Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
The China Beat is a great blog and I have no problem promoting it. However those links made it look like I was promoting my own blog. I've always detested excessive self-promotion, and I'm very bothered by those automatic links.
Similar things also happened on my blog. Recently I often see the so-called "links to" appearing under a post of mine, but a check on those links showes they are not actually linked to my post. That is, they are fake. In most cases I tolerate the fake links, but I have also deleted a few that are obviously irrelevant to my blog content.
So the question is, who, or what, is creating the fake links? One suspect is Sphere, which I first noticed a while ago on CNN. Often one can see under a CNN report the "From the blogs" feature, marked "powered by Sphere."
Sphere offers a so-called "contextual widget" free to bloggers; at first I was intrigued and even considered installing it. However after I saw the irrelevant fake links appearing on my blog and fake links using my blog's name appearing excessively on other sites, I became sick of it.
So, my message to Sphere or any similar program: it is obnoxious and violation of my right of authorship when you insert fake links that are not actually linked from my blog posts. Please stop doing this!
Monday, December 29, 2008
I'm excited to see that ten professors from Tsinghua and
The new proposal from the professors argues that (in translation):
This is a bold proposal, which would increase
Strangely, since Xinhua's report on
Another possible reason that major
A great op-ed columnist of the NY Times and a two-times Pulitzer winner, Thomas Friedman, has also been strongly advocating a gas tax hike. However, I was quite surprised, and all the more disappointed given my admiration of his writing, when I read one of his op-eds in August titled "Postcard from South China." That op-ed begins with a great point that
"The problem for the ruling Communist Party is this:
I can see why Friedman hates
I should mention that, a non-political American publication, Morningstar, did report on
Sunday, December 28, 2008
It is Bush 43. His biggest accomplishments include (this is by no means a complete list):
- Liberating American privacy;
- Making possible the election of the first black president in
history (even if that hadn't happened it would have been the first woman president); US
, where the 2000 election was decided, five of its biggest hurricanes; Florida
- Reinvigorating the word "depression," which had fallen out of use since WWII;
- Starting a war from scratch (he is the first modern American president to do so);
- Getting bipartisan support to nationalize banks (he is also single-handedly doing the same for the auto industry);
- Growing executive power enough to prevent serious legislative checks;
- Eradicating crime in
, even though temporarily; New Orleans
- Successfully dismantling the Republican Party;
- Bestowing the control of both the House and the Senate to the Democrats.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Jessica alerted me that Jay Parini was going to be on WBUR's "On Point with Tom Ashbrook." She told me this because she knew how much I admire Jay and his writing.
I first met Jay when I attended Bread Loaf Writers Conference under a fiction scholarship in the summer of 2005. Jay was the instructor for my group of twelve writers. We each brought a short story manuscript to workshop. The morning before we workshopped my story, Jay told me he dreamed about Sail, the 10-year-old protagonist in my story. "Sail is such an unforgettable character," Jay said to me. These were the warmest words I had ever heard about my writing, especially surprising as they came from such a prominent author, at a low point of my writing career. I had submitted that story to many magazines, only to receive form rejections. Toward the end of the conference, Jay surprised me even more by recommending the story for the Best New American Voices anthology. Though in the end it did not get in, Jay had saved my writing career. That story, now titled "Feathers," is included in Apologies Forthcoming.
After the conference, I occasionally emailed Jay. I did so a bit gingerly, worrying about disturbing him. But he always replied. He has no airs. This is a rare quality in a great writer, in a time when it's common for established authors to be dismissive of newcomers. Jay stands out not only for his masterful writing, deep insights and great humor, but also his generosity and big heart. He has won forever my respect and fondness.
Listening to Jay's talk on WBUR Monday, I was very pleased to find that his new book, Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America, is just what I need. I've always wanted to learn about American history more systematically and thoroughly; what a fun way to do it via discussion of influential books! Jay's book comes just in time for me to get myself a very nice Christmas gift.
