&: Aesthetic revulsion

Araki Nobuyoshi 荒木経惟 was born not too far from where I’m writing this, and he lived closer still to my last Tokyo hometown of Ryusen. This is just trivia. I’m not going to make the case that his upbringing in East Tokyo was a formative experience. Maybe it was. I don’t know.

His father made geta. He lived, supposedly, near Joyful Minowa shotengai, across from Jokan-ji 浄閑寺, a temple that's home to the remains of thousands of dead from the slums of Tokyo, women and girls from Yoshiwara, and victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake. If you’ve never visited, you might expect something spookier than what it is: a fairly dull temple that looks a lot like every other temple in Tokyo. (It’s not close to as spooky as the nearby Enmei-ji 延命寺, with its Kubikiri Jizo, watching over what used to be Kozukahara 小塚原, an execution ground and mass grave.) The house and the shop—Ninbenya にんべんや—his father owned was long ago demolished. It was turned into a parking lot, but if I’m looking at the right address, the lot was swallowed up for the fresh development that’s gone up on the block. The last corrugated tin buildings have been taken down. (Araki fans used to be able to make a pilgrimage to Araki’s former residence in Setagaya, which was a fairly nondescript apartment block that was featured in several photo books, but even that has been taken down.)

Higuchi Ichiyo has a shrine nearby, and I used to see her ghostly bust every night, lit up by the spotlights in the temple yard. She has a museum on the border of Ryusen and Senzoku, too. There are currently no memorials to Araki having lived and worked in the area.

Araki paid tribute to the author, too, and maybe to the area, in a 1982 photobook called Midori 美登利, named after a character in Higuchi Ichiyo’s Takekurabe たけくらべ (translated by Edward Seidensticker as Growing Up) (and also the name of a kissaten in Yoshiwara, although that’s probably coincidence), set on the edge of Yoshiwara at the turn of the last century. Takekurabe is the story of a local girl that goes to work in the pleasure quarter.

The soaplands of the akasen 赤線 that replaced the streets of courtesans in cages look positively decrepit now, but they looked seedy even in Araki’s pictures, taken in the High Showa. He shoots his model—Midori—clothed, but the city is naked. He captures not only the rows of bath house brothels, but the dilapidated concrete tower blocks and rundown playgrounds that make up the cityscape of that part of East Tokyo.

Most of Araki’s photography, though, and the material he built his name on, involves nude women, often bound. With those pictures, he was more willing than photographers doing similar work to approach pure pornography. And by “pure pornography,” I don’t mean anything but that he was willing to ditch fashion and art photography conventions, making pictures that could and did actually get printed in men’s magazines.

Katrin Burtschell has another opinion—it wasn't pornography at all:
What makes Araki a pornographer? The fact that he published his photos in relevant pornographic magazines and as such seemingly pursues his goal to excite and satisfy the consumer through his pictures? Araki does not care about the insinuation, since he does not understand what would be bad about the fact that his pictures excite the viewer. He would feel it were completely normal if that were not the case. Araki may occasionally be accused of violating laws again obscenity, but he is only accused of being a pornographer in the West. Araki explains the phenomenon through the circumstance that there is no tradition of pornography in Japan (This is from Nobuyoshi Araki und Henry Miller - eine japanisch-amerikanische Analogie. Translation by Pietro Stäheli.)
Was macht Araki zum Pornographen? Die Tatsache, dass er in Japan seine Fotos in einschlägigen pornographischen Heften veröffentlicht und er somit anscheinend das Ziel verfolgt, den Konsumenten durch seine Bilder zu erregen und zu befriedigen? Araki ist eine solche Unterstellung völlig gleichgültig, denn er weiß nicht, was das Schlimme daran sein sollte, dass seine Bilder den Betrachter erregen. Er wurde es als normal empfinden, wenn dem nicht so ware. Zwar wird Araki in Japan gelegentlich beschuldigt, gegen die Obszönität Gesetze zu verstoßen, der Vorwurf der Pornographie wird gegen ihn aber nicht erhoben, dieser trifft ihn bezeichnenderweise nur im Western. Araki erklärt dieses Phänomen selber mit der Tatsache, dass es in Japan keine Tradition der Pornographie gibt.
Well, now, how true is that? There was shunga 春画, of course, and then erotic photography, as soon as anyone had a camera. So, there's a dissenting opinion, but let's not get bogged down.

Araki was so celebrated within the adult industry that he was invited in 1981 to produce his own pink film for Nikkatsu. That was High School Girl Fake Diary 女高生偽日記

Pink films ピンク映画 are pretty much like any softcore porn, but with slightly more plot and slightly less sex. As the studio system collapsed, pink films were an easy way to drive profit. Pink films are pretty much dead now. VCRs and then DVD players helped kill them off. The pink films needed pink theaters. There are still a few in Tokyo, but it’s clear the age of the pink has ended. The Okura, not too far away in Ueno, renovated a couple years back, trying to attract a different crowd, but it doesn’t seem to have worked. Cross-dressing men in short skirts queing outside get looks from the Chinese tourists on their way to photograph the lotus in Shinobazu Pond. Pink theaters were always a place to cruise, and the Okura sits right beside the section of the park that has long been a hot bed for public sex (might be a chicken and egg situation, there—did the theater come first or the cruising?). It won’t be long before someone replaces the Okura with an APA Hotel.

Here is Abé Mark Nornes account of a visit to the Okura:
On my visit a boyish, young man entered next to the screen, pausing for his eyes to adjust while the entire theater checked him out. He sat to my left and one row forward, leaving the end seat open. An oldster with an enormous beard sat down in no time and the young man shifted one more seat in. Rejected, the beard got up and returned to the back wall. After a few minutes another man made an attempt, and this time there was no rebuff. Before long, his head dropped to the young man’s lap. The fellow two seats down from me sat forward and peered over the seat backs for a better view. On this afternoon I was surrounded by no less than five simultaneous blowjobs, two hand jobs, a couple masturbators, and one particularly loud snorer.
It gives you a feeling for how most people would have experienced Araki's film.

High School Girl Fake Diary opens with Araki himself, looking as if he's appeared between the viewer's legs with a Minolta rangefinder, cooing, "That's right... Beautiful..."

Pink films have become a popular topic for academics in Japan and the West, and maybe it's because it's more respectable than writing about actual pornography, but it's also because so many brainy perverts and future avant stars took part in making them. That means there's lots of writing on, like, left filmmakers dabbling in erotica, Wakamatsu Koji 若松孝二 and Violated Angels 犯された白衣, feminist themes in sukeban films, and oddities like softcore porn parodies of Ozu films. Almost none of it is worth reading, and not because these are beat-off films, but because they tend to miss that point (Andrew Grossman's essay is one of the few exceptions, and the rest are in the same collection, Pink Book [as I juggled the order of things here, I put the details about that book further along]). Most writing starts with peeling the film in question off from the pack, laying out how the director was affiliated with such-and-such radical leftist group or went on to make such-and-such film that won the Golden Bear in 1980something. Nobuyoshi Araki's attempt at a pink film is fairly unspectacular, and don't believe anybody that tries to tell you otherwise.

Maybe there's something to say about the repeating images of the white rabbit (seen above crossing the street and then posed on the concrete stairs) and the little girl, who is seen later in the film stepping over a hose, lighting fireworks, and going into a funeral home. I don't know. Maybe there is. I'm not going to say anything about that.

The film is the story of a girl named Rika (Arai Rika 荒井理花), scouted on the street by a photographer that uses her as a model for progressively more debased shoots. The plot is thin and the sex scenes tenuously connected to it are not very interesting, with the exception of one involving two of Rika's friends, told in the form of a flashback. It's the least Araki-ish scene in the film, looking more like a lost clip from one of the girl boss sukeban movies, with the girls hooking up with their juvenile delinquent boyfriends in a Jeep, lighting cigarettes, riding faces, and projecting teenaged insouciance. Some of the scenes, though, look like they were outtakes from an Araki shoot (and he produced a book to go along with it), like the one of Rika on a love hotel bed, slowly rotating to face the camera, opening her legs wide as she reclines...

The Araki scenes seem slightly strange when you've seen the film through once and you know the conceit is that this is all taking place in Rika's mind. It’s not that it’s inconceivable for a young woman to fantasize about being photographed, but the groping in the jazz bar just seems too adult, and the black American serviceman ravishing a Japanese woman is straight out of postwar middle-aged male neuroses.

Pink films always leave me cold. In the dozen or so 1970s sukeban films I’ve seen, which have four or five sex scenes each, the only one that ever had an effect on me was a girl-on-girl scene involving Kano Yuko 叶優子 seducing Saburi Seiko 佐分利聖子; it’s not an exaggeration to say that most 1970s sukeban and general exploitation film sex scenes involve rape and sadism. That’s also my problem with some of the scenes in Araki’s pink film, although it’s relies far less on male sadism (and even features a man having a pair of spiked heels up his ass in a shoe torture scene). Andrew Grossman describes the “aesthetic revulsion” to sadism (but it could be other aspects inspiring that revulsion—I'm not going to name them) “othering” “Japanese tastes” and adding a “secondary aura or layer of avant-gardism” ("All Jargon and No Authenticity?—A Phenomenological Inquiry into Pink Film," which is from the Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and its Contents, edited by Abé Mark Nornes, whose introduction to pink films and pink theaters is quoted above).

I’m not convinced I have any aesthetic revulsion to sadism. You can find my odes to Sugimoto Miki 杉本美樹 (that's her in the still above) in the sukeban movies, like Girl Boss Revenge 女番長, or her Noriko of the Cross act in the electric shock scene in Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom 恐怖女子高校 暴行リンチ教室. Nobody suffers like Sugimoto Miki, and it’s always filmed beautifully, but, I take only aesthetic pleasure in it, and there are diminishing returns after watching the same scene restaged countless times.

