Get Out of the Village: Watching The Prisoner with Chinese Subtitles in Juancun
Figure 1: “Thinking of My Dear Ones from Juancun” promotional flyer, the first golden award contest of short film conducted by the Women’s United Association in Taiwan in 2019.
Once upon a time, it took a while—ten years, give or take—for Anglo-American waves of the chaotic sixties to reach the island nation of Taiwan. Such waves took the form of popular culture, among which this essay focuses on The Prisoner (1967–1968). My speculation regarding the ten-year gap stems from the fact that the “underprivileged” juancun(military dependents’ village) I grew up in was not graced by television sets until the late 1960s. Given the austerity of juancun, a constellation of provisional, ramshackle housing projects for the Nationalist Armed Forces personnel and their families fleeing communist China in 1949, and given that the subject of English was not introduced into the curriculum until middle school, I believe I watched reruns of The Prisoner in the 1970s largely with the aid of Chinese subtitles. Why was that teenage boy in a military dependents’ village fascinated by the surreal, fairy-tale “Village,” a prison camp from which Patrick McGoohan’s “Number Six” attempts to get out, always in vain? What did that adolescent get out of it, his eyes toggling between the screen and the subtitles on the bottom? Opening with seminal juancun literature and film by Zhu Tianxin and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, this essay explores how the rising tide of mid-century Anglo-American neocolonialism fed the camp of the cold war “Free World” with bread and circuses. How had such “free” food and fun—The Prisoner’s imagistic and subliminal feeds—“tasted” to a juvenile inmate on a prison ship of about 17 million in the 1970s?
Keywords: Juancun, The Prisoner, Zhu Tianxin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Once upon a time, it took a while—ten years, give or take—for Anglo-American waves of the chaotic sixties to reach the island nation of Taiwan. Such waves took the form of popular culture: the Beatles, Moody Blues, certain Disney films, TV series The Saint (1962–1969), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964–1968), Thunderbirds (1964–1966), Get Smart (1965–1970), Mission: Impossible (1966–1973), Mannix (1967–1975), and, in particular, The Prisoner. Originally aired in 1967–1968 in England and America, the 17-episode The Prisoner most probably did not make it to Taiwan until some sort of global distribution in the 1970s.
My speculation stems from the fact that the “underprivileged” juancun (眷村, military dependents’ village) of Chenggong Xincun (成功新村Success/Victory New Village), Taipei, I grew up in was not graced by television sets until the late 1960s, perhaps as late as the twin live broadcasts of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Taiwanese Little League baseball team winning the World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, both in 1969. I recall the excitement in the wee hours as what seemed like the whole village’s children—no adults except the TV owner—gathered around the only television set in the neighborhood to watch Neil Armstrong and, one month later, the championship game of the Golden Dragon baseball team from Taizhong. I can now pinpoint with Wikipedia precision, albeit adjusted by the 12-hour time difference, Armstrong’s “one small step” in the early morning hours of July 21 and Guo Yuanzhi’s pitches on August 23 in Taiwan. That both had transpired late at night intensified their festiveness in line with the Chinese Lunar New Year when children traditionally stayed up, shuoye (守夜 or 守歲), in the name of guarding against the passing of the monstrosity called Nian or Year. Given the austerity of juancun, a constellation of provisional, ramshackle housing projects for the Nationalist Armed Forces personnel and their families fleeing Communist China in 1949, and given that the subject of English was not introduced into the curriculum until middle school, I believe I watched reruns of The Prisoner in the 1970s largely with the aid of Chinese subtitles. Chinese dubbing came decades later, since I rememba The Prisoner’s protagonist vociferating “I am not a NUMBA. I am a free MAAN,” and his idiosyncratic lilt at the end of a sentence, practically as high as a falsetto.
Now, with the wisdom of hindsight, aka, the Chinese Wikipedia entry zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/密諜, it appears that The Prisoner was first aired in Taiwan on TTV (Taiwan Television Company) from 8:30 to 9:30 on Tuesday evenings, from September 24 to November 26, 1968, and then re-broadcast in 1975. But both broadcasts folded halfway through the seventeen episodes. Both runs were aborted, arguably, for two reasons. First of all, The Prisoner failed to live up to its rebranding of Midie (密諜 Secret Spy) amidst the paranoid cold war Taiwan—not much of a secret spy if he were “outed” and locked up. Secondly, the protagonist rebelled against the establishment in a way that was too close for comfort for Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s authoritarian reign over his island. With only a few Chinese blogs to substantiate and lacking archival evidence from Taiwan Television Company almost half a century ago, I could not vouch for the accuracy of Chinese Wikipedia’s timeline. Be that as it may, why was that teenage boy in a military dependents’ village fascinated by the surreal, campy, and fairy-tale “Village,” a prison camp disguised as a holiday resort from which Patrick McGoohan’s “Number Six” character attempted repeatedly to get out, always in vain? What exactly did that adolescent get out of it, his eyes toggling between the screen and the subtitles on the bottom? A cult classic and part of Cult or Camp TV in the West, the show must have enthralled the Taiwanese boy for all the wrong reasons, or reasons beyond the original intent.
