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Tue July 29, 2014
In 'Ghost Month,' A Murder-Mystery Tour Of Taipei
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
We're about to meet Ed Lin. He is a journalist-turned-novelist who's written a series of books set in New York's Chinatown, starring a Chinese-American cop named Robert Chow. Lin is an American of Chinese and Taiwanese descent, and he has set his newest book in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei. The book is a murder-mystery of sorts called "Ghost Month." It takes the reader through Taipei's wide-ranging social landscape, from street-food vendors and smalltime gangsters to CIA agents, wealthy real estate developers and of course, high school sweethearts. As the title suggests, the story starts with a ghost. We asked Ed Lin to tell us more about "Ghost Month."
ED LIN: "Ghost Month" is the seventh lunar month. And in certain Daoist and Buddhist beliefs, there's an understanding that the gates to the underworld are flung open and spirits walk the island. But they are all hungry, and they must be fed at the appropriate alters or you will suffer. In Taiwan, you know, one of the most superstitious places in Asia, it sort of takes on an extra urgency to it. As a matter of fact, home and car sales dip during ghost month because people are a little reluctant to make big, capital purchases. This will anger the ghosts...
WERTHEIMER: While the dead are walking (laughing).
LIN: Yes, the ghosts will feel entitled to these things that are purchased and feel that they are gifts meant for them. And so they'll haunt it, and it's best to stay away from it.
WERTHEIMER: Now, the reader might think, dipping into your book for the first time, that this is a very romantic story about a ghost - in fact, a story about doomed lovers.
LIN: Yes. Jing-nan, the narrator of the book, is shocked that the girl he was going to marry was murdered. He spends the book trying to find out why she was back in Taipei because he planned to meet her in the states, and also of course why she was killed. And he's haunted by memories of her. I think it's more of an analogy to Taiwan itself. At this point, our narrator is an orphan in the same way that Taiwan is a bit of an orphan in Asia.
WERTHEIMER: One thing that was striking to me since we've done so much reporting about the efforts of the mainland Chinese to develop a middle class and - that even on this prosperous island of Taiwan, even for young people who have had advantages like been able to go to college in the United States, somehow that leap into the middle class is very tough.
LIN: Oh, yes. You're dragging a lot of history with you. The fact that your family name comes before your personal name, that just shows that it's very contextual. It's not like you can just all of a sudden jump from sweeping the street to being president.
WERTHEIMER: Jing-nan, who I just sort of described him as one of the pair of doomed lovers, they both come from families, these two young people, who had stalls in the night market. And that is what Jing-nan is doing now. He's working in a stall which he owns in the night market. Now, tell me what is the night market.
LIN: The night market is a place where much of Taipei comes to be a little free. I hope I'll be forgiven for saying that Taipei by daylight is not the prettiest city in the world. But when night falls and the lights and the night markets come open, I think Taipei's incredibly beautiful, and the people are even more beautiful. People who had been overworking in Taipei, actually, they will come out of these grey buildings, and they will meet friends in the night market and finally feel human again.
WERTHEIMER: Let's go back to that stall. If we were to roll up to that stall in the middle of the night, I gather what would somewhere between midnight and 1, what would we eat?
LIN: I didn't put this in the book, but I am really in love with this place that does flattened chicken cutlet. It's a two-man operation. One guy is inside the stall; one guy stands outside of it. The guy inside smashes these chicken cutlets until they're flat and about the size of a 12-inch LP record. He breads them and throws them into boiling oil. Once they float up, he puts them on a rack just outside the stall. The guy standing outside the stall has some powdered red pepper that he shakes on them. And if you're a customer at this stall, you line up to the side of the stall. There's a plastic bag you have to pick up in order for the guy to drop in your chicken cutlet. When I see a plastic bag, I think, oh, my gosh, I'm destroying the environment. So I got in this line, and I came up to the guy. And I said (foreign language spoken) - that means I don't want a bag. And he looked shocked, but he still handed it to me. And as I walked away, it felt like my fingers were melting.
LIN: So the next time I went, I used the plastic bag. But I saved it, and I kept reusing it.
WERTHEIMER: But I guess the moral of the story is, you did go back.
LIN: I did, absolutely. It's a taste that you can't really get anywhere else.
WERTHEIMER: Ed Lin's newest book is called "Ghost Month." He joined us from our studios in New York City. Ed, thank you very much.
LIN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.