China Underground

China Underground

by Zachary Mexico


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An American’s experiences of the traditions, changes, and subcultures of 21st-century China—“a seamless portrait of a complex modern society” (Publishers Weekly).

  Formerly a student in Beijing, Zachary Mexico returned to China in 2006 to chronicle the immense changes in Chinese society ushered as it joined the world’s headlong rush into the future. Focusing on the Chinese of his generation, Zach journeys into the vibrant subcultures of the marginalized and outcast that exist alongside China’s centuries of tradition.

  Talking to such varied personalities as a mafia kingpin, a prostitute, and a wannabe rock star, Zach offers a unique perspective on the radical shifts in Chinese society. Finding individuals with fascinating stories, he delves into topics ranging from culture to politics to environmental issues and sexual mores.

  Readers will meet a closeted graphic designer; a self-taught disaster photographer; a struggling punk band; a ladies’ man who can’t stay in one place; and many more faces of this unique country. This is a remarkable portrayal of a country undergoing rapid-fire change in a place where timeless historical legacies still line the streets.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781593762230
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 01/27/2009
Edition description: Original
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Zachary Mexico studied at Columbia University in New York and Qinghua University in Beijing. He plays in the rock group The Octagon and the electronic duo Gates of Heaven. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


The Peasant Who Likes to Take Pictures

I'M STUCK IN Beijing's infamous traffic on the way to Capital Airport. It is the early evening: from the elevated ring road, I can see the sun setting through a thick gray haze. I have a ticket for an evening flight, the sixty-five-minute short hop to Shenyang, an industrial city in the Northeast of China, to meet up with the mysterious photojournalist Maohair. He has an MSN Spaces website, which he calls "The Little Monkey King," and he recently set the Chinese Internet world abuzz by posting a series of his controversial photographs on a bulletin board.

I posted a comment on his blog and he sent me a text message agreeing to meet with me if I came to Shenyang; I have no idea what he looks like, as the images of himself on his website show him only in shadows.

I only know the photographs I have seen on the Internet, a series of snapshots that are both deeply fascinating and profoundly disturbing. One photograph shows an old man, his face contorted in pain, sobbing in front of a wedding picture of his son and daughter-in-law, who have been killed in a car crash. In another picture, a coal miner has been taken to the hospital after an accident; his entire upper body has been charred jet-black as the result of an explosion. There are oxygen tubes up his nose and his hands are clenched into gnarled, blackened fists. A third photo shows the victim of a car crash, covered by a tarp, and a group of people standing around gawking at the dead body.

* * *

IN THE HALF hour since I hailed the cab, we've traveled about a mile, and it looks like I'm going to miss my flight. I'm not looking forward to waiting around at the terminal for hours, drinking $6 coffee, until I can catch another plane.

The driver belches and I catch a faint whiff of garlic and vinegar. He mumbles in a thick Beijing accent that he's going to take a shortcut. This seems like a terrible idea, and just as I start to voice my objection, my cell phone rings. It's a provincial number that I don't recognize.

"Wei?" I blurt, answering the phone with a slow grunting sound, in the traditional Chinese manner.

"Hello, are you looking to hire a handyman?"

"What?" I respond, somewhat taken aback. "I think you have the wrong number."

"How much does the handyman's job pay per day?"

"I think you have the wrong number. I'm not trying to hire a handyman."

"But this was the number in the newspaper ad."

"You must have the wrong number. Read the ad again."

There's a click, and the would-be handyman hangs up. The driver looks back at me quizzically. The garlic quotient of his breath has increased exponentially, and it's somewhat alarming that he's not looking at the road. A queasy, acidic feeling, born of halitosis and fear, begins to take hold in my gut.

"Why are you hiring a handyman?"

Suddenly, as if prompted by an invisible hand descending from the filthy sky, the traffic dissipates. The queasy feeling is gone as quickly as it arrived.

Once we get onto the airport expressway, our cab speeds along at a cool eighty kilometers per hour and I make it to the airport with twenty minutes to spare.

* * *

TWELVE HOURS LATER: I'm standing before a small night market set up on the sidewalk in front of a family-run restaurant in downtown Shenyang. It's very late. Maohair and I have been the only customers for hours. The restaurant's owner has gone to sleep with his head on a folding table, and his kids are bumbling about idly with heavy eyes, waiting for us to leave so they can all go to bed. In China, these restaurants don't close until the last customer's finished his meal, no matter what ungodly hour it is.

We're hanging out with an old man who has staggered over to our table, looking for a little late-night camaraderie.

The old man's teeth are yellow but even. A ratty brown jacket hangs loosely from his narrow shoulders, like a hobo scarecrow; attached to one of the sleeves with a safety pin is a red armband that indicates his status as a neighborhood watchman. He smells like a distillery but he's a pleasant fellow, with a playful, tireless smile superglued to his face.

"I was a driver," he grumbles, "a driver, back in 1980 when there were almost no cars. I drove all the government officials around. I was treated with respect everywhere I went."

He pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, lights up, and hikes his pantlegs up to his knees, exposing his lilywhite legs, which are spotted here and there with uneven patches of coarse black hair.

He takes a swig of Snow brand beer. In China, every city has its own brewery: aside from Qingdao, there are no true "national" brands of beer. Shenyang Beer was recently taken over by Snow, a new conglomerate from Beijing that has been buying up breweries in second-tier cities in an attempt to create another national brand name. The resulting brew, predictably, has a different flavor in every city; in Shenyang it tastes like slightly rank beer-flavored water.

"I've been a pimp ... and now I open casinos, because that's where the money is at ..."

It's hard to believe that this shoddy old man is actually a casino baron. Either he's bullshitting, or he's in the throes of a transcendent bender and has entered an altered state where he owns casinos and draft beer rains from the sky. He is dressed like a bum and his monologues are straddling the thin line between humorously strange and embarrassingly incoherent.

He raises his bottle and smiles broadly at Maohair and me. "The two of you, are good friends to have, you two."

We hoist our beers and clink bottles with the old man. We drink deeply. It's six o'clock on a Sunday morning and we've been up all night talking. An array of half-eaten dishes from hours ago — tofu skin, cold tofu, lamb kebabs, boiled peanuts — lay scattered like battlefield carcasses on the folding table in front of us. An uneven procession of senior citizens strolls back and forth on the sidewalk behind us, taking their morning exercise. Dogs bark and birds chirp; the day's just beginning for normal people.

Maohair hands his business card to the old man. "Give me a call," he urges, "if anything's ever going on." The old man nods and grunts his assent, and we all take another hefty swig of beer, which has by now grown quite warm and foul.

Maohair winks at me slyly. He's drunk five bottles of beer to my two, but shows no sign of intoxication. His eyes are bright and his smile is playful. He's wearing a red shirt with white embroidery: the garment is characteristic of the ethnic minority regions of Southwest China.

The old man stumbles to his feet, crosses the street, passes by two middle-aged women walking impeccably coiffed dogs, fumbles with his zipper, pulls out his penis, and pisses against the wall of an adjoining building.

"You see my working style? Pretty effective, right?" says Maohair as we watch the old man. "You got to know what's up on the streets."

* * *

TO SAVE MONEY and to absorb the maximum amount of local color, while traveling in China I usually stay at friends' houses or shoddy government-owned hotels where the carpet is always slightly mildewy and dotted with cigarette burns.

In Shenyang, to preserve the illusion I felt I needed to give Maohair that I was a professional journalist, to help ease any concerns he may have about talking about his work, and to create a safe atmosphere for an open dialogue between us, I checked into a four-star hotel in the center of town.

As the clock struck midnight, I was sitting in my well-appointed room, drinking a cup of oolong tea and going over my notes from the previous day. My phone beeped. I had a text message from Maohair: "I am in the lobby of your hotel."

I put down my pen, hurried out the door, took the elevator downstairs and saw a man in his twenties, alone in the massive marble lobby, smoking a cigarette and sitting in a plush chair that seemed at least one size too big for his small, wiry frame. He was smiling, and his eyes were at once calm and lively. It's a rare quality, found in excited children, the spiritually enlightened, and psychopaths.

* * *

ON MAOHAIR'S WEBSITE, under the "About Me" section, he writes: "On my business card, it says I am a photojournalist, but I prefer to think of myself as a peasant who likes to play with a camera."

It's hip for many young Chinese artists from middle-class backgrounds to strive for "man-of-the-earth" authenticity and claim that they have "peasant" roots in "the countryside." When Maohair says he's a peasant, though, he's not trying to be cool or employ impressive hyperbole. He really does come from the nongcun, the impoverished countryside surrounding Fushun, a small city near Shenyang, the capital of Northeast China's Liaoning Province.

Outsiders often fail to grasp the tremendously important dichotomy between those Chinese who live in cities and those who live in the countryside. For example, when I naively ask Maohair what his parents do for a living, he laughs at me: "What do you think they do? They're peasants! They work the earth!" He hesitates and then turns serious. "In China, being a peasant is not considered a job."

China's countryside is made up of a network of small, ragtag family subsistence farms. Commerce is relegated to one or two small shops per village, and many of these families have been living in the same place for a very long time. Last century, peasants were lauded as heroes by China's political revolution but, in this century, they have been largely left behind by China's economic revolution. Deng Xiaoping's famous words, "Some people will get rich first," led to a capitalist explosion that sparked massive growth and affluence in urban centers and coastal regions. While their quality of life has most certainly improved in the last few decades, the farmers are not driving new cars, eating hamburgers, drinking imported beer, or shopping at Wal-Mart. They are still in the countryside, tilling the dirt, waiting, wondering when their time to get rich will come.

* * *

IT WAS IN one of these villages, in 1982, that the Shi family was blessed with a boy. When the child was only a few years old, all the villagers agreed that he showed signs of exceptional intelligence.

