Irreducible, like the country itself: China books I have reviewed in 2012

Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom By Carl Crow (China Economic Review Publishing, orig. pub. 1940)

Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom by Carl Crow (Earnshaw Books, orig. pub. 1940). We have a paradox of a book here, a compelling 300-page account of China with virtually nothing to tell us about life in China or the Chinese. How does Carl Crow, the famous Shanghai newspaper editor and American China hand of 25 years, pull it off? We are given the bigger historical picture, a sweeping discussion of the centuries of maritime trade up through the opium wars, the occupation by the Western powers and the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, before the narrative circles inward to give us a close-up of life in foreign-occupied Shanghai over the early decades of the 20th century – right up to the day the author is forced out of the country upon the Japanese invasion in 1937. It is a fine historical introduction written by the sure hand and balanced objectivity of the experienced journalist.

But we soon realize that despite being less than a hundred years ago we are encountering an era as strange as that of Marco Polo’s, or the US antebellum south, or the world of “gay cocktail parties” that a China-bound F. Scott Fitzgerald might have penned (when “gay” had a different meaning from what it does today), and Crow is not entirely able to extricate himself from the biases of his age – this was a time after all when it was still fashionable to be racist. It is a China peopled entirely by expat bachelors and families, bored bridge-playing wives, their China “boy” servants, amahs, and anonymous kitchen hands. Not a single fleshed-out Chinese person is described in the entire book, nor a single one even named, apart from the brief, touching mention in the final pages of one “Ching,” a servant of Crow’s hastily delivering some food as he and his family flee the Japanese attack. The remaining cast of hazy Chinese occupy the narrative background as ciphers, as so many shadowy and inscrutable Fu Manchus.

We do note changes in prejudices and attitudes. Before the First World War, when Shanghai was divided into the French, British and American concessions and effectively walled off from the rest of the city, with one park reputed to have a sign forbidding entrance to “Dogs and Chinese” (or so the rumor goes; Crow himself disbelieves it but it dies hard for the simple reason that such a sign was entirely plausible given the long institutionalized European racism toward the Chinese). It would never have occurred to anyone on either side to extend social intercourse beyond business relations or transactional necessities, not surprising considering the “very large class [of foreigners in China] who looked with considerable disdain and disgust on all Chinese people.” After the war and start of the Republic, things began to relax and there was more mutual curiosity and gesturing across the cultural divide. But the Chinese remained as unknowable as ever. Here Crow succeeds with his knack for the telling anecdote, even when it doesn’t reflect too well on the author himself. He relates without irony how he was once picked up by a taxi driver whom he failed to recognize he had previously employed as his personal chef of four years! Or the bizarre methods of communication designed to keep personal relations impersonal, such as between this American bachelor and his servant: “Seated at his breakfast table he would strike the table bell as a signal to put the eggs in boiling water and, watch in hand, would strike it again when it was time to take them out.”

Even in its heyday of excitement and notoriety, gay Shanghai, the Paris of the East, seemingly had very little to do with China. The foreign community was too busy with their ponies, polo and racing matches, golf courses and drinking and yachting clubs to be much bothered with the Chinese. Crow spends considerable space detailing the controversies preoccupying the exclusive foreigner clubs – the restrictions on proper dress and the knotting of ties, the election of new members to a club, the etiquette of buying rounds of drinks. And yet it is these particulars that are oddly fascinating in their very remoteness to our own experience in present-day China, now with the easy interaction of foreigners and locals meeting online or at Starbucks or in the workplace, and the burgeoning cohabitation and intermarriage between foreigners and Chinese.

Walls do remain in entrenched attitudes among many Chinese and foreigners even today: the parents who forbid their daughter to marry a foreigner (and vice versa), locals who are easily whipped up into anti-foreigner nationalist hysteria, foreign expats who after many years in the country can’t count to ten in Chinese or remember how to say their Chinese-assigned name. One quote from the book could be lifted out and inserted into any current Western account of China, as we all know expats like this: “The foreigner was rarely tempted to try Chinese food and many of them lived a lifetime in China without every tasting roast duck or sweet-and-sour pork.”

