The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 19: New Gary

Ganja haze hung in the air and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy blared on the stereo when the buzzer rang. Delilah turned the music down. Gunther entered with a strange woman. “Leroy dropped her off. He said to take care of her.”

“Hoc est lupanar?” the woman asked.

“Who is she?”

The woman walked around the room as if looking for something. She went up to the stereo and pointed to the speakers. “Ubi musici?” she asked, peeking around and behind the speakers.

“What’s she doing?” asked Gunther.

“I don’t know.”

The woman then noticed the spinning record on the turntable and grabbed the tone arm, making a blood-curdling scratch.

“Oh, fuck, you just ruined my record!”

She looked up at them in confusion, the tone arm still in her fist. “Ubi musici?”

“What’s the matter with her? Is she retarded?”

Delilah pulled her away from the stereo and sat her down on the bed. “Who are you?”

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Foreign Devils on the Loose in China: A Review

One million foreigners currently reside in China as of 2017, an astonishing tenfold rise since 2010. With this increase, the number of expat books set in China has taken off as well. I imagine a decade down the line we will have a veritable literature on our hands. Yet the Great China Expat Novel (or Memoir) is not an easy feat to pull off.

One reason for the relatively rare occurrence of memorable expat books, literary talent aside, is a simple insight lacking among the majority attempting the task: the perils of solipsism. Your run-of-the-mill expat tale revolves largely around the narrator’s own world, often with precious little to say about his or her interactions with the Chinese. The particular balance struck between the self and the other may vary; the mistake is to draw no larger symbolic significance from the lessons learned. The clash of cultures – East and West, Old World and New – remains ever-present at street level in China. This remains a country that has been slow to adopt some of the more internationalized notions of freedom and lifestyle taken for granted in say, Japan, Korea and Thailand. The best expat authors intuitively grasp the larger significance of this in their storytelling. They capture and dramatize China’s fraught relationship with the West in microcosm, down to the most personal interactions and conflicts, and in doing so succeed in transforming the casual and the banal into the universal.

In the following, I review four previously published, noteworthy China expat books (three memoirs and one novel), before examining a more recent addition to the literature to see how it measures up.

Massage diary: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

One of the hundreds of massage shops in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

China: Kunming

As my jumping-off point for a four-country Southeast Asia tour, I thought I’d begin with a few words about the massage scene in one of China’s more attractive cities, Kunming, in southwestern Yunnan Province, conveniently located a few hundred kilometers from the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Burma. There is a key point of contrast between massage in China and the rest of Southeast Asia, however. Although it’s big business in both regions, in the former it is largely targeted to domestics, in the latter to foreigners. In your typical Southeast Asian hotspot, massage shops proliferate wherever tourists are to be found, jostling for attention with similarly catchy English-language signs and menus, among all the bars, cafes and restaurants, while in your typical Chinese city, massage shops are scattered uniformly in most neighborhoods, touristy and not, and their shop signs are in Chinese (though the Western word “Spa” is standard code for the full panoply of massage services).

Lotus: Updating the great Chinese socialist realist novel

With the Communists fighting both the Japanese invaders and the Guomindang reactionaries in a triangular war, the 1930s-40s was a tumultuous and extraordinarily violent period in the country’s history, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, mostly civilians. Such an earth-shaking era was story-worthy to say the least, and revolutionary authors applied their firsthand experience of the war years to penning firey, action-packed pageturners in the tradition of socialist realism. Among the best-known of these novels were Liang Bin’s Keep the Red Flag Flying (红旗谱), Qu Bo’s Tracks in the Snowy Forest (林海雪原), Yang Mo’s The Song of Youth (青春之歌), Liu Qing’s Builders of a New Life (创业史), and Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan’s Red Crag (红岩), all written in the late 1950s-early 1960s (also published in English by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing). This flowering of communist fiction dried up during the Cultural Revolution. To Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao, nothing was quite revolutionary enough to pass muster and she banned virtually everything, including the aforementioned novels.

The decades since have presented a quandary for Chinese writers. With socialism firmly established and war and devastation a thing of the past, in the absence of some new vital struggle or national emergency, it must have been, and continues to be, a tall order to revisit the authentic socialist realist novel. That is until the contemporary female writer Zhang Lijia saw what was staring at us all along and has now fashioned into an impressive new work of socialist realism, the novel Lotus (Henry Holt & Co., 2017). What momentous cause was this up-and-coming author the first to bring into urgent focus? None other than the great scourge of prostitution and sex work.

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 18: Zigaago

“Where the hell am I?” Delilah whispered to herself.

She was seated on a toilet in what should have been a toilet stall except there was no stall, only exposed toilets projecting from a wall. The seat next to hers was occupied by a black female. To one side sinks, to the other urinals, one being used by a white female facing forward, tunic hiked up over her hips. The only thing separating the so-called restroom from the noisy space on the other side was a screen. Then a white male came up and grabbed the toilet on Delilah’s other side. “Neihou,” he said to her.

She jumped up and went over to the sink. The black woman was soon at the sink next to hers, washing not only her hands but her face and chest as well, sticking her hand through the sides of her sleeveless tunic to get under and between the breasts. Delilah stared.

Facebook, rococo vulvas, and the pornographic imagination

A rococo vulva, which apparently violates Facebook’s ads policy.

Authors who publish independently on the subject of relationships and sexuality are soon acquainted with the industry’s strictures. They boil down to two: 1) If the content of your book contains graphic descriptions of sex, it will likely get involuntarily pegged as “erotica,” even if you thought you were writing something literary. 2) If the cover of your book is too sexually suggestive, it’s also likely to get pegged as erotica or simply turned down for distribution altogether. And then there’s Facebook, which is not less but far more comprehensive in its family-friendly guidelines and requires a considerably steeper learning curve. But first a few observations on book content before moving on to our primary concern, book covers, and finally Facebook.

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 17: Xinluoma

“Poxie! Chou biaozi!” cursed the naked man as he punched and kicked the prostitute. “Ni ge jianbi! Ni die wo yijing ba ni bi cao lan le!”

“Bie da wo le!” she begged him.

Malmquist was just as startled by his sudden appearance in the attic brothel as they were, but he recognized the man and the man him. Dispensing with formalties, he knocked the wind out of the man with his fist, put his head in an armlock and bashed his face against the wall until he grew limp.

“Shenme yisi?” said the startled proprietor as Malmquist dashed down the ladder and out of the eatery.

The prostitute appeared on the steps to announce while pointing at Malmquist, “Nage nanren feichang ouda keren le. Kuailai ba!”

He had already disappeared down the lanes across the Palatine in the direction of the Circus Maximus.