Whereas the sensibility of Camp is “the love of ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not,” as Susan Sontag defines it in “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), my obsession with The Prisoner must have been off-off, taken entirely out of context, neither the things that are nor the things that are not. Sontag sees Camp as “the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience.” She names it the third sensibility after high seriousness and such “extreme states of being” as “avant-garde.” Apropos the sixties and global aftershocks, I would term the first two sensibilities classical and existential. Figuratively speaking, the two arms of The Prisoner are shackled to existential angst and Cult/Camp stylization, to political-cultural ghettoization and the attitudinizing of an aesthetic “out,” to illness and placebo, the latter attenuating the former. Precisely because there is no escape from the prison camp, Villagers onscreen and those off-screen partake in a make-believe carnival, playing their allotted role in denial of reality. This can be construed as an existentialist commentary on cold war anxiety in particular and the human condition in general that appealed to a Taiwanese coming of age, sensing yet unable to articulate the invisible prison camp, given Taiwan’s precarious post-war standing.
The 1970s, after all, is bookended by diplomatic disasters. Despite its namesake of the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan was supplanted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the United Nations as the sole representative of China in 1971; President Nixon visited Beijing in 1972, triggering a domino effect world-wide; the decade closed as the United States switched its diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China, de facto delegitimizing Taiwan as a nation in 1979. Since Taiwan was no longer considered a sovereign country, its citizens became stateless, homeless. Beyond the political context, that adolescent must have projected feelings of puniness and entrapment, of uncertainty and alienation, onto Number Six’s mysterious incarceration. How to read the boy reading the prison camp?
À la The Prisoner’s episode 1, “The Schizoid Man,” after the pilot “The Arrival,” this is a self-analysis of that young stranger in distant memory drawn to the Village’s glaring colors and band music; human chess games; white trim (“piping,” I later learned) on Number Six’s black jacket and his canvas shoes with matching white soles; the bicycle with an absurdly large front wheel (the penny-farthing, I also learned); the synthetic bubble, “Rover,” enveloping and returning any escapee or troublemaker to the Village. Just as the invisible “warden,” presumably Number One, tried to extract “information,” the refrain of the opening credits, regarding Number Six’s sudden resignation from Britain’s spy agency, I wish to discover why that boy had stayed captivated by the captive. If the anonymous protagonist manifested the allegorical Everyman’s psychodrama, then we in the prison house of life could never escape from the past, even though as veiled as that of a spy. Likewise, how does an immigrant in a foreign land exorcize his ghost of another lifetime from an alternate universe? Getting personal is the whole point of getting out of prison camp, including the labyrinth of Western scholarship self-designated as “impersonal,” “impassionate” (passionate about appearing dispassionate); to be analytical means to be self-analytical. Number Six in the Village is the Taiwanese boy in the military dependents’ village is this immigrant fleeing one island camp for a larger one called the Promised Land. Aliens always “go back,” unbidden, to where they came from—psychologically, if not physically.
The Prisoner’s Cohort
The Prisoner’s Number Six simply epitomized Anglo-American hero worship shared by that boy and other TV viewers. Otherwise, one is hard pressed to explain the ceaseless programming of British and American TV shows in Taiwan. Local productions by the embryonic Taiwanese television industry—only three TV stations in those days—generated many variety shows, mostly song and dance that were cost-effective, catapulting quite a few female singers to stardom. Taiwan’s very first TV series Jingjing (晶晶, which is a young girl’s name) in 1969–1970 from CTV (China Television Company) focused on a mother-daughter pair searching for each other in the aftermath of the civil war between Chairman Mao’s Communists and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. It was a 102-episode melodrama that plucked the heartstrings of Taiwan’s population recently displaced, “orphaned” like the teenage protagonist. For most of my life, I thought Jingjing was so popular that it was followed by a sequel Muqin (母親 Mother) from the perspective of the mother character looking for Jingjing in Hong Kong based on only the one clue that her baby bore the birthmark of a red mole on her leg. It turned out there was no such sequel from Central TV. My erroneous assumption came from, probably, the fact that the rage of the theme song by Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) had a reprise whereby Jingjing swapped with Muqin (Mother), hence doubling the sorrow. The first half sang of Jingjing looking for her mother, the second half of the mother for Jingjing. But it was nearly half a century ago; alas, specific memories of that boy, myboy, lurked beyond retrieval.
As opposed to “locally sourced” family melodramas that resonated with Taiwan’s raw wounds, the mass importing of Anglo-American TV programs catered to the collective, principally male-oriented, longing to rise from the ashes, as it were. If the young boy’s raging hormones drove him to ogle the series of not so much dashingly handsome male leads as the Caucasian females by their side, then the Taiwanese audience at large craved power and prestige radiating from the protagonists. It was only fitting that the debonair Simon Templar (Roger Moore) in The Saint had a halo above his head, followed later with the Anglo-American duo (Moore and Tony Curtis) in The Persuaders (1971–1972). The manly Mannix (played by Mike Connors) drew less of my attention than his African-American secretary Peggy (Gail Fisher). I realized later that her surname was “Fair,” emblematic of the former New Jersey beauty queen and the “whiteness,” despite her apparent ethnicity, of her elocution and mannerisms. Rather than a thick description and in-depth understanding of Western shows in their cultural context, the Taiwanese indigenized and sinologized them. For instance, the nomenclature of Mannix, denoting masculinity in a ham-fisted way, was translated as Yangchangsitan (洋場私探Private Eye in Foreign Circuit). Although yang (foreign) may well be a filler to fashion the mellifluous title in the traditional format of four-character maxims, neither CBS nor the crew/cast would have considered their investigator’s “circuit” as “foreign.” On the contrary, Mannix was very much part of the Southern California TV industry. The exotic otherness was amplified by the exotic beauty of the female sidekick, let alone the string of white actresses.
