Tome Tender Book Blog: Saturnine In Her Head, Out of Time & THIS MODERN LOVE

http://tometender.blogspot.hk/2017/07/saturnine-in-her-head-out-of-time-by.html

Saturnine, In Her Head, Out of Time
by Ray Hecht
My rating: 4 stars
 
Publication Date: May 24, 2017
Publisher: Ray Hecht
Genre: Time Travel | Sci fi
Print Length: 32 pages
Available from: Amazon
 
  Saturnine, In Her Head, Out of Time by Ray Hecht

Saturnine, In Her Head, Out of Time  Do-overs in life; wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go back and re-live a moment in time you would like to either change or find closure for? Saturnine has that chance, thanks to a tech company that claims to take a person back in time to re-live any moment they want, but they do not guarantee you can change the events set in motion, after all, the past is in the past, it is written on the timeline of life, or can it be erased? Saturnine did indeed go back to re-live the night she her boyfriend walked out of her life for good. Many times, but could she find the answers she was looking for?

SATURNINE, IN HER HEAD, OUT OF TIME by Ray Hecht may be a short tale, but it packs a punch for young woman living with regrets from the past and the boy she let get away. Mr. Hecht has created a complete and intriguing tale with just a few well- placed words. Entertaining, thought-provoking and fun, I was left wondering what one thing in my life I would like a do-over on until I realized that, nope, I’m good and probably better off not going through my personal Ground Hog Day adventure!

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Short Story review – Saturnine, In Her Head, Out of Time

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About a year ago, I reviewed Ray Hecht’s debut novel, South China Morning Blues. He’s written other stuff too, like a couple of short stories here and there, and his personal blog where he talks about life in China. Full disclosure, he sent me this story for free when I offered to read it and talk about it. Normally I don’t talk about short stories on this blog, but I’m making an exception here. Because this was written by a fellow blogger and I’m not used to talking about short stories, I won’t be giving a review score.

Saturnine, In Her Head, Out Of Time is a dramatic short story with a touch of science fiction. Saturnine is a recent graduate from University who’s suffering from an event she found traumatic. I won’t say anything too specifically, but it’s about a former boyfriend who seemed to just disappear. She…

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Expat Jimmy

Expat Jimmy is the latest by noted China-expat author Travis Lee. This quick read of an eBook is more of an eNovella, or even eNovellete, and the brevity of the piece is in fact one of its greatest strengths.

Expat Jimmy takes place over the course of one day in Wuhan in the summer of 2008. Basically, it’s about the impressions of a young graduate named James as he is introduced to second-tier China. In some ways the narrative is not particularly original—many expat authors (yours truly included) have covered the angle of an ESL westerner intrigued and shocked by the modern East. However, in condensing this rather archetypal story into one day, Lee succeeds at capturing the essence of this sort of story. Wasting no time, his tour of Wuhan in the mid-aughts covers everything a reader could want: all full of wonder, disgust, fear, and hope.

The main character can be passive, as he is led around town by Adam who is certainly a stereotypical ESL teacher with issues. Yet neither James nor Adam are the true stars of the show. It’s the city of Wuhan that steals the limelight, and that is the point.

Then there is the one-page epilogue which maps out Jimmy’s character arc in more long-term fashion for a good sense of closure and leaving the reader wanting more, but overall it’s just about that one normal day…

It does strain credulity a bit that so much fills up one jet-lagged day. But it works, and I wouldn’t want to read it any other way. Even as the day progresses into bouts of drinking (yes, there is Baijiu), with all the harshness of sex and drugs and cynical interpretations of Chinese family dynamics, climaxing even to near-death experiences as Jimmy witnesses one progressively seedier scene after another; even including all this, the overall feeling of the story is enthusiasm. The initial enthusiasm still outweighs all else.

This quote says it best:  “I want you to take it all in. Every sight, every smell, everything. Because this is a once in a lifetime event. You will never again feel t his optimistic, the sense of wonder you’re going to feel at being in China the first time. Nothing compares to it and nothing ever will.”

There is just nothing like the first time moving to a new country.

So read Expat Jimmy, and learn much about Wuhan and explore that elusive concept of the so-called “real China.” Being such a pithy read, there’s no reason not to.

 

Expat Jimmy is available at Amazon.

Author Travis Lee blogs at www.travis-lee.org

Watching Ghost in the Shell, in Asia

 

While I do like to write reviews on occasion, I usually go for lesser-known books and movies particularly if there is a focus on China or Asia. Generally speaking, while I do have my fanboy side, I think enough has already been written about big Hollywood blockbusters and my point of view won’t add much.

However, with all the recent controversy surrounding the now-bombing remake of Ghost in the Shell, I feel it may be worth sharing my perspective as an American abroad in Asia. Hope I’m not too late to the game.

First of all, I am a longtime fan of the original manga and anime. I wrote about my manga habit here, about the brilliant mangaka Masamune Shirow creator of Ghost in the Shell. I find the source material even better than the acclaimed 1995 anime film directed by the great Mamoru Oshii, but suffice to say that is one perfect film. The explorations into the nature of sentience, cyberpunk critiques of tech in society, and the philosophical themes about identity are all amazingly ahead of their time. (Actually,  just rewatched the original film for old time’s sake… And that only makes me loathe the remake more.)

Directed by Rupert Sanders, the new film is certainly interesting in the visual sense but so extremely dumbed down that it there is just no reason for the movie to exist. There’s already an excellent adaptation of the manga, not to mention plenty of episodes of the spinoff series and concurrent animations. Why do we need this live-action film?

