Publication Date: Jun 30, 2009
List Price US $14.95
List Price US $14.95
Blending elements of the surreal with carefully observed details of life in present-day Beijing, Jonathan Tel&”8217;s short stories offer a rich and highly entertaining guide to the city and its many and varied inhabitants&”8211;from a modern-day Monkey King to an equally contemporary indentured servant, from a boy tasting his first cotton candy to a Ming Dynasty princess posting her first online profile.
The stories offer a vicarious tour through modern Beijing and a long view of Chinese history. The reader flies through the book, chuckling over one character&”8217;s trickery, moved by another&”8217;s plight, and horrified at another&”8217;s unwitting actions, until reaching the culminating novella, which brings the whole book and its take on China back to the Western reader with a stunning immediacy.
Americans&”8217; newly minted fascination with China, stoked by the 2008 Olympics, can find both intellectual and artistic satisfaction in this collection.
Excerpt from The Beijing of Possibilities
YEAR OF THE GORILLA
It’s been a while since the Monkey King set out on his Journey to the West. With his Fiery-Gaze Golden-Eyes he infallibly recognized Evil, and vowed to combat it in every form. He changed shape at will and leaped from cloud to cloud. It was in the spring of 2008 that the Gorillagram appeared in mainland China. (One of those fads, we believe, that snuck in from America or Europe.) A Taiwanese-owned company introduced the concept; they were in the business of couriering documents around Beijing, and they diversified, or call it a promotional gimmick. The way it works is that a man in a gorilla suit arrives in your building. He steps out of the elevator and jogs right up to the reception desk, banging his chest. He’s directed to the appropriate cubicle, where he sings, ‘Happy Birthday to You!’ to the lucky and amazed recipient, or ‘Congratulations on your Promotion! Ten thousand Congratulations!’ He accepts his tip, and off he goes.
So who is he, this fellow in the furry disguise? His true name is unknown; no doubt he’s a migrant worker, not legally resident in the capital. The salary is pitiful, and the costume hot and itchy; he must be from the South. He’s not as tall as he looks: his real eyes are at the level of the Gorilla’s snout, and he speaks through a veil around its throat. Six days a week, he cycles around Beijing, going wherever he’s told; sometimes he’s in a hell of a rush, pedaling like crazy, scarcely time to pant his song before he dashes to the next appointment; but there’s downtime too – he un-Velcro’s his head and puffs a cigarette. There are worse ways to make a living.
Now one afternoon in June he’d just finished a job singing the Retirement Song at a graphic design company on Qianmen Dajie, and he was about to mount his Forever bicycle which he’d parked in a nearby alley – not really a rough area, though you have to watch out for pickpockets. A businesswoman walked by, a red handbag swinging from her shoulder. Suddenly he heard a roar and a Honda moped was accelerating past, two men on it. The pillion man grabbed the handbag! The businesswoman screamed; she clung to her strap. For what can’t have been more than a few seconds the man and the woman struggled. She would not let go. Then the Honda sped down the end of the alley and made a sharp left. The Gorilla was shocked – he’d heard about such things; he’d been warned by his boss to be careful and whenever he left his bicycle he always locked it to a railing – but he’d never witnessed such a blatant attempt. So the big city is as dangerous as they say.
While he was thinking these thoughts, the familiar and ominous roar recurred. Once again the thieves were in the alley! They’d circled round, and were swooping in for another go! This time both crooks reached out to seize the prize; the driver kept one hand on his machine while with the other he pawed the woman’s strap, and his accomplice punched her on the breasts. As for the Gorilla – a timid man, normally – he couldn’t bear to see a woman treated like this. He let go of his Forever and he bounded along the alley beating his fists against the front of his costume and uttering a deep ‘Hoo-hoo!’ The thieves had already taken possession of the handbag and were about to drive off. When the Gorilla pounced. With one hairy arm he practically choked the driver, with the other he twisted the handlebars, knocking the moped over, while his knee connected with the groin of the whimpering accomplice. He dusted down the handbag and returned it to the businesswoman. The thieves fled. The Gorilla made a little bow.