I said Araki’s film is less egregious, and probably a bit sexier than most of what I’ve seen from the genre, so why doesn’t it work? I couldn’t tell you. It might be fair to take some Dworkin material here, since she published Pornography in the same year this film was released, and there’s not many better places to apply theories about unchecked male power and fragile masculinity than in Showa Japan, but I want to use it only to say that the firmly gendered Araki gaze overpowers. And Grossman says: “we become beholden to other people’s fantasies”:
...and whatever “liberation” ensues is contingent upon alien, manufactured images coinciding with our own secret pleasures from time to time. In these neurotic, magical coincidences, we believe our orgasms have achieved some universal significance—after all, how remarkable it is that a filmmaker and a dispersed audience have harbored the same sexual fantasy! Obviously, this “universalism” is illusory... Our neuroses swallow us, as our erections unwittingly respond to and concur with economies and ideologies we know are pathological, prearranged, and coerced.

Araki getting in the head of a high school girls reminds me of his comments when selecting Hiromix’s collection—"Seventeen Girl Days—for the Canon New Cosmos of Photography contest:
Girls tend to hold nothing back, and don’t think too much. Without thinking too much, they let their feelings rule their actions. Her feelings that she wants to create and try anything, as well as her flexibility are apparent. Guys think too much. I think teens are going to be interesting. (Translation from Canon's New Cosmos of Photography official website. It serves my purposes, and this particular translation of the line is frequently cited, but it seems to differ somewhat from what he actually said.)
Araki’s pictures are probably more interesting to look at now than Hiromix’s early work. It's impossible to look at them in the present without thinking of Instagram selfies two decades early—like Instagram-ish in their banality and lightheartedness (and also these look like they use an Instagram X-Pro1 filter, mimicking a camera that offers settings to mimic the high ISO film that HIROMIX shot on) (and what were purikura and tradeable photo books but proto-Instagram?)

If you want to go back to talking about gaze, Gabriella Lukács talks about Hiromix attempting to "...carve out autonomous spaces where young women like her felt they could belong to themselves" (this is from: Invisibility by Design: Women and Labor in Japan's Digital Economy). I don't know how true that was, at least after a certain point, when she turned to more clearly commercial photography.

In the decades that have gone by since Araki’s pink film, pornography has come to more closely resemble his critically-celebrated art photography and his Polaroids than his attempt at an erotic film (so mediated and aestheticized that it feels silly now). And if it doesn’t, it looks a lot like the portfolio Hiromix submitted for the Canon prize. (Or like the picture Araki took of Hiromix, nude on Polaroid? Not really. The picture was taken shortly after her Canon prize win. She looks very unlike an Araki girl, far less self-assured, not much going on behind those eyes except clear discomfort! The prints from her bra are still under her tits. She looks glum. Maybe this is the right place to note that Araki was by some accounts a piece of shit.) VCRs killed pink films, but it was cellphones that killed porn (and also art photography). Post-gonzo porn, self-shot images, cam girls, Instagram girls, and e-girls are dominant. As Araki said: "teens are going to be interesting." Everyone is now beating off to subReddits devoted to young men and women documenting their private fantasies, and they spend the rest of their time fantasizing about e-girls' Only Fans being leaked.

And against my claim that cellphones killed art photography, I come around to Anrakuji Emi’s 安楽寺えみ, who I only know because I stumbled across a show of her work at a gallery in Shinjuku a year or so ago. (The writing here is weaker because I have no idea what I'm saying, but I feel like folding in her work.) And maybe it’s interesting how far you have to go to still sorta be doing what Araki and Hiromix are doing (which is what? Vary degrees of erotic narcissism? Hiromix and Araki are very different, of course...), but also not be mistaken for a pornographer or a written off as a mere onnanoko shashinka 女の子写真家.

The title of Anrakuji Emi’s 安楽寺えみ 1800 millimètre series is a reference to Masaoka Shiki 正岡子規, who wrote Byosho Rokushaku 病牀六尺 (six 尺 is about 1800 millimeters or just under six feet) shortly before dying of tuberculosis, confined to bed. Anrakuji Emi was herself confined to bed through most of her twenties, suffering from a brain tumor that left her blind in one eye. These are “conceptual self-portraits,” just like Araki and Hiromix’s pictures, but feel like the outside world has been blown up. While Hiromix and Araki are depicting the world, and seem to be swimming connected to the fleshy, Anrakuji Emi feels sealed up inside, like a roll of film clicked into a camera, unspooled to soak up any light that comes for an instant through the aperture. The tyranny of erotic drives means it's impossible to not admire the curve of her hips, but there's also something of the mad ascetic about her, in one picture chopping off her pubic hair with giant scissors not for a lover but because it has grown so long it's become inconvenient, preserving her long hair not out of vanity but because there's no point in cutting it.

Anrakuji Emi feels in some ways like an attempt to reclaim Araki's midcentury postporn bondage Polaroids, and the IPY series does this the most explicitly. It's interesting to me that she never works with other models—always herself! Locked away, still, years after going back out into the world. This is a joke in poor taste, but it's half-serious: I wonder what the result would be if Caribbeancom カリビアンコム gave Anrakuji Emi the budget to make a modern AV film in the tradition of Araki's pink film. I'm picturing her cooing to herself in the mirror, "That's right... Beautiful... Try to look more withered..."


&: Pandemic

I usually work at night. I started writing this at 22:36. ***** is falling asleep beside me, listening to Song Dongye at a very low volume, playing from the speakers of my Macbook. I usually go out around this time, maybe to walk over to the 24-hour supermarket north of Inaricho Station, maybe just to walk around the neighborhood.

There aren’t any bars around here, but sometimes they’ll be drunks staggering home from Ueno or from Iriya Station. One night at the end of February, when people were still nervous about COVID-19, I saw a man staggering up the road that runs under the elevated highway near my apartment. I was coming up behind him. He paused in the middle of the sidewalk, bent at the waist, and vomited. When he was done, he leaned precariously to the left, stumbled, and crashed sideways into the bushes outside of an apartment block entrance. He didn’t notice me. I—and everyone else that came along after me, since it was still there in the morning, dessicated and stinking—stepped around the puddle of ramen, gyoza skins, cabbage, and chuhai.

Goddamn, Tokyo is filthy.

On the low wall behind my building’s small outdoor parking lot, there are small tori silhouettes stenciled in red paint. It has been identified as a hotspot for public urination. I believe it’s probably because of the men that make the pilgrimage from Ueno Park or Senzoku to the nearby Catholic church, which runs a soup kitchen, or to the municipal office that’s right beside it. I’ve never actually seen anyone urinating there, but just down from the post office, not far from that church, men often piss on the sidewalk.

I never had a case of food poisoning while living in Mainland China, but it hits me fairly often here. I’m more careful now. The last time it happened, I couldn’t keep liquids down, and I’d been throwing up since noon, so I dragged myself over to a hospital, thinking they’d give me an IV. It was, like, three in the morning by then. I was suffering. They gave me an X-ray, asked me if I’d swallowed anything unusual, then sent me home, advising me to drink some water.

When I had a cough a couple weeks back, I didn’t bother going to the doctor. I didn’t have a fever, at least. But a friend of mine who had the same cough went, since he just got back from Beijing a week or so before, and he’d had a mild fever that afternoon. The clinic said they weren’t seeing anyone with mild symptoms and told him to contact the ward office to locate an appropriate health care provider. He was given some carbocisteine and dextromethorphan.

Japan has lagged behind everyone but the United States in testing for SARS-CoV-2. The U.S. was at five tests per million people by March 8th, with Japan at sixty-six per million by March 4th (South Korea was at 3,692 per million, Italy at 826, etc.). That gap is closing as the U.S. begins to panic. The lack of testing has kept the numbers artificially low.

The fuzoku businesses haven’t even been shut down yet. Right now, I could get a train across town, check into a love hotel, and have a woman in a nurse’s costume dispatched to give me a ノーパン診療 and 前立腺マッサージ, all for about two hundred USD. One delivery health operation in Kabukicho offers nurse cosplay and a “corona discount” コロナ割. The soaplands in Yoshiwara have updated their websites with descriptions of their disinfectant procedures.

Judging by the cut rate deals, traffic must be down. The lower-end operations that actually allow foreign guests are dealing with the sudden evaporation of business from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

The fuzoku industry functions as a sort of social safety net for single mothers, so I know they’re probably scrambling to deal with their kids suddenly being tossed out of school.

All the talk about telecommuting, it’s impossible. Companies aren’t set up for it, and it doesn’t fit with local corporate culture.

Only a sliver of total workers could take advantage of it, anyways. The number of job-for-life employees that go to work everyday with a briefcase isn’t huge. Even if they are office drones, most staff in service industries are classed as non-regular employees, which is down to the labor market reforms of the late 1980s, like the Worker Dispatching Law, the austerity measures and deregulation of the 1990s, proposals by the Japan Federation of Employers’ Association to limit protection for workers, and Koizumi and Abe's amendments to and revision of the Worker Dispatching Law and Labor Standards Act. Across all industries, non-regular workers account for just about half of the country’s entire workforce. (Find "Neoliberalism and Labour Inequality in Japan: Ramifications of Neoliberal Policies in the Japanese Labour Market" by Kyriaki "Sandy" Galaiou for all these statistics and a handy timeline of reforms.) The single mothers staffing the city’s pinsaro and kyabakura are at least taking home enough to keep the lights on and probably pay for childcare, and they have the flexibility to take time off.

It’s not an original thought, but I would agree the numbers are being kept low mostly because of the potential disaster of the Olympics being cancelled. I think it goes beyond simply the financial injection, which is probably bullshit, and it’s not about nationalism, either (someone at the Lowy Institute, for example, writes: “Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was also hoping that the Olympics and subsequent wave of nationalism would give him a political boost in opinion polls”)—it’s about losing the Olympics as force to push forward further reform projects.

