Review: Hong Kong on the Brink

Hong Kong on the Brink is a memoir by an American diplomat who writes about Hong Kong in the 1960s during the tumultuous days of the Cultural Revolution. It’s a personal story with historical relevance.

The author, Syd Goldsmith, is not known as a particularly high-level diplomat. Yet his take as a Cantonese speaker at the American Consulate gives him a window into the inner workings of the time which makes this book about far more than just granting visas. With over fifty chapters, it covers a wide range showcasing both day-to-day life as well as complex international politics.

Goldsmith starts out with his backstory, explaining just how he became a Foreign Service Officer and found himself sent to Hong Kong in 1965. With an exceptional education, he decided to forego the business world and instead enter government service. He also delves into his personal life, his marriage and the birth of his first child, although those topics often seem to warrant less attention than the focus on his career (which he even admits in some critically self-reflective parts).

After a thorough screening process, he is sent to Hong Kong. It was not his first choice, but he soon starts to embrace it and studies Cantonese seriously. In the chapter entitled ‘The Tricks They Try,’ the book gets entertaining with an overview of the scams that immigrants utilized in the hopes of coming to the United States. Goldsmith always writes with no judgment. As a diplomat, he also gets to observe the high life of the rich and powerful. For the first third of the book all seems well even with the backdrop of Maoist China and the Vietnam War… Then, by chapter fifteen it is explained to him that “there was real trouble just below Hong Kong’s appearance of calm.”

The crux of the book is the communist riots of the year 1965, which is often foreshadowed until it finally explodes in the climax of the narrative.

The title of the chapter ‘The Labor Strife Boils Over’ shows an example of how  economics caused much unrest in the British colony. In the following chapters it is noted how many of Mao’s infamous Little Red Books have taken over the streets. At first it may not be judged as a serious threat, but the reader can feel the rising tension.

Meanwhile, various chapters jump from one topic to another, from briefly meeting Richard Nixon to an expose of Macau. Eventually, the author becomes a sort of CIA analyst as he meets with Cold War agents to discuss what may come. Not to mention a source for journalists as the resident expert.

Goldsmith can be downright poetic at times. “It strikes me that fright can sear memory, etching it deeply into grooves,” he muses. “A needle will play it like a 33-rpm record, over and over for a lifetime. But the trauma can also reduce memory to ashes.”

I learned a lot in reading this book. There were many complicated factors that tied colonial Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China even during the heights of the Cold War. For example, even under the threat of a possible military attack they still hoped to be able to trade for water with officials across the border. But the book is still from the subjective perspective of one man, and not meant to be a complete history of all things Hong Kong during that decade. Still, a very informative perspective indeed.

Fortunately, cooler heads did prevail in the end although the city went through very challenging times. Syd Goldsmith made it. The extremism of the Cultural Revolution, as we all know, never did fully overtake Hong Kong. The cost of freedom was, however, rather high as the British ultimately seized control.

“By early 1968 Hong Kong’s emergency was pretty much behind me,” the author writers at the end of the book, as he reflects upon what he witnessed and survived.

Hong Kong on the Brink (appropriately subtitled An American diplomat relives 1967’s darkest days) is not introductory and is only recommended for those already familiar with Hong Kong and modern Chinese history. Hong Kong expats particularly curious would be most interested. For a certain kind of reader, this an excellent read.

Published by Blacksmith Books, the book is available on Amazon and at bookstores within the former colony and current special administrative region.

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Mao’s Town

Mao’s Town by Xie Hong is the first English-language novel from Chinese author Xie Hong, and showcases the author’s unique voice in exploring the Revolutionary era of recent Chinese history. Told in short, pointed sentences, Mao’s Town expresses something that only an author who lived through the terrible era could truly understand. Nonetheless, this book gives an excellent introduction to so many horrors of the time–from the hunger pains of the Great Leap Forward to the abusive madness of the Red Guards circa the Cultural Revolution. It was a time that hopefully will never be repeated, but needs to be remembered.

