What I Says: An autobiography about somebody unknown and done in the format of a comic, how could that work? Well it worked for me, I really enjoyed reading this, I can’t stand those autobiographies by famous people full of name dropping and desperately trying to make every aspect of their life interesting. Always Goodbye is the sort of book that could be about you, the reader, if you are a child of the 80’s then you’ll see similarities to your own life in this book, as Ray Hecht describes events you’ll be going “I remember that” and you’ll end up on your own journey down memory lane. And being born in the 80’s means a lot of big moments in your life would be defined by technology, getting that first email address, joining myspace and Facebook, games consoles and smart phones are all big points in Rays life and until reading this I have never thought of things like that before.
A huge part of Rays life has been spent reading and making comics, falling in love with Marvel and DC universes and because he has that huge knowledge about comics it has made this book much more special. Some clever little bits really bring this to life, describing his parents, birth, upbringing and how they met was cleverly done, drawn as a column with each event side by side worked well. Each chapter starts off with a year of Rays life and the first window shows a significant event from that year and I loved trying to figure out what they represented. There was the odd quirky bit thrown in too which gave me a chuckle, favourite bit was Ray sat at his desk at school and the writing about the scene takes up so much space that he has to have his head at an angle.
The comic has been hand drawn, which gives it a personal touch that would have been taken away by a piece of software, whenever Ray draws one of his girlfriends the amount of detail increases until they are almost glowing, it shows just how important they were in his life.
I have really enjoyed reading about Ray’s life and now wish I had a time machine to go and get my hands on the sequel in 30 years time 🙂
Always Goodbye by Ray Hecht
A review of the graphic novel
Ray Hecht’s autobiographical graphic novel starts with his birth in Israel, where his parents were immigrants, and ends up with him working in Asia. Moving to America as a small child he has an unstable upbringing, thanks to his Ukrainian mother and American father divorcing. The drawings and the layout here obviously took a lot of work and I dare say it may have been easier just to write the narrative, however, this was a more interesting way to tell his story. Each year is introduced with a picture of a key event and I laughed when I saw OJ’s Bronco being chased by police down the highway for 1994.
Things start out well for the family in America, but after a few years the cracks begin to show and his parents get divorced in the early nineties. His mother remarries a none-too trustworthy Israeli man and Ray stays with his Dad, who trains to be a nurse. Ray does recognise his father’s efforts to better himself. His sister is academic and as she grows up gets sucked into a conservative Israeli world that Hecht wants no part of. She learns Russian and presumably Hebrew too — as she moves to Israel and gets married there. Ray’s trips to Israel don’t work out well, it’s not a place he connects with. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that he prefers to study Japanese and later Chinese.
A self-confessed nerdy child, Hecht struggles socially and finds solace in comic books. (I was waiting for his reading to break out from the pure escapism of comics and this does eventually happen.) A convincing portrayal of how America can be a lonely place for a teenager, a lot of this must have been hard to bring to the surface again. One major problem for him is always moving from school to school, as the title indicates it is “Always Goodbye”. Probably the most painful incident is when he gets kicked out of school for something he says about a mass shooting. Despite being an introvert, he makes various efforts to improve his social life, investigating subcultures — punk, Goth, arty-type, straight edge, hippie — looking for something to hold onto. His friends do the same thing and he falls in and out with them depending on what phase they are in — a problem of a fractured society: you can join many different tribes but a sense of belonging is not guaranteed. He does some hallucinogenic drugs, but the answer doesn’t lie there.
In his early twenties Ray moves out of his Dad’s place and back again several times, in a non-linear surge towards independence common in his generation. He has a string of dead-end jobs in various States and then vaguely commits to life in California. Salvation comes in the form of China, recommended to him by a random character at the Burning Man Festival 2008. Like many young Westerners who go to work in Asia (me included), it’s the first time he has the luxury of living alone in a decent apartment. He begins teaching at a kindergarten in Shenzhen, the huge city over the border from Hong Kong where everything is new and exciting. He mentions the bootleg markets and this reminded me that one of the pleasures (and even social activities) of living in China back then was shopping for pirated DVDs; now of course we just download movies without leaving the house. He survives the kindergarten, moves onto a Korean owned school in Guangzhou, and escapes the English teaching world to become a copy editor.
