&: Diary (13)

(November 24th, 2019) I once almost starved to death in Dalian. I was living in an apartment in Pao'ai in Ganjingzi, just north of the airport. It was scrubland that had been home to a village and a few subsistence farms a long time before, then a landfill, then exurban wasteland occupied by a few factories, then finally, from around ten or twenty years before, apartment blocks. I had a rice cooker than I used to heat up water, which I would empty into a basin in the bathroom, to take baths, and then, eventually, the power was cut off. I spent days away from home, though, and I was splitting my time between a few friends' places. I wasn't working or doing anything but going out every night to party at shitty clubs downtown, sometimes finding alternate places to crash or girls to stay with. When I stayed with my friend Mike, we'd go together to the bath house outside of his apartment, or I'd shower whenever I crashed at a girl's place. I didn't have much money, but it didn't take much. We drank Coke Zero and cheap brandy at KFC before going out and got bad hash off some French students. But I ran out of money a while after the power got cut at the apartment, but I borrowed enough to get another month of electricity. I survived off mantou for a while, then I started digging through discarded bags of leftover takeout food I had tossed into the kitchen. It was the middle of winter, the power had been off, and the radiators never got cold, so the leftovers had kept surprisingly well. When I had no money and no garbage left to eat, I started snatching potatoes and radish from the front doorway of my neighbors. This was—and I don't even remember exactly now but I think—a seven story walkup, so I would alternate, day-to-day, taking food from different doorways. They kept their root vegetables out there to keep them cold. I cooked the potatoes in my rice cooker and ate them sprinkled with soy sauce from a bottle left behind by a previous tenant. I remember going out once to meet my friend Gigi at an Italian restaurant near People's Square, shyly taking her up on her offer of a meal, then, as we walked out, when she wasn't looking, swiping a half-eaten steak left behind at a table near the door. I stopped paying my rent, too. My landlord was a woman in her thirties, who had gone to school in the States and ran a side business renting apartments to foreigners. About a month into not eating properly and smoking bad hash and drinking cheap brandy, I started to hallucinate. I don't know if it even qualifies as an hallucination. It wasn't anything serious. But I saw my landlord, all the time. Her face was always popping up in crowds, accompanied by waves of anxiety.

When I ended up getting my nose broken in a fight at a bar, I couldn't afford to pay to get it fixed, but I managed to beg some money from my mother, which I put towards a ferry ticket from Dalian to Weihai (or possibly Yantai). I told everyone I had bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles. When I got to Weihai, I took a bus 700 kilometers southwest to Xuzhou, where ****** was from, where I had lived with her, and where she was spending a winter after a semester at Guizhou University's School of Marxism. She met me at the bus station. It was about minus fifteen. We took a taxi out to where he parents had moved. The last time I had been there, they had still been waiting for the apartment promised by the local government in exchange for moving out of the factory dormitory. The factory attached to the dormitory was already gone by the time I first went to Xuzhou. It had been replaced by a luxury apartment complex. The taxi out to their new place took half an hour. On the way there, the taxi hit a cat that ran into the road. When we arrived, her mother sat me down beside her bed, filled a basin with hot water, and washed my hair with a rag. ******'s father went out and came back with a roast chicken. The roast chickens you get off the street in China are not the seven pound roasters you'd find in a Safeway back home, but tiny birds, a couple pounds. There was a dish of tomato and egg, cooked the way her mother always made it, the eggs slightly rubbery, and not improved by being left out from lunch, and maybe a dish of pressed tofu dressed with sesame oil, vinegar, and soy sauce. I think it was the first full meal I had eaten in weeks.

During my time in a detention facility in Datong, we ate okay. There was porridge for breakfast, but it usually came with pickles. Lunch was usually more porridge, but it came with some stir-fried vegetables. Dinner was about the same, but we usually got a heartier dish of cabbage and mushroom with a few shreds of pork fat and gristle mixed in. Sometimes we got mantou; sometimes it was mouldy, but I've fed myself mouldy mantou before, too. We got a little bit of doufuru as a treat sometimes, too. There's nothing like doufuru on a warm mantou. And there was a 小卖部 in the 拘留所, which sold stuff like 罐头鱼 and Orion Choco-Pies and instant noodles. I remember one night, when I got sick and tired of eating 小米粥, I bought a bag of blueberry and cream snack sandwiches from the 小卖部 and ***** ate them that night, with our parkas spread out on the floor, watching a miniseries about Chairman Mao. I'm not sure it was enough to thrive on, and I started to get hungry when mealtimes approached. I was always a bit hungry, but the boredom was more of a concern. But anyways, I remember my first meal after I got out—I just mentioned this again, but it was at Real Kungfu at the airport—and the first pack of cigarettes I bought... but my first meal after being deported: I ate butter chicken at a moderately fancy Indian restaurant on 137 Ave in Northeast Edmonton.

A few years ago, when I lived in another part of Tokyo than I do now (this was two moves ago), I didn't really have enough money to eat. There was a Lawson 100 one stop down the Toden Arakawa Line, where I'd put together a day's meal, usually one or two loaves of sweet, sticky bread, a little tub of chocolate spread or strawberry jam, and a one liter bottle of no-name cola. I'd usually have enough left for a pack of cigarettes, but sometimes I would spot long butts on the sidewalk on the way to the Lawson and save them up to smoke late at night. I didn't have a job and I couldn't speak any Japanese. I put an advertisement on a job board for language tutors and got a few jobs. I made the mistake of offering a free sample lesson, so I'd end up having to take a train to some godforsaken corner of the city to sit in a Doutor or Tully's with a mousy OL, who would always tell me about studying overseas in her twenties or vague plans to vacation in Scotland. I got the feeling that these women took a lot of sample lessons and were likely looking for something other than English lessons, since they never showed much interest in my prepared materials. They sometimes contacted me on Line afterwards to make pleasant chit-chat about movies they had seen, but very few seemed interested in paying for lessons. I once took a train way out to somewhere in Chiba to teach English to a pair of ********-year-old girls, whose mother had arranged the lesson. I had made a set of flashcards to prepare for the lesson. I was taking it seriously, since I figured I could charge double my usual rate, and I'd get a paid ride out into the suburbs once or twice a week. Midway through the lesson, one of the girls lifted up her skirt and slowly, while making eye contact with me, ******** * *** **** *** ******. They didn't seem to find that unusual, and so I averted my gaze and continued with the lesson. When the lesson was done, the girls were called upstairs by their mother, who apparently received a glowing review, since she immediately offered to have me come out twice a week for lessons. I told her I'd think about it, then made an excuse about having too many students.

The truth was, I only had a single student, a middle-aged woman that I met with once a week in Asakusa, where she owned a small office building with a pet café on the first floor. She paid me in cash, prepared her own materials, and was a good conversationalist in her mostly-fluent English. I wouldn't eat the day that I taught her. I would take the money she gave me, walk up the street to a 7-11 and buy a pack of cigarettes, smoke a few on the way to McDonalds, buy a double cheeseburger and a Coke and go upstairs to eat. With my belly full and my head buzzing from nicotine, I would stumble back home. The relief only lasted for a short time. I would have to stop halfway home to duck into a public toilet and shit my guts out. I thought it was worth it, though. I did it once a week.

