China Underground: the ReviewWritten by Julen Madariaga on March 23rd, 2009
I first read about “China Underground” last Friday, during my daily browse of the China blogs. I had never heard the name of Zachary Mexico before, but the review on China Beat made me feel curious, so after work I stopped by the Garden bookshop and got my copy. Only 24 hours later I had been to a speech by the author, queued at the Shanghai literary festival to get his autograph, and finished reading his complete works. I guess this qualifies me as his fastest fan.
Over the weekend I spoke with a few friends about the book and I could feel some resistance. Some China hands clearly disapproved of the cover’s pop approach to a grave subject like the Middle Kingdom - a friend of mine from New York even warned me against what looked like “an East Village poser”. All this probably explains why the few who had actually read the book were so excited about it: they weren’t expecting it to be readable in the first place.
Not having any kind of prejudice against pop illustrated covers, I found the price tag fair and the promise of a fresh perspective on China exciting enough to give it a try. Here’s the results.
There are some very good points. First of all, like the author claims in his foreword, this books tells about an aspect of China that is neglected by most of the China books. These typically divide the Chinese population in two categories: peasants and citizens, forgetting that somewhere in the middle there is a no man’s land populated by strange, colourful characters: the underground world of the unadapted. Artists, gangsters and other creatures that Zach Mexico, with obvious communication skills, brings to us from a street level perspective.
As should be expected from a work of its kind, Zach’s writing flows. Its short paragraphs take you swiftly through a succession of anecdotes and conversations, intertwined with little bits of analysis. Here the author doesn’t judge, he just tries to explain. An analysis part that is rather light, but it has the virtue of adding some necessary background without breaking the rhythm. This is precisely another strength of the book: it consistently beats the “curse of knowledge”, stopping briefly every now and then to provide some basic information on China, and thus making it useful for uninitiated Western readers.
The book feels like it has been arranged to captivate the reader. One of the best and most balanced chapter is the first, where we see the daily tragedy of workers and miners in the North East through the eyes of a grassroot photographer. It is followed by a well dramatized episode with the Qingdao mafia, and an eyecatching -albeit weaker - one about prostitution. Follow a series on artists and bohemians, the best of which are probably the musician chapters, like the one about the Wuhan punks who sing political lyrics in unintelligible Chinglish. It is clearly in this field that the author feels most confortable.
The weaker points
On the weak side, many will probably point at some imprecisions in the book. This is obviously not meant to be a reference work, but perhaps it could have used some more attention to check obvious errors, like Uygur language as a variant of arabic. As a whole however, the general background about China is -if unoriginal- pretty accurate, as mainstream China books go.
A more important flaw in my opinion is the somewhat irregular quality of the chapters. Some parts of the book, like the one about the Qinghua University student, are so shallow and out of place that one wonders why they were even included in the final edition. Maybe they were just an attempt to give a more comprehensive view of China, working in contrast with the gangster chapters — a good idea, but clearly some more field work was needed.
Finally, some instances of misplaced self-consciousness, like in the chapter of the prostitute, render the author’s presence somewhat obstructive. Perhaps the best example of this weak side is the chapter about “the Most polluted city in China”. The author visits Linfen only to run away immediately with the excuse that his throat is sore and the noodles taste bad, failing to interview any relevant person there. Self sacrifice is clearly not in Zach’s agenda, and this chapter can disappoint even the hippest of East Village hipsters.
The bottom line
This is an enjoyable read by a promising new author, which delivers this China book rarity: a different perspective on the country, together with glimpses into an intense expat experience. Zach is a talented writer, likeable in print and in speech, as we saw in the literary festival. If he is serious about writing China we should see some good stuff coming in the near future.
For the moment I keep my hard-earned status of fastest fan, and I recommend this book to anyone who wants to enjoy a good read and taste a different side of China.