Mao’s Town is told from a childhood point of view, full of memories and written in direct language that always seems appropriate. The central theme is the concept of family as well finding one’s place in a small town which represents the enormous nation of China, and furthermore the narrative explores how the edicts that came down from the dictatorship of Chairman Mao can affect everything for one small boy.

There are the little things that one remembers, details like enjoying food in the early days. Though then the lack of it later when the hardships begin. The protagonist of the story spends his days watching propaganda “Red” films about fighting landlords, celebrates Chinese New Year, and plays with his friends Sun and Ahn as all of the families are eventually torn apart culminating in his brother’s and father’s sagas.

Some of the memories can be very intense, like when a teacher must be chosen as the “rightist” of the school for public punishment. Others seem so innocently naïve, such as when the family gives up their pots and pans out of faith to the Party’s now known horrific steelworks projects. They townspeople kill sparrows, and more, yet never know the full impact even while the path leads to starvation. All the while, the children don’t even know what the word “capitalist” means…

Mao’s Town is a quick read about both Chinese history and about how young minds process tragedy. Recommended for historians of all ages.

Mao’s Town by Xie Hong is published by Whyte Tracks and is available on Amazon.

Impressions upon an Avengers: Infinity War

Almost goes without saying, massive spoilers herein forewarned.

Do not read ahead unless you’ve already seen.

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Taipei Times – Book review: Haunted hotels, typing dogs and the expat experience

http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2018/04/12/2003691146

Taiwan Tales Volume Two, by Taipei Writers Group

Taiwanese ghosts abound in the second edition of ‘Taiwan Tales’ by the Taipei Writers Group, but the writers don’t stop there, digging deep into the nuances and fine details of life in Taiwan 

By Han Cheung  /  Staff Reporter

One might expect a collection of short stories written by expats in Taiwan to largely tell of the experiences of, well, expats in Taiwan, but the first three stories of Taiwan Tales Volume Two feature a Taiwanese businesswoman, a well-read and verbose red poodle (a popular breed) and a shy Taiwanese old computer game shop vendor in the underground malls of Taipei Main Station

Such a book wouldn’t be as rich, however, if it there were no foreigners involved at all — after all, they have unique experiences that are usually not featured in mainstream Taiwanese media or literature. Out of the seven stories, three of them speak from the quintessential “expat experience” in Taiwan, making this collection a bit more rounded given that the majority of writers hail from the US.

Representation is always tricky with anthologies like these because there’s always something to nitpick, but it’s understandable that there’s not a large pool of English fiction writers living in Taiwan to solicit quality stories from. For what this book is, it’s an enjoyable and well-edited read that anyone who has spent significant time in Taiwan can identify with and chuckle at the “only in Taiwan” references sprinkled throughout the book.

From the very first story, Room 602 by Pat Woods, it’s clear that the authors are deliberately writing from a Taiwanese perspective, or at least consciously featuring local nuances and elements that only someone who has lived here for a while will catch. Woods speaks of the freezing air conditioning that makes you bring a coat to work in the sweltering summer, the feel of shame, or “losing face,” after losing one’s cool in a public setting and giving very specific details, such as exact dates, when speaking to ghosts.

The plot for Woods’ story follows a pretty standard ghost story formula, but it is perhaps the most ambitious out of this collection, as he tries to write from the first-person perspective of a Taiwanese woman — and pulls it off fairly well. This is what makes the stories fun to read. While they are all well-crafted and the prose is lively and well-edited, the creative use of Taiwanese elements is what sets them apart.

In the same vein, the second tale, Mark Will’s Notes From the Underfoot, written from the perspective of a slightly snobby but very well-read and pensive toy poodle, is a rambling monologue that hits many points spot on to the Taiwanese dog experience — from the practice of dressing one’s canine in baby clothes and wheeling it around in a stroller to people who abandon dogs after they stop being cute.

Will also comments on Taiwanese politics through the dog’s perspective — Lulu the corgi feels that it’s linguistically oppressive to refer to Taiwan as “Formosa,” while Baobao the poodle is fine with the term but not okay with “Chinese Taipei.”

The remainder of the book is just as entertaining, including a trippy ghost adventure, an urban fantasy that features all kinds of strange creatures from the folklore of various countries, and a hilarious account of an obsessive expat on Tinder, hoping for a last hurrah before he leaves Taiwan while things go completely awry.

Taiwanese (and other Asian) folk religion and beliefs, especially the belief in evil spirits, feature prominently in the book, since, after all, that’s the most easily recognizable element of Taiwanese culture that completely differs from Western beliefs. But that’s just scratching the surface, and the writers do a good job in digging deeper.

As a result of this fascination with the occult, only three of the tales are completely rooted in reality. These provide the reader with temporary relief (otherwise the would have to be called “Taiwan Ghost Tales”), from Taipei Underground’s sketch of an ordinary man looking for love while working for his demanding cousin, to an unexpected friendship between two expat English teachers running away from their origins and eventually facing their demons.

Also worth looking at is the vastly different “expat experience” between male and female Western residents of Taipei. The two female writers almost exclusively focus on expat characters in their stories, as Bob, the Unfriendly Ghost vs The Mother Plant by Laurel Bucholz features an expat teacher and the only Taiwanese characters are the children she teaches (who discuss with her how to get rid of the unfriendly ghost).

There is, of course, a reason for this. The Western female role is made clear in the beginning of the story, when the author writes that “white girls in Asia, living in obscure towns, get very little love. They are bottom of the list for the pickings,” and the protagonist is companionless until she returns to the US to snag a guy to bring back to Taiwan. As a result they are less integrated into Taiwanese society, whereas the men tend to date and marry local woman.

While this is largely a stereotype of female expats in Asia, stereotypes are based on truths, and again it’s a good thing that the author doesn’t shy away from tackling the issue directly. It only paints a more complete picture of expat life in Taiwan, and makes this book a more complete anthology.

Asian Review of Books – “Taiwan Tales Volume 2: An Anthology” from the Taiwan Writers Group

 

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There aren’t that many English-language books about Taiwan, especially fiction. This is a pity because despite being wedged between much larger neighbors such as China, Japan and the Philippines, there is a lot to Taiwan that often gets overlooked. There are many good stories that are still waiting to be told and the Taiwan Writers Group, a collective of local and expat writers, tries to tell a few in their latest collection.

This second volume of Taiwan Tales is compact, but its seven short stories are diverse, ranging from ghost stories to mystery. As the writers are all expats, most of the stories feature expats as protagonists. This obviously presents mostly an outsider’s view, but their fondness for and knowledge of Taiwan is evident in their descriptions of contemporary Taiwan life and culture. But there are also local protagonists, including that is an animal.

In what might be the story with the most Taiwanese twist, “Room 602” by Pat Woods sees a local woman face unusual problems in her hotel room during a business trip in Kaohsiung, falling back on childhood memories involving superstition and the appeasing of ghosts.

Mark Will’s “Notes from Underfoot” is an amusing story of Taipei life from a dog’s perspective. Baobao, a literate poodle owned by an expat and his local girlfriend, provides a witty narrative that includes cross-strait politics, the frequent neglect of pet dogs by Taiwanese, and buxibans or local tutoring centers for students. In Laurel Bucholz’s “Bob the Unfriendly Ghost vs The Mother Plant”, an expat finds herself under assault from a tormented ghost in her apartment right after taking Ayahuasca, a medicinal herb from South America. The combination of local superstition and hallucinatory visions from the herb produces a potent tale.In what might be the story with the most Taiwanese twist, “Room 602” by Pat Woods sees a local woman face unusual problems in her hotel room during a business trip in Kaohsiung, falling back on childhood memories involving superstition and the appeasing of ghosts.

