Written by Timothy Tau
From the balcony where I am smoking a joint, you can see the betel nut stands. They are illuminated glass boxes that dot the neon cityscape of Kaohsiung, their fluorescent signs beckoning the constant stream of trucks and motorcycles that flow past Feng Nan Road. Some of the stands are equipped with stripper poles. These are for the bing lang xi shi, or betel nut girls, to slide down on and twirl on, to flaunt their hot-nurse outfits and naughty schoolgirl uniforms to the gawking vehiclists that pass by. From where I stand, you can see the girls strut over to the drivers in their tautly-stretched miniskirts and lacey knee-high stockings to serve, for 100 New Taiwan Dollars, areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves – a narcotic known to deliver a swift, hot jolt of a buzz. Some of the drivers stay parked in front of the stands longer than usual: likely studying what the girls are wearing that day, or beating off, or taking pictures with their cell phones. Occasionally, a customer tries to drive off with a betel nut girl who leans too seductively into a passenger-side window to hawk her wares – a few minutes later, her long legs would be seen furiously kicking the air, sticking out of a car speeding in a zigzag pattern down the street. No wonder S carried around a 30,000 Volt cattle-prod for protection. During one week, three different men had exposed themselves to her.
How S could inspire such behavior would not surprise you, if you had known her. She was nubile and lithe, long-limbed and lanky, and every time she smiled she would reveal two perfect rows of straight white teeth, except for a slightly chipped incisor that hung in the upper portion of her mouth like a shrunken stalagmite. During those moments when I lay next to her bare body in bed, I would see the faint caramel high-lights of her dark hair and her thinnish arms and follow her hips down her vanilla-hued spine until my eyes rested upon her small ankles, and then, all of a sudden, I would shudder out of the realization that I was a fortunate, fortunate man.
I slowly smoke the Da Ma – Mandarin for marijuana, which translates to “big hemp” or “the great numb” – and stare into a sign of a large neon hourglass that fills up slowly: one green, fluorescent bar at a time. The shadow of the tall man behind me grows and then interferes with the green glow from the sign. He is smoking too: a cigarette, nonetheless, and the clouds of haze slowly drift towards the gauze cocoon of my damp arm cast. I lift a tumbler full of baijou to down its contents, feeling its fiery bitterness alight down my throat, and then plunk it down next to a rusting silver gun with a gold trim. Closing my eyes in the sweltering Taiwan heat to feel the sweat run down my face, I can make out the honking and the driving away of cars, the periodic beeping of horns. The almost musical Xie Xie, Xian Sheng of the betel nut girls thanking their customers sporadically punctures the din of the noisy night air.
S’s stand was known as “The Box of Eternal Love.” That was what the Chinese characters said on the sign, more or less, along with the words “Dainty Betel Nuts” in English. The Box of Eternal Love was owned by Brother Lin, or as I called him, Lin Ge, Ge being the Mandarin word for “older brother,” even though I was older than him. He called me Da Niu¸ meaning “Big Ox”, a bastardization of my first name, Dante. Lin Ge was wiry, wore a sharp goatee, and carried himself confidently as a rising figure in the local Cloud branch of The Heavenly Alliance. He also ran the stand like a meticulous businessman, balancing profits and cash flow with competitive wages for his betel nut girls so they wouldn’t leave and go work at another shiny glass box down the street – places with names like Armani Vogue, Red Lady and Sweetheart Room. Most importantly, he also offered the girls protection. So, S actually never had to use that 30,000 Volt cattle prod. Instead, The Box of Eternal Love was kept under constant video surveillance: in case any drivers groped or harassed the girls, or tried to drive away with one, they would be threatened or beaten up, severely. But what of those persistent flashers? S had her own solution, which I gradually dubbed the “wanker wall”: she wrote down the vehicle license plates of the customers who showed her their nuts so the next time they came around, she refused to serve them her betel ones.
I had met all of them six months ago. Six months ago, before all of this happened. Before Spider came into the picture, before the incident with Brother Lin, before I had found out the truth about S. Six months ago I was also still a relatively green American ex-pat in Taiwan, trying to get by in an unknown country: a stranger in a strange land.
Before Taiwan, I resided in Los Angeles, and never ventured out of that urban wasteland during the thirty or so years that I had lived there. Both of my parents were from Taiwan, however: specifically Kaohsiung, the heart of the Island’s Southland. They came to the States in the mid-70s for graduate school and for jobs and to pursue the American Dream. In my former life, I was Dante Wu, Attorney-at-Law. I worked for three years as a Public Defender, trying to get potheads off possession charges and defending other poor, indigent criminals from charges of theft or indecent exposure. Since I was so junior, they kept me away from the juicy rape and murder trials, but I found that representing the dregs of society allowed me to understand the criminal mind somewhat. I fraternized with the footmen of mobsters, local drug dealers, small-time thieves and aspiring con-artists – hearing the gritty details of their shop talk – and at bars, because I would almost always get their charges reduced or dropped altogether, they would slap me on the back and buy me beers because I was “their lawyer” and they never had to pay a dime for my time.
