By Yang Shuang-zi, translated by Francesca Jordan, winner of the 7th Bai Meigui Translation Competition.
The competition asked entrants to translate an extract taken from a longer novella. You can find the Chinese text here, along with a link to the whole work.
Hatsuko loved the novels of Yoshiya Nobuko. Her favourite magazines were Girl’s Companion and Girl’s Pictorial. However, Hatsuko could afford neither novels nor magazines.
If she were Sakiko-san or Yukiko-san, then surely she would send a domestic servant to Nishiki-chō, to buy the latest Girl’s Companion at the Tanabe Bookstore? As for the other books she read for pleasure, those could wait until the library added them to its collection.
‘I don’t care so much about other books,’ Hatsuko thought sometimes, ‘but Girl’s Companion… I do wish I could buy a new copy, just once.’ But though she harboured these desires, Hatsuko would never voice such a complaint to her mother, Yukie.
Hatsuko was the eldest daughter of the Yamaguchi family, and so she had to wait for magazines to arrive on the library shelves.
Sakiko-san came from an aristocratic Kyoto family, the Matsugasakis. It was rumoured that the head of the Matsugasaki family had become fascinated by Taiwan’s unique native flora, and resettled his family on the island to pursue his interest. The Matsugasaki residence in Kawabata-chō was spacious but modest in style, the gardens within its brick boundary wall full of rare potted plants from both the mainland and Taiwan, as well as a carefully-tended old bougainvillea that bloomed splendidly all year round. Back on the mainland, Sakiko-san would surely be living like a princess.
Then there was Yukiko-san.
Hatsuko’s feelings about Yukiko-san were more complicated.
One of only seven native Taiwanese students in her year, Yukiko’s real name was Yang Hsueh-Ni, and her family were the wealthy landowners of an area near Wang-t’ien Station. During the Ch’ing dynasty period, an ancestor of the Yang family had attained official rank through success in the Imperial Examinations, so she was truly the descendent of an illustrious line. Her given name, Hsueh-Ni, meaning ‘snowy earth’, was an allusion to a classical Chinese poem – a very elegant and poetic name.
Matsugasaki Sakiko, with her noble lineage, and Yang Hsueh-Ni, daughter of wealthy local landowners… Hatsuko’s family background was no match for that of her two classmates. Even her name, Yamaguchi Hatsuko, was utterly ordinary and characterless, saying no more about her than that she was the first daughter born to the Yamaguchi family.
In 1920, the ninth year of the Taishō Emperor, her father Takao and mother Yukie had moved to Taiwan from Kyushu. Their first child, born the following year, was given the name Hatsuko, meaning ‘first-born daughter’. Then came Hanako, ‘flower girl’, born in springtime, and Natsuko, ‘summer child’, born in summer. The name of their only son, Ryuichi, shared a kanji meaning ‘prosperity’ with his father’s.
In keeping with her ordinary name, Hatsuko’s troubles were also quite ordinary.
Her father was a civil servant with a monthly salary of 67 yen, and six mouths to feed, already struggling to send the four Yamaguchi children to school. There was no money left over to indulge Hatsuko’s craving for this month’s Girl’s Companion. Although in times like these, with new things constantly springing up, a 50 sen copy of Girl’s Companion couldn’t really be regarded as a luxury item.
There were adverts in the newspapers for ‘combination air conditioning and heating units’, ‘electric refrigerators’, and ‘gas generators’. Her mother cut out the pictures from the adverts, and from time to time would look through her cuttings and sigh: five hundred yen for a refrigerator! How could we ever afford that?
Even if she could ask her mother for pocket money, how would it ever be possible for Hatsuko, the elder sister, to spend 50 sen on a girl’s magazine with no concern for the sharp eyes of her younger siblings?
Though they were living in progressive and enlightened times, not everyone could be equally fortunate.
Hatsuko’s two beautiful classmates were even further from her grasp than Girl’s Companion: they were as far away as electric refrigerators.