Here are the thirteen books Jay is talking about (h/t www.onpointradio.org):
- Of Plymouth Plantation (1620-47), by William Bradford
- The Federalist Papers (1787-88)
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793)
- The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1803-06)
- Walden (1854), by Henry David Thoreau
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), by Mark Twain
- The Souls of Black Folk (1903), by W.E.B. DuBois
- The Promised Land (1912), by Mary Antin
- How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), by Dale Carnegie
- The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946), by Benjamin Spock
- On the Road (1957), by Jack Kerouac
- The Feminine Mystique (1963), by Betty Friedan
Interestingly, and I'm quite proud to say, during my childhood and youth I've read at least three of the thirteen in Chinese translation (in comparison, my American husband had only read two: "Walden and Huck Finn," he said), which are:
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Huckleberry Finn
As I recall, those were popular books in China at the time. Ironically though, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had served as evidence to support China's anti-America propaganda in the 1960s and 70s. And all of us school kids had bought into the notion that the capitalist America had nothing good but was full of racial discrimination and labor exploitation. This is not much different from the way average Americans view China today: that the communist country has nothing good but is full of human rights suppression and government corruption. I'm sure Americans got that simplified notion from reading some well-written books, just like we Chinese did. Once again, reading diversely is crucial for real understanding.
On the radio, in answering an audience question, Jay said another book, Whitman's Grass, would have been the 14th in his list but was reluctantly left out because not many people read it upon its original publication. Interestingly though, the Chinese translation of Grass was a most popular poetry book among Chinese writers and poets when I lived in China.
Now I wonder, if I come up with a list of 13 most influential contemporary Chinese books, how many would have been introduced to America? I wouldn't even ask how many have been read by Americans.
Another thought: it would be an interesting research to find out which American books have been most influential in China. I can think of a few already. I would love to conduct this research if someone is willing to sponsor it.
"Reading is thinking, and writing is thinking," Jay said on the radio. That is exactly what I feel. Thank you, Jay, for saying this!
The holiday is upon us and let me stop here for now. Merry Christmas, everyone!
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
I thought the title caught the pandas' leisurely and carefree manner quite true-to-life. Apparently, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan were unaware of their predicament. They didn't seem to care that a great responsibility had historically fallen on their cute shoulders. In ancient times, Chinese emperors used beautiful girls, often princesses, as diplomatic tools, marrying them against their will to tribes in remote places, in exchange for border peace. I can't quite decide if it should be considered progress in civilization that pandas have now replaced girls.
At the time of our visit at Wolong in 2006, Taiwan refused to accept the two pandas, while Beijing waited for a change of heart. As such Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan became sort of orphans, because they were the only pandas not put up for "adoption." Apparently, "adoption" was a fund raising scheme: an organization or individual pays a large amount of money annually to become an adopter of a chosen panda. Each adopter's name appears in a plaque hanging on the wall of the panda's house, and the adopter is given privileges such as free visits, even hugging the panda. (Otherwise, a visitor has to pay 500 RMB, or about $65, for a hug. My daughter considered buying a hug during our visit, but gave up the idea for the fear of infecting the cute animal with an American cold.) A panda can have multiple adopters, but the number is limited to prevent excessive disturbance. When we visited, we saw lots of Japanese names on plaques. I asked a staff member why, and she said for some reason Japanese are really fond of pandas, even more so than Chinese.
The Wolong Panda Conservatory is in a peaceful suburb of Chengdu. If you've read Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian's novel Soul Mountain, you might remember the book spends many pages on the place. "Wolong" means "crouching dragon."
Sunday, December 21, 2008
I can remember back when everyone was talking about how Reagan won the cold war, and that Bush 43 was going to defeat the “axis of evil” the same way. I was scared out of my wits. We had a dimwit President who wanted to revise history then embrace that revision and launch Armageddon. Or so I thought. As bad as the
We keep hearing stories of protesters celebrating the action of the stocking footed journalist. Indeed, I have heard no one strongly upset about what happened; perhaps they have stopped shaking as well. Even the secret service seems to be downplaying it as an unimportant incident. I guess that might be because they are embarrassed.
