Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Peter May's The Killing Room

The Killing Room (China Thrillers, #3)The Killing Room by Peter May

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I plan to read more in the series, because I've started with one of the later books, but I am not impressed. The environment (geographical, cultural, political, social) in which the investigation takes place is a draw, but I find Margaret Campbell to be a totally unpleasant character, one about whom I don't care at all. I should go back and read an earlier book in the series so I can figure out what ever made her attractive to Li. I sure don't get it at this point. I think Mei-Ling is a much more attractive character and hope she appears elsewhere in later books.

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China Development Research Foundation: Recommending phase-out of one-child policy

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On "Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, An American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing"

I discovered this book in reading an article in the NY Times Magazine ("Away Game," Feb. 5, 2012). That article profiled one American player and his experiences in playing basketball and entering into a new culture in China. It's not simply about NBA players in China, but rather about China and basketball and professional sports in general. It looks at basketball and American players transplanted to China and creates a fascinating picture of part of Chinese culture that I've never read about anywhere else. I'm not even interested in the NBA but the article by Yardley was excellent and piqued my interest in the book mentioned in passing.

Yardley has chosen a very clever way to examine modern China. What he does is pick a subject that most Americans will be somewhat familiar with, the NBA. Then he transplants the subject to China by following an American retired NBA coach who has been hired to coach a privately-owned team in one of the lesser-known (from the Western perspective) Chinese cities (Taiyuan in Shanxi province). We might think, well, the NBA is the NBA no matter where it lives and basketball is basketball. But Yardley quite brilliantly tells us a story that illuminates the culture and aspirations, and to some degree the history, of modern China by placing the known quantity of the NBA into an environment that is, in fact, very foreign and not particularly hospitable to American expectations about sports.

The Miami Heat need to make money by selling tickets and signing deals. Do the Brave Dragons have to make money in these ways? No, because Boss Wang is very, very rich. American NBA players roam around at will, throw their money around and make the headlines in ways good and bad. What about the Dragons' players? They live in a Spartan dorm outside the city center where they are virtual prisoners. But, what if an owner spends a lot of money to hire a new coach because he wants his team to get better, be "American" and play American-style ball? Well, you would then assume that he'd hire the best and give him leave to mold the team (except perhaps if he attended the George Steinbrenner School of Sports Management) using American methods (a wide range of kinds of fitness training suited to individual needs, forging relationships with individual players based on knowledge of their personalities and what works best with each, etc.). Old habits die hard, though, for men of Boss Wang's generation.

The story is frustrating and funny and informative in what it shows us about Chinese sports culture and its growing pains, though there is no doubt whatsoever of Yardley's sympathies with his subjects, particularly the young men who play professional basketball and want to be better players than they are. If you are looking for a book that makes fun of the Chinese, this isn't it. We get a lot of context so that we understand, for instance, why Boss Wang thinks that screaming at his players and telling them what pathetic, lazy failures they are will motivate them to improve.

If you ever thought that sports was a universal language, this book will make you re-think that assumption. You don't even have to like or understand basketball to enjoy this book.

Right now I am watching women's Olympic basketball streaming live from London. The USA and China are playing. Knowing what the experience for male basketball athletes is like in China makes me look at these Chinese women with a great deal of curiosity. That's a book yet to be written.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"Midnight in Peking" review

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old ChinaMidnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I put this book in my "Global detective fiction" shelf, though let me say right away that it is not fiction. I enjoyed every minute of this book and it ended all too soon.

The time is 1937 and the place is the area in and around the Foreign Legation quarters in old Peking. Politics all over the world are in turmoil with events leading to WWII taking place in Europe, and in China the brutal Japanese are invading and the already feeble nationalist government is on the ropes.

A nearly-19 year old Englishwoman, Pamela Werner, is killed, her body mutilated and dumped at the base of the Fox Tower just outside the Legation. The details of the joint Chinese and English investigation, its constraints and its flaws is fascinating in and of itself. When the investigation is unable to point to a culprit, Pamela's father spends the rest of his years in Peking doing the investigation that the police should have done. But his findings fall on deaf ears. Are the British afraid to lose face? Is that why the British powers ignore the findings and call their representative on the team home to Tientsin? Was the original investigation, which seemed fairly competent for the time and place, in fact, undercut by restraints and subterfuge on the Chinese side? Peking soon falls to the it just that everyone has more important things to think about than a dead girl who was a bit of a handful while she was alive and perhaps no better than she should have been?

Historian Paul French has reconstructed the entire case, from the events leading up to the fatal night, to the actions and investigations of all of the parties involved. He quite literally found by fortunate accident a folder of records stored in the British archives that traced the case, including ETC Werner's many letters filled with his additional investigations and pleading for more action on the case. From these records and his other investigations, French puts together a quite believable chain of events and points the finger at one man in particular. This case was unsolved from 1937 to 2011 and quite forgotten, but it is now resolved and there can be little doubt that French's version is valid.