These are stories about being hungry. When I lived in Vancouver, long before both of these stories happened, I used to be part of an unofficial group of friends that would seek out new restaurants, like, maybe a place in Gastown, but more likely some obscure restaurant in Burnaby. I was working as a cook, I think, most of that time, and a few members of the group were also in the industry. I used to write about food a lot. So, anyways, I'd write about the eel and bacon hotpot at a Hunanese restaurant called Aroma Garden on Number Three Road or the rabbit heads at Chuanxiang Ge, which later became a Korean-Chinese restaurant, or even about the pappardelle with veal cheeks at a French restaurant downtown. I think I really enjoyed all of that, but what I really remember is—and goddamn, I was starving then, too, and living off ninety-nine cent loaves of bread from Safeway and shoplifted jars of Nutella—was getting the money together for a meal of steamed buns and steamed pork at the Richmond Public Market and a bottle of beer from the liquor store downstairs. More than any flavor or texture, I like the feeling of being uncomfortably full. I want to eat until I feel sick. And I sometimes tell myself that maybe this is some kind of phenotypic and genetic characteristic, something passed down by my ancestors, who lived on salted seal meat and frozen cod, but it's more likely something from my own experience. 人的胃是有记忆功能的, after all, and I spent most of my adult life a little bit hungry, and the rest uncomfortably overfed.

I'm not sure what made me think of that. As I write this, I am eating grapes, in the dark, checking each one with my fingertips for signs of rot.

(November 25th, 2019) I take the train so seldom that I took a picture of it. These trains run right under my apartment. There is a grate in the sidewalk where I can hear them creaking through the tunnels between Iriya and Ueno. I was on my way to Ginza, too, when I'm usually headed in the other direction, out to Minowa or Kita-Senju. I found myself standing in front of Mitsukoshi, waiting for it to open, accompanied by foreign tourists who pressed in to take pictures of the smartly uniformed department store staff as they made their morning announcement.

"Even if grass were to grow on the roof of the Mitsukoshi Department Store, Japan would not fall, but if the rain leaked through the roofs of five million Japanese farmers' homes, what would become of Japan?" That was what Tachibana Kosaburo said, shortly before the League of Blood attempted a coup and killed Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. He was an agrarian nationalist, who "took to preaching and practice of salvation through agricultural labour," gathering what is described as a "pretty large following" (see: Imperial Japan: 1926-1938 by A. Morgan Young). I think the quote must be from the multiday speech he gave at trial:
The suspension of the Blood Brotherhood trial enabled the trial of the civilian murderers of May 15th to follow on their court-martial. The twenty accused, with Tachibana at their head, were arraigned on September 26th. Tachibana's opening address alone lasted many days. He gave the court a lengthy account of his life, and how he came to hold the convictions that inspired him to form the Aikyojuku. ... Tachibana described how, in spite of his agricultural brotherhood, the Aikyojuku, rural conditions became worse, so that he became convinced that drastic steps were necessary, and joined the Ketsumeidan—Priest Inoue's Blood Brotherhood. ... On October 5th he was so overcome by his own pathos that the court adjourned to give him time to recover. Another day he dwelt on his fondness for Beethoven and Rodin, and said that it needed a great purpose to induce him to desert these joys for the comany of bedbugs in prison. On October 14th ... he said that had the murder scheme miscarried, they all intended to fleet to Manchuria. ... Asked why the power houses were bombed, Tachibana said he throught it would do the luxurious good to be in darkness for a spell. They had not had a sufficiently severe lesson. Ten years after the great earthquake Tokyo was more luxurious than ever, but the farmers how miserable!
The Ketsumeidan (this is 血盟団, which, as above, is usually translated as Blood Brotherhood), who launched the coup attempt:
...like all agrarian radical societies, owed much to the earlier work of Gondo and Tachibana, but its chief mentor was Inoue Nissho, a Buddhist priest of the Nichiren sect. Inoue's fabulous career had included broad travel experience in northeast Asia, intimate contacts with Kwantung Army men, and service as a Japanese spy. His Ketsumeidan was made up of a small group of young peasants who had pledged their lives to remove the "ruling clique" responsible for agrarian misery. The chief weapon was to be assassination, and after a select list of leaders from the business-political world had been prepared, each member chose his victim by lot! (This is from Democracy and the Party Movement in Prewar Japan: The Failure of the First Attempt by Robert A. Scalapino.)
Inoue and Tachibana's actions helped allow militarist factions in the government and the Imperial Japanese Army to take complete control.

And another distraction here, Mishima has Honda (who shops at the Daimaru department store) in Runaway Horses hearing the news:
After sipping his sake, he took up a steaming bowl of rice in which scattered green peas gleamed brightly. Just then he heard the jingle of a newspaper-boy's bell announcing an extra. He had the maid run out to buy a copy.
The paper, whose ragged cut edges and barely dry ink showed the haste in which it had been put out, conveyed the first news of the May Fifteenth Incident, the assassination of Prime Minister Inukai by Navy officers.
Honda sighed. "As if it weren't enough to have had the Blood Oath Alliance." Honda felt that he was above the usual run of indignant men who arose, their faces dark with passion, to condemn the corruption of the times. He was persuaded that his own world was one of reason and clarity. Now that he was a little intoxicated, its clarity seemed to shine with even great brilliance. ...
Incidents of this sort, arising one after another, were like waves rolling in from a night sea to break upon the beach. First a small crest like a wavering line of white out upon the deep. Then as the wave came rushing it, it smelled enormously, only to crash down upon the sand and melt back into the depths. ...
As for waves such as the May Fifteenth Incident, Honda thought, the beach was incident. It was only obliged to force them back into the deep with inexhaustible patience, preventing them from rolling over the land. To force them back each time into the abyss of evil from which they had arisen, back into the primeval realm of remorse and death.
The translation above is from Michael Gallagher, who once argued in the pages of the New York Review of Books with D.J. Enright after an unflattering review of his translation of Nosaka Akiyuki's The Pornographers. Enright considered himself a Japan expert, after spending a few years there in the mid-1950s, teaching at a university in Kobe. Enright hated Japan and hated most of the Japanese people he met and was revolted by Japanese art and history. "Unable to forgive orthers they have resorted to assassination," he wrote, "unable to forgive themselves they have turned to suicide, in its most agonising forms."

This is just a distraction, following one text to another. I waited outside of Mitsukoshi and went up the escalator. I don't know if all of the moneyed, aging Tokyoites that this place was built for even shop there anymore. It seemed to be mostly—obviously, of course—tourists from China, but they were confined to the lower floors, where Gucci and Louis are located, and upstairs it was mostly deserted. I wandered around long enough that I was around when the restaurants opened, and I ate a simple vegetable curry, made from produce pulled from the Terrace Farm. The dining room was nearly empty, except for a pair of mothers with their toddlers. There was the earthy, maybe slightly Bohemian vibe of high-end dining everywhere, which felt out of place in Mitsukoshi...

It feels sometimes like Japan has held onto some kind of old world, with these big department stores, or whatever, the shopping street I go to everyday that has a butcher shop, a bakery, a string of cheap restaurants, a shop where they make umbrellas and raincoats... Just think, sections of the train I rode downtown on were dug before my mother was born, and the nearby Ginza Line was dug before my grandmother was born. It feels sometimes like living in another time, but you can see it's on its last legs, and Mitsukoshi, the grand department store, is now as charmless as an outlet mall and the shopping street (the second oldest in Tokyo!) will slowly be cleared away to put in apartments, since it's close to a subway station and already surrounded by new tower blocks and hotels...

