酒矸倘賣嘸 The soundless cry of the mute rag-and-bone man

Mum loved watching movies, especially the Taiwanese 爱情文艺片 (transliteration: love and culture films) of the 60s and 70s. Even by the time after I came along, her enthusiasm flagged not a bit; I remember many excursions to the movie theaters with Mum and Dad, with me perched on her lap, munching and holding my favourite kacang-puteh (peanuts in a paper cone) in hand. This was the time before twelve-dollar Jumbo Combos of popcorn nachos and soda.

the_friendly_kacang-puteh_man _a_fixture_in_movie_theaters_no_more

Taiwanese 爱情文艺片 (love-culture films) usually feature tall and debonair leading men with thick mullets in their 70’s bell-bottoms, and beautiful willowy leading ladies with their soft long tresses; and with both reciting and exchanging their lines in very proper, formal chinese that is reminiscent of classical poetry, or singing and serenading each other with love songs while effortlessly playing a variety of musical instruments — as befitting the ‘文艺-culture’ in its namesake after all.

But this particular 1983 film I have in mind and shown below, was not a typical Taiwanese love feature. The film 《搭错车》(Official English title: Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing?, but the chinese title really translates as: Boarding the wrong train, meaning, Taking the wrong path) was made:

…amidst rejuvenated native Taiwanese sentimentalities and the gradual liberalisation of Taiwanese cultural and linguistic behaviour from the strangle hold of Taiwanese mainland-Chinese (origin) dominated authoritarian government…


No dashing handsome male leads for beautiful fragile damsels to swoon over in this movie. In fact, the leading actor in the film is the man whom I remember the pan-Asia chinese media declared as the 第一丑男/ugliest leading man in the chinese film industry, the veteran Taiwanese actor, Sun Yue 孙越.

Sun Yue’s large bulbous nose and craggy hangdog features, together with his impeccable acting skills, was perfect for the character of 哑叔-Uncle Mute, the mute army veteran and rag-and-bone man struggling to make a living and survive in one of the many 眷村 (poor rundown ‘army’ villages housing retired KMT/Nationalist army vets and their families) dotted all over Taiwan.


哑叔_Uncle_Mute _the_rag_and_bone_man_and_his_empty_wine_bottles

And the film plot is not an especially clever or uncommon one:
哑叔-Uncle Mute, the rag-and-bone man struggling and living almost day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, but with very simple needs and wants, is content with his simple pleasures — a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of coarse rice wine, the warmth of the bed he shares with his lady companion.
One day, amongst the trash and empty wine bottles he collects to make a living with, 哑叔-Uncle Mute finds a two-month old baby girl, abandoned and crying out for warmth and a home. And from that moment, 哑叔-Uncle Mute’s life is forever changed: he now has something and someone to live for, to hope for…
哑叔-Uncle Mute gives up his drinking, instead of wine he now buys milk powder for his new-found baby daughter; he gives up his lady companion and his desultory dissipative life and worked harder than he had ever before to provide for the new center and lady of his life.
As a mute, Uncle Mute cannot shout out the familiar melodious cry and refrain that the local rag-and-bone men will use to announce their presence and request: 酒矸倘賣嘸 Any Empty Wine Bottles To Sell? Instead, Uncle Mute blows an old army bugle from his days as an army bugler and military band trumpeter, in the familiar melody of 酒矸倘賣嘸, so that anyone who hears his bugle sounds will know it is Uncle Mute coming round to collect empty wine bottles.
And as his precious little baby girl grows up, Uncle Mute frets over not being able to speak to her communicate with her, beyond the coarse guttural sounds that his throat is only capable of making. But one mode of expression which is crystal clear between them, and belongs uniquely to the father and daughter pair, is the simple 酒矸倘賣嘸 melody, especially when Uncle Mute tinkles and taps it out with a chopstick against an empty wine bottle: Deng-dengdeng-deng-deng-DENG.
The baby girl, Ah Mei, grows up into a bright and pretty young lady, and unlike her adoptive mute father, she is blessed with a wonderful voice and a talent for singing. But soon, the young lady grows restless and chafes at being stuck in the boondocks, and wishes for nothing more than to board and take the first train out of this small and poor village to take to the stage and live her dreams under the big bright city lights.
She is soon scouted and groomed to become the next big star and singing sensation. For various and heartbreaking reasons, she is then forced to deny and shun her father, as well as her relations with the poor village she grew up in.
The film moves into its final stage; Ah Mei, now a famous singer and international star, triumphantly opening her concert on the largest stage in the country. But midway through, an interruption and bad news: 哑叔-Uncle Mute had collapsed while watching her on TV and is now lying on his death-bed. Ah Mei dashes off the stage still in her concert costume and rushes to see 哑叔-Uncle Mute…but its too late. Broken heart, tears, regret, shame… Had Ah Mei really boarded the wrong train, and chosen the wayward path?
She returns to the stage, this time shrouded in stylized funereal sackcloth, and sings a different song, one embedded with the familiar melody and refrain that once had given her life, given her hope, given her love…singing it with the utmost of thanksgiving, and the deepest of mournful regret. An 哀悼曲-funereal song.