In addition to crime fighters such as police officers, private detectives, and G-men in general, World War II TV programs flaunted their share of paragons of machismo on the battlefield, i.e., the European theater against the Nazis. The cold war energized itself with flashbacks to the hot war. Sgt. Saunders (Vic Morrow) in Combat! (1962–1967) impressed with his nonchalant carriage and a delivery hardly above low mumbling even during fire fights. Combat! was translated as Yongshimen (勇士們 The Braves or The Warriors), zooming in from the combat to the combatants. In a Chinese culture allegedly favoring collectivity over individuality, this aggrandizing of heroes might have reflected the stereotype of an egotistic West. In The Rat Patrol (1966–1968) set in the North African desert, Sgt. Sam Troy (Christopher George) sported an Australian Army slouch hat with the left brim turned up and pinned to the side of the hat. As a child, I had always visualized General Rommel to look exactly like Sgt. Troy’s nemesis, Capt. Hans Dietrich (Eric Braeden). The Rat Patrol was rendered as Shamozhishu (沙漠之鼠Desert Rats). The American title echoed the showbiz fame of the Rat Pack, capitalizing on the spirit of rebellious times by subverting the repulsion over the vermin. The Chinese title dovetailed (rattailed?) nicely because rats headed the twelve-animal Chinese zodiac, followed closely by the ox, well-nigh sacred in China’s agricultural economy, leaning as it did on oxen to plough, to plant, and to reap, so much so that the older generation of Chinese used to abstain from beef. That the rat would even precede the ox highlighted the rodent’s preeminence, contributing to the show’s success in Taiwan. Sgt. Troy’s slouch hat brings us to perhaps the only World War II TV program shown in Taiwan that did not feature Nazi adversaries: the Australian TV series Spyforce (1971–1973) on a special intelligence unit infiltrating the Japanese Imperial Army in the Pacific islands. One scene of torture stays with me after all these years, where a Japanese soldier surgically inserted knives into the shoulder blade of the Australian hero tied to a tree. Japan’s savagery meshed well with anti-Japanese sentiment in the wake of World War II.
Other than cops and grunts, the sci-fi genre shaped yet another kind of superhero who thrilled the Taiwanese audience. Christopher George played the titular character in The Immortal (1969–1971), whose rare blood type enabled him to magically heal from any wound, to defy aging and even death. This gift doomed him to become the quarry of old and dying billionaires, who imprisoned him for blood transfusions that would rejuvenate themselves. The Six Million Dollar Man (1974–1978) was the precursor to Robocop (1987) and anime Ghost in the Shell (1995) and the 2017 Hollywood remake. The TV series had a test pilot (Lee Majors), severely injured, his limbs amputated. A futuristic makeover equipped him with a cyborg arm, legs, eyes, and other performance-enhancing body parts. Whenever he ran or boxed, the lightning speed was, ironically, in slow-motion, as if to capture the action for the benefit of the audience’s human eyes. I was not the only gullible viewer concerned about his left human arm clashing against robots and machines. Just a touch of human frailty to win sympathy, universally!
One TV series predated both mentioned above and had a special resonance in Taiwan: the 30-episode The Champions (1968–1969). Three agents in the employ of a Geneva-based international intelligence organization had as their first assignment to steal secrets of biological warfare—what appeared to be harmless caterpillars—conducted by Communist China. Bugs from/as China have always bugged the West, amidst the cold war or the trade war. In their getaway flight, they crash landed on an ice-capped Himalayan mountain, where they were revived and taught mystical powers by, for lack of a better term, the Shangri-La High Lama. In their subsequent mission, the three exhibited telepathy, superhuman strength, and photographic memory. Taiwanizing transformed the sci-fi traits into Chinese folk deities of Thousand-li Eyes and Downwind Ears (千里眼，順風耳), gods who could see over a thousand li (approximately 300 miles) and hear everything carried in the wind from afar. There must have been a third nickname, which escapes me. Nor could I vouch with any degree of certainty that the Chinese nicknames were actually used in subtitles; they may have simply circulated amongst my family members. Naming was a conspicuous sign of absorbing what was foreign into the host body, or mind, rather. Yet another United Nations-inspired world order show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., featured Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), who were sinologized as Jade-faced Tiger (玉面虎 à la Vaughn’s urbane demeanor and visage) and Golden-haired Tiger (金毛虎 à la McCallum’s blond hair).