Ray realises that a lot of the expat life is about drinking and tries to find meaning through writing and dating. The dating doesn’t go so well, but gives him material to write about. While many say it’s easy to get an Asian girlfriend, it doesn’t work out most of the time because of different expectations and, sure enough, Hecht takes us through a few awkward flings. The world of online dating also turns out to be a wash-out. Despite these romantic failures, he publishes a novel and eventually gets involved in a serious relationship with a creative South African woman— i.e. finally he has some good luck. I was interested to read that he initially went down to Hong Kong every six months to get visas, but later got a ten year China visa. Surely long term visas like this are not on the table anymore?
The text isn’t that polished and there are still a few mistakes to be ironed out, or perhaps they were left in the on purpose to emphasize the DIY nature of this work? His analysis of society is usually spot on and you can see a narrow view of the world broadening as he travels more — this gives the story a nice arc. As a thirty-something he ends up in Taiwan, looking at current events it was probably a wise decision to leave China and move there.
Always Goodbye by Ray Hecht. 88 pages. TWG Press, 2019, paperback, $5.99. With great insight and humor, Ray Hecht shares his life with the reader in his autobiographical graphic novel, Always Goodbye. This is an ambitious work as Hecht takes stock of his whole life thus far. Hecht sums up his life, year by year, […]
The Mueller Report by Robert S. Mueller makes for a somewhat different kind of book review.
Well, I did it. I slugged through the entire report. It’s all free online, don’t even have to steal it.
As eBooks go, this is not the most entertaining page-turner. There are a lot of footnotes, for example, which tend to interrupt the flow.
Moreover, as a narrative this is one of the all-time most anticlimactic stories ever told.
Rather than a book to be judged on its own merits, it’s really more about the news cycle context than anything else.
All this makes it rather difficult to review.
But let us try. Firstly, the context of Volume I: This section heavily details Russian interference in that infamous 2016 election via social media spamming as well the DNC hack. Is this still a controversial fact in some circles? If you are interested in learning about the IRA—the Internet Research Agency—this report is as good a source as any. If you dismiss it as a left-wing conspiracy theory fake news or something, then apparently nothing will truly convince especially some legalistic government report.
The schizophrenia of the U.S. government at this time is quite fascinating, how the highest level of the executive branch can have such a different spin than the entire intelligence apparatus (although recent tweets may have finally admitted that he had help, if tweets are something we are going to get into then).
Which perhaps is the whole point. In these post-truth times, can anyone be convinced of anything anymore?
Then we have endless detail on collusion. Yes, outright collusion. There’s a colorful cast of characters, such as foreign policy “expert” George Papadopoulos and the ever-present diplomat Sergey Kislyak. There’s Richard Gates, Roger Stone, and of course Don Jr. and the big tower meeting. What a stream of reports and reports and reports about how much they welcomed Russian help and even tried and failed to further collude but couldn’t get as far as they’d have liked due to incompetence.
It does not make for a very satisfying read. To learn all this, and then find out that the legal definition for conspiracy is so narrow that they ultimately find it inconclusive and ultimately don’t charge the big guy. Cue the insipid right-wing exoneration talking points.
One particularly close example of what may be illegal, as far as specifically trading campaign work for favors, is the question of the Republican party changing their stance on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine at the RNC convention. This highlights the entire problem with the report right there–we have a question that is unanswered. Did or didn’t officials in the campaign trade influence? This subject even part of the written answers with the president, which were dismissed and sadly not followed up on. More on that failure of a Q & A below.
These near-misses continue; again and again it’s a running theme. Was it illegal for Don Jr. to have a meeting with Russians, whether or not it was really about adoptions? The answer is yes, due to campaign finance law, that’s clearly against the law. But then… they say let’s go ahead and not charge him because he probably didn’t know it was illegal and it would be hard to prove intent in court and whatever in this case ignorance of the law is apparently a valid excuse.
So much painstaking research, and so much giving up. These impossible standards keep making it frustrating for the reader.
Not that there aren’t plenty of convictions and crimes uncovered. Paul Manafort was a pretty large get, let’s acknowledge that. But when it comes to the most powerful of the powerful, there is a sense of exasperation. That in the end, America is about protecting those who are too big to lose and the system will always find a way to make sure those on top will never face the consequences they deserve.
And at least we reach Volume II: Obstruction. Here is where it may or may not get good. There are the ten examples of the president unambiguously obstructing justice to the best of his ability. Public witness-tampering, changing the story on firing Comey, live on TV no less, demands of loyalty, et al. There’s quite a lot of that whole thing.