What would Tachibana make of it? (This is a rhetorical question to somehow bring this back around to my lengthy quotes from the account of his trial, but, how about this? There were eleven million farming households in 1965 and there are only one million now, and Mitsukoshi has a Terrace Farm!)

(November 26th, 2019) Thirty-six bags of radioactive waste were lost from three sites in Fukushima following Typhoon Hagibis.

I realized today that I haven't spoken to anyone younger than me in weeks, except *****.

All the old men working on the project to repave the street that splits the two sides of the shotengai seem to be in their early or late 40s, and the men directing traffic are my grandfather's age. The two men that work the nightshift at the 7-11 I just visited are probably in their late fifties or early sixties. All of the women shopping at Maruetsu are in their sixties or seventies or older. Everyone that lives in my building is ancient. Not long after I moved in, two centenarians died within weeks of each other. This is a dull corner of Tokyo, and these old people will be slowly replaced by younger people (slightly younger, we're not talking about people in their twenties) from the suburbs or beyond, and maybe also by immigrants from China, Vietnam, and India. Maybe "replaced" is the wrong word and I should say "their diminished numbers will be offset by"? These old people are going to live into their eighties, nineties, even older... And we know: the total fertility rate hit a record low in 2018. Tokyo had the lowest fertility rate in the country. And: "Kyushu University predicts up to 7.3 million people, or 20.6% of all seniors in Japan, will be suffering from dementia in 2025. And this will come with the social costs of 19.4 trillion yen ($178 billion)..."

I didn't see the story about radioactive waste on TV, but maybe I don't watch enough local news. I found it looking for another piece of information about Fukushima. The story I saw said they had twenty people hunting for the missing waste. I'm picturing middle-aged men in hard hats and coveralls, walking twenty abreast through some horrible corner of the prefecture, stopping frequently to confer and for the team leader to offer his encouragement and directions.


&: An American Bum in China by Tom Carter

Pulling up my hometown newspaper's front page, the top story today is about a man, woman, and ferret injured in a home invasion. And, really, there isn't a "hometown newspaper," and I'm referring to a website operated by Golden West Broadcasting, who run the town's two FM stations (one playing country and the other easy listening adult contemporary) and one oldies AM station. The only daily newspaper was bought up by Hollinger in the '90s, then sold off to Transcontinental in the early-2000s, and then given away in 2016 to Star News Publishing, who closed it down. It had a good run—a hundred twentysomething years—but what're you gonna do? It was that newspaper that gave me my first paid writing job. I remember going down to their offices on Fairford Street, just across from the police station and city hall, just off Main Street, and they were still using typewriters.

The city was a transport hub, with the Trans-Canada and the CPR running right through it, in the middle of prime agricultural land. The last boom was in the '50s, and it was mostly a slow decline after that. The city's population peaked in 1961 at just over thirty thousand and the slow hollowing-out only stopped in the last decade or so, when it became a commuter suburb for the largest nearby center, fiftysomething kilometers up the highway, which was experiencing its own boom. There wasn't much going on, especially when I lived there. There were no jobs on the railway anymore, the potash plant wasn't hiring, and everything seemed to be shutting down. The jobs I held while living in my hometown included: overnight clerk at a roadside chain hotel, working the line at a slaughterhouse (first, a beef slaughterhouse then a pork slaughterhouse, and I believe both operations have since been shut down), then various warehouse and shelf-stocking jobs. I never kept in touch with anyone from my graduating class at high school, but I sometimes see them surface in headlines on Golden West Broadcasting's news site, sometimes for coaching a girls volleyball team and more often for methamphetamine trafficking or domestic violence arrests. I was, I think, one of four that ended up leaving town: one went to teach high school in Grande Prairie, one moved to Edmonton and worked for the Edmonton Police Service, and the third is a mezzo-soprano who has performed with minor orchestras and is currently getting a degree in Deaf Studies at Vancouver Community College.

What would I have done if I had stayed home? I don't know. I don't even want to think about it. I'd managed to get myself to a university down the highway, but thank God, a year or two into a disastrous undergraduate career, someone offered me the chance to go to China.

I can't help but see something of myself in Tom Carter's American bum—Matthew Evans—who escaped rural Iowa for Southern China, in search of a girl he met off Myspace and wound up bouncing between shady teaching gigs, begging cash off women on QQ, and ending up in various detention facilities. What would he have done if he had stayed at home?
Evans spent two years studying at Muscatine Community College for his associate degree, then another two years in coding courses for something called a Computer Networking Certificate of Achievement.
That certificate, what Evans called "a poor-man's computer science degree," wound up being valid only in Muscatine; Evans was laughed out of every IT company he applied at (whether because of the certificate or because of Evans, who knows). Without any career prospects, the twenty-one-year-old went back to the dairy cooler of Hy-Vee.
Evans makes his way through the expat underground of the 2000s, a time and place when a flyover state refugee with a forged diploma could find a way to get by, as long as they stayed one step ahead of the mostly ineffectual local Public Security Bureau. Even after some time in detention and deportation, Evans returns to China again, after a visit by Xi Jinping to Muscatine, a town that the Chairman had stayed in first in 1985:
Having been imprisoned in China, Evans felt embittered watching the heir apparent of the new world superpower saunter through the decaying city of his birth. But looking back, Evans admits he was angrier with his fellow Americans, whom since Xi's first visit in the 1980s had shipped the nation's entire manufacturing base to China, effectively killing off small towns like Muscatine.
Like his hometown's namesake fish, the musky, known for its low reproductive rate and self-destructively slow growth, what Evans saw upon returning to Muscatine was the end of the American Dream that his European forefathers had immigrated to Iowa to pursue.
"I couldn't believe what a wasteland Muscatine had become since I'd been away," Evans told me. "All the family-run shops were shuttered, the strip malls were empty, factories closed... I couldn't find work anywhere!"
For me, for lots of other temporary refugees in China in the 2000s, it wasn't so much that China held much promise, but it was one of the only places left to escape to, if you had no other prospects and enough cash for a round-trip ticket. I sold a 1992 Chevy Beretta to get the cash up and went over as a student, at first. The Western world was at war with much of the rest of the world, and, even if you had the means to, there wasn't much to hope for in going to Europe or elsewhere in East Asia. China was at the perfect point in its development, where it still needed the lowest rung of Westerner, who were given a little red book stamped with Foreign Experts Certificate 外国专家证 for showing proof of a community college associate's degree.

There wasn't shit to do back home. So, if you're going to spend your twenties stumbling from dead-end job to dead-end job, you might as well do it somewhere interesting—that's what I thought, at least. Carter describes them as a "new generation of young, restless, socially unmoored American expatriates fleeing to the Middle Kingdom, just as they did to Paris in the 1920s and to India in the 1960s." (I suddenly don't like the Paris in the '20s comparison, even though I've made it myself.) "The United States has lost its right to be called the land of opportunity," Carter writes, and he decides, "that title now goes to China, whose shores are now teeming with Western refuse such as Evans and myself." And me too, once upon a time.

