Author: Isham Cook

American essayist and novelist based in China since 1994. Writing philosophy: downmarket, big concept, provocative, discriminating, outrageous. Ballard, Beckett, Borges, Dick, Kafka, Hesse, Melville, Mishima, Sade are influences.

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

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

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

“Pipe dope?”

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

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


Foreign Devils on the Loose in China: A Review

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

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

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

Massage diary: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

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

China: Kunming

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

Lotus: Updating the great Chinese socialist realist novel

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

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

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 20: Roma


“Stop shooting!” yelled Malmquist.

“What happened?”

“Get out of the cage.”

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

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

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

“Where’s my gun?”

“We have no time to talk.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hoc est lupanar?” the woman asked.

“Who is she?”

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

“What’s she doing?” asked Gunther.

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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