Crystal Boys – Hsien-yung – what our group thought

Some were captivated, others were bored.

This book has evocative descriptions and exotic place names. Some were disappointed in it because it didn’t seem to have any development nor tension, no beginning, middle and end, while one member suggested that Chinese story-telling is different in that it is cyclical, more interested in continuity and in how characters relate to each other.

For some, it read like a teenage diary with one event after another, with loose ends and no closure (like real life?). Cliches like a ‘rumour that spread like wildfire’ and poor vocabulary (which might be the fault of the translator) like ‘bundle of washing’ being mentioned five times in one paragraph.

We encounter real despair (‘What difference if a woman like me lives or not?’), poverty and disease. In a society so conscious of family, one main character is unable to go to his own father’s funeral because of the shame he has bought on his family. The characters never talk about their family backgrounds but look after each other with compassion, like a surrogate family.

We encounter folk religion and superstition, where the mother of a gay man thinks that his birth was a punishment for a previous life or because she prayed to a goddess for a daughter but she must have had a cold and misheard and where incense is offered to the Buddha for his dead mum.

In a charming reference, by rent boys to old guys: antiques ‘the older they are, the more valuable they become.’

Although we are in a strange, alien world, there is a passing reference to The Beatles and we do well to cast our minds back to Western gay literature of the 1970s.  It wasn’t terribly good, on the whole.


“Our kingdom knows only the dark night. He ignores the day. As soon as the sky lights up, our kingdom hides, because it is a state that can not be more illegal: we have neither government nor constitution. No one recognizes us or respects us. Our nation resembles the crush of a gathering of crows.

“In the kingdom of ours, we know no distinction of rank, honor, age, or strength. What is common to us is a body beset by the unbearable torture of burning desires, a heart suffering to the madness of loneliness. These distracted hearts become at midnight like ferocious beasts escaping from their cages, chasing after their prey all claws out. By the glow of the glowing moon we look like somnambulists, walking on the shadow of each other, starting a senseless race around the basin, without truce or rest, turning and returning in pursuit of the enormous monster of this nightmare never completed of love and desire.
In the darkness, I put my foot on the steps of the terrace overlooking the pool and entered the row as if seized with a hypnotic trance; Unwittingly, I circled the pond again and again. In the darkness, I saw pairs of eyes thirsting for hope, burning with desire, consumed with anguish and fear, like so many fireflies bumping into each other.
So thick, so dark was the night, I felt with acuteness a look that was every time on my face, like a comet that hit me hard and burned his face. I felt uncomfortable, my heart throbbed, but I had no way to avoid those eyes. The penetrating gaze was so sustained, so urgent, as if he were expecting me to be saved, as if he were begging for something.

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Crystal Boys – Hsien-yung review by the person who chose this book

How similar it felt in many respects to aspects of gay history in UK and USA: that sense of the underground and the outcast and fringes of society.

The author’s father was a leading general in the Chinese Republic and, as such, on the losing side and the author’s family therefore would have more or less been in exile in Taiwan.  Ideas of exile come through in the tone which is one of sadness, I think.

The author is also characterised as Dragon Prince in the story, i.e. someone who lived in America (further exile) but also his sexuality and difficult relationship with a powerful father is very true.

I was interested when the gay bar opened and the views of these boys of the other sections of gay society… the middle class businessmen, the students, not just these crystal boys, the frequenters of the park, and the successful people in the arts. Again it reminded me of West End Stories book we read and the comments by those when the gay bars became more open and the middle classes felt safe enough to frequent them. It made me think about how, as a student on the gay scene in Sheffield during the 80’s, how the rough and ready boys thought of us.

More difficult to approach but perhaps worth discussing would be to try to imagine how this book would be interpreted in China, where it has been published, and, shown as a film and mini-TV series, though not necessarily by Chinese filmmakers, maybe other Asian. What I mean by this, and from discussion with my (Chinese) partner, was, especially given the sad tone, the communist/majority consensus in China might at some stage have seen the whole book as cautionary yet troubling, i.e. this is the kind of society you get with the republic, poor, on the fringes, deviant behaviour and that this would never be the case in mainland communist China. And believe me, these views would have been around in the 80s in China and still are, even with younger people. And it was this undercurrent that made me think of the Dirk Bogarde film “Victim” from the UK in the 60s where even when it was made it was controversial and would have allowed people to harden their stances on sexuality whilst accepting existence.

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