井底之蛙

9/8/2013

Commander Bradshaw goes to China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:07 am Print

Lately I have been going through Project Guttenberg and reading old books set in China. Late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch there is nothing to touch a ripping yarn like

BlueDragon cover

You may not know the book,1 but you may be familiar with some of the author’s other work like the “Mates Series” the “Pacific Coast Series” “Forward March” etc. It may not be deathless prose, but if the action lags you can always think about what it shows about the people who read this stuff.

Our story is a about Joseph Lee (Li Ching Cheng, usually referred to in the story as Jo, or Chinese Jo) son of a progressive mandarin, and his friend Rob Hinckley, son of an American missionary. These two end up seeing most of the Boxer Uprising. Our Lads get to steal a locomotive (which blows up at just the right time in a chapter entitled The Timely Explosion of a Boiler), witness the death of the German Ambassador to China, and die and get wounded at just the right points to be dramatic without messing up the story. It is fun to read a story where the author does not worry too much about things like plausibility and can beam his characters around as he wishes. We get all the things you might expect, including plot convenient language ability or inability, disguises (Rob passes himself off as a Chinese monk), mocking of Chinese superstition, and a bad guy who is defeated through pulling him down by his pigtail.

One thing I found interesting about the book is how pro-Chinese it is. Missionaries die, but always offstage, and  most of the blame for the Uprising is placed on the poverty and desperation of the peasants of drought-stricken China and a handful of evil people like Cixi.The post-Boxer looting is not glossed over

So Pekin fell, almost without a struggle, and for a year afterwards the city was misruled and looted by foreign soldiers, who destroyed many of its most beautiful structures and carried away its most precious works of art. From it also they ravaged the surrounding country, sending out punishment expeditions to kill, burn, and destroy in every direction.

Jo is the most interesting character, and he

was not quite certain that he did not approve of the plan for driving all foreigners from China. Foreigners expelled Chinese from their countries, so why should not his people in turn expel foreigners from China? Still, he did not express any views on the subject at that time, but changed the topic of conversation

His antipathy towards foreigners is not surprising, as at the beginning of the book he was sent to Connecticut to study. Needless to say, he is assaulted by a mob on his first day, and while the mob are “Dageos” and “Imitation Americans” even the right sort, like his friend Rob and his missionary uncle point out that he was asking for it by going out in a skirt. Jo turns against the Boxers after they kill his father, of course, and dies before he might be called on to express an opinion on the outcome of the whole Uprising, but he is a remarkably sympathetic character for someone who never shows any interest in Christianity and is arguably anti-American.

Monroe did his homework pretty well, and there are surprisingly few howling errors for a book like this. Its a fun enough read, and worth every penny.

 

  1. published in 1904 []

3/19/2013

When the Chinese went out for Jews

For the benefit of our Chinese readers, as well as anyone else who has not seen this excellent piece, I would like to introduce Scott Seligman’s “The Night New York’s Chinese Went Out for Jews: How a 1903 Chinatown fundraiser for pogrom victims united two persecuted peoples.” For our Chinese readers I suppose I should explain the joke in the title. Americans went out for Chinese a lot. Chinese restaurants were popular in the U.S. for a long time. Jews in particular went out for Chinese on Christmas. Christmas was the day that every single goy in America had a family meal, and so Jews were left all alone, like Americans in China at Spring Festival. I suppose Jews could have stayed in and had a family meal of their own, but they tended to make a point of going out, and the only place that would be open was a Chinese restaurant.1Not as a rule a place that non-Jews would visit on Christmas, but a place where Jews and Chinese could commiserate on their common lack of American-ness.

Given this bond between Jews and Chinese, it is maybe less surprising than it seems that a sort of Pan-Asian solidarity led Chinese to mobilize in support of the victims of the Kishinev pogrom. Chinese donated money, marched through the streets, and attended “a Chinese-language drama entitled The 10 Lost Tribes. Its subject, however, was not the destruction of the kingdom of Israel in Biblical times, but rather the subjugation of the Chinese by the Manchus in the early years of the Ch’ing Dynasty.” It’s a very good article, and rather than my summarizing it, you should go read it.

 

 

  1. Yes, the connection between Jews and Chinese restaurants goes beyond Christmas. It’s just a blog post. []

2/14/2012

Who’s Afraid of Chop Suey? Or, The Politics of Authenticity

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 3:47 pm Print

 

I humbly report that I have a piece –  “Who’s Afraid of Chop Suey?” — in the most recent Education About Asia (Winter 2011). The journal has generously made it available online for free (click here).

Chop Suey offers a convenient way to talk about the fate of Chinese food and cooking in the US before recent times, when the level of care and appreciation rose tremendously. The piece also argues that it is a mistake to dismiss the dish for not being “authentic.”

It is fair to say that Chop Suey in most restaurants is very likely to be a gooey mess — too salty, too sweet, too mushy — but it is dangerous to say that it’s not authentic. “Authenticity” is  too often used to police the cultural borders against intruders, cosmopolitans, hybrids, and mongrels, and  assumes that “authentic” means pure and unspoiled, “true to itself.” Good enough. I”m all for it. But who gets to decide what’s authentic? The House Un-Authentic Activities Committee?

