Back in the 1960s, Taiwan was a rather conservative society, particularly when it came to sex.
As a female author of fiction that dealt with female sexual fantasies and emotional constraints, Li Ang took the literary world by storm with her larger-than-life writing style, her innate storytelling ability and, above all, her fearless determination to challenge taboos and uncover the dark side of social reality.
Li Ang’s real name is Shih Shu-tuan. She was born in 1952 in Lukang, Taiwan.
Her eldest sister is a professor of literature, and her second sister is also a famous writer.
A declining small town, Lukang was rich in ghost stories and supernatural myths, which helped develop her imagination in childhood.
Since Lukang was almost cut off from the outside world, Li didn’t have much to do as a child, and reading became almost her only pastime.
The numerous famous novels she read over the years provided inspiration and ideas for her writing.
In 1968, at the age of 17, she published her debut novel, The Season of Flowers, which depicted the romantic and sometimes lascivious relationship between a high school girl and an old florist.
The bold work stunned the literary world and made her a rising star almost overnight.
She continued to publish a series of taboo-breaking works from a feminist standpoint, mainly about the distorted relationships between men and women and the internal conflicts of women under emotional constraints.
“Basically, all the books we read in school in our childhood came from the West” Li said.
“Reading these books, I was introduced to the ideas of western feminism, and I started to wonder, if western women could have equal rights to men, then why couldn’t we?”
In 1983, Li released another of her best-known novels, Killing the Husband, which told the story of a rural woman who went insane as a result of sexual, physical and mental abuse by her husband and who finally took the law into her own hands by murdering him and dismembering his body.
As a female novelist who continued to push back the boundaries of gender issues, Li drew a lot of criticism and constantly came under pressure from society, but she refused to back down.
“At that time I was teaching at the Cultural University, and some of my co-workers often complained to the vice chancellor about why I was able to continue teaching in the university when I was writing this filthy stuff,” Li said.
“But I was very lucky. The vice chancellor was very supportive, because he was a scholar from the May 4 period, and had a very progressive mind.
“He told me that as long as he remained the boss, he would make sure I could keep my job. I would not have been able to continue with my writing had it not been for his support.”
Over the years, the status of women in Taiwan has risen significantly.
Sex is no longer a taboo and has become a constant subject for discussion in the mainstream media.
“My generation have contributed a lot to the progress in women’s rights, and I am very happy about the openness in the social attitude toward women and sex today,” Li said.
What has also changed is the focus of Li’s novels.
In recent years, her emphasis has gradually shifted from women, sex and politics to other subjects.
For example, she wrote a novel about the mentality of a young male politician who was struggling to make it to the top.
In 2007, she released The Mandarin Duck and the Spring Feast, a novel about food and life.
Apart from novels, Li has also recently started writing columns on food and travel.
She said that as a novelist she used to be deeply serious about her work and sometimes didn’t know how to loosen up, but she became much more relaxed writing columns, because she just did it for fun.
In the past two months, Li has been writer in residence at Hong Kong Baptist University.
While in Hong Kong, she has been looking for good food everywhere in the city.
Li says Hong Kong leads all Chinese communities in the world in its food culture, which is even better than those of Beijing, Shanghai, Taiwan and Singapore.
However, she reckons Hong Kong is still behind France and Japan in that respect.
But she believed things are changing for the better.
In recent years she has found a lot of good new restaurants every time she has visited Hong Kong, and her niece often takes her on a hunt for good local food around the city.
“A lot of small local restaurants with character have opened in Sheung Wan and Tin Hau,” she observed.
This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 28.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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