I suppose that could start a discussion about the nature of any adaptations. Even if we were to go down that road and I’d grant that it’s worth rebooting these things for the sake of finding a new audience, I still feel the one currently out in theaters fails on its own merits.

The film doesn’t work. The streets of Hong Kong–or some ambiguous setting–full of holographic advertisement bombardment seems to be the only thing Sanders cares to add with any interest. There’s not even any nudity. The acting is stiff, pretentious, and not believable. Scarlett Johansson does not come across as well a reserved cyborg warrior with deeper notions of trying to understand herself. Batou, played by Pilou Asbæk, is inconsistent with his accent and not in the same league as the anime character whatsoever. Overall, it’s just like that other recent remake that was such a big deal, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Because ultimately the only thing these nostalgic movies succeed at is that they make you want to go watch the original classic animated versions.

But just being another lame Hollywood scifi action blockbuster isn’t the real reason why this film has been so controversial, and is failing so badly. Let us address the elephant. The whitewashing.

First of all, I was quite willing to give this universe’s version of the Major a chance. Fine, Scarlett Johansson is playing a character inspired by a Japanese character but named Mira Killian. She wouldn’t literally playing a person of another race in this version’s world, right? She even said so in interviews. I mean, after all the awareness of whitewashing the producers couldn’t be stupid enough to actually have her play an Asian?

I’d announce a spoiler alert, but in fact the trailer gave it away a long time ago. In more of the film’s stupid choices for originality, instead of the fascinating cybernetic lifeform Puppet Master as villain it turns out that the Hollywood plot is of course a complete Robocop ripoff. The evil corporation experimented on her and she has to try to get back her memories. The Section 9 team doesn’t do anything but get manipulated, and bring nothing constructive to the world of the film. So why root for them?

In any case, the trailer gave that away and it wasn’t a good storyline. But what’s worse, if you finally watch the movie the only surprise left s that the Major’s true self turns out to be.. wait for it… a Japanese girl named Motoko Kusanagi.

Oh, come on. Who on earth thought that would be a good idea? So there you have it, in your face whitewashing. Scarlett in yellowface. White privilege casting through and through, full of supremacist implications considering that cybernetic engineers “perfect” their experiments by turning them white, and with assumptions of whiteness as default thrown in.

That was just so much worse than it needed to be. Why Hollywood, why?

 

As a disclaimer I should probably say that I am a white person myself. Yet I do recognize the fact Hollywood clearly marginalizes minorities and that the idea of ‘white’ as the default is a supremacist trope which must be challenged. The media has a responsibility to be fair, and empathetic humans should care about these issues no matter what we look like or where we come from.

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Review: The 100-Pound Gangster – a crime story memoir

Well, I have mixed feelings on this.

Published by Signal 8 Press, The 100-Pound Gangster is a remarkable memoir by former gangbanger Henry Lin. Throughout this quick read, the author details his unique Chinese-American experiences growing up in the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco, which were surprisingly rough.

Most are familiar with Chinatown as a touristy place, but specifically back in the 1990s there was serious criminal activity going on at night after all the tourists left.

This book is not your typical Chinese memoir.

The tale is very personal, written informally, and starts out with Lin’s bitter memories about his home family life aside his unstable mother and hateful older brother. Meanwhile, he had to fight against Asian stereotypes and learned right from the start to be tough as the way to survive.

The best parts of the book tell the lesser-know stories and histories of Chinese organized crime, the Triads. From the Jackson Boys to Wo Hop To, it is certainly fascinating. However, even if one starts out emphasizing with the plights of the author the book later suffers due to his increasingly unlikeable nature. True, the narrator grew up around fighting and can’t entire help that violence is always around. It starts with selling fireworks as a child, and then gets far worse… But the way Lin embraces violence—particularly against women—makes it difficult to care for him even when he apparently repents by the end. There is the disturbing focus on guns, for example, and his proximity to murder. Overall, it’s still very much worth the read to learn about this underworld.

Lin’s story gets more interesting as he rises higher and discovers family connections. There always seems to be an Uncle around to give him the leg up, and he eventually ends up in Hong Kong where he meets a Grandfather who is both high-level Triad and possibly a spy.

The story jumps around in time, then going backwards to describe his time locked up in juvie, a place with more violence where he befriends convicted killers. At sixteen, he is locked up for a stint that lasts years. During his longest time behind bars, the young Lin finally starts to reform as he finds hope by writing for prison magazine, and later he’s lucky enough to be selected for a troubled youth school. When he is let out, older and wiser but still quite young, he gets a new start and there are lessons learned which does improve his character.

Yet there is always hustling, or a “one last big heist” crazy story–it seems he can’t get away from money-making schemes. The marijuana game at least is relatively tame compared to the more hardcore gang activities of his peers, and Lin knows this. A large portion of his writing is devoted to how he feels for his former comrades-in-arms caught up in bigger messes, but that may not be something most readers will get. Even if considering The 100-Pound Gangster to be a true crime nonfiction book, it lacks the objectivity for that genre. And so the reader is left conflicted about the quality of the book.

Another issue is that there is a brief mention of romantic elements but only barely glossed over. I would have liked to read more about Lin’s private life which would make him more well-rounded, since this is supposed to be a memoir. But Lin priorities in his writing are clear.

In the final chapter, there is much moralizing as he reflects and wraps it all up. To be honest, the moralizing doesn’t ring true after all reading all that he previously went through. One never gets the sense, despite his intelligence and potential for good, that he truly is that much of a decent person.