However, in L.A., I felt soulless and empty. Like I didn’t belong. I hated the materialism and the vapidity, the constant competition amongst the other attorneys, bankers and doctors that I knew, a rat-race where social-climbing douchebags tried to outdo each other with the amount of fancy shit that they could buy. Even though acquaintances and the occasional girlfriend filled the empty stretches of my time, a deep, troubling loneliness still lay dormant in the pit of my stomach, like an ulcer. Both of my parents had passed away, so I had no real family to speak of – except for an Uncle Jim in Taiwan: not really an uncle but my Dad’s best friend from Taida or National Taiwan U, who called me up every so often to convince me to come out there to visit or to work there, knowing that I was an attorney.
Then, one day, a headhunter called. She had found my contact information from a friend in law school and asked me if I’d be interested in working in Taiwan, for nearly three times my current salary as well. The only catch was that I would have to be fluent in Mandarin. It was tempting, but I wasn’t thinking about the money, as so much the chance to go somewhere else, to start a new life, to undergo a re-birth. Well, I was also thinking about the money. My Mandarin skills were passable, but I was sure I would have no problem getting them up to speed. Even though all the words and phrases and colloquialisms were locked in my unconscious, I had the key. Ever since childhood, I’ve been listening to my parents speak Mandarin, absorbing it like a sponge – but now, that sponge was dry. As a result, I had to re-familiarize myself with the sound of the language and the intricate symbology of the characters. And there was also the issue of having to teach myself how to read.
So, a couple of intensive language classes later, I flew to Taiwan, had an interview at a major international firm in Taipei, and was offered a job as an Corporate Associate on the spot, handling California legal matters for big Taiwanese high-tech companies. But, after working there for four months, I was laid off: seemingly fired as quickly as I was hired. The knee-jerk excuse would be to just blame the recession, but I also partly blamed myself. The big firm life just didn’t appeal to me, with its drudgery and deadlines and mind-numbing document review. So, I took my termination as a blessing in disguise, with just one big exception: no more six-figure salary. However, I did have some money saved up, which I used to buy a 1998 Yamaha XRJ1200 to drive around Taiwan like some mechanized horseback cowboy riding around Mexico, looking for my next gig.
After meandering around southern Taiwan, living off my savings and trying to stay away from desk jobs or teaching English, Uncle Jim gave me a call, who by then I realized ran his own timepiece business in Kaohsiung. “Jim Tsao Clock Co” was its name: I looked the company up on-line.
He knew I was a former attorney who worked at a major firm in Taipei and said he had some work for me, even though it was probably a lot more menial than what I was used to: some light accounting and inventory-keeping and also some delivery work which required riding around on a motorbike all day. Compared to sitting on my ass and staring at a computer, that sounded pretty damn good. When I finally saw Uncle Jim, clad in a wife-beater with yellow stains and wearing a pair of worn, brown slacks, he hugged me gruffly with a cigarette sagging out the side of his mouth.
“Ah Niu! Look how you’ve grown, you damn Yankee American!”
“Good to see you too, Tsao Buo Buo.” Uncle Jim slapped me on the ass and then told me it was impossible that a young man so handsome could have sprung from my father’s testicles. As he scratched his bald head, he showed me around the timepiece factory – I saw piles of desolate broken clock arms, gears of all shapes and sizes, and rows of dusty, antique clocks as well as more modern-looking metallic models. After giving me a tour of a factory, he showed me to a dingy apartment overlooking Feng Nan Road and told me I could stay here, sort of a free “halfway house” he let his employees stay at while they worked for him. Peering out the window of that apartment, I was always curious about the shining glass boxes with scantily dressed women that dotted the streets. One day at lunch over fried, greasy strips of you-tiao bread and soy milk in a saucer, the surface of the white soup reflecting his balding hairline, Uncle Jim told me of the Box of Eternal Love, and said he would like me to meet some people.
That was actually how I first met Brother Lin, and S, shortly after. Uncle Jim introduced me to Brother Lin, who seemed very interested in the fact that I used to be a lawyer back in the States. Grinning and wearing a patterned Hawaiian shirt, Brother Lin told me to stop by the Box of Eternal Love around three o’clock tomorrow. When I came by at that time in my Yamaha the next day, S greeted me: she was wearing a black-and-white sailor costume with a black tie and a short, pleated dark miniskirt, and she smiled at me through her red lip gloss to show me a slightly chipped upper-tooth.
