Historical note: Geidan 藝旦 (gē-tuànn in Taiwanese Hokkien) were female entertainers active in Taiwan from circa 1870 until the end of WWII. Like Japanese geisha, geidan provided musical entertainment and elegant companionship to guests at banquets and parties, but wore Taiwanese costume and were accomplished in traditional Taiwanese performing arts: Lâm-kuán 南管and Pak-kuán 北管music, kua-á 歌仔ballads, Kunqu 崑曲opera and so on. Under Japanese rule, geidan were mainly found in the red-light districts of Daitōtei (Twatutia) in Taipei, Shinmachi in Tainan, and Tokiwa-chō in Taichung (called by its colonial name of Taichū in this story). A geidan who was established in her profession would be addressed using the honorific ‘kuann’ 倌.
The Bug Princess
by Yang Shuang-zi
translated by Francesca Jordan
Everyone at Ti Ju Tong called her Tshiu-Song-kuann.
She had once been a geidan in Tokiwa-chō. The year she turned twenty-four, the Second Master of Ti Ju Tong had paid a hefty sum to make her his concubine, taking her out of the red-light district and off to this red-brick mansion where three generations of his family lived under one roof. The household was headed by the master and mistress of the family’s senior branch. As there was no mistress in the second branch, and the old mother of the two masters had never so much as looked her in the face, she had been saved a whole host of the usual little troubles and annoyances that came with being someone’s concubine, and been left with only one person to attend to. Second Master loved to socialise and was always gadding about, attending poetry society meetings, sporting events and upper-class tea parties all over Taichū Prefecture. She accompanied him, feeling like a golden bodhisattva statue gleaming expensively at his side.
She could honestly say that she was far happier as a concubine than she had been as a geidan. She had a room to herself in the front right wing of the mansion, didn’t have to work, didn’t have to entertain, and could spend her days reading, practicing calligraphy, listening to the birds sing, or studying old Hokkien ballads in her kua-á songbooks. Main meals and snacks were all brought over to her room by the servants. If Second Master didn’t take her out anywhere, she would stay in her room sometimes for days at a time, not taking a single step beyond that tiny territory. There wasn’t much to grumble about – only that the hours seemed endless sometimes.
When she first entered the red mansion through a side gate, back in the twelfth year of the Taishō reign, Second Master had already been a widower for several years and his twin daughters were exactly half her age. The twins smiled at her with identically pretty faces and asked, what should they call her? She matched their smiles with one of equal curvature and said, most people call me Tshiu-Song-kuann. From then on, she was nobody’s stepmother or auntie, she wasn’t anyone’s sister or sister-in-law; she was no one’s wife. She was just Tshiu-Song-kuann.
‘So, what does the “kuann” in Tshiu-Song-kuann mean?’
She froze for a moment, startled by the question.
It had been asked by Kiyoko-san of the Matsugasaki family, an honoured guest at Ti Ju Tong. She was still puzzling over how to respond when a voice came from her other side.
‘Go ahead and answer. No need to worry.’
That was Madame Soo-Khing, mistress of the senior branch.
These two noble ladies were of equal rank, but Madame Soo-Khing could only understand basic Japanese and was unable to speak fluently. So, when the Matsugasakis came to visit, she was summoned to act as their interpreter. An interpreter mustn’t speak her own words, so the question had left her rather stumped.
She sat up a little straighter, facing Kiyoko-san.
‘In the Taiwanese language, “kuann” is a kind of honorific.’
After a little thought, she added that it was an honorific most often applied to women, and that some islanders used ‘kuann’ as a complimentary term for an attractive woman.
Kiyoko-san smiled then, and said that she was certainly very worthy of the compliment.
How had they ended up here? She thought back on the conversation.
