I was interviewed by Wellington’s Spanish language radio program Qué Onda. I talked about China, including my time in Wuhan, Argentina, and my book Buenos Aires Triad.
In ‘Civilization and its Discontents,’ Freud tells us that civilisation necessitates the curbing of the natural expression of the libido, and this repression leads to neurosis. The answer is to redirect the libido into work or artistic expression. For author Isham Cook, the state keeps us in fear of our libido as a mechanism of power. Sexual transgressions are punished to a degree of severity completely incommensurate with the nature of the peccadillo. This repression is not a function of civilisation but of fascism. And it is in America that this ‘Sexual Fascism’ has its most extreme expression. Like Freud, Marx, Jung and others before him, Cook has dusted off a mirror and is holding it up for us to see our reflections. In this book of essays, he articulates things most cannot, even if they are aware of them.
Cook the plastic surgeon has a number of fixes for wrinkles caused by tortured sexuality. He’s a good surgeon but the results won’t be what he promises – but hell, nobody else knows how to fix things either. It’s not news that we are hung up about sex, and Cook gives a vision of how it could all be different. He puts forward the case that all sex should be paid for. What would happen? All sexual interactions he means and he’s talking about America. It’s a remarkably free-market idea from Isham who leans to the left. Once sex is just another commercial activity, we will be free of sexual shame. But won’t this capitalization of sex create a lot of have-nots? He also imagines a polyamorous society. Could such a utopia work? Or would human nature sabotage it? Some of his radical solutions he is serious about, others are merely challenges to staid thinking.
In the first essay, Cook gives a competent definition of fascism. He explains that fascism needs scapegoats and in America it is no longer popular to scapegoat minorities, so the sexual offender is the new pariah. In the USA lives are ruined over offences as trivial as urinating in public. It’s up to the police to decide whether you were just pissing or ‘wilfully espousing yourself’ – an offence that will get you placed on the sex register. Only in America is the sex register public and often the offender is on there for life.
As usual with Cook, there is much freewheeling from topic to topic. The writing is academic with references but also highly entertaining. Cook is at his oddball best in the essay ‘Toilet Terrorism;’ where the prudish and wasteful practice of gender-segregated public toilets comes in for his criticism. It was refreshing reading his discussion of toilets in China and the USA, not for the visual images summoned to mind, but because the state of the public toilet infrastructure in any given city is of concern to all and not written about enough. Only George in the hit series Seinfeld has previously given the topic its due.
To this point, Cook has been concerned with sexually repressive America, and China, which while repressive to be sure, is not particularly obsessed with cracking down on sex. Germany is frequently referred to as a more enlightened society. Then, in a not so smooth transition, we go walkabout. First to the massage parlours of America and then to those of Southeast Asia, the idea is to contrast American prudishness to relaxed Eastern sensuality. These massage essays appeared in an earlier book by Cook, but they bore a second reading well.
In Bali, inspired by pictures on the wall of his guesthouse in Ubud, the author begins to research the Bohemian paradise of bare-breasted women that once existed there. But he doesn’t get very far. Most of the novels and history books he reads about Bali’s glory days disappoint. Tuttle publishes many of these old Bali classics and on my bookshelf I have ‘Bali: A Paradise Created’ by Adrian Vickers. The cover image is an old Dutch East Indies tourism poster featuring a modestly-dressed Balinese woman carrying a bowl on her head. Cook includes the original poster, in which the woman has bare breasts – that got censored by Tuttle!
