Daughter of Xanadu – Part 4/4

April 20, 2011


A review (guest post) by Tom Carter of Daughter of Xanadu by
Dori Jones Yang

By story’s conclusion, Messer Polo, who witnessed and wrote about the Mongols’ real-life battle against the Burmese in his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, has elevated “Emmajin the Brave” into the living legend she wanted to be, though she now regrets it.

“These men needed a hero, but I no longer needed to be one.” She resigns her sword and rank, and departs with Polo back to Europe as the Khan’s emissary of peace, leaving the literary door wide open for a sequel.

Dori Jones Yang, who also penned the best-selling Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, is a skilled historian.

In researching Daughter of Xanadu, Yang, fluent in Putonghua, traveled all the way to the ruins of Xanadu in remote Inner Mongolia, which this itinerant backpacker can personally attest is no easy journey.

The short chapters and brief sentences, edited with razor precision for a younger audience, along with a helpful glossary for ESL students, make reading Daughter of Xanadu a breeze, though adults will admittedly want to beg this book back afterwards from their tweens.

Return to Daughter of Xanadu – Part 3 or start with Part 1

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Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of China: Portrait of a People (San Francisco Chronicle Book Review), a 600-page China photography book, which may be found at Amazon.com.

Discover more “Guest Posts” from Tom Carter with Is Hong Kong Any Place for a Poor American?

If you want to subscribe to iLook China, there is a “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar.


Daughter of Xanadu – Part 3/4

April 19, 2011


A review (guest post) by Tom Carter of Daughter of Xanadu by
Dori Jones Yang

Authoress Dori Jones Yang is a Caucasian American, yet she is no stranger to writing from the perspective of conflicted adolescent Chinese girls, as evinced in her previous, award-winning novel, The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang.

In Daughter of Xanadu, she hones in even deeper into the physiological confusion and emotional conflictions that make youth such a joy, turning Emmajin into such a hormonal wreck that this male reviewer often found himself gritting his teeth in frustration at such contradictive revelations as, “if he had pursued me, I would have rebuffed him. By holding himself aloof, he challenged me to win back his esteem.”

Daughter of Xanadu is not all-teenage angst.  As our protagonist matures, so does the content of the story.

Emmajin eventually persuades Khubilai Khan to allow her to train for war against the Burmese at the Battle of Vochan (present-day Yunnan province), where the embarrassment of getting her period in front of the all-male troops is a bloody omen for what’s to come.

Upon seeing her cousin slain, innocent Emmajin is transformed into a “mindless killer.”

  Bloodlust unleashed, the young princess swings her sword indiscriminately (“the hatred pounded in my ears…killing him felt good”), resulting in hundreds of men dead by her hand alone.

One can only imagine all the Mulan vs. Emmajin fan fiction that this novel will inspire!

Continued on April 20, 2011 in Daughter of Xanadu – Part 4 or return to Daughter of Xanadu – Part 2

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Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of China: Portrait of a People (San Francisco Chronicle Book Review), a 600-page China photography book, which may be found at Amazon.com.

Discover more “Guest Posts” from Tom Carter with Is Hong Kong Any Place for a Poor American?

If you want to subscribe to iLook China, there is a “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar.


Daughter of Xanadu – Part 2/4

April 18, 2011

A review (guest post) by Tom Carter of Daughter of Xanadu by Dori Jones Yang

The merchants’ young son turns out to be one Marco Polo, the now-legendary Venetian journeyer credited for introducing Asian culture to the west.

To Emmajin, however, he is just another “colored-eye man,” a court curiosity from Christendom whose gallantry and romantic gestures are as ridiculous to the manly Mongolians as his facial hair (“his beard was so thick I could imagine food sticking in it”).

Try as she might, however, Emmajin, caught in the peak of puberty, is unable to resist Marco’s western charm, and quickly finds herself enamored by his worldly vision (“I had learned to see the world through Marco’s eyes”) as well as his pelt.

“What would the hair on his arm feel like?” she often fantasized about at night.