Today was Cheng Beng, the islanders’ tomb-sweeping festival. Although mainlanders didn’t celebrate – they had their Vernal Kōreisai around the same time of year – the Matsugasakis had been invited to spend the day at Ti Ju Tong, and Kiyoko-san had come with her daughter Sakiko-san. The ladies enjoyed a leisurely lunch of seasonal spring pancakes, with more than ten different kinds of filling to choose from – fresh spring greens, egg floss, dried tofu, sliced meat, mullet roe, powdered sugar and so on – and had fun making their own pancake rolls. After a while, Madame Soo-Khing noticed that Sakiko-san and her own daughter Yukiko seemed eager to move on to other kinds of fun: the girls were whispering about wanting to go fishing, and had also brought up a Cheng Beng season tradition, ‘Battle of the Plants’.
‘And what is Battle of the Plants?’ asked Kiyoko-san with innocent curiosity.
Battle of the Plants is a game we like to play during the spring holidays, when taking walks in the mountains and fields. We gather plants and compete to see who has found the rarest one, or the most varieties. This local custom is also a good way of teaching children to identify edible and medicinal plants. Under Madame Soo-Khing’s direction, she explained to Kiyoko-san that, just as Confucius instructed his disciples to read the Book of Odes in order to ‘become better acquainted with the names of the birds and the beasts, the plants and the trees,’ playing this game was a much livelier way of learning than reading ancient Chinese classics. Kiyoko-san nodded in approval, and said that this was indeed very important knowledge to acquire.
That was when Kiyoko-san had suddenly asked what the ‘kuann’ in Tshiu-Song-kuann meant.
What a family of eccentrics the Matsugasakis were!
With a small smile, she brought the conversation back on topic by asking a question on behalf of Madame Soo-Khing.
We were speaking of forming teams to play Battle of the Plants. Would Kiyoko-san like to be on the same team as Sakiko-san?’
‘This sounds like a very interesting game – I’m sure Sakiko will be delighted to play. But whether my daughter will agree to be on a team with her mother is another matter.’ Kiyoko-san pursed her lips into a droll smile. ‘Yukiko-san is here, after all!’
Hearing this, Madame Soo-Khing laughed.
She laughed too, in a more restrained manner than Madame Soo-Khing.
‘Madame Soo-Khing says, Sakiko-san is such a sensible and intelligent young lady. Just as a horseweed in the hemp fields will grow straight and tall, it’s all thanks to Sakiko-san’s excellent influence that Yukiko-san is finally growing up to be a good child, and giving her parents less cause for concern.’
‘Oh no, I’m sure it’s quite the opposite. With someone as knowledgeable and accomplished as Yukiko-san by her side, Sakiko won’t dare be slack. And as her mother, I’m deeply thankful for this. For Sakiko to find a playmate like Yukiko-san, it truly is the best luck one could wish for!’
‘As mothers, our moods are so affected by our children’s well-being.’
‘They are, indeed!’
It was just like performing an opera, she thought.
Madame Soo-Khing, Kiyoko-san and herself: the three of them formed a structure, a sort of stage. On this stage, the only repertoire performed was the polite banalities, tailored to the occasion, of well-to-do women. The weather, the changing seasons, housekeeping, food, and their children, always their children.
She didn’t dislike Kiyoko-san.
She didn’t dislike Madame Soo-Khing either, in fact.
It was the opera that she disliked: the way that women – knowing full well it was all a performance – still had to live their lives on this stage, earnestly playing their roles until the end.
But someone certainly broke character that day.
When they went out to play Battle of the Plants, Kiyoko-san and Sakiko-san formed a mother-and-daughter team, while Yukiko-san teamed up with Ah-Lan, Ti Ju Tong’s housekeeper. The two teams headed for the slopes of Taito Hill, agreeing that they would turn back after an hour, spend about two hours altogether out walking, and get home just before sunset at five.
Five o’clock came, and Ah-Lan reappeared with Yukiko-san on her left and Sakiko-san on her right, bunches of flowers and grasses in their hands.
But where was Kiyoko-san?
In response to Madame Soo-Khing’s concern, Sakiko-san merely smiled and said her mother would be back a little later, please don’t worry. And no sooner had the girl spoken than Kiyoko-san was spotted in the garden, walking unhurriedly towards the house. Twilight comes early in springtime, so Kiyoko-san and Sakiko-san politely declined to stay for dinner, and bade goodbye to their hosts at Ti Ju Tong.