I wasn't putting off a career in finance or journalism or anything like that to bum around China; I knew I couldn't work for a few years and start saving for the downpayment on a house; and my parents had already split up, so I wasn't going to return to some Norman Rockwell home life, hanging around the house, waiting for my big break. Whatever job I managed to lie my way into in Guangzhou or Dalian or Nanjing, at least I wouldn't be working outside, I'd have plenty of time off to party and write and do whatever, and I was learning another language, and I could completely escape from whatever was destined for me back in the heartland.

The story of Evans securing a teaching job at Nanjing Agriculture University sums up perfectly how people got by. He gets a fake degree from a diploma mill called Ashford University, goes into an interview secured through a friend of a friend, claims to the staff that he has an "agricultural background" and signs the contract. He held on for half a semester before caught out by his own students, who were expecting something more than elementary language lessons. But he bounces back. Nothing to worry about. He take his Ashford University diploma, takes a train to Shanghai, and talks his way into a job at the even more prestigious East China Normal University. Whatever happened, it was better than working the cooler at Hy-Vee.

Once I spent a very brief stretch in a detention facility, I decided it was time to get out, but Evans never makes that call. I mean, Carter never quite comes out and says it, but it sounds like Evans might have some degree of cognitive impairment. You say enough times a guy can't make eye contact or form relationships, it goes without saying, he's probably on the spectrum (and the John Dobson illustrations add to that impression). That probably goes a long way to explaining some things. (And so I think part of the greater point about the heartland hollowed out by deindustrialization and neoliberal vampires sucking all the vitality out of the American Dream is undercut somewhat by having your hero be such a fuck up, but, hey, first, maybe that's exactly right, and, second, it's a true story, right? But anyways.)

The book closes with Evans' adventures in Hong Kong, after his "soft exile" from the Mainland. He can't get a visa to get back in, so he crashes in Chungking Mansions while poking around trying to pick up illegal work, then winds up sleeping down at a ferry pier, surviving off McDonalds french fries. His musing on the 2014 Occupy protests and the Umbrella Movement are timely again. "He didn't know it yet, but Matthew Evans was witnessing history." Evans is somewhat ambivalent:
Evans was there every day, all day long, fixatedly watching the swarming wisdom of the streets. He saw it all—the brutality, the blood—but he never got involved. It wasn't his fight, and, frankly, he didn't get why the agitators were so determined to keep their city's government democratic.
Democracy, he felt, had not worked out very well for American, which since his youth had been on a steady political, economic, and moral decline—just as America, with its divorce rate, cancerous toxic waste, corrupted politics, failing education system, and stagnant economy, had not personally worked out for Matthew Evans, Iowa's own unfortunate son.
It is interesting to see the split, politically, between elite, educated observers of China, who, even if they spent considerable time there, hold out hope for some kind of liberal reformation, and the people that I know, who spent a considerable amount of time in the country but don't have an opinion column or a Twitter account and, who are broadly sympathetic to the Chinese state's ways of doing business. I've mentioned my friend from Iowa before, who did a degree in Chinese, then ended up teaching at training centers in Nanjing and bumming around that city, before going back home to work on windmills. People like him, who have no particular stake in the prevailing social order are, like Evans, more likely to be suspicious of the idea of a liberal reformation. My friend from Iowa has no particular concerns about freedom of speech, since he is too busy trying to pay off student loans and save up enough to buy a house in some Des Moines suburb (I don't actually know where he lives). What I mean is, I think if you've been completely fucked over by the way the world works at home, you're more likely to identify with those people being fucked over in other places, too—or, if not, then perhaps to identify some of the same forces at work: I can't buy a house for the same reasons that someone in Tianjin can't buy a house; I am forced to work in a warehouse on a zero hour contract or drive for a ridesharing service for the same reasons that someone in Zhengzhou is forced to do the same jobs. It's not quite class consciousness, I guess, but close enough.

If open elections for the National People's Congress were called tomorrow, the men I shared detention facility quarters with in Datong would not be much better off. They were petitioners, grabbed in Beijing by Datong PSB for protesting for compensation for the homes they were forced out of. I have trouble picturing any result in those NPC elections that would benefit those men. They were—and, of course, still are—poor, and were fucked over by a municipal government beholden to real estate developers. I know it's more complicated than that, but my point is: if you have no particular stake in a liberal democratic worldview because it's left you sick, sad, and hungry, it's much easier to ponder the alternative, or just say, well, fuck it.

Arthur Meursault, reviewing the book in the American Conservative, says: "This type of tale of chemical poisoning, child cancer, and nefarious collaboration between industry and government is often viewed more as a product of corrupt Asian despots like Xi Jinping, but the toxicity that put Evans in a hospital bed for his entire seventh and eighth grade years happened right in America’s heartland." And he continues:
...this book should be read more as a tragedy. It’s the tragedy of Americans without prospects who, as Patrick J. Buchanan would have put it, have been left behind by globalist trade deals, open-border immigration policies, and foreign interventionism. Matthew Evans, as well as his biographer, Tom Carter, come from this younger generation whose current and future prospects are a pale imitation of what their parents enjoyed.
In Evans’ case, his parents were able to build a life for themselves back in the 1980s just by attending Muscatine Community College. For their son, two years at the exact same school gifted him little more than a Computer Networking Certificate of Achievement ... leaving him without any prospect of a job or home ownership.
It is tempting to see something worthwhile in the PRC's mode of governance, especially if you, personally, don't have much to lose...

Evans crashed the occupation out of desperation, since it provided him a place to stay. He hunkered down with "Cantonese millennials" in "jubilant little circles taking selfies and singing English songs from the 1960s: 'The West is the Best, the West is the Best!'" He made himself at home, but eventually the protesters were driven out and returned to their actual homes.

That was when he ended up catching a flight back to American.

Evans is pretty much stuck, once he goes back. Even if he was not barred from returning to China, there wouldn't be much sense in going back, now that the golden age for Western refugees has ended. Where else is he going to go? He's trapped.

My friend from Iowa went to community college and works on windmills, like I said. The friend that I got locked up with in Datong ended up going straight back into Shenzhen after being deported to Hong Kong, getting hooked on methamphetamine, and coming to a sad end. Most people I know like Evans ended up marrying Chinese women, often daughters of rural elite who were going to school in larger centers, and they sometimes got involved in various business schemes, opening their own Happy Giraffe English School, settling into life in a third tier Chinese city, or taking their bride back to the heartland to raise kids, settling back into American life.

Where I come from, some of the highest poverty rates in the country, the highest violent crime rate in the country, and not much hope to do anything but work in a warehouse. The first time, I ended up going back to school for a while, staying in a series of one-room rentals and working in warehouses and restaurant kitchens, and the second time, I ended up working at a liquor store out in the suburbs, crashing at my mom's place, and the third time, I wound up getting back into the same old cycle of shitty jobs and grim rentals... But I never even went all the way back, I never got further than Vancouver or Edmonton, except for a single summer.

