The latest book about China that I’ve had the pleasure of reading comes in the form of a collection of real-life stories of over a dozen Chinese of all walks of life, but all living some kind of gritty or hardscrabble reality. China Underground is author Zachary Mexico’s (an alias) account of a mafia gang boss, prostitute, disillusioned Qinghua University student, Uighur rock musicians, a punk band, journalists and others. Just like their backgrounds, the places where the people live and work are also an assorted mix, so we get to read about things taking place not only in Beijing and Shanghai, but Wuhan, Chengdu, Shenyang and Shandong. Mexico certainly does get around. This smorgasbord of characters and settings makes for a fascinating read that hardly lets up. Far from glorifying or exoticizing China, the book manages to reveal a lot of the disappointments and darkness behind China’s great modernizing and seemingly unstoppable economic growth. Mexico visits the world’s most polluted city, interviews the student filmmaker behind a popular amateur film of a murderer, and profiles a photographer who specializes in industrial accidents and pollution in the Northeast. Mexico even gets to follow around a Nigerian drug dealer in Shanghai, who is just one major score away from walking away for good from the hustling. One of the less interesting chapters is about a romantic dreamer and slacker who co-owns a restaurant in Dali, a paradise in Yunnan in which a hybrid local-foreigner artists’ commune has sprung up.
The book is fun to read and it’s insightful and full of minor but interesting historical and social facts about China. We learn about why Wuhan is the punk rock capital of China, what’s so special about Yunnan, and the seven categories of prostitutes that the police have come up with. On the other hand, what makes the book good is also a kind of flaw. The different characters and settings make the book very easy to breeze through but consequently, there is a lack of deeper meaning. Yes, we learn about a young prostitute who chose to do what she does but admits having taken a wrong turn, but after 16 pages, it’s over and it’s time to move on to the next chapter and the next interesting character. One of the weakest parts is about a supposedly addictive interactive game played with other people gathered in a room called the “Killing Game.” One of Mexico’s friends is a dedicated participant of this “Killing People game” and Mexico describes it as a “full-blown epidemic” that has spread all over China as over ten thousand people are members of clubs dedicated to this game. Ten thousand is a laughably small number to describe something as an epidemic in a country, even if its population was less than one-tenth’s of China’s.
In the end, I really enjoyed the book as Mexico did a great job in meeting all these people and writing about them. He gives a nice glimpse into the gritty, urban side of China, different from both the shiny skyscraper-filled world of prosperous cityscapes and the poor, bucolic rural countrysides. China is a vast land with a multitude of people and hence stories, and this book delivers an entertaining wrapup of some of the less mainstream types of people whose stories aren’t often told. A lot of these people harbor some sense of disillusionment or disappointment over problems in society which the nation’s economic boom has not solved, but exacerbated. Still, one should be careful not to take this for the end-all and be-all of Chinese society. It is quite entertaining and fascinating, but in some sense it is skin-deep. If one wants to get a more indepth look into Chinese people, culture and society, one should make sure to read Peter Hessler or Philip Pan.