Books on China

On my little vacation in Terry’s flat, I availed myself of his library. Not only does he like to read, but he and I have similar taste in books. So I read books about China in English while in Shanghai! and learnt about what was going, albeit filtered through the eyes of ‘expats’. Much easier than actually trying to have conversations in with strangers, in a dialect that has rusted away in my brain. (I was surprised, and saddened by how little Mandarin I know any more.)

It’s really amazing how China has metamorphosed in the past couple of decades. Time does not stand still anywhere, but while it jogs elsewhere, it sprints in China. Every 5-years in recent China is about the equivalent of a generation’s worth of change in most other stable-r countries. Books about mid-1990s China are so hopelessly out of date today. Stories about 1980’s China seem like medieval Dark Age fantasies. The China as my grandparents or my mom knew it when they lived there no longer exists. A nuclear bomb may have dropped on Hiroshima and wiped it clean off the map then, but the various political/social/economic/cultural upheavals in China since 1949 has had almost the same effect.

Sometimes I wish long-time Chinese immigrants in the US (especially those who don’t travel to China) could read these books and find out how different China is now, just make them realize how irrelevant their conceptions are of the China that is fixed in their mind at the time of their departure.

Now, with China becoming a superpower, there’s more general interest in learning about what makes China tick; and no shortage of books to explain and ‘unmask the inscrutable’ . . .

Anyways, here’s the list I’ve read and mostly recommend. (Note: I didn’t read all of these books at Terry’s. Some of these books I read before, back in the Bay Area.)

Peter Hessler: Oracle Bones and River Town – Two Years on the Yangtze
“Oracle Bones” is the most recent snapshot of China in its continual flux.
“River Town” is the archetype of the genre of “Author moves to a foreign country to teach English and documents the experience”. But he does so with honesty, no white-washing over the warts.
Leslie Chang: Factory Girls (These two writers are married to each other!) If you want to put names and personalities to the people in sweatshop factories who make the stuff on Walmart’s shelves. Horatio Alger had nothing on these migrant workers.
Jen Lin-Liu: Serve the People: A Stir Fried Journey Through China. People are so interested in the experiences of cooks and restaurants nowadays! Take this and plop it in a PRC setting for a twist! “Mooncakes are the Chinese cultural equivalent of fruitcake”? What blasphemy. This book was so-so. (Not to be confused with Serve the People! by Yan Lianke)

Jan Wong: A Comrade Lost and Found. The chapter “Neither of Us Can Handle the Twenty-First Century” is the most hilarious thing I’ve read in a month of Sundays. Wong, herself a reporter with moxie to spare, is cowed even by the brazenness of the ‘mercurial’ friend who gives her an architectural tour of Beijing.

Geling Yan: The Banquet Bug: A Novel. This was thoroughly entertaining, I don’t know why it hasn’t been more prominently read.

Oliver August: Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China’s Most Wanted Man. This has nothing to do with the classic novel “Dream of the Red Mansion.” Forget about the trigger-happy mafia/triads you seen in HK films, this book shows how corruption and ill-gotten-wealth comes about in China today (with less bloodshed, but just about as much . . . uh . . . female companionship.)


On the nightstand recently . . .

These books were pretty good . . . Why? They almost inspire me to do the things that they do, like travel, write, run (yuck!) and draw cartoons (can’t)

Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
Amy Chua’s Day of Empire
Harumi Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons

Ghost Train is Paul Theroux’s retracing of the journey that started it all in The Great Railway Bazaar. Definitely stirred up the travel bug in me. To ride trains end on end, with the luxury to read and read and do little else. . . .

Day of Empire is based on an intriguing concept: that empires were successful in part because the rulers practiced plurality and ‘tolerance’ for the various ethnicities/cultures/ religious beliefs of the peoples being ruled over. Chua uses several overly simple (and contrived) historic examples to make this point, and how it applies to the world today. I don’t know enough history to come up with examples to refute it, although I’m sure they exist.
On a mundane level, I see it as affirmation that Silicon Valley’s dominance and prosperity as an economic ’empire’ is due to its multiplicty of restaurants, so that you could go a whole month without eating the same type of cuisine twice!