Beside the fun though, what is most interesting about the shoes? It is not the demonstration that there are angry people. We kind of knew that; Bush probably even had a clue. No, what is interesting is how well the President handled it. There was no fear in his face, just a slight glint of amusement. And he followed up almost immediately with a joke.
This little incident has probably more to boost Bush’s favorability rating than anything else that has happened this year. He came across as cool, collected, and fully aware that some people do not like him. He did not get angry or do anything that would give the remotest hint that he wanted revenge.
So, as the Iraqi’s struggle to come up with an appropriate punishment, they should consider the following. While throwing a shoe may be big insult in the Middle East. Standing up to an insult is something that big people do. The journalist’s action, rather than doing anything to harm Bush, has shown him in that light.
While it may be a crime to attack a foreign dignitary in Iraq, it is not a crime to insult one, especially when the insult is so gracefully deflected. The best punishment for this man may simply be the knowledge that he was foiled in his intent. Worse, he helped the one he wanted to hurt.
The dilemma facing the Iraqi government need not be a dilemma at all. This is, after all, the time for Presidential pardons. If Bush were to issue a symbolic one for this journalist, the Iraqi’s could choose to simply drop the matter with no side losing face.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
In terms of writing style, on the other hand, Klein raises an interesting – and recurrent – issue. He writes:
Not coincidentally, the same issue of "translationese," or "Chineseness" in English writing, has concerned other readers and reviewers as well, for example in Cliff Garstang's review, see discussion in an earlier post titled "On Chineseness". In that post the same example is mentioned ("to spend too many lips and tongues in explanation") – what a coincidence! – though with an opposite view.
I appreciate very much Klein's recognition that such stylistic switch is by design. He has noticed, again correctly, my purposeful use of the "translationese" style in dialogue, as opposed to the more standard English expressions in the narrative voice. And he isn't the only one. Matthew of Waiguoren Critic of South China, for example, writes in his review:
Obviously, my dialogue-writing approach has met with different reactions. My rationale is exactly what Matthew points out, that the "Chineseness" in dialogue can help portraying realistic characters in the context of their culture. As Chinese, in our real-life daily dialogues, folk adages (俗语), two-part allegorical sayings (歇后语)，and even 4-character idioms (成语) are a common occurrence. To me, nothing reflects the thousands of years of Chinese culture more than the language. So why not use it with as many of the native idiosyncrasies in place as possible when writing in English? There is also, of course, the intentional effect of "otherness" – in Klein's word – to be considered.
Perhaps I should change " Who’d have eaten a leopard’s gallbladder to disobey Chairman Mao’s instructions, huh?" to " Who’d dare to disobey Chairman Mao’s instructions, huh? Unless he has eaten a leopard’s gallbladder." What do you think?
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
I don't know Lucas Klein – the reviewer – and I didn't find his introduction in the magazine. So I googled, which led me to an unusual literary e-zine called Cipher Journal. Given that the review opens with an adage of Confucius, I suspect the editor is the same Lucas Klein, who apparently knows Chinese. So, if you happen to subscribe to Rain Taxi, enjoy Klein's review, which is in print only. Otherwise,enjoy his Cipher Journal online.
By the way, an interview with my favorite literary critic, James Wood, also appears in this issue of Rain Taxi. In addition, the magazine is running a benefit auction right now, and you can find some very nice, even rare, books in their list.
Monday, December 15, 2008
(Note: Some of you already know that Maple is an avid traveler and photographer. This is one of her latest travelogues, posted in two parts. See also her Dream Left on Covered Bridges 廊桥遗梦, and Yuyuan Taiji Celestial Village. - Xujun)
I did not know much then about the rare continuation of the Mosuo people's matriarchal tradition. At the time Lugu Lake was a newly developed tourist attraction. The entire village had only one or two guest houses, two-floor wooden lodges made by the locals. Upstairs were bedrooms. On the ground level was the spacious central room, in the middle of which a huge fire pit burning wood day and night. On the fire buttered tea was boiling; in the fire fresh potatoes and corn were roasting.
In the house I stayed at there was an old grandmother, who sat in a big wooden bed cushioned with a thick sheep wool blanket, and smiled at me kindly. She did not speak Mandarin, and I didn't know the Mosuo language, so the only thing I could do was to smile back at her. We smiled at each other for probably a couple of minutes or longer, but neither of us felt awkward. Then she went to the fire pit and dug out two cobs of roasted corn, deliciously aromatic. She patted the residual ashes off the cobs with her furrowed hands before giving them to me. I obediently sat by her and ate. She looked at me; the warmth of a tender affection in her eyes made me remember my late grandma.
During the next few days I noticed that men and women in the house all revered the grandmother. When eating they held the best food to her first. When sleeping they kept the warmest place for her. For everything they asked her opinion first.
I asked her son, This place is called a "girls kingdom," does it mean women have the highest status? And he told me about the Mosou tradition of "A'xia," or "walking marriage." The man and woman in such a relationship each lives with his and her own mother. The man comes to the woman at night and leaves at dawn. All their children are raised by the woman. The two sides have no ties in terms of production, living, or properties. Their relationship emphases love, and they marry freely and part at will.
I was not impressed. Such a marriage is not protected by law. Wouldn't things fall into chaos? A woman can have many men and a man can have many women. Children don't even know who their real father is.
But the son said to me in all seriousness: Don't you Han people also have unfaithful men? The situation does exist among Mosou, some men to have "walking marriages" with several women. However usually a man has a relationship with only one woman at a time. When a couple fall out of love, the man simply stops "walking" to the woman, there is no property dispute or custody fight. It's not like you Han people who turn into enemies because of a divorce.
In every Mosuo family, the household head is the oldest woman. The grandmother in the house I stayed had two sons and three daughters. The oldest daughter had been in a "walking marriage" for three years already and they had a boy. Her other two sisters were still young. Both brothers were in their twenties and every night they went out for their "walking marriage." The older brother had a daughter, raised by the baby's mother.
At that time the Lugu Lake area did not have street lights. The oldest daughter and I walked home in the dark, behind us were a bunch of men holding touches, chatting and laughing. I asked, Is your boyfriend among them? Is he coming to you tonight? I want to see how handsome he is. She laughed bashfully, pointing a finger at me but couldn't talk. Not until we reached the door when she whispered to me that it was still early, time for men to drink and chat. He would come late in the night, after everybody at home had gone to bed.
I became more curious. You two already have a son, how come you are still so shy about it? Her face turning red and she laughed again. She pulled my long hair and complained, Why are you asking about everything? I'm not talking any more. Her expression made me yearn for the Mosuo love.
I imagined myself as a strong Mosuo man, on a night with a bright moon and thin stars, rowing a boat carved of a whole tree trunk, from the island in the lake, knocking my lover's door. Not for money, not for status, not even for progeny, just for love, pure love.
That night by the fire pit, I asked my host's youngest daughter, Your sister's son is only a few months old, and she needs to work in the day, tending her walking marriage in the night, who takes care of the baby? The girl looked surprised by the question. We all take care of him, she said, whoever has the time. He's OUR son.
Children call all women at home "Ama." The grandmother, aunts and uncles are all their guardians.
Fortunately there are still misty waves on the lake of the horse hoof shape. Fat clouds in the blue sky are still exaggeratedly gorgeous. Water reflecting mountain, mountain shimmering with dew, Lugu Lake is still like a fairyland. Perhaps even more fortunate, the transportation is still backward. From the nearest travel center Lijiang is 200 kilometer and takes nearly10 hours winding up the mountains. I don't want to imagine, if there were a highway, or an airport, what would happen to Lugu Lake.