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Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Jail in Modern China by Robert H. Davies (Mainstream Publishing, 2002). Robert Davies lived an exciting several years in Xinjiang running bars and tourism ventures and marrying a Uighur woman before he was arrested for hashish smuggling on partly trumped up charges and sent to a Shanghai prison for eight years. These years, the late 1980s, were the height of the Xinjiang hashish trade with all kinds of foreign characters drawn to the area like a magnet, and Davies and those busted with him were the first group of foreigners to be made an example of. The Chinese prison experience is all about regimentation and psychological control – but then so is the entire Chinese education system and workplace. “Re-education” camps from whatever time period in China, prisons, schools, etc., differ only in degree in the extent to which they seek not merely to change your way of thinking, but to erase your personality altogether and substitute sheer mindlessness. There is never any “re-education”; there is simply mass lobotomization achieved without invasive surgery.

As for education is not much more than re-education. I taught in Chinese universities for 11 years, including some of the best, and what they all have in common is their dulling, addling effect on students’ minds, resulting in their incapacity to think, to grow knowledge, to develop long-term memory structures and critical faculties. This is accomplished by constant and incessant short-term memory tasks, continual repetition and recitation occupying all hours of the day (starting in early childhood by parental-enforced study routines), and various Pavlovian reward/punishment systems extended throughout higher education (even postgraduate students are fined for all manner of minor infractions). So why all the fuss about high-achieving Chinese high-school students? Of course they perform better than most students around the world on tests and exams because that’s all they’re trained to do; once out of school they forget everything they’ve learned.

From the worst prisons and gulags to the best universities, there is an unbroken line of continuity in this psychological coercion and micromanaging of the population. I don’t imply that the American prison system is much to brag about, with its cesspools of gangs, male rape, HIV and hepatitis C and the highest prison population in the world; by comparison the Chinese prison system is actually better in some ways, as it keeps prisoners busy at least (often employing them in slave labor to make toys for export to Western countries).

This is why I’m pessimistic that China will ever really open up in any substantive way: the population has been dumbed down to such an extent that I fear it may lack the imaginative capacity to change. However, the fact that Robert Davies survived with his mind intact is very reassuring and reason for optimism in the creative human spirit; I have met enough wise-eyed Chinese as well to know that the system doesn’t destroy all minds. Apart from these lessons, I should add that Davies’ account is very well-written and highly readable and an excellent general introduction to Chinese culture and society – from within the belly of the beast. In fact it is probably the single most eye-opening book on China I have ever read.

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Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco By Benson Tong (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000)

Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco by Benson Tong (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000). Benson Tong’s Unsubmissive Women is a carefully and tellingly written account of a rare topic, Chinese sex workers in a 19th-century American city. Let’s get the facts out on the table to make it clear why it’s not an easy topic to write about. The overwhelming majority of these women were teenagers from rural China who were bought or kidnapped from their families or duped into believing they could find high-paying jobs in the “Gold Mountain” of California. Upon arriving, they were forced to work as sex slaves in brutally managed brothels, typically receiving little to no salary, and then cast out on the street as soon as they passed their prime or became ill or incapacitated from STDs. They left almost no written accounts of their experiences such as letters or diaries because they were illiterate and unable to write. The only records we have that enable us to piece together and reconstruct this underground society are municipal in nature – police, legal and demographic records, and newspaper accounts generally of a sensationalized and derogatory nature, reflecting the shocking racism of white Americans towards Asians at the time, coupled with patronizing Victorian attitudes toward degenerate women preying on upright Christian families.

Incidentally, the tradition of duping women into prostitution with lucrative job offers in another country is alive and well in our times, e.g. East European women enslaved in West European brothels, their passport confiscated by their pimps and terrorized into obedience through beatings. The Chinese too remain experts in this trade, as in the recent news about Chinese women lured by traffickers to Angola with the promise of legitimate job offers, only to find themselves in Chinese brothels there.

