The Tax Collector

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


The Tax Collector

 

As Chiang Sung-Nien walked toward the office, he heard the telephone ringing crazily.  He suspected it was his phone, and his colleagues were just letting it ring.  He rushed through the doorway and picked up the receiver as quickly as he could.  The caller’s shrill voice hurt his ears, “You are asked to report to Consultant Chang as soon as possible!”

 

“Who?”

 

“Is this Chiang Sung-Nien?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Then you are asked to report to Consultant Chang immediately.”

 

“Who is Consultant Chang?”

 

“Consulant Chang Hsien-Chung from the Domestic Security Office.”

 

“There is a Domestic Security Office in our company?”

 

“Idiot, Domestic Security Office of the Investigation Bureau!” The caller hung up the phone without even identifying himself, leaving Chiang in a fog.  Why was he asked to report to the Investigation Bureau today? Was he in trouble? He went to the rows of cabinets and dug out a handbook of all the telephone numbers of governmental organizations.

 

“Is this the  Investigation Bureau?”

 

“Who is speaking?”

 

“This is… uh… I am asked to report to the Domestic Security Office. My name is Chiang Sung-Nien.”

 

“How do you write your name?”

 

“Chiang as a sheep over a woman, Sung is like a pine tree, Nien is like the year.”

 

“Where are you calling from?”

 

“Sino Petroleum… the Second Personnel Office.”

 

“OK, I’ve taken note of it. The Domestic Security Office may call you back.”

 

The whole morning Chiang was on pins and needles, wondering what he had done wrong.  He couldn’t concentrate on work, and after two hours of trying to busy himself,  waiting for the phone call from the Investigation Bureau, he decided to go to the restroom first, then check his previous work in case he had made mistakes that he was  still  unaware of.

 

He opened the carbon copy of the report he had written earlier in the week:

After the U.S. announced that it was recognizing the People’s Republic of China and cutting off its official ties with the Republic of China (Free China, or the democratic island of Taiwan), these anti-reunionists planned a congregation in order to make a statement and respond to the US announcement. What they were going to state is still not clear, but they had already had several small gatherings during the preceding weeks. Attendees included Huang Hsin-Chieh, Yu Deng-Fa, Shih Ming-Deh, Chen Chu, and Yang San-Jih.

 

Chiang wondered if his report wasn’t comprehensive enough. He had learned to withhold excessive information from the weekly report for the time when he found nothing and had nothing to write.  That way his reports would look like he had valuable findings every week.

 

Perhaps he should add that he saw Yang San-Jih visit a woman working in the textile company several times over the past weeks. Was Yang having an affair with this woman? She was in her early thirties, plump, always wearing cheap, poorly-fitted skirt suits. She wasn’t attractive at all, Chiang couldn’t imagine that Yang would be involved with this woman. Chiang had no desire to conduct an investigation of extramarital affairs, which he did not think had anything to do with national security, and he wasn’t interested in spying on the unattractive woman. He knew some of his colleagues liked that kind of shit, and they justified their gossip-chasing by making up connections with communist conspiracies or other ridiculous plots.  But perhaps he should go ahead and add Yang’s meetings with the woman, so that when his bosses from the Bureau criticized him, he would have something to make up.  He was still convinced, however, that this woman couldn’t have anything to do with  communist scheming.  She was too homely to be a seducer.

 

Chiang looked up at  his colleagues.  Everyone’s head was bent down, but he was very clear that they were just pretending to be engaged in work; a lot of times he had to do the same thing.  Each of them was assigned to watch three to five people working for the Sino Petroleum Company, and at least one of them must be guilty or suspicious of something.  So their watchers would devote  time and energy to following  them, not so much as to prevent crimes, but to fill their weekly reports.  The more immoral things they could find, the easier it was for them to write their reports.

