Book Passage of the Week – from The Corpse Walker (9/17/2016)

Just finished The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu. I’m writing a full review as we speak.

From Zhou, the Public Restroom Manager:

My monthly profits are about two hundred to three hundred yuan. I’m pretty content with that. And for an old guy like me, managing toilets is easy work. Life is tough and tiring. All my nerves are strained. One of these days, one of the nerves will snap, and then I’ll be gone.

Luo, The Corpse Walker:

Country folk seldom got to visit the city and had no access to entertainment all year long. Public denunciation meetings offered free drama for many onlookers. None of them wanted to miss it.

Huang, the Feng Shui Master:

At the moment, my life is coming to an end, reaching zero. Zero is nature. The mountain is my home.

Deng Kuan, The Abbot:

When you turn one hundred, and look back on the early part of your life, a couple sentences are sufficient.

And let’s not forget the introduction, written by Wen Huang:

During the famine, [Liao Yiwu] suffered from edema and was dying. Out of desperation, Liao’s mother carried him to the countryside, where an herbal doctor “held me over a wok that contained boiling herbal water.” The herbal steam miraculously cured him.

There is a lot of mythologizing about Liao Yiwu. Not only was he born the year The Great Leap Forward was launched, he was also “miraculously cured”, a presumably divine act that would later allow him to live on the lam as a dissident writer, barely known in his own country.

Also, this is an abridged work; according to the introduction, Wen Huang chose twenty-seven stories they felt were both representative of the work and of interest to Western audiences.

I’ll be covering this and more in my full review.

Wuhan Style Streets

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Germany Style Street: a trio of Bavarian dancers.

Italy Style Street: a suspicious-looking Mario and pizza.

Spain Style Street: a matador on the run from a bull.

This is what greets you when you leave Guanggu Wuchang and enter the rest of the mall: Optics Valley Walking Street, the part they were building when I last lived in Wuhan. Each area is marked for the country it mimics, and there is a mock cathedral for weddings.

At the end of the Style Streets a small train hauls children around a pack of animatronic dinosaurs who screech at timed intervals. Beyond this a wall with cartoon characters promise a Children’s Park and much more, and looking at the dinosaurs and the wall and the sheer size of what was once a nice outdoor mall turned consumer wonderland, the old line from Jurassic Park occurs to me.

What else have they got in there, King Kong?

Style Streets is an appropriate name because this place has its own style. It’s not Italy or Spain or Germany, images of European life it hopes to conjure in the minds of the Chinese nouveau riche. This is a uniquely Chinese style, a monstrous maze of shops and restaurants and cafes, stacked so close you wonder how anyone ever turns a profit. This is not a billion Chinese jumping.

This is a billion Chinese swiping Union Pay cards, the middle class and their hopefuls keeping the economic bubble well-inflated.

In 2008 Guanggu Wuchang was relatively new. Incumbent foreign teachers spoke of a time before the huge mall, with its giant Starbucks cup and dusty Epcot center bubble. Behind Guanggu it looked like they were building apartments. Walls were raised. Construction crews were called. Money changed hands and the corporate planners stood by, awaiting profit.

Seven years later they have it.

The Style Streets aren’t the only thing that’s new. New World Plaza arose while I was gone. A mall like any other, the fourth floor of New World is dedicated to children. Children’s development centers, clothes stores, a children’s train that does a complete lap around the floor, a play area and a Toys R Us.

The Toys R Us is a compact version, but as a compact unit it crams in quite a bit; they have all the toys and games we have, at high prices. 779 RMB for a Lego set, 99 RMB for a small Winnie the Pooh doll. Big Pooh goes for 199. I don’t know about Piglet.

BalaBala, Me and City Kids and the other children’s stores are similarly priced. Custom-made children’s desks go for 1149 RMB and up. An English Library (爱说读) in the middle of the hall has shelves of children’s books in Chinese and English, and two child development centers will have your kids ready for Harvard before they’re potty-trained.

There are three play areas. One is an obstacle course, the other has a carousel and a small train.

The other is Happy Bar: Baby’s Paradise.

50 RMB per person grants you entry to a crowded play area. You remove your shoes but keep on your socks. Some parents come in while others stay at the counter, watching Chinese dramas on their phones or staring vacantly into antiquity as their children wear themselves out on a boat that rocks back and forth, plush ABC blocks, an obstacle course, four slides, a sand pit of fine grains, nine swings and a ball pit. An HDTV lords over a small stage. Children are doing ballet on a continuous loop or synchronized dances to classic Chinese children’s songs and doting grandparents lounge by the ABCs while their grandchildren dash up and down stairs and jump on trampolines and in the ball pit a toddler is crying while a fat boy keeps throwing balls at him, ignoring his mother’s gentle suggestions to stop. A child crashes his toy car into your shin. Sweat beads pop soundlessly on your collar. The letter B has gone missing.