酒矸倘賣嘸 Any Empty Wine Bottles To Sell:


酒矸倘賣嘸 酒矸倘賣嘸
酒矸倘賣嘸 酒矸倘賣嘸

多麼熟悉的聲音 陪我多少年風和雨
從來不需要想起 永遠也不會忘記
沒有天那有地  沒有地那有家
沒有家那有你  沒有你那有我

假如你不曾養育我 給我溫暖的生活
假如你不曾保護我 我的命運將會是什麼
是你撫養我長大  陪我說第一句話
是你給我一個家  讓我與你共同擁有它

雖然你不會表達你的真情  卻付出了熱忱的生命
遠處傳來你多麼熟悉的聲音 讓我想起你多麼慈祥的心靈
什麼時候你再回到我身邊  讓我再和你一起唱


Any Empty Wine Bottles To Sell

Do you have wine bottles to sell
Do you have wine bottles to sell
Do you have wine bottles to sell
Do you have wine bottles to sell

What a familiar sound that is
It’s been with me day in and day out
I never needed to think about it
It’s something I can never forget

Without heaven, where would earth be?
Without earth, where would home be?
Without home, where would you be?
Without you, where would I be?

Without you to raise me
To give me warmth and life
Without you to protect me
What would my fate be?

It was you who raised me
Accompanied me when I said my first words
It was you who gave me a home
To share with you, together

Though you cannot open your mouth and speak a single word
But you know the world and its black and white, real and fraudulent
Though you cannot express how you feel
Yet you have given of your precious life
From afar comes your very familiar sound
Reminding me of your very loving soul
When will you return to my side
And let us sing together again:

Do you have wine bottles to sell…

The very dramatic last part of the film with two very different songs; and with the climatic performance of the ending theme song:

搭錯車 9/9 Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing?

And the opening credits of the film, with 哑叔-Uncle Mute’s bugle, and the wall of glass he built out of empty green and transparent glass bottles (memories flooding back…):
搭錯車 1/9 Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing?

What a tearjerker. And what strange and powerful things are memories…
Even after all these years, just hearing that sad little tune and refrain 酒矸倘賣嘸…, and I am a six year old again, sitting on my mother’s lap and bawling together with her, crying our eyes out for 哑叔-Uncle Mute up there on the big screen. 他好可怜喔 He’s so poor thing…


I heard this song a few evenings ago, while out walking along the park and beach. It was the evening the haze returned with a vengeance, but I desperately needed my walk and ‘airing’ that day and so ventured forth regardless. As I walked, I could see in the distance sitting at a pavilion the familiar figure of an old man, another frequent visitor and walker in this park. I have seen him several times before, this old man, who would walk leisurely about while carrying of all things, an old cassette-tape player, and playing tapes of very old mandarin songs. No solitary enjoying of songs from an ipod or smartphone packed with a thousand songs for this old man; he apparently prefers to share his favourite tunes with all and sundry, playing old songs from the 70s, 60s, even 50s from his tape player, occasionally popping in a fresh tape from a bag he carries in his other hand. Very old school… I like.

I have not seen this old man in a while, was beginning to fear the worst, so it was good seeing him again that evening, at least he’s still out and about. On previous occasions, I had stopped and chatted with him about his songs, and even asked for a few songs I remembered listening from my mother’s collection as a child. I think he was a bit tickled at this youngish man talking with him about old singers and old songs…
But this time, the haze was really uncomfortable, so I wanted to just smile nod and be on my way.

As I approached him though, the soft tune and refrain coming from his player caught my ear, faintly familiar… 酒矸倘賣嘸, and I stopped dead in my tracks. At once, memories came pouring through… Flashbacks of scenes both real and from the screen, plaintive singing from sad songs mixing with Mum’s soft voice laughing, talking, soothing…

I couldn’t react and gird myself in time, and embarrassingly the floodgates opened…


2 thoughts on “酒矸倘賣嘸 The soundless cry of the mute rag-and-bone man

  1. Stan Lai did a good play on life in those army villages a couple of years back and I think they just had another run in Singapore again recently. I think Taiwan has a lot of brilliant filmmakers starting with those New Wave folks like the late Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao Hsien.

  2. Agree, Taiwan indeed is a 宝岛/Treasure Island filled with talent.

    Speaking of New Wave, I remember many conversations and little debates at home in the 80s of this and related issues; between the all-embracing, hotly passionate and fiercely-liberal Left (mother), and the cool conservatism and pragmatic critiques of an aloof -and slightly annoying- Right (father).

    Mum supported the New Wave movement in its realistic examination and granular treatment of social and political issues in 1970s and 80s Taiwan, and argued that the slew of New Wave films, together with fellow symbiotic movements in the other arts, helped to build and raise the budding civil society that was just forming and which was starting to seriously push-back against the authoritarian martial law then weighing heavily on all aspects of Taiwanese society under the military government. And probably eventually helped usher in the full democratic process and thriving civil society that is visible in Taiwan today.

    And Father as always, dryly and with a touch of irony, will note how much Mum enjoyed the very popular Taiwanese 爱情文艺片 from the 60s and 70s, and how these beloved melodrama films carefully skirt around the political and social issues of the day, and how the creative forces behind these films, music, songs, lyrics, dramas (including the much-respected leading doyens: 瓊瑤/Chiung Yao and 劉家昌/Liu Jia-chang) had entered into a tacit compact of non-criticism with the satraps and censors of the military government.

    Heh, it was fun watching these back-and-forths between Mum and Father…

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