 

Chiang shared this office with four other men.  The working title for each of them was “clerk”, a most ambiguous word for their ambiguous missions. If they were promoted by the Bureau, they might be called “specialists,” without clarifying what their specialty was, and given a small raise. Although they were supposed to conduct surveillance, they never were appropriately trained to be professional surveillers. Were they investigators or agents?  They did not have any investigating skills or tools.  They just followed people, and a lot of times the people they watched knew they were being watched.  Was Yang aware he was being watched?  Sometimes Chiang felt Yang certainly was, but sometimes he wasn’t so sure.  The acknowledgement of being watched would change everything, and it would translate into failure for Chiang in his work. Thus the only way out for Chiang was to assume that Yang had no idea that he was being watched.

 

The office was bleak today.  A gloomy day in February.  The grey iron shelves and cabinets did not reflect much of the weak light from the windows.  Piles of old reports were everywhere, catching nothing but dust.  He and his colleagues were supposed to be responsible for monitoring the national loyalty of the nearly two hundred employees of the Sin Petroleum Company, which was  an unlikely task  for five untrained men.

 

Chiang stood up, thinking perhaps he should dust the cabinets on his right hand side while he was waiting.  Then the phone rang.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Is this Chiang Sung-Nien?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Hold on,” The phone was transferred to another person in the Domestic National Security Office.

 

“Yes, sir?”

 

“Did you read the short story written by Yang San-Jih?”

 

“No. What short story?”

 

“ ‘The Tax Collector,’ published by the Independent Daily today.”

 

Chiang began to sweat. He had noticed that Yang wrote a lot. He carried his pen and notebook with him all the time, and scribbled from time to time.  But Chiang had no idea that Yang was writing stories and had been published by the newspaper.

 

“This story has seriously damaged the image of the government!” Consultant Chang shouted at the other end of the telephone. He demanded that Chiang check it out and present a report about it.

 

Chiang rushed to the reading room and found that day’s copy of the Independent Daily.  In the supplement, Yan San-Jih’s story covered two thirds of the page. Chiang sat down and read it carefully.  It was about a female accountant of a small electronic business who was in charge of reporting the taxes of the business every two months.  As it happened, it was a common practice for all businesses in Taiwan to have two accounting reports, a “secret accounting sheet” and an“official accounting sheet”.  The secret sheet was for the business owners to have a record of how much money they really had made and spent, and the official sheet was for taxation. They would hide their actual profit and exaggerate their expenses so they could pay less taxes.

 

In Yang’s story,  the accountant, Wan-Ching, was asked by her boss to evade as much taxes as possible.  The business grew fast. It expanded from a small shop repairing electronic components into a busy manufacturing business. The commodity tax from sales was the easiest to evade, so Wan-Ching reduced the revenue from their sales to almost half of the actual number.  Because of her capacity to save so much money for the company, she had been promoted and given raises several times.  Her boss always said, “If all businesses in Taiwan reported taxes honestly, eight out of ten businesses would go bankrupt.”

 

Wan-Ching learned that she needed to bribe the tax collectors when she turned the reports and invoices in to the tax office the first week of every odd month. The tax collector would pick out unmatched numbers or unusual expenditures, such as the silk quilt her boss bought, which  should not have been considered a company procurement,  “Why does an electronic component factory need a silk quilt?” The tax collector asked grimly. Wan-Ching knew if he kept looking, he’d find that all of her boss’s household expenditures were reported as company costs,  from his new TV to his son’s shoes, from his wife’s purse to his daughter’s Hong Kong holiday trip.

 

Reading this, Chiang Sung-Nien couldn’t help but laugh.  It was very common in Taiwan for a business owner to consider the business to be his own personal possession and to have the business pay for everything for him and his family. No matter how hard his employees worked, the business wouldn’t make any profit because the more the workers produced, the more their employer and his family could spend. The owner’s family would move to a bigger house, drive fancier cars, and take more frequent vacations..

 

Chiang Sun-Nien read on. Wan-Ching got the address of the tax collector, and in the night she brought him a box of pears with bills of five thousand Taiwan dollars under the pears. By the next morning her company was notified that the tax report was okay.

 

That’s the part that the Domestic Security Office worries might damage the governmental image, Chiang Sung-Nien told himself.  Who doesn’t know that tax evasion is the reality of every industry of Taiwan,  or that bribery of  tax collectors is common practice for every business?  Chiang thought, with a mocking smile. If the government thinks this practice tarnishes the governmental image, then the action needed is an investigation of the tax offices of every city, every county, and every township, not an order for Chiang to write a report about a published short story.

