Great Bu’s Up

Our hotel in Huaibei is a carnival of lies. The crew veritably fought each other to get into the elevator for breakfast, eagerly awaiting the bagels, coffee and toast promised in the lobby posters. They arrived to find nothing but the usual dumplings, stodgy bread sticks and warm orange juice.

Huaibei is famous for one thing, and that is Kouzijiu, a popular form of alcoholic spirit. The process for making it is not dissimilar to the process for making soy sauce. Men with shovels mix a mushroom yeast into piles of sorghum grains, before leaving them to set for two months. Then, they are steamed in a giant vat, and the water that condenses at the other end is not water at all, but 60% alcohol.

Usually, the grains and yeast are spread and mixed by a machine on rails, but the shovels are out because a widget has broken on it. The shovellers walk back and forth over the warm grains, treading them into the floor with impunity. The air is rich with an earthy tang, like a sugar-coated fart.

A man called Bu brings a tray of fresh baijiu straight from the condenser, but he is obliged to wait for a whole hour while we faff with our shots. There needs to be one of me walking in, me describing the fermentation process, and me explaining that although it is only drunk in China, baijiu is still the world’s biggest selling spirit category, with annual turnover in excess of $23 billion.

Eventually, after Bu has been lurking for an hour in the shadows, the director decrees that we are done with documenting the making, and now we must move on to the sampling.

“Great,” she says at last. “Bu’s up.”

Mr Bu is to proffer a tray of the little thimble-glasses of baijiu, and I am to take one, and explain to camera how the Chinese show sincerity by draining their glass. Then I am to drain another one to show I am really sincere… then another.

I am, consequently, somewhat the worse for wear when I the local propaganda office insists on taking us for dinner. Three of their minions have been kicking their heels for an hour in the lobby, while our fixer shows them everything she can think of on her laptop. I am getting flashbacks to Bossy Lady in Yunnan, who was simply incapable of understanding that the last thing anybody wants to do after a 12-hour working day is sit across from her all evening chewing inedible local delicacies. Mr Fan from the propaganda office, however, is very keen to display the charms of Anhui, and drags us to a restaurant VIP room big enough for all nine of the crew, him, and the usual Chinese bunch of interlopers – a handful of people who may or may not also be propaganda office employees, but who sit at the table staring at their phones all evening.

Mr Fan opens up the first of many bottles of Kouzijiu, each one in a green ceramic bottle shaped vaguely like a fish, and decorated with a pattern of millet seeds. Everybody has a little thimble-glass by their plate, along with a small glass jug for booze. The toasting starts.

I am used to all this, so I know what to do. I know that I must drain my glass to show sincerity. I know that I must hold my glass slightly below my toaster’s, in order to show humility. I am not aware, until tonight, that when the Chinese go for a full-on blowout, they stop bothering with the thimble-glasses and start draining the jugs. Before long, they are all red-faced and giggly, trilling the joys of booze, and debating which country drank the most.

“We had a bunch of people a few years ago from Finland,” says a lady who is wearing a red leather jacket like a refugee from a 1980s Michael Jackson video. “They drank an awful lot.” Her name, it turns out, is Xi Feng, literally Western Phoenix – what are the odds that a woman from Anhui’s primary distillery town would be named after the competition in Shaanxi? It’s like meeting a man whose name is Jack Daniels.

Finally we are permitted to go back to our hotel, where we must pack for tomorrow’s journey to Shanghai – another ten hours on the road.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E02 (2016).

Hikaru: In the Light

“Matsuda’s rags-to-riches tale is a quiet protest about, well, the whole idol singer industry. Everywhere in the modern world, but particularly in Japan, the politics of mass media entertainment favours the sort of algorithm-based dole that works enough to make money for corporations. Matsuda uses manga and talento, two of the most commodified and over-saturated media ever, to mount an argument for better things.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Mai Matsuda’s Hikaru: In the Light.

Ranking of Crims

Claiming that “readers” had pointed out typographical errors and issues, the e-publisher BookLive suspended its ongoing translation of the manga Ranking of Kings. There was, however, somewhat more to it than that. This wasn’t a case of a few commas in the wrong place and a quibble about whether to keep an honorific in the dialogue.

And it was one “reader” in particular, Katrina Leonoudakis, herself a professional translator of some years’ standing, who had brought the case to light by tweeting a damning multi-part analysis of the Ranking of Kings English version. In it, she demonstrated that the script, provided to BookLive by an outsourcing company called Dragon Digital, had lifted huge chunks of an unofficial fan translation.

Now, in terms of criminality, a “ranking of crims” if you like, complaining about this is a bit like a burglar complaining he’s been shot while invading your home. The fan translation is itself an infringement of the Ranking of Kings copyright, and some might think that nicking it was a bit of canny move on Dragon Digital’s part, stealing from the stealers. Except they hadn’t been paid to do that, they had been paid to produce a professional translation.