I told her I wanted to buy a pack of cigarettes and a can of Mr. Coffee, and as I saw S’s long tan legs go behind the glass wall with the neon tubes and pick out a box of “Firebrand Cigarettes,” my heart skipped a beat. On her way back, she gave me a free wrapped betel nut, and I tried it. It tasted watery, bitter, and hot all at the same time – and made me spit large red blotches onto the sidewalk, leaving my pulse intensely beating.
“Is this the first time you tried a bing lang?” S asked, laughing.
“Yes,” I coughed, blinking back tears from the pungent taste.
“You look like – you’re not from around here.”
“Well, I’m not. I’m a foreigner. An American expatriate: Mei guo yen,” I managed, in my broken, heavily-accented Mandarin. When I was in the States, I would look down in disdain at the “FOBs” or “Fresh Off the Boats” who spoke English with horrible accents and who served as constant and embarrassing reminders of my cultural roots. However, I realized now that I was the FOB.
“You’re an American, huh?” She giggled. “Not too many of your kind around here, are there?”
“No, guess not.” I replied, grinning, lighting a cigarette. “I don’t know any locals, either. You should show me around.”
S told me she came from Chiayi, a sleepy farm town out in the countryside, but said she was eventually drawn to Kaohsiung because it was the second largest city in Taiwan under Taipei, the country’s capital, and because Kaohsiung had character. I could see why. In 1895 under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the Japanese who owned Taiwan changed the name of the city from Tankau, “Beating Dog,” to Takao, “Glorious Hero.” After 1945, when the Republic of China took over the island and read the kanji for Takao into Chinese characters reciting “Kao-hsiung”, the population boomed – seemingly overnight – eventually becoming the sprawling, hyper-futuristic metropolis it is today, a city seemingly made entirely out of light: from the large neon Ferris wheel known as the “Kaohsiung Eye” that overlooked rows and rows of crystalline skyscrapers, to the long and winding Love River that reflected the thousand electric signs and building-sized ads bearing huge, moon-like faces of beauty-product models, I was impressed. When S finally showed me the Tuntex Tower, a towering, inverted tuning-fork of a structure, I knew instantly I had seen it before in Blade Runner.
We walked around the Liuhe Night Market close to Zhongshan Road and the Kaohsiung Railway station, and saw deep-fried meatballs as big as fists being sold next to colored ices flavored like carambolas and jujubes – fruits I never even knew existed. The skin of my tongue still scorching from downing a bowl of Niu Rou Mien – the broth red with large, sloppy bubbles of oil adrift amongst the noodles and chunks of beef – we would hear trance music over the noise of customers haggling passionately over DVDs and handbags, and saw young people walking and sipping purplish milk-tea drinks while biting carefreely into assorted meats-on-sticks.
S and I would get drunk on Tsingtaos at the Pig and Whistle, a British-themed pub popular amongst the ex-pats, and check into the various love hotels that were scattered around the Kaohsiung streets, stumbling into those rooms that provided complimentary condoms on the pillows along with their breathmints. She would tear down my pants to eagerly perform oral sex, and I would try to return the favor, not sure if my cunninglingus exactly did her fellatio justice. I say this because she gave head like a metronome gave the time: continuously, and at different, maddening tempos. If that wasn’t enough to make me come, I would mount and plow into her from an array of disorienting angles, trying to distract myself from climax by meditating on the mole just above her left breast. The bare skin of her hips had the granular quality of dirty paper, and as I grabbed her wet shoulders while entering her from behind, I would marvel at her curved back underneath the dim light, glistening with sweat like a faint pink piece of tuna sashimi. She would then whip out her hair, and after seeing this, I knew it was over.
“Do you have any family?” She asked me once after sex, folded diagonally into my arm.
“Yes. And no. I used to. Both my parents are dead. You? Ni ma?”
“Mei you. No. You’re lucky.”
After holding each other tight and not wanting to let go, we would both finish our cigarettes and I would watch her shimmy into a miniskirt and slide on a pair of leg-warmers for work at the betel nut stand the next day. When I asked her what her aspirations were, and what she was interested in, she told me about Asian pop-music stars and Taiwanese dramas that I had never heard of. The only time I remembered her becoming deep and serious was when she told me a family is a beautiful thing, her eyes squally and dark and still, and as she carefully rolled up over her legs a pair of sheer white stockings, I saw that they had small black kittens imprinted onto them.
You’d think that the way they were dressed, the bing lang xi shi were hookers, prostitutes or peddlers of some kind of sex. But, no. Brightly-lit glass boxes are probably the last place in Taiwan where one can seek such carnal vices. Otherwise, the cops would be all over the betel nut stands, unlike the throng of massage parlors bearing those telltale barber-shop poles, or the string of KTV bars overflowing with hostesses willing to do anything for the right fee. The betel nut stands run on a simple and effective business model: the cuter or younger the girl – most of them are in their early 20’s – or the less clothes she has on, the more cars will stop and buy betel nuts and hence the more business will be earned. Call it exploitation, or a traffic hazard, or a form of urban art, but the bing lang xi shi are simply working girls trying to make an honest day’s wage, many of them coming from the mainland or the countryside to work for an average of six months to send money back home to relatives, or to improve the hands that they were dealt in life.