That said, Henry Lin is certainly has an incredible story to tell and he does so with brutal honesty. It wouldn’t be an interesting crime tell-all if he wasn’t who he was.

In any case, this is some memoir.

 

The 100-Pound Gangster is available on Amazon

Casual Gamer Update: Retro Gamer

A while back, I wrote a post about being a Casual Gamer. At the time I was opening up on the subject of different aspects of my personality, my various private hobbies and geeky obsessions, and this one was about how I do like video games but I mainly just play my 3DS because my gaming growth was stunted at the time of the Super Nintendo. Although there are some exceptions, I mainly prefer a certain childish era of games.

What can I say? Mario, and licensed Lego tie-ins as well, somehow suit me.

 

I’ve been meaning to update for a while. Much has been played and won in the intervening years. There was the impressively grand scope of Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens, then the most recent RPG epic Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. I got a new New 3DS, which can legitimate download not only NES but also Super Nintendo games! (I immediately played the hell out of Super Mario World, of course, and am currently stuck on Zelda: A Link to the Past.)

Big-time console -wise, I even beat New Super Mario Bros on my outdated Wii. Yes I know I should update. I like to be one generation behind on the main consoles — I’ll get a Wii U when the Switch comes out and not a day before.

But the main thing is I’d like to review is my freshly purchased NES Classic Edition, also known as the Mini NES:

 

This is the pretty much the most perfect thing ever made just for me. I was very excited when the trailers came around in mid-2016, along with everyone else in the world, and counted down the days until the release in the late months of that year. Then, when the date came, it was completely sold out everywhere. Frustrating. Unless I wanted to pay three times the price, I had to wait. Eventually, after repeatedly and annoyingly calling up the electronics shops in the Wan Chai area of Hong Kong, I confirmed it was really available and I finally got my affordable official emulator just before Christmas. Chutzpah pays.

I love my mini #NES classic ❤ Also I got a #haircut

A post shared by Ray (@raelianautopsy) on

 

So cute.

As you should all know, the system contains a total 30 games from the 1980s. Totally retro, very ‘member berries. The setup is excellent, with the original controller and beautiful HD visuals. You can even save any game at any time, makes for an easier skill level considering these old games are often insanely hard.

I have since enjoyed playing my required Super Mario Bros 1, 2, and 3–can never play those too many times–and I’m about halfway through playing Kirby’s Adventure until the win. Together as a couple, we’ve played a lot of Dr. Mario and Ice Climber with a second knockoff Chinese controller I later procured. (It is kinda a ripoff that it doesn’t initially come with two controllers)

And yet I wish I had more time. I’m particularly intimidated by Final Fantasy, and Zelda. I can’t even touch Metroid. SO MUCH TO PLAY!!! AND SO LITTLE TIME COMPARED TO HOW I REMEMBERED CHILDHOOD!

 

Infinitely perfect as it is, one can always find a few things to complain about. There are a few notable absences, because I assume Nintendo doesn’t have the rights to certain cartoons. I would have very much enjoyed Duck Tales and Ninja Turtles II. No matter, many other games will do~

For the last time, many #Nintendo games! #Mario #Zelda #Kirby #Metroid #IceClimbers #DonkeyKong et. al~

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Well, guess I should master all I can as I patiently wait a decade or two for the Mini SNES…

 

 

BONUS REVIEW:

Meanwhile, as I was buying games anyhow I decided to pick up the new 3DS edition of Super Mario Maker.

And why stop there, got #SuperMario Maker for #3DS as well~~

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This is also a most perfect game for me. To be sucked deeper into the world of the Mushroom Kingdom, as Mario hops and bops along an endless array of familial challenges that will haunt your collective childhood subconscious. Seriously, I dream of those Koopas and Piranha Plants. I may have a problem.

I know some have criticized the 3DS version of Mario Maker in that you can’t share the custom-made levels with friends via Wi-Fi, but to be honest I’ve barely used the making aspect. I will get around to it, I just need more casual-retro gamer friends who live in proximity to me. While it is fun to make your own levels, and I am nothing if not a true and sincere Mario fan, what has really stood out to me is the ‘course challenge’ aspect in which you can play a variety of pre-made levels. Dozens of new levels, and each one could be one of four formats.

There’s the original Mario version, and the all-time greatest Mario 3, the more ‘super’ Super Mario World, and the current New Super Mario Bros. All the crucial incarnations. How amazing is that? The levels each have their own unique gameplay and secret challenges. From water levels to flying around. And the theme music! Some of the juxtapositions are great, for example, seeing dry bones and giants and doors in the depicted original Mario. And the ‘Weird Mario’ mushroom. I shall say no more.

And even for when I will one day run out, I can download more random levels online. This is truly the gift that will forever keep on giving.

Plus the handheld aspect. Basically, when I’m on the train and need the time to pass there is nothing better than playing a level or two from the Super Mario Maker course challenge. Even just as a mostly 8-bit/16-bit retro game that I paid the full current game price, it’s very much worth it. Oh and it’s all 2D but who cares

That reminds me, maybe I should get that ol’ Ultimate NES Remix while at it.

I seem to have found my own gaming niche, ay?

 

Well, game on then!

THIS MODERN LOVE: a novel by Ray Hecht My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dots and Demitasse

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This book plays off several shades of the contemporary grunge with a persistent neo-noir gradation. It saturates the cliché and builds it up through every paragraph till it blows into a cumulonimbus of decay. It is a tale of ‘missed connections’ and opportunities. A dystopic dirge keeps throbbing in the background while the four protagonists dance to its tune in perfect psychedelia.