What would happen? My teahouse owner friend replies, Of course my business would be even better. Apples and walnuts from the mountains would be easier to sell to outside.
Don't you know that the ancient town Dayan in Lijiang has been destroyed by the endless development of tourist business? Do you want Lugu Lake to become the next Dayan? I say to my friend.
You don't understand, my friend pats my shoulder tolerantly; Mosuo people have the instinct of self-preservation. What you worry about won't happen here. (To be continued)
(All photos by Maple Xu, ©Copyright 2008, Maple Xu)
Friday, December 12, 2008
Destination is a Double-Edged Sword
by Samantha Deng
Building designed to escape rather than attract attention
Destination ("目的地") is the most well known gay bar and nightclub in Beijing. Located on
The majority of men at Destination are the Hip Youths type, look to be in their late teens or early twenties, and exude an air of familiarity, even ownership, in the club.One young man who typifies this came in a small group of about four. He wore a fitted white t-shirt with a colorful design in front and tight black jeans. Upon arriving in an upstairs room, he saw that a large vacant sofa, plopped himself down, and loudly beckoned his friends to join him. A moment later, he recognized another group of young men standing near the bar and rushed over, loudly exchanging greetings and hugs.
Another core type is the Older Men, though far fewer than the Hip Youths, they nevertheless occupy central positions within the club. In their early- to mid-thirties, the Older Men dress more conservatively than the Hip Youths in looser fitting clothes and are generally less active. They seem to frequent the bar and know other people there. One group that consisted of perhaps four foreigners and a slightly larger number of Chinese sat at a bar for a long time chatting animatedly with each other. More than once, one member would stop someone walking past that he recognized and the newcomer would stop to talk with the group. Both the behaviors of the Hip Youths and the Older Men described above suggest the existence of a “community” at Destination.
There are also Peripheral Observers and Outsiders. For example, during the course of the night I saw two old men who were at least sixty years old. They were in the club separately talking with a few young men, and neither stayed very long. The Outsiders, numbering very few, are people in the club who are not gay. One white heterosexual couple, for example, danced affectionately on the dance floor for about ten minutes before exiting. Another example was a twenty-year-old Korean man who did not realize that Destination is a gay club before entering. He expressed shock and slight disgust upon discovering the sexual orientation of the men around him.
We spoke with three men, who were of the Older Men type, for over an hour. They have been to Destination many times and befriended each other at the club. They did not know that we were at the club for an observation study, and they may have assumed that we were homosexuals as well.
Walter is a 30-year-old pop-music composer originally from
From the very beginning, Walter emphasized how lonely it feels to be a homosexual in China, repeating the phrase “孤独” two separate times. Consequently, he loves going to gay-concentrated places like Destination and saunas around
Charles is a man from
Victor is a golf club executive from
A Double-Edged Sword
This visit to Destination offered a peek into the homosexual community in
The names of these three men are altered to conceal their identity.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
A Chinese milk farmer who was arrested for adding melamine said he knew the chemical is not human food, and his family doesn't drink his adulterated milk. However he had no idea of the actual consequences, and never thought about it. For him, adding melamine was another investment risk necessary for doing business. The vaguer knowledge of the consequences, the fewer qualms he felt. But the ignorance did not prevent him from being arrested. To him the whole concept of his actions causing kidney failure in infants was as baffling as, say, a mortgage backed derivative.
But for an economic expert like Robert Rubin? Either he, like the farmer, was blinded by greed, or the financial system he believes in has something inherently wrong. Or both. Worse yet, now the concept of derivatives is likely to be imported into I remember in 2000, before the tech bubble burst, one day at a Chinese neighbor's party I heard the host explaining the concept of derivative trading to a man visiting from With tainted derivatives, however, there will be no such clever way to "turn a bad thing into good." The only thing they will be burning is money. Tax payers' money. (image from ChinaDaily.com)
One would think Harvard educated Robert Rubin, Treasury Secretary for
I can see how those traders on the financial front lines selling mortgage backed derivatives and inflating credit ratings probably did not understand exactly what they were doing. They may have known something was wrong. They may also have shied away from their own creations when building their personal portfolios. But they did not see the consequences. They were just taking necessary risks to further business goals.