The author focuses on the decades between 1850-80, from the onset of the gold rush to the start of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, when virtually all Chinese were forbidden from entering the US and those within the US were encouraged to leave and were attacked, beaten, or arrested. It’s almost unbelievable that such vicious racial animosity could erupt and become law in a country that had just outlawed slavery. The only people who attempted to help Chinese prostitutes during these decades were a smattering of Catholic charities for “fallen” women. But with no surviving accounts of these women themselves, apart from refracted details of legal testimony by injured Chinese prostitutes who had the gumption to fight back or go to court and testify with little or no English capability against their violent johns or pimps – hence the “unsubmissive women” of the title – we have very little to go on but our imagination. Tong’s dispassionate and empathetic treatment compensates for the dry academic nature of the material he’s working with. It’s to his credit that he embellishes nothing but allows the records to speak for themselves and encourage the reader to imagine the rest.

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Encounters with Ancient Beijing: Its Legacy in Trees, Stone and Water by Virginia Stibbs Anami (China Intercontinental Press, 2004). It took an extraordinary imagination to come up with the concept of this book, not merely to write it. It’s exactly what it says it is – a book about the history of Beijing told from the standpoint of its trees, stones and water – with the sort of unassuming, unflashy title guaranteed to put off even readers interested in all things China. You could be a poet laureate and hard-pressed to engage most readers’ interest in our narcissistic electronic era of orgiastic mutual surveillance, in something so strange as nature (though Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won me over to the possibilities of such writing). Particularly when that’s the only thing you’re writing about – nature and nature alone (not as a metaphor for something else), if with a bit of history thrown in to contextualize that nature and man’s involvement in shaping it.

Virginia Stibbs Anami is the American turned-Japanese-citizen wife a Japanese ambassador, who over a 20-year period from 1983-2003 investigated (what seems like) hundreds of ancient spots in and around Beijing and put it all together like some huge three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle and folded it into a perfectly conceived book. She writes with a beautiful economy, not a word too many or too few on the immediate topic at hand, whether a temple with an ancient tree over 1,000 years old, an equally old or older stone stele with a fascinating story behind its inscriptions, the remains of a long-forgotten waterway or channel. She goes over the territory again and again, revisiting the same spots over decades to see whether they’ve changed (they typically did and usually for the worse), managing to force or finagle her way into places normally forbidden to foreigners or to Chinese as well.

She makes numerous friends in the process, as an inevitable old man or woman pops into view at each ancient site, as if on cue, with an elaborate oral history to tell about it. Not all readers may find all of the stories or episodes equally engaging, but they add up to form an impression of great depth, more than the sum of its parts, a beautiful book. Anami is also an excellent photographer, and credit must be given as well to China Intercontinental Press for the surprisingly professional and tasteful job in terms of the design, layout, and high-resolution photographs (not one of Chinese publishers’ strong points, at least back in 2004 when the book was published).

A few mystifying perplexities. None of the hundreds of photos accompanying her narratives have captions. Sometimes it’s obvious which picture she’s talking about, but frequently not; sometimes she provides a general or fairly specific location, e.g. the name of a town or district, but often not. I suspect this vagueness – in strange contrast to the meticulousness of her research and the attention she lavishes on specific trees, stones, etc. – is deliberate. By not explicitly connecting each site to its picture, she keeps her discoveries shrouded in mystery; by making it difficult for the interested reader to visit the same places, her research remains unprecedented. It’s as if Anami is inviting the reader to make the same or similar discoveries but with the proviso that the expedition must not be made easy, that only with great time and effort can one be rewarded with the pleasures of this peculiar sort of layman’s archeology.

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Leslie T. Chang, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (Spiegel & Grau, 2009)

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang (Spiegel & Grau, 2009). Late in Factory Girls there is a disturbing account of a small-scale business operation in an apartment in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. The male running it keeps his female underlings working all day and forbids to them to leave the apartment except for a few hours once a week; they sleep in a cramped dormitory-style bedroom. Quiz: this operation is A) a brothel, B) a sweatshop, C) a religious cult, D) none of the above. D is correct: it’s a private English language school for adults, mainly female factory workers between jobs who want to gain English credentials. Their teacher’s notion of language learning is, like so much in China, quantitative-based and modeled on the factory assembly line: a machine he invented rapidly rotate words which the students must memorize as they flash by.