But she was a Mongolian first, and reluctantly sacrifices her blossoming relationship with the foreigner to complete her spy mission (“He was not a friend but a source of information.”).

Continued on April 19, 2011 in Daughter of Xanadu – Part 3 or return to Part 1

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Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of China: Portrait of a People (San Francisco Chronicle Book Review), a 600-page China photography book, which may be found at Amazon.com.

Discover more “Guest Posts” from Tom Carter with Is Hong Kong Any Place for a Poor American?

If you want to subscribe to iLook China, there is a “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar.


Dozing Dragon

January 19, 2011

 a guest post by Tom Carter of Bernd Hagemann’s Sleeping Chinese

German businessman Bernd Hagemann arrived in China in 2002 amidst media reports of China’s impending rise to global domination. “News outlets around the world,” he writes, “were warning us about… how fast China is developing, how competitive it is, and what a tense life the Chinese people must live.”

Casual strolls down the streets of China in between boardroom meetings and networking, however, soon revealed to Hagemann a far less threatening side of China. So he took out his point-and-shoot camera and documented what he saw all around him. In just 148 pages, Hagemann’s debut photography book Sleeping Chinese swiftly dispels 9 years of chest-pounding by the PRC propaganda machine.

Sleeping Chinese is a fun little novelty item the exact same dimensions as a postcard that will leave you either laughing out loud or scratching your head in perplexity. The pages are divided into 3 parts: Hard Sleepers, Soft Sleepers and Group Sleepers, a clever allusion to China’s train carriage classification system.

Hard Sleepers: “Those who snooze in hard and uncomfortable places can fall asleep anywhere – even on a pile of bricks in a construction site!” Hagemann defines.

Witness, then, the dozens of people who have drifted into deep slumber atop stones, wood, mortar blocks, concrete and even cold slabs of raw meat. The most comical of the chapter being the dozing shoe repair man balancing precariously on a saw horse with an extra 2×4 for a pillow.

Soft Sleepers: “A little more fussy than their hard sleeper comrades,” the chapter intro explains, “fussy” meaning in plastic wash bins, hammocks slung under freight trucks, sleeping lengthwise across a motor scooter and even a laborer using a tape measure to cover his eyes.

Group Sleepers: “A traveling family needs no pillows when they have each other’s knees.” Truly, the photo of the family of five all huddled together like newborn puppies gives greater meaning to ‘jiating,’ China’s family unit.

Some Chinese might take offense to Hagemann’s photographic agenda, but anyone with a sense of humor will see that the book was made out of affection.

“I’d like to express my appreciation of the hard work and effort put in by migrant workers who play a central role in China’s success story but seldom receive the attention they deserve,” writes Hagemann.

Indeed, anyone who has spent quality time in China knows that these laborers, more than anyone else, deserve their rest — anywhere they can get it.

None of the snapshots in Sleeping Chinese were staged. Any foreign tourist in China who bothers to stray from his package tour group or get out of his hotel for a jaunt off the tourist trail will see these exact same sights, and more.

Incidentally, taking and publishing photos of sleeping Chinese people will often land a foreign tourist in hot water if caught by the authorities (the subjects themselves tend not to mind).

People’s Daily newspaper, the official mouthpiece of the Politburo, even attempted to put a socialist spin on Hagemann’s revealing imagery in an article about Sleeping Chinese: “If (we) are tired, (we) lie down anywhere and anytime and sleep. This shows (our) society’s accepting attitude.”

Regarding the western media’s scare tactics of China’s “waking dragon,” this reviewer is reminded by Sleeping Chinese of a particular song from old-school hip-hop artists Public Enemy (who I had occasion to watch perform during their 2007 tour through Beijing): Don’t Believe the Hype!

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Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, a 600-page China photography book, available through Amazon.com

If you want to subscribe to iLook China, there is a “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar.


Blonde Lotus

October 11, 2010

Guest Post (book review) by Tom Carter

If there ever was an expat author in the Middle Kingdom whose enthusiasm and love of life was as contagious as Cecilie Gamst Berg’s, then that person has yet to be published.

