Dung Kai-Cheung, A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made on (Chinese 1999, English 2022)

It took me a while to get through this book but the size of the book actually took me by surprise (as it is often the case with Netgalley ARCs): this collection comprises no less than 99 short stories (most of them very short, and very easy to read) on Hong Kong life in the late 1990s.

First published in 1999, I believe that the author’s intention was to make a impressionistic portrait of the city on 1997 or right after, which is the year Hong Kong returned into the folds of Communist China. It’s a tough book to love for people who don’t know this city (although the translator has provided much needed references at the beginning of each story) but it was a personal delight to have these memories brought back to life. Many stories inside are mini love stories, anecdotes or snapshots and refer to many iconic material purchases that were so popular in Asia in the 1990s: Hello Kitty, fashion designer brands, flip phones, Japanese tv series, etc.

Indeed, as I read this in 2022, what is glaring now is more what is not in those stories rather than what is. No mention of political and economic contexts, no mention of China or even Shenzhen north of the border. All these youthful people in the book are 100% materialistic and egocentric in their love stories and pursuits. Some stories in the book may seem rather shallow. A generation later, what a contrast! Hong Kong is no longer heavily influenced by Japanese culture, it is no longer an economic Asian tiger, and due to Covid, it’s not even a regional hub anymore. Hong Kong youth is now a lot more political, they affirm their identity (separate from mainland China) and don’t hesitate to rebel. I cannot help but wonder how the blissfully ignorant naivety of Hello Kitty lovers has given way to a generation of increasingly desperate young people who choose emigration if they are able to.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Hao Jingfang, Folding Beijing (2014)

Folding Beijing is an awesome novelette, and it makes me so sorry not to remember where I heard about it. I know that what decided me to read it is the translation by Ken Liu, whose short stories I enjoyed more than once (The Hidden Girl collection and in a novelette of his: The man who ended history). It’s only when I finished reading the novelette that I learnt that Hao Jingfang is a young woman, that she wrote this while studying at Tsinghua University and that she is the first female Chinese writer to have won the prestigious Hugo award. I read the story without knowing all that, but now that I do, I’m even more impressed and I humbly think that this award is very well deserved!

Folding Beijing is set in a world divided in 3 classes of citizens: the rich, the middle-class and the underworld, that lead separate lives, not only spatially but temporally. When one class of people goes to sleep, their city folds itself into the ground and it’s now time for another class to unfold above ground and get up. Everything in this division is unequal, the rich get the most of the 24 hours and enjoy sunlight, while the underclass live in cramped, dirty lodging and live only in darkness. In the story, one man from the underworld sets to “go over the fold” and sneak into the privileged world for a risky, but rewarding mission.

The premise of the story is almost more interesting that the character’s quest itself. There are so many relevant themes in the idea of spatial and temporal segregation. Some themes are nothing new ([spoiler alert!] like the idea that blue collar workers are more and more replaced by robots), but the way it is exploited in this folded world felt fresh to me. Of course, the story is not explicitly taking on a political and social stance against the current situation in China, but it’s difficult to avoid thinking about it.

What was also great about Folding Beijing is that it is not any anonymous, futuristic, slightly American city that gets folded and unfolded, I still got a sense of old Beijing in the first part when we discover the “third space” that lives during the night. I’m no big reader of Sci-fi, but there’s obviously a great potential to explore here. (And I want to also explore if Sci-fi may be an outlet for Chinese expression that might not be easy to let out in other realms). I have not yet tried famous Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin, but I should probably take a leap of faith and venture into unfamiliar territory. Any recommendation?

Liu Xinwu, The Wedding Party (2021)

Original title: 钟鼓楼 Zhong Gu Lou (1985), translated by Jeremy Tiang

The cover of the book looks like it could be a children’s book or a comics. But that is totally misleading, this is a sprawling novel of 400 pages, full of humor, people, events and considerations on life and history. I don’t know if the title of Wedding Party has been chosen by the publisher or the translator, but it is an English choice. It is obviously the focus of the main action, as we follow a group of people who are gathering on that day for a wedding celebration. Yet, the Chinese original title refers to the location of the action: the Bell and Drum Towers in Beijing. These historical buildings are towering the action and acting as eternal landmarks compared to the agitation and constant changes of the humans that live in their shadows.