And that should have been the final scene of the opera.
But just as they were seeing the guests off, there was a sudden disturbance in Kiyoko-san’s drawstring handbag. There seemed to be something jumping around inside that elegant and finely-made accessory, throwing itself against the sides, desperately trying to get out.
‘Well then, I do hope to see you all again soon!’
Kiyoko-san appeared oblivious to this disturbance, and got into the taxi with her daughter as calmly as ever.
She waited until the car was some way off, then turned to look at Madame Soo-Khing.
Madame Soo-Khing was looking at her too, with an expression of complete bafflement.
Her own expression at that moment must have been very similar to Madame Soo-Khing’s.
Was there a bug inside the handbag?
It had to be a bug of some kind.
Master Matsugasaki was a botanist, and his wife Kiyoko-san assisted him in some areas of his work. Every year, during the summer holidays, their daughter came to stay at Ti Ju Tong and the couple set off for the mountains together. Or so she had heard. Clearly of noble birth, but preferring to keep company with the plants and trees of the alpine forests… they really were an odd lot. Still, despite her being mistress of this eccentric family, it was hard to imagine Kiyoko-san putting bugs in her handbag.
But thinking back on the scene later, she smiled, and had to suppress the laughter that bubbled up in her throat. An actor had slipped out of character, in the middle of the opera!
Three months after Cheng Beng, the school summer holidays began.
It was time for Sakiko-san’s annual stay, and the three members of the Matsugasaki family arrived for a more formal visit, spending the night at Ti Ju Tong. Early next morning, the two masters took Master Matsugasaki out for the day, to Meiji Hot Springs in the Tai-Kah River valley. After lunch, when Yukiko-san and Sakiko-san had gone off to play together, she was summoned to the outer wing where the honoured guests were staying.
‘Even though it’s summer now, the bonsai still look so beautiful. They must be very well cared for,’ said Kiyoko-san with an elegant smile.
Madame Soo-Khing smiled back, as graciously as a hostess ought, and responded with some appropriate words.
‘Madame Soo-Khing says that it’s all thanks to the Matsugasakis. All the best plants we have acquired in recent years have been gifts from your family.’
This outer wing, separate from the main house, bore the refined appellation of ‘Dreaming Butterfly Study’ and was surrounded by a large assembly of rare potted plants, with blooms to admire in every season. A breeze was wafting the scent of flowers into the room through the open doors and windows. Inside, she, Madame Soo-Khing and Kiyoko-san were back on the opera stage again.
As she interpreted, she found herself thinking rather longingly of Kiyoko-san’s jumping handbag on Cheng Beng. And perhaps she wasn’t the only one? Madame Soo-Khing had fallen silent for a moment.
Human voices faded into the soft, flower-scented breeze, until the only sound in the room was the chirping of cicadas.
Madame Soo-Khing suddenly spoke in Japanese.
Naturally, she and Kiyoko-san both looked at Madame Soo-Khing.
And Madame Soo-Khing continued: ‘Have you ever eaten a cicada?’
She stared in astonishment for a few seconds, then stole a glance at Kiyoko-san out the corner of her eye.
Kiyoko-san was smiling her purse-lipped smile, as reserved and elegant as ever.
‘Ah, yes, se-mi….’
Kiyoko-san paused, then went on. ‘When cicadas are in flight, they contract and relax the powerful muscles in the thorax, which pull the hard shell plates on the back and abdomen together, and cause the wings to beat.’
Lowering her voice – as though divulging a secret – Kiyoko-san said that those muscles, when eaten raw, tasted just like shrimp.
An interpreter doesn’t speak her own words. So, she didn’t say anything. But she and Madame Soo-Khing both suddenly burst out laughing. She tried to keep her laughter more restrained than Madame Soo-Khing’s, but there was really no way to prevent it escaping.
Kiyoko-san laughed too, showing her teeth now as full-throated chuckles rolled from her.
Am I dreaming? she wondered, amid the bright peals of laughter.