It is hard to go through the book from this frame of reference. We can see ourselves in the pages making love to cellphones and avatars and losing sight of the reality while sinking deep into the mire of a new strain of love, the new romance. No one cares anymore for ‘the real thing’. Is there actually something real? Well, we do not have the time to spare on that kind of discovery. In an age of fast food and digital cash, finding true love seems rather…

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Movie Review: The Great Wall 长城

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The Great Wall was recently released in China with much hype. Directed by the Zhang Yimou (director of Raise the Red Lantern, among many other critically-acclaimed films as well as the famed opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics), and starring Matt Damon, it is bilingual and the first truly American and Chinese coproduction. Suffice to say, expectations were high.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the high expectations, the film has already been poorly received and critically panned in China. However, for a causal audience member not steeped in fifth-generation Chinese cinema film buff lore, it can still make for an enjoyable romp. If one just forgets to consider the tide of Hollywood pandering to China, not to mention ignoring problematic ‘white savior’ tropes, it is possible to see The Great Wall as a decent and fun film.

Taken for what it is, Zhang’s latest does succeed at being an exciting fantasy adventure about Western explorers fighting monsters in an ancient Chinese setting. Suspension of disbelief always required, the story opens with a couple of horse-riding mercenaries seeking mysterious explosive black powder. Eventually they make it to the Great Wall, where they meet Damon’s love interest Commander Lin played by Jing Tian.

Matt Damon more or less pulls off the medieval accent passably, and his costar Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal is excellent and usually outshines Damon in scenes featuring both of them. The pair of warriors have good chemistry as buddy action films go, although with a somewhat predictable character arc as they break up and get back together. Pascal’s Hispanic heritage is used for corny effect (although the actor is from Chile, he plays a Spaniard), complete with a completely unnecessary “bullfighting” scene.

Willem Dafoe is also utilized well as a sniveling fellow Westerner. Andy Lau’s grizzled military officer rounds out the cast as the requisite token Chinese star, but he is often left behind by the star power of the rest of the cast.

The plot moves quickly and doesn’t wait long to jump into Peter Jackson-style tower sieges. The monsters are called Taotie and the special effects are indeed Hollywood level, although at this point in cinema history it’s long since past groundbreaking to see mass hordes of demons in epically intricate battles. When the scenes go smaller scale into warriors battle monsters individually, the carefully honed craft of Chinese wushu-style film proves to be more engaging than the indulgences of high-end Hollywood CGI war.

As the plot goes, there are some logistics that make little sense. The moral lessons of trust and loyalty are heavy handed. The origin story of the monsters didn’t seem to have much thought at all behind it, although one does suppose that it’s a fantasy universe so why not. And in particular, the color-coded uniforms for the Chinese army is especially cheesey and reminiscent of those childish superheroes the Power Rangers. The climatic final battle in the capital city does make up for much of the flaws of the film, but overall The Great Wall is not meant to be taken so seriously in the first place.

Whether or not Zhang Yimou has “sold out” as some accuse, The Great Wall was never meant to be his finest work. It probably won’t succeed as a breakout introduction of Chinese cinema for Western audiences, but of those who do watch the film it’s definitely worth taking the time to see what all the fuss has been about.

This reviewer recommends low expectations. Don’t think too much, and just enjoy it for what it is: A fun, dumb Hollywood fantasy movie which just happens to take place in China.

The Great Wall will be released in America on February 17th.

 

Party Members: a gruesome China book review

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Party Members by Arthur Meursault is an intense, ugly, gruesome work of fiction that will leave most feeling nauseous. It’s also a page-turner that is kind of essential reading for China observers. Reader discretion is advised, be aware that this one may offend many if not all…

Basically, the novel is a satire which viciously critiques the excesses of contemporary post-economic reform China. As titled Party Members, it stars a low-level Communist party member who lives in a third-rate polluted city and decides to indulge in the very worst of corruption. It is incredible how far it goes, which is a testament to author Meursault’s mind in both imagination and depravity.

The protagonist, who is certainly no hero of the story, is Yang Wei. He starts out as a very unremarkable Chinese man. “Not one in a billion, but one of a billion,” exceptional in his mediocrity. The story starts out critiquing how dull and quaint the average Chinese citizen can be in their complacency, but soon Yang Wei stands out indeed as being a particularly shameless party member.

To be specific, one day Yang Wei’s penis starts talking to him and pushes him to literally act like a dick in order to get what he wants. So begins an series of progressively worse moral failings, from familiar disrespect to copious descriptions of prostitution and shallow consumerism. The literary critic in me ponders whether hearing of voices represents schizophrenia, or if an unreliable narrator device is at play. Although later scenes seem to indicate that it is ‘true’ in the world of the story, for reasons unknown his penis seems to gain the ability to speak and thereafter instructs him to be a terrible person.

Comparisons of Irvine Welsh’s Filth come to mind, which was about a corrupt police officer who had a tapeworm that could talk. Somehow, Meursault is even able to outdo the famed Welsh in writing vulgarities.

Despite whether or not the particulars of the story will appeal to all readers, Party Members is mostly well-written by technical standards and stays interesting one way or another. However, the descriptions can get too dense, and there are far too many adjectives. Even several long-winded speeches, satirical as they are, can come across as whiney nihilistic teenage rants. “The only way to be successful is to be a complete and utter dick… Just shit all over it!” More often than not the novel descends into telling not showing, with plenty of words such as “scumbag” thrown around in the narrative, unnecessarily reminding the reader how to judge the various scenarios.