Part travelogue of a directionless backpacker, part bedtime stories of a frisky European babe who enjoys seducing young Chinese guys “out of the festering prison of virginity,”

Blonde Lotus is in fact one in the same person.  Gamst Berg, via her alter-ego protagonist Kat Glasø, accidentally arrives in late-1980’s China (“all I wanted was to be on the train; I had no interest in the journey’s destination, Beijing”), back when the mighty bicycle was still king of Peking and foreign tourists were a rare sighting.

Expecting a people with “long, billowing sleeves, reciting poetry and plucking at stringed instruments,” what Kat finds in New China instead are street corners populated with shady money changers and young hipsters whose knowledge of English is limited to the words ‘Okay-la’ and ‘Sex!’  Lulled by their charming incessancy, Kat shrugs her shoulders and good-naturedly gives it to them – the money AND the sex.  “How could so many men find the women of a race attractive, and so few women find the men the same,” she ponders postcoitally over a shared Zhongnanhai cigarette.

Queen gweipo (devil woman in Cantonese) Gamst Berg is an unpretentious, fun-loving writer with nothing to prove.  She’s not out to save China as so many a self-righteous foreigner here are (“I hope this country never modernizes” Kat admits in one of her many blunt moments of sincerity), she’s not trying to force feed them Faulkner (“I loved books and he never read one”), nor is she out to land a career in journalism like the rest of us.

No, the author is clearly just looking to have a good time (“We were young, stoned and in China”), and maybe learn some Putonghua while doing it, and therefore spares us the sappy, sympathetic observations and “deep understanding” of life in China that makes most Laowai Literature such a torture to read.

Conversely, nor is Gamst Berg out to tear Communism apart, vilify Chinese people or point and laugh at the “strangeness” of their culture, a common last-resort for some western travel writers (whom I refrain from naming as a professional courtesy) who don’t want to admit that they have learned nothing about the Chinese during their stay here.

Indeed, while her fellow expats spend their time in China sitting around at bars “shouting out orders in English, and when they weren’t understood, complained loudly to each other about how stupid the Chinese were,” rather than join in, Kat moves tables, literally and figuratively, to the Chinese side of the bar.

Instead of whining about China’s infamously filthy public toilets, Kat hangs out in them (smoking dope), then laughs when there’s a line of squeaming girls waiting to use the stall. 

Rather than bitch about the People’s Republic’s chaotic queues at its railway stations, she jumps right in, elbows swinging, with the rest of the seething proletariat.

Our Blonde Lotus ain’t no saint, and she would laugh in your face if you dared suggest it.  “I wanted to experience everything and sleep with everybody…” confesses, nay, asserts the Norwegian-born Kat Glasø – and then proceeds to actually do so, from coal-and-petrol-scented industrial North China all the way down to the steamy islands of Hong Kong, her final destination.

Throughout her candid memoir, the author employs an uproarious combination of reluctant intellectualism (“learning Chinese was better than being in love because there was no danger of waking next to the Chinese language wanting to kick the f*cker out of bed”) and ribald hedonism (“I felt something push into me, shudder and expire. Was it an asparagus?”) that is sure to win Gamst Berg as many fans as frighten them away.

If Blonde Lotus is a window into China, then that window has been fogged with the sultry breathe of its occupants.  If it is a work of reportage; then the author was too distracted by eating, drinking, smoking and playing cards with the peasantry to be concerned about making the front page.  And that nonchalance, that self-depreciating humor, is exactly this novel’s charm.

Blonde Lotus is a refreshingly unserious memoir of an infectiously upbeat young woman (this reviewer’s favorite line in the whole book: “Ha ha, life was perfect and made for me!”) who, lost in China and unsure of what she wants to do with said life – as many of our kind are – inadvertently ends up making a new, better one for herself.

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Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of China: Portrait of a People (San Francisco Chronicle Book Review), a 600-page China photography book, which may be found at Amazon.com.

Discover more “Guest Posts” from Tom Carter with Is Hong Kong Any Place for a Poor American?

If you want to subscribe to iLook China, there is a “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar.