Saturday, March 14, 2009

Documenting the Youth

There are some 300 million young people in China.

Most urban youth hang out at KTV, or a building that looks like a hotel that houses rooms for people to sing for hours on end, go shopping, hang out at Starbucks or play basketball or soccer.

But there are several subcultures that two writers have documented in their debut books. Zackary Mexico has written China Underground and James West's book is called Beijing Blur. They both talked about their work in "Destination China" during The Bookworm's Literary Festival that's going on here.

Mexico hails from the United States, and spent some time in China and then wanted to write a book about the people he met that weren't covered in the many other China books he'd read.

He specifically profiled people who don't have regular jobs and they are a bunch of interesting characters.

One of them is a slacker, a man from Shandong who lives in Dali, Yunnan Province. All he seems to do is keep his long, shiny hair down to his ass and scopes out girls all day with his binoculars.

Another is a Uighur musician who speaks in a funny American accent.

Meanwhile Australian West gives a personal take on Beijing and the people he meets. He describes himself as having a torrid affair with the capital, but it's a nasty relationship in which it doesn't seem to care if he clings on or not, taunting him, making him come back for more.

As a gay person himself, he also talks about meeting Chinese men who seem to be gay, but decide to turn off this behaviour once they decide it's time to find a wife and have a family.

He finds it curious that these men think they can have flings with men on the weekends, but during the week they're straight and have girlfriends. But West did note that while this phenomenon was not only in China, the familial obligations here are very strong. While most may heed the call and go straight, there are some who have decided to ex-communicate themselves from their families in order to continue the lifestyle they choose.

There was also a discussion about the punk scene in China. While a record company may only sell 5,000 album copies, they don't really know how many people are listening to it because when tour dates are booked, the venues are sold out due to illegal file sharing and downloading.

Mexico observed many of these bands would sing some lyrics in English to avoid the censors, and that the government probably thought it was OK for kids to listen to punk and blow off some steam. It's when the number of these head-banging youth get to a certain number, then the government takes notice and clamps down.

The same goes for gays and lesbians. West explained that many gays and lesbians are calling for marriage rights and may have one-off protests like a recent one at Qianmen Street that the government turns a blind eye to. But once a festival or a large demonstration is organized on a big scale and calling for equal rights, then the event is shut down.

An audience member brought up an interesting point that language may have played a role in both the books.

In West's case, he said many kept asking him if the book would be published in Chinese. When he replied no, they agreed to talk. But the audience member said that maybe perhaps it's also because when it has to do with family, they would feel protective and use Chinese; and when it came to their activities outside the home, it was better to use English, as if thinking of it in an entirely different realm as a way to separate them.

It's an interesting point worth considering, as well as the fact that the ones who can speak English are pretty well-educated and may have the money to fuel their certain lifestyles. So in a way Mexico and West are only capturing a certain section of Chinese urban subcultures and that there are many out there, yet to be discovered.

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