Author: Jonathan Tel
Paperback: 185 Pages
Publisher: Other Press
"Beijing is the center of the universe. Ask anybody who lives there. The true Beijinger secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sence, kidding".
Over the last few decades, China has witnessed a tremendous amount of growth and industrial progress, in spite of its superfluous population. Today, China is the economic hub of the world and it's strong presence in the global arena is undeniable. Every day, millions of workers migrate to the city to work in the factories under meager working conditions to manufacture and export goods worldwide. To the despairing rural folks, a life in the city offers a ray of hope, sustenance and limitless opportunities.
Indeed, Beijing is a land of dreams. A city bustling with migrant workers, foreigners, pick-pockets, street musicians, pedestrians, businessmen, beggars and whores, who all move in a frantic pace, with a heightened sense of purpose. The factories run 24/7 with its employees working in shifts. The city never sleeps. The busy roads, congested with traffic, makes the air dense with pollution and purpose. To better comprehend the city and the chaos behind it, a story needs to be told. Jonathan Tel strives to do that with not just one, but a dozen of short stories. His stories do not attempt to focus on the cultural revolution or globalization, but rather mundane, yet surprisingly little known, facades of everyday life. Even though most of the short stories in this collection are imbued with a subtle humor, they never fail to bring forth the harsh realities.
The book opens with a captivating story, the 'Year of Gorilla'. A man clad in a gorilla suit makes rounds around the city in his bicycle delivering messages for special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, promotions etc. He announces his arrival with a pumping of his chest, then singing songs, before going on about his work delivering one 'Gorillagram' after the other. One day, he witnesses a street robbery and comes to the aid of a middle-aged woman who is about to lose her purse to a bunch of mobs. He is oblivious of the fact that his heroic acts are caught on a cellular phone camera and slowly making its way to the blogosphere. Rumor spreads like a wild fire. Discussion boards springs up all over town and the issue is completely blown out of proportion.
“It is a shame that sticks-in-the-mud are opposing a market economy with Chinese characteristics. The last thing we need is to have a Gorilla barge in every time we shake hands on a deal!” Which led to further criticism, as well as some support of the Gorilla for “preserving Maoist values.” An editorial in the July issue of theBeijing Financial Review referred somewhat obscurely to “Gorillas and their ilk who shoot sparrows with a pearl” in the context of defending the opening up of the mining industry to foreign investment.
Soon, he is arrested, ridiculed and tortured by the police officials questioning his true intentions behind the rescue. Detective Wang scrolled down the Gorilla's file - pages of barely relevant stuff trawled up by a search engine. "So, Gorilla, is it true that you're opposed to the development of capitalist enterprise in China? ... The Gorilla was in the midst of a mob. some wit kept offering him a banana, another taunted him, "Where's your demon-exposing mirror, Monkey King?" He is released, owing to a lack of evidence. Needless to say, Hero Gorilla is never to be seen again. This story, a surprisingly witty composition, is an engaging read and propels the book forward to a glorious start. Though the story is peppered with humor, one cannot fail to understand that not many rural people who come to the city for a better life fulfill their dreams.
'The Book of Auspicious and Inauspicious dreams' is another entertainer about a young couple who moves into an apartment in the Haidian district of Beijing. When they decide to remodel their new place, by tearing down one of the walls, they come upon a rusty old tin containing some souvenirs from the 1960's. The story focuses on the couple's futile efforts as they seek for the owner of these rather odd treasures. The package travels to and fro between the couple and the owner who denies her inheritance. How funny when it finally disappears after stuffing it with a couple of hundred Yuan's in the tin. Money always plays a major role, Isn't it?