A guy like Evans doesn't have much hope, back home, either:
Iowa has been stuck at the federal $7.25 minimum wage for a decade. When local counties attempted to increase their local minimum, the state squelched it. When you factor in the increase in the cost of living over those years, you are talking about an implosion for working class families.
Several years ago, the United Way of Northern New Jersey started noticing that they were fielding calls from people suffering significant economic hardship in counties with a relatively low official poverty rate.
Working with Rutgers University, they developed a metric that tracked local housing costs, childcare expenses, property taxes, health care costs, utilities and transportation expenses along with wages. They dubbed this bare minimum economic survival cohort ALICE, an acronym for Asset Limited, Constrained Income, but Employed.
Close to a decade later, working with local partners, the United Way has identified this struggling population — one that has remained largely invisible in 19 states, including Iowa.
"More Iowa households are struggling to make ends meet," said Deann Cook, executive director at the United Way of Iowa. "We are now approaching 40 percent.
"It is because the cost of living is rising faster than wages," Cook continued. "Iowans are hard-working people, but they are having to piece together multiple part-time jobs with no benefits. In the breadbasket of the world people assume we don’t have food insecurity issues, yet we do."
The United Way reports that, in 2016, 12 percent of Iowa families lived in poverty, with another 25 percent in that ALICE cohort struggling week-to-week. That combined 37 percent cohort reflected an increase of 27 percent since 2010.
There is no broad-based political movement in the United States that seeks to change the prevailing social order. Nothing has improved for people like Evans, and—it was never really much of a solution but—an escape to China or anywhere else is increasingly difficult. After reading the book, I wondered what Evans might be up to, but it's easy enough to speculate: he isn't up to anything. Just like those high school classmates I see in occasional local paper headlines, they aren't doing shit and they're materially worse off than they would have been, if they had been born several decades earlier.


&: Diary (12)

(November 11th, 2019) I know I've told the story before, probably even in another one of these entries, but whenever I fly out of PEK, I think of the time that I was escorted to my flight by junior members of the Datong Public Security Bureau. They were both in plainclothes, jeans and windbreakers, and when they tried to take a nap after our meal at the Real Kungfu, a waitress came by to scold them, and they didn't even bother trying to use any limited authority they might have had, but instead waved her off, like any cranky man in his early-40s would have: "What's it to you? He's still eating, isn't he? Go yell at those people over there, instead. Give me a goddamn break." The two PSB men slept and I watched those country girls, all with shiny black bangs, all braless in their red polo shirts, wiping down the tables after the lunch rush. When it was time for my flight, they walked me over to the security gate and were again reprimanded, this time for trying to sneak through, by a skinny girl in loose-fitting fatigues, who looked like a child soldier manning a roadblock after her rebel faction seized the presidential palace and raided the armory for belts and berets. But today, I'm unescorted, so I can get a ham-and-cheese and iced Americano from Costa and try to figure out one single article in an old issue of Dushu I found at the bottom of my bag while packing again.

Another observation I am not making for the first time: when I fly back to Tokyo, I am always struck by its disorganization and its chaos. Why isn't there a direct train line from Haneda to a larger hub? Why do I have to transfer at Hamamatsucho? This isn't an important criticism. I probably wouldn't notice, flying in from KIX. But I mean that my eyes are always dazzled by the scenery of Tokyo: advertisements all over the place, glowing shop signs, everything seems to be under construction or renovation and there are hundreds of square feet of signage telling travelers and staff about detours and safety precautions. But then, once again, conversely, Tokyo seems dreary compared to Beijing. Once you enter the first tunnel from one section of the station to another, surrounded by men that have changed from their Cool Biz summer-weight suits to the warmer uniforms of early winter, tramping in lockstep, nine o'clock at night and still on their way home through the bowels of a Yamanote Line station.

(November 12th, 2019) I was thinking, with the Bookworm closing in Beijing, how there was a distinct sort of expat-in-Beijing group identity, although that faded five or six years ago. There's that wonderful parody of David Blum's "Hollywood's Brat Pack," which namechecks the Bookworm (and also Jenny Lou's and April Gourmet and Element Fresh)... I always had a chip on my shoulder, living way out in the middle of nowhere, cities with millions of people that nobody cared about, like Datong or Dalian or Nanjing, or even Guangzhou. If I hadn't been invited last year to do an event at the Bookworm, thereby welcomed into what was left of that Beijing clique, and if I hadn't drank at a hutong bar with ***** *** *** **** ********* *** ****** **** **** ***—well, that cooled some of the burn of being shut out for so many years, lost in the wilderness. But it makes me think about the group of expatriates that hung around Tokyo in the early-2000s, around the same time as you had ***** ****** *** ****** ******** in Beijing, and the very different role they took, far less political, and more engaged with a local cultural scene, even sometimes making a name for themselves in that scene, often even publishing books in Japanese, while remaining mostly unknown to the wider world. This is comparing two very different countries, but I can't help but wonder if the slow exit of all privileged expatriate drifters and the closure of their Beijing haunts is not the sign of, say, creeping authoritarianism, but, like, some cultural confidence, a sense that there is no longer a need for what turned out to be mostly hostile foreign elements in Beijing—and it is creeping authoritarianism, perhaps, but also the liberal elements in China's capital that fostered the livelihoods of those people and those places simply moving on, either forced to abandon their liberal principles or realizing that it's all a bunch of bullshit. But also, this is just bullshitting here, and maybe I don't understand the function of these people and places or who was funding them... Just bullshitting here, okay? And I could also throw in, like, the diminished role of Beijing in culture? Like, all those years in Guangzhou or Nanjing, there were plenty of writers and artists and musicians doing interesting work in interesting spaces, but usually very self-contained, or feeding into regional scenes, while Beijing was increasingly seen as a place to go and make a living as a culture worker. This seems like a problem not so much with creeping authoritarianism as it is a problem that other global capitals have, with financialization and neoliberalism or whatever, a housing market that squeezes out interesting people and places. Again, this is just bullshitting.

Returning to Tokyo, I say once again: I would move to Beijing in a heartbeat, even now, for the right deal. But living in an East Tokyo slum and surviving off freelance checks is better than any offer I've gotten for a job in Beijing. There's nothing like a long morning walk through Matsugaya to Asakusa (not real Asakusa which looks like Disneyland now, but the southern half, which I suppose is actually Kotobuki) to put things in perspective. Maybe this place will stay the same long enough. Maybe Tokyo will slip underwater. Maybe tourism really has peaked and they can stop building hotels. Maybe a populist firebrand will rise to power and close key sections of the city to tourism except on weekends, and put up blocks of social housing instead of new apartments, and Taito Ward will organize production teams to finish the reconstruction of Sanyabori Park, giving porn-addicted incels and precariously-employed girl bosses the opportunity to mingle and form relationships with each other... Probably not. You know, racial nationalism and weak neoliberal reforms are the worst form of politics ever invented, and best case scenario for Japan would be something like Orbánism, rather than waiting for another real estate boom and the invention of robots to mitigate the need to import labor from Nepal and Southeast Asia. Fuck it. Maybe I'll move to Hanoi and watch the place go to shit from afar, or maybe I'll go back to Guangzhou. Maybe I'll stick around. Who knows? The walk from Matsugaya to Asakusa makes me want to stay, at least, and a late lunch of hamburg steak at a café that seems, in the absence of regular customers, to have been turned over by the owner to an expanding collection of house plants, and a stop at a supermarket up the street (Maruetsu is being renovated) that somehow still has soft, plump Aichi figs but also imported Italian ricotta.