He returned to his bicycle, and headed off to his next job.
That might have been the end of the matter, but it so happened that a student in a nearby teashop had heard the noise and stepped outside. He took photographs of the incident with his cell phone. He posted an account on his blog.
The blog was linked to other blogs – and soon the pictures, along with cut-and-pastings of the text and re-tellings of the story, appeared on several online forums. There was much speculation as to who the Gorilla might have been along with approval of his actions, as well as more wide-ranging discussion of the growing problem of urban street crime. (Who is to blame? What should we do about it?) The story was picked up by a newspaper in Hebei Province, and from there it was copied by a news agency, and printed in further papers and magazines. BRAVE GORILLA RESCUES CITIZEN – IN HER PLIGHT, AN "ANIMAL" HELPS HER – SUPERMONKEY TO THE RESCUE! Given that there was only one Gorillagram company in Beijing, it wasn’t difficult for the media to locate the Gorilla – but the management turned down all requests for interviews on his behalf: it would draw attention away from their core business; the last thing they’d want is for the public to think they’re in the business of crime-fighting, not to speak of the potential liability suit. They handed the Gorilla his fan-mail – letters and postcards from all across the nation, including a proposal of marriage from a young lady in Shaanxi Province, addressed simply to Hero Gorilla, Beijing – and told him sternly to stick to his job in future. From the Gorilla’s point of view, he was more embarrassed than anything; all he’d done was what you or I might under the circumstances. And it made his work harder: when he went into an office to do his act, likely as not the middle managers would want to chat and the secretaries would flirt, and he didn’t get bigger tips either – on the contrary, people seemed to assume now he was a celebrity he didn’t need the money. ‘Excuse me,’ he’d mumble in his Southern accent, ‘it was over in a second, I don’t remember much.’ And if they still kept pestering him he’d deny his involvement, ‘I guess you must be thinking of some other ape.’
Meanwhile the online discussion continued. The majority of netizens were supportive of his actions (‘We need monkeys like that in Guangdong É’ and ‘The government ought to award the Gorilla a medal É’ were typical responses; a woman who called herself Tingting23 said she’d been born in the Year of the Monkey herself and ‘Monkeys are famous for their helpfulness and quick thinking’), but others were skeptical: ‘How do we know the Gorilla was in fact a hero? All we can tell from the pictures is that two men were taking a woman’s handbag and the Gorilla intervened. Maybe she wanted the men to have her bag?’ The story was alluded to on a discussion board, ‘It is a shame that stick-in-the-muds are opposing a market economy with Chinese characteristics. The last thing we need is to have a Gorilla barge in every time we shake hands on a deal!’ Which led to further criticism, as well as some support of the Gorilla for ‘preserving Maoist values’. An editorial in the July issue of the Bejing Financial Review referred somewhat obscurely to ‘Gorillas and their ilk who shoot sparrows with a pearl’ in the context of defending the opening up of the mining industry to foreign investment.
That summer, in advance of the Olympics, teams of police were going around the city checking IDs, arresting or deporting illegals. Those who made their living on the streets were especially in danger of being caught, and many jugglers and conjurors and balloon-folders were never seen again. The Gorilla felt fairly secure: with a get-up so striking, he didn’t look like he had anything to hide. But one afternoon when he came back to the courier company, a police officer was waiting for him. ‘We’ve had reports,’ the officer said. The Gorilla said, ‘What did I do?’ The officer fastened handcuffs around his thick hairy wrists, and drove him to the station.
Now it seemed that every officer in Beijing was gathered around, eager to ogle the celebrity; the police were pointing and chattering among themselves like children at the zoo. They yelled questions at him. ‘Where’s your ID? Where’s your temporary residence permit? Where’s your employment permit?’ The Gorilla shook his head. A middle ranking officer scolded him, ‘You’re the worst kind. What we call a Three-No.’
There followed the business of taking fingerprints; it wasn’t possible to bare his hand without taking off his entire costume, and in the end an officer just pressed the Gorilla’s furry fingers on the ink pad. Next he was photographed, face-on and in profile, for the record. He asked, ‘Do you want me to remove my head?’ But he was pictured just as he was – nobody wanted to see the face of an ordinary human migrant worker; let’s not break the spell.