Cook discusses a number of artists looking for a sexual paradise in the South Seas from Gauguin in Tahiti to Walter Spies in Bali. Because I grew up in Auckland, the city with the largest Polynesian population in the world it’s hard for me – probably because of prejudice or trauma – to imagine a sensual paradise in the Pacific Islands. However, with Bali, I can imagine this and have experienced it to some degree. Though Bali is a tourist trap and breasts have been covered there for a long time, it’s still a place in which sexual adventures can be had. But will you see any real-life breasts of Bali? The Balinese are quite reserved and many of them are sick of tourists. Spending time in Southern Bali, one can see why. In 2016 I went to a medical clinic in Seminyak. My thumb had become infected from a splinter I got hiking in North Maluku – an Indonesia a million miles away from touristic Bali. At the clinic, there were two Australian men covered in blood. Laughing and shouting, they had obviously been in a fight and were very drunk. After getting stitched up, they unsteadily sped off on a motorbike. The Indonesian doctor and nurse apologised to ME(!) for their behaviour. This is one of a million incidents of tourist (mainly Aussie) boorishness in South Bali that have been happening for generations now. I would suggest Balinese women and their families have reservations about foreign men not present on Indonesia’s other 1000 plus islands. A tourist (let’s not define them beyond that) looking for female company in Bali is more likely to see Javanese breasts. Most of the prostitutes on the online dating apps are Muslims from Java. Interestingly, on the same dating apps, you have a number of European yoga teachers who hang out in trendy Canggu. Beyond that, there are Javanese girls looking to experiment while on holiday and the drunken Australians. If like Isham, you want to go the massage route (Australian pun) my experience is that most masseurs are Muslims from the adjacent island of Lombok. So much for going to Hindu Bali to get away from the stuffy Muslims in the rest of the country!
The best place to relive the breasts of Bali era is the Timescape Indonesia channel on Youtube. One particular video features a beautiful woman naked from the waist up combing her hair. She smiles for the camera, knowing her beauty is being admired, but probably unaware of the potential to arouse her breasts posses. To her exposing them publically is an everyday thing. This for me is an erotic rather than pornographic video. You can eroticize the scene but it wasn’t overtly set up for the purpose of sexual arousal as is the case with pornography. Isham, however, doesn’t believe there is a difference between erotic and pornographic. He also makes the claim that all pornography can be counted as art.
The book finishes strongly with ‘Sexual Surveillance in the Age of Covid 19.’ Isham likes to insert himself into the narrative and here his anecdotes from his trip to Xinjiang in 2019 give us a taste of a future of mass surveillance where sexual trysts will be near impossible to hide. ‘Sexual Fascism’ is another solid collection of essays from this original writer.
Unwelcome by Quincy Carroll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In ‘Unwelcome’ we follow Cole Chen through his awkward misadventures in California and Changsha, China. The twenty-three-year-old has come back from his second stint in China and is crashing on his brother’s couch. Our introduction to Cole is through the eyes of his more successful brother, Abraham. Cole is a slovenly, unmotivated house guest. Something went wrong in China, but we don’t know what.
In the sections set in America, we get perspectives on Cole from several third-person narrators, including a former teacher and a Tinder date. In China, Cole himself narrates in the second person ‘You.’ Using this point of view was a literary risk but works out fine. Those around Cole in America think there is something wrong with him. However, they don’t know how to help beyond an (often implied) call to clean yourself up, get a job and stop being creepy. For me, Cole is having a major depressive episode. Nobody suggests he go to a doctor, therapist, do light therapy, take ketamine or exercise. This is troubling but not unrealistic. It’s scary that Carroll creates many convincing characters – but their only role in the book is to reflect on Chen. The resulting 360-degree character assassination is gripping in the tear-legs-off-a-spider kind of way.
It’s unclear what Carroll’s philosophical angle is on his dark alter ego. There is no hint of a solution for Chen, spiritual or other. I can’t be sure but Carroll seems to suggest that Cole’s ‘toxic masculinity’ is inherent. How much has the author swallowed the social justice narratives of liberal society in California? It doesn’t matter. What is great here is the realism. The set pieces, like the beer pong game at Abraham’s stag party or the hotpot dinner with Cole’s Chinese friends, are vivid and detailed. There is the usual carry on of the Chinese being amazed a foreigner can speak their language. For Cole, there is an added aspect to this as he is half-Asian, half-white but looks white.
“You had always tried to evade the subject of the paternal side of your family since you hated your father and it made the Chinese look at you differently: no longer an adept foreigner who’d mastered their language and cultivated a real understanding and respect for their culture but rather a clueless, less impressive member of the diaspora, completely dissociated from his roots. What could you say? When it came down to it, you liked being a white person in China; you didn’t need to feel guilty or ashamed of it, like you often did back home.”
