Masked Dolls by Shih Chiung-Yu

Translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland (Balestier Press, 2016)

Publisher’s Blurb

An Australian woman, burdened by the original sin of her Caucasian ancestors, and a Taiwanese woman, haunted by the memories of 100 years of conflict in her homeland, meet as backpackers while travelling in South Korea. As they live and travel together, two women in flight, one from the East and the other from the West, struggle to find a way out of their personal dilemmas.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Bonnie Cheung (July 2017)

Masked Dolls follows the lives of two females, both of whom are displaced and have chosen to spend time in Seoul, South Korea. The two protagonists meet through sharing a room at a youth hostel. As opposed to the chapters being called “Chapter” as most novels would, they are called “Conflict”. The reason for this becomes increasingly clear as you progress through this story.

As you turn to the very first page of the book, rather than finding a title page or a dedication page, you find instead a description of the two female protagonists giving readers a succinct and immensely useful background to who these characters are. This description is extremely useful for readers who aren’t, perhaps, knowledgeable of the social and historical context of South Korea, Taiwan, and China.

The novel itself flitters between present day and recollections of the past of the lives of these two women.

Following Judy, the younger of the two protagonists, readers are exposed to the abusive relationship she had with her boyfriend from Mainland China whom she met during her time studying in Tokyo as both were students studying at the same university there. After a rapid whirlwind romance the two began to live together and so begins their destructive relationship where readers are given few but clear depictions of traditional Chinese ideologies of male superiority and that women were perhaps resembled more like objects to be owned as opposed to human beings. The stories recounted by Judy about her relationship with him appears to emphasise the lack of rights she possessed in their relationship. As a female reader, as I read these passages I found myself filled with frustration and rage, partly because these situations are still taking place all around the world. The lack of inequality in a relationship between a man and a woman within some societies has been depicted, in my opinion, accurately. I think that more novels like these should be read to help expose the inequality that still exists so that we, in our modern day society, can work harder to resolve such an issue.

Another issue that is highlighted quite distinctly is the disdain towards mixed-race relationships felt by those with more traditional ideologies in China and Taiwan. This is portrayed by Jiaying’s own memories and the situations she encounter. With Judy, readers were exposed to the social issue of male dominance. With Jiaying, readers are exposed to more complex issues. The most evident one which jumped out at me was the anger towards the American forces and troops stationed in South Korea. The accounts of Jiaying’s memories of her uncle’s past and of her own personal encounters demonstrate the lingering resentment against foreign soldiers stationed in South Korea at the time.

The words of this novel evoke incredibly vivid imagery. At times I felt as though I was walking alongside Jiaying as her memories unfurled. This novel, in my opinion should be read by young adults and adults. There are scenes which are, without a doubt, too explicit and inappropriate for a child readership. For readers who are interested in understanding more about social issues that exist as a result of war and civil tensions, more specifically in relation to South Korea and Taiwan, I would highly recommend this book.