[And please don’t give me that line about how there can’t be obstruction if there’s no underlying crime. 1: That’s not true, period. If it was true, wouldn’t it be an incentive to obstruct because if it works criminals would get away with the crime? 2: More importantly, there were so many crimes! The president’s own personal lawyer Cohen lied about the Moscow tower, is in jail now, and let’s not even get into the campaign finance violation with the porn star affair hush money. If nothing else simply firing Comey in order to protect his friend Michael Flynn, a convicted criminal, then that is clearly obstructing justice. It’s not only about evidence of collusion/conspiracy at the top. There’s still plenty of obstructing investigations if only to protect his dirty circle. If that’s not corrupt, what is?]
So, then it all ends in a pathetically lame copout in which DOJ guidelines say they can’t indict so they don’t bother indicting. Yes, Mueller went on television trying to explain his logic puzzle of how you can’t charge a crime against someone who can’t go to trial, even though at the same time it’s not an exoneration, punting to Congress as he hints that only they can hold the office to account. Yeah, like oversight is going to go well.
This is the core frustration of this document, and of this entire era we live in. It is postmodern enough that everybody gets their own talking point. You get to interpret the entire investigation however you want. Witch hunt or a valid call for impeachment, pick and chose your own interpretation. Attorney General Barr certainly wants you to interpret it in a political way that benefits his side, based on his initial coverup-y behavior. Mueller simply wants you to be smart enough to read 400 pages and decide for yourself (one of the most naïve positions possible in this age).
In the end, everyone is unsatisfied and the waters couldn’t be muddier. So if you want a sense of closure after reading this, you will still have a long while to wait as we see how history unfolds. So far, to put it lightly, I’m not sensing anything close to a national consensus in the near future.
Isn’t it amazing? This was supposed to be it, and the polls show that right-wingers still believe what they believe, they even have a few quotes to highlight to defend their extreme rationalizations. While the rest of the country vaguely listen to mainstream news summations and have ever so slightly leaned towards kinda’ maybe let’s-investigate-more-and-maybe-impeach-even-though-it’s-for-naught-cause-of-the-Senate.
Sadly, it seems that perhaps obstruction totally works and the people will never know. The appendix in which the president submits his written answers are certainly more of the same. Mueller even says more or less outright that the questionnaire isn’t enough, but he must give up because a subpoena would take too long and he wants to get this damn thing over with. Over thirty answers of “I don’t remember” with no chance to follow up. Once again, the system let’s the powerful get away with anything.
Hell, perhaps all the good stuff is redacted. There are a lot of redactions. So if this is a coverup, then one can only conclude that coverups work.
The story is still continuing. The television drama won’t be over any time soon. In the meantime, the vast majority of Americans will not read this free report. They won’t even read the summaries.
I suppose all that’s left is to depend on the Democrats, and that is a sad notion indeed.
The country is in trouble.
For these reasons above, for this humble reader at this particular time in history, one can only judge this book however full of facts to be a terrible disappointment.
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.
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.
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.
It’s like real life, but better – Tinder slogan.
Apps like Tinder are a natural consequence of a world of pickup artists and pseudo-harems, where 10% of the men fuck 90% of the women and everyone else is left paying hucksters thousands of dollars to learn how to play a game they were never fit to play in the first place.
Datings apps play a big role in Ray Hecht’s new book This Modern Love. Everyone is connected but everyone is lonely and we follow four of these lonely lives in Los Angeles as they seek attachment.
Ben Weiss stands at the crux of this book. Ben is an introverted coder whose relationship coldly ends because his girlfriend discovered his profile on dating websites while maintaining such profiles herself. Ben comes off as particularly emasculated, lost in a world of text seduction. “Cuck” might be the going term, though I’d never advise you to use it.
The others fare no better, even Jack who understands how the game is played. As they seek meaning, Ben pays for a sensual massage, Jack goes through women, Andrea sleeps with a middle-aged man and Carla writes fanfiction and does drugs, and no one comes away satisfied. There is no app or social media website that fills the void in their lives and love, if it exists in this world, cannot be distilled into a few kb of data and remains elusive to these people.
Although I initially thought I couldn’t relate to the people in This Modern Love, I think I understand them. In college I tried my hand at dating, with terrible results, and while I can’t empathize with Jack, I do pity Ben. Like many young men, lost in an increasingly disconnected world and a contest of counterintuitive rules which no one ever wins.
This Modern Love is available at Amazon.
by Travis Lee
Just for fun, I recently put together some of my recent comics as an “ebook” on my old Smashwords account. I don’t often use that website, but if nothing else it is a useful vehicle for sharing free PDFs.