Subtle, Party Members is not. Crass and disgusting, it still can’t be denied that it reads fast. It’s also hilarious at times, with ridiculous situations one can’t help but laugh at. In a sick sort of way. From toilet humor (there is actual drinking of piss as part of a scam marketing campaign), to the recurring theme of copiously describing greasy KFC food.

Yet, as the plot goes on it gets uncomfortably worse. Once the chapter about the child named Shanshan comes—which is about a terrible urban legend in China concerning car accidents and homicides—it becomes very hard to read.

The ending is legitimately horrifying. The question remains though, is this strange China tale supposed to be classified as horror?

Most unlikable protagonist ever. Which is of course the point.

It must be said that China is an enormous and complex country, with major problems but it may not be fair to look at it through the lens that Party Members embraces. The most cynical possible interpretation of Chinese society is a point-of-view worth exploring through this book, but there is a bigger picture and hopefully this isn’t the last word when it comes to China fiction. Meursault is certainly very knowledgeable about China issues and a talented wordsmith, but it just doesn’t seem healthy to focus that intently on the worst of the worst with no solutions whatsoever. Perhaps the genre is dystopia, in that case? Dystopia which takes place in the present.

All in all, reading this will leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. And being able to do that is something of a literary feat, in a way.

 

Party Members is available on Amazon.com and the ever-offensive Arthur Meursault blogs at arthurmeursault.com.

 

Of Gods and Mobsters by the Hong Kong Writers Circle

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Of Gods and Mobsters is a 2013 anthology of short stories published by the Hong Kong Writers Circle (you may recall that I participated in a podcast for the HK-based literary society). The Writers Circle publishes anthologies on an annual basis, and this volume in particular was recommended to me. I am pleased to report that the stories are excellent and the quality of writing coming out of Hong Kong is very high indeed.

The stories are grouped together into three parts: Of Gods, Of Tales, and Of Mobsters. Broadly speaking, the stories are split between the genres of magical realism and crime. The pervading theme throughout all are unique examinations of modern cosmopolitan experience—specifically within the strange land of contradictions that is Hong Kong.

The first and longest part tells stories of Western mythology in this Eastern-yet-international setting, which range from James Joyce-esque references to Neil Gaiman-style stories of ancient gods in the contemporary era. Several stories star the Mount Olympus pantheon, starting with Reena Bhojwani’s Hidden in the Night, an entertaining romp about Apollo and Zeus and Hera interacting in the city. Makes for very interesting juxtaposition.

The middle section, Of Tales, still fits with the style of the rest of the book. Aber Revisited by Joy Al-Sofi is a fable in the style of Kipling full of talking tigers, yet the tiger is represents Chinese symbolism. One of the best stories is The Standard by the anthology’s editor SCC Overton, a tragic science fiction romance about the fascinating concept of ethnic minority DNA becoming the future currency standard. It is a genre-bending story, very literary and very poignant. A futuristic banker of all people falls in love with a woman who is a Hakka specimen carrying her people’s genome for the sake of the economy. What a way to capture the essence of Hong Kong.

The final part Of Mobsters exemplifies the spirit of such themes by taking a myriad of story-telling directions. Some mystery, some even satire. Midlife Triad by James Tam is about gangsters in jail who are fans of ‘wuxia’ pulp stories. Guanxi by Edmund Price contrasts the rich (literately) high-life on the Peak, with corrupt Filipinos who break into the world of one wealthy man. I found The Curious Resemblance to the Case of the Speckled Band by Kim Grant very charming, an amusing postmodern take on Sherlock Holmes about a fan who happens to named Holmes who bumbles and strives to be a detective, and actually has a wife named Watson. And The House by Melanie Ho references the board game Clue (known as Cluedo in some countries).

Perhaps the best is saved for last with Ian Greenfield’s story Mr Tse and the Pied Piper of Homantin, which ties the entire anthology together well. The story is both a crime story, and an homage to fairy tales of old. A great satire full of quips on Hong Kongers complex relationship with mainlanders, the shallowness of pop stars, and the prevalence of parent’s dependence on tutors. Ostensibly a retelling of the Pied Piper (also with Snow White, Miss Muffet, and even vampires therein), Mr Tse finds a way to use its structure lambaste nearly everyone in Hong Kong.

Like any anthology, Of Gods and Mobsters has many different short stories of various styles and each may not suit all readers. However, no matter a reader’s preference it cannot be denied that the quality is always high. Not to mention, there are also poems of depth sprinkled within for yet more diversity if one isn’t just into prose. The only major criticism, as it goes with expat literature, is that much of it might only make sense if the audience is familiar with the area. One frequent phrase is “Fragrant Harbour”, which of course is a literal translation of the characters for Hong Kong, but that wouldn’t necessarily be known to most around the world. Nonetheless, for fans of the region the book is sure to have many stories exemplifying the spirit of 香港…

Available in Hong Kong bookstores and on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

Book Review: Threads of Silk

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Threads of Silk is a new historical novel written by Amanda Roberts — blogger at TwoAmericansinChina.com — and published by Red Empress Publishing, which is sure to fascinate fans of Chinese history. The novel is about one woman’s perspective in the twilight of the Qing Dynasty (which ended in 1911), and is full of historical details. The author certainly did her research; the world of Threads of Silk is grand and exotic and rings true.

The story opens in rural Hunan and is told through the character of Yaqian, a poor girl who raises silkworms and enjoys her simple life in the countryside. After being taken up by upper class mentors, she learns embroidery and is eventually taken to Peking where she stays for the bulk of the novel. The capital city is full of politics, treachery, funerals, the aging dowager empresses, the final child emperor, and there’s even a prince. Yet this is no fairy tale by any means.

