Kun-liang CHIU 邱坤良
FIELDS OF TASSELGRASS
Translated by Chris Wen-Chao LI 李文肇
Several years ago when my Aunt passed in Taoyuan, I
rushed back from abroad to pay my final respects. During the
service, I caught sight of a familiar figure—a woman in shabby
attire, her long hair covering a good half of her face. Oblivious
to her surroundings, she was in a world of her own, squatting on
the floor fiddling with her toes. Now she was a regular at weddings
and funerals, showing up no doubt to solicit from family
and friends. She was ignored by all, and no one bothered to
speak to her. But for me, her presence was a blast from the past,
bringing back memories of a character known to me as
Tasselgrass. After the ceremony, I turned to look for my homeless
friend, but she had already left.
My aunt was my father’s only elder sister—separated by three years, the two were close. When my father died of illness
some forty years ago, it was as if my aunt had no one left in this
world, and felt ever the more isolated. She spent the greater part
of her life in the village of Tsu-keng, near Baishishan Quarry in
the outskirts of Su-ao. Tasselgrass was her “neighbor,” so to
Since I was little, I have always been close to my aunt, as
she had always doted on me. My childhood memories were of
her looking very, very old—come to think of it, she was only in
her fifties, which is roughly how old I am now. But she wore
her hair split down the middle, typical of little old ladies at the
time. She reminded me of my grandmother—every time I
looked at a photo of my deceased granny, I would be struck by
the uncanny resemblance to my aunt. Like mother, like daughter,
perhaps? Or perhaps all relatives look alike once they reach
My memories of my grandmother are hazy, as she died
before I was old enough to enter kindergarten. What are left are
vague images that flash through my mind every now and then—
in these flashbacks, Granny, with her silvery hair, would be sitting
alone on an island lush with tasselgrass, each bud giving off
a mystic halo in the glint of the sun. The sea breeze stirs up a
storm of spikelets as the island appears to float in mid-air. Then
the wind subsides, and gently, the snowflakesque particles fall
silently on my beloved grandmother.
In retrospect, these hallucinations were most likely cobbled
together from stories of the afterlife told to me by adults—how I
imagined a fancy new abode for my grandmother!
Tasselgrass, femininity, solitude, lunacy, and mortality—for
some reason, these seemingly unrelated notions have been
linked in my child’s mind since early on, evolving into a patchwork of unforgettable memories that I return to every now and
then. When I need an escape from the daily grind, I retreat to
these tasselgrass trails lost in time.
I know little of my aunt’s past, only that for as long as I had
known her, she lived alone in the remote village of Tsu-keng—
the poverty and hardships of which are betrayed by the cacophony
of its name. In those days, to get to Tsu-keng from Nanfangao,
one had to enter Su-ao City, head in the direction of
Baimiweng, travel along Yungchun Road all the way to the
“tramcar terminal” of the local stone quarry, then turn onto
Yungle Road, which leads through the “home base” of
Tasselgrass before reaching Tsu-keng.
There are no buses along this route, only heavy haul trucks
whisking by. Those with personal business travel to Tsu-keng
on foot—automobiles are a rare sight in these parts, as are
motorcycles, or even bicycles. Even if one were to get hold of a
five-speed, the ride would be rough, as constant trampling by
industrial vehicles have left the pothole-ridden country road in a
perpetual state of disrepair. I would walk to Tsu-keng as a kid—
the trip from Nanfang-ao through Su-ao to Tsu-keng and back
would take me a good four hours.
What year it was when I first visited my aunt in Tsu-keng I
cannot recall. My earliest memories date back to when I was a
fourth grader in elementary school. It was the day after Chinese
New Year, and my father had brought me along to pick up my
aunt for New Year celebrations at home. I went along reluctantly,
as I was having the time of my life with my playmates—
every minute of the Chinese New Year holidays was precious as
gold, too precious to spend on a trip to some distant boondocks, not to mention the treacherous hike through the country to get
there. The journey did not pique my interest. But some good
came out of this unappealing mission, as I discovered that my
aunt owned a grocery store stocked full of toys, candies and
sodas. In the store, she allowed me to eat and drink whatever I
liked. Not only that, she gave me ten dollars’ worth of pocket
money for Chinese New Year, which was a large amount back in
those days, more than a month’s allowance from my parents,
enough to buy three issues of Manga Weekly.
After this initial experience, I was hooked, and made the
trip to my aunt’s house one of my main priorities of the year.
Come Chinese New Year, and I would volunteer to travel to the
boondocks to pick up my aunt. Like a monk on a pilgrimage, I
would brave the great distance to Tsu-keng for the mere sake of
receiving my “alms.” Right after New Year, just before school
started, I would make my “spring pilgrimage” to collect my
spending money. This would be followed by a “summer pilgrimage,”
an “autumn pilgrimage,” and a “winter pilgrimage”—
the trips to Tsu-keng were becoming regular, and I was very
much the sweet nephew. This was especially so during long
vacations, when I would offer to look after my aunt’s shop—
“learning the tools of the trade” was my excuse. My life’s ambition
at the time was to become a shopkeeper, to have my own
grocery store, so that I would be free to take whatever I wanted.
In the name of “shopkeeping,” however, I was fully aware that I
was most likely eating up more merchandise than I was selling.
In times of shortage, my aunt was my great “benefactor,”
an extraordinary act of faith considering that I was a loafer, and
was spending more money than I could ever make. But even
then, making the trip to Tsu-keng wasn’t always a pleasant
prospect. I would spend long hours deliberating whether or not to go—not because I suddenly developed a conscience and felt
bad about sponging off my penniless aunt, nor because the journey
was strenuous and time-consuming, but because getting
there required traveling through the domain of Tasselgrass.
Back then, the stretch of Su-ao Township from Baimiweng
to Tsu-keng was one big industrial area: Taiwan Cement
Corporation owned huge swatches of land, on which it built
quarries and factories. From a distance, one could see the gigantic
factory chimneys spurting black smoke, structures which
have since become county landmarks,. . .
From Lien-ho wen-hsueh 《聯合文學》(UNITAS—A Literary Monthly), No.
272, June 2007: 126-133.