S eventually introduced me to some of the other girls working in the Box of Eternal Love – they had names like Ling and Mindy and Eva – and all of them were referred to as lameis by Brother Lin, or Mandarin for “spicy girl”, which was a term of art he used to describe his most fundamental business principle: the more la your lameis, the more profit. In that hollow, neon crystal shrine, where the fluorescent lights reflected off their mascara and their eyelashes and the gleam of their tight latex miniskirts, I would watch the bing lang xi shi don green plastic finger guards while cutting up cubes of brown lime paste, which they would then spread over thick green leaves to wrap the betel nuts in. From afar, they looked like miniaturized porcelain dolls moving around in a surreal, neon-lit diorama.
S and Brother Lin also seemed close, as if they were family. Because I was close to S, Brother Lin seemed to trust me and took an immediate liking to me, letting me shadow him as he gave me an insider’s perspective on managing a betel nut stand. He showed me the ledgers and the inventory list of the cigarettes and drinks and the shipment logs of betel nuts he received from countryside towns such as Chiayi and Tai-tung. Besides rice, he told me, betel nuts are Taiwan’s largest cash crop. He then brought me to the back of the stand to watch the video surveillance feed. The customers, those Cao ta Ma de fuckers, they don’t try anything funny. They know they’re being watched, he said, tapping the grey, static-filled monitor. He also told me how he had bought off the cops so they wouldn’t give his betel nut girls a tough time for indecent exposure under the newly-passed three-B ordinance (betel nut girls could not bare breasts, belly-buttons and/or buttocks). However, if he knew some rookie was patrolling a route near the stand, hungry to issue citations, Brother Lin would make his bing lang xi wear cop uniforms and dance around with black caps and short blue skirts, seductively twirling black batons. This was a code word he used with the police to keep off his turf, and it was funny to see how much it entertained the other customers while the police became increasingly pissed off.
In return for calling me Da Niu, Brother Lin told me to call him Lin Ge, as most of his other subordinates did. There were the Inoue Brothers, two brawny, half-Japanese, half-Taiwanese brothers named Jin and Gou who had their heads shaved and that obeyed his every command, serving primarily as the enforcer “muscle” to scare off unruly betel nut stand customers.
For a gangster, Lin Ge seemed relatively laid back. He was always wearing a patterned Hawaiian shirt, collared and open at the neck, which exposed his tan neck and chest and also an intricate jade necklace he wore all the time. However, with his trim black goatee and wiry, sharp-boned frame, he emanated a sinister and almost sly magnetism: he could be charismatic enough to persuade me on any issue or topic, and also intimidating enough to force the Inoue Brothers to do anything he wanted. Instead of laughing at my American accent like S, Lin Ge saw my foreign background (and legal expertise) as an asset, as a way to get pointers on improving his business practices and making his less-than-legal endeavors more air-tight and impervious to the authorities. When he began to trust me more, he let me go along with him on debt-collection raids, and also observe him manage his other major cash cow, a night club and KTV bar known as the Suzaku, or the Vermillion Phoenix of the South.
One night, I was lounging around with Lin Ge and the Inoue Brothers in one of the upper balcony backrooms of the Suzaku while some of his other henchmen were playing pool. S and some of the other betel nut girls were dancing and entertaining customers downstairs to pounding trance music.
I looked to the back wall, where a black and white framed picture was propped up, showing an older, dapper-looking man with slick-backed hair standing in front of a snowy landscape. Architecture in the snowy background suggested that the backdrop was Japan. Immediately below the picture was a table with a scroll flanked by two candles.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“What’s that doing up?” Lin Ge said, caught partially by surprise. He stood up and slapped the picture frame onto the table face-down, while the Inoue brothers looked at him slyly. “Da Niu, this here is certainly more important,” Lin Ge said, pointing to the scroll on the altar. “It’s our credo, the credo of the Heavenly Alliance.” He took out the scroll and unfurled it, and began reading the ancient inked characters imprinted on the yellowed parchment in a solemn but slightly theatrical sing-song voice:
“First, Help Heaven in Dispersing Justice and Aid the Poor,” he said.
“Second, Be Honest and Candid With Other Members,” Jin Inoue intoned.
“Third, Follow the Example of Heaven and Earth, and Represent Justice,” Gou said.
“Fourth and finally: Fly As High as Possible, Travel the World, and Do Just Things,” Lin Ge finished, smiling proudly.