Years ago I got a lesson in the ironies of authenticity angst. I had just come back from Taiwan, where I had spent a lot of time in restaurants and street stalls which had cooks and customers who were trained in the old ways on the mainland. I thought I knew something about authentic Chinese food.

I searched up and down the streets of Boston Chinatown for the place with the dimmest lights and the most Chinese customers. I found just the spot and ordered  the Special Lunch or ke fan. This was a cup of soup and a mound of rice with your meat or veggies on top, served on a flat plate. I politely turned down the spoon they brought and demanded  chopsticks. Only after a few minutes of chasing the rice around the plate did I look around to see that all the old Chinese men, the ones whose authentic presence had drawn me in, were eating with spoons.

I had demanded chopsticks because I was worried about authenticity. What was I thinking? I was a six foot blue eyed blond. Did I think that if I used chopsticks nobody would notice that I wasn’t Chinese? The actual Chinese in that restaurant didn’t worry about authenticity: All they wanted to do was to get the food into their mouths. No matter what they did they were still “Chinese.”  They were sensible; I got rice all over my shirt.

By the same authenticity test, I would never have ordered Chop Suey. Somehow Chop Suey wasn’t “Chinese,” or at least not authentic Chinese. In the following years I came to realize that just as there are regional cuisines inside China, there are regional Chinese cuisines outside China. American Chinese cuisine is one of them, and it’s just as authentic as can be. I’ve had dreary Peking Duck in China and excellent sweet and sour pork in the US.

A few years ago, I came back to Chop Suey, or at least to the idea of it. For a book about how Americans thought about China, I wanted to write a biography of a food item that started in the 19th century and came down to the present.  The ups and downs of Chop Suey show a great deal about Americans, some of them of Chinese ancestry, many of them not.

Some recent good books beat me to the punch. Jennifer 8. Lee,  a New York Times reporter, got out into the field to talk to people about how the Chinese restaurant business actually works, and combined this with some pretty good library research. Her  The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (New York, NY: Twelve, 2008) is lively and full of smart points. She argues that the close-knit world of Chinese restaurants set them up for the same type of  “cloud sourcing,” or “group entrepreneurship” that fueled the take off in Silicon Valley computer industry. She tells a lively story of creativity and constant innovation.

Andrew Coe’s  Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2009) also tells a good story based on delving into historical records. J. A. G. Roberts, China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West (London: Reaktion, 2002) follows Western reactions to Chinese food over the last few centuries.

On a more theoretical but still accessible level, Daniel Little’s Understanding Society blog piece,  “Cultural Authenticity and the Market” (here) shows us how to use the idea of authenticity without spilling philosophical rice on our philosophical shirts.

Besides, everything is an authentic something or other. The touts on downtown Nathan Road in Hong Kong used to offer “genuine” ROLEX watches. Smart tourists wouldn’t bite when they noticed the RALEX or ROLOX logo, so a few years ago the touts began to ask “do you want to buy a fake Rolex?” People bought them so they could have a cute story to tell their friends.  These watches were “authentic,” that is, “authentic fakes.”

So let’s not get all authenticer than thou.

2/5/2012

From all the junks, the one I need more is music

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:57 am Print

Slate has a piece up on the Asian-ization of Western classical music. It’s more historically informed than you might think for a Slate piece, although it seems to be lurking in the author’s mind that Classical Music is a universal component of Western Culture. In fact  a lot of it was created for the aristocracy, and there was only a fairly brief period1 when major cities were supposed to have a symphony orchestra supported by bourgeois ticket-buyers. Paarlberg points out that Jews dominated violin performance for years, so its not surprising that the torch is being passed to a new subgroup.

I mostly wanted to mention this as a great way to plug Richard Kraus’s fine book Pianos and Politics in China: Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music in China. Kraus deals with the role of Western music in defining (and denouncing) China’s new middle class. Although other forms of Western music were important in creating modernity in Asia ‘classical’ music was an important class signal, just as it was in the West. Under the Communists the music of the urban elite had to be swept away along with the elite.

This Cultural Revolution piano announces that Art should serve the workers, peasants, and soldiers, but its still a piano.2 During the CR, of course, any sort of Western music was problematic. The big bold quote from Chairman Mao saved this piano from being smashed, but lots of its brethren. were not so lucky.

This dates from the early 80′s I think,3 and is one of the oddest Chinese propaganda posters I have ever seen. Yes, things changes fast during the Reform era, but a housewife whose kid is learning the violin? Less then a decade after the fall of the Gang of Four? The class symbolism of music may have made the quickest comeback of anything during the reforms. And apparently, its one thing that it pretty similar in Asia and among Asian Americans.

 

 



  1. o.k. a century or so []
  2. This actually made me wonder how ‘classical’ a piano would have been in China, as for me a piano would not necessarily bring up thoughts of a classical orchestra. []
  3. via Landesberger []

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