I don’t like running. And I’ve never read any of Murakami’s work. But this book is about writing as much as it is about running. As a wannabe writer, of course I’m interested in how successful writers do what they do. It’s making me want to write again.

Lynda Barry: There’s more to her than Marlys!


Thursday night I went to my friend’s book reading (the one I contributed on review/editing in draft). Friday night we went to see Brian Copeland’s Not a Genuine Black Man.
Attending these two events back to back made me ponder something.

The author was asked at the book-reading whether it was autobiographical. She said no, the characters were fictional, but the setting was based on her experiences. I wasn’t sure how much to believe that. When I was reading the draft, I can’t remember whether I had actually asked her the same thing; but I remember feeling convinced that one of the characters was pretty much her (the author) based on things she had told me about herself. Or perhaps the author and character were the same in the beginning of the novel, but the character diverged from the author.

Brian Copeland’s one-man-show is pretty much billed as being his experience growing up in San Leandro as practically the first African-Americans in that community in the early 1970’s. He very deftly wove in a bit of comic relief in most of the scenes where something tragic or horrifying was going on. It made me wonder, how much he had exaggerated some of the stories or details for entertainment value or even to prevent the audience from feeling overly uncomfortable?

I’m in awe of people who write fiction. So often writing is often based on the writer’s own experiences and self; very true in my case. I tried writing short stories before, and failed abjectly; I really couldn’t get into my characters enough to animate and manipulate them; because I couldn’t wean them from their basis in real-life. I don’t have that kind of imagination.

The point that struck me is that when we tell stories about ourselves we either downplay certain things or we embellish. Sometimes we omit details to avoid implicating ourselves; or even just to preserve a sense of privacy, i.e. ‘it’s not that I did something wrong or bad or shameful, but I like to keep my business my business.’ Embellishment makes for telling a better, more interesting, more entertaining story. I know I’ve done that with anecdotes I tell, to make the story sound funnier. . .

I have yet to finish reading the published book; I wonder how it compares to the draft I read, which was pretty good. The book was actually published last year in the UK, before being picked up here. I had ordered the British version through my friend, but didn’t have a chance to pick it up from her until now! I prefer my British version rather than the American, because of the cover. The American cover has a collage of brush-painting flower, and a photo of a hot Chinese babe (ooh, how exotic!) The British evokes the Orient in a classier fashion: flowers and calligraphy!

She’s pretty amazing: she wrote the novel in English, and is translating it Chinese herself. She’s also working on her second novel in Chinese; which she’ll then translate into English herself!

Brian Copeland’s show will probably extend its run at the San Jose Stage. I recommend seeing it. I waited 2 years to see it. It ran in SF for a long time, but I never got around to making the trek up there for it; even when my cousin Kathy invited me to go. It ran in LA for bit, and finally made its way to San Jose. San Jose is a shorter drive away than SF, but psychologically it’s more tedious to go downtown San Jose: (1) the traffic signals are timed atrociously; (2) the parking lot is usually free, but the circulation design is horrid; and (30 worst of all, there’s nothing good to eat. There’s nowhere in downtown San Jose that I would go eat at voluntarily, which is really a disgrace, considering the sizeable Latino and Vietnamese communities there. There’s so many more places I enjoy eating at in three blocks of downtown Mountain View than in the 4 square miles of downtown SJ.

As I’m writing this I’m baking tomatoes that I’ll then freeze and enjoy this winter, courtesy of my uncle’s overabundance. (Also overexuberance, he planted 20 plants this summer. Still better than last year, where he planted 60.) I also got enough yellow tomatoes from him (and my own garden) that I made into an exclusively-yellow-tomato sauce. It does smell and taste slightly different.

I also just finished (1) a book on bullfighting in Spain. It makes me want to go see a bullfight now. It’s something I’ve been curious about before, but reading the book has enforced it (2) two of Joe Sacco‘s lesser books: after checking out his better works from the library, I bought these two, because they weren’t at the library. Probably because they weren’t as good. So I just got suckered into buying the books that were the ‘let’s just throw his odds and ends together because he’s sort of famous and people will buy it.’ Oh well. It’s financial support for an artist whose works I admire 🙂

Recent reads

Boomsday by Christopher Buckley – it’s written in a light-weight summer beach-reading style . . about politics ands contemporary social phenomenon. I picked it up based on its intriguing premise: that Baby Boomers ‘voluntarily transition’ themselves at the age of 65 or so, in order to relieve the debt burden of Gen-Y’s supporting social security. In the end, I felt I’d been fobbed off with junk food, rather than it being a meaty read I was expecting.