“I feel our gang follows most of them except for number two,” Jin Inoue said. Lin Ge glared at him angrily and shouted “Cao!” loudly to him, the Mandarin word for Fuck. He then looked over to me and grinned.
“Jin here is a simple one who really doesn’t understand our four principles. Da Niu, this is what makes us better than the other organizations out there, the Cao ta Ma de Four Seas Gang or the United Bamboo. Those wombadan cocksuckers are amateurs compared to us!”
“We are also the only gang that has connections to the Yakuza in Japan,” Gou Inoue added.
“That’s true,” Lin Ge added. “Very true. Our connections with the Yakuza do set us apart.” I could see Jin Inoue give Lin Ge a questionable shifty look, and sip his glass of baijou slowly and pensively. Lin Ge then walked over to me and lazily draped his arm around my shoulders. “Come on, Da Niu, let’s party, let me show you how we do it out here in the Dirty South!”
We walked downstairs into the shifting laser lights and pounding trance music of the club, as a melody punctured by high, periodic whistles filled the background. Some girls were decked out in elaborate angel outfits and tight leather bustiers, gyrating about on lit-stages, while other girls were dancing closely with men on the floor or huddled closely to them on couches. These were “candy girls” in Lin Ge’s employ, hot girls who would entertain guests with sex or company in exchange for trying out new drugs. The “dinosaur girls” were not as attractive, but wanted the drugs just as badly, so they were willing to go the distance and be more depraved. In the din and smoke and flashing laser lights of the Vermillion Phoenix, I saw S dancing on a stage, wearing a pair of wings and a white lacey miniskirt.
As soon as she saw me, she hopped down and hugged me tightly: she smelled like glitter and sweat and Ciroc. As I danced closely to her gyrating body, gripping the sweaty sides of her hips, Brother Lin approached and put his arms around us like we were newlyweds. He handed both of us a small, rolled-up joint and some powder, and told me to try a “Trinity” on the house. Later did I realize a “Trinity” meant (i) first doing MDMA or ecstasy – which put me into a trance where the notes of the music knocked my body about; (ii) second, taking Ketamine or K – which seemed to put me down into a quiet, tranquil hole; and then (iii) third and finally, finishing it all off with marijuana – which got me high enough to soar out of that hole. S and I took turns blowing pot smoke in straight lines into each other’s noses, laughing and kissing and getting higher by the minute. I began to feel what others described to me as ren-wo-yi-chia, or the union of the self and the outside world, and as I rode the vibrations of the music to a higher plane above my mind, I remembered talking to my father, when he was still alive, about Taiwan and his roots. I would ask him whether he considered himself Taiwanese or Chinese, or what growing up in Kaohsiung was like, or what Taiwan was like, for that matter. He would always seem annoyed at the question and told me finally I should see it for myself, to make my own decision. I can’t tell you about something that you never saw with your own two eyes, he said to me. It’s important you go there on your own, to see it for yourself. After all, it’s your homeland, your motherland. Your land of origin.
One night when I was watching the bing lang xi shi operate the Box of Eternal Love, flirting with the customers and bringing flimsy plastic cups along with bags of betel nuts for the customers to spit red blotches into, I saw Brother Lin come by with a worried look on his face.
“What’s the matter?” I asked him.
“He’s back,” he said. “Spider.”
Since Brother Lin wouldn’t explain anything to me, I had to ask Jin Inoue, who told me that Boss Hsu had been recently released from jail much earlier than expected, and he was coming back to reclaim his territory. Jin also told me that Boss Hsu was the one who pulled the strings to get Lin Ge his current job now as head of the Cloud Branch of the Heavenly Alliance, and when he was sent away for four years, Brother Lin took over his position. When I asked Jin what had caused Boss Hsu to be incarcerated, Jin looked furtively both ways and said “Self-Sacrifice.” Jin told me no-one expected Boss Hsu to be released from jail this early, but he had many connections and also probably a very good lawyer. Now, every time I saw Brother Lin walking around, he looked nervous and jittery, a state which I had never seen him in before.
When I finally met Boss Hsu, he wasn’t what I had expected. I imagined a grungy thug with a face full of scars, but instead before me was a tall, stately and suave gentleman, who looked clean-cut and almost fatherly. Instead of Hawaiian shirts, Boss Hsu wore fancy blazers and ties and polo shirts, and carried around an old pocket watch that he kept chained to his suit jacket. With his slicked back hair and the long, thin cigarettes he smoked constantly, it was as if he came straight out of 1940’s Shanghai. I then realized that he was the man in the picture that looked like it was taken in a snow-covered Japan.
