Exploring 'China Underground'
How big is China? Bigger than you can wrap your mind around. Really. 1.3 billion people are hustling, trying to figure out what to do with themselves in a booming 21st century China. It’s a place that makes New York look boring, according to one author. A place where endless business opportunities come up against a stonewall, ironfisted government. A country where the only place to be different — a punk, a poet, a prostitute — is underground.
Taking months to research and travel around and hang out, Zachary Mexico executes in his first book what most merely wonder about. "China Underground" explores the untold stories of young, on-the-fringes Chinese men and women.
Drug dealers, wannabe rock stars, and even the Chinese mafia make an appearance in this fascinating collection of 16 true-life essays.
Here’s what Mexico had to say about his first effort:
JC: What was your initial fascination with China?
Mexico: I guess I started studying the language when I was 15. I went to boarding school in Massachusetts. I went there [China] the next year in 1995. And I guess I just found it to be a crazy, amazing place.
JC: Were these stories hard to find?
Mexico: Yes and no. I had twice as many and I took out the ones that I didn’t think were as good. Some people were hard to find. A couple of people I had known before. And I found a couple of people on the Internet. Some I met by chance.
JC: Which of the chapters was most difficult to research? Let me guess, was it the gay culture?
Mexico: That really was quite difficult. The city I had heard was a huge, gay hotbed. But it wasn’t or it was a complete lie. I went out to all these gay clubs and it was really difficult to get people to talk about it especially.
Another one that was difficult was the mafia guy and the drug dealer. Neither of those guys knew I was writing about them.
JC: Anything you wanted to include in the book, but didn’t make the cut?
Mexico: There were these guys who were making fake everything. Fake passports, fake bags, fake ID cards. In China, there’s fake everything. Even fake beer ... I went there [an area where they make the fake items] with a friend and they wouldn’t let me back in.
And there were all these Chinese Rastafarians I was hanging out with, but at some point I couldn’t find them anymore.
JC: So, let’s talk about the mob. The Chinese mafia, the Black Society, or 'hei shehui.' What was most surprising about the Black Society? Anything you didn’t expect?
Mexico: I expected it to be this huge organized system where it’s secrets handed down from generation to generation, but it’s not. There’s no brotherhood. It’s not like the Sopranos. It’s not guys sitting down talking about territory. It’s more like gangs.
JC: You befriended a Chinese mafia member named Wang Dalong. You described his birthday party as an event filled with Mandarin pop love songs, cake fights, and lambshank barbecues. It sounds so magical. But then you talk about Dalong’s confession that he wants to go straight. And yet he cruises away from the scene just like a gangster. Part of him seems innocent and others seem well ... just like a gangster. He seems to be a bunch of contradictions. What was Dalong really like?
Mexico: I think anyone who is doing that kind of thing for a living is like that. He was a very nice guy. The kind of guy who wouldn’t hurt a fly, unless you [mess] with him. Then he’d probably kill you.
JC: Do you keep in touch with him? Do you think he has/will choose the straight life?
Mexico: Yeah, I’ll see him in a couple of weeks. I don’t know what he’s doing. I know he opened a smoothie shop and it closed.
JC: In your chapter called 'The Chickens,' about Chinese prostitutes, you describe young women of various ages (some as young as 15) who sleep with countless men. Prostitution is illegal in China but also very common. There’s also a seven-tier system of prostitution that the Chinese government has established. Tell me more about that world.
Mexico: There’s prostitutes all over the place. It is certainly not surprising. When I was 16, I stayed at the Holiday Inn and there were prostitutes there. In China, it is socially more acceptable for a guy to go to a prostitute than it is here.
JC: You also delved deeper into Chinese gay society. Nine Dragons, the gentleman in your essay whom you profiled pretty carefully, sounds like he leads a horribly oppressed and hidden life. Is this typical of gay men in China? What is it like to live that life?
Mexico: I think it is certainly weird, especially in the less urban areas. It is not condoned at all.
But in the cities you can get by. I have a friend who’s a dude but just dresses as a woman all the time, and he seems to do okay.
JC: You explore Wuhan, the city that is the capital to underground Chinese punk rock. Tell me how the punk band scene in China compares to that of the U.S.
Mexico: In China, it reminds me of how everyone sounded here in the early 1990s. Everyone sounds like old Green Day.
-- Lori Kozlowski
Image: Soft Skull Press
Photo: Zachary Mexico