My Interview on Stark Truth Radio

I had a great conversation with Robert Stark and his co-host Pilleater on Robert’s podcast the other day. We talked about my book Paradise Theater and the background that led to my writing it, as well as different aspects of life in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and comparisons of East and West in culture and philosophy.

Stark Truth Radio is one of the most interesting and eclectic mixes of opinion and information from the fringes of politics, culture, and art, and it was a privilege to be on the show.

Check it out here:


Requiem for Corner Drugstores

Reading a book of interviews with the Beat writer William S. Burroughs. While I find his novels largely unreadable, especially his cut-up experiments of the 1960s, his interviews are often full of interesting observations and insights. For example, this passage from a 1979-1980 New Years Eve discussion in New York City:William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart

I’m well known in the drug store…. They always have anything I want. I wanted to buy a special kind of glue. You wouldn’t think you’d buy it in a drugstore, but they had it: Duco cement. They have a special kind of ball-point pen that only costs 59 cents, the only kind I use; they have stationery; it’s one of those drug-stores that does everything. And his wife is very much of a theatrical Spanish Dolores type, fairly good looking, a middle-aged woman who’s had a lot of sorrow but has dignity and a great presence. She says, ‘Oh, why didn’t you say the usual, Mr. Burroughs?’ Her husband was much older than she was…. He died shortly after that and I never saw him again…. A new pharmacist appeared and what the relation between him and her is at this point I don’t know. He knows everyone in the neighborhood. For example he’ll advise someone: ‘You need glasses. You’re entitled to them on your social security.’ He’s always instructing someone, telling them to do this or that…. It’s also a news exchange. There’d been a mugging and there was a report. Some woman got beaten up and she’s at the counter and they’re all commiserating and saying ‘two black boys.’ And the Patrone, grandiose and sad in a Latin way, experienced woman said, ‘Yes, those are the ones, those are the ones …’

I could easily envision this little pharmacy, because America used to be full of them. In the introduction to my book Paradise Theater, I mentioned Van’s Grocery in West Allis, which also had Van’s Pharmacy located on the other side of the parking lot. They had everything. Whenever we had to go there to fill a prescription, say for Amoxicillin – which I always loved the taste of, and my mom would have to stop me from consuming more than the regular dose – I would try to finagle an extra treat from among the aisles.

There was the toy aisle, with its assortment of toy guns, action figures, and other goodies for backyard playtime. The best thing I ever got from there was a slingshot – yes, those used to be in the toy department, not the adults-only, handle-with-extreme-caution sporting goods store – which mysteriously disappeared from my toy box after I had taken some pot shots at birds and squirrels, which thankfully missed.

Then there were the non-obvious treats, like the eye patch, which was sold for people who really needed one because of eye surgery or whatnot, but which I wanted because, of course, eye patches are just cool and make you look like a pirate or a criminal or something.

Van’s Pharmacy also had a small selection of VHS movie rentals, as many local drug stores and other small businesses did in those days. I can still remember the frightening cover images from 80s horror classics like Silent Night Deadly Night, Basket Case, and the Friday the 13th series, facing out on the shelves, looking out at the stationery aisle across from them.

Van’s closed down for good sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. First the grocery store gave way to the mega Pick N Save store down the road, and then the pharmacy closed a few years later.

At the same time I was going to Van’s as a kid, people in Milwaukee – the BIG CITY compared to Stallis – were going to Oriental Drugs on Farwell Avenue. The Oriental had a large lunch counter that stretched around the front of the building, and was a favorite hangout spot for all different types of people at all different times of day and night. The Violent Femmes supposedly were discovered while busking outside the place. I went there a few times in the late 80s when my father was dating an East Side girl who lived on Prospect Avenue.

Oriental Drugs closed in 1995. But fear not, there is a big Walgreens not far from there now. And another one further up the road. And more of them scattered all over town, and in virtually every other American town. Nowadays when I go home to visit my family, no matter where we are, we can always find a Walgreens nearby. They don’t have videos, but have those red dvd box rental things, at least for now, while some people still aren’t streaming absolutely everything. They probably have eye patches somewhere. But they don’t have a lunch counter like the Oriental had, and they sure as hell don’t have slingshots in the toy aisle.

The dull homogeneity of every single Walgreens I’ve ever been to makes me weep for the old days, when neighborhoods had unique corner drugstores, because they had unique characteristics … because they were real neighborhoods.