Those young eyes (I-s) were transfixed by the fair-skinned characters because of the foul and squalid conditions of juancun, a cold war Taiwan writ small. Juancun nostalgia has become a cultural industry, precisely at a time when this liminal space across Taiwan’s cities had been vanishing under urban development. The dilapidated villages had been demolished for high-rises due to modernization and population growth. Victory New Village, for example, was torn down in the early 1980s and rebuilt as Victory Guozai (成功國宅 Victory Public Housing), middle-class apartment complexes quite a few rungs up from U.S. metropolitan housing projects. Whereas Victory Public Housing above ground was totally unrecognizable when I revisited it for the first time on June 21, 2013, the underground sewage run-off, mapped by a series of manholes my juancun “brother,” my Charon, Zhao Shihe pointed out, followed the exact contour of the open-air culvert where I used to launch paper boats. Running along with my Hispaniola down the culvert, I had no trouble splitting and perching myself in the crow’s nest, poised to shoot down those dogs climbing up the rigging, courtesy of the illustrator (not N. C. Wyeth, I checked) of a Chinese translation of Treasure Island.
Juancun has graced the art of quite a few waishengren (外省人Foreign Province People or Mainlanders), children of mainlanders who evacuated to Taiwan around 1949. The term “Foreign Province People” was meant to demarcate them from benshengren (本省人This Province People), Taiwanese who were descendants of earlier mainland immigrants and had been in Taiwan for generations. This name, Foreign Province People, had already highlighted their otherness, absent a sense of belonging. Uncannily, Foreign Province People used to turn rootlessness into a badge of honor under the Nationalist apparatus of propaganda, specifically, that they would retake China in no time or leave Taiwan for a better tomorrow.
A particular moment in the auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985) illustrated well mainlanders’ mentality as transient sojourners. The TB-stricken father figure, a Hakkanese from Mei (Plum) County, Guangdong, China, told his daughter that having arrived in southern Taiwan with the Nationalists, the parents purchased only flimsy rattan furniture because they thought the brief stay on the island would have compelled them to discard household items before long. Rickety chairs and beds notwithstanding, the family occupied a Japanese-style stand-alone house with low brick walls, a wraparound garden, and the living quarters on an elevated hardwood floor. This was part of the legacy of Taiwan’s Japanese Colonial era (1895–1945). Such comfortable, spacious stand-alone houses were claimed by the upper echelon of the Nationalist military and government, a dream house compared to the tenement-like, rat-infested ratholes in parts of Victory New Village. Hou’s setting of a single-family house was just one in a juancun with similar structures, although there might have been a section of Hou’s juancun with much more crammed living conditions. Each juancun appeared to be designed as a pyramid, with the elite in enclaves relatively expansive, secluded behind brick walls, figuratively looking down the nose and “shitting” on the rest of juancun. Hou’s film had a high school son who consorted with a mainlander youth gang at the juancun, pitted against a Taiwanese gang from surrounding communities. Their back-and-forth an-eye-for-an-eye seesawed every night, with machete, cudgels, and flat drill bits.
The grandmother figure of the family was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, insisting that the elementary school protagonist accompany her on the walk back to their “Old Home” in Mei County, Guangdong, far away on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. The grandmother and grandson got as far as the village’s shaved ice stall right by a railroad crossing. The grandmother inquired about the direction to Mei County, questions repeated in Hakkanese that the Taiwanese mother and daughter stall venders failed to comprehend. Such were and still are the ethnic fissures on that island. A touch of magic, however, appeared to cancel out the grim reality of a lost, homeless people, embodied by the grandmother. As the grandson took her back to their home, they chanced upon a guava tree by the road. The grandmother started teaching the boy how to juggle with a handful of guavas, which amazed both the grandson and the viewer. The most disempowered reversed her fortune, if only temporarily before one guava fell from her hand. Fantasy could only take us so far. When she finally passed, rigor mortis long having set in as she lay on the tatami in the living room, having been feasted on by an army of ants in several close-ups, her four grandsons were caught unawares. Hou’s freeze frame of an ending arrayed the four guilt-ridden boys at the tatami’s end, as the mortician soap-cleaned the corpse caked with feces, while staring daggers at the boys. That chilling gaze was merged, of course, with the angle of the camera, with us the audience.
Hou’s memorial of a film encapsulated the dynamics of juancun nostalgia over the site and the people. Feeling displaced and trapped, juancun “brethren”—never sisterhood—tried to get out of the village like the older brother character through gang association, military service, and even romance. Boxed in, they wished to exit. Once they were out like the mature artist Hou Hsiao-Hsien and other mainlander writers, they looked back wistfully. Boxed out, they wished to re-enter. The paradox evoked Qian Zhongshu’s quip of a title Fortress Besieged (1947) after the French proverb on marriage—those outside want in; those inside want out. Yet the juancun discourse was more entangled and tortuous, where the military dependents’ village was never just a place in a moment in time. Rather, juancun was a synecdoche for deceased parents and family members, lost childhood and youth, even a fading tradition and lifestyle that defined the postwar mainlander generation. The juancun imaginary performed a requiem for what had haunted the children of mainlanders ever since they had left the “refugee camp.” Some fled overseas, others to gated communities in the suburbs, to urban high-rises, to rebuilt guozai, or to addresses unknown, all the while juggling aging and being Taiwanese/Chinese in an elegy in search of the miracle of deliverance.