The financial crisis has upset Americans for many of the same reasons the tainted milk upset the Chinese. The difference is, while what the Chinese milk farmer did was illegal, what the traders and companies in the
What the poor Chinese farmer did was to make one gallon of milk look like two gallons and still pass the nutrition test. Buying melamine was cheaper than producing real milk. He had discovered his way to wealth through leverage. Had he lived in the
Leverage, of course, is fabulously effective way to make amazing amounts of money. Homes could be bought with no money down, stocks bought with the slimmest of margins, and derivatives could be created without constraints from their underlying basis. Who would have thought it was leading to the credit collapse and market meltdown?
True, without the leverage a lot less "wealth" might have been generated. House prices would never have gone as high. The stock market would not have seen the gains it had. But what do the high-leverage derivatives do, really? Do the fortunes thus created actually create goods and services? Do they stimulate healthy productivity growth, or simply feed the greed and increase market volatility? Do we get more milk, or just milk that tastes different and make us sick?
The tainted derivatives are the melamine on the market. Yet Americans aren't shying away from them. Instead they are treated as an advantage of the financial system. As a Chinese saying goes, "The biting dog does not bark." The unseen poisons of derivatives are more damaging than melamine.
One final note: apparently, milk tainted with melamine is causing a new problem in
But for an economic expert like Robert Rubin? Either he, like the farmer, was blinded by greed, or the financial system he believes in has something inherently wrong. Or both.
Worse yet, now the concept of derivatives is likely to be imported into
I remember in 2000, before the tech bubble burst, one day at a Chinese neighbor's party I heard the host explaining the concept of derivative trading to a man visiting from
With tainted derivatives, however, there will be no such clever way to "turn a bad thing into good." The only thing they will be burning is money. Tax payers' money.
(image from ChinaDaily.com)
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Mercury News, Dec. 2: "Chinese-American activists oppose any Bill Richardson cabinet nomination"
CNN report: Dec. 3: "Obama nominates Richardson for Cabinet"
CNN Commentary, Dec. 5: "Obama ignored Latinos for top posts"
WashingtonPost.com, Dec.5: "Ranking the Cabinet Confirmation Prospects"
AP, June 23, 2000: " Congressmen attack Richardson"
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Now I must get Lijia Zhang's memoir and Prof. Wasserstrom's new book, Global Shanghai, to read.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Nov. 25: Can Hillary Clinton Succeed?
"Only a true believer can envision Obama and Clinton making a good team. You have to believe in Obama's ability to control Clinton's independence, believe in Clinton's capacity to execute someone else's policies, believe in the ability of these two rivals to suddenly become close..." Nov. 24: The last thing we need is a Clinton in charge of foreign policy
Related post from this blog:
Nov. 18: Hillary, Please Say NO
For your enjoyment, here is a picture of my favorite hometown flower of the season: winter plum blossom, taken by my sister in January. I can almost smell its fragrance from Chongqing.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
It has surprised me how many Republicans have come out to sing the praises of Hillary Clinton and hailed her as a great choice for the new Secretary of State. I always thought she was unpopular in the Republican camp. But even Arnold Schwarzenegger who did not think Obama had the quads to be President, sees this as a good move, apparently seeing
On reflection, I guess it makes some sense. Going back to the love fest primary debates, where Obama and Clinton seemed to agree on most everything, it was foreign policy outside of
During the primary debates, Obama said he would meet with "rogue state leaders." He said the notion that not talking to countries is punishment to them – "which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration – is ridiculous." While Hillary Clinton said she would not meet directly with those leaders.