I think I said before I was reading Jules Boykoff's book, Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games, and he outlines events like the Olympics creating "a state of exception where the normal rules of politics do not apply." That’s been the case in Tokyo:
Looking back on the activities over the past eight years we notice the emergence of the notion of a legacy inherited from Ishihara's hosting bid to the current arrangements. The goal was nothing other than to use the Olympic Games to complete the Ishihara metropolitan government's task to create a Tokyo to outshine other global cities. The hosting committee decided to tax the whole country and Tokyo itself around 318.3 billion yen, which is about 40 percent of the total 734 billion yen needed. ...
… The execution of the project was undertaken by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Japanese Government, the Japanese Olympic Committee, and global companies within the framework of the all‐Japan regime and it can be said that the kind of Japanese society envisioned as an Olympic legacy is based mainly on the redistribution of wealth in Tokyo, via the trickle‐down methods of neoliberal economics. ("'Creative Reconstruction' and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games: How Does the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games Influence Japan's Neoliberal Social Reform?" by Yoshifusa Ichii)
It’s a project to present “Tohoku‐Tokyo‐Japan politically and ideologically as safe, secure, and attractive spaces, which will deliver profit for capital investment.” There’s no better way to knock that off the rails than an epidemic outbreak that sees the Olympics cancelled.

What’s the worst case scenario? I don’t know.

There are still under a thousand people infected, but the government guesses at three thousand, while some have said ten times the official figure, which would be six thousand or so, and it hasn’t peaked yet. With a higher mortality rate for the elderly, you’ve got a nice bump in the death rate. As Klaus K. Yamamoto-Hammering says, “future Japan has become beleaguered by negative figures of death”:
The social atomization consequent on privatization and deregulation already presages that by 2030, one of every three people will be above the age of 65 – retirement age – and that one out of every four people will be living alone. As a veritable reorganization of production and labor that has reinstituted a regime of absolute surplus extraction, neoliberalism has called the limits of the laboring body to the fore. If 1,200,000 people passed away in 2012, the number of deaths in 2030 will have increased to approximately 1,700,000 – 1,800,000. Deaths of the baby-boom generation will have become so frequent that urban centers, like Tokyo, will require incinerators on the scale of convenience stores. And these numbers do not even incorporate the cancer rates promising to unfold as a consequence of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, where state scientists claim that radiation can be combatted through stress reduction. ("Propriety, Shame, and the State in Post-Fukushima Japan.")
After I showed a friend a patriotic musical tribute to Wuhan’s front line medical staff, doing my part to promote authoritarian communism, she wept and asked: “Why can’t we have that in Japan?” She didn’t mean authoritarian communism, but probably patriotism and definitely the idea of caring about your fellow citizens.

Yamamoto-Hammering translates Nakshita Daiki 中下大樹, a Buddhist monk that works in suicide prevention:
...we are constantly overwhelmed by something, and temporal, psychological and economical “space” is disappearing from society as a whole. Because there is no space, there is no leisure to stop and think about things deeply or to discuss social problems. If there is no space, it is also difficult to be sympathetic with others. As a result, the “self-responsibility doctrine” that you are no good because you are not making enough effort comes into vogue. Working even from morning till evening, one’s pay does not rise as desired, and with the rise of temporary work, the young generation cannot even get married.
Western liberals agitating for Chinese regime change have asked whether or not the epidemic and the response to it could shake the foundations of the party-state. The answer is no, although it might threaten the futures of some members of the party-state or harm the existence of some apparatuses. In the United States, it might help bring down an incumbent president. But in Japan, no change is on the horizon, no matter how this plays out.

Japan is ahead of the curve in some ways, but it hasn't been swept up in populist politics. It's on the sidelines, watching Bolsonaro, Orbán, Modi, Trump, gilets jaunes, Boris, Bernie, etc. The Japanese are far more committed to the Western model of party politics than the people that they borrowed it from. The dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party comes from catering to diverse constituencies, local politicking, and not so much a charismatic leader or deep identification with the party. There's also no credible alternative. There's no Japanese Orbán or Boris waiting in the wings. I think they're grooming Koizumi Shinjiro now!

There’s no danger now—and there never really was—of a left populist movement rising in Japan. I recommend We Live on Railways by Nakano Hiroshi, ex-president of National Railway Chiba Motive Power Union (Doro-Chiba), which is up online, fully translated, for an overview of the birth and death of the Japanese left. He covers the split between the Japanese Communist Party and Japan Revolutionary Communist League, labor militancy, AMPO, Zengakuren, Chukaku, the Sanrizuka Struggle against Narita, occupying universities, Okinawa, the nationalization of the railway, etc. etc. Radical leftism is done and dusted.

The only news on the left recently is that the JCP met earlier this year to completely revise their political program, but the only significant news out of that was a move to criticize China for "great chauvinism." That might be the first step in signalling a move to link up with Democratic Party for the People, a center-left group that hopes to lead an opposition coalition. Left populism is not on the horizon.

I enjoy the wartime anthems of the right wing sound trucks as much as the next guy, but it’s not looking much more promising for right populists. Spandrell might agree. A “small conspiracy of neotraditional cults,” he says, have the ears of a sympathetic portion of the Liberal Democratic elite, including Abe, but it’s impossible to do much to foster the growth of a far right movement, because the party’s hands are tied by being an American tributary state.

The majority of rightist groups are serving at the behest of the LDP, and don’t do much to challenge their authority. They get tossed some red meat now and then, and they’re happy. It would be better if the emperor they venerate would start being worthy of that veneration—but what can you do?

Out on the fringes, disowned by most of the far right, even, there are people like Sakurai Makoto 桜井誠 the founder of Zaitokukai 在日特権を許さない市民の会, who ran to be governor of Tokyo in 2016. His platform was this:
  • Abolish welfare for foreigners
  • Halve the number of illegal immigrants within Tokyo
  • Create a law banning anti-Japanese hate speech
  • Legalize marijuana and send all tax revenue to the Yamaguchi-Gumi syndicate
  • Enforce the regulation of pachinko
  • Cancel the establishment of new Korean schools in Tokyo
  • Enforce a more compact Tokyo Olympics
Zaitokukai have a less coherent ideology than traditional right groups. Five of the seven are aimed at zainichi Koreans, who Sakurai says are claiming too much welfare, smuggling people into the country, criticizing the country, funneling profits from pachinko to North Korea, and continually opening new schools to teach a younger generation of stateless children how to hate the Japanese.

Perhaps the zainichi Korean is like the Jew for American white nationalists, the figure upon which class antagonism is displaced. The Jews control Hollywood and the banks, but the zainichi Koreans are content with pachinko and perhaps loansharking, although Sakurai doesn’t seem to be aware that the majority of Yamaguchi-gumi members have some Korean or burakumin ancestry. Maybe the better comparison is with American blacks, who the same claims are made about by white nationalists as Zaitokukai makes about the zainichi Koreans.

So, obviously, nobody gives a shit about that, by and large. If you’re under thirty-five, maybe forty, there’s nothing good coming, so it’s hard to care about national pride or taking pachinko away from Koreans.

And what would shake out if there was a significant, long term recession caused by structural weaknesses, a decline in tourism, economic uncertainty, an epidemic, and an Olympic cancellation? More austerity, probably. I don’t know. Nothing good.

My selfish hope is that the Olympics will be cancelled, or that it will proceed without as much fanfare. The excitement on Japanese-language social media over a potential cancellation was refreshing, but everyone else is just indifferent. Nobody cares. It just means crowded trains and more lines.

All the talk about tourism pollution 観光公害 is justified and good. It might even be a good platform for a populist party to seize on!

Especially where I live, it feels like living in a zoo. There's a strange phenomenon where foreign tourists will photograph Japanese children, which has gotten so bad that daycares and kindergartens, when taking kids out on strolls or to the park, carry placards with signs that say in English: NO PHOTOGRAPHS. The nationalists need to tackle that! Build a fake Asakusa and Akihabara somewhere out by Narita, then ship everyone there. Don't let them come into Tokyo. What do they need to come into the city for? To buy souvenirs, get fleeced at a kaiten sushi place staffed by sullen Filipinos, take a few pictures of themselves at sacred religious sites—let them do that somewhere far away from regular citizens. (The Chinese tourists, so frequently attacked by Japanese commentators, are the most benign. They go to department stores and actually buy stuff, usually practice some degree of common sense at temples and shrines, and also smell far better than the Australian backpackers. The Europeans and Americans believe that they can experience some undiscovered, authentic Tokyo, they tramp around with giant backpacks on for some reason, don't even stay in hotels, and their only contribution to the economy is buying knick-knacks. If you ever stay at the Shangri-La or Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo, it's only Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Korean guests, since even well-heeled Europeans and Americans choose to stay in tacky ryokan or hostels, which are usually converted business hotels.)

If Sakurai and the Zaitokukai could get on board with throttling tourism and getting Japan off the sugar rush of foreign money flowing into the service sector, that would be a great start. Kadokawa Daisaku was almost unseated as the mayor of Kyoto recently after widespread anger at tourism pollution. Fukuyama Kazuhito of the JCP (with backing from Reiwa Shinsengumi れいわ新選組) snatched almost 35% of the vote. If anyone below retirement age had voted (turnout was only 40.7% overall, and I haven't seen the breakdown, but I can imagine), the JCP might have stood a chance.

Neither the Olympics, the grand project of revitalizing Japan Inc., and supercharging the real estate market will do much to improve my material conditions. It's more of a pain-in-the-ass. Let Japan become a sleepy backwater again, an economic basket case that's cut itself off from South Korea and China to chain its fortunes to the fading American empire. And it's interesting to note that Sakurai Makoto's platform includes a more compact Olympics. That's something we can all agree on. You know it's not a nationalistic project because nobody here cares about the goddamn Olympics—maybe especially the nationalists. Flooding Tokyo with foreign tourists and showcasing the city as a fine place to stash dirty money from around the world is not a nationalist project. It doesn't help Japanese morale to watch juiced up Chinese athletes run the medal table.

But, whatever happens, Tokyo under an epidemic feels happier than it’s ever felt, to me, at least.

It was blue skies and twentysomething degrees outside today. The tourists are gone, so you can walk around Asakusa without dodging masses of Indonesians and Taiwanese; the elderly German couples hogging the sidewalks on Kappabashi are gone, so you can hang out and look at tableware without being jostled; Uguisudani feels like a seedy sex district again, now that all the hotels are empty; and Ameyoko felt almost quiet today. All the people working from home or set idle by their companies are out walking around, enjoying their time off. The kids are out of school, so the parks are full.