This episode in Leslie Chang’s book is representative in presenting two aspects of life in China for the hundreds of millions of migrant workers trying to achieve career stability or success in the city. On the one hand, there is the optimistic assessment, emphasized by Chang throughout the book, namely the freedom migrants now have to leave the village and go where opportunity beckons, with increasing numbers of success stories, primarily for female migrants, who often paradoxically enjoy greater freedom than males due to the obligations of male migrants to return to the village and care for their family. As Chang recounts with the stories of two migrants she befriended and followed for two years, Min and Chunming, the choices young Chinese women from the countryside now have at their disposal for upward mobility can be compared to the freedom and allure of worldwide travel young people from the developed world enjoy.

On the other hand, there is a powerful counterforce holding many Chinese back from freedom and autonomy: the imposing psychological control of group conformity. As a longtime American resident in China, I see this all the time in numerous guises among all social strata, not just migrants. Although it is true that working conditions in factories have been improving over the past few years as workers learn about their rights and bargaining power through better communication (the internet) as well as negative publicity about labor exploitation at Foxconn, this still largely applies to skilled factory workers. For countless other workers in the service industry (restaurants, shop workers, the sex industry), working conditions remain awful – 12-14 hour days, 1-2 days off per month, minimum wage.

Educated white-collar workers, for their part, experience a different kind of exploitation, hardly less grim: typically just as long working hours (though varying considerably from company to company) or 24-hour cellphone monitoring when off work, with elaborate penalty systems for failure to respond immediately to cellphone summons or other minor infractions (one highly educated female I know who worked as a journalist for a national newspaper quit because they were docking too much of her pay each month for largely unspecified penalties).

Returning to the aforementioned English training school, where Chang would describe the conditions experienced by these women as a matter of personal freedom and choice, we nonetheless recoil at the psychological coercion involved, which prevents them from rebelling, protesting and leaving. To be sure, this school seems like a bizarre exception, and most English schools in China, even unaccredited ones, are run like normal schools, with students present only during class hours. But another book needs to be written that deals with the dark side of China’s economic success, even in these upwardly mobile times.

It’s good to have Chang’s upbeat account, but for every migrant who achieves success like Min, how many millions of Chinese (including the educated class) remain locked and paralyzed in their internal cages of fear and anger, quietly spending their entire waking hours making superiors rich while they receive a pittance (not to mention the horrifying ongoing problem of companies that don’t pay their workers at all, even an entire year’s promised wages, folding up operations just before the Spring Festival and disappearing). After years of teaching in Chinese universities, I could see the mental slavery all around me on university campuses, which unlike universities almost anywhere in the world, are completely void of any signs of student protests. Largely enabling and ensuring China’s economic expansion, in short, is group coercion and internalized fear on a scale few other societies know.

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Liam D'Arcy-Brown, The Emperor's River: Travels to the Heart of a Resurgent China (Eye Books, 2010)

The Emperor’s River: Travels to the Heart of a Resurgent China by Liam D’Arcy-Brown (Eye Books, 2010). The idea of devoting a book not just to the history of China’s Grand Canal but to its present state is a good idea, and I’m surprised no one else has done it (at least in English). It often takes foreigners to actually view Chinese history as something that includes the present, not just the musty past, as the Chinese themselves tend to see “history,” eliciting from them much yawning. Of course, the reason why history as it is taught in China does not include the present is that the present often departs from the carefully scripted official story, according to which modern China’s history ends in 1949 and after which there is no more history to write, because the country’s socialist destiny has been reached, apart from a handful of ongoing self-congratulatory milestones – the Beijing Olympics, the space program, etc. So to write a history that addresses the reality of something in the present is quite a radical idea in China. D’Arcy-Brown found this out in his numerous encounters with baffled and suspicious police along the Canal who wanted to know what he was doing there.

