The young must be forgiven.
There is no responsible alternative; they really don’t know better.
I believed, as a callow U.S. airman in 1967, that haggling was de rigueur in Asian cultures. To get the best price was the name of the game, and no holds were barred. It was normal and expected.
So when a soft little man stepped out on the sidewalk in Taipei and asked what I thought of the monochrome painting I was gazing at, I replied with sappy disdain. “I suppose it’s all right, if you like that sort of thing.”
It was a moody waterscape with a Chinese boatman sculling his craft between a larger boat and some timbers jutting from the river. A gray hill or mountain hovers vaguely in the background. One can feel a wisp of fog and hear the slip of water streaming along the strakes.
This painting stood among flat Taiwan street scenes bristling with shop signs and telephone wires.
“Is the boat picture by the same artist who did these others?” I asked.
The little man hooked a thumb toward his puffy chest. “Me. I did them all.”
“Really? Because this one looks nothing like those.”
His eyes gleamed, black agates behind their epicanthic folds. “I paint many different styles. Peco Yeh.” He shook my hand and gave me a card.
We haggled a bit, and I walked away with the painting, framed, for about three American dollars—equivalent to maybe forty bucks today. The work was worth far more, by any rational scale.
I gave the painting to my parents. It hung in their living room for decades. Later, it came back to me and now graces my wall.
Peco Yeh, it turns out, was a painter of some note. An apocryphal biography from an unknown source on the Web puts an exotic gloss on his life:
“Peco Yeh is/was a Chinese man living in Taipei Taiwan during the 1970s. He came from Chengdu, China with the nationalists in 1947 with his mother. His mother was the mistress of the last court artist of the Qing Dynasty. When Empress Dowager Cixi was poisoned, the court artist went to Chengdu and took the mistress.”
Whether any of that is true, who can say?
I do know that for three dollars more than half a century ago I acquired a painting by a true artist. My only excuse is that I was young. I didn’t know the difference between a hodgepodge of paint on canvas and a work of art.
The boatman painting has grown on me over the years. My own taste has developed, of course, but more to the point: Peco Yeh’s work stands the test of time.
There are others of his paintings out there in the world. You can find a few for sale on the Web at prices in the four-hundred-dollar range. If you look at them, you can see for yourself that what the artist told me is true: He did paint in different styles.
A few weeks ago came an email from a woman named Earline Dirks who buys and sells old paintings. She is in possession of a Peco Yeh canvas, much different from mine. She wrote me because she happened across my blog post of 28 May 2019, which mentions the boatman painting.
The work Earline acquired shows two people, a young boy and an older person—perhaps a mother, grandmother, or servant—holding a Chinese lantern. The older person is kneeling, her face somewhat obscured. The boy’s face is clear, gazing intently into the lantern’s light.
Are we seeing a young Peco? Is this a memory of his own childhood?
Earline was kind enough to share the image with me, so I share it with you.
Recently I mentioned my correspondence with Mac McMorrow about Pan Am’s Anzac Clipper, which my Uncle Ed flew into Hilo harbor on December 7, 1941—where they encountered, in an official capacity, Mac’s father, the chief public health officer on the Big Island in those days.
First Mac, now Earline.
Isn’t it wonderful the acquaintances one can make by blogging?
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer