Wed, May 03, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Book review: Bu San Bu Si

Joe Henley’s second novel provides a rare and nuanced insight in to Taiwan’s underground punk music scene, exploring in gruesome detail the consequences of failing to conform to a dominant culture

By Dana Ter  /  Contributing reporter

Bu San Bu Si: A Taiwan Punk Tale , by Joe Henley

Bu San Bu Si (不三不四) or “not three, not four” — a Mandarin expression used to describe society’s misfits and lowlifes — is the second novel by Canadian freelance writer and heavy metal rocker Joe Henley. Having spent the last 12 years in Taipei playing with metal and punk bands and chronicling the scene for publications such as this newspaper, Henley takes his readers where we otherwise would not venture — to live music venues that are “perpetually covered in mildew mold” and recording studios with “years of stale sweat ... soaked into the walls.” Yet despite being about Taiwan’s underground punk music scene, the novel speaks to anyone who has experienced the pressure of conforming to a dominant culture that he or she finds stifling.

While Henley’s first novel, Sons of the Republic, featured a well-to-do Taiwanese-American protagonist who squanders his money from his penthouse in Taipei’s posh Xinyi District, the characters in Bu San Bu Si are born into a world where they are expected to slug it out at desk jobs to support blue-collar parents who operate night market stands or work the night shift at hospitals. Henley deftly delves into their psyche and motivations, providing us with a glimpse into a world that’s rarely written about in English.

TOUGH LUCK

Henley’s protagonist, 20-year-old guitarist Xiao Hei, wears a beat-up leather jacket, even during the sweltering heat of Taipei’s summer, and eschews his responsibility as a “golden son” who is supposed to provide for his mother. He drifts away from childhood friends and aspiring musicians who have all “faded away into civilian life.” Having never traveled outside of Taiwan, Xiao Hei has lofty dreams of performing in countries whose names he reads on the labels of liquor bottles. But he drinks, gets into fist fights and constantly shows up late for band practice.

Publication Notes

Bu San Bu Si: A Taiwan Punk Tale

By Joe Henley

346 pages

Camphor Press

Paperback: Taipei


Xiao Hei’s actions may seem reprehensible and inexcusable. But, as readers learn, advice like “just be yourself” or “follow your dreams” is nonsensical. As Henley fleshes out in brilliant and grotesque prose, employing transliterations — and, of course, plenty of swear words — in Mandarin and Hoklo (more commonly known as Taiwanese), life isn’t easy for people like Xiao Hei, who was raised by a single, alcoholic mother who herself came from a troubled family. For Xiao Hei, shunning traditional Confucian values, pursuing his dream and simply being himself come with consequences that eventually get him mixed up with Taipei’s criminal underworld.

However, it’s not just gangsters who are corrupt. Like Sons of the Republic, the line separating criminals and law enforcement is blurred. As former gangster and bar owner Jackie Tsai tells Xiao Hei: “It’s a wicked little game, the law.” This is a lesson that is repeatedly knocked into Xiao Hei’s skull — literally and figuratively — starting from when he and his bandmates are publicly humiliated by politicians seeking to make an example of them. The men in “suits and ties” accuse the band of desecrating “Chinese values” and “aping the decadence of the invasive Western culture.” This is ironic because Westerners barely feature in the novel and it’s obvious that “Chinese values” are nothing but a hollow rallying call for politicians to further their own agendas, or parents to control their children.

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