These women were not forced into prostitution Nor did they go willingly to support one side in a war Nor did they stand in the spotlight and receive the applause of their audience like the entertainment troupes that raised the morale of the soldiers. They came and went silently. Sudden death in shelling was an ever-present danger on the front. No one knew them when they were alive and when they died. They did not appear in military records. They faced the same hardships, lived and died, like everyone else on Kinmen. — Inscription at the Military Brothel Museum, Kinmen, Taiwan
We were ghosts then as we are ghosts now. We haunted the corridors, we haunted the rooms, we haunted the beds and the square tubs dug into the ground and fitted with cool, colorless tile. We powdered our faces until they were fine and pale like porcelain, and cold like it, too. We brushed our hair until the threads gleamed with infinite darkness. You might find some of that hair today, hidden in the corners, wrapped around the dust of sex and war. Dust doesn’t die; it simply blows away. Hair, too, survives.
The inner courtyard is pretty, isn’t it? Verdant bushes trimmed and clipped, a banyan tree with its thick veins crowding the corner wall. The walkway is smooth and even. The red bricks that line the path are perfectly straight. Here, the soldiers came with their homesickness, their loneliness, their insatiable desires and sorrows. They left, not knowing they carried bits of us: flakes of skin, bodily fluids, tiny fragments of dignity and dreams.
Can you hear us? We are impossible to hear.
Here is the ticket booth, where, for two months’ salary, men young and old purchased our time in fifteen-minute increments. There is a group of three high school boys there right now, delighting in taking pictures where they pretend to buy a whore, a fake ticket in their hands. Around the corner is the staircase where the soldiers congregated while waiting their turn. Follow the boys down the corridor, to the rooms. That’s where we lived. That’s where we are.
Maybe one of us had a beautiful laugh. Maybe one of us played the guitar. Maybe one of us stashed away American comic books, gifted by a doting lieutenant. Who knows? Who remembers? We have no voices, no way to tell you who we were. We were known only by our numbers—#4, #12, #8, #3—and now not even those. If we are remembered at all, it is by a leg, an eyebrow, a brown-nippled breast, the wetness of our cunts.
In each of the rooms, there is a wooden dresser with a mirror. This is where we painted our lips so our smiles looked bright and inviting, so they hid the ache behind our teeth. There is a small bureau with drawers, where we kept our clothes—though we never needed to wear much—and cheap jewelry, little tokens of affection for which the soldiers believed we were grateful. The luckiest of us kept letters from home in the very back, precious items read and reread in the quiet of night, pressed to a sighing breast.
Then there is the bed. Uneven, uncomfortable, with springs much too loud. Its thin cotton blanket smells of mold. The boys are taking pictures of this, too, their imaginations roaming across the bed’s blank austerity. But in between these white sheets lie entire years of our lives. We worked here. We slept here. We lay awake and counted imaginary geese here.
To survive, we learned to be great actresses. We cocked our heads just so, we laughed with just the right lilt, we batted our eyelashes and pursed our lips. Sometimes we were innocent, weak and in need of protection; other times we teased and tortured, until our customers raged for release. We learned who these men were through the names they called out, their bashful desires, the way their faces twisted in the moment of emission. We knew them intimately, saw their most vulnerable selves, but they didn’t even know our real names. When we were with them, we hid ourselves away so they were never with us ; they were with someone else. If they had known us, could they still have come to us?
photo courtesy of the author
Perhaps one of us had a son back in mainland Taiwan, a child whose father was a murky memory, who was fed by his mother’s ability to moan with conviction. Perhaps one of us was stolen from the mountains, where bamboo grew thick and high, sold at such a young age she no longer knew how to make her way home. Perhaps one of us lost everything, and so gave everything she didn’t have.
How do we tell these stories? Who will listen?
We were told we were war heroes. That our services protected hundreds of local women from rape and indignity. They tell you that, too; you can read it on the plaque the boys stand in front of now, nodding. Men are men, people say. They have desires. We did our duty, and in exchange we were given salaries, we were given food and shelter, we were given regular checkups in a white sterile room, we were given the protection of the entire army of the Republic of China.
Some of us believed the pretty lies. Some of us murmured, This is for the greater good, while wincing under the weight of a drunk colonel. Some of us pictured the curious eyes of the girl who sold meat buns from a wooden cart or the fresh-faced cheeks of the oyster-catcher’s young daughter, and felt satisfied we had saved them. But still, some of us secretly wiped ourselves with the ROC flag after a rough customer, watching the dark streaks of our blood seep into the bright red cotton.
At night, in the indigo stillness of our rooms, we dreamt of who we could be. We could be married, one of us whispered. We could make that young major love us. We could be free, another said, listening for the distant pound of ocean against the tiny prison of our island. It only takes a strong swimmer to swim to the other shore. We could be dead, another wept, remembering the roar and quake of artillery fire from the Communists.
We chose to be here. We chose to come to this little island so far from Taiwan, to live in this idyllic courtyard with its fifteen identical rooms, because it was the best way we knew to survive. We chose to sell the only thing of value we had, the only thing we could leverage: that void between our legs.
But there is a difference between a choice and a wish. We were never asked what we wished for.
Every night we shared meals with each other in the common dining room upstairs. You can’t go up there now, but that low-ceilinged room is where we ate and gossiped and fought, where we spilled soy sauce on a rickety wooden table, where we sat on small plastic stools and rubbed each others’ backs, where we complained about our customers and compared notes. We loved each other sometimes, for only we could understand each other, but we also argued over petty jealousies, sometimes hating each other. Someone stole someone’s favorite pair of embroidered shoes. Someone coveted someone’s necklace. Someone charmed away someone else’s best customer, the one who brought her red bean pastries, and revenge was taken via a cockroach thrown into her porridge. Sometimes we clawed at each other’s faces, pulled each other’s hair. Why do you always cry? someone asked. You keep me up at night.
photo courtesy of the author
The boys have long since gone, but you’re still here. Take your time. Drift from room to room. You’ll see no differences. The same white walls. The same cloudy mirror. The same starched sheets on the same empty bed. No evidence of who we were. No pictures of us, no stories or statistics. Our tears, our hopes, our secrets—nothing remains. Nothing except the whisper of us in your ear:
I fell in love with a soldier who did not love me back. I tried to kill myself when I realized that no one would ever marry a former whore, even after the war was over. I got pregnant and refused to get an abortion, instead running away in the middle of the night. I took pleasure in seducing virgins. I believed, until the day I died, that I was performing a noble service for my country, that I was every bit as important as the young men I serviced. I contracted a venereal disease that put me out of commission for a month—an entire month of scratching my crotch with ferocity and shame.
Can you hear our stories? Can you tell the world who we were?
It’s too hard to track the paths of ghosts. Our voices are like the dust scattered to the sea. In our lifetime we laughed, we cried, we had families, we had names. We had stories of what we sacrificed and whom we sacrificed for. We had childhoods, we had friends, we had dreams of something better. We lived short lives. We toiled into old age. Someone held us once with true affection and made us a promise they couldn’t keep.
But who will ever know? We were called heroes, but we were forgotten. Not even a wooden plaque marks our graves. We received no medals of honor. No one has left joss sticks burning for the peace of our souls.
So we are still here. We walk the corridors. If you listen closely, you can hear our footsteps echo.