The Bells of Old Tokyo

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Anna Sherman’s book The Bells of Old Tokyo.

“Sherman’s investigation throws in all number of intriguing asides – not merely her red-herring quest to locate forgotten bronzes, but the many places in which the story of time crosses over with Tokyo life. There’s that little ‘xylophone lullaby’ that chimes every now and then, a familiar sound to anyone in the Tokyo streets, but also revealed here as a test for the city’s emergency broadcast system. There’s the business of the Japanese calendar, which changes its name and numbering with each imperial reign. And there’s the grass-roots resistance to foreign ideas, like Summer Time, which was imposed by the US Occupation forces and led to street protests.”

Advertisements

Bitter First, Sweet Later

Chop Suey Nation, Anna Hui’s account of Chinese food in Canada, begins with a moment of horrible shock, when her childhood school’s “China Day” sees the kids served with unidentifiable day-glo slop. This is not the Chinese food she gets to eat at home, but as she comes to discover, it is what constitutes “Chinese food” to many non-Chinese people.

Eventually, this moment of culinary misery transforms into a road-trip across Canada, poking around the obscure restaurants that seem to exist in every town, reminiscing all the while about those many Chinese migrants, including her own family, who came to make a new life in North America.

This is hardly unexplored territory – Hui’s own bibliography includes Lily Cho’s Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small-Town Canada, which answered many of her questions nine years in advance. That was, however, an academic book steeped in the cant of cultural studies, so Hui’s resolutely chatty approach certainly makes the story more accessible. She also, mercifully, treads lightly with the coming-to-Canada story of her own family, which, devoid of a scandal, war, murder or zombie infestation, is frankly rather jejune. The value, however, of the Hui family background is a revelation that crops up early in the book, that even though the infant Anna was traumatised by the sight of ersatz Chinese food, her father had enjoyed a brief career serving it in small-town Canada, before she was born. Hui reacts to this in much the same way as she might react to a parental admission to a backstory as gender-flexible swingers with a penchant for golden showers.

She comes into her own both with the gin-clear concision of her prose, which is so readable that the book just rockets past before you know it, and with the odd-couple experiences of her discount road-trip, for which she has inadvertently rented a comically unsuitable Fiat 500. In a discovery that has also hounded my own investigation into Chinese foods, she grapples with the difficulty of being able to adequately access the contents of a new menu without stuffing herself so full every day that she never needs to eat again. She also contends with a common problem in folk history, which is that often those who are most available to be interviewed are the least likely to have anything pertinent to say. I feel for her in a Fisgard restaurant at the very start of her journey, facing a waitress with no interest whatsoever in answering any of her questions.

Some still go unanswered. There are some tantalising moments in early chapters when she seems poised on the verge of investigating a fascinating issue in cultural history – who the hell designed the generic look of all those far-flung restaurants with their matching roof adornments, chop-socky fonts and red vinyl seats? Instead, she concentrates on the spread of intellectual property – how cooks like her father learned specific recipes, some of them invented in Canada like “shredded ginger beef”, and adapted then to satisfy the whims of local diners – the restaurant in noodle-free Newfoundland, for example, that substituted shredded cabbage and completely confused east-coast definitions of chow mein, or the manager in pensioner-packed Deer Lake, who realised that his diners hate his crispy-skinned spare ribs because they could only chew soft meats. And in Quebec, home of already-stodgy poutine, the terrifying prospect of stir-fried macaroni.

By the time she has reached peak weird, dropping in on a lone Chinese lady running a year-round Chinese restaurant on a remote island, she has found her true subject, and it does indeed lead to some family revelations. Possibly by total coincidence, Hui’s story displays what appears to be a template for many books I have read on Canadian themes, most notably Colleen Mondor’s Map of My Dead Pilots – a family narrative nested within a broader tale of human migrations, but here leavened with the image of a shivering Chinese woman and her Star Trek-loving husband, trying to drive several thousand miles in a toy car.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Chop Suey Nation is published in the UK on 26th September.  

Mutant Mash-Up

To Ibaraki, where a man has been arrested for selling customised dolls. The unnamed criminal, 39, had modified anime character goods, committing such heinous acts as removing the head of a Love Live doll, and sticking it onto the body of a Girls und Panzer character, before selling the mutant result online for up to £100.

Ibaraki police bragged that they uncovered the crime during a “cyber patrol” last autumn – I imagine because that sounds cooler than admitting someone in the office was Googling teeny-bop merchandise. The cops swept down on his home, confiscated a thousand dolls, and commenced a proctologically unpleasant audit of the suspect’s bank records. This produced evidence of £58,000 in “suspicious” payments over the last three years, suggesting that he had been running his cottage industry for some time.

If you’re wondering why this is a problem, you would not be the first. Is it not a consumer’s right to do whatever they want with the merchandise they own? Toy Story’s neighbourhood bully, Sid Phillips, might have been presented as a bad guy, but when he modded his toys, he wasn’t actually breaking the law… right?

Many countries have a “first-sale doctrine” that allows consumers to do whatever they want with the products they buy. You can tinker with your Blu-ray player, although that might invalidate your warranty. You can write the name of your favourite pop star on your pencil case. You can even, should you desire, put Hitler moustaches and cat ears on all the writers’ pictures on the NEO contributors’ page (please don’t do this). This is true over most of the planet… but in Japan, trademark owners enjoy more leeway in enforcing how their products are resold. A fan in his bedroom is free to sell a doll to someone else, but not to take money for modifying it in such a way as to potentially tarnish the intellectual property. The anime companies charge a lot of money for the licences to sell merchandise, and, on paper at least, selling a Love Live und Panzer mash-up would require a double licence, and double approvals from the makers. Fortunately, the lawmen of Ibaraki are on hand to stop such sordid perversions, and hopefully have also found the time to catch murderers and stuff.

This article first appeared in NEO #187, 2019. Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan.

Makoto Ogino (1959-2019)

In case you missed it, my obituary of Makoto Ogino over at All the Anime.

“Late in life, he finally seemed to find a happy groove with Oboko (2003), the tale of a plucky girl who inherits her father’s fishing boat, and finds herself renting it out to a handsome schoolteacher with a vocation for environmental activism. In one of the cruellest twists of fate, editors at the recession-hit Business Jump told him that new policies found it to not have enough sex and violence for their readership.”

Wellington Koo and Modern China

Ten years after the original publication of the English edition, my biography of Wellington Koo has been published in Chinese by CITIC as 顾维钧与现代中国 [Wellington Koo and Modern China], translated by Wang Huaihai and Hu Liping, and with an introduction by Her Excellency Xue Hanqin, Vice President of the International Court of Justice. She writes: “Only when a nation remembers its history can it better grasp the future of its people.”

This is the fourth of my books to be translated into Chinese, following my biographies of the First Emperor and Empress Wu, and my history of the Silk Road.

Poppy Culture

“This land would shut me out at first and then absorb me – suddenly or gradually, but irresistibly – until nothing was left of me as I was now.”

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s narrator, Cameron is Adrift in the Middle Kingdom, a man sure of himself at sea, but increasingly out of his depth on land as he journeys ever inwards from the coasts on a mission to a distant city. On the way, he experiences a China that both is and isn’t the real-world place of the year 1934, when Slauerhoff wrote this novel, only now translated into English.

There are two Chinas nested in Slauerhoff’s narrative. One is born of his the author’s visits to the ports of the Chinese coast as a ship’s doctor – a gritty, realistic, and beautifully detailed snapshot of life in inter-war Amoy and Shanghai (here renamed Taihai). “People here may earn ten times more than in Europe, but they spend it twenty times as fast and enjoy it a hundred times less,” he writes, of the city that is a playground for the European visitors, but a ghastly sentence for its Chinese inhabitants, with “the ruthless grind of the city consuming its people.”

But as he travels into the Chinese hinterland, he leaves behind the sure-footed, personal observations of the author, and comes to rely increasingly on a China of the mind. One imagines Slauerhoff in his cabin on yet another long voyage, putting aside his diary and devouring the reportage and fictions of his era – James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933) and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), before spinning his own story of a man adrift in China.

Slauerhoff’s protagonist ends up in “Chungking”, a place that cannot possibly be the Chongqing of the real world, since it is on the wrong river and in the wrong location. It is not quite the lost world of Shangri-La, but instead a bastion of the true China, a trading post beyond the Great Wall where the local authorities diligently hold foreign corruptions at bay. The value of Slauerhoff’s China, in the words of Wendy Gan’s introduction, “lies in its rejection of modernity.” In a book suffuse with gentle orientalism, but also a melancholy assurance of the decline of the West, Slauerhoff’s Chungking is China at its purest, stoically resisting an onrush of foreign trinkets and concerns. Cameron even tries to dissuade a local warlord from acquiring a radio, pleading that it will be an anticlimax: “What you would learn about Western science and wisdom would greatly disappoint you. You will not like opera or music, propaganda speeches will offend your ears, sermons will bore you. The voices of science cannot be heard with this device. Most European countries are driving out whatever great minds remain to us.”

Beyond human traffic, two commodities dominate Slauerhoff’s book. One is oil, the discovery of which in Chungking creates a literal flood of problems for a town out of time – the onrush of the twentieth century. The other is opium, which, like China itself, is an addiction that washes gradually over Cameron until it consumes him. By the book’s final chapters, he is either so addled that he can no longer see straight, or finally, magically lucid, able to see the truth of the world, and the nature of an eternal struggle between ancient masters and the spirit realm. He is another drunken, broken expat in a Chinese village, smoking his life away, or a recuperating casualty in an ongoing war with another world.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Adrift in the Middle Kingdom by Jan Slauerhoff is published in the UK by Handheld Classics.