Boss Hsu was well-spoken and half-Japanese like the Inoues, and his words came out with a slightly native-Taiwanese inflection, a dialect that I had heard used among those who had lived on the Island longer than the rest. Brother Lin introduced me as Da Niu, which led Boss Hsu to laugh loudly.
“Ni de lan jiao bi niu da ma? So, you’re dick’s bigger than an Ox’s, is it?” Boss Hsu asked me, referencing an old Chinese joke. When Brother Lin talked to him, he looked downwards, always paying undue amounts of respect. It was as if Brother Lin was castrated, his power and virility slowly leaking away. “You’ve done a good job of keeping everything in order while I was gone,” Boss Hsu said to him, eyeing him carefully. “I’m glad to have trained you so well.”
“So why do they call him the Spider?” I asked Jin Inoue one day, while we were smoking joints outside the Box of Eternal Love, watching the traffic moving past the waves and shouts of the energetic bing lang xi shi, the lights of the passing cars a continual blur of color and noise.
“They call him that because he has his arms in basically every department of the city and is very well-connected politically,” Jin said. “He can also spin fine webs of silk around you, convince you and sweet-talk you until you see his way, and if you don’t –” Jin paused. “He’ll probably eat you alive.”
When I tried to ask Jin again why Boss Hsu was thrown in jail, Jin was furtive – only mentioning things in passing: The Yakuza, a snowy region of Japan known as Yuzawa, a debt, and shipments of crystal meth hidden in pottery. When Boss Hsu found out that I was an American, and had a background in criminal law, he started giving me some real work, which I was at first hesitant to take on, but soon realized that I had an inherent knack for. And the pay: more lucrative than any job I had, ever.
By then, I had quit doing delivery work for Uncle Jim, and he wished me well, thinking that I had found a successful job somewhere else. I offered to start paying rent for the flat he owned over Feng Nan Road, but he told me I could keep living in it as long as I wanted – for he had other apartments he could rent out, and was thinking of moving his clock company to Taipei, because business was better there. Lin Ge also seemed sad that Uncle Jim was planning to move, and bid him farewell. So, I bounced from one father-like figure to another, and Boss Hsu guided me as I started performing debt-collection and helped with the management of the Box of Eternal Love and the Vermillion Phoenix – which were in the past Brother Lin’s responsibilities. When I started doing these tasks, Brother Lin looked glad and grinned at me, but I knew deep down inside he was jealous and angry, enraged that he was slowly losing the influence that he once had: the patrons of the Vermillion Phoenix were treating Boss Hsu as the owner now, and I would see Lin Ge try to desperately assure his betel nut girls that their jobs were still secure and that he was still in control.
I also saw him consoling S, who started expressing worry about having to find a job somewhere else. Getting more involved in the details of the gang’s business, I also began to spend less and less time with S, and she was beginning to wonder why I wasn’t showing up to meet her as much as I did in the past. She would cutely text me in broken English that she missed me, and I would correct her grammar and spelling because we planned to move to the States one day. When I did meet up with her, I told her that I had found a new job, a better paying one, and she said that she was glad. This was true, partly, but little did she know that trying to keep up with the pressures of Boss Hsu and running the business of a criminal organization was extremely time-consuming, not to mention way more stressful than the cushy confines of the corporate world.
S suspected that I was seeing someone else, and finally confronted me. Left with no other option, I told her the truth, and she looked at me, dumbfounded. What are you thinking? Once you get involved with this world, there’s no turning back. I asked her to forgive me, which she did, and we tried to forget these problems through sex. I tried to lose myself in our passion: S had shaved her pubic hair into a thin black line and I focused in on it like it was a landing strip, trying to think of only that while we were fucking, and honestly believing that our lovemaking would solve everything, eventually.
One day, while drinking some pineapple-flavored Taiwan Beer outside a convenience store, S called me and told me that she was pregnant.
I dropped the aluminum can and suddenly froze. Since Boss Hsu was my main employer and I trusted him, I proceeded to obtain his counseling. He grinned warmly and gripped me on the shoulder. “Da Niu, you are in good hands. The Heavenly Alliance – we are all family here. I will personally support whatever decision you make, either to have a family or not. If you also want to leave, and go work as a lawyer to start a new life, I will also stand behind you as well.”
A spectrum of emotions began to rifle through my gut – on one end, I felt fear and confusion, not wanting to be a father, and wanting S to get an abortion: one side of me simply wasn’t ready, and didn’t want the responsibility. On the other end, coaxed partly by S’s pushing and pleas for starting a family, I realized a part of me wanted to support S and to care for her and the child, our child.
This was also my ticket out of the criminal underworld: a chance for me to escape the pressures of Boss Hsu, to live a morally up-right life in Taiwan with a girl that I loved. I thought about it for nearly two weeks, and finally made the decision to leave the Heavenly Alliance and get a real job.
