Monday, January 23, 2006

The Drink and Dream Teahouse by Justin Hill

The Drink and Dream Teahouse

Author: Justin Hill

ISBN: 0753813203 / 0-7538-1320-3 (UK edition)

Publisher: Phoenix (paperback)

Blurb from the back of the book:

When Space Rocket Factory Number Two closes down in the small Chinese town of Shaoyang, it is the signal for the old culture to confront the new. Party Secretary Li cannot cope, and commits suicide, but not before daubing a series of slogans onto sheets of rice paper and hanging them outside his bedroom window (Our Leaders Are Drunk On The Taste Of Corruption reads one; The Party Officials Are Screwing Our Daughters, reads another).Those left behind have to clear up after him: Old Zhu has to keep Party Secretary Li's ashes in the bottom of his wardrobe. On the other side of the courtyard, their aria singing neighbour Madam Fan is temporarily silenced by the tragedy. Meanwhile Old Zhu's son, Da Shan, has returned from the city and fallen in love with not one but two childhood sweethearts.


After reading "Mao: The Untold Story" by Jung Chang and being so weighed down by Mao's atrocities and the suffering of the Chinese people, I vowed not to touch, for a long,long time, another book with even the slightest reference to the Revolution or Mao. But then, this little gem of a book was pressed into my hands by a bookcrosser in the UK urging me to read it, and I am so glad I did! The gloom has lifted; I am now ready and able to take on any and all books about China again!!!

This is a book that explores the recent history of China through a set of very enjoyable characters, with each character representative of some phase in China's contemporary history. Strictly speaking that should make them stereotypes or symbols, but the author gives them each such unique personalities that they rise aboove being typecast. Also, he fleshes them out so well you almost feel like you could reach out and touch them.

It seems to me, it would be hard to find anywhere in the world, two successive generations (the Mao generation and China's modern generation) that were so different. Not only did they differ idealogically, but on a social-economic level as well, with Communism giving way to Western-like capitalism. This is a story of how these two cultures collide and learn by trial, error and much compromise to live with each other. What doesn't appear to have changed however is the Confucian display of filial piety of the younger towards the older despite the fact that modern ways of thinking constantly clash with tradional stubborn views.

Justin Hill is a wonderful, believable story teller and compels the reader to become an avid, addicted spectator in the everyday lives of his characters. On the surface these characters have very ordinary lives, they don't do anything special, and yet, Hill makes them come alive to us in an extraordinary way. He fills the book with vivid descriptions of their feelings,their conversations, dreams and insecurities; their homes, the market places, the food-- sigh-- especially the food (I was constantly hungry as I read the book!) and in doing so, he shows us a China few tourists will ever see or enjoy.

It amazes me that the author is an Englishman---he captures the cultural sensibilities of the Chinese so vividly, I could have been fooled into thinking that he was a native of China. Even the "Taipei Times" praised the book for its "linguistic naturalness" and suggested that if there are any plans afoot for translating the book into Chinese, "...Taiwan's own energetic publishing houses shouldn't let it (the opportunity) pass..."

So impressed am I with this novel, I can hardly wait to read his next one, "Passing Under Heaven" which is set in 9th century China at the twilight of the Tang Dynasty and their Empire.