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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #47 (November 18-24, 2003), page 14.

Nationality matters (doesn’t it?)

Formosan American: From Pirates to Taiwan Semiconductors

By James Yu

Published by James Yu, Portland, 2003

Paperback, 167 pages, $14.95


"While outside forces have always decided ownership of Taiwan

to further one goal or another, none have ever bothered to ask my

parents or any Taiwanese, what they wanted."

— Author James Yu

By Polo

"Formosa means beautiful in Portuguese," writes Portland author James Yu about a third into his new literary journey of an old-old trans-Pacific sojourn. "My parents are from Beautiful Island. The Portuguese called the inhabitants Formosans … the island was sparsely populated with a small constituency of immigrants from the Chinese continent … in 1500, Formosa’s aborigines constituted 98 percent of the population."

He takes a deep breath, one of very few in Mr. Yu’s voracious account, gobbling up several centuries, two continents, and all the awesome geography and excruciating history in between. Then he goes on: "Almost four hundred years later, I was born … in the old wing of St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan ...." And then comes the jewel: "I was born Formosan American, a race constantly in transition, a race possibly earmarked for extinction." Now that’s beautiful.

Mr. Yu’s work is self-published, and as such is testament of the intrinsic value, in these times, of the decentralization of our publishing industries. Whether we’re talking films or records or books, markets have opened wide with voices of all varieties. Free speech speaks for itself.

The book’s subtitle — From Pirates to Taiwan Semiconductors — not ironically, we suspect, says it all. When grimy pirates and clean-room techs in white lab coats can share a raucous marketplace, democracy can happen.

Bad things happen too.

"Another thing about America that I learned from TV is that you gotta be a good guy. Bad guys are like scalping Indians, Japs, redcoats, Nazis, Mafiaosos. Good guys are like John Wayne … always right and teaching those greasy bad guys a lesson."

There’s both kinds of writing, both kinds of experiences for writer and reader, in Formosan American. And there’s a lot in between. Out of James Yu’s free-ranging riff on history, political science, and ethnography, at least two other semi-precious veins are a pleasure to mine.

The first is the gritty Chinese-ness absent since the 1970s heyday of shrill San Francisco writer/activist Frank Chin and his ilk. For example, in a scene at their family’s illegally overcrowded apartment, big brother Rup tells James: "You stupid potato head, you’re not supposed to live here."

"Bullshit, you’re the one that’s not supposed to be here," James shoots back.

"Fuck off, potato head."

"I don’t know why but Rup just about hated my guts all of the time and I was always waiting for him to throw me off the lanai."

Not many of our publishing industry’s present Chinese darlings talk that way or write that reality.

The second kind of pleasure comes from the author’s quieter reflective moments, such as what he writes in his son’s baby book next to his boy’s foot prints: "Eli, you should know that grandma is crazier than Hunan chicken served over a bed of brown rice. Your grandpa is like pot-stickers served with ketchup and French fries in a Styrofoam receptacle. The contradiction is what killed him."

The good and the bad. Chinese enough? — is hard to say.

To order a copy of Formosan American, visit <>.


To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books