And when I went out for my walk tonight, I actually caught someone pissing right out front of my apartment, right against the phone booth, right after a cop drove by on a bike.

Everything is normal. Nothing will change. We might get to cancel the Olympics.


&: World-without-us

(Lovecraft, Flock of Ba-Hui, Thacker, the window through which we view Chinese literature, mostly just bullshitting)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading and puzzling over Matt Turner’s translation of Lu Xun’s Weeds (which you might know as Wild Grass), trying to write a review, tracking down Turgenev prose poems, re-reading Baudelaire, and also flipping through Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang's Selected Stories of Lu Hsun for the first time in a long time.

I set aside Selected Stories of Lu Hsun after being reminded of a vague commitment to comment on The Flock of Ba-Hui and Other Stories, a collection of translations of Lovecraftian horror by a pseudonymous Chinese author, Oobmab.

I should write a proper review, but this is just wool-gathering, notes from trying to write that proper review, and also folding in notes from what else I was reading, and I’m not going to come to any conclusions. I don’t really know Lovecraft well. That’s the first problem.

The stories in The Flock of Ba-Hui were culled from the Ring of Wonder, a discussion board for fantasy worlds, games, and literature, which has several sections devoted to various elements of the Cthulhu Mythos.

As Arthur Meursault reminds us in the foreword to his co-translation, Lovecraft was the “first open-source programmer." He might go down in history as the creator of a fictional world, rather than as a writer. You can immerse yourself in his world without ever reading a word of his writing. As Houellebecq says of some Lovecraft fans: “They haven’t read him, and haven’t any intention to do so. However, curiously, they long—regardless of the texts—to know more about this individual, and the way in which he constructed his world.”

In the West, Lovecraft has experienced something of a revival in recent years, but I think it’s fair to say that his influence never really waned in East Asia (I mean here: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea in descending order of strength of influence), where Lovecraftian esthetics have infected manga, light novels, and anime.

Until recently, Lovecraft fans in China would have to read most of his work in English. There’s record of a translation of Lovecraft’s "The Music of Erich Zann" appearing in the KMT-established Literary and Art Vanguard in 1948, but not much between then and the early 2000s. In the past few years, the number of Lovecraft releases has ramped up: there was a translation of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by Li Heqing 李和庆 and Wu Lianchun 吴连春 from an imprint of People's Literature 人民文学出版社 in 2016, and when I was at the Beijing International Book Fair last year, I saw that the third volume of a Cthulhu Mythos 克苏鲁神话 collection, translated by translated by Yao Xianghui 姚向辉, had been published by Zhejiang Literature and Art Publishing House 浙江文艺出版社.

The collection’s titular story, “The Flock of Ba-Hui,” is related by the colleague of a young archeologist, Zhang Cunmeng, who has gone missing and is presumed dead. Zhang is the perfect Lovecraftian hero, a complete cipher, dedicated only to an intellectual pursuit—in this case, proving the existence of an ancient state called Nanyu, based on his own archeological findings. Using hints from a scroll he has found and references in various quasi-literary histories, he goes looking for traces of the extinct kingdom, which seems to have worshipped a serpent god, called Ba-Hui.

(A fun Lovecraftian touch is pulling in various fictional and real texts—the Kunlun Scriptures, the Classic of Mountains and Seas, the “unfathomable” Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, the Records of the Great Wilderness...)

Zhang returns from a long absence with a few pottery shards:
However, during my study of the fragment, I was compelled to an emotion I could not name. Distraught, anxious thoughts bubbled to the surface of my mind. I eventually noticed that the pottery shard leached a noisome ichthyoid scent, which I instinctively loathed. Zhang was more than familiar with the smell — he told me the odor had been left by a liquid stored in the large pot, which had spilled its contents all over his body when he stumbled over it. He guessed that it was some kind of fermented alcohol or herbal medicine. I doubted it was either.
Zhang ends up being committed to a mental institution after torching his notes and burning down the house.

Shortly after being confined to the institution, Zhang goes missing, but our narrator recovers one of his scorched notebooks. He gets together some colleagues and they set off to retrace the steps of Zhang Cunmeng, finally locating the cave where he collected the pottery shards.

They enter the cave to find that its walls are painted with frescoes describing fantastic beasts, war, and cannibalism:
Those humanoid beasts would storm the other villages in packs, murdering any living thing they could find. They would cunningly ambush armies trying to cross the steep mountains, breaking up any groups of soldiers too slow to react, or simply pushing them down the mountain. The half-ape giants would lumber over the battlefield after the killings and bring the slain corpses back to the cave. We had known that cannibalism was not exactly unimaginable in the dawn of humanity, yet still we shuddered to think of such organized efforts to make prey of other people. … To these ancients ... the people of other tribes were nothing but a daily food source, like an additional form of game animal. They held no grand ceremony for the slaughter of man, nor did they view human flesh with any precious significance other than as food. A strange fantasy took hold of us, suggesting that these ancestors were not, after all, human; rather, that they were wicked abominations in the form of men.
As they go deeper in the cave, they find murals depicting an even older society, where three classes of degenerated human (or something else)—a sort of giant ape with "human-like features," then a creature that was roughly human but ran on the ground like a dog, and then one that looked like "a bald monkey ... with outgrown forearms and stubby hindlegs"—collaborated with two classes of humans—workers and aristocrats. The murals revealed that the aristocrats were reduced to "livestock specially reared for offering to the gods."

The researchers find a mural depicting how children were divided up in Ancient Nanyu:
The first group of children would become tall and strong and take care of the heavy work. The second group of children would crawl on the ground on their hands and feet, studying hunting with the four-legged humanoid beasts. The third group of children’s eyes and ears would enlarge, and they would climb trees alongside those uncanny ancient midgets. The fourth group of children would become precocious, begin to fornicate, and bear even more ordinary children once they reached a certain age. The fifth and sixth groups of children would become utterly similar to those images of humans we had seen in the previous murals.
The researchers find piles of bones, including some that correspond to what they have seen in the murals:
It was the perfectly preserved skeleton of an unknown species, some large four-legged beast with a humanoid S-shaped spine. Its skull and other fine bones indicated a highly evolved primate or a human, but its prognathic jaws had the sharp incisors and giant canine teeth of a wild animal. We stopped to carry out a closer investi- gation — and realized, with growing revulsion, this was the very same hairless, beast-like human-creature we had seen in the murals. The emergence of this skeleton proved it: every hateful monster we had seen in those murals had once walked this majestic cave. I tremble merely to think of it.
It goes on like that, and I’m not going to ruin the ending.

But after escaping from the cave with Zhang’s notebook, they read his final words: “I have no fear; it told me not to worry. I can finally enter; I am already a child of Ba-Hui.”

And I can turn back to Lu Xun and read, in “A Madman's Diary”:
Brother, probably all primitive people ate a little human flesh to begin with. Later, because their outlook changed, some of them stopped, and because they tried to be good they changed into men, changed into real men. But some are still eating—just like reptiles.
This is the story of a man who comes to the understanding that he lives among cannibals and is in danger of either being eaten, or of becoming a cannibal himself.

It’s tough to go against the political reading of Lu Xun carved into my brain, but the comparison with “The Flock of Ba-Hui” is an invitation to read Lu Xun as “simply” horror, and get into what these stories in common: a “madman” who has seemingly revealed buried, secret history of cannibalism, the line between madness and sanity, men becoming beasts or beasts becoming men, and there is the found journal of the archeologist and the recovered diary of Lu Xun’s Madman… And now, it might be good to explain the ways in which they don’t really work the same, and how the Lovecraftian story is supposed to work.

Eugene Thacker marks out the world-for-us, "the world that we, as human beings, interpret and give meaning to," the world-in-itself, "the world in some inaccessible, already-given state, which would then turn into the world-for-us," and the "spectral and speculative" world-without-us. The world-without-us is not antagonistic and it isn't really against us, because it doesn't account for us at all and cannot be put into human terms.

Quinn Lester, trying to apply that system to Lu Xun (and also Frantz Fanon), proposes the idea of a world-against-us:
The world-against-us would name the collapse of ontological and political violence to the point where the world is experienced not as indifferent, as implied by Thacker’s “without,” but instead as actively hostile. … No longer a philosophical problem of horror, the world-against-us names the nefarious horror of political regimes that actively take on the character of eldritch abominations and so construct death-worlds in their wake. (I copied and pasted that quote and now I can't find it. It's definitely from Quinn Lester.)
And so, setting aside Lu Xun for a moment, doubling back to the world-without-us, Thacker says: "...the 'cosmic horror' in Lovecraftian stories results from the possibility of a logic of life that is absolutely inaccessible to the human, the natural and the earthly."

This is horror that is “ontologically destabilizing,” and John Yu Branscum and Yi Izzy Yu suggest that we can find plenty in zhiguai 志怪 stories.

They suggest we read Ji Yun 纪昀, but Lin Wang suggests this brief story in Youyang Zazu 酉阳杂俎:
楊慎矜兄弟富貴, 常不自安. 每詰朝禮佛像, 默祈冥衛. 或一日, 像前土 榻上聚塵三堆, 如塚狀, 慎矜惡之, 且慮兒戲, 命掃去. 一夕如初, 尋而禍 作.
I’m going to borrow her translation:
After Yang Shenjin and his brothers rose to power and wealth, they often felt restless. Every morning they worshipped the Buddha image and silently prayed to be blessed. One day, three piles of dirt appeared on the bed in front of the image, and they looked like burial mounds. Shenjin found this sight repulsive. He also thought it was a trick, and he ordered the dirt to be swept away. The next morning, the dirt piles appeared the same way as they had before. Shortly afterwards, disaster struck. (This is from a paper called: ("Celebration of the Strange: Youyang Zazu and its Horror Stories.")
And her explanation:
These incidents are not Carroll’s monsters [talking about Noël Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror and the idea of monsters as "abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order"]; rather they are signs of something vague yet powerful—an unforgiving fate that is under the control of a mysterious cosmic force. Throughout the story, the force is not embodied, yet its presence is strongly implied. The force cannot be explained by natural laws, yet its mysterious way of working manifests itself through the connection between the incidents and the central characters’ destinies. One may feel the force but cannot adequately conceptualize it; one may describe it but do not understand it; one may experience it, but cannot control it. The fear of this unknown force is at the center of this horror story. The horror goes beyond what monsters embody...
(I don’t know if Thacker has read Youyang Zazu, but read him on Ugetsu Monogatari 雨月物語, where he identifies some of the same vibes.)

