I have to say Alec Ash and Tom Pellman’s recent collection of expat writings on China, While We’re Here (Earnshaw Books, 2015), has a catchy cover. It shows a street in what appears to be the popular Nanluoguxiang neighborhood of Beijing, a favored spot for the bohemian set along with hordes of tourists. A foreigner with a clown’s face looks a bit out of place as he stands in the street holding a bunch of balloons. The clown image conveys the irony that we foreigners cannot but avoid being buffoons in China no matter how cool and hip we think we are. We might as well accept our hapless role as objects of amusement and have a laugh at our own expense. But then I considered it from another angle. Is this merely the proverbial sad clown’s self-mockery? Or is there an implicit taunt or tease lurking in that face? Is the clown’s gaze an appeal, or a challenge? The title too carries a double meaning. Is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here please don’t be too hard on us; you will miss us bumbling foreigners. Or is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here we plan to cause some trouble. Treat us like clowns at your peril.
Now, after finishing the book, I am clearer on what the consensus is. Foreigners have no business causing trouble in China, and increasingly it seems, no business in China at all, what with the latest government campaign warning local girls against dating foreign imposter boyfriends who are likely spies. More specifically, there are numerous constraints in place for us expat writers. We have no business writing about the country except in the most favorable of terms. This is not just due to predictable norms and expectations—the decency and respect due to the host country—nor to domestic censorship laws permitting what may or may not be put into print. There is a great deal of self-censorship operating on our side as well, arising from what we Westerners believe is now acceptable to be written about on anything, China or otherwise.
To sort out the different kinds of censorship that have come into play, let’s begin at the source and note some of the convictions that foreigners bring with them before they even set foot in the country. First, you may not write about another country that is or was oppressed by Western imperialism, which of course includes China, except to make amends for the historical outrage. Second, you may not write about sexual affairs between Western White males and females from any such country, since to do so perpetuates in modern guise the rape of the colonized. This rules out writing by White male expats in China on any and all relations undertaken with local women. And I don’t refer merely to such affairs these writers may personally have engaged in; they may also not write about other Western males’ encounters with local women, even purely fictionalized characters.
The reason for this has to do with the symbolic force—and consequent damage—that proceeds from ideas alone. You see, all heterosexual White males in China who have romantic or sexual designs, even if only fantasies, on Chinese women are without exception predators. Their sole purpose is to take advantage of these women’s helplessness, whether to traffic in them as one-shot sex patrons or marry them and keep them as permanent sex slaves. It is not merely that the women are traumatized by such oppression. The idea that this is happening now—that there are literally hundreds of thousands of Western predators on the loose in China—is traumatizing. In fact, just seeing the word “predator” is traumatizing, in triggering memories of one’s own inevitable abuse at the hands of White males (who hardly spare Western women from the same when they can get away with it). For an expat author merely to write about predators in China thus risks traumatizing his English readership, whether or not any actual oppression against real Chinese women has taken place.
It’s possible to wiggle out of these constraints a bit. You have more leeway to write about predators if you are a female author, since being among the oppressed grants you the voice to claim your dignity back and empower both yourself and others through example. You have more leeway if you are of Asian or Chinese ethnicity, for the same reason. You may write about gay or transgender relationships, again for the same reason. Ideally, you are of Chinese ethnicity, female, and gay or transgender all at once. Be advised, however, that you should keep your subject matter confined to the same sphere of relations if you happen to be in China, and not write with such misguided exuberance that you attract the attention of the authorities. Unorthodox sexuality is still a sensitive issue here, as it’s capable of corrupting Chinese youth—and insulting Chinese women by suggesting that they have options beyond marrying a nice Chinese boy before they’re thirty.
When we shift our attention to consider these issues from the Chinese perspective, it’s with great relief. We see that, contrary to expectations, it’s actually very difficult to traumatize Chinese people. This is because the entire country went through the massive, nationwide traumatization known as the Cultural Revolution. The older generation that suffered through this got all the traumatizing it’s possible to experience out of their collective system at one go, so to speak, inoculating their children against further trauma. But if the current younger generation of Chinese are largely trauma-proof, it’s paradoxically very easy to hurt their feelings.