In the middle a giant inflated polar bear spins ceaselessly.

The dinosaurs at the end of Optics Valley Walking Street screech. People take pictures with the dinosaurs and two girls exit Mean Dessert carrying cupcakes. I look over. A replica of a London tour bus is permanently parked in front of a cafe. Then I look back at the wall and the promise of more to come and I think it’s true.

King Kong isn’t far behind.


Postmodern Cantonland: a review of ‘South China Morning Blues’, by Ray Hecht

The Gibson-esque Sprawl exists, and it’s here. We’re sitting in a postmodern
Cantonland. Culture and identity can’t keep up, and everything gets
spread thinner and thinner. Tens of millions of migrant workers enter
the area every day, and hundreds of thousands of us aliens from overseas
mix in too. Maybe this is what the future of globalism looks like. It’s
prosperous to be sure, but not very romantic.

In the summer of 2008, I received an email. If you’ve ever taught English in China, then you know the email, and its promises. Free apartment, travel money, paid holidays, and my favorite: the opportunity to experience life in a developing, dynamic country.

In South China Morning Blues by Ray Hecht, we hear from twelve people experiencing life in China, the developing, dynamic place for expat reinvention since 1979.

The book opens in Shenzhen with Marco. Marco isn’t just an expat businessman, he is the expat businessman, a failure in the West who has come, has seen and is all set to conquer:

“Jackie”, my workmate (Chinese people and their English names, am I right?), bobs his head up and down. Looking so damn out of place, he wears the same white dress shirt, with the outline of a wife-beater underneath, which he wears every day. Badly in need of a haircut and with long pinky nails, he looks like he couldn’t get a job here serving drinks, and yet I know that he makes a salary four times the national average.

Marco never learns Jackie’s real name, and by the time Jackie steals Marco’s clients and leaves him high and dry, it’s too late; Marco shows up in Guangzhou, heavier and humbled.

There are twelve narrators whose chapters are marked by their Chinese zodiacs. Most of them want to be someone else, someone “successful”, what they want to see in the mirror instead of what they actually see. If I tried to sum up everyone’s stories, I’d never finish this review.

So I’ll touch on a couple:

Sheila and Lu Lu are young Chinese women caught between modern life and tradition. Both bend, and it’s Lu Lu who breaks, marrying a policeman she met while working as a KTV girl. She cheats on him, staying stays in a loveless marriage for the financial support, which comes in handy; her husband arranges everything, and Sheila helps her give birth in Hong Kong, ensuring that her child will have all the benefits of Hong Kong citizenship.

Terry is a Chinese-American writer who works for a local magazine by day, by night putting together “the great expat novel”, Cantonland. He becomes involved with Ting Ting, an artist who has moved to the Pearl River Delta region from Beijing. Not content to merely practice art, Ting Ting treats herself like a work of art, coloring her hair and recoloring it when her natural roots show through. She yearns to be an instrumental part of the next great art scene. Ting Ting is too concerned with appearances; she spends hours coloring her hair for her date with Terry, and he never comments on it.

The party at Lamma Island closes out the book, but while the book ends, everyone’s stories don’t stop.

We do.

We stop hearing about these people as their lives go on: Terry is a step closer to writing his book, Lu Lu has given birth to her baby and Marco?

He sits unnamed on the ferry, a shell of diminished importance.


Some people have lamented the lack of a “great” expat novel; they wish to see an expat equivalent to The Sun Also Rises. Another reviewer brought this up concerning Quincy Carroll’s excellent Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.

Instead of looking back and making comparisons, let’s look forward. Along with Up to the Mountains, books like Harvest Season and South China Morning Blues set the standard for fiction from a transient class of lifelong outsiders.

Available at Amazon and the publisher’s website.

The Seven Year Laowai Chapter One – Annotated

The Seven Year Laowai is the backstory for a long novel called Little Red King.

I’ve spent years revising Little Red King‘s mammoth 260,000 word manuscript, eventually shelving it indefinitely.

A book I recently read inspired me to go back and set it right. If I succeed, I’ll self-publish it. This is not the kind of book that lends itself to traditional publishing; if you read it, you’ll see what I mean.

The Seven Year Laowai is more than backstory though. It’s a prologue, told through a series of interludes in the main text of Little Red King, providing crucial background info and build-up throughout the book.

I have annotated the first chapter of The Seven Year Laowai.  Read on for some trivia, my thought process, etc.

Enjoy it for FREE!

The Seven Year Laowai Chapter One – Annotated