That’s looking very narrowly at how Lovecraftian horror works. There is more going on in “The Flock of Ba-Hui,” and it’s about racial difference.

That is what horrifies the researchers in the cave, all the "humanoid beasts," the degenerated humans, "human-like features" on “half-ape giants…”

Houellebecq on Lovecraft is important here, again. He quotes from one of Lovecraft’s letters, written to Belknap Long after he—Lovecraft—had visited the Lower East Side (“that awful cesspool”), where he goes on at length about the “monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal” that “could not by any stretch of the imagination be call'd human.” (These quotes are all from HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.)
This hallucinatory vision is directly at the source of the descriptions of the nightmarish entities which people the Cthulhu cycle. It is racial hatred that provokes in Lovecraft that state of poetic trance where he surpasses himself in the rhythmical and insane beating out of cursed phrases; which illuminates his later major works with a hideous and cataclysmic glare.
...the torturers, servants of unnameable cults, are almost always hybrids, mulattos, mixed-race “of the most base kind”. In Lovecraft’s universe, cruelty is not a refinement of the intellect; it is a bestial impulse, which is associated precisely with the benighted stupidity. As to those courteous, refined individuals, of great delicacy of manner…they furnish the ideal victims.
The racial hybridity is what is horrifying about the creatures that Lovecraft—and Oobmab, also—write about.
Could it be that those strange, hateful images we had seen in the murals, and those detestable, deformed bones scattered across the shaft-bottom, were human? The half-apes, the quadrupeds, and the gibbons — were they really the flesh and blood compatriots of those abominable ancestors? Was there actually a bizarre and occulted technique by which these ancestors transformed their descendants into inhuman deformities in order to maintain their grotesque and terrifying generational traditions?
Maybe we could bring in Lu Xun again. This might be just an interesting diversion...

One connection between Lovecraft and Lu Xun is Ernst Haeckel, the German naturalist that gave us a polygenist racial theory of humans evolving from a common ancestor and then splitting off into various species with Caucasian man, Homo Mediterraneus, the most highly developed.

Lu Xun translated and helped popularize Haeckel, although James Reeve Pusey in Lu Xun and Evolution argues Lu Xun was not particularly supportive of his views on race, especially given the edits and amendments he made to Haeckel’s work. (It would be hard to say that “A Madman’s Diary” is about racial differences, though, even with all the stuff about “true men” wiping out the cannibals. It’s more of a Nietzschean fable, as Pusey argues, with the madman as possible Übermensch—but it’s too late, and he was eating people, too.)
Lovecraft’s rhetoric is once again trying to trace an invisible but nevertheless broad line between civilization and barbarism in terms of race and culture, to advocate instead an aesthetic polygenist view—races seen as separate products with different origins—by separating the real humans from the less civilized dark-skinned people. He knew and believed that apes “preceded us ancestrally” and that “the negro, australoid, neanderthal, rhodesian” were all “human and humanoid types”, with “the negro” representing “a vastly inferior biological variant which must under no circumstances taint our Aryan stock.” (This is from: “Race and War in the Lovecraft Mythos: A Philosophical Reflection” by Cesar Guarde Paz.)
But I’m running on fumes here and fumbling for a conclusion.

The last story in The Flock of Ba-Hui is “The Ancient Tower.” It concerns a man who tracks down an ancient stupa on the Tibetan Plateau and descends into it. There’s a lengthy explanation of how he finds it, including a thing about a thangka depicting ancient religious rites. But so, he eventually descends into it and has a vision:
The varied scenes all changed at different speeds. While some scenes seemed to condense thousands of years into a fast-forwarded movie, others were shown at a normal pace or even near-solidified clips of utter meaninglessness. Within these images, I saw ghostly jungles of innumerable weird plants flourishing under a sky of surging whitewater vapor that then withered and degenerated into a vast and sinister swamp. ... I saw an infinite expanse of lofty mountains transform itself into a vast and gloomy ocean, and the rolling waves of that same ocean recede against the formation of a new land. ... I saw immeasurable numbers of towering incomparable buildings, piled up like children’s building blocks, rising from a dense jungle until they entered the unseen outer limits of the sky. The sky-scraping towers then collapsed, leaving behind corpses of giant stones half-hidden in the yellow desert sands. I saw countless such reincarnations: each city comparable to our bustling modern metropolises — actually much more magnificent than our puny urban dwellings — but none of them escaped their ultimate fate. Each city would eventually collapse into ruin, either to be consumed by the desert or replaced by a new city. It never stopped.
Apart from this time lapse of civilizations rising and falling, there are other images:
These scenes were filled with all types and kinds of monstrosity that had never been included in any fossil record or archaeological book. The creatures slithered, shambled, and flapped in their respective worlds, committing the most unmentionable acts.
This is something purely Lovecraftian—posthumanist despair (or triumphalism) and the rejection of anthropocentric modernism. And Houellebecq again:
The universe is merely a chance arrangement of elementary particles. A transitory image in the midst of chaos. Which will end with the inevitable: The human race will disappear. Other races will appear, and disappear in turn. The heavens are cold and empty, traversed by the faint light of half-dead stars. Which, also, will disappear. Everything disappears. And human actions are just as random and senseless as the movements of elementary particles.
And maybe the conclusion should start with this: since these are fairly fringe, obscure pieces of writing, how or why did this book come to be?

It’s not that Chinese web writing has never been translated. I’m thinking of Shen Haobo 沈浩波, who made a name from poems published online (and who once made a living as a publisher of online lit), and also Murong Xuecun 慕容雪村, whose Leave Me Alone was first posted online—some of that has made it to ink and paper, but most of the translation of web stuff remains online, and it’s mostly in the form of light novels, like Godly Stay-Home Dad 神级奶爸 and the nearly 5000 chapter Martial God Asura 修罗武神.

Those are two extremes, though: material of academic interest on one side and trashy shit on the other side. This is something around the middle: somewhat serious genre fiction. It's sort of like Hao Jingfang 郝景芳 in that regard (Folding Beijing was kind of a web novel, right?)

And but I would also say those choices above fit some definition of essential Chineseness, and the academic interest in Shen Haobo or Murong Xuecun is because of what they can tell us about China, and the interest in those wuxia novels is at least partly because of their essential Chineseness, too (whether the readers are diaspora kids reconnecting with the culture or white bread American geeks that know more about Daoism than I do, just from reading those stories). Despite the Chinese setting of most of the stories in The Flock of Ba-Hui, they don’t fit with that.

It’s not surprising that the two translators of this book would probably proudly call themselves neoreactionaries, maybe Landians—or they are at least broadly sympathetic. The collection hits all the notes that NRxers love, particularly racial difference and the post-human creepout vibe of world-without-us horror. (And there’s nothing interesting left to write about neoreaction and Lovecraft, so the paragraph ends abruptly.)

I liked the book (speaking as someone that does this for a living, the translation was very good!), but that aspect is more interesting to me.

Most of the translators of Chinese fiction into English are left liberals or ******* ********* ** **** ********** who are mostly harsh critics of contemporary Chinese society and culture and politics. That ***** *****, **** *** *** academics stationed at Western universities. ***** *** ******** **** ******** ** ** **** ****, *** ** ******* ******* about North America here: 1) ****, ************ ****** ********* that learned Chinese in the ‘70s and likely traveled to China for the first time before Reform and Opening, 2) a younger generation of literary youth from the coasts, who might have learned Chinese in high school, and despite spending years in China in the mid 2000s ***** ******* **** ***** *************, 3) ***** ** ****** ********** ********** ** *** ****** ****** *** *******, who tend to be the least left-leaning of the three groups but are smart enough to find jobs in tech or whatever, or at least more stable jobs in academia.

With academic publishing mostly controlled by **** ******** ************* **** ***** *** ********* ******* (a flood of Chinese state funding to other outlets skews that somewhat), that means that readers of Chinese fiction in translation are given a unique window through which to gaze on the country: Chinese literature is defined by dissidents and slackers. This is why ** ***, *** ******, and ** ***, as well as many ******* ******** *** ****** ******** are the biggest literary stars out of China, if you go by what gets published and reviewed.

It's also why the most politically relevant fiction being translated right now is science-fiction, all of which is grossly misunderstood by those that read Liu Cixin 刘慈欣 as a fun futurist or something, rather than a ****** ***** *** ***** **** ** *** **** *** ***, or imagine Hao Jingfang to be a social democrat rather than a ******** ******** (her books are good, though). The politics there usually fly under the radar, but that entire enterprise—publishing science-fiction—has mostly been taken out of the hands of the academics and Sinologists, since it has a different audience to fund it. I don't want to speculate about the ideological leanings of the popularizers of Chinese science-fiction, but, from what I know, they're not—with some exceptions—completely in line with the authors that are being translated.

I'm not saying that The Flock of Ba-Hui is simply a political project, some kind of neoreactionary propaganda work—but so what if it is? We need more of that. I was thinking, you know, I picked up the translation of Cao Zhenglu's There 那儿 partly as a political project. It's an attempt to spread my own political beliefs, but also an attempt to knock out the wall around that window which people have to look at Chinese literature through, since New Left fiction has never appeared in translation. (Interestingly, it was chosen by a fringe Marxist group in the States for a cooperative translation project, too, but that never came to anything.) It will remain unfinished, though. Unfortunately, once you are ******** ** ********* ** ****** * ******* *** ******* ***** ****** it becomes harder to make choices like that, or even to carve out the time to work on similar projects. That makes this book even more rare.


&: Copenhagen

I have writer’s block. I’ve run out of Copenhagen. I’m exactly thirty-five thousand eighteen words into a novel.

I found a source for Copenhagen, who ship it from Pennsylvania to a serviced P.O. box address I have rented in Sarasota, then it gets sent by air from Sarasota to Japan, somehow. In the meantime, I bought some Swedish snus, which is flavored with juniper, lavender, and bergamot. Copenhagen Wintergreen tastes like a barn floor and Vicks VapoRub.