Temptations of the West by Pankaj Mishra: A very informative book on the state of the Sub-continent; interwoven with travel and personal experiences. It explains social and political phenomenon: how they are and how they came to be. The author is Indian, hence it gives you more of an insider feel for things, rather a book written by a foreigner looking on. A really good read, if you’re interested in modern-day India and what to know more about the big picture beyond the snippets of news on outsourced jobs and call centers.

Berlin (Book One) City of Stones by Jason Lutes
Paul has a Summer Job by Michel Rabagliati

Both are graphic novels from Drawn and Quarterly. I liked both.
I didn’t like Jar of Fools by Lutes as much (which I had read earlier). Maybe it’s because I went to Berlin recently, that I found City of Stones more interesting. Set in the Weimar days, with an ensemble of different characters who are loosely interconnected, it gives you a sense of what the days leading to the rise of the Third Reich were like.

Paul has a Summer Job is a coming-of-age story in a simpler time (the 70’s!) The end is a bit contrived. But overall, the story touches you with its sort of “Stand By Me” quality.

King Lear

Memorial Day weekend was spent at home except for going to see a Peking Opera version of King Lear (a one man show, no less). I liked it so much, I even bought the T-shirt . . which turned out to be for a production for The Tempest. Again, I’m inspired to borrow the original Shakespeare play from the library, since I could remember the bits about Lear giving up his kingdom to his three daughters, but I couldn’t recollect the deal with Edgar and the Earl of Gloucester?

It was a bit weird, deja vu-ish, as I’d just dealt with some stressful things with my dad.

I still haven’t read Anna Karenina

Other than that, still on my graphic novels bent. Good ones I’ve read recently:

Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco
Monkey Food by Ellen Forney
Antique Bakery (manga series) by Fumi Yoshinaga
Fun House by Alison Bechdel

I took Pat’s Vol 1 of “Professor IQ”, as Dr. Slump is called in Chinese, to compare it to my English translation. I think it might have been an unauthorized translation. They kept some of the Japanese ‘sound effects’ in it.

It was nice to be home after not having been home for three weekends. However, I’m coming up on another three weekends away from home.

Did you know, in Canada, ‘hedgehog’ refers to chocolate-hazelnut flavour, i.e. Nutella, gianduia (Italian). Maybe because a hedgehog has a light brown face, and a dark brown body?

Koryo Saram

We only went to see one movie outside San Jose for this year’s Asian American Film Festival, and that was Koryo Saram.

When Joe and I travelled around the ‘Stan’s (that were formerly part of the Soviet Union), we were kind of surprised to see so many Koreans. How did they all get there? We met Sergey Lee on the bus from Bishkek to Tashkent. He took us to his mom’s flat where she fed us pelmeni/mandoo (dumplings), naan, kimchi and tomato salad. He himself had to hurry back to Nukus (in the hinterlands of Uzbekistan). ‘Why do you not look for a job in Tashkent?’ I asked, since he was obviously intelligent, and spoke English.
“My grandmother is in Nukus, and I have to look after her. She doesn’t want to leave Nukus, because that’s where my uncle (her son) and other family members are buried.”

I knew vaguely that Stalin had a pogrom in the 1930’s that shipped ethnic Koreans from far east Russia (i.e. near Vladivostok) into what are now Uzbekistan, Kazahkstan, etc., but the whole heart-wrenching story is eloquently told in the movie. The movie focuses on Kazahkstan, but I assume the turn of events was similar in Uzbekistan.

For the average person in California or the rest of the ‘known’ world’, you might think, “Why would I care or be interested in this?”

I wouldn’t be able to answer that; after all my own curiosity stems from having visited the ‘Stan’s and meeting Sergey. (The filmmaker, David Chung, was inspired to make the movie based on a similar curiousity when he went to visit Kazahkstan, but closer to home, since I think he’s Korean-American.)

