Irreducible, like the country itself: Book reviews

Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers book cover

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Guo Xiaolu (Anchor, 2008). If there was ever a story with an extreme cultural divide to navigate, it’s this one. A young woman from rural China is plopped down in London for a year on a study visa with little English ability or understanding of Western culture. Soon an Englishman she meets in a cinema seduces her and she moves in with him. He’s not your typical British chap (if there is such a thing) but an unpindownable bisexual eccentric and failed sculptor with leftist anti-establishment leanings and a Luddite distaste for the trappings of modern society. He’s also twenty years older than her but handsome and fit enough that she falls for him – her first significant relationship with a man. However, his aloofness and conflicted attitude towards traditional monogamous relationships perplexes and tortures her, and she only makes things worse by overwhelming and smothering him with her love and attention. He avoids her and disappears for days at a time, leaving her abandoned and distraught in his flat. To cultivate her independence, he sends her off on a trip to the Continent alone for several months. Reluctant at first, she discovers she extracts much enjoyment out of her picaresque adventures (including spontaneous sex with strangers). These chapters become a turning point and centerpiece of this Bildungsroman novel, where naive country girl emerges as liberated female.

The book’s masterstroke is its captivating style. The author made the risky but astute decision not simply to write it in English but to exploit her inevitably imperfect control of the language as a vehicle for depicting her personal transformation. The early chapters employ a delightfully entertaining broken English fashioned out of Chinese grammar: “I standing in most longly and slowly queue with all aliens waiting for visa checking. I feel little criminal but I doing nothing wrong so far.” Or, “Even when I see a beggar sleeping in a sleep bag I am scared. Eyes wide open in darkness staring at me like angry cat. What he doing here? I am taught everybody in West has social security and medical insurance, so, why he needs begging?” By the later chapters, her English has improved considerably, and her expanding vocabulary reveals the correspondence between linguistic and real-world knowledge, the almost claustrophobic relationship between language and awareness, the recognition – captured in the book’s title – that words are as important as money, food and shelter for surviving in an unfamiliar society.

The strength of the book, its effective fusing of linguistic texture and real-world experience, is also its weakness. Just as the narrator is stuck in the narrow world of her little red Concise-Chinese English Dictionary (I carried around the very same dictionary in my early years in China) without which much around her would remain incomprehensible, she is also stuck in the fraught space between her marital expectations with this enigmatic man and his refusal to rescue her with a marriage visa and a happy ending. Many details of the narrative are too true to life, and I assume the novel is autobiographical. This is where Guo falters, as it’s never clear where fiction and artistic objectivity fall off into personal grievance. We never learn the man’s name; he is referred to throughout in the second person as “You.” I’m not sure what the author intended by this device, but to me it lends the book the quality of a long, desperate love letter, as if it had been written not for a readerly audience but him alone. The funny early chapters give way at the end to a humorless despair after the author’s visa application is rejected and she is forced to return to China. Her evident failure to comprehend the significance of the previous year and achieve some kind of psychological closure leaves us hanging as well.


People's Pornography book cover

People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet by Katrien Jacobs  (Intellect Ltd, 2012). There are unfortunately and rather inexplicably all too few books on contemporary sexuality in mainland China. Richard Burger’s recent Behind the Red Door: Sex in China comes to mind; I scratch my head to think of any others. And I can’t think of any other topic so vital and pressing: the flashpoint of a huge burgeoning population freer than it has ever been in its entire history, at the precise moment it is simultaneously thrusting up against the outside world both virtually via the internet and in the flesh. Katrien Jacobs can be commended for confronting the topic head-on with sex-positive openmindedness. Too bad the book was rushed to print with lousy, hasty editing.

The present era has converged in a number of technological breakthroughs resulting in an explosion of DIY (“do it yourself”) pornography and personal sexual expression: affordable home video cameras, a proliferation of internet pornography, blogs and sexblogs, and social networking sites of all types from dating to countless x-rated pages for the kinky. The Chinese Government has tried to hold off this deluge through haphazardly effective online censorship but is facing a losing battle and has effectively resigned itself to accepting the lesser evil of sexual freedom of speech in favor of a more open and productive society. It could even be described as evolving its own brand of friendly fascism or “repressive desublimation” (Herbert Marcuse), in which sexual freedom is exploited by the powers that be and channeled into useful forms of monetization and control, proving far more effective in quieting a restless population than the obsessive sexual oppression of traditional communist regimes.