Ok, THAT is the story. It's well-told and reads like an exciting murder mystery. For me, the bonus was the very detailed portrait of Peking during this period and the foreign presence in China's coastal cities such as Shanghai and Tientsin. I can't say enough about the lively realistic (and unsavory) picture that emerges of the Legation area of Peking. I spent half the time I was supposedly reading the book looking for maps online so I could follow the action. It turns out that many of the places and streets that feature prominently in the story are still there (remarkable, considering the construction in Beijing over the last few decades).

If you are interested in that aspect of the story, start with the Wikipedia entry on "Beijing Legation Quarter" and follow links to maps. There is also this Paul French link:

Breaking news, Midnight in Peking Walking Tour!

When can I go???!

I could go on and on because I found this book utterly fascinating. The murder mystery was only one part of its appeal, for this reader.

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Li Er at "The Crime Scene"

According to the novel’s prologue, “this novel is based on the author’s first-hand interview with a group of bank robbers. The heroes and the heroine are not born ruthless or evil, nor do they have any particular hatred for society.  However, they take a juvenile approach to life and recklessly commit crimes.  What drives their destructive behavior?” (7)

To say that the three criminals in Li Er’s short crime story “take a juvenile approach to life” tells us only the most obvious quality of their decision-making; the novel itself gives a much more nuanced picture of how each, individually, comes to the disastrous decision to rob the truck that picks up money at several branches of a major Chinese bank. That it is a disastrous decision is probably what you could guess for yourself.  Things will not turn out well.  But I will try to write about the book without spoilers that give away major features of the drama. I also wish to acknowledge upfront that my interpretation may be on shaky ground because though I read the book in a bilingual Chinese-English Readers series (Better Link Press, NY and Shanghai, 2009) my limited command of Mandarin left me to rely solely on the English translation. I could do no comparison or analysis of how the translation rendered the original language.

The three robbers are the major characters: Ma En, the leader of this band of outsiders; Yang Hong, his girlfriend; and Erqing, Ma En’s not-very-bright side-kick. There are two minor though important characters:  Chen Shuanbao, a corrupt policeman who has done some deals with Ma En, and the retired principal of Ma En’s Jizhou high school, Cheng Pu (“Mr. Cheng”), a teacher and mentor who encouraged Ma En to be more ambitious and to continue his studies.

Ma En is a man of contradictions.  He is smart and could have gone to college, but he ends up repairing motorcycles. He took the exam but failed because he helped a friend cheat. He’s not ambitious enough to re-take the exam, which we are assured he would have passed. Of course, that friend’s father shows his gratitude by helping Ma En get a business license.

Ma En is tender and loving with his girlfriend; the novel opens with a scene of him waking up early next to Yang Hong with the melancholy feeling that he might not see her again after the day’s deeds.  We also learn that though Yang Hong has had a morally questionable life since leaving the country for the city, she and Ma En met when he gallantly interceded to save her from a brutish client. On the other hand, we find later that in their time together, Ma En has “given” Yang Hong in various business transactions in which her love for him has made her an apparently willing participant. By recognizing the main chance, using Yang Hong as a commodity, and applying bribes in all the right places, Ma En has become a fairly successful businessman, a “rich boss with two graduates from the Transportation Vocational School working for him” (35).

What brings Ma En to plan a robbery? Here is the place where some of Li Er’s discrete social criticism slips in.  While Chen Shuanbao has managed to get Ma En the motorcycle repair business generated by the local police, the government has not been good about paying its bills, so Ma En’s business has failed (113). When it comes to the motivations for the criminal life that Li Er means to explore, the push given to Ma En by this harsh realism, cannot be ignored.

Other possibly influential factors that are revealed by the robbers include their wide familiarity with American and Hong Kong crime movies and television and, at least in Yang Hong’s case, a fondness for the jokey infantile violence of American and Japanese cartoons. Indeed, the callousness with which the trio plan murders or discuss whether their cab driver should be killed, convey a sense of unreality, as if they are not talking about human beings but about cartoon characters, who may leap back to life after being penetrated by bullets or flattened by a big rock (99, 103).

Though the style is terse and direct, almost without affect, there are some comic moments in the treatment of Erqing who, having finally lost his virginity, in a pre-heist spending spree is convinced he is now married, and who allows himself to be so distracted by women and sex that he can hardly think about the robbery and his part in it.  There are also moments of comedy that convey a kind of hard-edged cynicism, as when the widespread questioning by police after the robbery uncovers the fact that there are a lot of citizens out there who are planning robberies (133). Or when the local police can only be motivated to actually take an interest in solving the crime by being offered a cash incentive (131). And, finally, there is Ma En’s inability to keep his mouth shut.  It turns out that he has talked about robbery to almost everyone he knows and encounters, so the question of premeditation does not have to be explored.