The book is set in the winter of 1982 in Beijing, which is a bit of a low-key period in Chinese history. The struggles and upheaval of Maoist era are over, people are coming back slowly from being sent away by the Cultural revolution. Yet, it is not the booming economy and wealth that we now know, or rather, it is the first moments of the dawn. People are just starting to have their basic needs covered and they can start to buy some things for pleasure, and even buy fancier wedding presents and wedding food. Some even have Japanese brand watches and install electric bells on their door, instead of letting people drop by unannounced. The Bell and Drum Towers are not a wealthy neighborhood, people live in hutong and siheyuan, which are courtyard houses split between lots of families. This make for rather… ahem… rambunctious relations, when people with various interests, wealth, status, culture and prospects are obliged to rub shoulders every day and share water taps and more.

A wedding is a stressful day for the bride and groom and their families, and it was as true in 1982 in Beijing as it is today. The mother of the groom is hosting, and her aim is to have all the guests fed with delicacies and properly impressed. The bride is a young materialistic saleswoman who basically measures her happiness to the amount of wedding gifts and especially a much awaited gold watch. The wedding will be all but serene and auspicious when dozens of neighbors and guests, including people who aren’t quite welcome (a drunkard and a thief) go through the courtyard and share this day of excitement.

The novel is full of humor and humanity. Liu Xinwu has so much empathy for his large cast of characters, and he takes the time to explain the origins of many misunderstandings and disputes that erupt on that day. Liu Xinwu is the author who is credited for inventing the scar literature, a literary form who presents the suffering of the victims of the Cultural Revolution. It is visible in this novel as more than one character alludes to their past and how they have endured the previous decade, but not in a tragic, heavy tone.

This book was awarded the Mao Dun prize at his publication in 1985, which is the equivalent of the Booker prize for China. It’s not meant to be a direct criticism of the regime, but it is quite direct in showing cases of injustice, cronyism, hypocrisy and incompetence. Liu Xinwu also shows how the parents and grandparents of those living in the siheyuan had a miserable life before 1949 as Communists came to power. Because we also see the younger generation more interested in achieving success for themselves than proclaiming any Communist ideal, we can only reflect how these havej grown up and probably turned into the wealthy generation of the 2000s.

I was in Beijing in the early 2000s and the neighborhood of the Bell and Drum Towers was a favorite place with trendy, shabby cafés and run-down siheyuan. Many younger and wealthier families had long since moved to the high-rises in the suburbs or near the fifth ring road. Older and poorer people still lived there in the shadows of the towers, a glimpse at eternal Beijing. When we visited again in 2018, it felt like the towers had not changed much, however different the rest of the city was.

I enjoyed this novel a lot because it was linked to a lot of personal memories, but I believe it might appeal to Western readers who’d like a fun glimpse into old China daily life.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Ha Jin, A Song Everlasting (2021)

I was glad for a chance to read a new novel by Ha Jin, although it has been a long time since I read anything by him. I read The Crazed and Waiting, and it had left me with a good, if hazy, impression (that was before I started this blog, so we’re speaking of decades now). I especially remember The Crazed, which I must have read in Beijing or in Hong Kong around 2002-2004, and it was such a shocking enormity at that time to read about Tiananmen events. It is even worse now for sure, and I do wonder if Ha Jin’s books can be bought in foreign languages bookstores there now.

When the novel starts, Yao Tian is a professional and renowned singer in mainland China and he tours the U.S. with his (state) choir. A friend in N.Y.C. asks him to come and sing one night on his own for an overseas Chinese concert. The gig pays well and Yao Tian needs the money to save for his daughter’s U.S. college. He accepts, but upon his return in Beijing, he learns that the concert was funded by Taiwanese organizations and his participation is therefore treated like a treason. The scandal boils over and Tian, fearing that his passport will be confiscated and refusing to abandon any future prospects of singing internationally, takes the first flight to the U.S., leaving his wife and daughter behind.