JJ Goodwin’s “Underground” takes readers on a wild ride through an underground universe populated with deities and creatures from Taiwanese and other Asian folklore. This Taiwanese Odyssey features an unsuspecting hero who must complete quests and brave dangerous creatures to find his way back to the real world. Connor Bixby’s “A Completely Normal Male Expat”, the most humorous story in the collection, pokes fun at a stereotypical randy male expat while also parodying online dating. The story sees an American expat who becomes fixated on a local Tinder match, only to become increasingly neurotic as things go awry with the ensuing date.

Ray Hecht’s “The Taipei Underground” features a blossoming romance between two Taiwanese youngsters working in an underground electronics goods arcade in Taipei. It is a good take on work and social anxieties faced by young Taiwanese, in a setting that might not be well-known but is one of Taipei’s many distinctive facets.

Last but certainly not least, “Onus” by Ellyna Ford Phelps is an intriguing story about two female English teachers who form a close bond, but whose backgrounds suggest mysterious, tragic pasts. The story takes a dark turn midway but it blends expat friendship tale and mystery thriller in a poignant and suspenseful way that works very well.

It is no coincidence that there are two stories in the collection that feature ghosts, for  Taiwanese society has a strong superstitious nature due to the influence of traditional religion. Ghosts do feature regularly in modern Taiwanese life. For example, “Ghost Month” in the lunar calendar is widely observed by many Taiwanese who worship the ghosts of their ancestors by burning paper in urns outside their homes or businesses.

The anthology is a good reflection of Taiwan: small, calm on the surface but belying a fascinating, quirky, and pulsating character.


Hilton Yip is a writer currently based in Hong Kong and former book editor of Taiwan’s The China Post.

Fire and Fury review, or Too Much F*cking Tr*mp

Although it’s not my primary focus, I do write about politics on occasion (it has been a while). I try to stay informed, and as an American I hope I have well-thought out opinions worth sharing. And, of course, these days how can one not pay attention!

Coupling that with my propensity to write book reviews, I would like to go outside of my lane a bit and do an extensive review of the explosive new book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff.

No doubt you’ve heard of it, as well as all the fallout. This is my take.

Overall I think the book is excellent and damn what a fascinating read, but there is a certain challenge in it. Not that I think criticisms of the accuracy are what’s wrong—I will defend them below. But the problem is that that living in this age and rehashing the past year has been very mentally stressful. And at the same time to read, there’s keeping up with the endless barrage of new scandals which threatens to overwhelm my feeble mind.

Simply put, too much fucking Tr*mp. I get conflicted because this is important and worth paying attention to. Yet the sad fact of it is that he is the history’s all-time greatest attention whore and good or bad press he no doubt relishes in all the constant fretting. Note that in my small way I try to rebel against this by hereafter only referring to Prez you-know-who as 45.

As to the merits of the book, here I go: I genuinely think it is excellent and everyone should read it. It came at the right time, just when one may worry that we are getting used to it and normalization has set in, this amazing story was suddenly published to usher in more fresh outrages. And fatigue or not, outrages is the sensible reaction. Michael Wolff has done a great service.

Starting from the scene of election night at the campaign when they shockingly won, the premise from the get-go that no one expected him to win. The campaign was a terrible mess, as was reported on at the time, thought the one guy who believed he could make it happen was Bannon. From beginning to end, Bannon is certainly the protagonist of the book.

Wolff lays out the insanity of recent history in a readable and dare I say entertaining manner. It’s not only the dry facts, but a narrative arc that somehow all makes sense. Some may criticize that but I think it is a perfectly fair way engage the reader. There is even commentary on the reality show nature of the current presidency to create this sort of drama, which we’ve all been witnessing. Usually history is made sense of and turned into story long after the fact, but this is the new postmodern age isn’t it? Wolff is simply transcribing in the most appropriate way possible.

Some may think it grossly irresponsible for Wolff to relay rumors, but so far there isn’t anything specific which has turned out not to be true. No one has denied any quotes. Wolff is upfront in the book when the same events often have competing interpretations from different camps. I find the author’s judgment to always be fair. If there are later corrections made then so be it.

