China Travel Interview: Zachary Mexico's China Underground

Travel | by Rebekah Pothaar
Posted: March 19th, 2009 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Zachary Mexico's China Underground
"A travel book has the capacity to express a country's heart … as long as it stays away from vacations, holidays, sightseeing and the half-truths in official handouts."
So wrote Paul Theroux, a travel writer's travel writer if ever there was one. In China Underground, Zachary Mexico explores today's China in the spirit of Theroux, letting people from all walks of life tell their stories, capturing, perhaps, something essential about China in the runup to the stage-managed media spectacle of the 2008 Olympics. China Underground, Mexico's first book, is an edgy look at margins of modern China—and it's a real page-turner. Mexico mixes it up with the masses, returning with sixteen moving tales of unique individuals "trying to figure out what's going on, trying to carve a place out for themselves in the new China." There's a journalist, a "pink shop" prostitute and a closeted homosexual; an unhappy top university student and a happy pack of Wuhan punk rockers. There are peasants, filmmakers, photographers, "ethnic minorities," hustlers, bohemians and slackers. There's even a Nigerian drug dealer, a Uighur rock guitar whiz and a "killer." All of them tell their stories in their own words, with Mexico carefully observing, questioning, listening and narrating—but never judging. In researching China Underground, Mexico traveled from his Beijing base to destinations ranging from the world's most polluted city, Dali, from glitzy Shanghai to gritty Wuhan, meeting his subjects in massage parlors, karaoke bars, Starbucks and restaurants—wherever they were willing to talk. China Underground shares something with Theroux's 1988 China travel classic Riding the Iron Rooster, in which the author spent a year exploring China by train, having countless conversations with Chinese and revealing a complexly human China that few outsiders knew. Then, as now, China was in the throes of momentous social and economic changes, and though Mexico has many books to write before the Theroux comparison works in more than a passing sense, we think he's onto something—and we're looking forward to the journey. Here, Rebekah Pothaar interviews Zachary Mexico—a musician and videographer as well as an author—several days before his appearance at the Shangahi Literary Festival. Read on for the details. —David Perry Zachary Mexico as Cousin It Rebekah: You've had quite a relationship with China over the years—you started studying Chinese at age 15, you've been in and out of China since the age of 16, you speak fluent Mandarin. What Chinese cities have you lived in and what are some of your favorite places? Zachary: I've lived in Harbin, Beijing and Kunming and spent a lot of time in Qingdao, Shanghai, and Dali. Anywhere in Yunnan is my favorite. It's beautiful, it's clean, it's culturally diverse. Two years in Kunming? I've been to Kunming a couple of times and got the impression that there wasn't a lot to do, at least in the city itself. What did you do for two years? I owned a bar called the Paper Tiger. I worked there, spoke a lot of Chinese, hung out, and travelled around a lot. Also, places where there "is not a lot to do" are the best for getting to know people and improving Mandarin. Tell me about your journalistic approach to storytelling in China Underground. Basically, I just hung out with people and let them tell their own stories. The storytelling part comes in, really, in knowing what to cut outeach of the chapters were originally twice as long. That's the hard part! Once you've gained people's trust, hanging out and shooting the shit with a tape recorder on is pretty easy. Like Paul Theroux, you've found the key to a good story is listening to people and asking the right questions. You were able to get a lot of strangers to talk about very delicate issues. What is your technique of getting people to open up? Do you think a lot of people in China want to talk about these things but are too afraid to? I think it's kind of easier as a foreigner, especially a younger foreigner with long hair and a certain kind of demeanor. People don't feel threatened by me; they don't think I'm going to rat them out or expose their secrets. Also, I think at the end of the day people are all egomaniacs and they love to talk about themselves. Chinese people are no different! China Underground focuses on the individual: in each chapter you take someone—a slacker, a screenwriter, a punk, a prostitute, a gangster—and investigate that person's life. I feel like China Underground is a series of parables with each individual standing as a metaphorical representation of a topic you wish to address. Am I wrong? I would say you're definitely wrong! I kind of viewed the entire thing as a collection of interesting people. No more, no less. I'm not trying to make a statement...but if you inferred one, that's cool with me! Not to sound like a diehard lit major but one of the things about "the narrator" in China Underground is, he appears to sit back as a fly on the wall, observes, prods with questions, but withholds his opinion. Is there a difference between you as a person and you as the narrator of the book? The narrator IS me. No difference. How long did it take you to do all this research, once you had decided to write a book? Were you also holding down a job at the same time? A year and a half, and I was working full-time, playing music and running a bar in New York. In your acknowledgements you mention Peter Hessler and Karl Tao Greenfield as your inspirations. How and why? I loved Hessler's River Town and Oracle Bones, and Karl Taro Greenfeld's Speed Tribeswhich I read as a college studentprovided the rough template for China Underground. What are some of your favorite recent books about China? Can you recommend books for people who'd like to know more about present-day China? Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China by Duncan Hewitt. Oracle Bones and River Town. Factory Girls by Leslie Chang. Beijing Blur by James West. Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing by Ian Buruma. Harvest Season by Chris Taylor (though that one's not out yet!) Which of your videos on Current TV is most representative of your personality and sense of humor? I like Beer Town the best. Who are "the Qingdao skinny dipping crew" who you thank in the acknowledgements of the book? Sounds...interesting. I have some really good friends in Qingdao, and spent a lot of time there. In the summer, the beach is so crowded during the day that it's not even fun. You have to go swimming in the middle of the night instead. A whole bunch of us went skinny-dipping every day for a few weeks in a row, every night after stuffing our faces and drinking beer down in Beer Townit was a blast. You play in an indie punk band in New York called the Octagon. What do you play? Sing? Where can I hear you guys? Sing, play guitar, songwrite. You can hear us on myspace. What's the deal with your flat in New York's Chinatown? Did it really burn down last month, just before your trip to China? Bad timing? Stressful? Yes, it burned down. My neighbors died. It was very bad timing, and very stressful. I'm lucky to be alive, but dealing with the whole mess in a practical way is very complicated. So far on this trip you've presented the book in Hong Kong and Beijing. In Beijing you were presenting with James West, author of Beijing Blur, on punk music, homosexuality, subcultures and changing perceptions of freedom and the West. The Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival pitched you two as "a new generation of China commentators interested in youth and how it’s lived in twenty first century Beijing and writing the freshest approaches to the China story." That's high praise indeed. Are you surprised by the feedback you are getting from your readers? It's really shocking, and rewarding, how positive all the feedback is. Thank you everybody! What's it like coming to China to be part of the Shanghai International Literary Festival with your first book having just been published? It's awesome, actually. What are your future plans? I'm going to write a book about Yunnan. It's already in the planning stages and the research will start this summer! Catch Zachary Mexico at Shanghai's Glamour Bar at 5pm, Saturday, March 21 where he will be giving a talk at the Shanghai International Literary Festival. Mexico will be reading three profiles from his book: a mafia kingpin from Qingdao, a slacker idling in the idyllic mountain town of Dali and a guerrilla peasant photographer from Shenyang. Check out some of Mexico's short videos on Current TV: Beijing History Lesson, China's Tsingtao Beer, China White Lightening, and Beijing Cigarette City. Images from Soft Skull Press, Current TV, psychopedia, The Octagon's MySpace page and the LA Times.
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