Most of the Grand Canal today, it turns out, is not a pretty sight. Only the southern length, from Hangzhou north to Jining, has enough water to continue to be used mainly for coal transport on barges, some of which the author was lucky enough to be allowed onto after bribing the captain. The northern length is largely bone dry, despite a few brief showcase stretches passing through Tianjin, the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou and a few other cities, that have been beautified with parks and monuments. Elsewhere for long lengths of the canal the author could not even gain access, stuck in hotels in nearby cities and monitored by the police. His intrepid attempt to chart the entire canal, while not an unqualified success, is impressive enough that I doubt anyone else will need or want to try to surpass it. And fortunately for the reader, D’Arcy-Brown writes well. There are many evocative descriptions, seamlessly weaving past and present to flesh out the geographical or historical context, where a more prosaic account in the hands of a less imaginative writer would have less to say.

My issue with the book has to do with strategy. If I were to write such a book, I would stick closer to the Canal, spending more time on technical particulars: what is a canal, how this canal is different from others, what exactly is involved in its construction, more again about the huge loss of life (comparable to the millions of laborers who died building the Great Wall), what future prospects for the canal are technically feasible, and so forth. While Darcy-Brown does touch on these issues, far more space is allotted to things that have nothing to do with the canal. Instead, he has cast the Canal as a metaphor for China itself in order to spin off a wide-ranging essay on all aspects of contemporary Chinese society. This might work for readers unfamiliar with the country and looking for the latest capsule account. What made many passages of the book virtually unreadable for me, however, despite the general quality of its writing, was the frequent denouncing of the Chinese Government by your predictable know-it-all Westerner, the Westerner who is needed to channel the secret aspirations of the Chinese people, who knows what’s right for China.

I don’t have much of a soft spot for the Party myself. But when yet another “objective” reportorial travel writer goes through the usual laundry list of corruption, inequality, repression, etc., as if culled from Western media reports, the risk is smugness and sanctimony. Leave speaking out against the Government to the Chinese. There’s enough in China to preoccupy, mystify, appall and entrance the rest of us without having to resort to the same old cliché-ridden Western narrative about China’s lack of democracy and the common people’s yearning for freedom. Spare me.

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Tom Carter, China: Portrait of a People (Blacksmith Books, 2010)

China: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter (Blacksmith Books, 2010). Based on the thumbnail image of the book’s cover, even with the hot woman and the tasteful design, and knowing only it was some kind of photographic spread on China, I feared “coffee table book” – or worse, cheesy Chinese variety that would actually mar my coffee table, the sort you can find in the tourist bookshops with washed-out reproductions, incoherent English and sappy token displays of ethnic minorities dancing in their costumes.

The actual book, once in my hands, is unlike any other book I’ve seen, including those in the photojournalism genre. It has a surprisingly small trim size of only 6 x 6 inches, but at 638 pages and over 2 inches thick and weighing almost 3 pounds, it’s not a small book (and probably better suited to hardcover than its fragile paper binding). The weight is legitimated on the inside with the high-quality paper stock and what I’d guess approaches 1,000 high-resolution photo reproductions, capturing the author’s two years of traveling to every province of China frequently under spartan and the roughest of conditions.

Each province is prefaced with a map and a concisely written pitch, along with beautifully succinct, haiku-like captions for many of the photos, demonstrating that the author’s skills as a photographer are matched by appropriate writing talent. The descriptions and the variety of photographic subjects – rural and urban landscapes, ordinary daily objects transfigured by the camera, and lots and lots of unforgettable people – seem to form a narrative that pulls one along the lengthy book, though most readers will probably prefer to dip into it at random than go through the whole thing at one shot. Regardless, it fulfills its evident purpose in being a comprehensive and enticing introduction to the country for people who haven’t been to China, and equally interesting as well for those conversant with the country.

Now for a more critical angle. The gold standard of “intrepid” or “hardcore” photojournalism books and one that will probably never be equaled is surely American Pictures: A Personal Journey Through the American Underclass by the Dane Jacob Holdt. Holdt arrived in the US in 1971 with $40 in his pocket and spent the next 5 years hitchhiking over 100,000 miles through 48 states and living with 350 families, taking 15,000 photos (selling his blood to buy film) and culling them down to 700 in his book, which are balanced by a substantial and moving narrative of his encounters with the many people he met, delving into their lives with a shocking empathy and intimacy (often sleeping with both women and men to dialogue at the deepest human level), and unflinchingly capturing with his lens the most horrific but sympathetic images of poverty and decrepitude.

