Book Review: Zachary Mexico, “China Underground”

Written by Book Reviews, Books

Who is Zachary Mexico and what’s he doing in the China Underground? Read Ann Logue’s review of the new Soft Skull release to find out.

Zachary Mexico – China Underground (2009, Soft Skull)
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The name Zachary Mexico is a pseudonym. And most of the people he interviews in the story also are pseudonymous. They have an excuse, too:  China is a communist nation. Its official ideology demands fealty to the state, so telling an American author about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll might get a citizen into a goodly bit of trouble.  For that matter, the American author who took down the stories might not be able to get a visa to get back into China.

Mexico studied in China in college, and he missed the country.  He went back in 2006 to find out what was happening for himself. He finds a place where everything is new and everything is dangerous.

China is overcoming centuries of poverty and decades of terrible government. Change is not easy, even if it happens peacefully. Mexico writes about people who aren’t sure what to do in a world that’s changing. Some people stay up all night playing murder mystery games, others consume a ridiculous amount of drugs (often purchased from illegal immigrants hailing from Nigeria). Others are just confused about the differences between the image of China that they grew up with and the modern reality. The Chinese are feeling their way into a capitalist world, and they are dealing with international partners who have more experience with capitalism but that are not necessarily more sophisticated.

Mexico tells how the Chinese embrace foreigners, and not just those from Africa bearing drugs. The town of Dali is a backpackers’ paradise; its natural beauty draw the first few tourists, and it is now filled with hostels and cafes that make it both beautiful and accessible. Punk bands struggle their way through the Ramones’ English lyrics, and the nightclubs play host to some of Europe’s most esoteric hardcore bands; their musicians can get visas more easily than big-name performers because no one in the government knows who they are. It’s all part of learning how to be modern.

But some of the people that Mexico talks to aren’t interested in managing the contradictions of early 21st Century China.  Why not just do some lines of ketamine or take up prostitution instead? And that is exactly what many of the people that Mexico talks to do.  Some are going crazy with their newfound wealth and freedom; others are finding ways to make money off of it.

Of course, these gee-whiz tales of Chinese youngsters gone crazy overlook the more ordinary lives of more ordinary Chinese, whether they be factory workers or entrepreneurs. But that’s okay. The stories of heterosexuals who work at a bank and go home to watch TV after work wouldn’t be very interesting, even if they are more typical of the people in modern China. Because China has been closed to the outside for so long, we know very little. Any insight is helpful; the Chinese are woven into our economy because the cheap goods we love are produced there, and the Chinese have been buying U.S. government debt. We need them, they need us, and both of our economies are mired in recession. So what happens next?

I have no idea. Mexico, who wrote his stories before the Olympics and the financial collapse, doesn’t know, either. I enjoyed China Underground, so I hope he takes his recorder and his pseudonym back soon to give us the sequel.