The juancun discourse crystalized in Zhu Tianxin’s autobiographical essay “Thinking of My Brothers fromJuancun (想我眷村的兄弟們)” (1998). But the setting of juancun has materialized as early as Bai Xianyong’s Taipei People (1971), where Nationalist Air Force widows congregated in their living quarters in “A Touch of Green,” among other short stories. Although Zhu’s piece was written in an awkward, convoluted style, it satiated the turn-of-the-century thirst for voices from that black hole in history. Despite aesthetic deficiency in long-winded, flaccid sentences, Zhu tapped into a wellspring in contradistinction to Taiwan’s Home-Soil (Nativist) movement. Vis-à-vis Taiwanese novelists’ Home-Soil literature based primarily in the rural countryside of southern Taiwan, Zhu claimed juancun as home-soil of sorts, at least for transplanted mainlanders. Initially reminiscing in a third-person point of view, Zhu’s protagonist appeared to be the essayist’s teenage self on the verge of menstruating. Halfway through the piece, the perspective turned to the second person, as if the older protagonist, now married to a Taiwanese husband rather than a mainlander “brother,” has moved closer to the narrator. Further psychological displacing informs a female author’s (re)collection of neighborhood boys rather than girls, brothers rather than sisters. The return to the younger self coincides with a distancing from the self, at least in terms of gender.
Furthermore, the retrieving of lost brothers who were once Zhu’s playmates posited a separation from the older generation. One casualty of this strategic estrangement was the proverbial “Old X” (Lao X, so named with an English letter in the Chinese original), a representative of the most dispossessed group of Nationalist veterans, who, as young men, even boys, had been drafted or even coerced at gunpoint to join up against the Communists, who had fled to Taiwan without family and much of a formal education. Referred to as laobing (老兵 old soldiers), the namesake did not carry General MacArthur’s romantic aura. Taiwan’s laobing faded away in utter abjection, even sunken into an infamous trope in Zhu. Old X was depicted as a pedophile, the unknown nomenclature of X contaminating every old soldier. When Zhu published this essay at the age of forty, she was midway through life reminiscing of her brothers with fondness and of the old man with disgust. Now that she is as old as Old X, does she regret having stereotyped the prototype of a vulnerable population as a child molester, one who had most likely been “molested,” abused by the State? Does she have any qualms over her own ageism and discrimination against the sole criminal she IDed out of the mug shots of memory? Zhu’s essay, alas, becomes one of the two sources for Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang to damn all old soldiers as sexual predators: “Many of the young, the mentally handicapped, and the impoverished became targets of the old soldiers’ sexual advances and molestation” (246).
Nominally on juancun, the opening to the essay resembles an Occidental epigraph in conjuring up Eileen Chang’s “Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier” (1943), which focuses in part on two mixed-race characters in war-torn Hong Kong. Even more contradictory to the express purpose of homecoming, Zhu Tianxin’s Occidental epigraph sets the mood by referring to the theme music of Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), based on Stephen King’s story. Zhu’s lead-in may well be playing, as it were, Ben E. King’s pop song while the essay, in cinematic terms, pans to the Yinglun (英倫England) bubble gum television ad of a “sixteen-year-old Jenny in her super short miniskirt” singing and dancing. Western tropes proliferate in the film music and the TV ad of a local product not only originated in the West but also named after England in Chinese translation. Jenny is the stage name of Jenny Tseng, a mixed-race singer allegedly from the north end of Victory New Village. I often walked past what the neighborhood assumed to be her huge house behind high red-brick walls, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jenny. Perhaps every military dependents’ village in Taipei claimed that Jenny dwelt in its north end of big houses behind high walls. Like all my classmates and perhaps half of Taiwan’s population, I had a crush on her, whose striking Western features and voluptuous figure, according to Village lore, came from her father, who had some Portuguese blood. But rumor had it that she was in fact the fruit of an affair with a Portuguese in Macau, where she was born. Rumors abounded in the gossip mill of the village regarding mainlander singers and stars, whose success no doubt elicited jealousy. So smitten with her was I that I even split her stage name to devise a riddle xituwanuni (西土瓦女尼West-Dirt-Roof Tile-Woman-Nun); no classmate was able to come up with the answer of a female star. The answer was Jenny (甄妮), whose two-character stage name comprised five radicals that were the riddle. That marked the beginning of a lifelong chasing of dreams by way of “words, words, words,” futile wordplay in the liminal space between two languages and cultures, no different from Zhu’s juancun homecoming via Western symbols of power and beauty.
What I term the Occidental epigraph was in fact the subtext of Zhu’s essay, the West lurking as an object of desire, an escape hatch from juancun. Juancun sisterhood, observed Zhu, gave themselves to “American GI boyfriends” and “blacks, GIs to go to America.” On the other hand, juancun brothers sported a “Marlon Brando hairdo in On the Waterfront,” among other measures of the proverbial colonial mimic man. While females gave their bodies and males their hair, the body part really offered to the master was their heart. Nostalgia for juancun and wet dreams of the West interlace like the double helix in juancun’s DNA. Retrieving memories of juancun is spliced with flights of fancy away from juancun. Taiwan’s decades-old rallying cry of Aitai (愛台or Loving Taiwan with ai in the fourth tone) happens to be a homophone for Mourning Taiwan (哀台with ai in the first tone).
The irony surfaces in a certain brother’s refrain of MIT, not Massachusetts Institute of Technology but “Made in Taiwan.” The pride of indigenizing self-destructs, having been christened after a premier American institution. “Made in which Taiwan,” I wonder—Waishengren’s? Benshengren’s? Both? Neither? Something in-between? This gravitating to the West manifested itself again in Zhu’s musing over whether young folks really knew that “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was an anti-war song of the sixties. Indeed, I had no idea at the time. When the Home-Soil literature pioneer Huang Chunming so graciously met with me and a handful of college friends at a coffee shop near Taiwan University, he paused in the discussion of his stories to listen to that song being played as the coffee shop’s ambient sound or, pun intended, white noise. Devoted to the voice of little people, Huang demonstrated a sympathy for the downtrodden at home and abroad. Huang then started translating the song in the context of the Vietnam War. Ironically, only those who had been long gone would long to get back in; only those who had turned their backs would “Stand by Me.”
Zhu described how mainlander parents at juancun exaggerated what they had lost, given the wretched conditions they found themselves in. This romanticizing culminated in a neighbor’s overblown tall tale that his family ranch in China was “five or six times the size of Taiwan.” Not as absurd as Zhu’s neighbor, my father used to harp on the knee-high menkan (門檻threshold) at the front door to the Ma estate back in our “Old Home,” and the xiamashi, the rock by which one dismounts the horse before crossing that threshold. Old Home (laojia) remained a fraught term for those at Victory New Village, their new home. Both the threshold and the rock were symbols of advanced degrees in the imperial examination system, the pathway to officialdom. These signs of family distinction were as much an ephemeral mirage as my father’s province, Chaha’er (察哈爾), the province northwest of Beijing, which I inherited on my identity card as myjiguan (籍貫 ancestral home or birthplace). If translated as “birthplace,” then it ought to have been Taipei. If “ancestral home,” then Chaha’er has long ceased to exist, divided up by the Communists after 1949 to absorb the southern half into the province of Hebei and the northern half into Inner Mongolia.
My mother’s refrain was less vainglorious, revolving around food in the impoverished Henan province: how they cooked the pest locusts for food, how baskets of silkworms nibbled on the mulberry leaves in the morning feeding. The chorus of mandibles chewing had echoed across the silk room to the sense of wonder of a young girl, so much so that it lingered in her ears . . . These ellipses suggest an inter-generational exodus: the parents’ nightmarish flight from China’s “Old Home” for survival, the children’s from Taiwan’s juancun for upward mobility. My mother’s taonan (逃難flight from disaster) stories still ring in my ears. First of all, to encapsulate in taonan a young woman’s experiences of fleeing with her toddler son and, years later, a second son who perished, was to generalize and contain that trauma. The abstraction and distancing of taonan in effect subsumed her and others’ visceral pain into centuries-long, dynastic crises that had entailed massive migrations across China throughout history. Just a glimpse into the abyss: I recall her face and voice recalling how she hurried along with her son and other Nationalist refugees on a winding mountain road, each curve allowing a vista briefly of the Communist Eighth Route Army in pursuit on one of the curves below, steadily gaining on them. Now in safety and relative comfort, erstwhile refugees and children of this exodus, including myself, look back with a teary smile. Zhu Tianxin and others are but inflating the legacy of their fathers’ romantic impulse rather than my mother’s existential angst in their makeover of juancun they were once so desperate to get out of.
The juancun fad continues even as we speak. Clearly a spin-off from Zhu’s seminal essay, “Thinking of My Dear Ones from Juancun” is the first golden award contest of weidianying (微電影microfilm or short film) conducted by the Women’s United Association in Taiwan with a due date of September 26, 2019. The website design features a watercolor, a blur of fading orange for the backdrop of a row of typical juancun housing of cement walls that replaced bamboo fences, black roof tiles that leaked, bamboo laundry poles, and low-hanging electric wires and posts, plus TV antennas (figure 1). From the source of light above the roof tiles loom multistoried buildings, about to supplant juancun low to the ground. In the foreground diagonally across is a reel of film, on which two sets of characters move toward each other. With their backs to the viewer are an elderly couple, either taking an evening stroll in juancun or traveling down the memory lane of a short film back to juancun. Facing them and us are two high schoolers, the young woman in front with her head cast down demurely, the young man behind as if trying to catch up. These two students, particularly the woman’s body language, evoke the gangster older brother and his intended during their courtship in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A Time to Live, A Time to Die, despite the difference that he was riding a bicycle in the film. The young walked out of juancun first; they then head back in the twilight of life. The crepuscular light source bifurcates, on the one hand, into dawn for the young moving away with their shadows in front and, on the other, into dusk for the aged returning with their shadows behind, largely cut off by the frame on the bottom. The positioning of shadows suggests that although the young plunge into the future, they could never turn their backs on themselves. Although the elderly do turn back, their former selves are already behind them, truncated, irrevocable.