Ma En and Yang Hong can be added to the long list of gun crazy, criminal lovers on the run that includes Michel and Patricia in Breathless and our own Bonnie and Clyde.  In fact, can it be that Bonnie’s vision that she and Clyde would “go down together” is echoed in the romantic and a little na├»ve Yang Hong’s immediately regretted wish that “We must die together” (11)?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

My Review of James Fallows' Postcards from Tomorrow Square

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of articles and learned so much I hardly know where to start describing the book. This is a series of articles written by Fallows and published in The Atlantic Monthly December '06-November '08. The subjects range from China's self-made manufacturing billionaires, to how Macau became the gambling Mecca of the East, to what's really going on with Internet access in China.  Every essay offers fascinating information that I have not come across elsewhere. Here are a few sort of random comments about what made an impression on me.

From "After the Earthquake," about the horrendous May 12, 2008, earthquake in Sichuan province that killed more than 100,000 people and left millions homeless and injured, Fallows reports the comments of a local elder regarding an earlier catastrophe: "Yao Minggao...said that the easiest way to tell city people from country people was by what they thought was the major disaster in modern Chinese history. If they said the Cultural Revolution, it meant they were from the city and viewed losing their careers and being sent to the farms as the ultimate hardship.  If they said the Great Famine [starting in 1958], it meant they were country people who had seen many of their neighbors starve" (237). Fallows also comments that the date "5/12" when it appears in China carries the same punch and shocked recognition as "9/11" in the US.

I think the article I enjoyed most was "The Connection Has Been Reset" about the Internet in China, focusing on the period of the Beijing Olympics.  More than anything else I've read, this article made me feel that I finally had at least a tentative grasp of both the philosophy behind the attempted control of the Internet by the Chinese government and the attitude of the average Internet-savvy Chinese toward this control. First, much is accomplished by the government by simply making it inconvenient to bypass the "Great Firewall."  It can be done, sure, but most people aren't interested in working that hard to get their information. Second, there's this, quoted from a technical analysis conducted by two US universities: "'The presence of censorship, even if easy to evade, promotes self-censorship'" (183).  In other words, while evading the GFW may require technical skills that many Chinese have, most people don't bother because of "nontechnical factors."

The only downside I felt in reading this series of articles, and this is not a criticism, was that developments in China and between China and the rest of the world are moving so quickly that even articles from 2007 or 2008 felt out of date.  So much has happened since then.  But if you want to see the view from January '08 of China's involvement in the world's financial meltdown and, especially, in the debt of the US, you should start with "The $1.4 Trillion Question" (144-68).

Wang Shuo's "Playing for Thrills"--Did Fang Yan Murder Someone Ten Years Ago? Was There a Murder at All?

Once I figured out HOW to read the book and WHAT it was going to expect of me as a reader, I surrendered myself to it and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's one of those works of mystery that poses a question to be answered or a goal to be met, and once the main character gets there, the question/goal opens up to more questions and other goals that must be pursued. It's a crazy race of a book with fantasy, dreams, characters with multiple identities, etc. I liked it. It reminded me of Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase but with MORE of everything including confusion and a constantly-digging-deeper narrative. Unlike Oedipus, who learns to his grief that he IS the murderer whom he seeks, Fang Yan is told at the outset that he is a murderer and he feels he must accept this, since he can't remember what happened. To save himself, he must find out who was murdered and why he does not remember doing it. If you enjoy the paranoid, surreal journeys of Murakami or Pynchon, this is a book for you.

Monday, January 30, 2012

If I Stall Long Enough, Will I NEED to Know the Characters?

An article entitled "How Do You Write That in Mandarin?" by Mireille Silcoff appeared in "The One-Page Magazine" section of the NY Times Magazine on January 15, 2012 (11).  Here it is in its entirety.

"Chinese characters comprise the world's oldest in-use writing system, but Chinese kids are forgetting how to get it on paper. The new term tibiwangzi ('take pen, forget character') encapsulates the issue: nobody takes pen anymore.  They type or text, often using Romanization.  The China Youth Daily Social Survey Center says 4 percent of respondents are 'already living without handwriting.'"

I rest my case.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

I Wish I Were "Dreaming in Mandarin"

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And LanguageDreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language by Deborah Fallows
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many of the books I've read about China have been fascinating, compelling and informative, but none so much as this one. The author spent time in China in the 1980s and then 20 years later, so she has a valuable double vision of China as it was then and as it is now. What I enjoyed the most about the book though, and what sets it apart from all of the others, is that this is a book about language. It is about the connection of language and culture. It is both deeply intellectual (but easily enjoyed by the non-linguist) and based in the use of language in everyday life, in stores and in the streets, for instance. If you are interested in language you will love this book, even if you have no interest in China. You will end up knowing quite a bit about modern China though, in spite of yourself. The book is short but every page will keep your interest and leave you intrigued and well-informed. Highly recommended!

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