And she opposes lifting the ridiculous embargo on Cuba.
Hillary Clinton does have a great deal of experience and understanding and would certainly be formidable negotiator. She is tough, but tough to a point where she already knows where she stands. More to the point, others outside the
Hillary Clinton is tremendously popular among my Chinese friends in the
In April this year,
I applaud Obama's swell heart and wise actions to "ally the majority, including even those who were against you before" (as Chairman Mao once taught us :-)). And I think that
So Hillary, should you chance to read this, please say NO to being Secretary of State. You can serve
Monday, November 17, 2008
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
by Jonathan Chamberlain with a foreword by Sir David Tang
ASIAN STUDIES / ORAL HISTORY
Blacksmith Books, 348 pages, HK$140 / US$17.95A Review by Xujun Eberlein
It is said that oral history did not become an academic discipline until 1948, when Alan Nevins established the Oral History Research Office at
When oral history is recorded in books, it is considered part of the nonfiction genre of literature, yet it is almost as all-encompassing as fiction in presentation and effects. In recent years, we have heard several big quarrels over the truthfulness of memoirs, but books of oral history are seldom the center of such disputes, even though they cover similar ground. One reason for this, I guess, is that the readers realize and embrace both the indispensable benefits and certain unreliability inherent in word of mouth. It probably doesn't hurt that the author of the book is usually not the oral storyteller, which serves as a natural reality check.
From time to time, I have the pleasure of meeting a person who can recount an episode of his or her life that is so captivating, I cease to care whether or not I believe the storyteller. I even know a few people who are full of such stories. I have never, however, had the delight of meeting someone with the breadth of stories told in King Hui: The Man who Owned all the Opium in Hong Kong by Jonathan Chamberlain.
These are the stories, presented as a first person narrative, of Peter (Shen-Kei) Hui, an uncommon, though largely unknown, man with an astounding range of experience. Told shortly before his death at the age 79 in 1993, the stories reflect not only the man, but also the times he lived through. The earliest are from his childhood during the First World War, the latest from the years leading up to Hong Kong’s handover to China. For all his breadth of experience, Peter Hui traveled little and his stories are concentrated in
The stories told are full of colorful details that, for a historian or anthropologist, they provide a wealth of hooks for cross-referencing against other materials. For the less academically oriented reader, those of us reading for pleasure, these details serve to bring history to life.
As I read how a downing man always gets three chances, a dead grandmother's month closes only after a silver coin is dropped in, a legendary herbalist uses bamboo saps to cure a stroke patient, and how, during the Sino-Japanese war, the children trained by the Chinese army go into Japanese camps in the middle of the night and, by touch, kill anyone with pants on, for the children themselves are not wearing them, I can't help but be fascinated.
In fact, fascination is a good word to describe the book's narrative. The details become more intriguing as they portray a complex personality. The first-person narrator, Peter Hui, presents a conflict between his honest, moral uprightness and his willingness to do many things that suggest otherwise. Well educated, he appears to have strong, if confused, feelings of obligation and responsibility. Though trained when young and possessing outstanding kung fu skills, he doesn't fight often. But every time he fights, he is taking up the cudgels for a just cause. Yet this is the man who decides to work for the Japanese during the war, heads a gang of robbers in peace time, and works for money as a CIA spy during
With his wife and children living in
An intriguing character is hardly the only thing the book offers. It is full of events and activities that shaped
One also gets a good glimpse of the triads. Before reading the book I wasn't aware that those crime organizations had migrated from the mainland before the Communist victory, less still how they had evolved and how British policing might have influenced it. Another thing the book made me recognize was the intricacies of British rules in a Chinese population. I had heard about corruption and moral lapses of course, but was still charmed by the dispassionate description Peter Hui provided of working with the
To me, the book effectively puts a personality, a live face, on
During the recent two decades,
Still, despite the cultural permeation, we knew very little about the real