A literate journey into some remote corners of Asia in a puzzling time.
Call this one big “enterprise story,” that being the term employed by old-school journalists (the kind who chewed cigars, stayed up all night drinking whiskey, and banged out great stories with two fingers) to describe a junket somewhere in the hope of turning up an accidental bit of news. A restless traveler, veteran Far Eastern Economic Review Asia bureau chief Kaye was stationed in Beijing just after the Tiananmen Square massacre, a time when “there was nothing to cover but official lies and bluster.” From this base, he took the entire nation of China as his beat, turning up odd stories for the Economic Review and the Wall Street Journal. Here he recounts his experiences in “the new China” after Deng Xiaoping mandated a turn from insular socialism to a state-controlled, quasi-capitalist economic system that has made fortunes for some individuals while leaving others in feudal poverty. The modernization of the economy, Kaye observes, has been accompanied by the restitution of traditional practices such as ancestor worship, which had been all too easily suppressed under the regime of “Red dynast” Mao—after all, he writes, “totalitarian snitch culture encouraged betrayal of your living intimates; how much easier to forsake your dead ones.” At the same time, modernization has meant shedding old ways of doing things and shrugging off some, but not all, of the shoddy communist past. Following the tracks of homeless farmers, day laborers, Buddhist pilgrims, bureaucrats, and budding entrepreneurs, Kaye explores this dichotomy of conservative restoration and creative destruction, illustrating his points with telling anecdotes and apt quotes. Consider this comment from Cousin Felix, an overseas Chinese businessman and master of the influence-peddling art of guanxi who seems to be on a constant quest for both “mainland babes” and spiritual enlightenment: “Imagine the hot flashes when an ancient Dragon Lady like China goes into menopause!”
Well-written, humorous, and instructive: a useful resource for China-watchers and travelers. (17 b&w drawings, not seen, by Kaye’s Taiwanese wife, Hsu Mei-lang)