What feels first like a temporary situation is actually a big turn in Yao Tian’s life. The Communist government tries several times to make him apologize and come back, but he refuses every time. Branded an enemy of the motherland, he won’t be able to return, even for tragic family circumstances. In the U.S. Yao Tian has to make himself a new life, find jobs, and try to never forget his passion for music.

I personally read the book like a page-turner. The writing is plain, and sometimes too detailed, but I really rooted for Yao Tian and I wanted to know if he could succeed in his new life and what would happen to him, his friends and family. Odds really seemed stacked against him, and his story is that of a determined person who discovers by chance how much freedom means to him. At the very beginning he says that politics is not important to him. In fact, he sings at the Taiwanese concert essentially by personal greed, and he leaves China because he feels that his career will be stifled without a passport. But the more he endures, the more he understands that he needs to choose freedom over and over again (every time the Chinese Embassy’s contacts make a proposal, or every time there’s something or someone back home that calls for his presence).

In the context of current US/Chinese tensions, this is a very interesting novel. It is squarely, almost naively pro-America, from a Chinese-born writer who has been living in the U.S. since just before the Tiananmen events in 1989. Of course it makes me wonder how autobiographical this whole story is, but it is most probably a mishmash of things that Chinese emigrants have lived through. As a European reader, I cannot help to find that his vision of the U.S. is a bit too idealistic, especially when Yao Tian gets good healthcare and keeps on being lucky with jobs opportunities and being so successful and adaptable. It’s almost as if Ha Jin was making a side-by-side comparison of the two countries over the course of a life (more like 7 or 10 years). The unforgiving position of the Chinese authorities is quite believable I’m afraid. And it’s also interesting to see how people change over the course of the book, although Yao Tian is probably not the one who changes the most.

This book changed a bit my perception of Ha Jin because I didn’t remember the previous books I read to be so rooted in mundane details of life, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It opened my appetite for more Chinese or Asian books!

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

The One with the Little Chinese Countryside Psychopath

Golo Zhao, Poisons (2019)

Be careful if you come across this standalone graphic novel. Golo Zhao has a very round and cute way of drawing characters that makes you think of a childish manga. But if you look carefully, the nice schoolgirl on the cover, in front of an idyllic pink sunset, has a weirdly fixed gaze and there are suspiciously blood-red splashes on her uniform. I would say that this book should be for readers 16 or above. I guess that in the US it would come with a TW for violence and emotional abuse.

The main character is Lili Zhang, a Chinese primary school girl (10 yo?) in a poor backwater village very far from the developed cities of China. She lives with her grandmother, who can’t really give her much more than the material basics of survival. The girl has no contacts with her parents (we’re supposed to understand that her mother is working far away in a factory in a city, probably to send some money back, but Lili just lives it as an abandonment), and no emotional support whatsoever from any adult around. Teachers berate her for her poor results, classmates shun her or bully her, and her only friends are two horrible girls who are even poorer than her (one of them mentally challenged) and whose idea of a good game after school is to roam into the village dumpster.

Lili is lonely, ashamed, desperate, but she hasn’t even enough self-awareness to know she feels that way. She only knows she has to do something radical to separate herself from her two “friends” that the whole village (including Lili herself) considers as mere parasites. Without adult presence in her life, without a moral framework, Lili shows no emotions and no empathy at all. The end is even more desperate, showing her happier in prison for life than ever before.

The drawing style, all in pastel hues and manga roundness and cutesy, creates a creepy dissonance between the images and the story.

It is all the more disturbing as the book is based on real facts, and the reader absolutely needs to read the postface with explanations about the social context to really make sense of what one has just read. Otherwise, it would too easily veer off towards disturbingly exhibitionism of senseless violence. I wish Golo Zhao would have woven more background context into the story, but he chose not to, I guess to make it more heart-wrenching and shocking (an easy trick maybe?). Interesting, but for readers who are ready for it and who know a little about the social situations of China.