The last time I ran out, I sent a half-Japanese girl I knew to pick it up on the base. Her dad was a Marine, and she came back with him, mostly to help chaperone her sister, who was trying out for idol groups and got picked up by one with a lukewarm following in Japan but a rabid fanbase in the Philippines. She brought me a log of Grizzly and didn’t ask to get paid back. Eventually, though, she moved back to San Diego. I have no idea what became of her sister.

The novel is about slaughterhouses. It’s set in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in the early 2000s. I’m not sure of the date, but the Union Hospital is still standing (but abandoned), you can still get a drink at the Brunswick, but the apartments across from the Snow Hut have already burned down. It’s inspired less by my own time working in slaughterhouses than stories from my friend Lao Liu, who I met when I returned to Moose Jaw for the first time in years, while I was living in my father’s attic with ******, and had managed to publish a few short stories. One of those short stories was based on Lao Liu stabbing an African guy in a fight at the beef plant. That happened before they locked out the workers and he went to work at ****** ***** Pork on South Hill. The previous owners of the pork plant were Taiwanese grifters that ran off with the city’s money, and it only got re-opened with heavy investment from the province.

I got a habit for dip in Regina, I think, when I worked with a bunch of hillbillies in a warehouse. I liked Skoal Cherry, then I switched to Skoal Mint.

Lots of the material for the first half of the novel was already written, whether or not I still had a copy of it. At first, I was simply rearranging it, then trying to drive a few plotlines through it.

I wrote about walking out on the CNR line, out over the creek on a timber bridge, fifty or sixty feet up over the water. I did that, once, when I was too old to be fucking around like that. It’s an interesting view of the city. You can see the National Light and Power building, the refinery tanks beyond, and then green hills. I wrote about the fire at the Gulf Refinery tanks, and about how the dams on the Thunder Creek and Moose Jaw Rivers had formed Wakamow, and how Wakamow had collected a century’s worth of industrial runoff. I wrote about the painted terracotta cameos of Native chiefs up on Fourth Avenue Bridge, how they came not from any local historical figures but from reimaginings of a photo by Joseph K. Dixon, who was brought along by Rodman Wanamaker, and a painting by Winold Reiss, a German immigrant who sold his portraits to the Great Northern Railway for their promotional calendars.

I used to get a tin of Copenhagen and a bottle of Mountain Dew every day at the Bun N’ Bottle on Athabasca, then walk down to the library and sit in one of the carrels and try to write what was essentially the novel I’m working on now. I’d drink the Mountain Dew, then spit into the bottle. You can get Mountain Dew here but good luck finding Cope Wintergreen outside of a BX.

I put the library in the book. Carnie funded it. The character in the novel stands, looking east down Athabasca, with the motel behind him, and reflects on it being one of the few places in the city that looks untouched by time. There’s the stone church there, with its uneven spires, Crescent Park, then the library with its brick and limestone facade. There’s a funeral parlor, over there, too, which is comparatively ancient, having been built sometime around the First World War. It’s a three story brick building put by some local burgher that lost everything in the Depression and sold it off in the ‘30s. The old stables still stand out back, converted to park the hearses in.

I saw that it was up for sale. I could move into a historic funeral parlor for probably eight hundred grand. I could go out and look at the old church every morning, walk over to the library, which, last time I went, had thrown out most of its books (or put them down in the basement?) Maybe that would be a more worthwhile use of my time. I’m not going to find the advertisement right now, but the realtor said something like: “Due to the nature of the business, carpet has been laid down to cut down on noise, but there is hardwood flooring throughout.”


&: Ballroom

(talking about ballrooms in Dalian, theme parks of traditional gender roles, trains)

This might be notes toward something, but it doesn't really go anywhere. I was walking along the streetcar line that runs through Arakawa Ward, a couple days ago. I was thinking for the first time in a long time about the ballrooms in Dalian. I don't know where that memory went. But I was somewhere east of Machiya and north of the northernmost traces of the Korean neighborhood around Mikawashima, and a streetcar went by and I thought about watching the trains enter their yard in Dalian, over by the Tianxing Roosevelt Center and the intersection of Xi’an Lu and Wuyi Lu. The Arakawa Line and the Dairen trams, formerly part of the South Manchuria Railway, were created by the same industrial policy and started running around the same time, about a century ago. I like to imagine that some of the men who laid down the Arakawa Line were shipped out to Manchuria to work on the railway there, but who knows? (But I think they used German rolling stock in Dairen and I know they used Japanese rolling stock for the Arakawa Line.)

Whoever laid these tracks wouldn’t have recognized either city, a century in the future. That section of Arakawa would have been burned down and flooded out at least three or four times before being reduced to ash in the firebombing of the Second World War, and the buildings that went up after that were pulled down decades ago. Over a hundred years, Dalian changed its name and boundaries several times, most of the Japanese architecture and all of the Russian buildings were pulled down, and almost everything that went up in its place has already been pulled down, too, rapidly replaced as the city became the Hong Kong of the North under Bo Xilai. The only signs of Japanese influence are the hotels, and those are much later, Bubble Era ventures, and then a few cabarets and massage places, and a handful of good sushi restaurants. The tram in Dalian is a reminder of Japanese imperialism, but is now decrepit and running on borrowed time. The tram in Arakawa is a reminder of late Meiji urbanization, industrialization, and modernization, but is now operated for tourists, transportation otaku, and the early Showa baby boom generation. I used to live alongside the Arakawa tracks, when I lived with ***** in Oku. We were living in a postwar shack that had been turned into a sharehouse. Everytime the streetcar went by, you could feel it. Later, we moved down the tracks to Minowa, where I could appreciate the tram as a tourist might, seeing it occasionally as it pulled into the station attached to the shopping arcade at its eastern terminus. I'm trying to remember whether or not I ever actually rode the Dalian streetcar. I don’t think I did. But I used to spend a lot of time down where the streetcars came off the line, down by Wuyi Lu.

I’d take the bus in from Pao’ai and wander around the neighborhood alone, sometimes to watch the trains and sometimes to wander around, looking for something to do. It was one of the grimmest neighborhoods left in downtown Dalian. Since it was centrally-located and had become an island in a sea of development, I’m guessing the original residents jumped ship, predicting that they’d be forced out eventually, and maybe they held onto their rooms and rented them out. Trying to picture it now, I realize I never saw it by daylight. There were a few apartment blocks surrounding wide courtyards, then narrow streets running out from them. Nobody that lived there was from Dalian but had come to the city looking for work. It was mostly men, working construction or trying to find jobs, crashing in tiny rooms, then all the businesses that catered to them. There were tiny restaurants and hair-washing places, a few internet bars, liquor stores, hole-in-the-wall convenience stores, shit like that…

Women patrolled with laminated signs advertising the flophouses. Other women, with faces painted white, gathered in groups under the overpass, pecking at men as they passed. That is what I remember most clearly—all the women. They came out at dusk, a few under the overpass but most them out in the courtyards between buildings, and on the streets around *** *** Ballroom, standing motionless in the cold, sometimes drifting into groups, calling out to men as they passed. They were just like Cao Zhenglu’s “sentries under the neon lights,” heavy makeup and heavy jackets, trying to make enough to get by. *** *** Ballroom was right in the center of the neighborhood. It was a low, concrete building with its name in lights up top. I watched rough-looking men and older women in short dresses walking in, pushing aside the army green blanket over the door. The first time I went past the blanket, a man stopped me just inside the door, and asked me if I knew what kind of place it was. I told him I’d been there before, paid the three kuai entry, and went in. (In Tokyo, a place like that, I would surely be turned away. Those bans on foreign customers are usually restricted to fuzoku operations but not always. The strangest incident I've ever had involved a hot dog-themed girls bar in Sapporo, which I entered with ***** and got kicked out before I could take a seat, and the most recent was while trying to get my hair cut at a barbershop near Asakusa. In China, there's not much danger of being turned away, but the real goings-on are always below the surface, anyways, and can be hidden from outsiders, and the only real inconvenience will be being noticed and afforded greater hospitality or deference.)

There was a sort of antechamber, with two disorganized rows of women. It was a bit like a KTV lineup in the glory days of KTV lineups, but most of the women looked like KTV girls off shift, dressed in street clothes, eye makeup smudged. The women outside the *** *** Ballroom, working in the courtyard and on the street and under the overpass were usually in their late-thirties or forties, but these women were in their late-twenties or early-thirties, although it was hard to tell. I walked past them into what looked like any other nightclub anywhere else in the country, with a bar, a couple tables, and a dancefloor. The music was loud. It was a folk song set to a pounding disco beat. I leaned against the wall and smoked a few cigarettes. A couple women—older women, with short, tight dresses—patrolling the room sidled up to me, asking for a dance, but most ignored me. A short man in a corduroy jacket motioned me over to his table and asked me where I was from and what I was doing there. I told him I had come for a look. He jutted his chin toward the dancefloor, where I saw that he had been watching a man and woman dancing. The women’s skirt was pulled up over her thighs and the man was very tenderly fingering her. When the song was finished, the lights came up a bit and the couple separated. I didn’t know the term shawuting 砂舞厅 at the time, and I had never heard of a moba 摸吧 or momo wuting 摸摸舞厅 or heiwuting 黑舞厅 or heisanqu 黑三曲 or fufei wuting 付费舞厅. He explained the basics: men pay women to dance with them, and when the lights dim, there is the option to grope and fondle and to be groped and fondled, and other things can be negotiated.

The short man said, “The prettiest xiaojie out there, they might be renyao.” It took me finally catching sight of one of these particularly pretty xiaojie to figure out what he meant. I don’t think I had ever heard the word renyao before, which he was using to refer to the many transwomen in the club. (If I had been writing this at the time, I would be less cautious about what I'm describing here but:) I had been curious about the transgender sex workers around Wuyi Lu. The corduroy man was correct: the prettiest xiaojie out there, they were renyao. But, first of all, would they have identified themselves as trangender? Kuaxingbie 跨性别, transgender, seems to be the preferred term of younger Chinese acquaintances, but would these people have had—remember, this was a while ago, maybe six or seven years now—the same awareness. Would they identify themselves as renyao 人妖? I wouldn’t think so. (I recommend a paper by Yiu Fai Chow that appeared in Transgender Studies Quarterly, “Yao, More or Less Human,” which is about a sex worker who does use renyao to refer to herself, and contains a more lengthy discussion of the term. I am forced to refer to academic work because I was too shy to ask during my one shot.)