Feel free to read and download. This complication of one-page stories is hereby titled A Random Assortment of Cautionary Tales.
I also have hard copies in Shenzhen to happily share if you bump into me in person 😀
Tell your friends!
Moreover, if you happen to be a friend of mine on Goodreads.com and you want to be very very kind… Well, the funny thing about Smashwords is that even such a small ebook gets a listing on Goodreads. And I can always use reviews. So, wanna read and then quickly rate a few stars with your honest opinion…?
A Random Assortment of Cautionary Tales is just that — a random collection of one-page comic stories by Ray Hecht about the little things in life that haunt us so. No lessons to be learned really, just cautionary in the sense of the warning that everyday can bring new adventure in frustration, ennui, and meh.
Featuring: Umbrella Thief, Why Does This Always Happen to Me?, The Train, Sketch, a Run, Yet Another Semi-True Story, and the 4-part series Unnecessary Cries For Help
This review was kindly requested by the Author, Ray Hecht. A brutally honest portrayal of what seems to be the common mannerism of our youth and our society. Here you have four young adults living in four different ways, and each chapter discusses their addiction to technology, their odd ways of connecting to people through…
From the March 2016 edition of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal
Different Shades of Blue: Ray Hecht’s South China Morning Blues
by Kathy Wong
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.
Luigi Mondino , December 21, 2015
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.
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.
Book Review of South China Morning Blues
When I look back on my twenties, I’m amazed at how much I crammed into that decade—and also at how far-reaching the consequences of my decisions were. I shouldn’t be amazed. We’re meant to choose our path in life during those years. And even though we can reinvent ourselves to some extent later, there’s no getting around it, it’s usually during our twenties that we at least make a good start in figuring out who we are and where we’re going.
The characters in Ray Hecht’s new book, South China Morning Blues, are all in their twenties. And to make matters even more challenging, they live in what may be the fastest changing region of the fastest changing country in the world, the Pearl River Delta region in southeastern China, a megalopolis that the World Bank Group considers the largest urban area in the world in both size and population. Hecht, an American, has lived there, mostly in the city of Shenzhen, since 2008. He knows the area well.
The twelve young men and women who tell their stories in South China Morning Blues, live and work in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. They’re Chinese, American, Canadian, and African. None of them are quite clear on what they want or how to get it.
The first character we meet, Marco, is a sleazy American businessman who likes to show off and pick up girls. Since he can’t be bothered to learn Chinese, his Chinese protégé, Jackie, takes advantage of him and steals his clients. After losing his job, Marco starts a new business, a club that caters to expats. When he falls in love with and marries a Chinese woman, he’s challenged to become his better self.
Sheila’s parents are from another generation. They don’t understand a modern Chinese career woman like her. Eventually Sheila will realize that even though she’s modern in some ways, the Chinese duty to sacrifice for family obligations is still deep inside her.
Terry is an American-born Chinese, a writer, and an alcoholic. To impress his Chinese girlfriend, Ting Ting, he finally cleans up his disgusting apartment. We can only hope that Ting Ting will inspire him to clean up his act too.
These are only five of the twelve characters in South China Morning Blues. They speak in their own voices about their longing, loneliness, and confusion. They tell us about their hunger for adventure, money, love, and sex, and their desire for success and meaning.
Each of them represents an animal in the Chinese zodiac. Marco, for example, is the tiger; Jackie is the rat; Sheila is the hare; Terry is the monkey; and Ting Ting is the Dragon. The author uses the Chinese character for each animal to indicate a change in point of view. If you don’t read Chinese and you want to be sure who is speaking, you might want to make a cheat sheet.
Hecht doesn’t sugar coat the seamier side of life, and some of his scenes are sexually explicit. As he said in an interview with Jocelyn Eikenburg, “I want to show all sides of real life. Using illegal substances, having irresponsible sex, pushing the boundaries, and making mistakes; these are all things that human beings actually do. And they are interesting things. I believe they are things worth writing about.”
Whether you’ve ever traveled to or lived in China, I think you’ll find something new and interesting in South China Morning Blues.
Available for pre-order on Amazon.
“GOOD Chinese Wife” is a new memoir published by Sourcebooks, and is a poignant tale expats should enjoy about the overlap of China and the West. Susan Blumberg-Kason details her unfortunate marriage to a Chinese music scholar, as they meet while studying in Hong Kong and then travel to his hometown in Hubei Province before eventually settling in San Francisco, California.