The life of an unfocused twenty-something trying to make a life for themselves in China was well-captured as in Carroll’s first novel ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.’ This is continued here. In the city of Changsha, Cole is a beer salesman for a small foreign company and tries to write a memoir. He spends a lot of time alone and is very unsure of himself when around others. Although he feels his life is more meaningful in China, he lacks a routine and is constantly anxious and so drinks much more than he would in the West.
“You were either going to have to start cooking for yourself or skipping the occasional meal moving forward; the drinking was a fixed cost.”
There is no doubt that Carroll is an ambitious writer and while most can’t or won’t reveal the extent of their own navel-gazing, he has impressively slipped the auto-censor, especially in showing how inexperienced Cole is at dating. When Cole starts getting somewhere with his love interest Harmony – a Chinese girl who he meets in less than ideal circumstances – he becomes tortured about each text he sends her. Ultimately, this lack of social and sexual confidence will be his downfall. As a character, I don’t think Harmony is as strong as Bella, the English groupie, in Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside. But in Cole, we have a more in-depth study of the foreigner in China than the American English teachers in Carroll’s first novel.
I enjoyed Unwelcome because of having, like Cole, led a life of hard-drinking in China in my twenties. However, I don’t think you need an interest in China to get something out of this well-put-together, introspective, super-realist and bleak novel.
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Magical Disinformation: A spy novel set in Colombia. Shades of Graham Greene.
Law of the Jungle: Medical research and revenge in the jungles of Venezuela and Colombia.
Crimechurch: Psychos and troubled teens in NZ’s earthquake-hit city.
Teacher, We Girls!: The experience of being a woman from New Zealand teaching in Saudi Arabia.
White Monkey: Darren escapes being a binman by going to teach in South Korea. Very funny.
The Noriega Tapes: Historical novel about the CIA and the invasion of Panama.
A Certain Kind of Power: A corporate spy navigates a labyrinth of corruption in Argentina.
Lust and Philosophy: Set mainly in Beijing and Chicago. An intellectual takedown of modern sexual morality.
Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As Roger Crowley explains in “Conquerors”, in the early 16th century Portugal, a poor country on the periphery of Europe, came to control trade in the Indian Ocean thanks to bravery, cruelty, navigation skills and cannons. They fought against kings and sultans on the Swahili Coast of Africa and the Malabar Coast of India with no more than 1500 troops at a time. Before they could start fighting they had to find a way to the Indies and did this after eighty years of working their way down the coast of West Africa.
“Behind the Africa initiative lay a very old dream of militant Christendom: that of outflanking Islam, which blocked the way to Jerusalem and the wealth of the East.”
This is a story to rival or even eclipse those Columbus discovering America, Cortes conquering Mexico and Pizarro doing the same in Peru. But the names of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese captain who made it around Africa, and Alfonso de Albuquerque the man who consolidated the Portuguese presence in India are not so well known. The Indians didn’t manage to get the Portuguese out of Goa until the 1960s! Magellan, the captain who circumvented the world under Spanish patronage, is the only Portuguese explorer the Anglo world taught me about as a kid — and then I grew up to discover Magellan was killed halfway through the journey! In the Indies, the Portuguese were known as the Franks or Ferengi, the common term for Christian Westerners at the time. The Thais call us Farang to this day.
The Portuguese made it around Africa with the counter-intuitive move of sailing away from the West African coast. This allowed them to catch the winds to take them past the bottom of Africa. This way they discovered Brazil, sailing too far west and landing there by accident. But “Conquerors” does not deal with South America. Once in India, da Gama was surprised to meet with some Castilian speaking Tunisians and find a thriving multicultural civilization. The rulers were generally Hindus but the traders were Muslim, due to the fact that it was taboo for Hindus to eat at sea. The Muslims knew all about Europe and Asia, but the Christian knowledge of the world at the time was limited. Da Gama caused havoc in India before having to sail back before the Monsoon.
