The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 23: Xinluoma

Zhang opened her front door to discover two bruised women holding rags to their breasts. “Dilaila! What happened to you? Who is this?”

Delilah burst out crying as soon as they stepped inside.

“What’s the matter, baobei?”

“A cop attacked us and beat us.”

“Oh, look at you.” Zhang touched Attica’s swelling eye. “Where you find her?”

“She’s from Ancient Rome.”

“Guluoma? What is ‘cop’?”

“A policeman.”

“Policeman? Where?”

“Chicago. The Chief of police.”

“Why he beat you?”

“I don’t know. He went crazy. He threw me down and my hand is hurt from landing on the floor. Has my nose stopped bleeding?”

Attica was likewise caressing Zhang on the eye. “Peregrino est. Ex quo est? Ab Oriente?”

“No bleeding. Who this beautiful woman?”

“Attica.”

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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 Southeast Asia and massage in China, however. Although it’s big business in both regions, in the former it is largely targeted to foreigners, in the latter to domestics. 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).

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 22: Chicago


Malmquist took a long hot bath. He washed his two filthy tunics in the tub, rinsed them out and hung them up to dry. No writing was visible on the wet outer tunic. He slipped into Ray’s bed naked and had a long sleep. In the morning, he rummaged around her kitchen and fridge. American items — cheddar cheese, whole wheat bread, eggs, butter, the basics. There was no branding on any of the packaging, though jars of condiments bore Chinese characters printed on simple white labels. “Some kind of hot pepper jam,” he said to himself, dipping into one with his finger.

He fixed himself a grilled cheese sandwich, brewed some coffee in a percolator, and lit up an unfinished ganja roach sitting in the ashtray on the kitchen table. He took a closer look around the room. The books on the shelves and scattered magazines were all in Chinese. He fetched the bound tunics from the bathroom and hung them up on the wall across from the bed. The outer tunic read “WITCHES UNDERWEAR PARTY,” as it originally had when he first acquired it. From the kitchen he retrieved the condiment jar and traced out the characters from the label — “辣椒酱” — onto the tunic. “C’mon, Ray, where are you?” he muttered.

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 21: Gwongzau

People build their lives out of a mixture of reality and symbols. I’ll provide an example from my earlier Chicago days. I once rented the upper floor of a house; the owner lived on the lower floor. He was out of town one winter and asked me to keep an eye on the central heating unit’s pilot light to make sure it was always on. That much at least, the reality principle guided his life. One day I was back down in the basement and noticed the smell of gas coming from a gas line along the ceiling. The most prompt and reliable public service in any city, even faster than an ambulance or the police, is the gas company when you call their emergency number. They were there in a few minutes. They shut off the gas and unscrewed the leaky pipe. “He put his pipe in bare? What the hell is he doing attaching pipes without pipe dope!” they yelled, as they applied glue to the threads and screwed it back in.

I got on the phone to inform my landlord he had to have all his gas lines refitted with pipe dope as soon as possible.

“Pipe dope?”

“It’s a glue, a sealant, to prevent gas from escaping through the joints.”

In other words, his house was possibly days or hours away from being blown sky high. That didn’t stop him too from yelling at me. He was outraged I had approved the gas company’s bill for the service without consulting him first. He was moreover incredulous he could possibly have improperly fitted his own gas lines. Again I tried to explain it was the gas company, not me, that fixed the leaky pipe, and as it was an immediate public threat they didn’t need his permission. No matter. How dare I authorize an unjustified intrusion on his property? It was as if his very identity had been violated. I had messed with his independence, his self-sufficiency, his rights — his symbols. He did finally swallow the humiliation and accepted the need to refit the pipes, but it goes to show how strong resistance to reality can be among symbol-driven types.

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. 20: Roma

“Stop shooting!” yelled Malmquist.

“What happened?”

“Get out of the cage.”

“It’s not a cage. We’re stuck under a board. I can’t move my arm.”

Malmquist crawled out from under the board. It was a toppled litter. He extracted Danny’s arm and dragged the rest of him free. There had been screams. A pair of Roman ladies lay flung on the ground next to them. Several slaves bent over another person who was prostrate. A growing pool of blood and commotion. Voices exclaiming, “Quid accidit?”

“Let’s get out of here, now! Follow me.”

“Where’s my gun?”

“We have no time to talk.”

Confusion and the crush of the crowd enabled them to escape. Malmquist’s tunics were both torn open and he grasped them to hide his nakedness as they dashed out of Trajan’s Forum and through the marketplace in back.

“Don’t you tell me what to do, bandage head. You were trying to assault me just now! Where the fuck are we?”

“Listen, you brat. This is Ancient Rome. One of your gunshots caused that pool of blood just now. You’d better pray it was only a slave or we’re going to be executed on the spot. I’m taking us somewhere safe.”