&: Empires of Dust

Jiang comes from the same literary background that produced established names such as Mo Yan, Yan Lianke and Jia Pingwa. All of those writers got their start with politically-approved hack work, too. But while they went in other directions, Jiang Zilong continued to write in a literary style codified in the 1950s. Although he published most of his major works in the 1980s and 1990s, and Empires of Dust in the mid-2000s, Jiang is something of a living literary fossil. To understand his work, one has to step back to the era of socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism.

Please read: Socialist Literature for the Capitalist Era at Los Angeles Review of Books' China Channel.


&: Wheeled suitcase

That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.
Expatriate identity issues are boring, I'm sorry. I don't worry about the question of belonging, anymore, like I might have before. I've got nothing to go back to, so I have to make the best of what I've got here. I read that Jamaica Kincaid essay yesterday, though, and those lines were knocking around my head. I'm stuck in the middle of that native vs. tourist split, forever, in Tokyo. When a new hotel went up on the block, I knew it would mean more wheeled suitcases being dragged along the sidewalk out front, more Midwestern rubes in cargo shorts loitering, Chinese tour groups filing in to the 7-11 across the road to pose for pictures holding, like, tuna sandwiches and dorayaki. But I can never blend in, either. You've got, like, two point something percent foreign residents in this ward and most are from South Korea, China, and Vietnam. There was a public meeting of the danchi's residents' committee and the neighborhood committee, where residents—that includes me—were assured that there would be no disruptions from foreign guests. So, I'm privy to the local anxiety about tourists but I also often get second and third looks as I come into the building. I get to hear the gossip about the Chinese family on the sixth floor, but I'm also aware that they're surely gossiping about me, too. I'm not a native and I never will be, even if my life here is banal and boring and I live in a danchi in Taito Ward.

It is an ugly building, though, now that I mention it. I took a look at it again this morning, after trying to write something and the Jamaica Kincaid line and the hotel situation coming to mind. Why doesn't it have any windows?

I should probably move to the mountains or something, maybe some Hokkaido coal village that's giving away free plots of land.


&: Diary (7)

(December 7th, 2012) I flew into Shenzhen the night before. I had to buy the tickets with cash, the night before that, found some shady office up the night before I was going to leave, took a taxi into the city, went up a clinking elevator to the twenty-sixth floor of an office tower in Shahekou, exchanged an envelope of cash for paper tickets in a folder splashed with windsurfers and garlands of orchids and a Polynesian girl with Cocker Spaniel eyes and flowers in her hair, then caught the 35 at Xinggong to Pao'ai and the 38 up the hill. Sat on the floor, laptop open, sketching maps from Baidu in a notebook. I had all these pictures in my head of what it was going to look like, Christopher Doyle cinematography and high contrast Noctilux street photography, The Killer, Joey Wong ghost movies... I took a taxi to the airport with just a light jacket, T-shirt underneath, knowing it was going to be summer in the south.

Flew in to Shenzhen, took a taxi to a hotel, got to Luohu, didn't bother sleeping, got a drink at a bar in Guomao instead, and walked across the border when the sun came up. I've never walked across a border before, I don't think. What a strange feeling that is. Not much of a border, though, and I was only crossing into a Special Administrative Region, but still... The border is upstairs in what feels like any rundown mall in Shenzhen. There's a sign: 往香港 TO HONG KONG. I felt the difference as soon as I crossed, even if my first glimpse of Hong Kong was just a water buffalo in a lush drainage ditch, humid jungle rising behind, a Kubota excavator dumped in a parking lot with its operator relaxing in the shade beside it. Not much different from anywhere else in the south, I guess, but I could feel it in the cleanliness, the people on the train, the smell...