The One with the Hong Kong Hacker

Chan Ho-Kei, Second Sister (Chinese 2017, English 2020)

Last year I read Chan Ho-Kei’s The Borrowed and I loved it. It was very original with a strong sense of place. So when I heard from Annie at A Bookish Type that there was another of his novels in translation, I immediately went to Netgalley and requested it. Granted, I have little objectivity when it comes to books set in Hong Kong, but it was a treat – although it started awkwardly I must say.

The first chapter is a tear jerker of massive proportions. You pile up all the possible human miseries onto one single family: poverty, illness, unfair treatment, bullying, scam, fatal accident, abuse, sexual attack, suicide… and you see if anyone survives. No, it’s not Cosette in Les Mis, but almost. It’s Nga-Yee, a librarian young woman who has survived her father’s death in an accident because he worked two jobs, her mother’s death by cancer and exhaustion, only to witness her young sister’s suicide. Oh, and of course, since she’s now all alone in the world, she needs to vacate her flat that is shockingly too big (for Hong Kong standards, which means 300 square feet) Honestly, it’s all a bit too much and if I had not read Chan Ho-Kei before it might have turned me off. But hang in there, it soon gets better.

As the sole bread winner, and a tough girl herself, Nga-Yee has worked too much to understand her sensitive little sister Siu-Man who was in middle school, but she refuses to accept her suicide at face value. Someone must have pushed Siu-Man to despair, and Nga-Yee wants revenge. She first hires a private investigator, who discovers that Siu-Man was indeed victim of internet trolling, but he can’t get to the bottom of it. He introduces her to N., an idiosyncratic hacker who lives in a derelict building and who first refuses to take her case, before reluctantly agreeing.

N. is obviously modelled on Sherlock Holmes, because he’s a loner, whimsical, brilliantly clever and treats Nga-Yee/Watson like a moron. (Although in that case, Nga Yee is a client and she has done her fair share of badgering him into taking her case) The magic tricks of the investigation are not about identifying soil or tobacco like in the old days, but about IT hacking techniques and cybersecurity vulnerabilities. I guess it might sometimes be a bit too much for a person who is not into computers, but that’s not my case (I do work in IT, and fwiw most information bits are accurate). From this book even more than the one before, I get the sense that Chan Ho-Kei is a pragmatist (so Hong Kong in a way!), interested in how people go about ethical quandaries and make up their own moral decisions in an uncertain time.

The plot is very convoluted and very clever. While the Borrowed plot went backwards in time and wove into each chapter recurring characters, places and historical facts, this plot is rather like Russian dolls, and there’s always another secret twist after the next one. It’s pretty addictive, and it reminded me of familiar places in Hong Kong, especially derelict buildings in Sai Ying Pun, that might or might not be the home of clever hackers.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

The One with the Bizarre Chinese Criminals

A Yi, Two Lives (2020)

This book made me feel all the feelings… but not those you’d want to feel. Doubt, upset, indifference, shock, anger, guilt… So I’m releasing all of them, and I decided today to leave this book DNF. It’s just not for me.

A Yi is the pseudonym for a Chinese writer, who used to work as a policeman and whose name is now in more than one list of the up-and-comings in contemporary Chinese fiction. I was tempted. “Tales of life, love and crime” (as the subtitle promises) ? Short stories? Stylish cover? Sign me up!

The doubt arose very soon because I really have no clue what I was reading for long stretches of the book. It made no sense to me. People talked, people went in and out of rooms, but I didn’t “get” it. I even started to doubt the stylish cover. What is this weird red-eyed furry blue animal exactly? Now, I’ve dealt with bizarre and grotesque in Chinese literature before. In fact, I rather enjoyed Ma Jian’s China Dream last year. But this one is another, rather chilling, animal.

After doubt came indifference. I didn’t manage to care for any character, but I’m not sure if it was expected from me, as the characters were not likeable. Actions seemed random, as were the sudden bursts of violence. It came so out of the blue that I was shocked. And then I was angry, because women were getting killed over nothing and I’m fed up with this kind of crap in literature (as in real life, but if I can avoid reading about fictional ones, that’s better). And then I felt guilty, because I possibly misunderstood the whole thing and it might be my fault… And the cycle started over again.