The central question posed by their troubled relationship is whether their differences were due to culture or personality. Interracial marriages may have some problems, but are certain individual defects masked by the excuse of culture?
As their relationship begins, Blumberg-Kason appreciates her future husband’s background. She studies Mandarin as a postgraduate in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, and stays there through the time of the handover in 1997, and for a reader familiar with South China it can be very interesting to compare that time with the current era.
The shy student falls in love with Cai, a handsome divorcee and ethnomusicology major, and the fact that he quickly escalates into topics of marriage on early dates seems to be a source of attraction for her. In that sense, the cultural difference was an advantage.
The book goes over her travels to the Hidden River village in Hunan and subsequent meetings with Cai’s family, and serves as a good introduction to Chinese culture for readers new to the subject of China. Blumberg-Kason is very knowledgeable, and the book is also peppered with quotes from Ban Zhao’s traditional “Instruction for Chinese Women and Girls” which contrasts well with the narrative.
The memoir deals with many hard truths, and Blumberg-Kason can be very frank with personal matters. The first sex scene comes as a shock to the reader, not because of graphic depictions, but because of the realization that the couple is engaged to be married yet they have not even reached that intimate stage. When she does get married, at the young age of 24, their passionless first night together during a honeymoon in a Hong Kong hotel further foreshadows more troubles.
Time and time again, as the book progresses, Blumberg-Kason questions herself and accommodates Cai’s behavior, yet he doesn’t seem to care about his wife’s concerns. From the isolating vacations in his home town, to skipping out on going to an import foreign-language bookstore in Shanghai and an interest in “yellow films” over his own wife, the reader wonders why she comes across so weak and why she puts up with him.
Pregnant, they move to America and the situation worsens. He does not adapt well to living abroad, and constantly complains to her. Though Blumberg-Kason claims he is a good husband during her pregnancy, he grows more distant after their son is born and the book darkens in tone. In particular, when he gives her a STD and then denies it, the situation couldn’t be worse. Always trying to keep the peace, she repeatedly states that she didn’t want to know the truth about his private life.
It soon becomes obvious that their marriage will not work, and yet it takes a long time for the book to finally reach the point when Blumberg-Kason stands up for herself and leaves him. Cai even says to her: “You’re lucky I don’t hit you.” After she gives birth to their son, he tells her “Women are dirty.”
It is a sad state that this is a nonfiction memoir, and so many real women stay in such relationships for far too long. Perhaps there is a lesson there about not rushing into marriage.
“Good Chinese Wife” is well-written and reads like a page-turner novel, although it does get stuck in details at times. If it were a novel, the passages about student dances and descriptions of clothes and food might be cut due to not being relevant to the plot. But the book is a memoir, which is dense with everything Blumberg-Kason has chosen to share.
This book is recommended for readers interested in contemporary Chinese culture, as well as for anyone who has ever experienced problems stemming from cultural differences.
“Good Chinese Wife” is available at bookstores in Hong Kong and on Amazon.
For more from this author, see Susan Blumberg-Kason’s blog at susanbkason.com.
The Tibetan Affair by Wang Xiao Hui is a novella which also includes two short stories. An interesting look into the world of Chinese journalists and the conflicts in Tibet, the main novella offers a readers an opportunity a window to observe this little-known scene.
The introduction comes slowly at first, opening with the personal lives and drama of the Beijing TV crew before they head to Tibet. There are interesting anecdotes along the way, such as the issue of altitude sicknesses and various vices.
Mainly the story centers around Mickey, who is bored of his wife and loves a younger coworker. Trouble comes when they do get to Tibet, from rocks thrown at trains to sexual tension in the hotel room.
Largely a critique of both the reactionary Chinese government and the hypocritical, submissive media, the journalists interview the police who expound on their obviously ridiculous views about foreigners the CIA and the Dalai Lama… Then conversations start to get more cynical, with takes on selling out your own country. The truth comes out and there is a bit of real journalism, but in a certain self-serving way.
But that’s just a backdrop to the romantic plot, which is the meat of the story. The sex scenes are quite steamy. Dreams are a constant theme as well; sexual dreams, dreams of jealousy, and strange nightmares. The plot patiently develops until the romantic plot overlaps with the journalism plot, and then they literally *climax* into a tragic ending.
It’s all too brief, and sometimes the story could have used more action and more character development. There are interesting vignettes and intriguing descriptions, but just not enough going on. The Tibetan Affair is very much worth a read, but it would have been a stronger story with simply more going on.