You can hurt the Chinese people’s feelings in several ways: 1) Suggest that Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and the entire South China Sea are not now nor have always been an inalienable part of the Chinese motherland. 2) Suggest that 5,000 years of Chinese history and civilization have not been anything less than glorious or that any other country could presume to share such a long history; put succinctly, China is the only civilization with a long history. (The Chinese Government would emphasize these first two points.) 3) Suggest that Chinese cuisine is not unquestionably the world’s best. Indeed, all the world’s cuisines combined can’t approach Chinese cuisine, which is the only “cuisine” proper. What the rest of the world eats is snack food.
There are other things it’s best to steer clear of when writing about China, not just because you might hurt people’s feelings, but you immediately betray yourself as a bona fide laowai—an “old foreigner,” the affectionate euphemism for foreign barbarian. We may believe it’s acceptable (indeed obligatory) to write about progressive, i.e., non-predatory, non-heteronormative, non-cisgender sexualities. In China, it’s not acceptable to write about any form of sexuality. Try submitting, for example, a customer book review—a mere book review mind you, not a book—on Douban, the Goodreads-style readers forum, that contains the Chinese word for “make love.” It will be rejected, and they won’t tell you why. You can generally get around this restriction by dropping the “make” from “make love” (e.g. “They loved each other late into the night”).
If censorship restrictions on books (literature, novels) published on the mainland are less stringent than online periodicals and websites, it’s because few people read books anymore, and they are therefore less of a threat. The same applies to English books published in China. Magazine culture, by contrast, is highly policed—self-policed. Consider the four English expat magazines in Beijing: that’s Beijing, Time Out Beijing, The Beijinger, and (the now defunct) City Weekend. If you’re looking for something controversial here—say, any information about the best VPNs for scaling the Great Firewall, or what really happened with the recent simultaneous closings of the beloved The Den and Tim’s Texas BBQ restaurants in Beijing—you won’t find it. Since nothing politically sensitive or controversial may be put into print in these magazines, the only thing left to write is restaurant reviews. (And the bad reviews are always confined to international restaurants. When Westerners find a Chinese restaurant disappointing, it’s not the food’s fault, it’s our failure to appreciate Chinese food.)
Let’s have a look, for example, at the May 5–18, 2016 issue of City Weekend. The first thirty-three pages are devoted to restaurant listings and reviews. The latter half is taken up with music events, book reviews and classifieds, though pages 59–60 and 66 return to food, as if we haven’t had enough. And to spice things up even more, there’s the regular two-page photo spread found in this and the other expat mags of party scenes, which functions like a tamer version of the old page three naked tits in UK tabloid rags, to keep the reader’s nose in the issue. In these photo montages of White guys posing and dancing with (relatively) skimpily dressed Chinese girls in various clubs, you might be lucky enough to make out some cleavage with the help of a magnifying glass.
True, not every issue centers around restaurants. The May 2016 issue of that’s Beijing has a cover story, “Giving up the Ghost,” about Tianjin’s recently developed Yujiapu district, another one of the country’s many new ghost towns with extravagant architecture but no residents. This is an interesting topic, inviting investigative reportage on the real estate corruption or tycoon showmanship or whatever causes are behind it all. But read the article and you realize that the author’s only concern is shopping—whether Yujiapu’s businesses and shopping centers will become profitable, and therefore whether the magazine’s readers will find it worthwhile to make a trip there for this purpose.
If you want another tourist site to visit, head straight east from Yujiapu over to Dongjiang Port a couple miles away, which you’ll discover no longer exists. It disappeared in the massive chemical explosion the previous August, resulting in an undisclosed number of fatalities (unless you trust the suspect official figure of 173). The proximity of these two centerpieces in Binhai New Area, the rapidly built-up CBD of Yujiapu and the instantly dismantled port, would seem to provide an occasion for the journalist to note certain ironic parallels, or similar causal factors, but nothing is suggested. Meanwhile, another page of this issue has a brief mention of the Binhai explosion, referring to the repairing and reselling of the destroyed cars on the black market—though again it’s advice for shoppers by way of warning.
Let’s be fair and give the magazine allowance to engage in some degree of self-censorship. As JFK Miller, editor of the sister publication that’s Shanghai from 2005–11, notes in his Trickle-Down Censorship: An Outsider’s Account of Working Inside China’s Censorship Regime, they had no choice: “Most of the subjects that people are interested in have been banned.” This included, among a host of examples Miller provides, a feature story they wanted to do on Shanghai’s enterprising street vendors, which was scotched by the Chinese censors who had final say at the magazine because the migrants’ comparatively low economic status “showed China in a bad light.” Nevertheless, one wonders, if the range of permissible topics is restricted to shopping, dining and fashion, why not take a cue from the revolutionary novels of the 1950s and embrace these constraints in all their deadpan seriousness? By out-censoring the censors and celebrating materialism and superficial glamor for their own sake, the “expat rags” would take on future value as collectors’ items of the Cultural Revolution-era propaganda poster variety. You can push the envelope in the other direction too—the unwitting satire of sheer earnestness.
Returning to Ash and Pellman’s While We’re Here, the most striking feature is how closely it adheres to the slavish self-censorship of the expat mags, even though it’s quite unnecessary. Books, as we’ve noted, operate under looser constraints, since their audience is smaller. The injunction is figurative, not literal. You don’t have to self-censor to the same degree magazine editors do; you just need to keep some of the broader guidelines in mind and write as if a certain sensitivity is called for. You can write about sex or disasters or problems in China; just do so with objectivity and delicacy. After all, writers have an obligation to challenge and provoke readers, without needing to resort to shock effects for their own sake, or at least they used to. The authors in this collection, however, write as if their intended audience was the Chinese Government’s Propaganda Department.
I’m from an earlier, more liberal generation, and am still trying to wrap my head around the new ethos. They really are stuck between a rock and a hard place: too many people to traumatize on the one hand, too many feelings to hurt on the other. Nevertheless, when nothing is allowed to be said, nothing gets said. This book is a perfect example of form following function. If so many of the pieces start and stop in mid-air, with nothing happening, no story arc or conclusions drawn, as if they were journal or diary entries, it’s because they express precisely the silence imposed on them, the taboo of the argument and the insight, the empty verbiage of the stopped-up voice.
Most of the pieces are brief narratives of foreigners’ innocent encounters with locals while in China. They fall into a pattern. There is much for us ignorant foreigners to imbibe from the collective voice of a wiser, older civilization, speaking through each of the characters, who’ve got it all worked out. Their voices accordingly all sound alike and are interchangeable, whether they’re the middle-aged female neighbor, Wang Meijie, of Sascha Matuszak’s “Flower town,” about a Sichuan village undergoing changes after the 2008 earthquake (one of the better-written pieces), the caring landlord’s mother of Sam Duncan’s “Ayi and I,” the perceptive Auntie Han of Magdalena Navarro’s “Short nails, white socks,” the tenacious ping-pong player Fang Zheng of Aaron Fox-Lerner’s “Back and forth,” or the retired Mrs. Wang of Alec Ash’s “In the hutong.”
Some of the stories throw expats at each other, and here the earnest tenor gives way to a more layered, sarcastic tone—usually in the form of bickering. Among the more notable, or perplexing, instances is Michael Salmon’s “Dumplings,” about a foreigner visiting a somewhat jaded and morose expat friend in Beijing. Over a meal in a dumpling restaurant, they compete to eat the most dumplings, as if imitating Chinese males’ drinking habits. After one of them eats too much, he bleeds from the nose and runs out of the restaurant. The other goes in search of him and finds him retching in a public toilet down the street. End of story. Not sure what the moral is.
The most polished piece of the lot is Ash’s “In the Hutong,” in which he observes the changes over several years to the old Beijing lane where he once lived. There are some nice turns of phrase:
The man on the rooftop across from mine signaling with a red flag as his pigeons circled overhead, whistles strapped to their backs whining like a passing UFO. The lady who kept a pet dragonfly tied to a piece of string, to eat the last of the mosquitos. The hawkers’ cries, clanging together knife sharpening rods or plaintively minstreling for second-hand furniture.
Here the model appears to be the long middle section of Peter Hessler’s Country Driving, his exquisitely detailed and thoroughly boring account of the changes to the village outside of Beijing where he had set himself up for a spell to get some writing done, as mentioned in the previous chapter. Granted, Hessler writes for The New Yorker, and the constraints its bourgeois audience imposes on him are particularly severe, but there is always a reliable consistency to his writing. If Ash had buckled down and written the entire book himself, I would have rather enjoyed it.
The problem with collections is they are almost invariably uneven. A book similar to Ash and Pellman’s that came out not long ago and with which it will be compared is Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, edited by Tom Carter (Earnshaw Books, 2013). The overall quality of the contributions in this collection is higher, yet it suffers from many of the same pitfalls. With the exception of Carter’s own piece on a visit to a brothel street in rural China (which landed him in a lot of hot water from the expat PC crowd), the book fails most notably to deliver on its promise of being “unsavory”; the stories are politically correct with a vengeance, and harmless, if not quite as relentlessly so as Ash and Pellman’s collection. Nonetheless, Carter’s book works, as the stories all have a decisive arc carrying them through to the end.
In case you’re wondering what Tom Olden’s Shanghai Cocktales: A Memoir (Amazon Digital Services, 2014), a book Alec Ash called “a shitty 2am pun,” is doing in a review next to Ash’s own book, they have something in common. It’s as if Olden took a story like the “Dumplings” in Ash’s collection discussed above and expanded it into a book (or attempted to; we’re not talking great plotting skills). The entire narrative of Shanghai Cocktales lurches and meanders without direction or purpose, with the usual bickering among expats and little interaction with the Chinese. It’s again the literature of paralysis: a lot of nothing getting said. I wonder if much of the verbiage forming the book’s content was copied and pasted from email conversations. A major difference, though, is that Olden seems unaware of committing one notable breach, the taboo against White male predatory sex.
Yet a curious feature of the book is that it doesn’t deliver on this breach: there is very little cock, or pussy, in Shanghai Cocktales. Olden, it turns out, is something of a prude. I had read Ash’s review beforehand, which piqued my interest. I mean, I have no problem with sex-saturated narratives, if it’s done with style and panache. Ash had led me to expect a kind of Hustler magazine take on the testosterone scene in China, what slant-eyed chicks are like on home territory. That’s why I bought the book, the only reason I bought it. But I got gypped, big time. The title should have been Shanghai Cocktails, without the pun, a more accurate indication of the book’s content. The misleading cover should have shown a cocktail glass at the top instead of an Oriental gal’s pair of eyes.
The narrative does indeed feature much drinking, mostly Red Bulls alternating with vodka and apple juice, and Coke (the beverage) for breakfast. Most of the book is devoted not to getting laid but rather hammered with the dudes, when not bogged down in endless trivial details about the jobs Olden finds and loses in the online marketing business. At one point he is clearly unnerved when one of the dudes shows up for a night of drinking with a woman: “Claire? Whaddefuck? You brought your girlfriend along? Tonight? When we’re supposed to have a blast? But setting aside the belligerent thoughts, I composed myself and returned her magical smile.” The male bonding is so close, so emotional, and female company so frequently avoided, that I suspect the author might be gay but just hasn’t realized it. On the rare occasions Olden manages to bring a woman home with him, he’s so wasted he’s not aware of it. Here’s a typical description of a bedroom scene the following morning. I have to admit the desolation is memorable in its own way:
It was after one of these heavy bar crawls that I slowly opened my eyes on a Saturday morning in early May and had no idea where I was. I felt someone next to me and slowly turned my head for a look. Shit! Whadde’hell’s this? I quickly closed my eyes again and breathed inaudibly. Jesus, that’s, uhhmm… Betsy? Whadde’fuck’m I doing here? I thought, trying to recall the previous night’s vague events.
Betsy is a White woman, by the way. The only Chinese women Olden gets into bed over the course of the book are a couple of prostitutes and one-night stands, and one clingy type he meets before the book suddenly and inconclusively ends. The hackneyed language in which these conquests are portrayed (“round breasts,” “seductive eyes,” “soft lips,” and a Richard Mason-esque “cute little springy Chinese girl”) renders them indistinguishable. There are hints of other encounters but they are not described: “Neither of us was interested in a long-term relationship and the girls slipped in and out of our tiny unfurnished apartment. It was as it should be” (I presume the apartment had beds). In the last chapter, we get a brief, sole description in the entire book of actual fucking: “Ting Ting was panting heavily on top of me, her warm, heavy breasts embracing my chest, her heart pounding in sync with mine.” So much for the cocktales.
One doesn’t expect all expat books on China to be of high literary quality. Writing talent is relatively rare. If it succeeds in depicting the reality of a certain era and milieu with minimal competence, a book may be of documentary value. As firsthand reports such books can benefit researchers and historical novelists a generation or two later. Even in our day they are of interest for what they tell us about life in China. We want to see, for instance, how intercultural conflicts and relationships get played out, and for those of us knowledgeable about the country, recognize our own experiences in them. In fact, books from the past describing Westerners’ personal or sexual relationships with the Chinese are quite rare. Consider Carl Crow’s Foreign Devil’s in the Flowery Kingdom. The American journalist covers life in Shanghai over several decades until the outbreak of war with Japan. At the time, as Crow recounts, the European and American expat population in Shanghai would have greeted any suggestion that they interact with or befriend the Chinese with laughter or sardonic silence. Crow’s milieu is limited to a narrow sphere—exclusive male drinking clubs—yet that does not mean the book has no documentary value. We learn something interesting about these clubs: they were all-White affairs. There didn’t seem to be many sexual predators back then; they were honest racists and had no interest in Chinese women.
Shanghai Cocktales expresses a different kind of hostility toward the Chinese: fetishist racism. However much local “birds” may be objects of sexual attraction, there is little meaningful mixing or communion with them. They remain essentially unknown and unknowable to the Olden brand of expat. While the book is of some documentary value on the expat bar scene in Shanghai at the turn of this century, it sheds little light on its ostensible subject matter, relations with Chinese women. It not only fails to deliver on its promise, it takes the phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover” to a new level. The angry tone to Olden’s amusing video rebuttal of Ash’s brutal review would suggest the effort he put into writing his memoir was sincere. I’m not so sure. I think it’s a great example of a literary con job. I picture him getting high on Red Bulls and vodka one night, perhaps brainstorming with his marketing buddies, and coming up with a hilarious idea for making some money. He churned out the book with contemptuous speed, barely deigning to proofread it (formatting and grammar typos there are aplenty) and slapping an unusually high price on the Kindle edition of $13.40. No idea whether the scam worked and it’s selling. My own copy is evidence that at least one was sold; unless Ash got a free copy, that’s two. Maybe it’s even selling a lot, in which case he’s now laughing all the way to bank. More power to him, I guess.
Ray Hecht’s South China Morning Blues (Blacksmith Books, 2016) presents some of the issues we’ve seen in both While We’re Here and Shanghai Cocktales. It’s a novel about relationships among foreign expats and locals in China. I’m not exactly sure what the title means. The blues one experiences in the morning after waking up in bed with the wrong person? I’ve read Hecht’s rambling journal Pearl River Drama (self-published in 2015). Thankfully, the new book is better written, and it’s even better than Shanghai Cocktales, with which it shares the theme of getting it on, or attempting to, with Chinese girls. But if I go on at some length about Hecht’s novel, it’s because I want to share with you my ordeal in getting through it.
The book’s conceit is to link twelve characters in the narrative with the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, infusing each character with the proverbial traits of a corresponding animal. If it sounds like the results might be stilted, it is an original approach. All the characters appear to be based on real people as well, or composites. That is, they have just enough realism to be convincing, even as they’re archetypes drawn from mythology. And unlike the arid desert of Olden’s narrative, a shaping process went into Hecht’s effort, structuring the story arc and giving it a sense of closure by the end.
It’s divided into three sections, each set in one of the key cities of the Pearl River Delta: Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. None of the characters in the Shenzhen section reappears in or engages with any of those in the Guangzhou section (with one or two brief exceptions that don’t impact on the events). I was worried before I got to the Hong Kong section that the novel would end up being a trilogy of three self-contained and unrelated novellas, with only the overarching zodiac theme providing any unity. These are not far-flung locales; the three cities are close and inter-city traffic is the norm. The concluding Hong Kong section is the shortest of the three, and here all twelve characters make a brief reappearance at a rave party on Lamma Island. Still, none of the Shenzhen crowd interacts with the Guangzhou crowd; they occupy the same space oblivious of one another to the end. This would have been a good opportunity for the author to play around with his large cast, testing out the interesting chemical reactions among characters we are familiar with when they meet for the first time. It’s what we expect novelists to do. These limitations give the novel an unintended loose, episodic feel.
Hecht does manage to throw expats together with the Chinese more often than Olden does. Half of the twelve main characters are Chinese, and there is also a mixture of males and females, different backgrounds, experiences, and age. In presenting each of these characters in the first person, speaking with an individual voice, Hecht understands the necessity of distinct characterization and multiple viewpoints, again expected of the novelist. Yet this only goes so far. The book’s most significant, or drawn out, male-female relationships involve White expats. In the Shenzhen section, there is Danny (the ox character), who seems to stand in for Hecht himself, and Kyla (goat), both Americans who meet as English teachers in a Chinese middle school. Though Danny wants to find a Chinese girlfriend, he ends up going out with Kyla, and she moves in. He’s not in love with her and their bickering and the pressures build to the point where he kicks her out. Similarly, in the Guangzhou section, there is Eric (snake) and Amber (pig), two more North Americans. Their on-off relationship has a different dynamic from that of Danny and Kyla. Yet it too is hardly ideal as relationships go and descends into bickering, with Amber finding excuses to get Eric out of her face each morning after he spends the night.
Amber is one of the more nuanced characters, with appealing inner monologues, but Hecht’s treatment reveals stylistic flaws and narrative excesses, for example when Amber takes us through an exercise routine spanning three pages, from which the following excerpt is typical of Hecht’s language. If there was ever a prime instance of the literature of paralysis, of aimless filler, this is it:
So I set one of the treadmills to six kilometers per hour and a level-two incline. After one minute, I raise it by half-a-kilometer. Each minute thereafter, I do the same thing, reaching 7, 7.5, 8, 8.5 and 9. That’s my routine. Seven minutes and one kilometer after starting, I’m really sweating. I look at my reflection in a mirror to my left. For 30 seconds, I hold onto the side handlebars, lean on them, and rest. Then I raise the incline by one level and go to 10 kilometers per hour. A minute later I lower the incline two levels and raise my speed another kilometer. Then another kilometer, and soon I’m sprinting at 12 kilometers per hour. I can last only one more minute like that, after which I lower the speed back to 10 and hold the sides, trying to catch my breath. My heart beats fast. Sweat soaks into my headband, but I still need to wipe at my eyes. A peek at the display screen tells me that I’ve run two kilometers. I ease the pace by half-a-kilometer every minute. At nine kilometers per hour, I take my legs to the side and rest for 30 seconds.
Hecht has an aversion for the memorable, telling detail. He writes in Platonic forms, where there are no distinguishing features but only general types. Instead of cascading water or a hot spray of relief or a broken scalding shower, there is just a shower. Instead of colorfully described dishes or a cacophony of sounds on the TV, there’s just cooking and commercials. Instead of a certain sitcom whose title might add insight into Danny’s character, there’s just a sitcom:
I take a shower at my hotel. I watch some TV, and most of it I don’t understand. One Hong Kong channel shows a lame Australian reality show about cooking. Here, I’ll take what I can get. The Cantonese commercials bore me, and I turn off the TV. I watch a downloaded sitcom on my laptop, have a rest and then nod off for several hours.
Sex has the same bleached quality to the language, with clichés substituting for enticing details: “The sex feels awesome. I’m so turned on that I’m going to cum any second. She’s skinny, no ounce of fat on her. I love that flat stomach. She didn’t put up any resistance. Totally into it! Goddamn, I still have the charm!”