 

Chiang Sung-Nien was intrigued by the story; he wondered how Yang San-Jih would come up with an ending. The story went on to say that Wan-Ching had to deal with different tax collectors after the Chinese New Year holiday. One of them refused to take any bribery from Wan-Ching.  The other, although he also expressed a reluctance toward bribery, started asking Wan-Ching out, until Wan-Ching became sick of dating a man who didn’t interest her at all. The one honest tax collector ended up costing her company a lot of money—the taxes they were supposed to pay, plus a high amount of  fines.  And the other one cost Wan-Ching a lot of time and energy taken from her personal life.  In the end, Wan-Ching quit her job as a well-paid accounting chief of the electronic factory, and she started working at the assembly line of another factory.  She made much less money, but felt much less burdened.

 

Chiang Sung-Nien got to his feet and considered how he was going to write the report. He did not think the story would have any impact on the government’s image. And  even it it did, it should not be Yang’s or his responsibility.  Unfortunately, there was no way for him to argue with his superiors.  He’d complete his report anyway.

 

***

Yang San-Jih was very happy that his first short story has been published by the Independent Daily. He had submitted the story “The Tax Collector” six weeks ago, and the editor had replied to his submission the following week, telling him that his work had been read and congratulating him on its publishing.  Nevertheless, considering there were many excellent works, normally an accepted article wouldn’t be published until four to eight weeks after its acceptance. The editorial desk would mail the author the pages of the article after it was published, but they couldn’t tell them the exact day it would appear in publication.  

 

After he got the letter, Yang San-Jih began to check the supplement of the Independent Daily everyday, hoping and wondering if he would be lucky enough to get his article published earlier than expected.  After one and a half months, he finally saw it in the newspaper. He was so thrilled.  It was his first story and first submission ever,  and he had spent a lot of time and energy on it. Now he felt he was really a writer, which meant so much to him.

 

Yang San-Ji had had very little education.  He had to drop out of high school when his father was killed by an accident at the construction site where he worked. At first he took odd jobs here and there to support his mother and siblings. Then he got the job as a janitor for the refinery of the Sino Petroleum in Kaohsiung.  He lived in the dormitory with other low-ranking employees of the company, and his only hobby was reading.  Every weekend he went to the municipal library to check out books.  He devoured the knowledge contained in the books.  He read in the night after work,  in the early morning before going to work, and anytime he could manage to take his book out and flip through the pages. He hated to put down a book, so he even read  when having meals or between tasks at work.  He read faster and faster and became curious about everything.

 

It was when he learned that his cousin had to buy off government employees in the tax office of his hometown  to maintain silence about cheating on their tax reports that he began to think the only way to disclose such immoral behavior was to make the real situation into a fictional creation.  He was especially impressed by a book titled “Literature as Resistance,” an anthology that showed how literary works could wake up readers regarding incidents or issues they were not aware of, or had never cared about.  One essay asserted that literature represents the struggles of the helpless and the hopeless, and if they are to achieve any success in solving their problems, literary works provide the only path to liberation.  This essay used several examples, most of which Yang  did not understand, but some sentences from one poem in particular stayed in his head all the time.  It was written by an American poet Mark Strand and titled “Breath.”

 

when you see them

tell them I am still here

that I stand on one leg while the other one dreams

that this is the only way

 

the lies I tell them are different

from the lies I tell myself

that by being both here and beyond

I am becoming a horizon

 

Yang San-Jih was not sure what these sentences meant, but reading the lines, he fell in love with the abstract scenes immediately.  There were also analyses of novels and short stories of resistance. He wished he had a chance to read them all.  Yang San-Jih read the anthology more than once, and marked it with a lot of notes. For the parts he did not understand, he would insert a piece of notepaper on the page as a mark so he would read them again. He kept the book as long as the library allowed and determined he should borrow it again after he read more about related topics.

