Renowned writer, playwright and critic, Bai Xianyong [Pai Hsien-yung 白先勇] was at the center of attention earlier this year in Taipei as «Crystal Boys», adapted from his 1983 novel, premiered on the stage of the National Theater. In the few days following, the retired professor of Chinese Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was awarded the 33rd National Cultural Award of the Republic of China (Taiwan), the country’s highest artistic honor. On March 15th, Bai Xianyong granted an interview to Lettres de Taiwan, a one-hour conversation at the National Theater, Taipei. (French version of this interview can be found there)
Crystal Boys recently premiered in Taipei and will soon be featured at the Kaohsiung Spring Arts Festival. You are the artistic director for this production, while director Tsao Jui-yuan [曹瑞原] was already behind the TV adaptation that was broadcast on PTS, Taiwan’s public television channel, in 2003. How has your collaboration evolved?
When we worked together for TV, I was just a consultant for the scriptwriting and partly involved with the casting, that’s all. Tsao Jui-yuan is indeed a veteran director of TV series. After this short collaboration, I left Taiwan and went back to America. Of course we had a lot of phone calls and we used the fax machine a lot.
This time, I got more involved, which I did not expect: I thought I would be just a kind of advisor but no, no… I got more and more involved as the production went along, because it was the first time for the director to direct a stage performance – before that, he had directed movies and TV series. There was a lot of pressure on all of us and adaptation was kind of complicated, more than for the TV series. It is a long novel, and you have to put it into a three-and-half-hour play.
Therefore you had to make many choices.
There was a lot of editing, a lot of cutting.
As art director for this play, have you been a kind of gatekeeper, controlling fidelity to the script, or were you proposing your own fresh interpretation of the novel?
In fact, I did everything. I thought I would be in a hand-off position but, no. I got more and more involved, from the scriptwriting to the casting. I tried to help the director. We had a lot of discussions and meetings together. The very first idea to get this on a stage happened actually 10 years ago, right after the TV series became a big success. PTS broadcasted it repeatedly – 5 times! So, at that time, there was some consideration of putting it onas a play using the same cast. The cast was very popular at that time. But we gave up on the idea. Then, 10 years after…
Who revived the idea?
Some friends of mine pushed for it. This is actually a huge production featuring top artists. This is quite exciting actually.
In terms of scriptwriting, how far-reaching were the changes you had to make?
The love and death scene between Long Zi and A-feng was the hardest part for us. How to make it into a play? It was much easier for the TV series, where the story was realistic. But this one had to be special. This kind of passion is beyond words. A play without words: how could we do that? Maybe by using dance. This is a play after all, and we have to use different techniques, somehow, by putting together dance and monolog. This was quite a bold position, I think. This was the very first move initiating the choice to use dancers. For the opening scene, we also used modern dance as a means to create an atmosphere for the Kingdom of Darkness.
In some scenes, dance is the central element…
Yes. For the scene of Long Zi and A-feng, it came as a suprise to everybody. Because [Billy Chang 張逸軍], the dancer who embodies A-feng, was a member of the Cirque du Soleil. He was a star there! He was just right for the figure of A-feng. His style. His person. He said : « I am A-feng ».
In the novel, the story of Long Zi and A-feng becomes a legend for those who attend the New Park. In the play, the legend is actualized on the stage. Has it led to give more importance to this story?
Yes, indeed. Because this is a very dramatic scene. If we have been successful, it will be very effective on the stage. Although this is still a memory, this is a real scene. In a way, you must have noticed that the scenes interact with each other, back and forth, from the present to the past.
This technique of flashback is often found in your novels but it must come as a challenge for the adaptation…
Yes. The reader can easily go back and forth. We tried to keep this in the play too.
Among many overlapping stories and dimensions featured in the novel, you focused on a few narratives only. How did you choose what to cut?
I think there are two major themes in the novel. One is love, the other one is the father-son relationship. So we chose the scenes related to these two main themes: A-qing and his mother, A-qing and his father, the confrontation between Mister Fu and Long Zi… These are very important scenes. At the very end, it comes down to family, especially the Chinese family, the Confucian family, with some military elements too because at that time there were so many military fathers. At that time, so many soldiers from China migrated to Taiwan. These military men were either single or they had left their wives on the mainland. They knew they would never be able to go back, so they settled here and married Taiwanese women. Because of the culture barrier, the language barrier, a number of these marriages did not work out. So there were a lot of tensions in the families. Of course there were happy cases too.
As you have said, in the story line there are a lot of monologues or quasi-monologues. A-qing, for instance, often in a situation where he is listening to a more mature character. Why do monologues occupy such a great place in the play?
To begin with, in the novel itself, A-qing serves as the narrator. In the play, we have many stories fused together, so we wanted someone, a narrator, to carry the storyline, to connect all the stories together. And for us, this is what the theater is all about – like in Shakespeare – with both passion and long monologues.