&: Diary (11)

(November 3rd, 2019) I was reading Lasch on confessional literature, and, of course, he says, "the popularity of the confessional mode testifies, of course, to the new narcissism that runs all through American culture," but he draws a line between self-disclosure that helps one to to achieve a critical distance from the self and then "self-disclosure to keep the reader interested, appealing not to his understanding but to his salacious curiosity..." which is usually self-disclosure left "undigested, leaving the reader to arrive at his own interpretations." I'm thinking about the artform of doxing right now, and not the actual act or the skill involved assembling the materials, but how they are presented, and how it differs from the self-confession, autofiction confessional (or more likely, for this example, I guess you would compare the presentation of materials from a doxing with a self-curated social media account, since that makes much more sense). I wonder if it's an internet age impulse to self-dox, to inoculate against your enemies doing it for you—but no, Lasch is right, it's just narcissism, most of the time. That goes for Marie Calloway and Daniel Lord, at least, to name two millennials that have spread their lives across the internet. I can tell you this: everything I've ever done, I've talked about it on the internet. I mean... almost everything, I think. There must be something. It might have been posted under my own name or anonymously on a message board or in an IRC channel. But I guess most of it, hopefully, is buried in fiction, which is mostly an unpublishable private literature. And the question of doxing, it makes me wonder this: since I have said—somewhere or in some form—nearly everything that I have ever done, what is there that I don't want anybody else to know? What information could be held over my head? Of course, that goes back to the art of doxing, and the curation, where even reasonable facts could be used for harassment. But no, what is there, really? What could really ruin me? I have the urge to write here what my guesses would be. I know I've admitted some of them before, somewhere on the internet. How narcissistic, indeed, to imagine that anyone would ever bother digging them up.

I have become less confessional, at least in these entries. I need time to go by. I am happy to give a detailed breakdown of my moral failings at twenty or twenty-five, but maybe I'm smart enough not to record more recent transgressions, or maybe it's a product of working for myself, not having a day job, and being, in a very, very minor way, a public figure. It could be that I have enough experience turning experiences into some kind of literary product that I am hesitant to spill my guts "undigested" here and now; it could be that I realize how banal any dark-ish thoughts or experiences are, without some kind of artistry applied to them; it could be that I've become dull and reliable as I've aged; it could be that I sense there's not much of a readership for the things I want to say; and it could be that I have found a way to process or even enjoy things by myself. I couldn't tell you.

The problem before was that when I wrote undigested work anonymously, it seemed to be good, and when I finally digested it, I was lying. I go back to things I wrote on the internet, a very long time ago, like an entry, here, more than a decade ago, about going to Lianyungang, in which I said I had met a Russian woman and went bowling. That is not what happened but it is based on some fact. A friend that went to Lianyungang with me did, as I recall, meet a Russian woman, but I believe she might have been a missionary of some sort, and I probably saw a bowling alley, but what actually happened on that trip is that I put a cinderblock through the Plexiglass door of a bar, where I had drank a bottle of tequila and spent most of the night blackout drunk, trying to fuck a chubby Colombian girl. It makes me cringe, thinking about the falsified version of the trip. I would often tell the story to friends, about how I tricked my friend into getting into a taxi, then went back to the bar, but, yes, it probably wouldn't work, just writing it out, even if it was digested beyond self-disclosure. It's fine to adjust the facts, but I ended up with something untruthful and dull. Just like the Beijing story, where I show up in the city and the country for the first time, and I have a fairly wholesome time exploring the city, and that's what I wrote down, when, in fact, I flew to Beijing, panicked and missed my flight, and invested most of the money I had just made selling my 1992 Chevrolet Beretta GT in two prostitutes that worked in the hotel spa that the black taxi took me to. I was fat and depressed and still full of paroxetine, huffing and puffing through a paid threesome in a country I was scared shitless to be in, and then I spent the rest of the time there in my hotel room, only occasionally leaving to buy cigarettes and Coca-Cola. That story is more truthful and has more possibility.

And then, also, sometimes I hesitate to write something down, even in a heavily digested form, because I think nobody will believe it. When I wrote about an extended stay in a rural Shaanxi juliusuo, it pained me to have people speculate that I had made the whole thing up. This goes back to doxing and the private fantasy of being savagely doxed—nobody ever doubts that! Looking at the horrific treatment that ***** ******** received, with chat logs and nude pictures leaked, one day, when she is middle-aged, I guess, looking on the bright side, and she is finally out of a detention facility for the crime of drawing policemen as pigs, she can look back on her dirty little exploits and her perfect, young body, and she'll have that, and nobody can ever doubt her credibility. And maybe the problem is with oversharing but also overexplaining. Maybe I should just let these thoughts go...

(November 4th, 2019) I don't have a thing about shoes or feet but this still doesn't need any explanation: I bought ****** a pair of white Air Max because I wanted to fuck her while she wore them and press their crisp leather sides to my cheeks. I bought ***** a pair of Gucci Jordaan horsebit loafers (this is not a sexy shoe but still) mostly because I wanted to fuck her while she wore them, on the bed in our suite, with her skirt still on, and for other, more practical reasons. Instead, we took a taxi into the city and walked over to eat crayfish at Hu Da and she tracked the soles across dusty early-winter late-night Gui Jie sidewalks. In the morning, ***** woke me up and **** ** **** while I was half awake and half hard. I didn't bother telling her to put the shoes on. I had already forgotten about them. She **** **** *** * **** ******* *** ***** ** **** *** **** *** **** ***** ***** ****** * ****** ** *** ****. I went to take a shower, after, she stood outside, inspecting herself, nude, in the mirror **** ** *** ***** ** *** *****. She said: "I'm skinny again." She had already eaten a hotel breakfast of bacon and eggs, and showered. I was in China to pick up an envelope and for a few meetings but taking ***** is a good excuse to leave the hotel. We walked through Wudaoying and I bought her tanghulu and a fake oversized cashmere Chanel pullover and fake stretchy Acne Blå Konst jeans and she wore them out of the store with her old clothes in a bag. and I took her to the Confucius Temple (I'd never been there before and I never went to Tiananmen or Qianmen until I walked by one time last year with Nick Stember, and I've still never been to the Great Wall) to pose in front of the statue of the Sage, and we sat under seven hundred year old cypress trees, drinking yogurt out of glass bottles. If I was alone, I would have laid in bed, watching RT and drinking Diet Coke until I was forced to leave.

