The many faces of Chinese “face”

two chinses face


I begin my discussion with something that might seem unrelated but which turns out, on further analysis, to be the other side of the coin needed for an understanding of Chinese face, and that is the intriguing phenomenon of Chinese apathy.

Take the Beijing subway. We see the grim parade passing through the cars, the able-bodied leading the blind or crippled, singing or lamenting through portable loudspeakers to cut through the noise, alone or in pairs one after another, spacing themselves throughout the length of the train. It’s all to elicit maximum pity for a display of human pathos so abject it attains to performance art: a legless person crawling on the floor or pushing himself along on a homemade dolly, a teenage girl with burns so disfiguring her eyes are melted shut, people with stubs for hands, horrific skin diseases, and the like. Much more startling, however, is the look on the faces of many of the subway riders.


The breast etiquette project

Jack woman 7
Courtesy of Jack Guard

Prelude at Annie’s

I’m at an Annie’s, a foreign-managed Italian restaurant chain in Beijing. It’s become a trendy place as a consequence of locals’ worries over food safety at Chinese restaurants. There’s also the popularity of foreign food, as growing numbers of Chinese come back from trips to culinary heaven in Europe and discover Western and international cuisine to be actually pretty good.

Take this branch at the west gate of Chaoyang Park for example, the original Annie’s (there are now nine of them). From when it opened in 1999 until a few years ago, it was mostly expats needing a bite to eat after picking up necessities at a neighboring supermarket for foreigners, Jenny Lou’s. Now, you often have to wait in line for a table, and almost all of the customers are Chinese. The staff have their obsequious bowing and plastic smiles down to an art form. They also serve generous portions, and it’s my third serious glass of wine that is giving me the inspiration to write the following.

Honesty, diligence, obedience: Why I support China’s Great Firewall

"Honesty" - one of five themed posters. The others are devoted to "Benevolence," "Righteousness," "Industriousness" and "Obedience." Photographed by Isham Cook at the Institute of Light Industry in Zhengzhou, China, Jan. 2015 (thanks to Wang Yue for her translation help).
“Honesty” – one of five themed posters. The others are devoted to “Benevolence,” “Righteousness,” “Industriousness” and “Obedience.” Photographed by Isham Cook at the Institute of Light Industry in Zhengzhou, China, Jan. 2015 (thanks to Wang Yue for her translation help).

Many negative reports have been coming out of China lately. A litany of scandals involving greed, fakery, adulterated food, callous drivers sideswiping pedestrians, and so on, have appeared in the Western media. Now there is much concern that the country wishes to close off Internet access to the rest of the world. As a long-time foreign resident in China, I wish to lay out the reasons for this laudatory development and set the record straight.

Massage and the Writer: Essays on Asian Massage

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00023]There is no more schizophrenic pastime than the application of oil to flesh. Whether as bodily relief and relaxation, a means of seduction, or a form of prostitution, massage has long both fascinated and repelled. But what if these contradictory aspects of the practice—the therapeutic and the erotic—were seen as inseparable and integral to it?

Spiced up by travels in the East in search of the ideal massage, bristling with trenchant, provocative essays, Massage and the Writer will appeal to littérateurs and aficionados of radical sexuality, while infuriating the “polite” massage business of New Age spas, aroma oils, and how-to coffee table books—all those with a stake in the strict separation of massage and sex.

Massage and the Writer’s salacious narrative, suffuse with dangerously honest erotic musings, is certain to garner Cook a cult following among libertine expats.”—City Weekend

“[A] fascinating portrait of a man who has ventured into the titillating establishments the world has to offer.”—Kirkus Reviews


Chapter 1     A Massage School
Chapter 2     The Old Chinese Bathhouse, Circa 2000
Chapter 3     Men Massaging Men: Three Countries
Chapter 4     Icon, Index, Symbol, Semen
Chapter 5     The Curious Benefits of Neurosis (from The Exact Unknown)
Chapter 6     The Taiwan Massage Scene
Chapter 7     Massaging the Yin-Yang in Pattaya
Chapter 8     Massaging the Masseuse in Beijing and Bangkok
Chapter 9     Japanese Voyeur Massage
Chapter 10   In Search of Malaysian Massage
Chapter 11   Coffee and Massage in Burma
Chapter 12   Why All Sex Should Be Paid For

A Massage School (from Massage and the Writer, ch. 1)

One summer day I notice an ad for a massage therapy training school. A massage school. The idea enthralls me. What an antidote to the cerebral mortification of the University of Chicago! I can scarcely afford the $3,000 tuition for the yearlong course, much less the time I will need to carve out of my busy study schedule, but sign up I must, and I explode with excitement anticipating the course’s start in the fall. It completely eclipses my fading enthusiasm for academic work, and in the final days before the school’s orientation, I toss and turn with rut-swollen, limb-splayed dreams. Of course I am aware that we will be learning strictly nonsexual massage, but let’s also realize that there is no such thing as strictly nonsexual massage. Massage is always already erotic.

Coffee and massage in Burma


Walk in any direction in many Asian cities and you will run into a house of massage. My bloodhound’s nose could sniff out the sparse offerings on hand in dour Ulan Bator, Seoul, and New Delhi. India frowns on the practice but relies on its traditional Ayurvedic treatments (e.g. streaming warmed oil over the forehead) as a foreign-tourist draw, though it’s usually performed on you by a person of the same sex. The elderly man who gave me a body massage in Agra seemed more interested in the hard-on he had incited by inching his fingers under the netted briefs I was required to wear. In Seoul they had me don a hospital gown-like contraption with flaps opening up the respective body parts. Korean barbershops used to be available for all manner of massage and you’d think the city would have quite a selection today, but even the Itaewon nightlife area, now considerably cleaned up since my previous visit two decades ago, turned up only a single shop with a “No sex massage” sign in the entrance.

In Vietnam, on the other hand, they take you there. A hot woman in Hanoi came up on a motorcycle. “Marijuana? Massage?” she asked, inviting me to jump on. Traveling with a Chinese girlfriend at the time who was walking a few paces behind, I wasn’t at liberty but was dying of curiosity, even at the possibility of being ferried somewhere to be beaten up and robbed.

It is so ubiquitous in Asia that it practically stands for Asia. Finding a massage service there is normally as easy as finding a church in any city in my home country, the US. In Rangoon, however, I wasn’t having much luck.