Please note I did make the error of using hanyu pinyin. Given the context of Japan-occupied Taiwan, I should’ve used Wades-Gilles.
When Violets1 Bloom
By Yang Shuangzi
Hatsuko adored novels by Nobuko Yoshiya, and most eagerly anticipated each month’s release of the Girls’ Friends and Girl Pictorial magazines. Sadly, none of them landed within the realm of possibility when it came to actual purchase of these treasured items.
In contrast, for her classmates Sakiko and Yukiko, the latest Girls’ Friends was undoubtedly just a quick errand run away. Their families could simply dispatch servants to the canopy bookstore in the town of Nishiki2 for the newest periodicals. As for other books of recreation, following in the footsteps of the library’s collection expansion efforts was enough.
I don’t mind what condition any other book is in, but one day, just for once, I’d like to buy the newest release of Girls’ Friends. Even though that wish wove itself among the thoughts of Hatsuko’s mind—flaring from time to time—she never mentioned it to her mother Sachie.
After all, as the eldest daughter of the Yamaguchis, Hatsuko was she-who-awaited-the-library’s-harvest.
Her classmate Sakiko hailed from the hereditary peerage that was the Matsuzaki clan. Rumor had it that the Matsuzaki patriarch had especially moved his family, from Kyoto to the island, in pursuit of a lifelong affection for the local flora. Regardless of their means, the Matsuzaki manor situated in the town of Kawabata3 kept to an understated, spacious style.
Rare and exotic flowers sourced from both the mainland and island bloomed within a garden beyond brick walls. Everlasting riots of multicolored blossoms feted a deeply cherished, old Bougainvillea tree. If the family had remained on the mainland, Sakiko would surely be a princess living in the lap of luxury.
As for Yukiko… well. Compared to Sakiko, Hatsuko held a more complicated view of this classmate.
Numbering among the precious seven local students of their year, Yukiko’s birth name was Yang Xueni. The Yangs were prosperous landlords with holdings around the train station4, and they counted titled officials who’d passed the imperial examinations of the Qing Dynasty among their ancestors. A prominent and influential clan in both deed and name, such a heritage was reflected in the name of their descendent Yang Xueni. Taken from a line of Chinese poetry, it was an exceptionally elegant and lyrical name.
Whether it was Matsuzaki Sakiko of noble descent, or Yang Xueni of a local tycoon, both girls possessed family backgrounds that Hatsuko couldn’t even begin to dream of. As her most ordinary name indicated, Yamaguchi Hatsuko was a commonplace girl possessing of no distinctive qualities. Her most defining characteristic was the meaning behind “Hatsuko”—the first daughter of her parents’ children.
Her father Takao had relocated from Kyushu to the island, bringing along her mother Sachie, in the ninth year of the Taisho era5. Their firstborn was delivered the next year, followed by Hanako (for flower girl) one spring, then Natsuko (for summer child) in another summer. Their only boy incorporated the first character of his father’s name and was named Ryuichi (for vigor).
Hatsuko’s worries veered toward run-of-the-mill, a habit quite in line with her name.
The hefty responsibilities for a family of six on his back, her father counted every sen6 to put four children through school. He was a civil servant who drew a monthly stipend of sixty-seven yen, and there was never surplus enough to grant Hatsuko’s fondest wish of the latest Girls’ Friends. Though fifty sen per copy did not mark it as a luxury good in an age where the newfangled and fascinating abounded, it was still fifty sen too much.
Advertisements for shiny new “air coolers that doubled as heaters,” “electrical cold storage,” and “gas generators” beguiled and vied for attention in the daily newspaper. Forming a wish list from their pictures, her mother Sachie would occasionally sigh wistfully at the clippings. ”Goodness gracious, a cold storage unit for five hundred yen! How could we ever afford that?”
Even on the off chance that Hatsuko successfully requested some allowance, could a big sister like her ignore the bright eyes of her siblings and spend fifty sen on a girl’s magazine? Even if it was her favorite? Could she ever?
Though theirs was an open-minded era of progress, not everyone enjoyed the same equality and happiness. For Hatsuko, her two beautiful classmates were hardly within touching distance like Girls’ Friends. Rather, to bridge their gap would be to shoot for the stars or an electrical cold storage unit.
1. Violets are associated with lesbianism and Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570), a Greek poet fabled as the world’s first woman-loving woman. Her works contain many references to flowers and nature, of which violets and the color purple are mentioned multiple times. Violets are further associated with lesbianism in the 1926 play The Captive, when a female character sends a bunch of violets to another female character.
2. Nishiki-cho was an administrative district in modern day Taipei City, now part of Da-An District. Its inhabitants were mostly Japanese.
3. Kawabata-cho was a town in the administrative district of modern day Taipei City. Located in the southern part of the city, it bordered the waters of Xindian and was an area of rest and relaxation.
4. The train station was wang tian — government owned property.
5. From 1912 to 1926, coinciding with the rule of Emperor Taisho and marked by a liberal political movement.
6. The Taiwanese yen was the currency of choice in Japanese Taiwan from 1895 to 1946. Each yen was further divided into 100 sen (錢).
This is an excerpt from a longer work by Yang Shuang-Zi 楊双子, chosen for the Bai Meigui Translation Competition. The full text can be found here.