(November 6th, 2019) Smoking a cigarette outside of a public bathroom on an alley somewhere between Guozijian and Fangjia Hutong, a man in his sixties or seventies asks me, "Where are you from?" I answer and he lights a cigarette and we stand for a while talking. I offer that I have been coming to Beijing for many years and the area has change immensely. I managed to find a topic he was passionate about and he began running through a list of recent demolitions. I took a guess at his accent—Henan, I said, and I was right—and he told me how he had come to Beijing fifteen or so years prior, following after his daughter, who had married a man that was involved in a construction business. The family still rented rooms in the neighborhood. He was not concerned with the demolitions erasing some historical character of the neighborhood but because they would eventually drive his family out to the suburbs. Like the Jiaodaokou policeman in Michael Dutton's "Building a Gift of Politics," the history of the Henanese contractor's son will not be recorded.
Gesturing across the room, out the window and over to the street in front of the police station, Liu smiles before breaking into a chortle: "D'you know what that lane, that one out front of the police station, was called during the Cultural Revolution?" he asks rhetorically, "Well that one was called Study Chairman Mao Lane!" A huge grin appears on his face. ...
Whatever brings a community together is sacred, says Bataille, and renaming streets was part of a series of ritual and often violent activities that would tear the community apart yet bring it together. This was affect built upon a violent division. It was built on the power of class struggle, a force that would drive groups apart yet, paradoxically, cement even more intense, passionately and tightly the group that struggled together against an enemy. "Could there be classes without a Church, without a sacret, without sacrifice? Could there be a society without spiritual power, radically separate from temporal power?", asks Roger Caillois.
"Nobody knows about these things anymore, and if you want to look them up you can't because there are no records", explains Liu Zhengxian as he offers up even more examples of absurdly revolutionary street names produced during the Cultural Revolution. He shakes his head, ruing not the name changes but the lack of recorded history. It is as though the lack of records has robbed him personally of his own time and place and in many ways, it has. ... The "rectification of street names", which saw the revolutionary ones taken down and the traditional ones returned, has been, in many ways, the rectification of China. Yet there is more to disinterring Liu's stories than correcting the historic record. These evocative tales, snippets of excess, and slogans of ultra-leftism shed light on moments of political intensity, of sacrifice, of devotion and extreme exuberance.
And in Dutton's Beijing Time, written with Hsiu-ju Stacy Lo and Dong Dong Wu, the anecdote appears again and Liu laughs about the name changes: "It is embarrassed laughter, confused laughter; it's cover-up laughter, laughter designed to paper over the fact that in these days of rampant market development, the rectification of names in the Cultural Revolution seems almost too absurd to be believed. ... Here we sit, in a suburb trying so very hard to resurrect its distant past but simultaneously trying just as hard to bury and erase its more recent one."

And the man I spoke to somewhere between Guozijian and Fangjia Hutong didn't laugh but changed the subject. "Are those American cigarettes?" he asked. "Japanese, huh?" He said: "But, look, nobody can beat China now, right? We were beaten by so many countries, even the Japanese," and he gestured at my cigarette, "but now nobody can beat us. We don't want to interfere with other countries, either." And he went on for a while on that topic.

I tried to write a book about my old neighborhood in Tokyo and was told by two editors that the manuscript had the beginnings of a good book but lacked the voices of local people. Without even trying, standing in an alley in Dongcheng, I already had a man-on-the-street anecdote.

(November 7th, 2019) These must be the trips I fantasized about taking, all those years I spent in the country eating shit, going to jail, living off potatoes pulled from baskets in front of neighbors' doors in a six story walkup in Dalian, and always going back to do it again. I'm not sure if I ever did fantasize or dream about rising above extreme poverty. I didn't, I'm sure I didn't—I would have put myself in a more comfortable position long before I did. But whatever. I often worry that I've lost all perspective on the country because half the time I'm here on somebody else's dime, usually in a big city. But I guess, you know, most of the people in the small community of foreigners that make a living writing about China spent their formative years in Beijing, living much like this, while I was, of course, of course, keeping it incredibly real, goddamnit. So, yes, listen, I can spend the day ferried around in a car hired by ***** and go for ****** ** **** ******** ** ******* *** *** ***** *** ** **** ******** **** **** ** ****** ******** ********** *** *** *** *—well, fuck it, you get the picture. And there's a certain pride in it, for me, since a couple years ago, I was still working as a ********* *** ** * ********* ** ********* ******** ** * ***** and trying to find a way to make a living without breaking my body down. But I realize anybody reading this will either find it all ridiculous or not something that they could relate to. I probably shouldn't bring ***** with me on these trips, since it puts me in a good mood rather than a nostalgic, contemplative mood, and I do things like get drunk on champagne at ******** ****, overlooking an octopus sculpture advertising Panerai watches at ********** ***, sitting a few empty tables away from a couple that was so in love that they sat side-by-side, the man's hand so tightly clasped on his girlfriend's thigh that he could sniff it contentedly while she slipped away to the bathroom, and another couple who sat across from each other on a narrow two top and fed each other spoonfuls of panna cotta and mango ice cream and cotton candy grass (the panna cotta was shaped like a bunny). And I would comfort myself by saying, Well, how arrogant of me, to assume there is anything to be written about Beijing, by me, at least, and it's better to simply enjoy it, and the truth is always more interesting.


&: Scenes from sukeban films

(Ike + Sugimoto)

There's something about the seven or eight films that Ike Reiko and Sugimoto Miki made between 1970something and 1970something invite you to write your own story over top of them, like a blank screen for projecting whatever ideas you want. They have a dreamlike quality. I mean. There are people that you dream about, and you can dream about them for years, even if you haven’t seen them in a decade, two decades, and they pop up again and again, always themselves but recast in different roles. I still dream about ******, all these years later, and sometimes it is the present and sometimes it is ten years earlier or ten years in the future, and we might still be together or she might be a prison warden or a waitress or a remarried and living in Nipawin, but—like Reiko and Miki, trapped forever in 1972 or 1973—she is perpetually young, perpetually beautiful, eternally the same. I wake up each time I dream about her and wonder: ******, where are you now? ******, are you still beautiful? Ike Reiko, where are you now? Sugimoto Miki, where are you now? I know roughly where ****** would be, but I couldn't answer the same question about Ike Reiko or Sugimoto Miki. I find myself studying the faces of older women on the subway, the glamorous women that get off at Higashi-Ginza as I ride out to Shibuya, or peering down from a pedestrian overpass on Omotesando, looking through the zelkova... Ike Reiko would be sixty-six years old but perhaps it is too optimistic to imagine her as still glamorous, still living in Tokyo. She retired from acting before I was born. There is not much to go on, with her later biography. Is there any truth to the rumors of drugs and gambling? Did she get married? Did she have kids? Sugimoto Miki would be the same age, too, and she left the business even earlier than Ike Reiko, supposedly marrying a businessman and becoming a preschool teacher. It doesn't really matter. Like ******, the only place I ever see Sugimoto Miki and Ike Reiko are my dreams—and these pink films are like dreams, aren't they? They resemble dreams, to me, in form and tone, with plots that meander or never really make sense, and then sudden bursts of action, dominated by violence, sex, and torture.

The pink movies are from another time, the mid-late Showa so distant it might as well be a dream. They were meant to represent reality intensified—you couldn't put blood and guts on TV and it would be another decade or so before everyone had a VCR. The pink films brought In another age, maybe Ike and Sugimoto would have been bigger stars, or maybe they would have disappeared onto the roster of some back alley production company's roster, starring in monster movies or, well, hey, maybe doing AV, right? But in the early-1970s, the big production companies forced out the smaller players and started making their own pink films. Nikkatsu kept making gangster flicks and employing Imamura Shohei, but their Romanporno series was what paid the bills when respectable people stayed home to watch TV. The pink world was inhabited by onsen voyeurs and promiscuous danchi wives and horny shoguns. Toei launched their own pink series and put all their best legitimate talent behind it, so even though the films were churned out with tight deadlines and tighter budgets, they are often technically sound, and often beautiful and strange and compelling. Nikkatsu directors. They had stars. Nikkatsu had Miyashita Junko and Katagiri Yuko. But Ike Reiko and Sugimoto Miki are immortal because of another Toei innovation: they figured out that the best way to combine softcore pornography and bloody beatdowns was to center the films on female gangsters. These are the sukeban films.