Conceivably, no submission of 10- or 15-minute short film would zoom in on what has possessed my subconsciousness in recurring nightmares: the site of maokeng (毛坑), the night soil pit or, literally translated, shithole, into which my family and I relieved ourselves. The former translation is decidedly more appropriate for polite society. Yet that would detract from my childhood memory: maokeng was the term my parents from northern China used. Hidden in the “rear end” of our rundown tenement home, it had never shown up in the backdrop to any of my family's photographs, a past that we would just as soon forget. As much as my family photo albums suppress an integral part of human life, as much as I flee from the stench and shame of not having had a flush toilet, bathroom, and other amenities at home until I moved away in high school, this past with its long shadow disabused me of indulging in any fallacy over good old juancun.
Neighborhood kids were eerily prescient in dubbing the rancid, buck-toothed night soil carrier “mitiangong” (米田共rice-field-share), three ideograms that would stack up on top of one another to form the word “feces,” a fitting moniker for both the production from a diet of rice and its possible destination as fertilizer for rice paddies. Or perhaps it was the adults who came up with this face-saving euphemism. Periodically, this figure appeared, for some reason, in a topee, to collect fees, after having collected feces. Over the years, his service was required less and less, as neighbors upgraded their homes, to the extent that I was terribly embarrassed to see him come around to us, not to our door since it had gone missing, yawning like an unzipped fly, throughout my childhood memory. The topee came across as a reminder of his safari into the bowels of the earth performed beforehand, at the rear ends of back-to-back tenements, along a narrow lane like the gluteal cleft. Dreading his presence, yet his absence would have been catastrophic! Whenever he failed to show up, that gaping hole overflowed with excrement and squirming maggots, a horror that so mesmerized the young boy that it still revisits at night. Meet the Ass Man, who wiped the ass of Victory New Village and was wiped off from collective memory. Each juancun would have suffered constipation and imploded if not for its own dear mitiangong. It is ironic that Zhu Tianxin closed her essay with the bang of Great Men and Women, cataloguing a host of celebrities who had made it from juancun to stardom in showbiz, politics, and literature, including her own sister Zhu Tianwen, the script writer for A Time to Live, A Time to Die and numerous other films. The Zhu sisters, who had gotten out, forgot about little people drowned in or since juancun, such as the pedophile she pilloried and the mitiangong she muzzled.
Now that I have dived into juancun to see what had been submerged, I turn to the tip of the iceberg where the prisoner watched The Prisoner. Now that you have been introduced to Mr. Ass Man, let us meet Mr. Ace Man. As my favorite “dead white male” put it so poetically, “Fair and foul are near of kin, / And fair needs foul.” (W. B. Yeats’ “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” 1931). Indeed, Mr. Ass Man resembles a “foul rag-and-bone” scavenger, the doppelganger to the Irish Nobel laureate (“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” 1939). To flip from Ireland to another island, the Irish-American Patrick McGoohan’s stereotypical white masculinity was everything that the juancun boy was not: a towering height of over six feet, deep-set blue eyes, the top half shadowed by protruding, knitted brows, and thin, stern-looking lips. Like a caged animal, Number Six’s face and body language manifested perpetual rage and hostility, the tenseness broken by an occasional sardonic smirk and quip, only to revert back to jerky movements and frantic, near schizophrenic, action against the claustrophobic and panoptic Village, particularly to its make-believe joviality amongst fellow inmates passing as holidaymakers. The Village resembles a seaside Italian villa, its location of Portmeirion, Wales, disclosed only in the final episode, “Fall Out.” Number Six’s reactions were entirely futile, until the haphazard, somewhat unsatisfying finale returned him to his London flat. But as Joanne Morreale argues in “The Spectacle of The Prisoner,” the “circular ending” repeats images from the opening credits of Number Six’s abduction, hence denying the series a “narrative closure” and “the pleasure of resolution” (224).
Mind control and surveillance writ small, The Prisoner featured a gamut of psychological and behavioral measures in the attempt to subdue Number Six: drugs, electric shocks, Pavlovian experiments of brainwashing, an elaborate scheme of treachery and entrapment, all designed to extract information about Number Six’s abrupt resignation from the spy agency. Even the Village’s “Be seeing you,” “their standard goodbye phrase,” carries a double entendre of Big Brother watching (Morreale 222). The words of the farewell were accompanied by a hand gesture consisting of two parts. First, the thumb and index finger touched each other to form an “O” for OK or a monocle in front of the right eye. Subsequently, the fingers dropped quickly away from the eye like a smart salute. Military curtness and standardization undercut any pretense of a civil society. “Be seeing you!” was literal, as surveillance technologies were omnipresent.