Another one of my favorite stories is 'The Unofficial History of Embroidered Couch'. It is witty, hilarious and so damn interesting. Imagine a super-natural match making service that hooks up a modern advertising agency writer with a princess of Ming Dynasty Princess. "A delectable shimmery lightweight bra, combining traditional elegance with the latest hi-tech uplift", he writes. Jonathan does sort of give a hi-tech uplift to the ming dynasty era as well. Though the Ming Dynasty princess lives in a castle, served by eunuchs and maids, she texts messages and takes pictures with her cell phone. Love has no boundaries, you know. When the princess feigns her ignorance on the subject of marriage and love-making, her maid "Mei draws a lavishly illustrated edition of 'The Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch' out from under the cushion, and she explains to her mistress wha's going on, in chapter after chapter.
- Fetching the Fire from the other side of the mountain
- The Hungry Horse Races to the Trough
- Snuffing the Candle
- Releasing the Butterfly in search of fragrance
- Letting the Bee make honey
- Inserting the Arrow Upside Down
- The Black Dragon Penetrates the Cave
- Rolling the Pearl Curtain Bottom side up
- The Lost Bird Returns to the Wood"
'The Three Lives of Little Yu' talks about a middle-aged couple's relentless attempts at adopting a child. Adopting a boy would be beyond their means, so they settle down for a daughter. In 1950's, female off springs are practically given away for free to orphanages or whoever wants them. Miao and Zheng adopt their first girl, 'Yu' by handing over some ration coupons worth five jin of rice. Being a weakling since birth, Yu doesn't survive past toddler hood. The couple adopt again after a decade, only to find their daughter not surviving the 'measles'. Nearly after two decades, girls were still freely given but sold for almost 30,000 Yuan's. The couple pick up their third child at a Beijing market (free of charge, I guess) praying this little 'Yu' will survive. For this despondent couple, who are now in their mid-forties, will third time be a charm? China still strictly imposes the 'One child' rule and prohibits a married couple from entering parenthood until 25. Boys are valued priceless and the fate of the girls are questionable. Adoption is not easy either. Paper works, government rules and exorbitant prices need to be taken care of. On top of that, the pain and suffering that goes with a child loss is insurmountable. This story not only focuses on the depressing aspects of a childless couple, but also is a daring attempt at uncovering the ruthless people who make their lives even more miserable.
'The Beijing of Possibilities' is another deeply touching vignette about a young village girl who obtains a Beijing work permit by agreeing to be a foster mother to a native Beijinger couple. The baby dies prematurely and the girl devoid of hope arrives at the big city to make her ends meet. Working for a telemarketing company as a mail lady, she realizes that the city life is not that promising after all. During one of her usual mail runs, she slips over the ledge of a three-storied building. She lands in a heap of snow and walks unnoticed in a city bustling with people. For life has to move on, no matter what.
"Who can believe in Beijing? Only those who've never been and those who've left; it comes to life in imagination and memory. The smell of Beijing? Smog. Dust. Her sinuses are affected; she has lost that sense. The taste of Beijing? She eats rice three times a day, drinks tea, not much else. The touch of Beijing? Outside boutiques, there are women (immigrants like herself, she assumes) hired to clap, to attract customers. Day and night, sun and rain and snow, the clapping goes on."
I have several more favorites in this collection that I wish I could elaborate. Like the story of a bunch of pick-pocketers from 'The Glamorous Heart of Cosmopolitan Beijing' or the life of a factory-worker who suddenly had to switch working from day to night time shift in 'Santo Domingo'. I purposely left it to the readers to delve into these gems, as I didn't want to give away too much. These little vignettes are highly entertaining, easily readable and a realistic portrait of the modern day Beijing. From Ming Dynasty to Monkey Man, pick-pocketers to street musicians, the stories have something to offer for every curious western reader!
Last but not the least, the book brought back endless memories of our trip to Beijing several years ago. It was such a beautiful and relaxing place to visit when compared to the more polluted, cosmopolitan city of Shanghai. Some people might enjoy the hustle and bustle of city life. Not me. Being the land of 'Forbidden City', where almost 7 sections of the 'Great Wall' that pass close by, Beijing offers more than a century worth of history, picturesque views and a refreshing air. This book will delightfully take you on a tour of Beijing, if not the great walls, at least through the great streets of Beijing. Don't miss.