This has happened many more times than people are prepared to admit. In fact, I vaguely remember the first cases, in the late 1990s, dropping the going-rate so low that companies were only paying peanuts, and ultimately getting monkeys. What this has meant, over the years, is that translation has either become a labour of pure fannish love, or a grim, business-like triage as a minion tells themselves that they will need to turn around x episodes per day in order to make a living wage. Yes, quality suffers. No, I am not surprised.

The act of lifting scanlations has also been substantially more widespread than people care to admit. It wasn’t that long ago that I caught a well-known publisher blatantly lifting a scanlation for something they charged money for in English. When I innocently asked who had translated it for them, they hemmed and hawed and muttered something about bodging something together from “French and German sources.”

I lacked the time or energy to get as forensic as Leonoudakis about it, but it’s safe to say that her discovery has opened a can of worms that is going to wriggle all over the manga industry for some time.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #220, 2022.

Ni Kuang (1935-2022)

“Hong Kong remained his home thereafter, but his antipathy for the Communist regime did not slacken in later years. In a 2009 interview, he provocatively announced that he was less afraid of China during the purges of the Mao era, since the worst possible danger to the world would be presented by a predatory capitalist system run by a dictatorial elite.”

Ni Kuang, who died yesterday, is the subject of a long entry I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

None Shall Sleep

One of Master Wei‘s children has gone into business with one of the nephews, thereby proving that although they look normal, they are just as much mentalists as Master Wei. They have set up a bespoke restaurant that only serves products that have been made with tea. The clientele is somewhat exclusive, restricted to coach parties of tea nutters doing the Tea Tour, as well as visiting Party bigwigs and foreign film crews.

Chef Chen, the cousin, has drawn elaborate displays on each plate, picking out the National Geographic logo in custard, and drawing a map of the Silk Road in chocolate sauce. He shows me around his brushed-steel kitchen, and fires up the volcano stove, so named because it whooshes into life like a lost jet engine, and heats up his wok in half a minute .

Chef Chen is decked out in all his funny-hat finery, and a chef’s hat is found for me as well so that I can look ridiculous next to him. He treats me to a selection of amuses-bouche, many of which have the slightly desperate taint of a man trying to find an excuse to put tea in things. There are deep-fried tea leaves in batter; goose feet braised in tea, lamb soup with a tincture of tea… you get the idea. I am forced to down far too many spoonfuls of his deep-fried bee larvae with crisped tea leaves for my liking, and there is no beer. Only… tea.

What first appears to be some sort of candy for dessert turns out to be balls of deep-fried salad cream, lightly dusted with… tea.

“You place them here on this map I have done in chocolate that shows the Silk Road,” he says. “There’s Quanzhou, where we are now, and Hong Kong, and Indonesia, Thailand… where are you from?”

“England,” I say. “So on this scale, that should be somewhere over there behind the fridge.”

For a lot of the time, I am mercifully excused from the kitchen while the crew film B-roll of Chef Chen at work concocting his masterpieces from ingredients that might as well have been randomly selected with a dartboard. This leaves me downstairs in the plush foyer, decorated with golden statues of elements of the tea-making process, and photographs of Master Wei shaking hands with a bunch of Chinese people I don’t recognise. There are also displays of the various Iron Guanyin teas that can be bought from the Wei family collective, including the infamous £36,000/kilo “Wei 18,” the most expensive tea in the world.

This leaves me for an hour in the company of the Wei son and his cronies, who while away the evening sipping little cups of… wait for it… tea, made by a prim young lady in business attire. My experiences in Yunnan have taught me the basics of the Chinese tea ceremony, and so I watch as she goes through the motions of cleaning, refreshing, boiling, washing… all seemingly quite common sense to me now, although they seemed impossibly intricate only a month ago. The men witter about nothing, while their serving girl remains impassive and silent. The time passes pleasantly enough, until midnight, when we are then informed that Chef Chen has now finished the food preparation for the documentary, but that now he expects us to eat it.

A tense and malevolently quiet banquet then ensues as we all try to force down as many bee larvae and deep-fried salad cream puffs as we can, before we are finally permitted to leave.

It is half past midnight, but that is of little help to us, since we have been consuming TEA all evening. I don’t get to sleep until 4am.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E01 (2016).

Anu and Mikko (1940)

Orphaned Karelian girl Anu (Henny Valjus) is reluctant to follow through on her late mother’s promise that she will marry the nice-but-dim rich boy Junu (Reino Valkama). Instead, she has eyes only for the handsome carpenter Mikko (Santeri Karilo), even though Mikko backs off in the mistaken belief that Anu loves Junu. Mikko runs away to the big scary city of Helsinki, where he hits on the idea of returning home to start a furniture factory – shades here of the woodtastic prospects of Green Gold (1939).

Based on a 1932 play by Kersti Bergroth and subsequently remade with the same title in 1956 and again for TV in 1975, Orvo Saarikivi’s Anu ja Mikko is an initially baffling choice for so many productions. It was shot at Suomi-Filmi’s Munkkisaari studios, but also features a number of exteriors showing off Nurmijärvi in the summer of 1940 – Finnish cinema audiences had almost nothing to chew on for half the year, and then a sudden rash of titles either mothballed during the Winter War or rushed into production that spring. There are also some lovely exteriors of 1940 Helsinki as Mikko gets off the train to seek his fortune, although his exit from the station is rather compromised by the camera’s sudden interest in a woman in a white dress, so much so that Mikko in his dark clothes practically teleports into focus only when she is out of shot. There’s also a lovely moment in which the camera lingers on a tanned cop outside the parliament building, irritably functioning as a human traffic light for the local trams. Both these striking figures in the film appear to be members of the public who happened to be caught by Uno Pihlström’s camera.

There is a certain return of the mixed messages of Bergroth’s earlier Rich Girl, along the lines of “money isn’t everything (BUT IT REALLY HELPS).” We are supposed to believe that Anu and Mikko are made for each other, but that Mikko is only worthy of Anu when he is a humble carpenter. When he tries to better himself by going into business, Anu finds his industrial mind-set off-putting. When his business fails, it’s Junu’s family money that bails him out. Junu finds love with Heti the maid (Anitra Kartro), but would she really have been all that interested in him if he hadn’t been the lord of the manor? Meanwhile, Anu is something of a drip and a wallflower – her most characterful moment in the film is at a dance, where everybody expects her to sing, but she is so heartbroken that she can’t get the words out.

Repeatedly in Anu ja Mikko there is the assertion that there’s no place like home. Mikko leaves for the big city, but returns to his hometown girl and his hometown dreams (whatever they are, since apparently making a living isn’t one of them), as does “American” Mari (Aino Lohikoski), a local girl recently returned from New York, who fills everybody’s heads with tales of international travel, but ends up marrying a local accordion-player. Mari is a fantastically uppity snob in an impractically frilly dress, who insists on using English words and trills excitedly about the talking pictures she has seen (this film is set in the 1930s, when such things would have been more new-fangled).

It is precisely the sort of drama one might expect to find a ready audience after a wartime disruption, gently soothing the viewer that things will soon be back to normal and everyone can go home. Except everyone can’t – author Bergroth was a native of Viipuri and director Saarikivi was born in Sortavala, both now on the Russian side of the border, along with the village of Antrea (now Kamennogorsk), the real-world inspiration for Bergroth’s fictional “Kaunuskala”. Many of the cast members were themselves of Karelian origin, although the degree to which they were refugees is questionable – Viipuri was Finland’s second city, so having been born there was a bit like having been born in Birmingham or Glasgow, hardly a matter of note until the day it was suddenly rebranded as Russian territory.

Paula Talaskivi, the hard-to-please movie critic, was totally taken in, writing in the Ilta Sanomat that even hard-bitten Helsinki urbanites would love the rural, Karelian snapshots of a time past and a land lost. Salama Simonen, the critic for Uusi Suomi, thrilled to the sound of the Karelian accent (something that would also charm viewers of the same year’s Lapatossu & Vinski’s Department Store), singling out Santeri Karilo as a genuine Karelian… all gentle nudges largely lost on the average modern reader, but reminding 1940s Finns that the Winter War has displaced thousands of Karelians, and lost much of the Karelian heartland celebrated in this film. The allusions and evocations of a lost land, which by my ad hoc reckoning, has an immediate family connection for one out of every four modern Finns, is a primary contributor to this story’s enduring presence.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

Japan’s Carnival War

“The situation made celebrities not merely of the soldiers on the frontline, but of the ‘industrial heroes’ toiling to supply them. As Uchiyama observes with his customary originality of angle, it also made villains out of some of them, with various government big-wigs griping that Japanese teenagers had become a gaudy and reckless social underclass, with fathers away fighting, mothers working in factories, and the teens themselves earning big money in the wartime factory economy, and blowing it all on ‘reckless spending and foolish carousing.’ Some of them, it was alleged, were even travelling around Japan in disguise, donning school uniforms in order to avoid difficult questions.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Benjamin Uchiyama’s book Japan’s Carnival War.

Hello World

“Kyoto has been successfully digitised; 2027 has been ingested to such a degree that it can be run in Naomi’s own future as a simulation indistinguishable from the real world itself. In effect, his whole world has been carefully saved and archived, which is good news for his future self, because Ruri Ichigyo, the girl he fancies, is fated to be put in a life-threatening coma in just a few weeks.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Tomohiko Ito’s Hello World.