A couple of weeks ago Syd Goldsmith sent me a copy of his book Jade Phoenix, a story of romance, politics, history, and culture clash in worlds Old and New. Here is my review.

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Jade Phoenix
Syd Goldsmith
2006. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse. 315pp

Jade Phoenix, a finalist for a literary prize, is the first novel by former US diplomat Syd Goldsmith. The book is set in Taipei and Washington, DC, during the 1970s and 1980s, and tells the stories of two disparate men, American student and journalist Nick Malter, and Taiwanese milliionaire Ko-sa Ong, who form a deep friendship across vast cultural and political gulfs, and their love for the same woman, Jade Phoenix. The story plays out against the background of the recognition of China, the derecognition of Taiwan, and the rise of the Taiwanese independence movement.

The narrative opens with the childhood of future Taiwanese millionaire Ko-sa Ong: a blunt recital of the deaths of his parents, the Horatio Alger tale of his rise to wealth and influence, and his steadily growing hatred of the corrupt and incompetent Chinese Nationalists who rule Taiwan. Like a Greek hero, Ko-sa is lame, and as a result, comes to love scuba diving, for it allows him to move freely.

The story then shifts to the arrival of Nick Malter in Taipei, fresh from the student demonstrations at Columbia University. Taking Chinese classes, he meets a bar girl, Angel (whose real name, Jade Phoenix, gives the novel its name), whom he takes home and falls madly in love with. Despite separation from Taiwan and Angel, and eventual marriage to another woman, Nick will remain in love with Angel for the remainder of his life.

As fate would have it, Angel sees Nick doing homework with one of the other language students, believes he is cheating on her, and runs away. Nick is unable to find her. His outspokenly pro-Taiwan political views eventually get him deported, and he returns to the US.

At the same time Nick travels around the island and one day meets Ko-sa on a scuba diving expedition. Ko-sa, who likes Americans, takes a shine to Nick, and the two become good friends, sharing similar political views.

In the meantime Ko-sa meets Angel, and brings her home to bear him the child that he cannot have with his first wife. Naturally the first wife does not like this, and she leaves him, stripping him of everything. He and Angel wind up in the US, operating restaurants and living with Nick.

The great strength of Goldsmith’s story lies in its rich depiction of the realities of Taiwan during the heyday of KMT rule. Goldsmith, who knows many of the historical persons who appear as characters in the book, both real and fictionalized, is able to leverage his vast knowledge of the island to produce a book that is not only historically informed but also culturally accurate. Angel’s discovery that Nick is “cheating” on her, or Ko-sa’s demolition of his marriage trying to get a son, are prime examples of the way Goldsmith uses culturally-driven misunderstandings to propel the story. As a longtime expat here, I often found myself laughing at descriptions of Taiwanese-American interactions:

Nick planned his journalism travel with great care, arranging it so he would end up under water with Ko-sa on Sunday. Chang Sun said he was glad to have him. “otherwise country life is always the same,” he confessed. “Same people, same gossip, same insincerity, same boredom. You bring a different view of the universe, even if it is naive.”
Nick didn’t take it as an insult. So often he had been told, “We Chinese are complicated; you Americans are simple, straightforward,” that he accepted it as a staple of well-intended cross-cultural communication.”

In many novels of other cultures, one experiences the Other through the eyes of the hero who moves to the exotic culture and brokers the reader’s understanding of it. Goldsmith refuses to fall into that trap, for he brings Ko-sa back to the US, so that the reader may experience his own culture as the Other seen through the eyes of Ko-sa. Nor does Goldsmith create an idealized picture of either culture in an attempt to play one off the other - just as Nick suffers injustices and confusions in Taiwan, so does Ko-sa in America. Nothing could be more American than Ko-sa’s destruction at the hands of the local Church that refuses to grant him an exemption to the local liquor laws so that he can sell liquor in his restaurant, which happens to be near to a Church. In non-Christian Taiwan, where people do not feel licensed by religion to mind others’ business, that would never happen. Ko-sa’s decline and fall is made all the more poignant by the fact that he is by far the most sympathetic character in the book.

Political change is an important driver of the story, and Goldsmith deploys his knowledge of Taiwan to good effect (he worked with the democracy movement in the bad old days). For example, he fictionalizes the 1976 bombing of Taiwan Provincial Governor Sie Dong-nan by current DPP legislator Wang Sing-nan by having Nick carry the package. His minute description of a state dinner hosted by Chiang Kai-shek is priceless, for the reader is aware that Goldsmith has been through similar events. He also reconstructs the history of a past that is vanished, discussing the old parliament, now gone, that preserved individuals elected in China in the 1940s in their old seats, as if forty years hadn’t passed, and placing Nick in the system of surveillance that the KMT ran against foreigners in Taiwan. Goldsmith’s deep knowledge of Taiwan in this period, and the strongly pro-democracy and pro-Taiwan views, will present a refreshing new perspective on the island for American readers raised on the myth of Free China and the economic miracle.

If I have any criticisms of this fine work, it is that I didn’t like the ending - I wish the other guy had ended up with Jade Phoenix. But that is merely my personal taste. Overall, this is an entertaining, and educational book, a magnificent journey into a turbulent time, filled with interesting characters, fascinating history, and told in bluff, rapid prose that never gets in the reader’s way. I hope a copy of it finds its way into your hands soon.

Jade Phoenix may be ordered online at Syd Goldsmith’s website.