In watching the movie, I was struck by the parallels of history repeating itself, not only across time, but in different places.

Stalin uprooting the Koreans with three day’s notice and sending them on a month-long train-ride west . . . Japanese on the West-Coast sent to internment camps. Arriving in the steppes with no provision of shelter, food, supplies, etc doomed many Koreans to death in the harsh, frigid winters . . . . like sending Jews to Auschwitz, but having nature do the work of the gas chambers.

Korean theatre troupes in Kazahkstan having their repetoire restricted to ‘revolutionary’ (another word for ‘politically-correct’) plays . . . in China during the Cultural Revolution one could only see plays like “White-haired Maiden” or propaganda works authorized by Jiang Qing. Prohibition of teaching Korean in Korean schools and burning Korean textbooks in Kazakhstan . . . well, I don’t think there’s any countries where this hasn’t happened.

Kimchee becoming part of the national cuisine of the ‘Stan’s . . . Sushi is part of the national cuisine of Brazil; chicken tikka has eclipsed fish and chips as Britain’s fast food.

Oddly enough, because the Korean that’s still spoken by the old-timers in Kazakhstan has died out in today’s North/South Korea, they are of interest to linguists and anthropologists. Similarly, if you want to learn about ‘traditional’ Toishan language and customs, you’re better off looking in the original Chinatowns of the west coast, rather than in Guangdong province.

On the nightstand

I really don’t miss cable TV at all; I’ve been pretty engrossed in reading. I spend most of my lunches at San Carlos Library, which has an excellent browsing section.

In the last three weeks, I’ve read:

The Places in Between (A Walk through Afghanistan), by Rory Stewart – This was a question at last week’s trivia contest (We won bags of peanut M&M’s). I happened to see it on the shelf at San Carlos Library. Finished it in one sitting. Sort of like William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu with a more solitary feel. What is it about these British and their penchant for obscure history . . . and their doggedness for seeing those places today.

What Would Dewey Do
Library Mascot Cage Match
Book Club are all by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum. It’s a four volume compilation of an internet based comic strip about a library started in 2002. I saw Unshelved at the SC Library, picked it up, and simply had to get the whole set. It’s interesting to see how the drawing style evolves over time. (Even in Asterix and Dr. Slump series, you see this happening.)

Kleptomania by Manjula Padmanabhan
I picked up this collection of short stories in Chennai, including a couple of sci-fi ones. I had picked up her earlier book, a compilation of her comic strip This is Suki, on a previous trip to Dehli. I will now have to go check out the rest of her books from the UC Berkeley library. She also attended my alma mater, ye old ‘Scola Brittanica’ in Bangkok, as did S.P. Somtow (a sci-fi writer).

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (Travels in small town India) by Pankaj Mishra
Incidentally, he’s a vegetarian! This book was mentioned in a magazine article about food specialities in small towns across India. For a foreigner, it provides insight on how Indians perceive their own country as they travel around in it; but the most interesting part for me was the explanation of eve-teasing (sexual harassment) of foreign women in Varanasi, the pilgrimage city.

Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk
Someone had left this on Caltrain, presumably for the next lucky person to pick it up, me! There was an inscription “Read and enjoyed in Istanbul and Germany”. How ironic, I read this on my flight to Berlin, where there is a sizeable Turkish immigrant population today (The Turks’ presence there reminds me of the Mexicans’ presence here. Donner kebab places are as common there as taqueria here.) Pamuk’s nostalgia for his childhood Istanbul that no longer exists matches mine for the Bangkok I no longer recognize. Now that he’s won a Nobel prize, I guess I should go read the rest of his books.

Along the same lines, read Martin Booth’s Golden Boy for an account of bygone Hong Kong, albeit from my dad’s time.

Two Lives by Vikram Seth.
Comparisons with Pico Iyer are almost inevitable, based on their background. Iyer is the one to read for travel, but Seth writes better fiction (I have never liked any of Iyer’s novels!) This book is a touching account of his uncle (Indian) and aunt (German) and their experiences before, during and after WWII, when they settled in England.

