The Stolen Bicycle cover[Text Publishing; 2018]

Tr. from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk

Before Time

I must describe that morning for you, because every time something is described anew it becomes meaningful anew.

“Before Time,” I thought, there were no such things as beginnings, hence beginning a novel with “Before Time” situates the novel outside of a linear duration. Linearity, I had looked up, is the property of a mathematical relationship, and while most of us have been trained to see such mathematical relationships everywhere we look with our gridded eyes, parts of our brains and hearts have also been exposed to the idea that every concept has only a limited range of applicability and that timelines are only suitable to those events that fit into them. Everything else that doesn’t synchronize that way, I therefore assumed with a sense of vagueness, has been recorded in another way, occasionally leaving such things as timelines floating around as isolated abstractions. Until they start to intersect with others, I thought, those lists of biographical and historical cornerstones do feel very lonely and detached and the timeline titled “One Hundred Years in Taipei,” printed on two pages before the first chapter of Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle actually begins, illustrates that initial loneliness. But then, as I began to read further, as I — page by page — started lining up and synchronize my reading life with that of the timeline, transforming and stretching itself out into strains and strings of several interwoven stories, crossovers emergeed and started to articulate themselves, not necessarily as events with clear beginnings and ends, but as areas of tension, memories and emotions, that can be pulled, tightened, widened and released.

1901
The first Meiji Bridge is completed. Construction begins on the Chokushi Boulevard.

1905
Taiwan Nichi Nichi Shimpō prints Taiwan’s first story about a stolen bicycle on 27 September

1916
Maruyama Zoo officially opens in April on the south bank of Kee-lung River

1919
Shizuko is born

1926
Mr. Ichoru the orangutan and miss Māthe elephant arrive at Maruyama Zoo

1941
Pasuya is enlisted in the Silverwheels

1942
Singapore and Rangoon fall to the Japanese. The elephant transport team is formed in Burma

1947
Ten thousand are killed on 28 February when an anti-government uprising is violently suppressed

1970
Habitat destruction and over harvesting send the butterfly handicrafts industry into decline   A-hûn rides to Taipei

1992
The Chung-hwa Market is torn down   Our hero’s father goes missing

2002
the Meiji Bridge is destroyed

In the Asian Review of Books Brian Haman writes that the “bicycle in Wu’s novel ultimately functions as an analogue for memory,” and if that is true, then pedaling is like memorizing, I thought, as I rode my bicycle to the Printed Matter Book Fair in Queens, NY. But was that true? If pedaling equaled memorizing, then memorizing was repetition, doing it over and over and over again would lead towards the creation of a body-memory perhaps, but not necessarily towards having a mental recollection. Once in close proximity to PS1 Queens, the former public school building that now houses a museum of contemporary art, I pulled a plastic covered metal chain through the spikes of my back wheel, then fed it through the top tube of my bike and then around a metal street sign pole, before I clicked the lock and used a second smaller U-lock to secure my front wheel and my helmet to the down tube, while the pedaling couple, two thieves in action, crossed my mind. I could hear them laughing, riding towards us on our bikes after they had stolen them in Soho on a pretty, blue-skied morning. We ran after them, but they were faster and I hadn’t pictured them in at least ten years, I thought, as I walked over to the entrance where I joined a fast-moving line and soon entered a temporary plastic dome in a pebbled courtyard enclosed by a high concrete wall behind which new luxury apartment buildings were towering high into the air like gray like cliffs around a pond.

Densely populated with all kinds of humans, papers, fliers, posters, and books that flowed around each other like fluorescent algae, the venue felt as if in the process of over-turning itself, some sort of intensified exchange was happening . How amazing it is, I thought, while flipping through book after book after book after zine after book, that I am here with The Stolen Bicycle in my backpack, that we are in 2018 and still use paper, ink, and energy to capture, print, and sell random people’s precious moments of the past. Not every exteriorization of memory exists as a virtual upload in the cloud, I thought. Not every word is sold on Amazon, yet I will resist to buy anything here as I already have The Stolen Bicycle, in my backpack, and I will refrain, I thought, from underlining sentences, I won’t annotate in the margins, once I continue the reading Darryl Sterk’s translation from Chinese into English of The Stolen Bicycle. I won’t intrude on the review copy’s clean pages with my personal associations, I thought, I don’t want to feel strange later about passing on my altered copy to the next reader, will skip creating visible evidence of how I understood, held important, could relate to, or questioned certain passages. I will avoid this concept of hierarchy, this method of ranking through underlining, this desire to categorize, analyze and summarize. I will meander through The Stolen Bicycle, like I weave my way through this crowd, I thought, I will follow and let the next one figure out what has taken us here and who has stolen what, I thought, while being pushed aimlessly down the hallway by the crowd on the second floor of the former public school building, until I eventually, made a spontaneous decision to exit, turn right and enter a small dark room, where the Gagosian Gallery screened a reedited video by William Forsythe’s 1999 CD ROM version of “Lectures from Improvisation Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye.”