McAllister’s Pharmacy. Downtown West Allis, 1971. Photo credit: Milwaukee Public Library

Jia Zhangke, The Man With His Fingers on the Pulse of China

I was first introduced to Jia Zhangke a few years ago when I chanced to purchase a quasi-legit dvd of his 2013 film A Touch of Sin (天注定 tiān zhù dìng) from one of the street shops in Dongmen Plaza.  I’ve seen quite a few Chinese movies in my four years here in Shenzhen, and for the most part I’ve been unimpressed – with an honorable exception going to the Hong Kong cinema of the 1970s and 80s, which I absolutely love, though for very different reasons.

A Touch of Sin is the Taxi Driver of Chinese cinema, which would make Jia Zhangke its Martin Scorcese.  If that seems like high praise, it might actually not be high enough.  In his heyday, Scorcese had his fingers on the pulse of New York City – Jia has his fingers on the pulse of his entire country.

Most of Chinese cinema is marked by fantastic unreality.  That’s not necessarily a problem, and in fact, can even be a virtue.  If I have to choose between cheesy heroism with a nationalist subtext, and the nihilistic, vapid degeneracy of much of contemporary American cinema, I’ll take the former, thank you very much.  But one can only take so much superpower kung fu and Japan-bashing at one time.

By contrast, A Touch of Sin, and pretty much all of Jia’s other films, are almost straight cinéma vérité. I have never seen the look and feel of 21st century China, both its urban environments and its countrysides, captured better than in Jia’s films.  His characters – none of whom are played by established actors, though some have become more well-known because of his films – are entirely realistic, and their life stories mirror the lives of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people in this rapidly-changing country.

The four stories woven together in A Touch of Sin were all inspired by real people and events.  Most will be unknown to Westerners, with the possible exception of the suicides at Foxconn, where iPhones are made – but that won’t matter.  The characters and stories are emblematic of deep problems in Chinese society, such as the systemic corruption which President Xi Jinping has targeted in recent years.  Also dealt with are the problems of migrant workers from the countryside who come into China’s cities and must struggle to earn their living and survive in an unfamiliar environment.  Finally, the film also touches on relations between men and women in a society in which concubinage and prostitution are both long-standing traditions.

Jia’s most recent film is 2015’s Mountains May Depart (山河故人 shānhé gùrén).  While its reviews have not been quite as favorable as A Touch of Sin‘s, I frankly fail to see why.  It is every bit as thoughtful and thought-provoking, and every bit as relevant to a discussion of the complexities of life in contemporary China.  Though lacking the violence of its predecessor, the problem it addresses is arguably even more fundamental than those in A Touch of Sin – the dissolution of the family.

Mountains May Depart tells the story of one Chinese family, in three different blocks of time.  In the first, which takes place in 1999, the main character, played by Jia’s muse and wife Zhao Tao, faces an archetypal choice between love and money.  In the second and third acts, she must live with the consequences of her choice.

Divorce, once a rarity in Chinese society due to the ancient cult of the family, has become increasingly commonplace, especially among the wealthy and middle-class, for whom it seems to be simply another aspect of being modern and cosmopolitan.  But the material abundance being enjoyed by the nouveaux riche isn’t always able to act as a buffer against the consequences of dehumanized behavior in a world devoid of values.

Another problem that China faces is the number of its wealthy citizens who are leaving, or who want to.  I recall a conversation between two Chinese people that I was privy to.  One, a young woman, had just returned from her first trip to America, while the other, an older woman, had been there several times in the past.  The older woman said to the younger, “Doesn’t it make you feel like we live in a garbage dump?”  She was in the process of sending her daughter off to school in Canada, and was making plans to expatriate her entire family to there or the U.S.

The third act of the film is set in 2025 and contains some interesting speculations about the future.  It is set in Australia, where a part of the family has relocated, as indeed many Chinese already have.

While Jia’s films are distinctly Chinese, as is their subject matter, it is precisely in their intimate specificity that they transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries and become deeply meaningful stories that anyone can relate to.

In English, “to have one’s finger on the pulse” of something means to have a good understanding of it, or be aware of its most recent developments as they happen.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, pulse diagnosis is a fine art which allows a skilled practitioner to diagnose the ills of the entire body, by simply feeling the pulse of the radial artery at the wrist.  I have experienced this myself, and can verify that someone skilled in the art can have remarkable insight into a person’s state of health.

New Yorker film critic Richard Brody called Jia Zhangke simply “one of the best and most important directors in the world” today.  He’s not wrong.

Jia’s other films include:

The Pickpocket (小武 xiǎo wǔ) 1997
Platform (站台 zhàntái) 2000
Unknown Pleasures (任逍遙 rèn xiāo yáo) 2002
The World (世界 shìjiè) 2004
Still Life (三峡好人 sānxiá hǎorén) 2006
24 City (二十四城记 èr shí sì chéng jì) 2008