Someone had left this book in the little library of the Berlin flat we stayed at; and coincidentally we were headed for Chennai afterwards. I was so struck by this book, that I actually bought myself a copy when I came back home.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson and Dave Barry are two of my favourite contemporary writers; they are the funniest! Both are Americans. Yet Bryson is very English, subtle and understated; while Barry is very American-in-your face. My impression of Bryson was of someone sedate and proper; it’s a slight shock and relief to know he was once a crude, hormonal teenager.

Bizarro Among the Savages
Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro
both by Dan Piraro
I like Bizarro’s cartoons a lot. The first book is an account of his book tour in which he depended on the kindness of strangers for lodging and transportation. The second book is about his views on politics, etc.

Maybe Later by (Philippe) Dupuy and (Charles) Berberian
Get a Life by Dupuy and Berberian.
I like a lot of the titles put out by Drawn and Quarterly based in Montreal (graphic novels). I like alot of graphic novels that are based in foreign countries/cultures.

Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi
All her graphic novels have a absis in her roots in Iran.

On-deck, in the hole and in the bullpen
Anna Karenina by Tolstoy: My cousin Viv and I went to see the Eifman ballet performance of Anna Karenina. I’ve heard of the book, but never knew what it was about, much less read it (it’s pretty darn weighty!). Now after the ballet, I’m intrigued.

Shenzhen by Guy Delisle. I bought his graphic novel Pyongyang because of my curiousity about the Hermit(ically sealed) Kingdom. Now he’s come out with one about the SEZ near Hong Kong. The attraction is that it’s set in 1997, when China was midway between its evolution from rigid Communism to today’s full-blown capitalism. I visited China a couple of times around this period (My cousin T taught English in Guangdong that year). It’s sort of a throwback nostalgia thing; most travelers who have only been to China in the recent years would have no idea of how quirky it was to deal with retrieving hotel room keys from your floor lady fuwuyuan!

From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame by Mark Monmonier
I like maps almost as much as I like traveling (two sides of the same coin). This one talks about the un-pc ness of place names in North America. A browse-shelf library find.

Aya by Abouet and Obrerie
Life in the Ivory Coast, a 19 year old girl, 1978. Optimistic, something we need reminding of, that it isn’t all gloom and doom in Africa. Also from Drawn and Quarterly.

I read so much, I tend to forget what I’ve read. But some that have really popped out in the last few months:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Joe started reading it, and we didn’t finish it before we had to return it to the library. I may wait til it comes out in paperback.

American Born Chinese by Gene Yang
I usually check out books from the library, because I’m too cheap to spend much money, and I am desperately runing out of bookshelf space. My colleague was telling me about this graphic novel which he had heard about, but hadn’t gotten around to reading. “It sounds familiar,” I said.

When I got home that night, I found I had bought a copy of it, and had forgotten! (Not that it was bad, but I read so much, I forget what I’ve read.) I loaned it to him. Haplessly he spilled coffee on it and bought me a replacement copy.

Ines of my Soul by Isbel Allende
Allende is rolling along prolifically with her novels combining history, romance, engagingly strong heroines, and quirk & humor. Other books by her like this are Zorro, Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia. More ‘contemporary’ are Of Love and Shadows, Stories of Eva Luna, and of course the one launched it all: House of the Sprits

The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain
Like his TV shows, his earlier books were better. Nowadays, he seems to be cruising on his laurels. Buy A Cook’s Tour and even Kitchen Confidental. Nasty Bits should merely be checked out from the library.

The King Never Smiles by Paul Handley
I checked it out from the UC berkeley library. Of course it’s banned in Thailand. Thailand has very draconian lese majeste laws regarding the royal family; and the King is genuinely revered by his people. This book is an interesting read on how the Chakri’s have evolved and developed their image and role to what it is today. (Read also The Revolutionary King by William Stevenson as a counterpoint if you like.)

On Beauty by Zadie Smith
I liked this better than The Autograph Man, and maybe more than White Teeth

The World is Flat by Thomas Freidman
He could have done a better job of editing this more tightly. Maybe I got the expanded version by mistake from the library. I was reading this in the delivery room when we were waiting for Joshua to be born.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
I liked this better than Tipping Point