The start is somewhat on the slower side, focusing on the atmosphere of the time, and the narrative pace eventually picks up. The bulk of the tales take place within the Forbidden City, a most fascinating setting, although there is a sense that all what goes on in all of China is crucial.

Year by year Yaqian survives and grows. It’s the details that makes the stories feel truthful. Roberts paints an era of intrigue with Han Chinese versus Manchu. Much of the book is also focused on cruelty towards women, and there is ample material full of foot-binding and all the minor crimes that were part of society at the time. Ultimately, the strength of the main character shines through. Especially when it comes to the overlap of politics and family…

The country of China irrevocably changes in the course of these pages, but overall it is a human story about the people who are caught up in history. Right up until the end.

The novel covers such a grand and ambitious scope that it occasionally feels like there is a checklist of historical events to go through. It does work, and it is somewhat the point of the novel to show how a woman of humble origins would have witnessed all that occurred. For the most part the flow works with Yaqian’s life, and the exposition is part of the interest in reading Threads of Silk.

Available on Amazon

Book review: PET. a memoir of love and sex and domination

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When I came across “The Lesbian Pickup Artist” Flye Hudson’s guest post on SpeakingofChina.com which included an excerpt from the book PET., I was surprised to see the worlds of AMWF blogging (Asian Male White Female) overlap with the PUA scene (Pickup Artists). I’m not terribly familiar with pickup artists, but like many males I read Neil Strauss’s famous book The Game and tried to incorporate some of the advice without putting in too much effort embracing it. As a student of human nature, it’s certainly an interesting phenomenon. And that’s without even getting into misogynistic controversies.

PET. is a memoir by Flye Hudson about her experiences loving a professional pickup artist who happens to be a Taiwanese-American. It is definitely not a how-to guidebook, but simply an avenue for Hudson to express all that she went through in this tumultuous romance – some of which gets quite dark. It is intensely honest, even while names and locations are renamed, but feelings are the point and the honesty gets brutal.

The story begins by detailing the perils of online dating. Hudson, a bisexual woman of college age, posts on a fetish site that she prefers Asian men and only one guy stands out. Called Ryder Chan in the book, he soon explains that he wants a dominant-submissive relationship. Much of the memoir is about that as much as pickup. The Taiwanese/Chinese cultural side is minimal, with some scenes about the family but many people in America have an immigrant background and it’s not the central theme. The true focus is its about a submissive woman who falls in love with a hardcore dominant man, and all the conflict that enfolds from that dynamic.

Her lover is a rather unique individual, and makes her his “pet.” They engage in many sexual adventures which make for a good read. Lots of drama concerning multiple threesomes, hooking up with exes, cheating, his pickup artist history, and trying to work out a sort of open relationship on his terms. Hudson’s narration is often more about feelings than about detailed descriptions, and those feelings tend to range from intense love to intense self-loathing. The invisible “Borderline” is even a character of sorts, not a bad literary technique.

The biggest criticism in my view is that Ryder Chan is not much of a likable person at all. Hudson goes on and on about how much she loves him and the power of his love and being accepted, but judging from the stories shared he is usually rather cruel to her. There is so much talk of loyalty, again and again he gives orders and demands loyalty, and it’s hard to understand what the great appeal is. Basically, the love angle is an example of when writing is telling not showing, as so much of the text talks about love without showing stories that prove it. Even in the worst moment – without giving away spoilers – Chan basically drives the narrator to her worst point in her life and then saves her from it after the fact.

Although, it could be that as a more vanilla reader myself I just don’t understand the whole dom thing. PET. Is also about the author’s journey to be accepted for who she is, darkness and all, and her lovelife is her choice. Perhaps the point is that Flye Hudson loves him, not the readers.

One other disconcerting aspect that must be said is the PUA tendency to rate women by looks. It is a sexual memoir and I do admit I enjoy reading descriptions of beautiful women in intimate scenes.And there’s nothing wrong with having tastes and preferences. But on the other hand, berating women for not being hot in certain parts seems unnecessarily cruel and feels somewhat disappointing coming from a woman author.

All in all, PET. is a self-published memoir which is a vehicle for the author to express herself. It seems to be totally successful at that. The writing is casually and amateur and melodramatic sometimes, it could use some editing, but ultimately the subject matter is so damn interesting that the book is totally worth the read. For anyone curious about alternative lifestyles, whether or not readers themselves would necessarily embrace that sort of thing, it comes quite recommended.

Available on Amazon.

Book Review: Umbrellas in Bloom

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https://thenanfang.com/book-review-umbrellas-bloom/

 

Jason Y. Ng is the author of HONG KONG State of Mind and No City for Slow Men, and has now rounded out a trilogy with Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered (all published by Blacksmith Books).

While his previous books simply described modern Hong Kong social dynamics, the latest is explicitly political and an altogether different style than the others. Now that he has written book-length political commentary, Ng has become a crucial player by being first to record the 2014 “Occupy Central” protest movement in any English-language book. It is certainly a must-read.

Umbrellas in Bloom covers a lot of ground. The complex political system of Hong Kong is detailed in very readable fashion, with all the grievances spelled out. Various charts explain how the economy has left the majority of citizens behind, and why so many were upset enough to camp out in protest for all those months. Most of all, the mainland Chinese government is shown to blame for suppressing universal suffrage for the former colony under the so-called “one country, two systems.” Indeed, observers of Beijing and Asia as a whole would do well to read this book and understand the climate of Beijing in relation to Hong Kong.