Number Six was a dissenter, a rebel in a conformist society. Utterly alone, he pitted himself against all, particularly high-tech surveillance and biochemical manipulation. He relied on his own resources, both brains and brawn, outfoxing mental machinations, outboxing muscle men. From his debut in the opening credits to his eventual return to London seventeen episodes later, he remained sovereign, unto himself, if unattached socially, even untouchable emotionally. Number Six debuted in a sports car whizzing by Big Ben and Parliament to hand-deliver his letter of resignation. The opening credits also included how his file was stamped and filed in a mechanized vault, and how he was drugged and abducted to become a number in the Village. For an insular cold war adolescent, London’s landmarks were but nameless symbols of status, although the glaring sunlight contradicted the only thing he knew about the city from middle school English textbooks: “London is famous for its fog.” Nor was the youngster worldly enough to know of the deliberate sabotage of democratic systems of the British Isles. The episode “Free For All” satirized the perversion of democratic elections where Number Six was compelled to run for the post of Number Two, the nominal warden of the Village, when all he wished was to run away. The episodes “Dance of the Dead” and “Fall Out” showcased kangaroo courts of law, the lynchpin of democracy. The prevalence of drugs in the 1960s counterculture infused the bloodstream of Number Six, who was constantly injected with chemical substances. Rather than liberating repressed psyches and societies as the counterculture celebrated, drugs enslaved, the invisible handcuffs over humanity. Drugs were one tool in the toolbox of mass control, be it Communist collectivity or Capitalist consumerism.
To contest the apparatus of control and the brainwashed, domesticated Villagers, Number Six exhibited a wildness that bordered on self-abandonment, never giving any concession. Staying so vividly with me for half a century were fragments when Number Six awoke rudely to the wool pulled over his eyes, stopping himself before revealing why he quit. The episode “The Chimes of Big Ben” followed Number Two’s complex chicanery to convince Number Six that he had been smuggled to his old spy agency near Big Ben by way of Poland. On the verge of confiding in his superior, he had a rude awakening that the wristwatch given to him by a Pole should not have matched Big Ben’s chiming and should have been one hour ahead. Likewise, the episode “The Schizoid Man” featured drugs and electric shocks to remake Number Six as Number Eight. Number Six caught on at the last minute when he saw the bruise beneath his fingernail, as he had earlier jammed his finger by accident right before the onslaught of Pavlovian behavioral control. The scientist in “A, B, and C” stole into Number Six’s dream to extract the truth, yet he caught on upon discovering the holes on his wrist left by syringe injections. The teenage viewer must have been heartened by the prisoner who had never lost himself.
Western criticism on The Prisoner has revolved around Cult TV and Camp TV. Erin Hanna in “Be Seeing You,” for instance, analyzes the Anglo-American distribution that has contributed to the series’ cult status. W. D. Phillips and Isabel Pinedo in “Gilligan and Captain Kirk Have More in Common than You Think” turn to Camp TV as an alternative genre to Cult TV for the 1960s and 1970s shows like The Prisoner. As insightful as these studies are, to restrict the approach to either Cult or Camp TV within an Anglo-American circuit of production and reception is too academic, too white, too summer campy along the lines in the sand laid down by Susan Sontag and others, oblivious to the mid-century tide of Anglo-American neocolonialism which fed the cold war “Free World” Camp with bread and circuses. How exactly had such “free” food and fun, or The Prisoner’s imagistic and subliminal feeds, half a century ago “tasted”—to borrow Sontag’s favorite word on sensibility—to a juvenile inmate on a prison ship of about 17 million in the 1970s? How and why do I love The Prisoner, to rephrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I have hereby counted the ways.
To return to the fairy-tale “once upon a time” opening, let me close with the “lullaby” at the boot camp on Victory Peak, Taizhong, familiar to all able-bodied Taiwanese males beginning their two- to three-year compulsory military service. All recruits in Taiwan went through this boot camp remaking boys into “killing machines.” Zhu Tianxin also chose to conclude her piece with this song. “’Treasure This Night,’” Zhu wrote, “those boys who had been to Victory Peak surely remembered this song broadcast before lights-out in the barracks: The southern breeze kisses the face lightly, thick fragrance of flowers a-wafting; / The southern breeze grazes the face gently, stars and the moon a-blurring” (89 translation mine). Trust me, the Chinese lyrics with the rhymes and verbal parallelism (duizhang) sounded much more beautiful than my translation, particularly to eighteen-year-olds at a boot camp, away from home for the first time, abused for weeks by drill sergeants from reveille to lights-out. That brief moment in the dark cocoon of the mosquito net, sore and exhausted under the wadded quilt, was the sole moment of privacy for all the young souls. Incidentally, the wadded quilt, like everything else at the torture chamber of a boot camp, became an instrument of torture to be kneaded into a tofu cube with twelve sharp corners during ten minutes of morning toilette, which theoretically included face washing, teeth brushing, a trip to the latrine, and the like.
I was not the only one whose eyes misted up listening in silence, as the drill sergeant swaggered across the rifle racks lining the bunk beds to taunt these “sissies.” Pathetically sentimental by temperament, compounded by the scratchy, staticky public announcement system, I misheard “the southern breeze” (nanfeng 南風) as “the south” (nanfang 南方), feng and fang nearly indistinguishable. My overwrought imagination summoned the entire south, a female as sultry as that voice, to rise from her prone position, to press her lips on mine. Not until years later did I realize my mistake over what turned out to be the Hong Kong songstress Tsui Ping’s 1959 tune. Putting a name to the voice, sorting out a glitch in memory, nullified the poetic, anthropomorphic metaphor; hence, the young man’s escapade to the south and, subsequently, to the west seized. There is no getting out of the Village of Portmeirion, Wales, or Victory, Taiwan, or life itself, so stand by me, old boy, for our last village gig is at hand.
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