Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Book Review: The Beijing of Possibilities (Jonathan Tel)

Last year for sixteen days the world stared mesmerised at Beijing - the creative artistry of the opening ceremony, the architecturally stunning swimming and athletics stadiums and the phenomenal sporting achievements of sprinter Usain Bolt and swimmer Michael Phelps. Behind the gold medals and sporting dramas, the media of the world tried to scratch below the surface of Beijing with various "human interest" stories but with little effect.

Jonathan Tel manages to lift the veil off Beijing and reveal the inner Beijing in a series of twelve fictional short stories in The Beijing of Possibilities. Highlighting the constant battle between tradition and the modern world, the stories take typical Beijing residents that a visitor would never meet and the Olympics media never highlighted or found.

In The Three Lives of Little Yu, Tel describes an infertile couple who raise three daughters (all named Yu) over three decades with tragedy befalling the first two. It is summarised by a typical Chinese proverb that litter the book's stories - "You cannot stop the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair".

The Double-Happiness Ball Bearing Factory details a young man seeking employment via a headhunter and highlights the ingenuity required entertaining westerners seeking joint ventures and the quirkiness of Chinese astrology resulting in a rejection of another job.

Tel's characters are a strange mix. From a couple desperately trying to return a valuable ancient jade spoon they discover in their unit and a teenager working to pay off her father's debt to a cycling Gorillagram that prevents a theft but is accused by the police of being a capitalist sympathiser and a pickpocket who fortuitously forms a relationship with a rich businessman, Tel successfully unmasks layers of a sometimes stifling culture, rich history, generational change, government control and ancient superstition that would be impossible to discover in a visit to Beijing.

The Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch is a satirical look at a relationship between a Ming Dynasty maiden and a modern Chinese advertising agent arranged over the internet.

Overall, it is the way that Tel can take the everyday mundane life of typical Beijing residents and share their dreams, humour and irony that makes The Beijing of Possibilities such an entertaining and insightful read.


Related Posts with Thumbnails