That was Y***, who I met outside *** *** Ballroom, in a McDonalds not too far away, a few days after my first visit. I won’t describe her because I’ve long since forgotten her face and even this conversation is hazy. I think I recognized her, and I think I saw her coming to the upstairs area where I was sitting and asked her to sit down or she asked to sit down. She told me she was from Tianjin but had been in Shenyang from the time she was seventeen until just over a year ago, when she moved to Dalian. She was happy to explain that she worked at *** *** Ballroom. We made pleasant conversation and I was too shy to ask: "Do the men there know that you are different?" The short man in the corduroy jacket might have, but I suspect that most wouldn't. But I'll never know. Y*** invited ** ** ** *** **** *** **** ** ****** **** ** *** **** ********** ******* * **** **** ********* *** *** *** ***** ** *** ********** **** ** *** **** *** ************ ***. *** ******* *** ******** ****** ****** *** ********** * ***** ***** **** ** * *** ** ********** ** **** ******. ****** *** ** ******* ******** *** ***** *** *********. * ********* ****** **** *** ****** **. She was too cagey and I was too much of a gentleman to pry any further or even steer the conversation toward those sorts of topics.

The place that Y*** recommended was in the basement of a building at the bottom of the ramp up to the overpass. I heard music inside but I couldn’t find the door. I eventually asked a woman that was working outside, who did her best to persuade me that my money would be better spent on her, then reluctantly directed me to a nearby place, ******** Ballroom. ******** Ballroom was a slightly more upscale venture (I had heard *** *** Ballroom was the filthiest of all options), with a row of tables behind the bar, where men sat with women after dancing. I sat with a girl at ******** Ballroom for an hour or so, that first night, trying to talk over the music. Her name was Z**** X**, just like ******’s Mongolian friend, who I had quietly been in love with in ******. She was from—and I’m struggling to remember the details, so this is all unreliable, if it even matters—Sichuan, and had come up to work in Dalian only a few months before I met her. She lived in a room not far from *** *** Ballroom and survived off working nights there. Most of the girls there, she told me, were from the countryside, and she was originally, too, but her parents had abandoned her when she was two or three years old, and she’d grown up in a village outside Leshan. She was twenty-three and had a husband and child. Her husband was in Xi’an and their daughter had been left with his parents. This conversation cost me the equivalent of a meal for two and a bottle of liquor at a nearby restaurant.

I suppose I was a lot like the other men that engaged her services. I was a long way from home. I was bored. I was lonely. The trips down to Wuyi Lu, if you asked me at the time, I might have admitted some of it was a self-destructive impulse, like, some attempt to wash myself clean in dirty water, and I’m sure I would have talked about how I was starved for some kind of authentic experience. I like to think there was some professional consideration, too, since I needed things to write about (if I hadn’t gone, what would I be writing about right now?) But I guess it isn’t much more complicated than being bored and lonely.

I went back the next evening and paid to dance with a girl named M*******. I can't dance but it didn't matter. It was basically like slow dancing in the high school gym, but I knew I should put my hands on her hips, rather than draping them over her shoulders. The dancehall smelled like body odor and disinfectant, and she smelled like cooking steam and winter air and vanilla perfume. I remember the feeling of her warm back through her dress. We sat together for a while in two uncomfortable rattan chairs, making small talk. She was from down south, too, it turned out, and worked sometimes in a canteen attached to one of the wholesale markets down by the train station.

It seemed interesting to me, at the time, that a man of limited means was willing to spend more for time in contact and conversation with a woman at *** *** Ballroom than he would at one of the nearby barber shops, which provided the most basic of sexual services. Of course, there was more on offer than dancing and conversation. But I guess it’s the same everywhere, companionship costs more than sex. For what you would spend on a chaste night at a kyabakura in Tokyo—exchanging chit-chat and dirty jokes and shots of whiskey, maybe a kiss on the cheek and the trade of contact details to close—you could finance a week or so of daily pinsaro visits. Men pay for ninety minute appointments with their deriheru girl, even though climax will be reached in the first fifteen or twenty, because they treasure the moments before and after: a shower together, maybe, and then curling up in a love hotel bed, chatting about whatever. (It’s hard enough to make a living selling sex, but selling intimacy, for some people, is even harder. It’s the reason why some girls would rather work for a deriheru than a kyabakura, and would prefer a sixty minute booking to a ninety minute booking, even if the final bill is smaller. Jason Itzler, who claims to have pioneered the marketing of the girlfriend experience, exhorted his employees "to repeat a mantra to themselves before meeting their client, to the effect that he was actually her boyfriend of six months standing, whom she had not seen for three weeks.")

Much of the discussion online emphasizes that the women that work in ballrooms are very different from the women that work in saunas or barber shops or KTVs: many are amateurs, rather than hardened professionals, and there is, sometimes, an amount of seduction required (or imagined: you can pay for sex and you can pay for companionship but you can't pay to be wanted or lusted after or loved). Women that work in saunas and KTVs tend, in my experience, to think of themselves as sex workers—I mean, they think of themselves as belonging to that separate nighttime world of women that sell their time, although I'm not sure many would use such a formal term. They might say "night work" or "this kind of work" or some other euphemism. But the women that sold their time in the dance halls, I suppose they would have agreed with the men that bought their time, that they were amateurs, often not forced to kick back to a boss, and sometimes only rarely selling anything beyond a dancefloor grope (some women even expressed disbelief to me that anything beyond that was for sale, although perhaps they were just being polite or didn't get my very shy nudging to get them to talk about that). What they were doing had plenty of history, too, even if they might have been unaware of it, and it was only sixtysomething years before there had been a craze for commercial ballrooms and paid companionship that was "converting sing-song girls into taxi-dancers" (John Pal's memoir, quoted in Andrew Field's Shanghai's Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954.) Field describes one of the tabloids of the time:
Jingbao expanded to six pages—enough space to accommodate a daily half-page section titled "The dancing world" (Wuguo), signaling the institutionalization of dancing discourse. ... Articles in "The dancing world" favored gossip about specific dancing hostesses, as well as poems and interviews written about and by dancing hostesses, regular columns such as "Secret news" (Mibao) and "Bedside diaries" (Chuangtou riji), and advice such as "How to speak your heart with dancing hostesses" (Zenyang yu wunu tanquing). At the close of the decade, in the pages of one of Shanghai's most stable and successful "mosquito" papers, the world of the sing-song house was completely overshadowed by the world of the dance hall. (This is from "Selling Souls in Sin City: Shanghai Singing and Dancing Girls in Print, Film, and Politics, 1920-49" in Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai.)
This flowering of dance hall culture was shortlived and jiaoyiwu 交谊舞, or social dance, re-emerged within the lifetimes of most of the people that patronized the ballroom in Dalian in the 2010s. There were work unit dances and whatnot at first, and then dance halls in hotels, catering to foreigners, and then a few of the old dance halls are re-opened. Maybe it was—especially in Shanghai, definitely—a rehabilitation of Republican Era Shanghai dance culture, but also a discovery of Taiwan and Hong Kong dance culture, transmitted into the Mainland through Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

It was a mostly urban working class recreation, those first dance halls that opened up in places like Chengdu and Shanghai and Shenzhen. I wasn’t there, you weren’t there, but just imagine! It’s 1982, you’re dancing cheek-to-cheek with the prettiest girl in your danwei as a cassette tape of “Nanping Evening Bell” comes out the tinny speakers of an old PA system, echoing off the concrete walls of an air raid shelter…And of course, it wasn’t all chaste slow dancing to Teresa Teng songs. A 1980 editorial on social dancing emphasized the "social and health benefits of dance," while warning against "the creeping commercialization of dance halls and the reemerging practice of people dancing for money (like the old taxi dancers)" (this is quoted in Shanghai Nightscapes: A Nocturnal Biography of a Global City by James Farrer and Andrew David Field).

This would have been at right around the same time as the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution, following the first sessions of the Twelfth Central Committee and the revision of the Constitution, another push for reform, and attempts to deal with the old guard. There was anxiety about intellectual opening-up and debate about abstract and not very clearly defined concepts like humanism and socialist alienation, but, on a more practical level, the leadership knew that rampant crime and corruption would sink them even faster. A series of decisions by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress targeted liumang fanzui 流氓犯罪, liumang crimes and liumang fanzui jituan 流氓犯罪集团, liumang criminal organization, and authorized the death penalty for dealing with them (see: New Crime in China: Public Order and Human Rights by Ronald Keith and Zhiqiu Lin). Social dancing fell victim to the 1983 strike hard campaign against liumang crimes and the atmosphere of concern over social liberalism.

Ma Yanqin 马燕秦 was made an example of by the authorities, and I’m going to use her as an example myself. She was a single woman in her forties, living in Xi’an with her two adult daughters, and she had been on the radar of the local Public Security Bureau. They knew she was holding parties at her house, so it made sense to round her up when they needed to hit their quota of liumang arrests. She was sentenced to death. As the court records have it: "unemployed long-term, she used her own residence as a meeting place for liumang elements, organized liumang dance parties, seduced young men and women into attending these events and others, and instigated and abetted other forms of liumang crime." She was also accused of prostitution: "[Ma] had sexual relations with several dozen people, receiving at least 2000 yuan for her services. ... She also threatened and lured her two daughters into providing sexual services for various liumang elements." After Ma was arrested, the PSB went to work tracking down everyone who had ever attended the dances, rounding up a few hundred people. Out of those arrested, three others got stayed sentences of death (Li Zhaosheng 李兆胜, Yuan Dingzhi 袁定之, Yang Hefeng 杨和风 were all involved in organizing parties with Ma, and Yang Hefeng’s case was particularly serious because it was alleged he had a foreign student join in a party), a few got life in prison, and Ma Yanqin went in front of a firing squad. (See: 83年严打纪事:“流氓大案”是怎样炼成的 by Yang Shiyang 杨时旸.)