Another reader will probably enjoy it better than me. In fact, I’d love for someone to explain what I’d miss. But right now, I’ll just pass.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

 

The One with the Stubborn Shanghai Bride-to-be

Wang Anyi, Fu Ping (Chinese 2001, English 2019)

Howard Goldblatt is one of my personal stars when it comes to translating Chinese literature to English. And Wang Anyi is a big (female) name in Chinese literature (although it’s been decades since I read her). So when Goldblatt translates this novel by Wang Anyi, I want to read it, and to finish it, even if it’s not immediately comprehensible or enjoyable.

I believe this novel is interesting almost as much by what’s not in it, as by what it contains on paper. So I can understand why many readers must feel off-kilter or frustrated.

Fu Ping is a young Chinese orphan girl who is supposed to get married to Nainai’s grandson. To be sure, bride-to-be and groom aren’t exactly in love, since they haven’t met yet. This marriage is not exactly what Fu Ping wants, although she has few other options. It’s rather the consequence of a long-shot familial strategy from Nainai. Nainai is an ageing live-in nanny to some Shanghai privileged brats, and she decides to take Fu Ping in to have a closer look at the girl, who does not conform to the dutiful daughter-in-law idea at all. Fu Ping is rather passive and stubborn and uncommunicative, a very true-to-life teenager in my experience. Characters in this novel are plentiful and quite nicely developed. We get a glimpse about the daily life and struggles of Chinese working class and lower-middle class in and around Shanghai, and what is forefront in their minds.

What struck me most is that everything we learn about China’s history during the Mao era is definitely *not* forefront in their minds. I spent many pages trying to set the exact time period of the novel. I believe it must be the late 1950s or early 1960s (some web pages say 1964 but my ARC didn’t say). Politics are noticeably absent from the book, and this is *Huge*. Nainai charges’ parents are cadres in the Communist party who are busy with campaigns, but it’s only an aside and not a positive one since their daughters are brats and the parents don’t know what happens at home. Fuping’s uncle works in a cooperative, but it doesn’t seem to have changed the traditional, century-old ways of working on the river. Propaganda is absent, as are tragic upheavals of the Chinese history (unrest, political terror, famine and other catastrophes)

Marriage arrangements made by relatives without the bride and/or groom’s consent are often the staple of the old-days Communist approved literature (see Raise the Red Lanterns, for a fine example). Those books were often tear-jerking tragedies from the pre-1949 world, as this was supposedly abolished in the new world. Here things are not pathetic and black-and-white, but a lot more nuanced and matter-of-fact. Fu-Ping is not exactly a likable heroine. Nainai is not a scheming villain: in my point of view she just wants to ensure that she will have someone taking care of her in her old age, although her plan totally backfires.

The novel has some weaknesses, for sure: a meandering story jumping from one character to another, a hurried ending (which I defy anyone to have seen it coming)… Still, after a bumpy start I got to care about Fu Ping, Nainai and the others. Wang Anyi does an awesome job at making daily scenes alive, and I particularly enjoyed when the whole gang goes to a Chinese opera show during the new year festival, it felt so real! The book is a very good evocation of a world that is aeons away from present day China.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

#Unreadshelf Project 2019 Wrap-Up

If someone had told me one day ago that I would join a reading challenge mainly held on Instagram and that I would complete it for the whole year, I would have been my cynical, snarky, grumpy old French person and rolled my eyes for a good 10 minutes straight.

Guess what? This particular challenge was exactly what I needed. A gentle, steady pressure, nothing overly complicated, and low expectations (1 book a month) that can easily be met or even exceeded. I didn’t post on Instagram (too old school for that), but I followed the prompts while taking necessary liberties, and it gave me the impetus to:

  • open books that had been gathering dust without guilt
  • finish them within a reasonable, definite time frame (or not… I cheated when I tackled thick volumes. Getting a good measure of a book I can always return to was also good enough)
  • track them and gloat about them online, instead of hiding my shame in the dark, unconnected corners of my bookshelves
  • abandon them if they were not for me

Speaking of which, that’s exactly what I’m going to do with one of my December picks. On the paper it sounded exactly right for me: Chinese flash fiction by Lao Ma, under the French title “Tout ça va changer” (Chinese title “Deng Yi Huir”, 2012, which means “Wait a minute”). But I never warmed up to the book, and I’m stuck midway.