The video was produced by Forsythe to train his dancers. The choreographer stands on a platform in a pair of sweatpants and a T-Shirt and talks to the camera while using his hands, or fingertips to draw imaginary lines in space, around or along which he moves. His flexible body and his determined movements are a beautiful pair, yet it’s hard to tell what exactly they are doing, because the foreground is dominated by an overlay of precisely defined geometrical lines that explain or illustrate what Forsythe is supposedly doing. Protruding rectangles and perfect circles — motion graphic artists had annotated Forsythe’s actions “as he makes drawings in space with his body, offering a formula for improvised movement.” On another day the simplifications these organic body movements were reduced to could have been boring, but to my very over-stimulated senses that day they felt comforting. Lines and circles. Lines and circles. Lines, a curve, and circles. Bicycles, I suddenly realized, are actually composed of nothing else but of a few clearly defined straight lines and two perfect circles, which the rider uses to move around in space. What was perplexing about this realization was the idea that the movement could have come first and the bike afterwards as an annotation to that movement. For the first time I imagined how the gods had pedaled through the aging skies, until one day, they let a human watch, so she could build a contraption that made the cycling movement possible for humans on earth under the laws of gravity.

In the room adjacent to the screening room, an assortment of dance related books Forsythe had read or recommended were displayed on shelves and glass vitrines. I picked up Styles of Radical Will, opened this book by Susan Sontag on page 73 and started reading her 1969 essay: “Thinking against Oneself: Reflections on Cioran,” which starts like this:

Ours is a time in which every intellectual or artistic or moral event is absorbed by a predatory embrace of consciousness: historicizing. Any statement or act can be assessed as a necessarily transient “development” or, on a lower level, belittled as mere “fashion.” The human mind possesses now, almost as second nature, a perspective on its own achievements that fatally undermines their value and their claim to truth. For over a century, this historicizing perspective has occupied the very heart of our ability to understand anything at all. Perhaps once a marginal tic of consciousness, it’s now a gigantic, uncontrollable gesture — the gesture whereby man indefatigably patronizes himself.

The Stolen Bicycle could be a historic novel, may be even a “historicizing” one, I thought, where every fact is a traceable outcome of a development that happened before. Yet, it does not feel “predatory.” The Angel of History, that Walter Benjamin describes, mouth open with outstretched wings, his face turned towards the past, being driven into the future by the catastrophe, continuously being caught in an emergency situation that has become the rule, is not the situation the story of The Stolen Bicycle navigates. There is no paralyzing and no radicalizing storm blowing through the pages of The Stolen Bicycle. Instead, the interconnected stories move and flow around the past like oil and water in a lava lamp. The legs of the cyclist pressing down on the pedal are generating the heat that might keep that mix in motion, we thought, the dynamo pressing against the tire produces a warm and empathetic light which embraces the concoction evenly. Whoever holds onto the handle bar keeps a firm grip on the facts. History doesn’t “indefatigably patronize itself,” it rather produces itself by consciously taking into account all of its connections. Historicizing is not a chore, nor a tic or a threat — but a consideration that comes alive the moment you let it enter the present. “Going on,” doesn’t unfold as constant assessments of achievements and failures, but as a built-in intelligence with survival on its agency, the most straight-forward mode of moving around there might be. Nothing is absurd about it, or everything is. Depending. Sometimes there is stoicism, pragmatism, then there is passion, which often turns into an tangible obsession, especially when the novel becomes nerdy and starts to re-cycle, piece by piece, the history of the bicycle industry in Taiwan in the 20th century. Then, one has the luxury of laughing out loud and asking: Why?

Through the relations and images Wu Ming-Yi conjures, he makes accessible a place and a time in Taiwan in which a bicycle was a status symbol of wealth and power, like a S-class Mercedes would be today. He engenders estuaries where Western technology spills out progress, colonialism, and difference; where riding a bicycle could be seen as a strategy of self-Westernization. When one of Wu Ming-Yi’s “iron horses” rolls down the hill, one feels some sort of logic built into concept of social mobility. The way he writes builds up a connection that attaches one to the image of a bike as a place, where a child can physically hold onto one’s parent, where a child sits on the rack and smells the parent’s sweat, smells the father’s panting, the parent’s parenting. The father is barely making it up the hill to the doctor’s to get the medicine to cure the fever that has been taking care of the child’s body in its own feverish, burning ways, after the child was frightened and shocked by a pervert’s threatening penis in the public bathroom. The father of course will never remember the penis, only the fever, yet that doesn’t mean the memory is not reliable.

