Have you ever wondered where you actually belong, or where your heart leads you? Everyone deserves a place that they feel comfortable in, but if you’re still feeling lost and seeking that sense of belonging, Crystal Boys might be your inspiration.
Crystal Boys, a novel by one of the most prominent authors in Chinese literature, Pai Hsien Yung, has always been on the top of my reading list. As a pioneer in Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ literature, Pai has published many works discussing the struggles of teenage boys coming out, including reconciling with family members and problems and misunderstandings between them and their partners. The novel Crystal Boys was first published in 1983, and has been acknowledged as the first queer novel in Taiwanese literature.
In essence, Crystal Boys depicts a story of a teenage boy named A-Qing, who lives alone with his old father and struggles to recognize and appreciate his sexual orientation. However, he finally seeks and regains comfort and confidence with the help of other boys in the gay hangout of the city’s New Park. The story is set in Taipei during the 1960s, a time when Taiwan suffered from great political instability, the economy was over-stretched by people’s desire, and homosexuality was a forbidden word. Back in the 1960s, the central government had declared martial law, where the freedom to speak and gather was restrained and put under strict supervision. Most people were indoctrinated with homophobia, and police officers would arrest queer couples for intimate contact, even if it was just holding hands or kissing in the public.
Throughout the novel, Pai focuses on the different stories of the group of boys in New Park of Taipei. This group of young boys, along with their leader, Master Yang, form a close relationship and take care of each other. Although most of the time they can only meet at night, they become each other’s shelters and support. Together, they create and build their own kingdom: a kingdom that does not have laws, regulations, or hatred; a kingdom that only shines at night; a kingdom that offers the boys warmth and love.
The main protagonist, A-Qing, is an 18-year-old boy who gets expelled from school due to his overly-intimate behavior with a friend, an act regarded as embarrassing and dishonoring to the school. A-Qing’s dad, furious, chases him out of the house, forcing A-Qing to wander the streets of Taipei before eventually starting his new life awaiting for him in New Park.
One of my favorite parts of the entire novel is not the story of A-Qing, but the story of the Dragon Prince and the Phoenix Boy, a legendary couple in New Park. Both are crazily in love with each other, but things go downhill when the Dragon Prince tries to offer a home to the Phoenix Boy, a wild kid who has drifted and wandered about the city all his life. While the Dragon Prince is eager to offer a home for his love, the Phoenix Boy cannot stand it and refuses to settle down. He then runs far away from his lover. The Dragon Prince goes mad and spends his days and nights looking for the Phoenix Boy throughout the entire city of Taipei before finally finding the Phoenix Boy in New Park, trying to make a bargain with a dirty old man. He is outraged, not because the Phoenix Boy ran away, but because he saw his lover doing such a miserable thing to himself. Heartbroken, he stabs the Phoenix Boy in the chest, asking him to give his heart back. Their story comes to a close with the death of Phoenix Boy and a broken heart that can never be healed.
Lots of other stories are intertwined with each other: the story of Little Jade, who longs to find his lost father from Japan; the story of Mousey, who continues to suffer from the violence of his brother; and of course, the story of A-Qing, who tries to navigate through self-recognition and family dynamics. A special and, perhaps, precious part of the novel is the way Pai connects the stories between generations, as if they will never end.
Pai utilizes metaphors in a large portion of his work, describing the young gay boys’ kingdom in New Park and illustrating deep inside each boy’s loneliness. One line that really catches my attention is when Pai describes the boys as “birds of youth” in one of the conversation between A-Qing and the old photographer, Sheng-Gong, who has watched over and taken care of the boys in New Park. He tells A-Qing, “You guys are the birds of youth, who lost their nests and homes, like those swallows who fly over the sea, you can only fly, fly far away from here. And perhaps you will never know where your destination is.” This quote generalizes the overall themes of the novel: acknowledging one’s loneliness, embracing one’s self identity, and finally breaking free from one’s mold.
On a broader scale, Crystal Boys represents a turning point for Taiwan’s societal perspective on LGBTQ+ people. The novel has been adapted into a movie and a TV series and translated into multiple languages. I believe that Pai’s effort will continue to inspire more people, not just the teenagers who struggle with self-love and recognition of identities, but anyone who ever feels insecure or lonely. Crystal Boys has taught us that in the process of growing and maturing, you are never alone.