If one can just call a spade a spade, we know it’s all basically true. Like, the way the book states that 45 hated his own inauguration and was visibly fighting with Melania. Anyone can watch the videos to know this is truth. Another example that comes to mind is when Bannon gave the speech at CPAC which was a dig at Jared, it’s obvious! All the behind the scenes footage is valid and America knows it. Above all, the glaringly open secret that 45 is an idiot and everyone who works for him constantly talks about it.

Moreover, the rumory nature of the book is what has gotten headlines but for the most part it’s about Michael Wolff’s analysis of public happenings than just the gossip. Wolff, in omniscient narrator fashion, gives thorough critical examination to the firings and the scandals and panic, and without the lame partisanship in so much punditry. Although the central theme that 45 is shallow and empty and doesn’t read and constantly watches TV (an interesting term, he’s “post-literate”) and he can’t control his worst impulses and who refuses to even know that he doesn’t know, barring that overall important point the other characters are indeed analyzed with respect. There’s still more to learn about 45 beyond his mere stupidity, like the way he prefers loyalty of women. There are the the occasional pop psychological riffs on his motivations to just be liked, paternal-related and otherwise.

In any case, 45 and his defenders have rather had an enormous problem with the concept of objective truth… So why listen to their attacks on Wolff? I for one trust the leaks.

Michael Wolff is clearly talented at writing about politics in surprising ways. For example, he does repeatedly criticize the so-called liberal media. Makes it all the more poignant when he explains the world of right-wing media with its far lower standards of entry. And after all the due respect given to the original core members of the cabinet, it can’t be denied that the unqualified Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller’s promotions towards the end show an absolute problem with finding professional staff. Wolff simply, as they say, tells it like it is. 

One of the most haunting analyses that come to mind is when white supremacist Richard Spencer is declared to be the intellectual base of “Trumpism”, which is all the more a horrifying concept because the more one thinks about it the more it can’t be denied to be true.

Overall, the book is about the disastrous and chaotic infighting which took place in the White House. From chiefs of staff Preibus to Kelly, when it all settles we find ourselves nearly caught up in the low morale present. There’s the Scaramucci affair, which turns out to be yet worse knowing the backstory. Often it’s 45’s own family, Jared and Ivanka, who are the worst of the worst.

If Bannon is the main character, then the utterly incompetent “Jarvanka” family faction proves to be the antagonist. Spoiler: They win in the end. It’s hard to say if that’s a happy or sad ending.

In satisfying faction, by the time of the infamous Charlottesville “many sides” comment, absolutely everybody knows that 45 is a lost cause who cannot do this job. Not to mention the tweets. Then there’s the growing Russian scandal, which initially is given a lot of skepticism but grows worse and worse veering into that incredibly inept Comey firing and then revelations of inexplicable meetings and subsequent coverups and obstruction of justice allegations and Rosenstein’s revenge in the form of the Mueller Special Counsel. By the conclusion no less an authority than Bannon himself has to admit that eventually this will bring the administration down.

Because we are living this, the story goes on.

The odds indeed are very high that scandal is going to take this administration down, perhaps even soon, but for a reader who has learned so much I am left wondering why the hell it is taking so long.

At last, Bannon loses his job but remains hopeful for the future of his outsider revolution, and the book ends with as much feeling of closure that can be expected. Yet, now we know that due to the fallout of the book Bannon has even been let go from his Breitbart, which does seem just. I just hope to read in the paperback updated edition of Michael Wolff’s take on the latest.

A recurring motif is that 45 as such an anomaly to everyone in Washington, with everyone who doubted the loud-mouthed reality show host having to reluctantly work with what they have. Sadly, as true as the strangeness of this strange chapter of American history is, Wolff does leave something out after all that focus on 45 and his ilk. The question still remains on how America—even if not due to the majority of voters—could let this happen. How can this train wreck of a government have happened and so many citizens supporting such chaos and bigotry and corruption? Those questions may have to be answered by future historians after far more time passes.

