Thursday, October 29, 2009

review: China Underground by Zachary Mexico

Q&A with Zachary Mexico tomorrow!

China Underground

by Zachary Mexico

Soft Skull, 2009

Thankfully this is not some "gotcha" piece on Chinese youth culture. Thankfully this is not a trend-stirring book about "The Future of The Chinese People." Thankfully this book did not try to add a provocative subtitle like “China Underground: The Chinese Punk Subculture and What You Need to Do Now About It.” Thankfully, Mexico never takes such condescending tones to his readers, to his subjects, to himself. Instead Mexico develops a wonderful balance between fascinating narrative subjects and the slices of history that are necessary to understand their lives.

So Mexico travels to different parts of the country and profiles several characters of an authentic underground, starting with a blogger-photographer who stumbled into his craft, to the illegal distribution of ketamine, to massage/prostitution/escort services to guitarists and punk rockers. Mexico is right in telling these particular stories—they create an intriguing and diverse picture of China’s landscape, while also allowing him time to place bits and pieces about China’s energy woes and increasing economic development.

One chapter is what Mexico calls the “Uighur Jimi Hendrix,” about a lackadaisical, but talented guitar player named Hassan who is “Chinese, and he is not Chinese.” Born in the Xinjian Uighur Autonomous Region, Mexico describes Hassan as appearing “as Middle Eastern rather than Asian” and speaks English like Jeff Spicoli. Mexico gives the impression that Hassan knows how unusual he is, and he uses it to his own benefit in taking advantage of friends’ houses and rides all while honing his music. Mexico follows Hassan to a bureaucratic office to get a DSL connection, reinforcing the strange contrast of a partially-Americanized Chinese youth without the full access of one—Hassan is American, but not American, embracing many of the slacker stereotypes yet without the complete access of America; he is Chinese, but not Chinese. Somehow in this same section, Mexico delivers a great historical account of the ethnic minorities involved in Chinese government and the different provinces that they come from. Its these touches that makes Mexico’s stories useful beyond their funny anecdotes—it teaches just as much as it intrigues.

All of Mexico’s stories center on a main character, but often lead to places unexpected. A chapter on a screenwriter leads to a breakdown of the Chinese educational system and the methodology for developing Chinese films and TV series. Again, it’s a “same, but different” feel regarding the Chinese government. They’ve started down the road culturally to whatever American offers, for better of for worse, but specific hiccups and tweaks make it distinctly Chinese as Xiaoli, the screenwriter, must navigate China’s complicated censorship.

Mexico seems to be the perfect person to find and write about these stories. He studied at Columbia University along with work in China. He knows the language and lived in the country while operating a nightclub before moving back to the States. He’s the perfect translator, so to speak—a smart guy with a keen sense of the "hip and cool" and the perceived "hip and cool." He’s deft at revealing his access points only when they’re interesting or come about due to unusual circumstances, otherwise the reader is left to amaze at Mexico’s great access and journalistic ability.

More than history, more than short stories and anecdotes, China Underground is a great mix of the high and low nature that it so courageously documents.

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