Any study of contemporary sexuality that fails to latch onto the exciting intersection of sex and technology as its starting point is quickly irrelevant, and thankfully Jacobs is right on the mark. She covers everything potentially germane to sex discourse in China since the turn of the millennium when the internet caught fire on the mainland: the return of the made-in-China (post-Liberation) underground porn film industry, the explosion Chinese porn sites and their aggressive dismantling by the authorities, iconic sex propagandists and internet protest personalities including Mu Zimei, Li Yinhe, Han Han, and Ai Weiwei, internet sex scandals (a la Edison Chen) that occur with such regularity they seem factory-produced, and the ever-present influence of Japanese porn and idol stars and the pro-gay manga and Cosplay cultures. Jacobs even gets ethnographically creative by posting her nude body on an adult sex networking site to meet and interview subjects and delve into the mindsets of some of Hong Kong’s more daring youth subcultures.

I wish I could say it was a gripping read, but I found myself slogging through much of the book, which is written in the relentlessly turgid academic style of a novice scholar, reading much like a dissertation. In fact I’d wager it was a dissertation, one that prematurely got a leg in a mainstream publisher and filled a gap and need for this kind of study. In Jacobs’ better moments the PC-academicspeak attains a certain stodgy felicity, as when we are reminded of the appropriate definition of “Queer”: “originally an umbrella term for non-heteronormative expressions of gender and desires, including LGBT people (lesbian, gay, bisexuals and transgender) and non-normative heterosexual people.” Elsewhere, her prose is riddled with stylistic awkwardness and typos which would never have gotten past your typical dissertation committee (mine at least), along with certain nonnative-seeming turns of phrase, as her name hints. The lack of a good, astute editor is to blame for these lapses in what is otherwise a welcome publication.


Portrait of a People book cover

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.


Unsavory Elements book cover

Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China by Tom Carter (Editor) (Earnshaw Books, 2013). Even before this book came to press it was already in the thick of polemic and controversy – for all the wrong reasons. Some advance-copy reviews by feminist editors in the expat zines of Beijing and Shanghai were withering, particularly of editor Tom Carter’s “exploitative” and “juvenile” contributing story on a brothel visit. It is actually one of the best pieces in the book, its tawdry, slapstick style perfectly suited to a group of clumsy foreigners haggling in the shabbier variety of Chinese brothel. It is the only story in the entire collection, in fact, that merits the book’s title. Before I came to the book, I was expecting and hoping for just that, something unsavory, stories of a refreshingly seedy and disreputable nature, peeling back a new layer of reality in Chinese society as more and more foreign pioneers venture deeper into the country. Inevitably, someone would take it upon himself to dredge up a collection of lascivious or discomfiting encounters and slap it together as a book.

What we have here instead is, alas, a much more banal take on “unsavory elements”: “the communist propaganda machine” use of the phrase (as Carter first recalled it) to describe anyone of questionable, less than revolutionary morals. Foreigners – formerly “foreign devils” – are by definition unsavory; their mere presence in the Middle Kingdom unsavory. It is not possible to be a foreigner in China and not simultaneously bumbling, gauche, vulgar and unsavory. Thus any random collection of nonfiction stories of foreign devils wandering around or working and living in China will do. The 28 contributors represent quite a spread, scattered about the country in pretty much all walks of life, but what cannot be said about most of them is that they are unsavory. They are, on the contrary, painstakingly polite, respectful and normal. They are strenuously family-friendly; nine of the stories – those by Levy, Paul, Muller, Bratt, Arrington, Washburn, Solimine, Watts, and Conley – concern actual families and children or the teaching of children. The pieces are all good clean fun, worthy of inclusion in Reader’s Digest or those bland, antiseptic Intensive/Extensive Reading textbooks for freshmen English majors in Chinese universities.

