Boatman on the Tamsui

Taipei, 1968

The boatman bends to his oars. He guides his sampan with the ease of a sage, gliding by a large gate, toward a three-masted junk that looms beyond. Shadows and ripples tether him to water, yet he hangs suspended, the center point on which the misty harbor turns. 

“Look at this, Ralph.” 

My drinking-, carousing-, philosophizing-buddy peers through the shop window at the row of canvases. “I can’t believe the same guy painted all of these.”

“Me neither.” Six oils in sepia monochrome. Five show stark village streets, all sharp angles, hard lines, crisscossed phone wires; the sixth reveals a dreamscape that evokes the timeless China of peasants and poets. All six have the same name at the bottom.

“Good afternoon, you like these paintings?” A man stands at my elbow. A smiling man, a chubby Chinese with a servile aura. (Hen heqi,“very affable,” his mother might say.) He wears dress slacks and a gray short-sleeve shirt, stands before the storefront, shares our perspective on the art.

“Not bad,” I say.

“These are my paintings.” He smiles full wide. “I am Peco Yeh.” He shakes hands, gives us each a small card. On one side, Chinese characters; on the other, in English,  “Peco Yeh, Traditional Chinese Artist.”

Sidewalk commerce, typical for Chungshan North Road. I downplay the boatman in his watery realm, feign attraction to the sterile village scenes. But Peco Yeh homes in on my real interest. “This, Tamsui River,” he says.

Chungshan North Road, 1960s. Courtesy Taipei Air Station Blogspot.

“Local scenery, huh?” 

He waxes lyrical on Taiwan’s mountains and rivers. Besides his fawning attitude, typical for Chinese pitchmen, there is something else. One can’t mistake Peco’s effeminate manner. It suggests he is queer—a surprise, in broad daylight, here in Chiang Kai-shek’s Methodist/Confucian state. However—to each his own. He’s trying to sell his paintings, that’s all.

Ralph bad-mouths the artwork. I walk away twice; both times Peco Yeh shepherds me back to the storefront for “one more little look.” Eventually I make the watery scene my own for three dollars American, twenty-two less than his original price. The artist smiles, gives us a good-bye wave, bends his head, palms together, in the timeless Asian gesture.

A fictionalized account of true events.

#

Larceny at Twice the Price

My only defense: It was a different time and place. The event narrated above is fictional only to the extent that I have invented bits of dialog I can’t recall, word for word, from fifty years ago.

Ralph and I were U.S. airmen stationed on Taiwan to monitor radiocommunications of the Chinese Communist Air Force, who flew operations just across the hundred-mile-wide Taiwan Strait. We had been taught Mandarin Chinese for eavesdropping purposes; it also came in handy when we mingled with the people of Taipei. 

Young men on our own in a place where most prices are negotiable, we took haggling to extremes. We prided ourselves on the discount we could wring from anyone selling anything. The sum of three dollars in those days was equivalent to about twenty-two of today’s dollars. One U.S. dollar bought forty NT (New Taiwan dollars), the local currency. You could get a nice restaurant dinner for half that or less. So Peco Yeh got more purchasing power from me than may be apparent. Still—when you consider that Peco’s asking price of twenty-five U.S. dollars would be less than two hundred today—I feel chagrin at having driven such a hard bargain, in the service of youthful pride. 

The value derived from this picture is far beyond the three dollars paid. That price, by the way, included the wood frame that the canvas still wears today. I took the whole thing to the U.S. Navy’s Headquarters Support Activity just up Chungshan Road. They crated and shipped it to my mother and father in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for fifteen dollars—five times what I had paid for the painting, but a worthwhile expense. 

The canvas graced my parents’ living room wall for decades. It came back to me when they died. Now it hangs in our house, where I pass it every day, oblivious to the quiet beauty it radiates. When I do stop to notice, I can’t believe my good fortune in having encountered Peco Yeh fifty years ago in Taipei. 

In Search of Peco Yeh

Who was Peco Yeh? It seemed he spent a lot of time on the street, promoting his art to any American who happened to walk by. His effete manner made him the butt of ridicule. “That guy’s as queer as a three-dollar bill,” one of my fellow airmen said. In 1968 “queerness” was not accepted. Homosexuality, although common and known of (even in the military), stayed under cover.

A Google search on “Peco Yeh” yields thumbnail photos of a few pictures attributed to him on various online auction sites, at modest prices. The paintings shown do not much resemble my boatman in style or substance, any more than did the stark village scenes with which it appeared in the store window. Peco, I think, dabbled in many styles.

Some sites give an unattributed, apocryphal biography of the artist:

“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.”

A romantic tale. It seems farfetched. Could it be true? Yes. Stranger things have happened. 

China was in turmoil in the late 1940s. Communists under Mao Tse-tung defeated Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces under Chiang Kai-shek. In 1949, the Nationalists fled the mainland, occupied Taiwan, became its government. Wikipedia says, “The Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party), its officers and approximately 2 million troops took part in the retreat; in addition to many civilians and refugees, fleeing from the advances of the Communist People’s Liberation Army.” Most civilian escapees came from Sichuan or other southern provinces.

The thumbnail bio puts Peco Yeh on Taiwan two years before the main exodus. That’s possible; or it could be a misprint. He is said to hail from Chengdu, which happens to be the capital of Sichuan. Many civilians who fled with the Nationalist Army were members of, or related to members of, the upper crust. The mistress and child of a former imperial court artist could have been among them. So this narrative, though extravagant, may be true. Hard to tell.

I pray that Peco Yeh lived out a long life to its proper natural conclusion. And may God forgive me for appropriating his fine artwork at such a mean price. 

Mountains and Water

Whatever the merits of his other works, the one that hangs on my wall seems to me a fine example of a modern impressionistic work that embodies important elements from classical Chinese art: Careful composition, calligraphic brushwork, and the suggestive use of negative space—areas of the canvas that seem occupied by nothing at all yet contain the universe in that nothingness. The effect is of beauty, tranquillity, eternity. The masters of the Southern Song would recognize an affinity with their landscapes.

Chinese people use the term shan-shui(山水), “mountains and water,” to mean both natural scenery and the landscape painting that depicts it. They also have an old maxim, “The wise delight in the mountains; the good delight in the waters.” 

I can only hope the delight I now take in Peco Yeh’s Taiwan waterscape, purchased in 1968, suggests some upward evolution of my soul in the intervening fifty years.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author