The way big and small words and concepts keep cycling through the interwoven stories, memories and facts of The Stolen Bicycle, provides an actual sense of maintaining a balance. It’s the same balance that needs to be maintained, it seems, when loading and unloading a well-built Japanese war bike, a jiten-sha. That the space between the handle bar and the rack is very adaptable and provides more than one possibility, becomes apparent when a former iron horse used during the war turns into a civilian mobile shop in which a vendor makes a living, once the war — as a state — is replaced by a rapidly progressing industrialized modernization.

I had never thought of bicycles as assets in military conflict, never thought of them as key elements in military strategies and tactics. I had never expected that picturing an infantry on bikes would have an empowering impact on me, never knew that soldiers entered battles on jiten-sha in the mud of the tropical jungle. I had never considered a bicycle with a rifle or a light machine gun mounted on the front-wheel fork, never realized how bikes could become companions for life that way, that bicycles could be those we call our loved ones.

I felt I had fallen in love with this jiten-sha, a model some soldiers had nicknamed ‘Hinomaru’ (Circle of the Sun). I felt the jiten-sha partly belonged to me. It was like the bond Amo had described to me between a hunter and his bow.

Clarence J. Glacken in his paper “Reflections on the History of Western Attitudes to Nature” writes:

Since we live in an industrial age, one in which meticulous artisanry handed down from generation to generation is no longer characteristic but exceptional, perhaps we are unable to appreciate the deep impression made on people of the past by the suppleness, skill, and creativity of the human hand in the arts, in everyday chores, in the use of weapons, and in sports and games.

The novel’s main character is Ch’eng, and Ch’eng’s family survived tailoring western suits in the Chung Hwa market in Taipei. A suit measured, a pattern laid out and cut wasting as little material as possible; once one strikes the right balance “between ‘steam’ and ‘burn’ and use just the right amount of force,” then pressing a garment is not mere ironing anymore.

What comes out of this tireless honing and forging are objects with a living, breathing soul that provide a relationship to the cosmos and humans who have faith. Things made with kang-hu have a soul.

Pa had a word for the art or skill a person carried around with him: kang-hu, a homophone in Taiwanese for kung-fu, which is what as a kid I thought he was saying. He would tell me that people with kang-hu, have endured hard training and much gnashing of teeth before, forged and honed, they attain mastery.

At some point in the novel, I thought that Wu Ming-Yi was a universal man. Not only the kind of universal man with access to the Internet and libraries, which makes all of us so universally equipped with facts and knowledge, and not the kind of ideal man, embedded in the “universal man,” that developed during the Renaissance in Italy which considered man the center of the universe, limitless in his capacities for development. Not necessarily the kind of man “that can do all things if he will,” not the kind of man who embraces all possible knowledge so he can develop his own capacities as fully as possible, but more like the “last universal man,” as Alexander von Humboldt is sometimes described in more recent writings, that try to contextualize his treatise on science and nature called Cosmos (in German Kosmos – Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung) published between 1845 and 1862 in five volumes. In the introduction to the first volume Alexander von Humboldt writes:

The most important aim of all physical science is this: to recognize unity in diversity, to comprehend all the single aspects as revealed by the discoveries of the last epochs, to judge single phenomena separately without surrendering their bulk, and to grasp Nature’s essence under the cover of outer appearances.

Like Humboldt, who “was deeply involved in the relationship between the subjective attitudes to nature expressed in travels, novels, exhibitions of exotic plants, and landscape painting, and the objective study of phenomena by scientific methods, experimentation, instrumentation, reason, and observation,” (Clarence J. Glacken) Wu Ming-Yi, an “artist, designer, photographer, literary professor, butterfly scholar, environmental activist, traveler and blogger” as it says in his bio, uses a wide range of methods and strategies to understand the world.

Take A hûn for example. The odor of a male butterfly makes her “armpits sweat and her palms wet.” A hûn has been growing up alongside her father catching huge quantities of butterflies they sell to factories, in which women sit on long tables where they cut off the wings and use them for making collages. Once A hûn reaches a certain age, her father doesn’t see it appropriate any longer for her to pursue the trait of butterfly catching. The job requires camping out in the mountains overnight, most likely not safe for a young woman working among male colleagues. He sends her to one of the handicraft factories, where she joins the female army cutting off wings off butterfly bodies and glues them on underlays of landscapes and still-lifes. She is one of the thousands of people who make a living by producing luminous, expensive butterfly collages.

On a website called Digital Taiwan – Culture and Nature I read:

In 1960s, the total value of butterflies exported from Taiwan was 30 million US dollars, surpassing that of Brazil. Taiwan became the world’s largest butterfly exporter. Taiwan’s butterfly industry climaxed between 1968 and 1975 when Taiwan exported 15-500 million butterfly specimens a year. Tens of thousands of people joined the business as full-time or part-time butterfly collectors or processors. Development of butterfly Industry made many opportunities for poor farmers to earn extra money. The butterfly industry also created the handsome foreign exchange reserves needed to transform Taiwan from an agricultural into industrial country.

One day A hûn’s father is found dead, “blood from a head wound washed away by the creek.” The butterfly catchers who found him said he had caught more butterflies than he had been allotted to. Yet he kept catching, so one night the devil, disguised as a rare butterfly lured him into the mountain where he stepped off a cliff and died.” A hûn is impregnated by a married doctor and before that fact becomes public in her village, she takes her father’s bike and leaves for the city, where A hûn gives birth to a daughter. Eventually there are not enough butterflies left in the mountains of Taiwan for anyone to make a living, and A hûn’s daughter grows up in a time when the butterfly industry, that once had fed her family, sharply declines.

In The Stolen Bicycle, history occasionally comes across as an organism that has utilized many methods to make an appearance. Wu Ming-Yi’s language pedals that organism and among the many things The Stolen Bicycle is about, it is about the mash up of languages currently spoken on the island of Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (ROP). The loanwords, the place names, the given names of people, the aborigines, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Han, the Japanese, the communists, the rapid growth, the industrialization, the ranking, the recognition, the crisis of today. Some of the characters in the novel speak one of the indigenous languages, some speak Japanese, most likely as a result of the colonial period 1895-1945 when Japanese was the official language on the island and taught in schools, most speak Mandarin, which became the official language after 1945, enforced by the national language policy of the Kuomintang, when Taiwan was under martial law for thirty eight years, the longest imposition of martial law anywhere in the world. Of course, for English readers it is hard to clearly distinguish these particulars, even though the translator Darryl Sterk has paid close attention to these issues through his use of romanisation systems, nevertheless what comes through is the reliable fact, that language is what it says it is:

In the world I grew up in, the word a person used for ‘bicycle’ told you a lot about them. Jiten-sha (‘self-turn vehicle’) indicated a person had received a Japanese education. Thih-bé (‘iron horse’) meant he was a native speaker of Taiwanese, as did Khóng-bîng-tshia (‘Kung-ming vehicle’), chiao-t’a-ch’e (‘foot-pedalled vehicle’) or tsu-hsing-ch’e (‘auto-mobile vehicle’) told you they were from the south of China. But everyone uses these terms now, so they’re no longer a reliable way to tell how old someone is or where they come from.

And why, you may ask, is the novel called The Stolen Bicycle? There is an answer in the story itself that directly relates to the past in the story and the past of its fictional author, and then there is an answer that relates to the now more generally, I think:

If something is stolen, that means people want it.

Wu Ming-Yi delivers what many people want right now and it’s no wonder that The Stolen Bicycle has already won several awards. He gives back what we are about to lose, by spending time with old people and learning from them about history and artisanry and tactility. People want that connection. In a six hours symposium called “Technology is History” in the Guggenheim Museum, where I ended up one day, the philosopher Yuk Hui whose key note lecture was called ”For a Cosmotechnical Critique of History” said: “The Western decline confirms the Eastern values.”

Because I was running late, I had debated if I should go to this symposium riding my bicycle or taking the subway. Because it was raining I took the subway, but a few seconds after I had entered the train, it stopped moving. Someone in the train in front of us, we were told over the PR system, had pulled the emergency brake. I wondered if it had been Benjamin’s Angel of History who couldn’t stand it any longer. I took The Stolen Bicycle out of my backpack and opened it randomly. In the postscript to the book Wu Ming-Yi writes:

I write novels to know how to stoically accept the vagaries of fate.

Annoyed by the delay and anxious to get moving again, I couldn’t read anything else, so I repeated the sentence about a hundred times, eventually replacing “write” with “read” — until the train moved on again.

Franziska Lamprecht is an artist who started writing as an extension of the long-term process based works, she produces together with her husband Hajoe Moderegger under the name eteam. Their projects have been featured at PS1 NY, MUMOK Vienna, Centre Pompidou Paris, Transmediale Berlin, Taiwan International Documentary Festival, New York Video Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, the 11th Biennale of Moving Images in Geneva, among many others.