Personally, I would like to see the Chinese equivalent of Holdt’s book. I suspect Tom Carter may even have witnessed some such darker scenarios or ruder encounters with people and made an understandable strategic decision not to include them, inasmuch as he seems to be positioning his book at the more “polite” end of the photojournalism spectrum, calibrated not to ruffle any feathers in China, where only the positive side of things tends to be presented. Thus he does not refer to himself in the first person but adopts the “objective” reportorial “the author,” and when he almost dies during extreme weather on the 5,600-meter Drolma-La pass if it weren’t for “a Ngari pilgrim woman” who “appeared as my own private Tibetan goddess of mercy, literally carrying me the remainder of the spiritual circuit,” that’s all we’re told. I want more; I want to hear the dark side of travel and see the underbelly of the country, not just the picture-perfect promotional product. The author is certainly qualified to do this, and I invite him to consider these possibilities for another project.

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Yeeshan Yang, Whispers and Moans: Interviews with the Men and Women of Hong Kong's Sex Industry (Blacksmith Books, 2010)

Whispers and Moans: Interviews with the Men and Women of Hong Kong’s Sex Industry by Yeeshan Yang (Blacksmith Books, 2010). There is nothing more difficult than finding out what goes on in the mind of a prostitute, even when one is genuinely curious and not afflicted by sanctimony. She won’t give men an honest answer, since they are potential customers, and will claim she earns less than she actually does to gain sympathy. She won’t give women an honest answer, since they are potential competitors or worse – moralists. Academics and sociologists have no better luck trying to interview the prostitute, even when offering to pay for her time; she will then be happy to cooperate and will tell them exactly what (she thinks) they want to hear, exaggerating her circumstances and stories for shock effect. It’s a classic problem of circling around the truth without ever getting any closer to it. Perhaps the female ethnographer could penetrate more deeply into this world by becoming a prostitute herself for a spell, but this is usually precluded by ethics protocols in academia (not to mention that in most countries sex work is an illegal activity). Another potential source of valuable information is the men who regularly sleep with prostitutes, though the information and stories they have to offer are secondhand and bound to be deeply subjective and self-serving as well.

Yeeshan Yang does not shy away from these obstacles. She confronts them directly in the first chapter, laying out her informal methodology – a compromise between the social worker interviewer and partial participant observer. We never really find out why she herself is interested in the topic of prostitution, but it’s enough to know that she is, as we all are. However, her honesty inevitably forces her to confront the ultimate question as a female researcher, why she doesn’t engage in sex work herself to gain the priviest perspective, and her response is poignant in its blunt candor: “Even if I did try to prostitute myself, I would likely end up digging my own tiny, burning pit of shame.” To compensate for her acknowledged “narrow vision,” she works very hard, hanging out on the streets and hostess clubs over months and years trying to meet and befriend as many sex workers of all types as she can. The insights that emerge from this approach are numerous and startling. If you talk to enough people in the same occupation, you will begin to see patterns and truths, some that I have never quite understood myself, despite my own extensive acquaintance with numerous sex workers in mainland China, e.g.: “Prostitutes have a stronger desire for love than do average women.”

The result is a flawed yet profound book. Yang lacks the academic’s sense of structure, and there is a loose sense of organization to her chapter sequencing that may strike some as haphazard. She also lacks the novelist’s conciseness of expression and dramatic propulsion. The stories pile up of initially colorful characters who descend one after another into the same sad degeneracy of their materialistic fetishes, abusive relationships with pimps or boyfriends, drug addiction, jail and the repeating of these cycles over and over until they either waste away in prison or disappear into obscurity. She seeks but fails to find the counterpoint to these tragic tales – the happy hooker. We are left wondering if this mythical creature could possibly exist anywhere or may very well exist but was missed because the author was hanging out with all the wrong people. One suspects that if another intrepid author set about writing the same sort of book, a whole different cast of characters might emerge that would still bring us no closer to the truth of the prostitute. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve read a non-fiction account of prostitution that goes as far as Yang’s does in its sheer persistence in the attempt.