 

If literature can be a tool of resistance against unfair situations, or a condemnation of  injustice, then his published story might help expose corruption.. To plot this story, Yang had interviewed his cousin many times.  She helped him get a very clear picture of how businesses dealt with the extorting tax collectors.  But in order to protect his cousin, he changed her company from a textile importer to an electronic factory. And in truth,  his cousin did not quit. She was still working for the same company and buying off the tax collectors every two months.  

 

***

Works of literature are often referenced to identify various aspects of a society, and fiction can help shed light on the basic understanding of a culture. Literature has always been a source of exploring the image of a country and its governing body. The image of a government presented in literature reflects the widely shared beliefs of the public, which also contributes to the stability of the society.

 

Chiang Sung-Nien wrote this opening paragraph of his report based on an essay “Literature, Culture, and the National Image” by an American author. He found it in an anthology he picked up randomly from the bookshelves in the library. Chiang Sung-Nien thought it was a good start, although he had no idea where it was leading to. He had gone to the library and found several books about literature, thinking they might be helpful for his report.  He knew very little about literature, but since Yang San-Jih’s work had been published by a major newspaper, it must be considered a recognized literary work. He actually enjoyed reading it, despite the fact that  some episodes were too real to be comfortable for its readers.

 

Although “The Tax Collector” by Yang San-Jih is a work of fiction,it does have the potential to disquiet the harmony that our society has exerted such effort to create.

 

Yes. Social harmony is the most important thing. Anyone endangering it should be checked, Chiang thought satisfactorily.

 

Fiction can instigate doubt, doubt as to the leadership of our government, doubt as to the patriotism of our nation. And undoubtedly, making up stories is inherently a political action.

 

This paragraph was Chiang’s alteration of the writing about fiction and politics by a Pakistani writer, which was part of the collection within the anthology. The author was actually taking an opposite perspective on fiction—he was crediting novelists who tried to change the world with fictional plots. To Chiang’s astonishment, there were actually quite a few authors taking a similar stand in this anthology. This perspective seemed unheard of, or at least never talked about in the world that was familiar to Chiang: writing fiction could be activism. Another essay mentioned an American novel, “The Jungle,” which revealed the horrible conditions of a food factory in Chicago and became a bestseller, eventually fueling an investigation  ordered by the White House. Subsequently, laws on the sanitation of food processing and improvement of working conditions were enacted.

 

It blew Chiang’s mind. He had never been a literature lover and knew nothing about literary writers or their motivation in writing. He just thought novels or short stories were tales, and poems were about the beautiful things or sad feelings the poets echoed. He deliberated carefully about what to write in his report so he wouldn’t get himself in trouble. Literature is powerful, Was that why the Domestic Security Office was so nervous about Yang’s story?

 

It is possible that fiction, even if it is not based on real incidents, can mislead the readers into thinking that the stories really did happen.  Yang San-Jih’s short story “The Tax Collector”  libels governmental officials, erodes people’s trust in the government, and breaks social harmony.  

 

Writing this, Chiang wondered what would happen if a company reported the tax collectors’ extortion to their supervisors?  And just as he was assigned to spy on the employees of the Sino Petroleum,  were those tax collectors also under watch?  But it was not his business to tell the Domestic Security Office how to operate the government.  He and his colleagues were asked to find problems, not to propose ideas regarding how to solve the problems. Chiang felt confused and absurd seeing his colleagues sitting in the bleak office, each of them working endlessly on reports for such obscure purposes. Nevertheless, in the conclusion of his report, Chiang Sung-Nien suggested that  the Domestic Security Office should issue an executive order to the Independent Daily that, for the sake of maintaining the peace of the society, any of Yang San-Jih’s writings should be reviewed by the Office before publishing.  

 

Chiang returned the anthology as soon as he completed his report.  His thoughts were disturbed by what he had read in the collection, and he wondered how a publication like this had been translated and published in Taiwan. “The examples in it were so inappropriate for Taiwan.” He told himself.  When he put it on the library cart for returned books, a small piece of notepaper fluttered out. He did not notice it as he quickly walked away from what  troubled him.  

 


Submitted: January 26, 2018

© Copyright 2021 C.J. Anderson-Wu. All rights reserved.

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