After da Gama, Almeida and Albuquerque solidified the Portuguese position. They used diplomacy, threats and terror to achieve their aims. One terror tactic was cutting off the noses ears and hands of Muslim prisoners and then setting them free. Albuquerque was a skilled leader and commander, introducing pike-wielding phalanxes of foot soldiers, much to the disgust of the noblemen who wished for the glory of one on one combat. Albuquerque, following the orders of King Manuel, made a real attempt to control the Red Sea and from there the plan was to launch an attack on Jerusalem, but the failure to capture the city of Aden scuttled these plans. Portuguese pressure in the area was one of the factors in a shift of power in the Muslim world, away from the Mamluk Sultans in Cairo to the Ottomans in Turkey. “Conquerers”, however, does not give much information on the politics of the Middle East and India — which is fair enough, otherwise, this manageable, concise work would balloon out in length. The Venetians, who had controlled the entry of spices into Europe worked with the Muslims to try and get the Portuguese out of the Indian Ocean.
My interest in the Portuguese Empire was sparked by a visit to a Brazilian BBQ in Shanghai in 2007 called Vasco da Gama. “What does Vasco da Gama mean?” I asked. Despite being twenty-eight I had no clue – I’d been to Macau and seen the Portuguese colonial buildings, the azulejos, the calcadas and eaten the Portuguese tarts – but I had no idea how the Portuguese got to Macau. Slowly I’ve been piecing it all together – it’s quite the job as the Portuguese made it to the most far-flung places and often didn’t leave much behind.
Crowley maps the Portuguese progression clearly, occasionally I encountered sentences that made no sense or something mentioned in the narrative that would not be explained until much later. This is minor quibbling, Crowley, like Max Hastings, can condense a huge amount of information and turn it into a cohesive narrative. I’d say one of his strengths is relating the tactics of maritime battles. I’m sure he had a lot of help with the translation of original sources, his bibliography looks pretty thorough. Crowley’s message is that the Portuguese were cruel and backwards compared with the civilizations of the East, but they were great navigators and incredibly determined and astute with the trump card of superior weaponry.
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White Faced Lies by Eric Flanagan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
An interesting project. ‘White Faced Lies’ follows the journey of two ‘face jobbers’ in China. Face jobbers are foreigners who get paid to stand around and just look – well foreign – ideally American, white, tall, good-looking, and with blond hair. It is also known as having a white monkey job. You might, for example, be hired to attend a business banquet as a representative of a company you don’t actually work for. But your presence gives the company prestige – ‘hey look we have a foreign employee!’ I don’t think this happens much in 2022. The book is set in 2010.
Stan has been in China for a decade doing face jobs. He is a caricature of the white middle-aged male villain of our times. Along for the ride is Jared a naive young American who believes Stan is his dad. The two of them drive around China doing different gigs. Their face jobs include being judges at a golf tournament and posing as doctors.
In the illustrations, some of the details are definitely on point, such as the Communist Party slogan above a urinal imploring civilised conduct. The creators of this book have spent a long time in China and know it well. In getting the small things right, White Face Lies compares favourably with the only other graphic novel I’ve read about the Western experience in China, Guy Delisle’s ‘Shenzhen’. The problem with Delisle’s book is whenever there is a speech bubble of someone speaking in Mandarin it is filled with Chinese characters that make no sense. Delisle obviously didn’t consult a Chinese speaker – the characters are just there to show the incomprehensibility of the Chinese language. In White Faced Lies, red font is used to show speech translated from Chinese. This works but it added to my feeling the book doesn’t capture the atmosphere of China. Delisle’s black and white drawings neatly recreate the overall feel of Shenzhen in 1997, its crowds, industry, construction and restaurants. This is lacking in White Faced Lies. A lot of the panels are of the two Americans in a car or hotel rooms. When they are on the road, I can see an attempt has been made to show the cityscapes and countryside of China. But, either because of the bright colours or the choice of what to show in the limited space a graphic novel necessitates, it hasn’t worked. Making up for this the story itself is well put together. There is humour and the plot is tight.