Inevitably, the collection is uneven. The pieces by Peter Hessler and Simon Winchester are the most assuredly written, though they don’t really tell us anything we can’t get from their own books about China. Meyer, Polly, Earnshaw, Spurrier, and Kitto are good, competent writers but fail to particularly stand out, unlike Watts’ piece on the German botanist and eccentric Josef Margraf, and Fuchs on Tibetan muleteers, which benefit from their intriguing subject matter. Stevenson mars his intriguing subject matter of life in a Chinese prison with snideness (here I direct readers to Robert H. Davies’s account of life in a Chinese prison in his extraordinary Prisoner 13498, reviewed in my “Foreign Devils on the Loose in China“). Humes’ horrific depiction of being violently mugged suffers from his gratuitous histrionics while recovering in the hospital; the tantalizing question and cliffhanger of how he was able to pay for the huge medical expenses (without any cash or insurance) is hinted at and then forgotten. Some pieces lack contextualization, like Eikenburg’s story of her daring courtship with a Chinese male, but what decade is she referring to, exactly? Interracial relationships on the Mainland are far more ubiquitous and accepted now than two or three decades ago, when I imagine her relationship took place; a reader unfamiliar with China might wrongly assume things are as stringent and racist today as ever.

Personally, if I had been given the same anthology project with the same title and the same contributors to choose from, I would keep three. I would start the book off with Winchester’s piece as a prologue (instead of its current slot as epilogue), then proceed with the spicy if innocuous account of KTV escorts among China’s privileged by Susie Gordon, followed by Carter’s aforementioned piece. For the succeeding stories, I would have to find alternative, more intrepid contributors willing to challenge bourgeois readerly expectations and really get down and rock ‘n’ roll in China’s seamy, truly unsavory underside. After all, I would only be doing what China’s own writers have already long been doing, like Wang Shuo, Jia Pingwa and Zhu Wen (the latter reviewed below) back in the 1980s depicting life among hoodlums and lumpen elements at large, or the graphic accounts of casual sex and drug use by Hong Ying, Wei Hui, Mian Mian and other female writers of the 1990s. Until that happens, pass on the word of Tom Carter’s enticing new collection at the local bake sale or church group back home when queried on a latest wholesome introduction to China to curl up at the fireplace with.


I Love Dollars book cover

I Love Dollars: And Other Stories of China by Zhu Wen (Penguin, 2008). Like Wang Shuo, Jia Pingwa, Liu Heng and other outcast authors born in the 1960s-70s who came of age in the 80s-90s, Zhu Wen maintains an uneasy, on-off relationship with his present milieu, having a great deal to say that few seem to want to read about. The Chinese audience for domestic fiction, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not much interested in realist or ironic descriptions of their society, in contemplating unflattering mirrors held up to them showing the dark side of their country’s meteoric prosperity. Instead, as with most readers everywhere in our age of US cultural hegemony spearheaded by Hollywood, Disney and Apple, contemporary Chinese who read at all are more interested in fiction that appeals to their desires and longings, in escapist and fantasy writing, formulaic romances and mysteries, inspirational biographies, self-help books and get-rich-quick guides, in books that manage to combine all of these aspirations to some degree: the Harry Potter series, Dan Brown’s tomes, or word-of-mouth bestsellers like Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (all widely popular in China). It’s not that there is no potential readership for serious or “literary” fiction. It’s just that few publishers have the financial incentive to venture into such dicey territory, not to mention the toxic byways of political satire in this country. The result is that the audience for Chinese realism and satire is largely relegated to the foreign readership in translation. It is also noteworthy that the title novella I Love Dollars and the five other stories in this collection were all published in the original almost two decades ago.

The packaging for the English readership is curious and (I feel) somewhat disingenuous, with the blurbs playing up the comic selling points ad nauseum: “an absorbing portrait of the go-go years in China…extravagantly funny”; a “hilarious send-up of China’s love affair with capitalism”; “as penetrating as Kafka, as outrageously funny as Larry David, and with a slangy swagger all Zhu Wen’s own”; “…would make anyone laugh…classic comic fiction of the highest order.” I did not find the stories particularly funny; sad, poignant, and telling perhaps, or black humor at its grimmest, but not laughter-inducing. The narrator of the title story seeks a prostitute to entertain his father in his middle-aged lassitude and when that fails, asks a girlfriend if she would offer herself to his father for generosity’s sake (she angrily refuses). The narrator’s girlfriend in “A Hospital Night” bullies him into standing watch until dawn in a hospital ward over her irascible father after his gallbladder operation, which involves repeatedly sticking the man’s penis into a plastic bottle to enable him to urinate while repeatedly being fought off, in front of all the other staring patients in the room. The narrator of “A Boat Crossing” gets lodged in a ferry cabin with a rough trio of men bearing a dead body in a sack; it’s unclear whether the cadaver is to be used for medical instruction or is a murder victim. Meanwhile a woman tries to sell her 17-year old niece to him for $500, and that’s not to have sex but really to sell her and convey the money back to the girl’s destitute family. “Wheels” spins the street accident theme increasingly notorious in the Chinese press these days, as the narrator unknowingly “brushed against some old man’s arm as I rode down the hill” on his bicycle, and his ignoring this slight makes for dour consequences.

