From Mao to modern China

American author Jack Livings sees China as an insider in his taut, tender short fiction

Jack Livings
The dog: stories
The dog: storiesPHOTO: PENGUIN UK
China rich girlfriend
China rich girlfriendPHOTO: DOUBLEDAY



By Jack Livings

Penguin/Paperback/240 pages/$18.50/Books Kinokuniya/4.5/5

As Anton Chekhov did with his tales of Russia and R.K. Narayan with his fiction about rural India, Jack Livings offers a stained-glass window into a different world with short stories on life in China.

Livings is an American writer who studied and taught in China in the 1990s, but his stories refuse to exoticise the East for the consumption of Western readers.

The tales in The Dog: Stories are beautifully crafted and a testament to the ability writers have to cross borders and act as ambassadors for all humanity.

Reading his work, one is easily misled into thinking that here is another China-born author who now crafts in English, such as British author Guo Xiaolu or America's Li Yiyun. There is the use of Chinese idiom, common to these writers, such as the maxim "eat bitter" to mean enduring hardship, and, in several stories, a staccato turn of phrase characteristic of many English translations of Chinese writings.

Yet this style is neither deliberate, nor is it forced, but seems the natural outcome for an author who has immersed himself deeply in the land and culture he writes about.

There is insight into the tension between hardcore communist elders and the younger generation seduced by capitalism and sharp observations of rigid gender roles.

There is insight into the tension between hardcore communist elders and the younger generation seduced by capitalism, sharp observations of rigid gender roles in China and, above all, an acute tenderness towards the society described even as the writer illuminates its flaws.

No wonder, then, that the author this year won the US$25,000 (S$33,800) PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a debut collection of exceptional literary achievement.

Livings does not write from the perspective of an outsider in terms of citizenry, except in the ironic tale, The Pocketbook, about an American student in China who is unable to connect with her fellow countrymen and fully integrate into Chinese society. This is to her benefit when the gaze of the feared Public Security Bureau is turned on her language school and when she embraces her solitude as a form of freedom.

It is easy to conflate her with the author, able to understand China because of his experiences there and free from persecution because he writes about the country in America.

Many of the other stories in this collection are about people on the fringes of society or excluded from a larger understanding.

In the titular story, The Dog, a marriage between a man and woman from very different social backgrounds breaks up over the husband's part-ownership of a racing dog, a get-rich-quick scheme mooted by the man's cousin. The strain between spouses arises from the inability of either to be fully at ease in the other's family and mirrors the schisms in increasingly urbanised China, where people long to escape from but are never free of their rural roots.

Coiled tensions such as these break free with devastating effect in each story, often as ordinary citizens butt heads with those in power, whether the bureaucracy of government or big business.

In Donate!, a factory owner who is the first to donate blood in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 forgets to get a certificate proving this and is later dragged off the street to donate plasma through official channels.

In the charming and funny An Event At Horizon Trading Company, securities traders rebel against their superior's insistence that they show their loyalty to the company by adopting the Hanfu- style of kimono-like dress.

Among the most striking stories is The Heir, about an ageing Uighur mobster unable to inspire his grandson to take over his empire, who later finds much in common with his worst enemy, the ethnically Han Chinese head of the Public Security Bureau division in his village. The ethnic tension between the majority Han Chinese and the minority group is not often explored in fiction from and about China, but Livings deftly illustrates the links between the groups - sharing the services of the same barber or eating at the same noodle stall, for example - and also how these ties not only bind but can also strangle.

The standout story of the collection is The Crystal Sarcophagus, about the glass workers who built the glass coffin that houses the preserved body of Mao Zedong.

The longest and most exquisitely realised story in the book, it wields such precise engineering details as poetry. These are the men and women who "cast the crystal lenses for China-4, the country's first spy satellite", who "had supplied the revolution with lenses through which enemies were sighted and destroyed, stars charted - they had made the very glasses through which the Chairman gazed when he wrote his poetry".

Creating the sarcophagus was a Herculean task beyond the scope the technology that existed then, and the eventual success of the glass workers is made a testament to their heartfelt belief in communist ideals, as well as the fear they had of those in authority.

At the end of their endeavour, they achieve what no one thought was possible and are feted for this achievement, but Livings also shows the tragic consequences of the individual subordinating himself to a greater cause.

The result may inspire awe through the ages, but at a cost of wounds on body and soul that only scab, never quite heal.

If you like this, read: Lovers In The Age Of Indifference by Guo Xiaolu (2010, Vintage, $32.95, Books Kinokuniya). The Chinese- British writer delivers delicious observations on modern China from cellphone speed-dating to baby trafficking, in this collection of short stories written in English.



By Kevin Kwan

Doubleday/Paperback/400 pages/$26.10/Major bookstores/4/5

Singapore-born American author Kevin Kwan hits his stride as a novelist with this sequel to Crazy Rich Asians (2013).

China Rich Girlfriend continues cataloguing the excesses of Asia's wealthiest, but along with jaw- dropping stories of bling and billions culled from real-life headlines are wonderfully witty observations of just how difficult it is to infiltrate the uppermost echelons of the elevated social whirl.

Money is not enough, though readers of Crazy Rich Asians might be forgiven for thinking that the only thing needed was enough millions to drop on jewellery, stocks and buying up entire Indonesian islands as easily as others might buy a cup of coffee.

There is a huge social divide between the ostentatious nouveau riche and those who made their wealth at least a generation ago, brilliantly exemplified through China Rich Girlfriend's focus on the lavish lifestyles of the top fictional families in Hong Kong and mainland China.

The book continues the paper- thin romance between middle- class Chinese-American Rachel Chu and her Singaporean beau, Nicholas Young, scion of a family so wealthy and influential that its matriarch is served by handmaidens from the Thai royal court, but offers a far more sympathetic new character in Kitty Tai, nee Pong, a former soap star determined for the sake of her young daughter to be accepted by the very cream of Hong Kong society.

Her scene-stealing debut at an art auction, leading two snow- white Russian wolfhounds on diamond leashes, leads to social ostracism rather than instant recognition.

What separates the aspirants from the ensconced are bloodlines and a taste for invisibility rather than being splashed on the pages of the latest glamour rag, and breaching the bounds of good taste leads to financial and familial ruin.

Luckily, Kitty is rescued by a consultant to social climbers whose "social impact assessment", a list of grooming suggestions and manners to cultivate is alone worth the price of the book.

Notes on grooming include, "You want your colour and complexion to look as if you only spent fifty seconds on it because you were too busy repotting tulips in your garden", while the ideal body shape is "delicately emaciated, with just a hint of a well-managed eating disorder".

Observations like these fail to make up for the cardboard characterisation in connected storylines, such as the love triangle among Nicholas' cousin Astrid, her former boyfriend and her jealous nouveau riche husband, but they do make for a tale as sharp and perfectly realistic as a Botoxed and surgically enhanced face.

Isn't that perfect for a story about those whose lives are all about keeping up appearances?

If you like this, read: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (Anchor Books, 2013, $16.05, major bookstores). This light-hearted romp put Singapore on the world map for a super-rich citizenry that drives BMWs, but eats in open-air hawker centres.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2015, with the headline 'From Mao to modern China'. Subscribe