On the day I was to confront Boss Hsu however, Lin Ge and the Inoue Brothers approached me. Lin Ge had a mad glint in his pupils, and the corners of his eyes were red, as if he hadn’t slept for days or had been high on drugs, or both.
“Look, Da Niu, I have a plan,” he told me. “I’m orchestrating a coup.”
“Well, I was just thinking of leaving the gang and starting a – I don’t know if you know, but S is pregnant, we want to start a family.”
“I know. Congratulations, S told me,” Lin Ge said, his eyes shifting back and forth quickly. “But maybe, just this one last time, I need you. You are the only person that Spider trusts. For my plan to work, we need you.” I looked around and saw Jin Inoue looking away while Gou rubbed his hands together and licked his lips. Lin Ge looked at me again.
“This weekend we are flying to Yuzawa, in Japan, to handle a long-standing debt with the Inagawa-kai branch of the Yakuza. I just need you to do a very simple thing, please. Do it for me, as a friend. As a brother.” Lin Ge’s eyes were watery and anxious. I sighed slowly.
“Fine. So what’s your plan?”
Jin Inoue told me that three years ago, Boss Hsu took the rap for a lucrative crystal meth shipment that Lin Ge had set-up with the Inagawa-kai branch of the Yakuza, which operated primarily out of the snowy region of Yuzawa. The drugs were supposed to be shipped in pottery, but were eventually discovered by the export authorities based on a tip coming from an unknown source – Jin and some others guessed that Brother Lin leaked the information deliberately, trying to sabotage Boss Hsu and get him thrown in jail. This seemed to work, as Boss Hsu came forward and took responsibility of the mishap to prevent any connection from being drawn to Japan, one of the Heavenly Alliance’s most lucrative alliances, and to also shield his young protégé Lin Ge from any criminal liability.
However, ever since that incident, Boss Hsu learned the truth and has been trying to push for Brother Lin’s resignation due to this act of betrayal. According to the bylaws of the Heavenly Alliance, the only way to remove a member is to have a tribunal with all the relevant parties involved – in this case, the Inagawa-kai Yakuza have to also be present – and to submit evidence for everyone’s consideration: just like a court hearing, but with all the parties being criminals instead.
Being a lawyer in my past life, Brother Lin wanted me to side with Boss Hsu and act as his counsel. He also told me that another bylaw of the Heavenly Alliance dictated that a member could resign from the gang if a quorum had gathered and the resigning member admitted his resignation in front of them all. Lin Ge told me to tell Boss Hsu that he wanted to resign via this procedure. Then, he wanted me to lead Boss Hsu to a location different than where the tribunal was being held. There, with other Heavenly Alliance members that supported his coup, Lin Ge would execute an ambush.
I expressed doubts that Boss Hsu would agree to meet someplace alone, but Lin Ge interrupted, telling me that Boss Hsu was an absolute stickler for the bylaws and codes of the Heavenly Alliance. He wanted to have Lin Ge resign more than anything else. Furthermore, Lin Ge told me that I would accompany Boss Hsu along with the Inoue Brothers, so as to fully gain his trust.
I tentatively acquiesced, but didn’t know if it was going to pan out the way it did. Before we left for Yuzawa, I told S I was going on a business trip to Japan, and she looked at me long and hard with a grimace sheathed in pastel lipstick, and then hugged me tightly before pulling away.
“I’m coming back, don’t worry about that,” I said to her.
“I’ll be waiting,” she replied, kissing me slowly.
Yuwaza was cold and vast, a snow country where blankets of white covered sporadic hot springs and warm, wooden temples that piped out continuous stacks of steam. This part of Japan was known for its major ski resorts and sauna-like onsens, and the Yakuza tribunal was to be held in a hotel owned by the Inagawa-kai sect that looked like a castle from the Edo period, a multi-tiered fortress that overlooked the ice-capped mountains and clusters of snow layered trees that were scattered haphazardly in the distance.
In the hotel room before the tribunal, Boss Hsu came to me dressed in a dark grey suit and looked at me with his quiet eyes, which were of a darker, greyer quality. He told me that he could tell that something was on my mind as I looked emptily and dull-eyed into the bathroom mirror directly above the intricately-folded towels. I told him what Lin Ge told me to say, that Lin Ge wanted to meet at a different location beforehand to formally give up his leadership position in front of the whole gang, as per official Heavenly Alliance protocol. He smiled, because he loved tradition as much as he loved being a gangster.
“Is that so? Well, I’m glad to hear it.”
“So, Jin, Gou and myself, as well as several others will be accompanying you to the Temple near the Noboribetsu Onsen, to meet Lin Ge and hear his resignation in person.”
Brother Lin was badly bruised and his arms were tied up. As I stood across from him along with Boss Hsu and the other gang members, all of us clad in black trench coats or winter jackets, I saw him kneeling, shivering – in a t-shirt and black boxer shorts, his back up against a stone pillar.