‘I didn’t know I was doing anything bad,’ the Gorilla pleaded. ‘All I did was go around offices singing songs. I’ll sing for you, if you like.’
That was the wrong thing to have said. One officer responded, ‘What does he think this is? Karaoke night?’ Another went, ‘Sing! You think we can’t sing for ourselves, better than any monkey?’ A third declared, ‘Are you attempting to bribe a police officer in the course of his duties?’ while making the ‘Shame on you’ gesture with index finger against cheek. And meanwhile the first officer was repeating his witticism, laughing at the punchline – ‘Karaoke night!’ – louder every time.
A senior officer, Detective Wang, held out his hands for silence. He took charge of the interrogation. ‘Listen. Gorilla. Mister Monkey. Whoever you are. According to our records, you were involved in the theft of a handbag.’
‘The handbag wasn’t actually stolen. What happened was -‘
‘Aha! You’re admitting it was a case of attempted theft!’
The Gorilla tried to explain, but his Mandarin was far from fluent, and it was difficult to raise his voice above the background noise. An older officer was warbling My Motherland in a resonant tenor – ‘When friends visit we treat them well; when enemies visit we are ready for them with a hunting musket É’ – and a younger officer was marveling, ‘We’ve never had a monkey in here before.’ Detective Wang glared at the audience, ‘Shush! I’m trying to conduct an interrogation here!’
The Gorilla mumbled his excuses.
Detective Wang wiped his brow with the back of his hand. This was really too much. He couldn’t be expected to arrest every beggar, busker, and queerly-costumed oddball in the city. He scrolled down the Gorilla’s file – pages of barely relevant stuff trawled up by a search engine. ‘So, Gorilla, is it true that you’re opposed to the development of capitalist enterprise in China?’
‘Yes. I mean, No É Er, what is the correct answer?’
The station had never been so crowded. Still more police were coming in to gawp, and civilian employees too. One officer had texted his girlfriend, who’d come running over in high-heels from the fashion boutique where she was employed; another officer had brought his aged mother, who jabbed her fingers in the Gorilla’s direction and stifled her laughter with a hand over her toothless mouth.
Wang turned to an underling, Detective Zhao, ‘Oh, get him to confess something, then we’ll get rid of him.’
Wang sat down at a desk with his back to the fray, and busied himself with paperwork. Meanwhile Zhao typed the confession on the Gorilla’s behalf – ‘ É Actions liable to cause public disorder É Obstruction of the highway É Failure to show Identity Document when requestedÉ’
‘I don’t know how to read all these fancy words,’ the Gorilla said. ‘And besides, I’m innocent.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Zhao, and pressed the Gorilla’s thumbprint on the dotted line.
The Gorilla was in the midst of the mob. Some wit kept offering him a banana, another taunted him, ‘Where’s your demon-exposing mirror, Monkey King?’ and people climbed on chairs and on the radiator, the better to peek and jabber at the suspect, and all the while he slumped there, surrounded by his enemies and admirers, saying nothing at all.
Then somebody made a dunce’s cap out of cardboard and put it on the Gorilla’s head, and a placard was strung around his neck, ‘I Opposed The Will Of The People’, and he was made to stand with arms twisted back in ‘airplane position’ for a full hour, his secret eyes weeping behind the simian snout, while the police drank tea and had their photos taken with the captive beast.
Eventually: ‘You can go now,’ Detective Wang said; and a young officer patted his fur and murmured, ‘Soft.’
The Gorilla went back to the courier company. He did some more jobs for them, cycling to offices and singing congratulations, but his heart wasn’t in it. A couple of weeks later, soon after the closing ceremony for the Olympics, he failed to arrive at work. The gorilla suit remained empty, sagging on the hook. The company considered hiring a replacement, but the fad had had its day, and really it was more trouble than it was worth. As for the man who had acted the part, we can only guess his fate. Is he still in Beijing, in a different guise, working in some other line? Or did he return to the village he grew up in? At any rate the Hero Gorilla has never been seen again.