It was as though the stage had suddenly collapsed.
I have a different way of eating them, said Madame Soo-Khing.
And what is that? asked Kiyoko-san.
Throw the cicadas into the stove embers just as the fire is starting to die down, and by the time the stove has cooled the cicadas will be cooked through, explained Madame Soo-Khing. You just eat the small piece of meat under the cicada’s back – it does smell rather scorched, but the meat inside is juicy and fragrant.
Ah, yes, that must be the flight muscles, said Kiyoko-san.
There isn’t much meat on a cicada, so you have to catch quite a few of them to satisfy a craving, added Madame Soo-Khing.
Roasted in the oven! That does sound delicious, exclaimed Kiyoko-san.
Oh yes, it was something I used to do as a girl. I do miss those times, said Madame Soo-Khing.
Finally, in a pause between interpreting, she spoke some words of her own:
‘So, has anyone ever eaten a bamboo shoot turtle?’
What a wonderful day that was.
She, Madame Soo-Khing and Kiyoko-san stepped out of the wreckage of the collapsed stage. They were like three Alices, fallen down the rabbit hole, wandering in Wonderland side by side. In Wonderland, language barriers had vanished, social status had vanished – even time had seemingly ceased to exist.
Kiyoko: A bamboo shoot turtle… it’s also a kind of insect?
Soo-Khing: Yes, it’s quite common to see them in bamboo forests. In olden times, people thought they grew out of the bamboo shoots.
She: They can be roasted in the same way as cicadas. But after taking the bamboo shoot turtle out of the stove ash and removing the hard parts, the whole thing can be eaten.
Soo-Khing: Bamboo shoot turtles have long snouts. You can tear them off and suck out the juice.
Kiyoko: That sounds like a type of giant weevil. They are indeed edible!
She: They’re quite delicious! I often caught them as a child. Although, back then, I caught more fish than insects.
Soo-Khing: As for me, I caught lots and lots of frogs. The other children in my village dubbed me King of the Frogs!
Kiyoko: I was just crazy about insects. By the time I was a teenager, the other girls didn’t want to play with me. They called me Mushihime behind my back.
She and Soo-Khing laughed, and asked what ‘Mushihime’ meant.
Kiyoko explained that Mushihime was the ‘Bug Princess’, the main character of an old Japanese story from Tales of the Riverside Counsellor called ‘The Princess Who Loved Insects’. This Bug Princess was an unconventional young lady who stayed true to herself even though others looked down on her for her odd habits.
I was obsessed, said Soo-Khing. Always thinking of ways to catch even more frogs. No one could understand me, either.
At Soo-Khing’s side, she gave a couple of deep nods.
Kiyoko sighed with laughter.
‘Then, I suppose we are all Bug Princesses.’
Ah… what kind of dazzling, dizzying dream was this?
It was like an adventure in Wonderland, but also like those beautiful visions seen by the Little Match Girl in the fairy tale.
They talked about their favourite fish, frogs and insects.
Red-cats, she said, were her favourite. Red-cat is another name for the male of the pale chub. It has ten bands of iridescent turquoise across its back and sides, and a pink stripe running along its belly from head to tail. Such a beautiful fish!
My favourite frog is a beautiful one, too, said Soo-Khing, though I don’t know what it’s called. It’s a small frog, only about an inch long, with a dark green back, four silver stripes, and shimmering golden eyes.
Well, said Kiyoko, as for beautiful insects, the tamamushi beetle is so beautiful it quite takes your breath away. Its carapace is like a brilliant jewel, glittering with all kinds of colours: copper and topaz and lapis and emerald and amethyst. If you’re not careful, you could lose track of time gazing at this beautiful bug. It’s like the Milky Way… like a colourful rainbow.
She said: But it isn’t your favourite insect, though?
Soo-Khing said: Is it that you love too many insects, and can’t pick a favourite?
Kiyoko said: It’s true! I do apologise – I’m just a greedy person.
They left Dreaming Butterfly Study after that, and went out through the back gate of Ti Ju Tong into the bamboo groves behind the mansion. An old wax apple tree stood near the gate, and they picked its pink, bell-shaped fruits to eat as they walked, feeling as though they had shrunk in size and returned to their mischievous girlhoods. That day, they caught lots of bamboo shoot turtles and cicadas, dug a hole and made a fire, then roasted and ate the insects right there in the bamboo groves.
‘The day we played Battle of the Plants, what kind of insect was in your handbag?’
‘Oh, it was a type of field cricket called a yellow-faced oil gourd. The black-faced oil gourds are more commonly seen on this island, so when I spotted it that day I just had to catch it. This species of cricket has a sweet and tremulous song, like a musical instrument. It’s very pleasant to listen to.’
‘But is it good to eat?’
‘It would be rather a shame to eat a yellow-faced oil gourd, I’ve always felt.’
‘Ah, yes, such feelings do arise sometimes!’
‘Eating a red-cat….’
‘Or one of those tiny frogs….’
That day was an adventure in Wonderland, a fantastic dream. They went on talking, down there in the rabbit hole, and with every word they spoke fell further into this vast, deep tunnel – a tunnel that was the roof of the outer wing, the crown of the bamboo forest. Into the sky they fell, past floating clouds, swirling winds and rainbows, on through the stratosphere, the Milky Way, all the way to the other side of the galaxy.
After Master Matsugasaki returned from Meiji Hot Springs, Kiyoko-san took her leave of them. By this time next week, Master Matsugasaki and Kiyoko-san would be climbing the heights of Mount Tsugitaka. Sakiko-san was used to these holiday arrangements, and waved her parents off with no sign of sorrow at the parting.
And so she quietly returned to her room in the front right wing, to her days with three meals and one snack delivered at set times. When Second Master went out she accompanied him, a golden bodhisattva, nameless and gleaming. In this magnificent old mansion, red as a roaring fire, she folded herself into a single room, where she would sometimes think of the house in which she had been born – a big red house very much like this one.
Ah, those dreams of girlhood. Folded away in that room, she remembered and smiled. One always had to wake up, of course, but dreaming was still the sweetest way to pass the time in this dark corner.
She had grown up in Gû-ūn-khut, Nantō county, the youngest daughter of the third branch of the Tiunn family. Casually cast off by her family, she in turn had casually cast off her name, cast off herself. Now, everybody called her Tshiu-Song-kuann. She wasn’t anybody’s stepmother, auntie, sister, sister-in-law, or wife; she was just Tshiu-Song-kuann.
Chik ― chi-chi-chi-chi —
She sat blinking as it chirped.
Madame Soo-Khing was on one side of her, Kiyoko-san on the other.
The Matsugasakis had returned to collect Sakiko-san, and the ladies had retired to Dreaming Butterfly Study to pass the time before dinner was served. Here they were again: Madame Soo-Khing, Kiyoko-san, and herself.
‘Your expedition into the mountains, I trust it was a fruitful one?’
‘Yes, and it’s all thanks to the Yang family’s kindness. We can only make progress with our work because we know there is no need to worry about Sakiko.’
‘We are honoured that the Matsugasaki family puts such trust in us. Every summer, because of this trust, our pleasure in having Sakiko-san to stay is doubled.’
She sighed inwardly, even though she had been expecting this. Awakening from a dream is always a melancholy thing.
At that very moment, the sound of chirping — chik ― chi-chi-chi-chi — filled the room.
She blinked, and fell silent. So did Madame Soo-Khing and Kiyoko-san. Their human voices stayed hushed for a moment, and it felt as though something was following the chirping upwards, passing through the roof of Dreaming Butterfly Study, soaring up into the stratosphere, heading for the other side of the galaxy.
‘Now, geckos,’ began Madame Soo-Khing, ‘in some places they’re called siān-thâng-á, which means “worm bug” – perhaps they were once thought to be a kind of insect.’
‘Ah, I see. And… are they edible?’ asked Kiyoko-san with a smile.
She bowed her head and tried to keep a straight face, but couldn’t, in the end, stop the corners of her mouth turning up.