China Underground

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Plenty of recent travel books by eastbound Westerners—like Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star or Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road—have attempted to capture China’s accelerated modernization and totalitarian regime. Those evocative books, however, don’t offer much insight into how the country’s chaotic transformations have affected the people who are growing up amid them. China Underground, by American sinophile Zachary Mexico, offers a different perspective: This collection of travel essays focuses on the country’s youth and how they seek to forge their identities under a totalitarian government. The author captures Uighur guitar prodigies, Beijing hipsters, Wuhan punks, prostitutes, mafia henchmen and an ambitious screenwriter, to name a few.

The book’s journalistic standards can be overly slack, and Mexico seems happy to quote the friend of a friend of some guy someone did lines with at a Beijing nightclub. But the book is more than an exercise in international gonzo slumming, mostly because Mexico comes off like he’s genuinely interested in the people he hangs out with. He’s insightful, too: An essay called “The Killers” details a group’s obsession with all-night whodunit games, and in the process draws correlations between these marathon sessions and China’s brutal watchfulness. Other pieces, like “The Black Society,” put Mexico among drugs, guns and the well-heeled Chinese mafia (these aren’t your father’s Triads). Mexico isn’t afraid to step back and comment on broader cultural forces such as censorship and racism. But he’s at his best when he’s describing individuals: slackers, hash dealers, guitar-strumming loudmouths. These portraits are pertinent reminders that some of China’s young have figured out how to buck—or at least evade—the oppressive system they live in. —Drew Toal

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