“What gets repeated most are the lies.”
So says Happy Gao, a cynical, chain-smoking, profane female journalist who tries, with very limited success, to get stories published that expose corruption and injustice in modern-day Beijing. Happy becomes the unlikely partner of Dan Dong, the naive young unemployed factory worker who becomes a “banquet bug.”
Dan Dong lives with his wife, Little Plum, inside the factory that has made him redundant. The reader first meets him taking a very unconventional shower, using a pipe full of hot (but certainly not clean) water – the factory run-off. Dan Dong and Little Plum live on the margins of modern-day Beijing society. They eat meat that has failed inspection, and their tiny loft at the top of the factory is furnished with broken desks and office equipment.
Dan Dong and Little Plum are innocents, spinning around in this huge, swirling, dirty whirlpool of humanity. He is a simple, tall, handsome young man from the country, and she is a contented, accepting village girl. Little Plum makes wigs and sells them on street corners; she is awestruck by huge building sites, cranes and bulldozers, McDonalds, shopping malls, and other evidence of “progress.” She has a sharp tongue. But she is not sophisticated enough for the world of banquets.
This is not, however, a story of a poor Chinese couple struggling to make ends meet in the big city. In lucid, simple prose, the author lifts the layered and incredibly sordid underskirts of Beijing city life, exposing with a steady and sure hand a multitude of obscenities: The exploitation of young women as masseuses (in one scene, the women are used as nude dinner settings, on which banquet dishes are displayed); the secret execution of a young woman without trial; the despair of construction workers who had not been paid by a corrupt “developer” for two years; and the corruption of Party cadres in a poor village that resulted in the death of a trusted village elder at the hands of the police.
But back to Dan Dong. When we meet him, he is already a fully-fledged “banquet bug.” Quite by chance, he is whisked into one of the huge, elaborate banquets hosted by government agencies and big corporations at luxury hotels. He discovers that he has a taste for such rare delicacies as crab claw tips, shark fins, rare fungi, sea snails, snowballs made of pigeon breasts and other rare delicacies. And he also discovers that journalists (he is mistaken for one) are given an envelope of money at the end, so that they will give these excessive, sixteen-course meals a good “write-up.”
Like almost everything else in this cautionary tale, Dan Dong becomes a fake – a phony journalist with a fake business card. Nothing is what it seems. A plaque with gold writing that Dan Dong receives at a banquet and which Little Plum treasures as a potential investment that they might sell one day slowly starts to fall apart. This piece of junk is a metaphor for the completely fabricated facade of the city. As Little Plum tries to fix it, she realizes it is made of plastic and gold paint.
There are many other examples: a shady realtor sells luxury apartments that don’t exist – and never will; beautiful “college students” are in fact prostitutes; Dan Dong discovers that there are other “banquet bugs” who are imposters, like him. Happy Gao (who lectures Dan Dong from time to time and instigates all kinds of dubious adventures that inevitably end in some degree of failure) is convinced that the “peasant mentality” of the average Chinese feeds into the corruption, and that in fact “peasants” (the proletariat or the common people, if you will) thrive on it. She claims that the peasants deserve the bad leadership they get; and if they become successful, they behave just like the corrupt leaders that they complain about now. This mentality, in which the construction workers refuse to stand up for their rights, and a disenfranchised old farmer “takes anyone to be his savior,” actually reinforces and supports the endemic corruption.
But as the determined Happy Gao says, “You don’t need to be perfect to fight for the truth.” Despite her conniving and manipulative methods of trying to get a story published, she has little success. Trying to get any kind of expose of government or private sector wrongdoings printed proves almost impossible – stories are banned before they are even printed.
This grimly depressing little picture is, however, painted with considerable humor and a taste for the absurd. The larger than life characters that our hero encounters, as his life becomes gradually more complicated and confusing, are delightful, if sad. And of course, on almost every page, there are descriptions of food – not only the elaborate banquets, but other meals – a prolonged, uncomfortable meal shared by Dan Dong and his lover; a tasty soup consumed at a restaurant called the Pink Chamber; and the delicious, soupy noodles cooked by his loving Little Plum that remind him so much of his country home.
There is so much consumption, so much food – oily, spicy, slippery, cold, juicy, salty, sweet – accompanied by much alcohol, that towards the end of the story, Dan Dong vomits: Endlessly, comprehensively, until he can vomit no more. It is almost a relief.
By this time, dear reader, you may well feel nauseated too.
Author note: Geling Yan was born in Shanghai in 1958. She was a high-ranking member of the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution, in Tibet and later as a journalist during the Sino-Vietnamese War. Her first novel was published in China in 1985. Following the Tienanmen Square massacre, she left China for the United States Since then she has written twenty novels, short stories and movie scripts, including one that was made into the award-winning film “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl.” Other works are now being adapted for screenplay. Her previous work was written in Chinese; “The Banquet Bug’ is her first work written directly in English. Yan graduated in Literature from Wuhan University and has a Masters in Fine Arts/Fiction Writing from Columbia College, Chicago. You may read her blog at http://www.redroom.com/author/geling-yan
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