The pieces are sarcastic, not-even-thinly-veiled critiques of small party cadres, university professors. The author (a university professor using a pseudonym) attacks ambitious brown-nosers, which is not uniquely Chinese but pretty much universal I guess. But the accumulation of very short pieces didn’t work for me, because instead of making one story a flash of brilliance, I ended up finding them a bit bland and repetitive. So I’m going to leave it unfinished and move on.

I have already said that I’m not good with humor books, and this one doesn’t differ. It made me slightly sad to see how much China has changed in the last decade. It is so very obvious to me that such critical pieces are a window into a China that was free enough to laugh at its own foibles, including within the party and the elites. It is my opinion that such pieces wouldn’t fly anymore these days.

I don’t wish to end on a sad note. Thanks to the Unreadshelf Project, I have been able to read 30 books from my own shelf in 2019. Hurray! I had never tracked before how many books I read from the library or from my own shelves, but I can easily say that this figure is way up from the previous years. And I didn’t even feel too frustrated while passing the tempting library shelves, as I still read plenty from those too. This has been a really transformative experience for me, so sign me up right away for the 2020 edition!

Graphic Novels Recap

I went on a graphic novel reading spree, because it had been much too long, and I will talk a little about them all here in one post, at the risk that you’ll have to scroll to the bottom of the Internet!

I started with La Fille dans l’Ecran (The Girl inside the Screen), a graphic novel where two young women meet online and develop a long distance relationships, first as acquaintances, then as friends, and later as… more? (It’s no big spoiler, they kiss on the cover!) Coline is a lonely 22yo, whose panic attacks have forced to drop out of university and to live with her grandparents in the country. She wants to write and draw a children book but she’s too shy to actually complete the project and hit “submit”. Marley is a bit older, she works as a barista in Montreal, but her passion was photography, until her boyfriend convinced her to prioritize serious stuff and earning money. Both women, who meet online entirely by chance, encourage each other through emails, texts and chats to flourish, express their true selves through their art and not to hide anymore.

The special thing about this graphic novel is that it is written and drawn by two young women, who are friends (and nothing more, apparently!). The left page of the book is the view from Coline, drawn by Manon Devault in black and grey nuances, and the right page is for Marley, drawn by Lou Lubie in colors. I feared that it would be a bit artificial and stilted, but it works amazingly!

The second graphic novel is Formose, by Li-Chin Lin. It deals with Taiwan identity and I read its 250 pages all in one setting at the library of the Quai Branly museum. The author tries to explain how Taiwanese local identity has been suppressed in favor of a nationalistic, anti Communist propaganda for 50 years, and how she discovered the truth and the courage to speak a different language and a different world view. Taiwan holds a special place in my heart so I was naturally drawn to this graphic memoir, but I don’t think it would work as a primer, although the author takes care to give information about the geopolitical situation and the history. The book is drawn with a pencil and quite free, evocative of a naive manga style. The most interesting part is how kids internalized the propaganda and lived amidst different cultures seamlessly, but not without inner contradictions and struggles (the grandparents having lived the Japanese occupation, the mother speaking in Hakka / Hokkien, the teachers allowing only Mandarin Chinese…).

The third graphic novel I tried to wolf down is Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds, her very own interpretation of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Now, since I’m not British I have just a perfunctory knowledge of Dickens version (my fault, I know), so I didn’t really appreciate the parallels, which must have robbed me of much of the fun. After all, Posy Simmonds is all about adapting classics to modern British ways. Perhaps because of this, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Gemma Bovery or Tamara Drewe. Cassandra is a grumpy and unlikable Scrooge of modern times, and her evolution is quite subtle and witty. This book is not one you can read in a single sitting like the previous I mentioned, because there’s a lot of texts and lots of tiny details in the delicate drawings.

Three graphic novels by women, and all very different in style and story. Which one would tempt you?