1949. According to Pai, he never really talked much about his sexuality with his father, who was also a Sunni Muslim. However, one cannot help but wonder, if the story of A-Qing was an extension of his own experiences, or perhaps a meditation on what would have happened to him had he grown up at the cusp of a free society.
If so, he must have a lot of thoughts on the recent same-sex marriage controversy. How does he feel about a free society where LGBTs are visible and no longer considered outcasts, but conservative forces are still holding onto their prejudice and ignorance?
“When it comes to family, people are still going to be concerned. They may not be opposed to each person’s own individual choices, but when it comes to family…parents or the churches, they’ll be concerned.”
He offered up his own take on religion in particular.
“Religion is not supposed to discriminate…and when they do, then they have gone off in a different direction. God doesn’t discriminate, right?”
It is still all about understanding each other as people first.
After formal, authoritarian institutions are gone, it still takes ever more patience and vigilance for old habits and fears to go away. Not just in politics and national identity, but in personal identity and family matters as well. Taiwan has progressed impressively, even if we cannot see the progress happening unless we zoom out to the timeframe of decades and centuries. One thing is for sure: the story of Crystal Boys will always be there to remind us just how far we have come, and just how much farther we could go.
(Feature photo from the 2014 stage adaptation of Crystal Boys)
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