And maybe some brief, incomplete discussion of the term liumang, which has long since been removed from legal codes but is still around, and probably still works to describe the type of people that go to places like *** *** Ballroom. I’m going to refer to myself referring to Chen Baoliang 陈宝良 somewhere else, talking about the etymology of liumang, coming from liumin 流民 or youmin 游民, (mang 氓 and min 民 are sort of interchangeable, and you even have the compound minmeng 民氓, meaning “the common people”), and referring to floating 流 people 氓 not engaged in any reputable trade and possibly of no fixed address (I have in these notes something about a connection to liumeng 流虻, a slang term for rowdy boys of the late Qing in Jiangnan, derived from a type of horsefly, but I can’t be sure what Chen Baoliang was talking about now, without looking up the actual reference, Chen’s History of Chinese Liumang《中国流氓史》, and here I will also recommend Youmin Culture and Chinese Society《游民文化与中国社会》by Wang Xuetai 王学泰, since it's also listed in my very, very old notes). And here is Michael Dutton also referring to Chen Baoliang:
From the etymologically based understanding to a range of activities, the liumang begins to enter contemporary discourse and it is from this that one begins to understand that the term liumang goes beyond criminal activity to incorporate all those people who, in Chen's words, are 'without a place'. To be without a place means more than being without a work unit for here is an understanding of place that goes beyond the spatial. To be without a place means exclusion from the norm and exclusion from an acceptable social position. In China, there is a strict policing of the boundaries of acceptable social behaviour and, while the metaphor of exclusion from the walled compound of the work unit helps one picture the degree of expulsion, it is inadequate in conveying the wider meaning of liumang. (This is from Streetlife China, a work I refer to frequently. Until I looked that up, though, I forgot that Dutton actually translates, further on, an excerpt from the Chen Baoliang book, which is clearly where I got the horsefly thing, and also a Ge Fei 格非 essay about the state of insecurity in the 1980s.)
Liumang” covers, first, all behaviors deemed counterrevolutionary, especially unacceptable sexual behavior. The term is ambiguous, used to denounce a woman who organizes dance parties, and also adulterers and rapists, reducing them to social outcasts. Dance halls are for liumang. In our example, *** *** Ballroom, the women that sell a few songs’ worth of dirty dancing or a blowjob in a dark corner are liumang and so are the men that would go to a place like that.

It’s hard to say how effective the strike hard campaign against the liumang really was. Not all of those arrested were harmless middle-aged women organizing dance parties. Across the country, tens of thousands were sentenced to death (the vast majority, like in the Xi’an case, were sixing huanqi zhixing 死刑缓期执行, stayed sentences of death), and more than a million were incarcerated. There must have been some bad apples in the bunch.

My point, perhaps lost somewhere above, is that the anti-crime crackdown and the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution were not completely separate. Social dancing was saved as much by Hu Yaobang himself ordered an editorial to end the campaign—”Eliminate spiritual pollution, beautify life”《污染须清除,生活要美化》—as it was by the drawing down of the first strike hard campaign. The editorial opens by congratulating Communist Youth Leagues on joining in ideological warfare against spiritual pollution, but says:
...young women have been censured for perming their hair and wearing makeup, there have been attempts to interfere with young people wearing up-to-date fashions, the very healthy practice of collective dance has been banned, and even the completely benign practice of keeping a flower garden has been criticized. These behaviors have been deemed to be the result of the influence of "bourgeois lifestyles" and classified as "spiritual pollution." Although the number of instances in which these attempts by young people to bring some beauty into their lives were classed as spiritual pollution is quite small, we cannot ignore them.
In autumn of 1984, dance halls began to re-open, with heavy restrictions which were eventually lifted in the late 1980s. The dance halls were for the urban working class, local and migrant.

The dongdong wuting 洞洞舞厅 that went into the bomb shelters and basements of Chengdu in the late 1980s seem to have been written about with more fanaticism than elsewhere. Shawu 砂舞 and that term started in Chengdu, probably just to refer the aggressive grinding, which was the product of horny young people in a dark room, escaping from life in a dormitory, and without the option of a love hotel. The dance halls attracted laid off workers, unemployed young people, students, and various liumang (see: 有偿“砂舞”风靡成都 很难界定是否色情). Some brilliant entrepreneur finally figured out that she could charge for a dance—and maybe more! A man from Chengdu recounts an encounter that took place around 1994:
One day, I went to the ballroom to dance and an old lady came up to me and goes, "You wanna dance?" I told her I wasn't interested. Next thing I know, she goes, "I could suck you off." It blew my mind. I'd never come across anything like that before. I asked her how much it'd be and she said thirty, which sounded decent to me, so we went off to where it was dark... I left there and told all my friends, and they were dying to try it for themselves, and I bet she ended up blowing them, too... It was around that time that women started charging for dances, too. (This is from Memories of Chengdu Shawu《成都砂舞回忆录》)
The history of ballrooms in Dalian tracks closely the more carefully-recorded history of Chengdu ballrooms: dance halls proliferated in the ‘90s, faced crackdowns and increased competition in the 2000s, then came back in the 2010s, fewer in number, and still home to about the same migrant and local urban liumang that had been going out to them since the ‘90s.

I say “about the same migrant and local urban liumang,” but I know there’s a problem with this claim. By the time I was going to the ballrooms around Wuyi Lu, most of the dancers and their customers were migrant workers, rather than local residents. I met people from all across Northeastern China and the Central Plains, and many of the women were from Sichuan and Hunan, but nobody was from Dalian. The kid that would have snuck out to a ballroom in the 1980s was going to the same clubs I frequented in the entertainment district northwest of Minzhu Square, or to more modest clubs around the city, or to KTVs. It was just about walking distance between those Minzhu Square clubs and the Wuyi Lu ballrooms but they were existed in different worlds. Minzhu Square was popular with middle class kids but also just slightly more adventurous young people, and cosmopolitan, full of Russians freshly down from Vladivostok or Khabarovsk and students from Africa and the Middle East, and the language was English as much as Mandarin (and even those clubs seemed a bit old-fashioned compared to the more elite spots that rich kids drove out to—and those places seemed laughably provincial compared to nouveau riche hot spots in Shanghai, and those places, if relocated to Tokyo, would be more at home in a provincial capital than they would in Dogenzaka).

I always thought of the Chinese club as mostly sexless. They tend to be for communal celebration, bottle service and a booth, rather than individual pairing off, and that even holds mostly true in those cosmopolitan, foreigner-friendly spots (and I’m comparing them to their equivalents in Tokyo or Vancouver or London). Those places are more about the consumption of a cosmopolitan sexual culture, I think, and voyeurism, than they are about actually fucking. I went out every night that I could and I went out with the intention of picking up a girl, and I was only successful often enough to keep me going back. The dance hall is a place to go by yourself. They are also—lifting W. David Marx’s description of kyabakura—theme parks of traditional gender roles. In places like *** *** Ballroom, you can live out life as you think it should be, and the xiaojie are discouraged from turning you down.

In Farrer’s Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai, he notes that many of the young people going out to “disco pubs” in Shanghai were unaware of the parallel world of social dance halls. The regular type of social dance hall slowly disappeared and heiwuting were more plentiful, in Dalian, at least—and I’m sure none of my Minzhu Square friends were aware of *** *** Ballroom. A different kind of man goes to a place like *** *** Ballroom.

I was thinking about the story that Y*** told me, about how, when she was in Shenyang, she lived with a man that she met in a dance hall. He was working on a demolition project, and she used to look forward to him coming home, so that she could fill a basin with hot water and soap, and scrub the grime from his body and then rub liniment into his back. She picked fights with him and begged to be hit, but even that he did tenderly. He was in his fifties and eventually decided to return home to his wife and son, and she admired that about him, too. Now, was Y***’s lover a bad man? Maybe. He did hit her, after all, even if she remembered the bruises fondly. Would he have stayed with her if she had a womb? She thought so. But what she appreciated about him was that type of masculinity that is now outmoded or unnecessary or unappreciated in urban China and beyond. These men are "not compatible with the national ideology of modernization" (see: Gender, Modernity and Male Migrant Workers in China: Becoming a 'Modern' Man by Xiaodong Lin), and they make a living with their bodies rather than their minds. They are disconnected from all sources of power in the cities where they live. There is nothing for them at a club or KTV. It brings to mind the controversy that erupted following the publication of Jia Pingwa’s Broken Wings《极花》and the broadsides against male chauvinism and zhinanai 直男癌, toxic masculinity. One review of the book chastized Jia for not moving with the times:
Our major cities are now relatively egalitarian. Writers of the Jia’s generation don’t seem to understand that. They can't stand to see how things are going. They don't understand new thoughts and new emotions. They can't deal with the equality of men and women, or people that don't want to get married, or all the various sexual orientations. (This is from a review by Hou Hongbin 侯虹斌, which I have previously translated excerpts from.)
Some men are more equal than others, no matter how “relatively egalitarian” the cities have become. And that is why some men go to *** *** Ballroom and some are in Minzhu Square.

But maybe I'm heading in the wrong direction. The ballrooms are theme parks of traditional gender roles because traditional gender roles don't belong in the postsocialist city. These places operate, too, on the logic of the city that says love can be bought, and companions can be upgraded, as long as you can afford it. The men that pay for the attention of the dancers want to be complimented on their masculine charms and tanned forearms but they have to pay for the pleasure. The women are probably making more money from them, if they’re only in the ballroom to supplement their regular income, and, somewhere, maybe in the same city, a man is waiting for them to come home safely. Not many are as lucky as Y***’s lover, with a wife waiting back in the village and a woman in the city to rub liniment into his sore muscles. It's a good thing he does have that wife back in the village, because he would never be able to stay in the city. The liumang, the youmin, and the diduan renkou 低端人口 don't belong, once their utility is gone.

I'm spinning my wheels here, looking for a conclusion.