There are other films that could be put in the sukeban category (I’m thinking of Half-Breed Rika, Criminal Woman: Killing Melody, some of the Stray Cat Rock films, especially Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss, and maybe even the Female Convict Scorpion series) but, to me, the ones without Ike Reiko and Miki Sugimoto do not count. The two women starred together in most of the Girl Boss series and most of the films in the Terrifying Girls' High School series. These are the films I’m talking about when I talk about the extended dream that the two actresses are trapped in.

There is a scene midway through Terrifying Girls' High School: Women's Violent Classroom (1972) that I think comes close to summing up the genre: high school girl boss, Michiko (Sugimoto Miki) directs her clique to bind their teacher, Yoshioka Keichi (Naruse Masataka ) and then directs three of her bosozoku friends to kidnap and rape his girlfriend in front of him, and then, out of nowhere, Yuki (Ike Reiko), arrives to stop the rape and formally challenge Michiko to one-on-one combat—and cut to a knife fight on Venus Bridge, overlooking Kobe.

The rape is eroticized and fetishized, with the camera over the shoulder of one of the three young thugs as he uses a heavy pair of scissors to cut the clothes off the woman and then teases her nipples with the cold metal handle. Her panties are ripped off and tossed to one of the members of Michiko’s clique, who sniffs them and passes them to another girl to cram in the mouth of Yoshioka Keichi. The setting of the film is modern, but the rules that govern the gangs are from an earlier time. When Yuki bows to make her jingi o kiru introduction to invite Michiko to a one-on-one fight, or taiman, she’s abiding by the codes of her contemporary criminals but also the rough men of earlier times. Their fight on Venus Bridge is conducted according to the rules of chivalry films, or ninkyo eiga, but they can be traced further back to the jianghu. But, forget about that. I’m not a sophisticated viewer. I miss most of the subtleties. I’m watching without subtitles and relying on my weak Japanese.

Forget about that. This is not a reading of the films, since I contend that there's not much to read into them. The idea that they represent "communal feminism" or "spaces of social and sexual transgression" or are "subversive cinematic expressions of Japanese gender" or a "feminine counter-gaze" isn't convincing to me. These films sprung from the mind of studio executives and were executed by their directors with as much artistic integrity as they could hold onto, and they are fantasies. They're dreams. And so this is the most reaction, rather than a reading. It's just the story that I have laid over the films, fueled by my own fantasies. Ike Reiko and Miki Sugimoto have the most captivating faces I have ever seen on film. The sukeban films are an extended love story between them, told mostly through their eyes and the glances they share. The lovers meet and are parted, over and over again. This is not an analysis, and even if it was, it barely rises above slash fiction.

In this film, the key moment is shortly after they face off in the classroom. All other action seems to end and it seems to fade into the background. Over Michiko’s shoulder, we see the bosozoku thugs making a hasty retreat. The eyes of Michiko and Yuki meet. Those two faces, even if you have never seen these films, perhaps you can already guess their temperaments. Sugimoto is hard and vindictive. She is a lone wolf, sometimes, but also a brutal leader. Ike is the soft, feminine aspect. She is a convincing seductress.

The scene on Venus Bridge is part of the extended dream. High above Kobe, they might as well be two immortals in heaven. They roll on the ground and slap each other and grapple, but everything is communicated in their glances. It must have been intended as an erotic scene. There is no other explanation. And there is no romantic subtext here, or in any of the Ike-Sugimoto films, but look at their eyes… Maybe knowing the plot would help, but maybe not. These are the same faces that both women wear in a dozen other films, and they begin to feel real, and it’s hard not to think that they might reveal something of their true selves. That’s wishful thinking, maybe. That’s voyeurism; that’s trying to peer through the drapes.

The scene ends with Michiko producing a knife and tossing a twin switchblade to Yuki. The two women draw each other's blood. That is how relationships are sealed. There is a bond between them. They rule it a draw. Yuki runs from the bridge, dropping her wallet. Michiko picks it up and finds a newspaper clipping in it. Michiko learns that Yuki was orphaned as a child. They are bound even closer.

It's all part of the same dream. In a film shot a year later, Girl Boss Revenge (1973) Kanto Komasa (Sugimoto) falls afoul of the yakuza after robbing a card game. She is chained up and tortured. When she is freed by a junior member who takes pity on her, she repays him by seducing him. The camera slowly rolls down her bruised body. We have just seen her face in suffering (and nobody suffers like Sugimoto Miki), and now we see it in a type of ecstasy. Her body has just been stamped on by the yakuza wife who pried off one of her nails with a hairpin, but now she is in the arms of a man who cradles her on the dusty floor of a warehouse. But the man who she repays with her body is Maya's (Ike Reiko) one true love. She stumbles in to find them.

The scene is almost silent. The best Ike-Sugimoto scenes are silent. Ike Reiko's face seems to betray something—is it some inauthentic acting, the strangely stagey look she gives when she catches sight of Komasa, nude on the warehouse floor? She parts her lips, as if she is about to speak, then purses them and seems to shudder. Maybe it's meant to seem inauthentic. Maybe Maya is signaling something to Komasa, or trying to summon up a feeling that she doesn't really feel. Maybe there's an understanding. The two women share something intimate again. Not blood this time, but the same lover. And when Maya is betrayed by the same man and tortured in the same way that Komasa was, it is Komasa who comes to save her and to plan revenge.

The characters repeat. Maybe not in name but in type and temperament. The scenes repeat. Maybe not exactly but in form and tone. Ike and Sugimoto meet again, this time as Nami and Sachiko in Girl Boss Guerilla (1972). Once again, Sugimoto's Sachiko is a hard woman who makes her living in the jianghu, traveling from town to town, winding up this time in Kyoto. Once again, Ike's Nami rules with charm and is a seductress who has her heart broken. They meet in combat and earn each other's respect and form a bond.

When Sachiko is caught by yakuza thugs, it is Nami who saves her. She arrives with a rifle, gesturing for Sachiko to be freed. They let her go and Nami gives herself to the gangsters, beaten with the butt of her own gun, then raped by an underboss. It is Nami's own brother that allows her to be raped, and it is Sachiko that finally gets revenge, planting a bundle of dynamite and a timer in a Nissan Gloria driven by the yakuza leadership. And I only vaguely remember the plot of the film, which I seem to recall involves a boxing match being thrown, and has an extended scene of a woman being tattooed... It doesn't matter. That could be another film. The scenes repeat, the themes repeat. These are dreams. I appreciate a vignette, pulled at random, just as much, separated from the rest of the film.

The film closes on Sachiko leaving town with the original crew of bikers that she arrived with, but forget that, and it closes with a lingering look between Sachiko and Nami, one of them up on the mountain road and the other down by the stairwell where the two women bonded after their fight. Maybe the glance is more complicated than I imagine, but it's hard not to see it as the two women looking longingly into the middle distance and thinking of each other.

&: Scenes from sukeban films (first attempt)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (detour, unexceptional readings of '70s pulp cinema)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (bloodletting, youth in revolt)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (communal feminism is in the eye of the beholder)