Stan is not a 100% villainous white man. This was the problem with Quincy Carroll’s otherwise excellent novel about English teachers in China, ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.’ His villain Thomas, an alcoholic middle-aged English teacher, is completely rotten. For me, having a nuanced villain is important. Most foreign losers in China have some redeeming features and are exploited as much or more than they exploit others. Stan has been damaged by the death of his daughter in America. He is callous towards Jared, but not without empathy for the younger man’s pain. Despite being in China for a decade, Stan is totally unadapted and uses a set of cards with Chinese phrases to communicate the simplest things like ordering dinner. Imagine if a Chinese person in America held up a card with the words ‘fish and chips’ when the waiter came to take his order. Maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal? In any case, this rang true. I’ve seen foreigners resident in China for years not able to tell the taxi driver to turn left or right. (They are known as losers – but only in mainland China, if you can’t say left and right in Cantonese despite living in Hong Kong for twenty years it’s OK. This is a strange phenomenon that I won’t elaborate on here.)
The subplot of the Chinese factory worker whose brother died from drinking tainted soda brought the bigger picture of corruption and health and safety in China into play. But for a tale of a bumbling foreigner in China that intertwines bigger issues about rich and poor, pirated products, Sino-American relations, and culture shock into the narrative I recommend Tom Carter’s ‘An American Bum in China.’ That said, check this book out – it’s great to see this kind of issue being tackled in a graphic novel.
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A phalanx of drivers waited at the front of the arrivals hall. Standing with the others, Lucas had a sign for a certain Jorge Martínez: a passenger who would never arrive. Lucas was there to make an important decision, not to drive somebody into town. He thought it would be agony to choose. Who in the sea of heads would have a valuable watch, cash, and other expensive items on them? Even taking the precaution of staying away from Rolexes, he still might choose someone with a fake watch. What then? Once people started coming out the gate, his doubts faded and he found himself enjoying the experience. A tall man, he had a clear view over the drivers in front of him. Because flights from the USA and Europe had landed at the same time, passengers flooded into the terminal. The earrings and minimalist gold watch of an elegant woman, likely French, drew his attention. So did the iPhone of an American in puke-green shorts; a character already filming his holiday. With many potential targets on display, this was people-watching with a purpose. For Lucas, it was like observing beautiful women entering a crowded bar – each of them left unengaged would cause a small feeling of loss, quickly forgotten when the next one came into view.
He didn’t take long to make his choice: an old European couple. Lucas had to get right up next to the man to confirm he was wearing a very expensive Philippe Patek, but in the crowded terminal this wasn’t hard. He could sense the tiredness of the old man, a level of fatigue unknown to someone Lucas’s age. What a watch! Why arrive in Argentina with such a target on your wrist? Following the couple to the taxi counter, he sent a message to the Venezuelans waiting outside: “Man short and bald, woman with long grey hair, red blouse. His watch is most important.” At the counter the old man yelled out, his face angry. This didn’t surprise Lucas – he could guess what was going on. Lucas didn’t leave the terminal because he didn’t want the Venezuelans to see his face. He worried that the target would get lost in the crowd, but soon enough a reply came: “We’ve got them, following.”
Thirty minutes later, Lucas took an Uber into town. Although already after midday when he opened the shop, it was unlikely he’d lost much business – maybe somebody wanting a new strap or battery. Apart from watches, he sold small soft toys: pumas, bunnies, condors, and deer. He’d got a good deal on them. With no toy stores nearby, sometimes a kid saw the animals in the window and dragged their mum or dad into the shop. He’d also branched out into cell phone cases, but respected his father’s wish not to sell jewellery. “Watch shops and jewellers should be separate,” his old man had said. Lucas never got to the bottom of why his father had this rule.
From his spot behind the counter, sunlight showed streak marks on the glass display cabinets – they needed wiping, vinegar might work, but could he be bothered? His father wasn’t there to shout at him, to tell him to get on with things. Half a block away the brakes of a bus screeched, causing Lucas a nails-down-the-blackboard shiver. He looked outside to see if anyone who had got off the bus would walk by. Nobody did. The view of the cobbled street bathed in sunlight lifted his spirits for a moment – thinking of the hours before closing time brought him back down.
