Last year, I visited Kinmen, an island that is off the coast of Fujian Province in China, but is actually part of the Taiwanese territories. I was going to learn a little bit more about the country's military history for my Fulbright and ended up loving it so much I went back a second time. The first time, I tried to visit the Military Brothel Museum, which I'd read about, but by then it was closed and I could only see the courtyard. The second time, I went and wandered around the very small museum, looking at the nearly identical sparse rooms and reading about the proliferation of such brothels around Taiwan, the cost to hire a "teahouse girl" for different officers, the number of women available at each location. As I walked around, I wondered why there wasn't more information on the women — at the very least, I had hoped there would be some information on where they had come from, how old they had been, etc. But it was as if this whole museum, supposedly dedicated to their "patriotism" (it was said they were performing a heroic duty by providing the military men with entertainment — and also so that the local women wouldn't be raped) had been scrubbed clean of the actual women who had lived out their lives in these rooms. There was a plaque that conceded that there had been no good records kept of who they were, and it lamely tried to offer up that they were appreciated. It frustrated me that nowhere was there any evidence of these women.
As I walked around, I tried to imagine what these women would tell me if they could. How had they made this decision to come here? What were their lives like? What were their secret fears, dreams? I tried to imagine the shades of them going about their day along the very paths my feet were crossing. It was as if I were in a movie, where, superimposed on my reality was another reality, of the lives they had lived that I would never know. It was a sunny day in Kinmen. Everything was bright and white. The grass was green and still. But I felt a stirring.
Months later, I sat down and tried to write "fiction" about a brothel girl — the kind where you imagine up a personality, a backstory, a desire for an imagined woman — but I found I could not. It didn't feel right to me. Instead, the first lines of this story came to me; the voices I was able to conjure up were those of ghosts who could not be heard.
I read this story this past fall at Sunday Salon in NYC, and while I was reading, a really strange thing began to happen. I can't quite describe it, except to say that I began to believe my own words and it made me really emotional. It was as if, while I was reading, I could hear these voices speaking to me. Don't get me wrong: I'm not arrogant or delusional enough to believe I can ever truly speak for the many women who worked in these kinds of brothels. But, at the moment, it felt as if the women were in the room with me and they were speaking directly to me. I don't know if anyone who was in that room with me that day could tell, but I was kind of choked up by the end. I had wanted — have wanted — so badly for these women to be known, and even though I can never know their individual stories, I don't want them to be forgotten. The energy in the room that day made me feel like — okay, maybe I am doing a little something to right a wrong, however tiny of a shift that might be.
In any case, this story was published on Catapult today (one of my favorite venues!), along with this gorgeous illustration. Thanks to Nikki Chung for editing it.
On a totally UNRELATED note, a couple of days ago, the New York Public Library published a list of 20 of my favorite Asian American books. It was SUPER hard for me to figure out which 20 to feature. I wish I could have included many, many, many more.