Alec Ash has remarked that sexual description is best avoided in writing altogether since it’s so hard to pull off, and we see much evidence for this position here. But I disagree. Erotic language can be effective; it just needs to be done with relish. The problem is that Hecht, like Olden, doesn’t seem all that interested in sex. The sex scenes appear with more frequency than in Shanghai Cocktales, but they are brief and token-like and gotten out of the way (compare Amber’s exercise routine that goes on in loving detail for three pages). Hecht’s characters claim to be horny and are often in pursuit of sex but most of the time fail to find it or are disappointed when they do find it. Perhaps as a White male in China he’s conflicted about appearing to be a predator. The one character who clearly fits the predator profile, the American Marco (whose Chinese zodiac animal is the tiger—get it?), Hecht punishes by reducing the Chinese woman he married to a brain-dead coma from a car accident.
Recently I was reading Susan Choi’s My Education (about a lesbian relationship between a U.S. university professor and a student) and was thinking, why can’t a novelist of this caliber write a book set in today’s China? Susan Barker potentially fits the bill. Let’s give her the critical rundown first, because I need to clarify why her novel The Incarnations (Touchstone, 2014) merits inclusion in this essay. I don’t know if she read Jonathan Tel’s short story collection set in China, The Beijing of Possibilities (Penguin, 2009), but the time-slip conceit of Tel’s story, “The unofficial history of the embroidered couch,” may have provided the initial idea for her novel. In that story, a dating service mysteriously enables a man in Beijing to communicate with a Ming Dynasty princess by cellphone text message. In Barker’s story, a reincarnated spirit with many former lives going back to previous eras in Chinese history similarly haunts and harasses a taxi driver in Beijing, slipping frighteningly elaborate letters to him under his window visor, with tragic consequences. I’m generally not taken with magical realism in fiction; I prefer reality. But if a book is well written enough, I don’t care what it’s about; I’ll keep reading.
Barker’s novel gets off to a good start. She has the poet’s fondness for the unforgettable detail. At times the invention is quite striking:
The merchants have collected many marvels of the plant and animal kingdom to sell to the nobility of Chang’an. Curiosities such as albino frogs and a wise and ancient monkey who can do sums with an abacus. Russian conjoined twins fused at the head (like one man resting his temple against a mirror) and a bare-breasted Japanese mermaid, her tail curled up in a barrel of salty water, weeping bitterly to be so far from the sea. In the very last wagon, a cyclops and a wolf-man, both shackled at the ankles, play a never-ending game of chess.
At other times, the details pile up in deluges, particularly the tendency, quite fashionable in fiction nowadays, to treat noun phrases as independent sentences and turning paragraphs into lists. Done judiciously, this is not a problem; too frequently, it risks becoming a mannerism:
There is no one at your bedroom window now, because the three of you are sleeping. Echo in her bed in the corner. You and your wife in the larger bed. Cages of ribs rising and falling, as lungs inflate and deflate. Eyelids palpitating with the stimuli of dreams. Three separate minds processing the day’s events. Three warm-blooded mammalian bodies at rest, regenerating cell by cell. Snoring as you breathe into the dark.
For the most part the style is assured and non-distracting, allowing Barker’s real interest to surface: her tempestuous, violent sexuality, an obsession enlivening the book’s texture and permeating every chapter of the novel in some form or another. In contrast to the previous three books reviewed, the question here is not whether sex should be written about, but rather how can any book presuming to call itself literature not be saturated with sex. Barker’s sexual interests tend toward the viscerally violent, usually involving injury and blood, as in this example of a Tang-Dynasty encounter with a eunuch:
To sleep with a eunuch is to be stripped and leered at as the eunuch keeps on his robes. To sleep with a eunuch is to become a scratching post for a neutered cat, to be stabbed with your own rhinestone-studded hairpins and strangled with your own beads. To sleep with a eunuch is to be bitten and grinned at with blood-stained teeth. To see the eunuch’s pale whey face light up as he penetrates you with a balled-up fist, punching its way inside. I clamp down hard on my tongue. My shadow writhes on the wall of the bedchamber, but I won’t give him the satisfaction of tears or a cry of pain.