Does it also reflect your own vision of transmission between generations?
I think that is also very important in the novel and, in some way, although the form is very different from the novel, I think the thematics are still very close. We changed something though; we changed the gender of Yang to a woman.
This comes as a surprise of course and the character itself evolves because of this gender switch.
Yes. We had too many male characters and only one female (laugh), so we thought that the mother-figure should play a more important role in the play.
The son-mother scene is one of the most striking in the play and it differs from the novel.
Yes, this is a very powerful scene that moved many people to tears. Of course, the actress gave a terrific performance.
And so you wanted to have another feminine part…
Yes, we made Yang a lesbian, thus featuring all kinds of homosexuals. (laugh)
She is more protective than the original character in the novel…
Yes. She acts as a mother.
In the novel, several artists are portrayed (a photographer, a painter, a movie maker…) and each of them holds a different vision of these boys, either trying to capture their soul, being fascinated by their wilderness or hoping to change them into more refined figures. What is your own vision of these boys?
Maybe to capture their souls. For example, in the scene between Long Zi and A-feng, the passion rises to such a height that it is already beyond gender. It is love itself, passion. Their souls are more important than their bodies. You may have noticed that in Western countries, some drama performances have more realistic gay scenes, more physical ones.
Did you intend to downplay the physical part?
For example, in the scene between A-qing and Long Zi in the hotel, of course sexuality plays a part, but not the most important one. In that scene, the “soul exchanges” are actually more important. To the liking of some of the audience, we could have made it more physical – some even complained that there was not enough sex in the play! (laugh)
There is one important scene in the novel, when A-qing cries in the presence of one oh his lovers, teacher Yu, which many readers understand as a turning point. But it is not featured in the play.
I wish we could have put it in the play. This could have been a very moving scene, especially to portray A-qing. But we just did not have the space for that.
You kept symbols that are quite emphasized in the novel, such as red colour, lotus…
Lotus is a very important symbol in Buddhism, a symbol of resurrection. Its presence emphasizes the idea of the resurrection of love, passion, life.
Would you say the novel and the play are more about resurrection than redemption?
Both. Many characters – even the father – are trying to redeem themselves. A-qing also, who lost his innocence because the death of his younger brother Di-wa. That is why he tries to recapture his innocence.
Is the redemption sought by A-qing related to a sense of shame connected to prostitution? Is this interpretation valid?
More than to prostitution itself, I think this has more to do with sexuality. In the West, homosexuality is to be considered as a sin. Homosexuality in the Chinese society is at least a deviation from the Confucian moral code. That is where the title Niezi [孽子] comes from. A-qing, particularly, was very concerned about his innocence and physical pureness. Teacher Yu’s feelings for him make him feel bad because he feels physically dirty. He feels ashamed.
Do you think the perception of homosexuality has really evolved in Taiwan since you wrote the novel?
Of course, now Taiwan is much more open to gay issues. But it [the tendency to reject gay people] is still there, at a very deep level. That is why I think the younger members of the audience felt something stun their heart.
Is the novel is a gay novel. Is there anything such as gay literature?
I would say this is not a gay novel but a novel about gay people, gay human beings. It portrays universal human nature, regardless of the gender. According to what I heard, the audience, whatever their gender, were deeply moved by the scene between A-feng and Long Zi : this is because love and passion are universal.
In the novel, the collective form « we » includes a very broad range of homosexuals, from the red light district sex workers to the park-goers, from older clients or protectors to a new generation of gay people, and even students who come to the bar. Do you think today’s audience experience the feeling of belonging to a same community?
I think, superficially, there is that openness in Taiwan, or even America. But deep down there, there is still darkness. Gay groups always have minorities within themselves, while being themselves rejected by the majority. As time goes on, maybe this will change, but human nature never changes. All the issues will be still there. And I think that is what literature and arts are about.
Which books do you read? Who are your favorite writers?
This semester, I am teaching a course at the National Taiwan University about the Dream of the Red Chamber, Hóng Lóu Mèng [紅樓夢]. Cao Xueqin [曹雪芹] is my favorite author at the moment.
Taiwanese author Chu Tien-hsin [朱天心] recently regretted that young writers « turn their backs on pure literature ». What is your sentiment?
Yes I read this declaration. It is true in a way that the younger generation have become a bit afraid of big books. Readers don’t like something too heavy, and this affects writers who are looking mostly for best-stellers. Chu Tien-hsin complaints were legitimate.
You were honored with the National Cultural Award, which is designed to encourage the passing down of cultural models to successive generations. Do you have any one in mind who could be the next Bai Xianyong?
First of all, you have to live long enough to get this award! It is a life-long achievement award. I don’t know who could be the next Bai Xianyong but he or she would have to live long enough to get this award (laugh).
Special thanks to Dino Chang, Warren Huang, Lan Hao-chi, John McNeil Scott.