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Lying in bed my eye felt like it was going to explode, finally, after hours, aqueous fluid and pus squirted out relieving the pressure. The pain subsided, but only for fifteen minutes. So began a rewarding experience of the public health sector in Argentina, one winter morning in 2010.
After consulting my friend (who I later fell out with) at reception, I took a taxi to Hospital Lagleyze in Villa Gral. Mitre. Only one eye was infected and very sensitive to light, to keep it clamped shut I needed the good eye to be pretty much closed too. I was not feeling great. The taxi driver was sympathetic: “not far now”, he said as we rattled down a cobbled street.
I lined up to register for la guardia, my passport had an expired tourist visa inside but they weren’t worried about that. The wait in la guardia was not inordinately long. The doctor inspected my eye with equipment out of date compared to what optometrists in New Zealand had. He was friendly, spoke some English, but gave me the news in Spanish, “se puede curar, pero es una emergencia médica”. I needed to get steroid drops and antibiotics in my eye right away to sort out the infected abscess caused by my contact lenses. A common problem I’m sure. A student doctor took me to where I had to wait for my prescription, she put her hand on my shoulder sympathetically as I was a pathetic sight.
Upstairs at the dispensary I got two bottles of eye drops, these needed to be kept in the fridge and administered once every hour for forty-eight hours. This was going to make sleep near impossible. I ‘slept’ on the couch in reception to have easy access to my drops in the kitchen fridge. My alarm rang every hour at five to the hour. My condition was brought on by misuse of contact lenses. That August I was working the four to midnight shift on reception, after which I usually went out drinking until five and then crashed without taking my contact lenses out. They were one month’s disposables, bacteria covered and scratching my eyes as I slept, little wonder I had a problem.
Two days later I was back at the hospital with a piece of paper that let me into the waiting hall for patients on return visits. There were a lot of bunged up eyes in there. An elderly lady asked me to administer drops into her bloodshot eyes, this made me feel less alone. A little rat of a man shouted out that he’d been attended by a blond female doctor, I clung to his excitement that a hot blond could treat someone like him….amazing mate! The doctor who saw me this time was all black humour. Keep putting in those drops…or we’ll have to rip it out. It was no longer every hour though, my eye was on the mend.
The drops were free as was seeing the doctor. If you get to the hospital early morning in Argentina you can not only see a doctor, but a specialist of the same quality or better than those in the private clinics. Often the same doctors work in both sectors. My experience is from the rich Capital Federal not the poorer provinces though. After writing several true crime articles about Argentina, I wanted to talk about something good about the country — great in fact — the free healthcare. Of course it has its problems and — the question is, in a country with an ever-tanking economy should medical care be free, especially for foreigners? This a debate on which Argentinians are very divided.
Juan Domingo Perón in his first government from 1946–1952 created a strong welfare state. He built a lot of hospitals, lowered the rate of infant mortality and tuberculosis. A tenet of Peronism is that healthcare is a responsibility of the state. On the other side people will show you that Argentina’s per capita income started falling at this time, that Perón received a rich country to govern and left it poor — he spent too much. Lagleze, the ophthalmology hospital I visited, was built in 1942 before Perón. In Recoleta, what you might call the central hospital, the current incarnation of Hospital de Clinicas was built under Peron in 1949. The many towers of Clincas include the Faculty of Medicine and a number of specialist departments. Clinicas has something of an Eastern European communist feel, but hospitals are not about architecture. I’ve been there for a few minor issues — clogging up the system no doubt.
I was working illegally at the hostel, three shifts a week for free accommodation and one hundred pesos (then in 2010 twenty-five USD, now less than two) for any extra eight hour shifts. There were two or more other guys doing the same thing at any given time. Some of them I saw last summer on a trip to Buenos Aires. Spending months living in the same room tends to make you friends or enemies for life. The hostel was called Firulete — a term which refers to a series of moves in a tango dance — now it appears to just be imaginatively named hostel (I’ll resist checking on booking.com).