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Cecilie Gamst Berg, Don't Joke on the Stairs: How I Learned to Navigate China by Breaking Most of the Rules (Blacksmith Books, 2012)

Don’t Joke on the Stairs: How I Learned to Navigate China by Breaking Most of the Rules by Cecilie Gamst Berg (Blacksmith Books, 2012). The author, a Norwegian who has spent two decades in China and is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, certainly has the qualifications to write a book about this country and can be expected to have much of interest to relate. Unlike the usual more contemplative or journalistic accounts of the country, Cecilie Gamst Berg adopts a breezy, conversational, humorous approach, designed to elicit non-stop, uproarious laughter at the everyday “surrealism” (her operating term) of China.

From the Chinese standpoint, Berg’s very presence is a bit surreal, in that she is regularly taken for an American, as all white foreigners are. She discovers locals at the many schools where she volunteers her services to be perplexed as well and unhappy to learn she’s not an American or British native, as how could she possibly speak, let alone teach, English? (The reader can rest assured that the author’s English is fluent to the point of being indistinguishable from that of a native English speaker’s, or if anything better, as she sprinkles her text with a dexterous use of English idioms.)

Hong Kongers are more used to foreigners, of course, but despite her many years in Hong Kong and command of Cantonese, it is assumed by the locals there that no foreigner could possibly learn the language, and they obtusely refuse to engage her, regularly answering her Cantonese with English. I can attest the same occurs on the Mainland; my Mandarin is regularly answered with English, but the difference here is that they need to show off or simply have no one to practice with, in contrast to the much greater foothold English has in Hong Kong. But no matter how clearly I speak Mandarin (including nailing all the tones down), they fail to comprehend, as again, foreigners by definition can’t learn Chinese, and therefore what is coming out of my mouth must either be insane gibberish or actually a strange form of English that is meant to fluster or mock their own limited English ability. Berg’s many depictions of conversational breakdowns from the double whammy of a huge cultural and linguistic chasm will resonate with anyone who has spent time in the East.

At its best, Berg’s style has spiciness to it, like the Sichuan cuisine she loves and declares “the best food in the world.” She does not mince her words at things that rile her: “today’s Communist Party needs Mao as a rallying point for the nationalism they have been relentlessly pushing as China’s new religion for the last few years….Because to be honest, the party hasn’t of late been subject to the reverence and open-mouthed saliva-dripping awe from the masses that it feels is its due.” Elsewhere, however, her chattiness gets in the way and the narrative tension deflates into one too many stale card-playing, beer-drinking routines: “All right: I’d just have to go by myself. It would be fun anyway, I just knew it! Just like Sichuan or even better. Beer-filled dinners lasting long into the night, cards every day, teachers’ psycho hour… I was ready to descend on Xinjiang province again.”

Perhaps because I myself have lived in China many years and all the hard edges and absurdities of the country no longer startle me, I found myself easily putting the book down and a bit of a chore to keep having to get through the rest. It does have a cast of memorable, mostly male, characters whom Berg meets, typically on trains, with her gift for gab and picking up strangers. Curiously, after so much socializing with Chinese men, one wonders where things are heading and why none of these encounters ends up deliciously in the sack. More frankness and detail in this regard might have spiced up the narrative even more, at least for me. Sex does occur between foreigners and locals and in my opinion is precisely the ingredient missing from so many Western accounts of China. In this respect they merely replicate in mirror image the Chinese penchant for being puritanical and morally fastidious when it comes to describing their own country. (I gather Berg’s previous book Blonde Lotus is more lascivious, in the guise of her semi-fictional protagonist, though I’ve yet to read it.)

But while not terribly informative for longtime China expats, I could see how this book, in all fairness, might be just the right sort of entertaining introduction for newcomers to China, particularly those contemplating a lengthy trek or sojourn in the country and want to know what they’re getting into.

Related posts:
More foreign devils in the flowery kingdom: China books I have reviewed in 2013
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Anglo travelogues from China
The Literature of Paralysis: The China PC scene the expat mag crowd

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