Then there’s the Ming Dynasty emperor who subjects his concubines to a ritual so horrific I had trouble reading it (and I’m not easy to faze). In fact, I think my memory may have repressed it, or couldn’t process it at the time, but it involves something like opening up their chests and fucking the cavity inside, then sewing them back up to heal until the ritual is repeated. When the story returns to present-day Beijing, the sex is considerably toned down, less graphic and perverted, hinted at or touched on in memories, such as the incestuous encounters between taxi driver Wang and his mother and later his stepmother. Here the few explicit scenes consist of furtive activity between Wang and a gay hairdresser he meets during a stay in a mental institution, and a few depictions of Wang in bed with his wife.
It’s significant that the sex is muted in the contemporary China chapters. The further the novel goes back in time—Ming Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, Tang Dynasty—the more we enter the realm of the fairytale. There is a long tradition in fairytale writing (the classic Brothers Grimm era, not our present Anglo-American pabulum variety) of violence and other disturbing activities such as baking children into cookies or snipping off their fingers. Fairytale authors can get away with this precisely because they are fairytales, safely removed in time and space from familiar reality. This seems to be Barker’s strategy. She knew that too much graphic sex set in today’s China would be controversial—and for an English audience, likely traumatizing—but the same set in pseudo-mythic historical eras would be perfectly safe. I would even venture that Barker did not set out to write a historical novel and then spice it up with exotic sex. It’s the other way around: the only thing she wanted to write about was sex—of the most shocking, appalling kind—and the only way to do this was to expand the contemporary story back into the distant past.
Barker can get away with writing about sex in China for other reasons. For one, she’s female, and for another, all the sex takes place among Chinese, never with foreigners. The safest—and politically correct—way for a foreigner to write about anything Chinese is to write only about the Chinese. This was Tel’s approach in The Beijing of Possibilities, whose stories all have a fairytale feel though they’re set in the present. It’s also the approach of nonfiction chroniclers of China such as Peter Hessler and Evan Osnos, who stay rigorously in the background lest they be implicated in their postcolonial bias. Foreign White males appear twice in Barker’s novel, and the vile terms in which they are portrayed is illuminating indeed. First is a brief mention of your typical middle-aged Caucasian creep who gets in Wang’s taxi with a young Chinese woman:
A westerner slides into the back seat with a beautiful girl. Wang watches the couple in the rearview. The man is fortyish, with toady eyes and the broken thread veins of alcoholism in his large meandering nose. The girl is in her twenties, with a sugar-frosting of make-up on her pretty face. How can she let him put his hands on her? wonders Wang. For what? Money? Status? A U.S. fiancée visa? The man has a proprietorial hand on her knee and the smirk of one who thinks his own charisma has won him his trophy, and not the charisma of the West.
Later, in a chapter set before the outbreak of the First Opium War, a Tanka boy (a local minority group) is caught attempting to pickpocket a drunken British sailor in the foreign factories zone outside the Canton city walls. The sailors are about to execute him on the spot when he’s saved by a friendly Englishman scholar and missionary named Tom. Tom and a fellow Englishman named Jack are later picked up adrift at sea by a Chinese pirate ship on which the same boy has been dragooned, and are kept in a cage on the ship. The ship’s leader has them stripped and orders Jack to suck his cock. When he resists, he is fatally stabbed. The boy is ordered to sever his head and is then sent on a boat with Tom and other pirates to Canton to claim a reward for captured foreigners. The boy and Tom escape when the pirates fall asleep after smoking opium. In a strange twist of justice, the story concludes when Tom blows the boy’s head off with a gunshot, bringing things back full circle to the chapter’s start and the barbarism of foreigners.
There is no writing worthy of the name without conflict, and The Incarnations has its share of it, much of it terrible, unlike the bland and timid forays into storytelling of the three other books reviewed above. Yet the bulk of the conflict in Barker’s novel, as we have noted, is confined to safe Chinese-on-Chinese territory. The real challenge for expat writers is to thrust us right into the midst of the action, in the here and now. The foreign experience in China cannot and should not be treated independently of the encounter with the Chinese, with all the raw conflict and friction this entails.
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