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

At the heart of this fissure is a generational gap. Like most Taiwanese born after the end of Martial Law, Xiao Hei is cognizant of the fact that his mother grew up in a vastly different society, one in which aspiring for something other than a stable job was absurd. As Henley writes, “he knew she had beasts in her head she did her best to chase away — old beasts of older generations.” Politics lurks in the background of the novel, beyond the grasp of Xiao Hei and his bandmates. Xiao Hei fails to show up at a gig during the Sunflower Movement, thinking of “protest songs” as silly though the names of his band’s songs include Remember 228 and KMT, Suck My Dick.

Unlike in his first novel, Henley does not fixate on what Taiwanese identity means. Instead, a feeling of fatalism permeates Bu San Bu Si. Motions driving events are set in place by people more powerful than Xiao Hei and there is little that he and his friends can do to stop them. They are nothing more than “tiles on the mahjong board moved by the hands of the players.”

Though there is a good dose of blood-drenched imagery, the plot moves forward largely through the metaphorical demons that play out in Xiao Hei’s head. There is a simultaneous sense of acceptance of his place in society and a yearning for something bigger and better. Though Xiao Hei isn’t the most sympathetic character, it is his desire to make his mark on society that distinguishes him from those around him.

The novel’s backdrop is a Taipei described as “cockroach-infested” and a “basin-bound smog bowl.” This grittiness crushes down on Xiao Hei and sucks the life out of him but the experience of daily toil also feeds him with what will become the inspiration for his artistry. Henley paints a complex portrait of ordinary Taiwanese — outcasts, doomsdayers, dreamers — with a raw simplicity that’s relatable. Although the author might be reluctant to admit it, his message ultimately comes across as an age-old one, that sometimes, simply being yourself does, in fact, go a long way, and there’s nothing wrong with reiterating that.

>> The Bu San Bu Si launch party will take place at 3pm on May 13 at Vinyl Decision, 6, Ln 38, Chongde St, Taipei City (台北市崇德街38巷6號). The author will be holding a Q&A session and copies of the book will be on sale for NT$400. For more information, visit:

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