When I hear tales of Argentines and Chileans stuck at hostels here in Wellington (other nationalities too sure, but I don’t get those reports) during this Covid-19 quarantine period I feel sorry for them. Especially those at Lodge in the City, where a bunk in a room of twelve costs one hundred dollars a week — the cheapest deal in town. I’ve never been into Lodge but through the windows you can see people’s stuff piled up on the window sill. I hope none of them get sick in those crowded conditions. Many are working holidayers who were doing temp jobs that are now non-existent and so will be struggling financially. (They can’t all work reception at the hostel.)
Lodge in the City currently has 2.5 stars from 443 reviews on google — when the score is less than three out of five you know things are bad. Built in the fifties, the boxy four-storey structure used to be the Harry Spires Hostel for the elderly. The hostel I worked at in Buenos Aires was built not long after the turn of the twentieth century and is a much more attractive structure, from the outside at least.
The locals who did the day shifts when I was there have become quite successful. Mariano, who was about thirty-four in 2010, is now a well-known painter and kung fu teacher. A talented guy, I think he resented having to work at a hostel. Juan, the first Catholic communist I ever met, has since met the Pope and word has it he may have finished the history degree he’d been doing for ten years. The University of Buenos Aires, with no tuition fees, has high standards and a reputation for being hard to graduate from. If you aren’t paying you don’t have so much to complain about when your professor fails you?
About ten days after my first trip to Hospital Lagleyze, I went to Hospital Santa Lucia, another eye hospital in Buenos Aires. I ended up there because I got in a taxi and said “to the eye hospital” as I couldn’t remember the name Lagleyze. The driver obliged by taking me to Santa Lucia in San Cristóbal. I thought my abscess was back — it was just conjunctivitis. Santa Lucia, founded in 1823, was the first hospital in Latin America specialising in diseases of eye. In the neighbourhood of San Cristóbal since 1922, it is quite attractive. Before I went in to line up for la guardia I got a small plastic cup off a guy with multiple metal thermoses on his cart. The coffee tasted metallic and was loaded with sugar, but hey it contained caffeine. That I felt well enough to risk street coffee was a good sign. Not long after my eye issues I had a flu-type virus. I was working extra to make up the shifts the guys had covered for me when I couldn’t open my eyes. Mariano said, not unsympathetically “you’re always sick!” Being low season, there wasn’t much to do and I lay on the couch watching Two and a Half Men. However, there was always somebody up early wanting breakfast and conversation. It’s a sweet and sour experience living and working in a hostel, for example, you get to meet people but it’s hard to get away from them when you are sick or more likely hungover.
Originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel as Sartorial Sychophany
As Venezuela has been the recipient of over half of China’s loans to South America, the ongoing crisis there is of concern to Beijing. China continues to support the embattled government of Nicolás Maduro and, like Russia and Turkey, doesn’t recognize the opposition’s Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim president in January 2019. Given that Venezuela is a major source of oil for China, the Communist Party would prefer stability and a continuation of the status quo. If the socialist revolución Bolivariana started by Hugo Chávez and continued by Maduro does fall, however, the pragmatic Xi will be ready to negotiate with a new government. Guaidó, for his part, has said he wants a productive relationship with China. In light of the developing crisis, a look at Maduro’s wardrobe and actions on a trip to Beijing in 2018 gives us some insight into the relationship between the two regimes.
In September 2018 the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, set off for China wearing what appeared to be a dark grey Mao suit. He could have used Kim Jong-un’s tailor, although Kim likes his Mao suits with pinstripes. Arriving in Beijing in the same outfit, Maduro also sported a black beret – a nod towards Che Guevara from whom his revolutionary lineage is more readily traced than from Mao. In Beijing, unlike most leaders in recent years, Maduro paid tribute to the Great Helmsman by visiting his mausoleum. Security usually ushers visitors by the waxy corpse quickly, but perhaps Maduro, as a VIP, was allowed to pause and take a good look. In any case, he laid a wreath at the mausoleum and called Mao a “giant of the homeland of humanity.”