As the boy started attending the village school, he became the number one student in his class. Every night, over their dinner of vegetables and rice, his father would say, over and over again, "Study hard, son, and then you can get out of the countryside, get a stable job in the city, and make the family proud."

The son listened to his father's advice, and studied with remarkable persistence and determination, achieving uniformly high test scores through primary school and middle school.

When he was in middle school, the Liaoning provincial radio station held a letter-writing contest for middle school students, and Little Shi came in first place. He won a camera, the old kind that had no flash or zoom; after taking each picture, you had to wind the film by hand.

At that time, in the early nineties, Little Shi was the only one in the village with a camera. Many of the older people had never been photographed in their entire lives. When villagers needed to get their pictures taken — at special occasions like weddings and graduations — they went to a photo studio in a neighboring village and paid five jiao (6¢) per photo.

When Little Shi received the box containing his camera, he had no idea how to use it. He followed the instructions to slide the chunky roll of film onto the black plastic holder; after he inadvertently exposed a few valuable rolls of film, he finally figured out how the camera's mechanism worked.

He learned how to take photographs like a child learns how to walk: by employing a crude method of trial and error. He photographed his family, his house, his friends. Film developing was expensive, though, and it required a long bus ride to the nearest city, Fushun, outside of Shenyang.

It's said that every city in China is famous for at least one thing: bean curd, vinegar, a special kind of noodles, whatever. Fushun is famous for its open-pit coal mine, which has been in operation since the twelfth century.

After a few trips to the developer, Little Shi had spent all his meager pocket money on his newfound pastime. But he had formulated a business plan: he would take pictures of his fellow villagers and sell them for a small fee.

Soon enough, word got around to the neighboring villages about Little Shi and his camera and the thirteen-year-old boy became the unofficial countryside photographer. Little Shi was developing his photographic skill and simultaneously earning a little bit of spending money. While his classmates ate the one jiao (roughly 1¢) "ice cream" which was just frozen sugar water, Little Shi had enough cash to eat the two-jiao ice cream, which contained a little bit of milk.

He was the big man on his middle school campus: not only did he have a camera and a thriving small business that allowed him to eat the good ice cream, but he consistently got the top score on all his examinations.

* * *

THE FOLLOWING YEAR, Little Shi left his village and went to Fushun to attend the city high school. The students in the school were mostly from the city with a few countryside kids like Little Shi thrown into the mix by the provincial government. Little Shi could not believe how knowledgeable the city kids were about life: they had spent their middle school years reading books, leafing through magazines, and watching television stations that weren't available in Little Shi's village.

While the city kids most certainly thought of Little Shi and his lot as country bumpkins, they were not mean or disdainful, and for this simple courtesy Little Shi was very glad.

His parents were spending a disproportionate amount of their paltry income on his school fees, so Little Shi once again turned to his camera to earn some spending money. He became a wedding photographer: on the weekends, Little Shi would go to the elaborate wedding ceremonies that are a hallmark of Chinese culture. He would receive 100 yuan per wedding — a tremendous sum for a teenaged boy in the midnineties — and also the traditional "red envelope" (a token gift of gratitude given out at weddings and holidays) stuffed with a few more notes.

The fringe benefits of the job were manifold: good meals at no cost, candy, and premium ten-yuan-a-pack cigarettes. For a few months, Little Shi brought the cigarettes home for his father to smoke. Then, he started to smoke them himself. At his high school, some of the older students had already started smoking, but they smoked the two-yuan-apack local brand and Little Shi felt very cool indeed when he handed around expensive cigarettes to the older boys.

Little Shi went to the Fushun secondhand market and bought a big, clunky camera made in the 1980s. The era of digital photography had not yet arrived in provincial Liaoning, but this camera — a comparably sophisticated piece of equipment relative to the plastic prize camera he'd been using — lent him an air of professionalism. He purchased some photography magazines and picked up a few tricks and tips.

After a couple months, he realized that the photographs he was taking were of more professional quality than all of Fushun's "professional" mom-and-pop photograph shops.

In his spare time, Little Shi wandered around the streets of Fushun and started to take pictures of things he found interesting around town: his classmates at play, people at work, and other minutiae of China city life. He pasted these photographs onto blank paper and added little paragraphs of commentary. After class was over for the day, he would circulate these sheets of paper among his classmates. "It was like a blog, before anyone used the Internet," he remembers. "You could say, in this way, that maybe I was the first blogger in China."

It was around this time that Little Shi acquired a new nickname: Little Monkey. He was often seen by his classmates climbing in trees to take pictures, and he was also very clever. The nickname made him happy: in Chinese culture, the monkey has long been respected as a symbol of intelligence.

* * *

BUT ALL WAS not well in the world of Little Monkey. He was caught in the tumult of adolescence, and this transition from childhood to adulthood confused and annoyed him. His high school classmates were focused on one thing and one thing only: preparing for the dreaded college examinations. But Little Monkey didn't feel like studying his schoolbooks.


Excerpted from "China Underground"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Zachary Mexico.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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