At the assembly on the first day of school, the principal announced a ban to everyone.
‘There is a street not far from our school; it’s called Gui Sui Street. No one is allowed to pass there at any time. If you are caught failing to follow the rule, you will get a major demerit, and we will notify your parents. The street is a licensed red-light district. A well-disciplined girl shouldn’t be near this street.’
Her announcement aroused a vast curiosity in me. As a fifteen-year-old girl who knew very little about sex, the phrase ‘red-light district’ led me to give free rein to my imagination. I knew what it was, but I didn’t know what it was about. Due to the constriction of Martial Law, kisses and sexual scenes were strictly banned on all Taiwanese dramas on TV. As a result, we could only see kissing scenes from American films or TV series. However, if the scenes included more than kissing, the government would cut the scenes off.
In the first two months after semester started, every day before and after school, there were two students standing at opposite ends of the street, preventing students from passing. So, it was on a Saturday afternoon, after practising with the school traditional Chinese orchestra club, that I embarked on my adventure.
There was no school on Saturday afternoon, which meant there would be no patrolling students at each end of the street. I carried a school bag on one shoulder and a Chinese flute on the other, and walked to Gui Sui Street. The street was not spacious, for there was a whole row of two-story buildings on either side. The buildings were left over from the Japanese occupation era. Taiwan had been ruled by the Japanese from 1895 to 1945 after Japanese victory in the first Sino-Japanese War, when the Qing dynasty of China ceded Taiwan Province thanks to the Treaty of Shimonoseki. After fifty years of rule by the Japanese, Taiwan was deeply influenced by the Japanese ethos.
The two-story buildings all had an arch in front of their arcades. The door of every brothel was very narrow, half-opened most of the time. Red plastic chairs were lined up outside the door, and a few girls with heavy make-up were sitting there.
When I walked through the street for the first time, I dared not look at them directly. But, with a few glimpses, I was able to notice that the girls sitting on the plastic chairs were relatively young. They wouldn’t have been beyond their mid-twenties. They wore thick foundation powder and bright red lipstick on their face. Each of their ten fingers were painted with crimson nail polish. Seeing them from a distance as I walked by, they looked like the geishas I’d seen in pictures, only their faces were less white, and they didn’t wear kimonos. Their attire was similar to each other – a short skirt with a low-cut top and high heels on their feet. One thing that struck me was their uniform facial expression – tired, dull and empty. They only stood up and smiled when a potential customer was walking nearby.
At one point, I saw a middle-aged man walk towards a building with a sign which said ‘Ri Ri Chun’ (日日春, Everyday Spring) above the door; the three girls who sat on the chairs outside the door stood up all at once. They quickly put a smile on their faces and reached out their hands to pull him in, saying ‘Lai, Lai’ (來，來, Come, Come) repeatedly. The man shook their hands away from him and walked straight to the next building with a sign written ‘Bai Hua Lo’ (百花樓, Hundred Flower House). He seemed to know where he wanted to go.
The girls seemed to be very used to this situation. They didn’t show anger or offense; they just went back to their seats and did what they were doing before – looking ahead vacantly.
As luck would have it, as I walked through the street I was able to see one brothel’s door open wide. Inside, there were rows of rooms with curtains on the doors. A girl of around twenty opened the curtain and walked out, holding a red basin in her hands. She happened to glance at me. That was a look full of grudge and weariness, and then she gave me a deep frown. I quickly looked away, feeling sorry for her but also wondering why she was holding a basin.
I found the answer many years later when I read a novel talking about a Chinese prostitute living in 19th century America. In the book, The Lost Daughter of Happiness, written by Yan Ge Ling, it says:
The water in the washbasin beside the chamber pot was still clean–no customers. All the prostitutes here told Fusang, You’ve got to wash yourself as soon as the john leaves, or else you’ll stink to high heaven.
It was a fascinating experience, this adventure into the red light district, which brought some colour to my boring high school life. I even wrote some short stories using the girls as my protagonists. I gave each of them an imaginative name and a challenging fate. But, no matter how miserable their lives were, in my stories, the short-skirt, low-cut-top girls were always the victors.
※ ※ ※
On school club day, I was attracted by the melodious sound of an erhu, a two-stringed traditional Chinese instrument. I walked into a dark room that only had two small high-up windows. The sound of the erhu came from the end of the room. A girl with her back to me was skilfully playing. Dust danced in the light from the windows and alongside the melancholy sound of the erhu and the gloomy atmosphere. I felt like I was backstage at a 1950s Peking opera.
Soon, other girls came in. The girl who played the erhu turned and saw me. The two bobby pins on each side of her hair made her face look square. This girl was about 170cm, pretty tall for a female. She walked towards me, a bright smile blooming on her face.
‘What’s your name? Do you want to join in the traditional Chinese orchestra?’
I shrugged and didn’t answer.
Other girls noticed that she was the leader of the club, they started to bombard her with a lot of questions.
‘What kind of instrument do you have?’, ‘Do we need to pay to join this club?’, ‘What is the practicing time?’, ‘Will there be someone to teach us how to play?’
She made a gesture indicating everyone to be quiet and said,
‘OK, everyone, first of all, everyone is welcome to come to this traditional Chinese orchestra club. My name is Wu Fang, and I’m in the last year of senior high and the director of this club. We have many instruments like erhu, guzheng, pipa, dizi, and many others. I’ll show them to you one by one later.’
She stopped for a while and deliberately fixed her eyes on me. My face turned hot for no reason. She continued, ‘Our school invited many teachers to teach us all sorts of instruments. So if anyone is interested in learning an instrument, you can sign up here. It’s free, and our practice time is on Saturday afternoon.’
She took a piece of paper out and put it on a table. Then she brought out the traditional Chinese instruments one by one from a cabinet. To my surprise, she could play each one of them. Even if for some instruments her skill was not the best, it was nearly reaching professional level. Her specialty was the erhu. When she put her left hand on the two strings, sliding a bow left and right in her right hand, the music magically flew out. No wonder some people called it the Chinese violin, for the sounds of the two instruments were so similar, only the erhu’s tone was more lamentable. She first played a famous erhu song called ‘Horse Racing’, a piece of fast-paced music, and she used the bow to make a horse neighing at the end. We all applauded vigorously.
‘Now I’m going to play a famous erhu song called “Listening to The Pine” to express my welcome to everyone.’
There were about twenty of us forming a semicircle, and she was in the centre. I stood on the far right, deliberately hiding in the dark. After having so much trouble with the teachers and all the annoying fuss, I wanted to regain my strength and serenity by not being seen or disturbed by anyone or anything.
Yet, she saw me, and she scrutinized me. Her bold gaze made me coy, and I wanted to recede. I had never been gazed at this way by anyone, especially not a female. There was a trace of masculinity across her face when she smiled, and her gaze was eager. It was a new experience to me – not comfortable, but not uncomfortable either. I backed off by two steps trying to escape her eye. However, the erhu sound was too beautiful, and I couldn’t help going forward to see how she played it and how the two strings could make such a variety of sounds – sometimes sad, sometimes cheerful.
Everyone clapped when she finished, including me. She stood up and said thanks to us, reminding everyone not to forget to sign and note the instrument we wanted to learn. Then, she walked directly towards me.
‘What’s your name? What grade are you in? You must be a new student in our school. I don’t think I’ve seen you.’
My height was only up to her neck, so I had to look up at her. I could feel my ears were hot. They were probably very red. My ears got red and hot whenever I was nervous, embarrassed, or noticed.
‘My name is Pan Yun-Ping, and yes, I’m new to this school.’ My voice was inaudible.
She lowered her head and put one hand behind her ear to indicate that she could not hear what I’d said.
Suddenly, she grabbed my hand and led me to another room. I was almost pulled away by her. It was a storage room for keeping large musical instruments like Chinese Bass Drum, Bass Gong, Chinese Cymbal, and some other instruments I didn’t know their names. She let go of my hand.
‘Now, can you please tell me again what you have just said?’ She was smiling.
I looked at her, and soon I had to look away because her look and smile were too fervent.
‘My name is Pan Yun-Ping, and I’m new to this school.’ I repeated it with a louder voice.
‘Pan Yun-Ping? Are you the one who got the first place in your grade of the first monthly exam?’ She didn’t hide her astonishment in her tone.
‘Yes, it’s me. But, how did you know?’ I was surprised she knew this because she was two years senior to me.
‘It was posted on the bulletin board. Our school posts the results on the bulletin board for each grade after each exam. Don’t you know that?’
I shook my head.
‘Go and have a look; you will find my name on the board as well?’
‘Should I start looking from the top or the bottom?’
She was amused with my naughtiness, staring at me for a while, then she flicked my nose with her right index finger. I blushed at her affectionate gesture.
‘Do you want to join this club? What kind of instrument you want to learn?’
‘Maybe the flute; it doesn’t look that hard.’
I was wrong. It was hard. First of all, it was not easy to blow out the sound. I also needed to learn to control my breath to perform the effects of elongation or vibrato according to the song’s requirements.
After that day, we became good friends. Maybe, a bit better than good.
I deliberately went to the bulletin board to see her ranking. She was the first in her grade. When students reach the second year of senior high school, they would be divided into literary and science groups, depending on their own choice. She chose the science group because her maths, physics, and chemistry were good. I chose the literary group because my literary subjects were much better than my science subjects.
Most people in Taiwan presume that students who choose the science groups are more intelligent and will be guaranteed a better future, for their first wish is probably to be a doctor or a dentist. On the other hand, although their future occupations could be various when it comes to those students who have opted for the literary group, their incomes will never exceed that of a doctor or a dentist. I was deeply influenced by this concept, believing that Wu Fang was smarter than me, which made me admire her more.
We spent a lot of time together. Going to school was no longer displeasing and boring to me. Every morning on school days, we arranged to meet in a place where we took a fifteen-minute walk to our school. She always brought me some breakfast like Bao Zi, a Chinese omelette, rice ball, and my favourite – clay oven rolls. This is a kind of baked flat and crispy bread with sesame on the top. The most remarkable part of making it is that the fermented dough is baked in an oven that is a modified petrol tank. The dough sticks to the wall of this oven, and there is a charcoal fire in the middle, which makes the two sides of the roll crispy and it is full of a char-grilled aroma.
Wu Fang always said that I was too thin and too small, and I needed more food to feed my giant brain. I enjoyed being spoiled by her, loved seeing her take all sorts of breakfast out from her schoolbag like a magician pulling a rabbit or bird from a hat, and I liked watching her seeing me eating. I could candidly be myself in front of her. Her eyes would open wide, and she pretended to be surprised by my gluttonous way of eating. Then, after I had gobbled the breakfast up, she would take out a piece of tissue that she had already prepared, and would wipe off the food residue from my face. This was a sweet and warm feeling that I was not familiar with, and I loved it.