Isham Cook is quite the blogger. The mysterious Beijing-based writer has completed a new book of blogs reformatted as literary short tales entitled “T...moreIsham Cook is quite the blogger. The mysterious Beijing-based writer has completed a new book of blogs reformatted as literary short tales entitled “The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China,” a follow-up to 2012′s novel “Lust & Philosophy.” Full of grotesque universal truths, strange depictions of Eastern modernity, and the proverbial expats caught in the middle, the book can be flawed in sections but is always a compelling read.
In the introduction Cook explains to readers that he doesn’t want to write about the exotic, tragic China so popularized by fifth generation art films of the 80s and 90s. But rather, as the title states, it’s about modern China. He also clarifies why he uses the term ‘tale’ instead of short story, in order to have a broader outlook covering all aspects of writing from the semi-autobiographical to straight fiction.
The book is erotic, funny, and sometimes profound. Sexuality is a central theme, but doesn’t always take itself too seriously. Even the most philosophical elements are never dry or academic, but with just the right amount of absurdity to entertain as well as enlighten.
“The Persistent” is first, jumping us right into the subject of dating in China. The tale concerns an obsessive woman who won’t go away, and the narrator describes more than a few of his own experiences with Chinese women. The stalkers, the 30-somethings, the virgins. The line “foreign men in this country do tend to attract the psychos of the female population” sums up well what much of these tales are about. As does a subsequent sentence, issuing no judgments: “This is not necessarily a bad thing.” That’s a bit of the point, wild things happen in China and that’s the reason to be there.
The namesake “The Exact Unknown” concerns seduction via vodka massage, the Surveillance State, a plot about blackmailing over a video which may or may not exist, and in a literally-anticlimactic ending it concludes with no sex. It could almost enter the realm of Philip K. Dick over the speculations upon reality, but ends too prematurely for that kind of depth.
“iProstitution” is one of the funniest pieces, ostensibly about the selling of one’s body for Apple products but really more about sexual frustration in general. “A Little Accident” is refreshingly not about foreigners at all, an original short story just concerning Chinese characters. Again portraying reality as ambiguous, it concerns an elderly man who may or may not be cheating a young woman (and/or doctors cheating her) and the subject of Chinese Medicine which may or may not work at all.
“Good Teacher, Bad Teacher” takes the oft-used campus setting as far as it can go, with an intense Western teacher expounding upon philosophy and culminates in mysterious naked yoga massage advanced courses. There is the unresolved mystery of “Paradox,” whereas an interesting premise is set up with mysterious nude pictures of students emerging yet in the end there is never is a true explanation, no resolution.
“The Curious Benefits of Neurosis” is about various massages, some of which get quite graphic. And hilarious at the same time! The first-person narratives are often the strongest, and (so one assumes) the closest to autobiography.
Some tales like not much of narratives at all. “The Mean and the Angry” is not so much a story as a description of various Beijing subway archetypes. At times it seems as insider knowledge of Beijing is required, and if a reader is not familiar with greater Middle Kingdom tropes then the whole thing may be hard to follow. Still, the audience is sure to mostly consist of expats.
“Let the Sunshine In” is among the best, a truly engaging work of drug literature about a naïve Chinese student’s first LSD experience. Very vivid descriptions of a bathroom setting, which tends to be a terrifying and confusing place when having a bad psychedelic trip. Not to mention the chronological distortions at play.
Two tales are written in play script formats are used, with “The Hickey” and the penultimate “Reset.” They read well as prose in of themselves. It’s hard to expect that anyone will ever act out the plays in real life, with the copious nudity and sex scenes and all; but it’s nice to imagine. “Reset” is the longest piece in the book, about sentient robotic sex toys. The tale is extremely philosophical, hard science fiction, and well-written social commentary/speculation on the future of China and all humanity’s sexual relationships.
The final story, “Injaculation” is written in the second person and mixes Taoist sexuality with hard scientific biological-psychedelic principles. There is a diverse range of writing styles, but same themes keep coming up…
The author clearly has a vivid imagination, and is talented at the craft of writing. Still, whether semi-autobiographical or not, it would be nice to not lean so often on the cliché of expat teacher in China. There are expats doing other things, and maybe more Chinese protagonists would be nice. While the setting is something that Cook is truly an expert on, and he really writes about it compellingly, it can get repetitive. Let’s hope Cook’s next book takes up more original territory. I for one am extremely anxious to read more.(less)
Despite Hong Kong’s reputation for being very welcoming to foreigners, it’s not always that easy for expats to deeply understand the city. Hong Kong i...moreDespite Hong Kong’s reputation for being very welcoming to foreigners, it’s not always that easy for expats to deeply understand the city. Hong Kong is famous for its international style, and people from all over the world enjoy the city’s comforts, yet there remains a barrier between the locals and those who hail from other places.
To share the truth about Hong Kong culture with the English-speaking world, Jason Y. Ng — resident blogger and columnist for Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post — has written “No City for Slow Men,” covering every subject an HK-phile could ask for.
Published by Blacksmith Books, the book contains 36 essays and covers a broad range of topics. For some writers, it might be a struggle to have so many chapters and keep the quality high, yet every line of Ng’s prose is well-written and full of crucial information for piecing together the puzzle of Hong Kong’s identity.
Split into three parts, the first section “Our Way of Life” concerns corrupt property tycoons, the culture of taking out loans for expensive watches, and the rise of Taobao. The title piece “No City for Slow Men” is about one of the very first impressions a visitor of the city will have — the high speed of life. Ng laments about the lack of relaxation when he writes, “Hong Kong is charming when it is bustling, but loveliest when it is tranquil.”
The second part, “Our Culture,” contains such topics as Chinese New Year and includes many interesting childhood anecdotes. The autobiographical element starts to seep in, which shows off some of Ng’s best writing. There is more on restaurants and cooking, which is, of course, very important to Chinese culture worldwide, as well as an overview of the history of the city and the famous sites that rapidly changed through generations and development.
Finally, “Our Identity” has some of the most compelling pieces of all. “HKID” says it best: Hong Kong is stuck somewhere between the Chinese mainland and the rest of the world, and that causes a bit of an identity crisis. The tense relationship with the mainland is an important point, reaching new lows with the labeling of mainland tourists as “locusts,” which Ng points out is an undeserved reputation. A letter from a mainland student best expresses the argument against prejudice. Another major theme is the contrast between the lives of expats and locals — with their gambling by way of cards instead of mahjong, the strange sport of rugby and lack of Cantonese fluency.
The plight of the domestic worker is an especially important topic, written about with great heart. The personal stories of abuse and tragedy of Indonesian and Filipino maids are very moving. Ng is certainly a compassionate writer and should be commended for bringing these issues to the public’s attention.
As the book concludes, the final essays cement the autobiographical element. After a piece detailing Ng’s struggles with stuttering in his early life, the penultimate “My Father the Artist” goes over the very man whose illustrations pepper the book. It all ends with a touching interview of the author’s mother.
As an emigrant from Guangdong Province who struggled through years of tumultuous change, from poverty to a happy retirement abroad, she best exemplifies the contradictions that make up the history and identity of Hong Kong. “All these years, mother and son have been swept up in a complicated dance of love and reticence,” Ng writes. “Each aching to reassure the other of their happy existence.”
If you happen to be a China expat, no doubt you have a crazy story to tell. I may feel like an old China hand myself at this point, but I came in 2008...moreIf you happen to be a China expat, no doubt you have a crazy story to tell. I may feel like an old China hand myself at this point, but I came in 2008 just as the last of the real wildness was getting homogenized. I have my own stories, but nothing like the best of these. Somehow editor Tom Carter has captured the cream of the crazy China experiences, and what a read it is.
Like any anthology, it can be hit or miss. However, there are no great misses, only adequate stories lost among the truly memorable. From famed “Oracle Bones” author Peter Hessler’s story of refugee thieves at the North Korean border in “View from the Bridge”, to Michael Levy’s opening “Selling Hope” about crooked English teachers (a theme very familiar to anyone living here), every account is solid and interesting and the consistent quality is impressive. But it seems to get darker as the book reaches its conclusion, and I for one appreciated that. Charming expat family stories – such as Aminta Arington’s “Communal Parenting” and Susan Conley’s “Where There Are Crowds” – give way to tales of extremely illegal activity detailing the underbelly of Chinese society – of which I will list my favorites below. Thing about China though, is the dark underbelly is never that well-hidden and we all knew it was there the entire time...
My personal favorites: “Stowaway by Pete Spurrier, about hardcore backpacking and sneaking through trains and living on the edge of running out of money and visas; “Diplomacy on Ice” by Rudy Kong details the world of Northern hockey with a healthy does of extreme bloody violence; “You Buy Me Drink?” by Nury Vittachi details easily-impressed gangsters and scammers; “One of the People” by Bruce Humes might be the most terrifying of all, about being mugged and his time in a Shenzhen hospital almost getting his hand amputated, and yet horrifying though may be it’s always written with lighthearted humor; “Thinking Reports” by Dominic Stevenson is another downer, an excerpt from the hash-smuggling author’s time in a Shanghai prison writing propaganda reports, and as serious a situation as it is he never wants any pity only to tell his story; and “Empty from the Outside” by Susie Gordon covers more drugs and call girls all while living the highlife.
Finally, the namesake story “Unsavory Elements” by the infamous Tom Carter. If you haven’t heard, he goes to a brothel. It’s really not as offensive as I was expecting, it’s one of the funniest pieces and gives an important yet irreverent insight into what’s really goes on after late nights of partying in this country.
A unique book with a unique take on China, with none of the standard journalistic flair and dull economic theories. This is about real life and a real window into the emerging soul of the rising Middle Kingdom. There is something for everyone in the midst of all these talented storytellers. While it was very entertaining to me as an expat, I would recommend this book most of all to people who have never even been to China. The world should know, these are the real stories of this insanely fascinating land.(less)