I might add here that if a Western male expat writer were to attempt similar themes in the Chinese context, particularly those involving Chinese females, he would lambasted as sexist and irresponsible at best, or exaggerated and implausible at worst, though that’s a conundrum of the English publishing world and is refreshingly irrelevant here. While I occasionally got bogged down in Zhu’s narrow, relentless Beckett-like focus on gritty and sordid minutiae, elsewhere his technique is assured and I found the stories largely memorable and instructive in their own way, vividly conjuring up scenes and locales I would rather not personally have to encounter.


Beijing of Possibilities book cover

The Beijing of Possibilities: Stories by Jonathan Tel (Other Press, 2009). I found my experience reading this slender volume of slenderly conceived stories like the old Etch A Sketch toy – each new creation erasing my memory of the previous one. Several do stand out for me as mildly imaginative achievements, e.g., “The Glamorous Heart of Cosmopolitan Beijing,” in which a trio of pickpockets who work the Beijing buses are tracked down by the foreign owner of the shopping bag they swipe and chased by the police around an abandoned building as the thieves toss out one colorful silk dress after another to distract the pursuers and lighten the load. The time-slip conceit of “The Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch,” in which a dating service mysteriously enables a man in contemporary Beijing to communicate with a Ming Dynasty princess by cellphone text message – here too brings to life the imaginative “possibilities” promised by the title. The final, weightiest story, “The Most Beautiful Woman in China,” is a nested creation like a Russian doll or a Chinese box: an ancient tale of an Emperor’s virgin wife given in sacrifice to the Huns overlaid with a story of a promising Beijing violinist sent to Africa after refusing a bribe, which are in turn framed by the apparently real-life story of the Beijing poet Helan Xiao and her abusive treatment by a composer named Tang Jiangnu who hired her to write the libretto of his opera titled after the story (and mirroring her own evident sex scandal mentioned in the author’s preface).

Tang is described as a “leading composer of his generation,” residing primarily in the US since the 1980s, whose aforementioned opera was commissioned by the Met in New York. The name and personal details appear to be fictionalized. The only actual person who could fit this bill is Tan Dun, unanimously regarded as the leading composer of his generation and the only Chinese composer to have an opera commissioned by the Met. I don’t know if the real Tan Dun is mixed up with any of this behind the scenes, but the ambiguities are further complicated by the interesting twist, again hinted at in the author’s preface, that all the stories in the collection except for the final one were originally written by Helan Xiao and jointly translated by her and Jonathan Tell into English. If that’s the case, then why isn’t she listed as the author and Tell as the translator? Or am I missing the joke?

Despite these intriguing (or perplexing) puzzles, I found many of the stories to be ephemera. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is the element of magical realism, which separates real-life, three-dimensional experience from the concrete familiarities of the contemporary Chinese metropolis, leaving accumulated impressions floating disembodied in abstract space. Moreover, the overly sympathetic treatment of the characters, often the rural or disenfranchised living precarious existences in their adopted city, reduces them more to predictable, stock types associated with simple tales than memorable people. Finally, the third-person point of view (keeping the author himself out of any trouble), the sentimental, light-hearted tone, the intimate domestic atmosphere all seem calculated to ensure safe territory and harmless consumption, precisely fulfilling the expectations of Chinese Government “soft-power” ideology, according to which the arts serve up a defanged, soothing pablum for foreign consumption.


Unsubmissive Women book cover

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.


Encounters with Ancient Beijing book cover

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.


Factory Girls book cover

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.



Whispers and Moans book cover

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.


Don't joke on the stairs book cover

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:
Foreign devils on the loose in China: A review
Lotus: Updating the great Chinese socialist realist novel
The 1.3 billion-strong temper tantrum: Review of Arthur Meursault’s Party Members
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China


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