Conflicts. I guess I’m the kind who attracts conflicts but has no idea how to resolve them. I clash frequently in big ways and small ones with loved ones such as my boyfriend and my mother. Lots of my relationships have ended this way. The only person I’ve stayed close with, despite the endless conflict, is my mother. If we weren’t blood relations, we’d probably have gone our separate ways in the end too. That’s partly why you find me here, walking the streets of this foreign country on my own.
Jiaying, a successful writer, tells of the period in her life when she stayed in a six-bed female dorm in a youth hostel in Seoul. The only other occupant of the room is Judy, a Westerner who doesn’t begin to speak to Jiaying until she discovers she’s Taiwanese so she can speak to her in Mandarin. A few days later, Judy tells Jiaying about an abusive relationship she was in with a Chinese classmate whilst she was studying in Tokyo. It’s the end of Jiaying’s own interracial relationship which has led to her traveling to Seoul.
The novel’s made up of twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. This is also evident in an earlier passage where Fat Luo berates Jiaying for rejecting him:
“Why are you brushing me off, Jiaying? Have you no affection for this land we live in? Is that why you look down at Asian men – and Taiwanese men in particular? Is that why you’re dating your Western guy? They’ve got bigger dicks, their countries are superpowers, they’re wealthier, stronger and better looking than us. Is that why you ignore my letters? Do you know how it breaks my heart to see you with that Western guy? It feels like having a knife plunged through my heart! It’s like when all those superpowers forced their way into the Forbidden City, plundered our treasures and razed the Old Summer Palace to the ground. But this time the treasures these Western powers have taken is you! We are the ones who will give you true happiness. Mark my words: when you grow weary, I will be the only one by your side. Oh fuck, my hands are trembling as I write these words.”
The conflict at the heart of the book is that of globalisation. Jiaying states, interracial relationships ‘just like internet cafes, started to proliferate every major city at the turn of the century. Just like the concepts of globalisation and the global village, these relationships started to appear among my group of friends of different cultures, nationalities and skin colour’. But humans don’t like change and when change takes place at unprecedented rates, threatening the things which give them a sense of identity, something that they feel makes them unique, they cling to whatever that thing is ferociously. In Masked Dolls that thing is national identity and masculinity. The conflicts which stem from the globalisation shown in the novel are ones of gender, of colonialism, of love – romantic and familial.
Translators Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland convey the brutality of these conflicts, leaving the reader feeling as battered and bruised as if they’d been on the receiving end of one of the instances of physical conflict in the book.
Masked Dolls is an unusual look at how the metaphorical shrinking of the world affects people at an individual level. It considers a number of consequences, particularly for women: the novel never fails to remind us that we live in a patriarchal society which will not tolerate interracial relationships. Masked Dolls is one of those rare books which after reading reveals itself to be greater than the sum of its parts. Brutal, intense, fascinating.
Thanks to Balestier Press for the review copy.