Meanwhile, Wolff did his best to explain the inner workings withing Fire and Fury and America must wait and see to further understand and reflect.

[Review] Hong Kong in the Fifties: John Saeki’s The Tiger Hunters of Tai O

Cha

{Written by Ray Hecht, this review is part of the “Writing Hong Kong” Issue (December 2017) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films}

John Saeki, The Tiger Hunters of Tai O, Blacksmith Books, 2017. 304 pgs.

tiger-hunters-of-tai-o_800The Tiger Hunters of Tai O is a new historical novel with a unique perspective. Author John Saeki paints a colourful portrait of Hong Kong in the 1950s, capturing the spirit of the times in this page-turning police thriller. Sometimes hilarious, and sometimes deadly serious, most readers should be fascinated by the intrigue and politics of the era. Though Hong Kong—especially Tai O—has certainly changed over the past half century, locals will find this world a familiar place even while discovering new surprises and secrets uncovered about the region.

The plot ostensibly revolves around a Eurasian police officer named Simon Lee who is investigating suspicious tiger attacks. The…

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Eating Smoke: review of memoir, and audio

 

Chris Thrall’s memoir Eating Smoke (sensationally subtitled One Man’s Descent Into Drug Psychosis In Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland) was published in 2011 but resparked buzz last year when the book was adapted into a radio dramatization for Hong Kong’s RTHK station.

The memoir is about Thrall’s time in Hong Kong in the 90s when he found himself addicted to ice—that is, methamphetamine—and indeed written in the style one would expect while on speed.

It is a dazzling ride, full of flowing neon and inebriation. First, the British Royal Marine suddenly quits his military position and moves abroad with dreams of making it big in the business world. Before he knows it, his business fails and he has to start hustling. The bulk of the story consists of jumping from one sketchy employment opportunity to the next, constantly maneuvering through new scams which grow increasingly desperate. He stays in the infamous Chungking Mansions, then hangs out among the hippie scene on Lamma Island where it starts out innocently enough with some strong weed, and ends up in the seediest parts of Wan Chai addicted to crystal.

“Quiss” Thrall meets a seemingly never-ending parade of colorful characters who live on the very edge of Hong Kong society, the caliber getting lower and lower as he is dragged down to the dregs. But there are so many he meets that it becomes difficult for the reader to follow what’s going on after a while.

The subtitle of the book declares his descent into the “Triad Heartland”, but the part when he becomes a doorman for a Triad-connected club is just one section among many, which comes rather late in the book. The stakes do get higher as threats of violence and death race towards the climax.

The radio drama, an audiobook really, overall can be quite superior to the book because as an edited abridged version it can get to the point quickly and highlight the best sections. Many odd jobs are skipped over in order to focus on the Triad and drug-crazed scenes. I did miss some, such as the English-teaching episode, although that is a story that has been told before. The unique nature of Thrall’s perspective is worth focusing on, though my personal favorite was the weekend-long DJing gig in China which unfortunately didn’t make it to the radio for some reason.

The narration from RTHK is excellent, with acting that can be funny when necessary as well as solemn, and always powerful. One noted part details the time a woman passed out due to a possible overdose at the club, Thrall calls an ambulance but the boss coldly stated he just wanted her thrown out. Stories like these are best listened to and not only read, so be sure to download the free podcasts…

For the most part, Thrall remains likable through it all until perhaps the finale of the memoir when he descends deeper into madness. His greatest talent is his ability to get by in Cantonese, which grants him a window into an authentic world which most foreigners never get to see. Eating Smoke is a fascinating insight into 1990s Hong Kong that readers and listeners from all over the world would do well to appreciate.

 

The radio drama is available free as a downloadable podcast on the RTHK website here: http://podcast.rthk.hk/podcast/item_all.php?pid=1130

Eating Smoke is published by Blacksmith Books, and available at Hong Kong bookstores and Amazon.

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.

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

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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~

 

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.

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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!