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The Clown Spy
My life as a nine-year-old boy on an army estate in a provincial town in the early 1970s Taiwan was dominated by two maxims: studying hard and looking out for communist spies. Sine I was top of the year at school in every examination, catching imaginary communist bandits became my extra curricular challenge which fuelled my imagination with fear and excitement in equal measures. Apparently, Communists bandits were everywhere, so much so – as my nationalist army officer father warned me constantly – if you whistled at night, you could betray your position, and they would find you, kidnap you and cut your ears off. Same with striking alight a match at night.
I believed him. I had to. After all, he was actually fighting the enemies. He had been fighting the enemies since he was not much older than me. It was imperative to remain vigilant, at all times, day and night. There were a few places where spies might lurk, places little children should never go, let alone going on their own. The communal convenience was one such place.
In the days before flush toilets arrived on the estate, the residents shared one communal convenience that was bigger than our little bungalows. There was a door to the gable wall, inside of which were cubicles with wooden doors to one side of the building and an open ceramic urinal running the entire length of the opposite wall. As children we would only go inside the toilet for a wee, and only during the day. Never at night. Never alone. Number twos would have to be performed squatting over the gutter outside the building. The wall was enbrazened with propaganda slogans and murals depicting the bravery of nationalist soldiers: “Down the Communists; Recover the Motherland”. The stench and the persistent blue bottles were infinitely more preferable than the fear of being snatched by Communist moles hidden in the cubicles. To us, each one of them leas to a dark world of unimaginable horror.
However, it was unlikely to catch any infiltrator in broad day light as no children were allowed out after dusk. Until one day when a rumour from a nearby estate began to be passed round the children on mine. They found one! In a cubicle inside the communal toilet on their estate. We had to act soon. I had to. Picking up sticks as weapons, we set off, feeling heroic.
There he was, in one of the dingy cubicles, his glorious costume with immaculately quaffed hair with colourful silk ribbons in it illuminated in a shaft of sunlight slicing in through the narrow vent over head. He sat cross-legged like a doll–no, a clown, expressionless and unflinching in full gaze of mesmerised children. It was an unscripted drama without actions. Rather than fear, the sense of intrigue and marvel was palpable. Who was he? What was he? A communist spy? Live one. Where did he come from? We never did find out. Where did he go?
From that day on, that surreal image took residence in my mind’s eye. I could always see him behind the cubicle doors, heavily made up, in his most magnificent dress of joyous pinks and blues and golds. The sun shone brilliantly through the vent, in and out of which darted blue bottles like tiny shooting stars. The reassuringly warm whiff lingered in the sultry summer air.