"Tel (Freud’s Alphabet) spins a collection of dreamlike short stories out of the lives of Beijing’s residents, from crime-fighting, gorilla-costumed messengers to thieves, buskers and composers…. The collection, part W.G. Sebald and part Italo Calvino, provides a glimpse for the Western reader into the complicated, vibrant world of Beijing."
A motley, charmingly odd collection of linked stories about contemporary China. Tel (Freud’s Alphabet, 2003, etc.) offers an ingenious, often surreal account of the tensions between ancient tradition and go-go capitalism. He demonstrates an impressive range of tones, subjects and stratagems. In the opener, “Year of the Gorilla,” an illegal resident of Beijing, wearing the suit in which he delivers Gorillagrams, thwarts a mugging and becomes a celebrity, for better and worse. “The Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch” depicts a busy adman who seeks a traditional girl via a dating service and finds himself swapping messages and cell-phone photos with…a Ming Dynasty princess. The title of “Love! Duty! Humanity! Virtue!” riffs ironically on the American propaganda dropped from planes during the Korean War. Crippled as a soldier in that war, Uncle Ha dreams of making his fortune with a cotton-candy machine that he purchases from an army buddy in 1979, as the regime’s rules against profit-making enterprise are loosening. But when Ha sends his nephew to town to pick up the machine, the naïve country boy encounters a terrifying vision of what engagement with the wider world might mean. In the long final story, “The Most Beautiful Woman in China,” Tel constructs an imaginative superstructure for the whole book, and in so doing forces the Western reader into an uncomfortable moral accounting. Smart, subtly observed and entertaining.
“The stories in this book are hypnotic.”
“The Beijing of Possibilities captures the essence of that rapid change in a collection of endearing short stories, set in a country where storytelling is an art form.”
"Jonathan Tel skilfully avoids cliché with this collection of short stories about Beijing, instead choosing to examine the side of the city most foreigners rarely interact with, including an aspirational newly-married couple; a provincial teenager working as an ayi to pay her father’s debts and a university graduate shooting up the corporate ranks due to his family’s guanxi. Each vignette, regardless of tone, is imbued with a subtle, playful humour throughout, and also a sense of Chinese history and culture (Buddhist themes of fate can be found in a few stories)…Tel’s stories are at their best when dealing with the trivial and comedic (like the Gorillagram turned national hero in ‘Year of the Gorilla’). It’s the seemingly mundane aspects of Beijing life, which he paints in a peculiar and flattering manner, that make this book such an enjoyable, insightful read."
1. The author took photographs in China to illustrate the book. How do the photographs connect to the stories? Do photographs inspire you to write fiction? Does fiction inspire you to take photographs?
2. What is surreal or magical about these stories? Is it their subject matter or their style? How does this relate to the setting of Beijing?
3. The history of the Mao period remains a backdrop to the modern technology, architecture, and fast-paced pursuit of capitalist activity in Beijing. How do the events of that time appear to shape the present?
4. Beijing is seen as a promised land to many people eager to migrate from the countryside. Some visitors and migrants to the city find their way and some do not. How do the various characters in these stories react to the city? For whom is it truly a promised land?
5. There is a playful mix of humor and irony in some of the stories, while others are wistful and sad. How does the author use these moods to reveal different facets of Beijing?
6. There is a strong sense of fate in Chinese culture that differs from the dominant view in the West. How is this manifested in these stories?
7. While Standard Mandarin is the official language in Beijing, many people also speak a native dialect as their first language. How does this affect the Beijingers we meet here?
8. The characters in these stories often express themselves using old sayings or quotations from Mao and Deng Xiaoping. Did these sayings have equivalents in English proverbs? Do they make sense to you?
9. There is a remarkable and sometimes disconcerting blending of the old and new in Beijing. Are there examples of the same kind of mixture in your own life?
10. In the final story, the West intrudes via the internet when Helan discovers that Tang Jiangnu is far from a successful composer in the U.S. Now that their work has been censored he is about to become a big star and Helan also begins to believe in herself. How does this last moment encapsulate the themes of all the stories?