Got into the city at East Tsim Sha Tsui Station, walked up Nathan Road looking for Chungking Mansions, missed it and kept going, past all the Chow Tai Fook doorways blowing mustardy airconditioning, dried scallops in baskets, Burger King, hawkers on PAs calling in the tourists... Went all the way past Jordan, and Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok, turned toward Sham Shui Po, making notes in my head of market streets and fake fur shops and grey Mitsubishi airconditioners and Toyota taxis and pretty girls, and then finally took a taxi back down, dropped off in front of Chungking Mansions, this time, and ate a meal of Nepali food, browsed wholesale flip phones and shortwave radios, bought a bit of shitty hash. Took the train across to Admiralty Station, then down to Wan Chai Station. Not sure exactly where to go, I stood for a long time outside a curry fishball noodles stall, smoking cigarettes, watching girls in hospital blue school uniforms and period drama heroine hairstyles taking gasps of curry steam mixed with winter night humidity. And I took out my map and headed toward where I had to pick up my visa, managed to head down Lockhart Road, lined with clubs, New Makati and WILD CAT, Southeast Asian girls in gold lamé bikini tops and short skirts, men in rugby jerseys, Vietnamese restaurants, Irish pubs. And this is the Ming Court Hotel, where, thank God, the women at the desk speak Mandarin, and they rent me a room overnight. The walls and roof are the same floral wallpaper and I can see myself in two mirrors at every moment, unless I lay flat on my back. I went out earlier, no lock on the door, except for the chain inside, so I left it open, told the woman at the desk that I would be back in fifteen, twenty minutes. Picked up a tuna wrap and a bottle of chocolate milk, loaded the tip of a cigarette with a bit of hash and smoked it on the sidewalk. I think she was surprised to see me come back alone.

(December 8th, 2012) In bed last night, through the paperthin walls, I heard a man with a Northern accent, and a Filipina woman, who told the man "It’s already been half an hour. You have half an hour left." A debate began on when an hour begins. Is it when you leave the bar or when you arrive at the hotel? The debate was never settled but it carried on for the next half hour, and the woman at the front desk came to rap on the door, signaling that their time in the hotel, at least, was up. As I fell asleep, I heard the click of high heels on tile.

Last night and this morning again, I thought to myself: I could stay in Hong Kong forever. On a street in Wanchai lined with sweet viburnum, banyans, weeping fig, hawkers, taxis going by, a tiny single room, way up high. It's a beautiful city but when you look up, you see that you are in a ravine of stucco and streaky windows, open windows with houseplants and bedding. hanging out. What the hell would I do, though? In my fantasy, I tend bar or something and publish a book of short stories that leads to a deal for a novel, marry some American girl that went to international school in Bangkok, daughter of a diplomat, and works for Citibank. I know the city won't be like this forever, though. I'd probably end up teaching English, best possible option, and living way out in Tuen Mun or something, or I wonder if I could live in Shenzhen and hop across everyday. I could just live in a love hotel.

I can't even wrap my head around what I like so much about the place. The combination of real, loud Chinese city and Hong Kong's underlying orderliness, I guess, and the density of the place, all those escalators and secret passageways, ravines of grey concrete.

Went out to handle the visa situation, then sat in a netbar in Mong Kok, emailed Xinran in Guizhou, P***** in Bangkok (his only memory of Hong Kong was eating spaghetti and meatballs for the first time and playing Columns in an expensive hotel room), Alice in Richmond. Invited out by a friend of a friend who's in Hong Kong right now, wants to see Deerhoof, but I have to ration my remaining cash. Going back to Ming Court.

(December 9th, 2012) The only thing on TV at the Ming Court is: a channel of Japanese pornography, a channel of American pornography, and a channel of cartoons. I was once in a motel room in Nipawin and they had a shelf of VHS porno tapes at the front, VCRs to rent. The American porn at the Ming Court was from the mid-1990s, probably a couple tapes rotated throughout the week, since they were screening something different from the first night. This is probably out of necessity, since recent releases aren't available on VHS. But what would stop them from getting DVDs of something more recent? It makes me think that maybe it's a question of taste. 1990s porn, you still have the big hair, Jill Kelly, Jenna Jameson, Ashlyn Gere, other names not familiar to anyone under 35, and the longer format, some sort of storyline woven together from the scenes, even proto-gonzo films. Porn from the time when, because it was still unacceptable and a few years out from a crackdown, it had to be more artful, closer to serious films. Maybe there was something that appealed to Hong Kong love hotel employees about the big hair and high production value porn, something missing from porn stripped of esthetics, aiming for a documentary approach. Maybe it's more universal. But maybe they just had a bunch of those VHS tapes laying around and didn't want to bother getting a DVD player. The Japanese pornography, I can't even speculate, can't date it or figure it out.

I'm writing this in Shenzhen. I've got my visa. I'm going back to Dalian, for a while, at least. Maybe I can get to Guizhou for Spring Festival, or fly down to see Pietro in Bangkok. Not looking forward to flying back to the north.