China Underground is a collection of stories written by Zachary Mexcio, based on his interviews with various characters of the New China: a screenwriter, a prostitute, a gang leader, and a photographer, among many others. It is very easy to read and my favorite part is how he writes about these characters, who in the West might be considered larger than life, but in China, are the norm. He is able to describe two disheveled villagers and their prostitutes in a hotel lobby, and then nonchalantly talk about being hungry and going to get something to eat and portray it in a way that makes you feel like this just another typical day. Unlike many non-fiction accounts of “My Time In China”, it is unpretentious and humorous. A breath of fresh air when it comes to describing the lives, dreams, and realities in China today.
Leave Me Alone, also known as 成都，今夜请将我遗忘/chengdu, jinye qing jiangwo yiwang (Chengdu, Please Forget About Me Tonight), is written by the Chinese author, Murong Xuecun. It is a humorous account of a twenty-something Chinese man and a few of his friends and their troubles: gambling debts, work, marriage, sex addiction, lust, and drugs. The story was first distributed online and propelled Murong into fame. He is know for being a critic of Chinese censorship. The book is funny as hell, yet dark.
The Train To Lo Wu is a collection of short stories by Jess Row that take place in and around Hong Kong. This is one of my favorite books of all time and I have read each story numerous times. The world Row paints is the most surreal picture of China I have ever read or heard told. The stories vary from foreigners working in Hong Kong, to Chinese businessmen and their love lives. The opening story, The Secrets of Bats is about a teacher’s student who tries to learn the art of echolocation, The Train To Lo Wu is about a young Chinese man who meets a girl from across the border with China in Shenzhen.
Taipan tells the story of a Scottish ship captain and his family during the British occupation of Hong Kong. Like the rest of Clavell’s Asia Saga, the story is a fictitious history. The characters visit Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Macau as the lead character, Dirk Straun, seeks to be king of all of Hong Kong. This book along with Shogun are the best two Asia Saga books I have read. Both contain lots of action.
In Eating Smoke, Chris Thrall, an ex-Royal Marine from England, gives a first hand account of his experience working as a doorman addicted to meth in Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s red light district. The memoir reads quickly, and his descriptions and observations are awesome. A humorous and interesting tale of one of the most vibrant places in the world.
Wild Swans is the autobiography of the author, Jung Chang’s, family, in particular her grandmother who was born in the 1800s, her mother, and herself. Much of the account takes place in Sichuan province where Chang is born and raised. The book covers an epic portion of modern Chinese history from the late 1800s to the late 1900s, and in particular the Nationalist party and Qiang Kaishek’s rule after Sun Yatsen dies, the promise of greatness that Mao’s Communist China will bring, including Chang’s parents who are strong advocates and early enlisters, to the cruel twist of Mao and The Gang of Four’s Cultural Revolution and the hells it unleashes on the Chinese people who are so inspired by it. For a history book that covers it all, this is perfect.
Peter Hessler taught English in China with the Peace Corps in the mid nineteen nineties and was one of the first foreigners in his city of Fuling, a city that is now part of Chongqing municipality. River Town is the story of the two years he spent teaching in the city. Many foreign English teachers in China resonate strongly with his experience and most have had a very similar experience teaching in China, myself included. Friends of mine who have taught in other developing nations around the world have told me they resonated strongly as well.
‘Why are my shampoo bottles so thin?! The samples weren’t like this!’ yelled on aggravated US businessman trying to source shampoo from China. Mr. Midler on the other end of the line, had probably heard this same type of thing dozens of time throughout his career.
Poorly Made In China is Paul’s Midler’s true-life experience working as a cultural and linguistic conduit between Chinese factories and Western companies, solving the cross-cultural troubles they are having with China while doing business. The clash of cultures, the ridiculous stories of quality degrading shipment by shipment, and Midler’s observations make a great story. Almost anyone who has done business in or with China will have one of his or her own such stories and they are always worth a listen.
The Man Who Loved China is a biography of Joseph Needham, a British scientist and historian, focused on China for much of his life after discovering its charms and mysteriousness.
‘The Needham Question’ is ‘Why did China not revolutionize faster than the West despite their early successes with technology?’ and is the question that spurs Needham on for most of the book. A Communist himself, Needham meets Mao Zedong and has special privileges in China, as he seeks to answer his questions in his history volumes: History of China.
My Chinese friends who have the best English and have not lived abroad are those that watch a lot of American movies and TV shows. Luckily they are able to find enough interesting shows to help them along to fluency with very little accent in many cases. This is not to say that all American films and TV shows are great, as many people know, most are bad. However, the amount of quality Chinese TV shows and films are a ten times fewer or more. So for those of you who would like to employ the TV-film method of learning a foreign language while in China, here are some quality Chinese films (there are no good TV shows).
Note that when looking for these movies you will want to make sure you find them with Chinese subtitles and/or English subtitles unless your Mandarin is insane and you don’t need either.
Links are to the trailers.
Technically Infernal Affairs is a Hong Kong film and it’s all in Cantonese. However, this is just a great movie. If you thought The Departed was good, well this is even better. It is the original movie that The Departed was a remake of. The film is directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, and stars Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, KellyChen, Eric Tsang, and Andy Lau. Watch it!
The Chopstick Brothers are a two-person band and which comprises of Wang Taili and Xiao Yang. Xiao Yang is also a writer/director/actor and Wang Taili is also an actor. Both of them have a great quality sense of humor, which comes through quite well in their music videos and short films.
Their most famous short film to date is Lao Nan Hai, meaning Old Boy, about two men who enter a talent show and recall their high school days when they had also entered a talent show. The film spread through China’s 20 and 30 year olds like wildfire as this generation resonated strongly with Chopstick Brothers’ story about dreams.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is Ang Lee’s film about warriors in the north of China. This film was nominated for best picture at the Oscars in 2000 as many people know, only to loose to American Beauty (which is understandable because it’s hard to count any movies that are better than American Beauty).
In Hero, Qin Shi Huang is the first emperor of China and he is naturally a ruthless murderer. The audience slowly finds out that the story’s protagonist has come to assassinate the emperor he tells the emperor a mix of stories full of mixed truths. This film is directed by Zhang Yimo, and stars Jet Li, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen, and Zhang Ziyi.
A Touch of Sin, the 2013 film by Jia Zhangke, is a series of four stories set in modern China. The stories are loosely based on true stories and naturally are all violent. One who has spent China will feel the stories hit home and they paint a perfect picture of the desperation that has accompanied China’s rapid rise. The film won Jia the 2013 Cannes Film Festival Best Screenplay award.