We were all standing in the derelict ruins of an abandoned Buddhist temple, its grounds covered in snow and the cold wind howling through its frozen, iced remains. Boss Hsu was carrying a rusting, silver pistol with a gold trim and looked coldly into the eyes of Brother Lin.
“You made the mistake of trying to cross me the second time, you disloyal little shit.”
“Cao! Fuck you, old man!” Lin Ge spat, a loogie of blood landing into the snow, spit dangling from his shaking lip.
“You think you could stage a coup. That you could rebel. But your mistake, you idiot, was that you forgot no-one was on your side. Quite a fatal mistake to make, don’t you think?”
Lin Ge looked up, his face bloody and frozen, his eyes cold and red and tired, looking like a beaten dog. “But if you think I’m going to kill you, you’re wrong,” Boss Hsu said, chuckling. He took the silvery pistol from his black glove and slowly handed it to me. I was startled slightly.
“What? Why are you giving this to me?” I asked.
“Because I think Lin Ge has something he wants to tell you,” Boss Hsu said. Boss Hsu then pulled out another black gun from his trenchcoat, clicked the hammer to show it still had ammunition, and lobbed it towards Lin Ge. “Untie him!” One of the gangsters slowly ripped apart the ropes restricting his hands and Lin Ge fell face first into the snow, desperately grabbing for the gun.
“Not so fast,” Boss Hsu said, signaling the other gangsters to slowly pull out their pieces. “Now, as I was saying. I think Lin Ge has something he wants to tell you, Da Niu. Don’t you Lin Ge? Don’t you remember the Second Principle of our Credo? Be Honest to Others?”
Lin Ge slowly brushed off the stinging snow from his bare knees and gradually picked himself up, the black gun trembling in his hand. “Gan! I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about you old fucking prick!”
“Of course you do. I’m talking about that scam you run. That con. That way you rope in innocent, rich Americans with money so that they can take care of you and your family.” I started trembling, but not from the cold. Lin Ge clicked the hammer and pulled the slide back, lifting the black gun gradually and slowly.
“I’m talking about how you win their trust, get them to give you their money, and who knows what you do to them after you’re done? Probably kill them! Has this been the fourth one already?”
“Shut up, shut up!”
“But you tried to make this one better, I see. Get his family friend involved, get his Uncle Jim to rope him in. And then, there was your whore to provide for. You’d do anything for her, wouldn’t you?”
“What did I tell you?” Lin Ge was now aiming the gun at Boss Hsu.
“The child, yes I know it’s probably real. But, we all know it’s not really his. It’s yours!”
Lin Ge screamed primally and just before he pulled the trigger back to fire, I quickly side-stepped in front of Boss Hsu. A crack rang out and a sharp red burst sliced through my right arm, which caused me to jerk up my left arm in response to send a louder crack across the tranquil snow-covered slopes. A small red hole suddenly burnt itself into Lin Ge’s forehead, and I heard the echoing retort of the silver pistol reverberate across the hollow, emptied ruins of the snow-layered temple and bounce a few notes off a large iron bell.
As my knuckles and jaw trembled, I witnessed the howling wind blow up tufts of powdery clouds, and saw Brother Lin’s body lie quietly twitching in the snow, his crimson blood staining the pristine blankness around him.
Now, as I stand on the balcony rounding out the last of my joint and look out at the glowing myriad lights of the betel nut stands below me, I exhale a deep, weighty sigh. When I returned to Kaohsiung, the other betel nut girls told me that S had already left – I imagined she went ahead with the abortion. Some say she went back to Chiayi, others say she left Taiwan altogether.
The high from the marijuana slowly begins to fade, and my mind starts to adjust to sobering reality, as I begin to half-heartedly accept the responsibility that awaits me. In an hour or so, Boss Hsu, who is standing right behind me, smoking a cigarette, will christen me his second-in-command, and it is I who will take over the responsibilities that were left to Brother Lin in the past. I look upon the rows and rows of lit-up betel nut stands below me, which I realize will soon all be mine: my empire and my profit, but also my burden, my responsibility.
Part of me wants to run, scared, to escape, but asks: where else can I go? Back to L.A.? Back to America? The Spider has already spun his web tight around me, with his ties with customs and the airport. It’s just too late. But would I even still want to go back to the States now? It seems so far away, so distant: another life, another time. The other part of me, which is slowly starting to grow in force and momentum, secretly wants to stay, knowing that there is no running away from destiny, no running from my roots, my land of origin; and, as a dark thrill slowly begins to fill my veins, a voice speaks to me out of the darkness of the night: you have nowhere else to go, you belong here. I have nowhere else to go, I belong here. You belong here, nowhere else. I belong here? I belong here.