Zachary Mexico can tell a really good yarn. He will sit you in the swankiest bar in Beijing’s Houhai district or a cheap polluted noodle cafe in Linfen and regale you with stories of China’s sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll scene. The man knows what he’s talking about – he’s a rock musician. He began studying Chinese at 15. In his twenties he went to study the language at one of the most prestigious universities in Beijing, Qinghua. He also used to own a bar in China. He lives in Chinatown, New York City.
When I first started China Underground, I braced myself for another earnest, didactic explanation of my cultural heritage from some over-educated white guy with yellow fever. But Mexico’s greatest writing asset is his youth and heady excitement, and it is refreshing to find a writer so ready and willing to drop all prior assumptions, even to suspend disbelief if necessary, to get a story out.
In the first few pages, we are taken to a small family restaurant in Shenyang and made privy to the conversation Mexico is having with his first subject. He interviews fifteen ‘Underground’ people, and almost all the interviews take place in restaurants or bars – public places. Mexico is talking to a man he calls Little Monkey, an incongruous name for a man who takes photographs of dangerous unregulated coal mines, car crashes and families of migrant workers who have died on the job. But Little Monkey was the moniker given to the photographer at a young age, and Mexico takes care not to reveal his subjects’ real names (Mexico is in fact not his own name either).
The fable-like quality of Mexico’s narration at first leaves you flabbergasted: when he uses expressions such as “All was not well in the world of Little Monkey” or “Little Monkey knew he was special. He could trust himself,” you don’t know whether he is being cloyingly sincere or taking the mickey out of the peasant who takes pictures. You wonder whether this is the appropriate way to tell the story of a journalist who puts his life at risk every day by taking photographs of corruption. But of course, very early in the book, you realise that Mexico is sincere. What makes the book come alive are his simple descriptions. For instance, his subject has “eyes … at once calm and lively. It’s a rare quality, found in excited children, the spiritually enlightened, and psychopaths.”
Any research that Mexico has done takes the form of strips of facts, adhered in various places to fill in plot holes: brief background histories of towns and summaries of current political affairs. The book could do very well with or without them, because first and foremost it is a book of stories. He tells you about the Hunzi – the slackers in China, “professional parasites” who “live off the kindness of others”. He talks to Nine Dragons, a gay man who works 16-hour days as a graphic designer to alleviate the loneliness of existing in a society that considers his sexuality a deviancy. He hangs out with the Uighur Jimi Hendrix and some punk-rock musicians who sing about suffering mothers who’ve lost sons over ‘Bullets in Tiananmen’. He talks to a student film-maker who makes a film based on the true story of a student who sledgehammered his four roommates to death and hid their bodies under their beds.
He interviews dodgy people who are hip and make a lot of money doing an assortment of sordid things, like the drug dealer named Jimmy Boy. But you are sceptical about Jimmy Boy’s naivety when Mexico tells you that, “Like any drug dealer, he’s gotta wonder: do these people really like me or do they just like the drugs I have?” Mexico reveals that he is the one to enlighten this Nigerian hustler about the punishment meted out to drug smugglers in China. “They would kill me?” Jimmy Boy asks. “You think? You think they would kill me? How do they do it?” “Firing squad,” Mexico says, “bullet to the back of the head.”
As much as Mexico appears to know about the Chinese government’s execution practices, it is in inverse proportion to how much he understands about the commerce of the poor. When an old woman tries to sell him weed in Dali, he thinks about buying some so that “years later, I’d be able to tell the tale of how I bought weed from an 80-year-old woman on the street in China.” But he doesn’t really get it: even though young white travellers might get their kicks from this spectacle, old ladies don’t sell marijuana for fun, just as they don’t follow you around the hutongs of Beijing for half an hour with cheap poorly printed Olympic knick-knacks for fun, as they did when I was in China.
You find some clues to Mexico’s age when he writes things like “I’m sitting next to him idly skimming a copy of On the Road in Chinese and doodling in my notebook.” At times, you even start to wonder where Mexico gets all his money and time – to visit so many places, to drink at so many bars, to book four-star hotel rooms in which to conduct interviews. This guerrilla reporter is present enough for you to get a feel for his interview techniques and locations, for you to understand the spontaneous ‘authenticity’ of what he does. But he is absent enough that he also remains an enigma.
Equally enigmatic are his views on Chinese women. There are only three of them interviewed in the book: two prostitutes and a straight-A student mysteriously named ‘Mary Jones’. Mary Jones’ interview is unpleasant to read, such is its potent and vitriolic dose of auto-racism. China is a terrible place, she tells Mexico, “people here are bad. They are cruel.” He asks her for an example and she tells him, “There are no trees in the parks … all we want to do with animals is eat them.” Mexico has taken this Chinese girl to a white restaurant (expensive according to Chinese standards). She has just returned from studying at a small college in a bucolic mid-west American town. Mexico is American.
American Mexico finds Chinese girls charming: at one point he mentions “naked girls” five times in two pages. But these naked girls don’t really do anything – they lie about flaccidly sandwiched between Black Society men in dodgy karaoke bars and when one of the men is shot, “The girls were too fucked up to even scream.” You can’t help but start to take stock of the other Oriental women mentioned: a dumb waitress ridiculed by a corpulent business owner. A pretty wife. The seven different kinds of hookers you can find in the modern-day Middle Kingdom.
Which brings him to the story about the prostitutes, and how he came to interview them. He visits the brothels but instead of paying for sex he pays for words. He takes one of the prostitutes to the American coffee chain Starbucks and buys her a Frappacino. Then he wants to know details. Like how many men?
“Xiao Li cannot be sure how many … their faces blur together. As do, I assume, all their eyes, the lips. The fleshy stomachs, the aroused, uncircumcised penises.”
A little too much detail there, Mr Mexico. We get it. And you’re in the middle of a Starbucks.
“When I ask her to estimate, she wrinkles her brow: ‘Maybe 5000? Maybe more?’ I think of the old adage that when a doctor asks how much you drink, he doubles it to find out the truth.”
You don’t want to be there anymore. To try to get an awkward young prostitute to give salacious details of what she does, and then to liken her response to that of an alcoholic lying about their habit, is perversely mean-spirited. Then Mexico starts to tell you, with a little smear of unabashed pride, about the number of times girls look at him pointing and snickering over his white foreignness, before they “scamper off into a brothel”. How the giggling prostitute tells him, “You’re the first foreigner I’ve ever talked to. It’s strange!” He promises to change her name in his article, but tells you, “not that it matters – ‘Wang’ in Chinese is like ‘Smith’ in America.”
Where China Underground succeeds is not, ironically, where Mexico searches for zany tales of the ‘fucked-up’ ‘craziness’ (two of his favourite expressions) of a different culture. It is where he exhibits his natural, affable empathy for the Chinese underdog. It is then that the real underground emerges, in all its poignant, funny and flawed humanity.