The language of the book does reflect a specific point of view; do not mistake it as a scholarly, objective report. Ng delves deeply into his unique experiences and certainly takes sides. It makes for a good read, and it’s refreshing that he does not censor himself and expresses his informed opinion with confidence. Perhaps there is an element of preaching to the choir, even getting repetitive at times—“blue ribbon” supporters probably won’t change their minds after reading—but for international readers seeking to understand, the writing style works.

The book is very personal as well. It begins on September 28th, 2014, the day tear gas was fired into crowds as the whole world watched in horror. Then, the tone jumps around as it looks back on the history of Hong Kong politics. The central villain is Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, known as a corrupt stooge of the mainland Chinese government, although the entirety of the Legco system in Hong Kong is highly unrepresentative. As 2017 approached—the promised time for universal suffrage, the Occupy Central movement grew. There was also the Scholarism student movement, led by famous student Joshua Wong (Wong wrote one of the book’s forwards). Then the tale of three villages: the occupied areas of Admiralty, Mongkok, and Causeway Bay. Different ideologies and challenges are showcased, from the police to thugs and internal struggles between different factions and nativists. Some of the most heartwarming sections are about the young people he met, such as Kent and Renee and Hinson, engaging characters all.

In the end, due to a court order of all things, the Admiralty occupation fell. Four days later, on December 15th, the police cleared out the other encampments and the Umbrella Revolution was left to ponder its own legacy. Ng is quite optimistic; surprising considering nothing on paper seemed to get enacted yet, but he does point out that other famous social justice movements throughout history took decades to achieve their goals. His conclusion is definitely that it was worth a try. “The 11 weeks I spent in Umbrellaville were the happiest in all my years in Hong Kong,” he writes. Perhaps the soul of Hong Kong has been changed in subtle ways that are not clear yet, but in the long run history will prove that things did change…

There is so much to learn from Umbrellas in Bloom. However subjective, it is definitely required reading for expats and Sinologists. Whether you were there or only watched on the news from afar, the fallout is still occurring today and enlightened observers should learn what they can.

Highly recommended for all China watchers.

Umbrellas in Bloom is available in Hong Kong bookstores, and can be ordered from Blacksmith Books.

Cha: Asian literary journal review of South China Morning Blues – Different Shades of Blue

From the March 2016 edition of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

http://www.asiancha.com/content/view/2349/541/

 

Different Shades of Blue: Ray Hecht’s South China Morning Blues

  by Kathy Wong

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Ray Hecht, South China Morning Blues, Blacksmith Books, 2015. 352 pgs.

South China Morning Blues is Ray Hecht’s debut novel and revolves around expatriates living in the Pearl River Delta region where Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are situated. Compared to Shanghai and Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have been less written about in literary works in English. Even when the Pearl River Delta region has been featured, it often serves as a historical backdrop for the political vicissitudes of the early 20th century. Yet, Hecht’s novel shines a spotlight on contemporary Guangzhou and Shenzhen, together with Hong Kong, which are becoming more popular for expatriates looking for a piece of the Chinese Dream. Hecht avoids the clichéd portrayal of the challenges and difficulties faced by expats abroad; instead, with carefully crafted storytelling featuring multiple voices, he leads us through interlocking narratives which depict what life is really like when foreigners are immersed in the Southern Chinese world of the 21st century.

Hecht, who has lived in China for several years, makes use of personal experiences, hearsay, research and his own imagination to create a novel about young expatriates and local Chinese as they struggle and find their way through hardship and temptation. The novel is divided into three sections, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Each of the three cities depicted by Hecht exudes its own unique idiosyncratic features—Shenzhen, the fast-changing and westernising metropolis; Guangzhou, the traditional capital striving for rejuvenation and globalisation; Hong Kong, the hedonistic and frustrated modern gateway between East and West. But the differences between the cities lie not only in the textures of their cityscapes and geopolitical positions, but also in how social relations between locals and foreigners are interwoven.

As hinted at by the title of the novel, South China Morning Blues is filled with the different sorts of ‘blues’ faced by expatriates in the three cities, such as language barriers, cultural shocks and biases, as well as dark moments to do with casual hook-ups, prostitution and alcohol and drug abuse. Hecht strategically sheds light on life in the region by adopting a multifaceted narrative mode: he creates a chain of interlocking stories told by a dozen narrators. Twelve sets of subjective experiences related to expatriate communities are represented—not only foreigners from different cultural backgrounds are given a voice, but local Chinese residents, including those who do not speak much English, are also heard. Interestingly, each of these characters is assigned one of the twelve Chinese zodiac signs at the beginning of the novel, and as the story progresses, each is signified by his or her zodiac sign rather than their real name. This intriguing conceit creates a sense that twelve anonymous and universal archetypes are interwoven to form a coherent narrative.

The novel starts with a nightclub encounter, followed by a one-night stand between Marco, an American expatriate businessman, and Sheila, a local Chinese woman, in Shenzhen. In this episode, rather than giving detailed sensual descriptions from the foreigner’s perspective, Hecht switches between the two characters’ viewpoints. There is not much actual dialogue between them; instead, Marco and Sheila each reveal their own unspoken thoughts:

  兔 [Hare, representing Sheila]

  The sex feels okay. I like the style of his home. It’s very big and neat. I suppose that a cleaning lady must come here every day. What did he say his job is? I didn’t understand.

  虎 [Tiger, representing Marco]

  The sex feels awesome. I’m so turned on that I’m going to cum any second. She’s skinny, no ounce of fat on her. I love that flat stomach. She didn’t put up any resistance. Totally into it! Goddamn, I still have the charm!

Switching perspectives in this fashion not only creates a swift and breathless rhythm for the erotic encounter, but also functions as a tool to juxtapose two sets of competing opinions. Indeed, this experimental narrative mode is what makes the novel so original. Through this storytelling technique, Hecht invents alternative spaces in which individuals’ candid judgments, if not biases, are revealed.

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theNanfang.com: SCMB a Glimpse Into Expat Life in a Fast-Changing PRD

South China Morning Blues a Glimpse Into Expat Life in a Fast-Changing Pearl River Delta

https://thenanfang.com/south-china-morning-blues-a-glimpse-into-expat-life-in-a-fast-changing-pearl-river-delta/

Luigi Mondino , December 21, 2015

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Ray Hecht’s debut novel is a detailed and sincere depiction of what life is like in the Pearl River area. Divided into three main sections (one for each major city: Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong), the book follows the life of several characters, both foreigners and locals, as they try (or struggle) to find their way without losing touch with reality. Rather than being a simple collection of short stories (very loosely entwined), Hecht chooses to shape his book into a canvas where the expat lifestyle is the effective trait d’union.

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Hecht obviously knows what he’s talking about as, being himself a long-term expat in the area, he has drawn from his own personal experience (as it can be inferred from his own personal blog) ideas and stories that lay the foundations of his book, and it shows well: characters look real and relatable, grounded in reality, vivid and rich in their motivations and background. Characters are teachers, journalists, young artists, businessmen, all people that populate bars and clubs in the downtown of each city. Ray Hecht has collected and transformed some of the stories he heard (who knows how much autobiography might be in the book?) into a constellation of small existences that, although bordering on the stereotypical sometimes, often emerge as true in their own need of self affirmation.

Whoever experienced life in the Pearl River Delta can understand or relate to the urgency to be heard or to stand out that everyone in the book seems to display: life is too fast-paced and often people focus on their careers, while everything else slips into the background. If the 12 main characters all have something in common, it is a sense of isolation that compels them to question their own choices and fast-forward life to the next, hopefully safer, stage.

The three sections the book consist of several mini-chapters, each following a different character (some of them recurring from section to section, thus closing the circle and giving the idea of a mini universe where people can’t stop running into the same faces again and again). All stories are narrated in the first person and they read as confessions that break the fourth wall and ask the reader to participate in something private and meaningful that otherwise would be lost.

Each section of the book has its own different nuance that reflects the three different cities in which everything takes place:  Shenzhen is a new and fast city, Guangzhou is the old capital, Hong Kong is a hybrid city looking for a balance in its own internal differences. “Shenzhen” opens the book and throws us in the middle of the action: two foreigners, newcomers to Shenzhen, try and mostly fail to integrate in a city with no identity and history. Looking forward with no regrets is the key, even if something gets lost along the way. Marco, the businessman, and Danny, the English teacher, whether they are looking for instant gratification or for some meaningful experience, are constantly semi-detached from reality as they can’t help to feel their presence in the city is temporary, a sensation shared by all the characters in this first section. Life is so fast and opportunities so rich, there is no need or time to look back or to make detailed plans about the future.

“Guangzhou” offers a new take on the expat life in China. Guangzhou, the city, is the old Guangdong capital, an established city with its very own rhythm and style. Whereas Shenzhen’s no identity is reflected in its individualism and fast pace, Guangzhou’s somewhat quieter pace is mirrored by a sense of isolation that is sometimes difficult, or almost impossible, to break. Amber, the Canadian English teacher, Ting Ting, the aspiring artist, and Terry, the Asian American journalist, represent the struggle to find themselves in a vast and disperse city: whether you are looking for a professional achievement or to find people to hang out with, Guangzhou is a giant maze that needs to be crossed.

“Hong Kong” is the last section, the shorter and the most crowded: most of action occurs at a rave party on Lamma island, where we re-encounter many of the characters from “Guangzhou”. The party is where individual stories come to an apex and some of the loose ends are tied up (but not completely, we just manage to say goodbye to the characters we have been following so far). Chapters are shorter and there is more interaction than before between characters, so rather than focusing on individual stories, Hecht chooses to let all the tension explode at a party that can be read as a turning point in everybody’s life.

Hecht writes his characters in need of sexual gratification and infuses them with a need for drugs of any type. I admit this sounds like a stretch sometimes, since the high recurrence of such behaviors flattens out diversities rather than creates an invisible bond between characters. This detail represents one of the flaws of the book, flaws that don’t hinder its effectiveness, but reveal Hecht’s somewhat beginner’s naivete: characters seem to all convey the same emotional range, as well as same ambitions and doubts. That is a forgivable since their backgrounds and environments help in giving each character his or her own flavor, but Hecht doesn’t seem totally in control of his own voice (but 12 different characters, one for each sign of the Chinese Zodiac, is a huge challenge for a novice).

As one of the first attempts to describe the expat life of common people, both foreigners and locals, SCMB succeeds in capturing a particular moment in time and space in which we are allowed to peek in. Hecht’s prose flows smoothly (style is simple, but not bland) and although the reading experience is always rich in details and facts, less characters and more plot would have given the book a more solid texture. Looking forward to Hecht’s sophomore effort is from now on something worth doing.

South China Morning Blues is published by Blacksmith Books. It can be purchased from Amazon or at select bookstores.