Maduro was in China to get a loan of five billion US dollars that Venezuela would pay back in petroleum. Venezuela’s economy has tanked, and in the last decade, China has given the nation 50 billion dollars worth of credit. Former President Hugo Chávez and current President Maduro agreed to pay most of this back in oil. The country was around 20 billion in debt to China when Maduro set out for Beijing, but he still managed to arrange for five billion dollars more. China is now an alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for economies in such trouble that they can’t sell their government bonds because they are too risky an investment.
In the same month that Maduro visited China, Mauricio Macri, President of Argentina, South America’s other inflation-racked economy, travelled to New York to seek money from the IMF. The question for such countries has become: who are you better off with, the IMF or China? Who imposes the harsher conditions? According to Maduro, the deals he has with China are beneficial because they don’t put the country in debt when the payback is in oil, not money – a declaration that makes little sense. With the IMF, he said, there would be conditions like cutting salaries and pensions or privatizing education and healthcare.
At present, Venezuela has received the most Chinese money out of all Latin American countries and is struggling to produce enough crude oil to pay China back. Xi Jinping will be patient in recovering the loans – the biggest problem with this being that if Maduro’s government falls, the new government may not honour the agreement. That explains why China has sold a lot of military equipment to Maduro’s administration – it’s not in their interest to see Maduro and the Bolivarian Revolution, started by Hugo Chávez in the late 1990s, overthrown.
In this context, it was a wise move by Maduro to wear the Mao suit. Xi Jinping has in recent years shown it to be appropriate garb for diplomatic occasions and special events, for example wearing it while meeting US Presidents. Making a good impression on his biggest financial benefactor was important for Maduro, and any sartorial alignment would surely help him to curry favour and secure the next loan.
Except Maduro was not wearing a Mao suit at all. Rather, it was a liqui liqui – a traditional Venezuelan dress with a closed-neck tunic and matching pants, similar to the Mao suit. It has been worn by Venezuelan cowboys of the llanos or plains since the 19th century, originally as working clothes, but as time went by more as ceremonial dress. Usually, it is white, grey or beige. It is also seen in Colombia, and novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wore it when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1982. Yet Marquez’s white liqui liqui summoned images of the tropics to mind much more readily than Maduro’s dark colours, which more closely resemble the Mao suit.
In 2017, Maduro declared the liqui liqui the national costume of Venezuela. The origins of the dress are discussed in a YouTube video released by the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information of the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela. According to the video, the suit could have come to Venezuela via the Philippines, which seems reasonable as both were part of the Spanish empire. French 19th-century military uniforms with a closed neck are another possible source. The video also puts forward the thesis that the liqui liqui may have been influenced by the Mao suit. This seems unlikely, given that the genesis of the Mao suit was in the 20th century. It seems as if the Ministry included that suggestion for political effect, to give a nod to their most important financial ally.
Deng Xiaoping, who steered China away from Maoist policies and toward capitalism, almost exclusively wore a Mao suit in the 1980s. Since President Jiang Zemin’s tenure in the 1990s, however, Chinese leaders have mostly worn Western suits and ties. Chinese workers also moved on from the Mao suit. From what I observed in Shanghai in the early 2000s, migrants from the countryside working in construction often chose rough-cut Western suits of acrylic material. Their jackets were worn over a long-sleeved shirt in the summer and a jersey in winter. And while women’s fashions had already become varied, by the new millennium businessmen tended to go in for a polo shirt tucked into slacks, a cellphone in a pouch on their belt and a large purse under the arm – although now the Western suit is the standard for business across China.
The liqui liqui, even in dark shades, is distinguishable from the Mao suit as it doesn’t have four prominent exterior pockets. The Mao suit is also known as the Zhongshan suit in China, and Sun Yat-sen – or Sun Zhongshan, the father of the nation who declared China a republic in 1911 – designed the original suit. Sun wanted a new style of Chinese dress that was distinct from both Qing Dynasty gowns and Western clothes. He was inspired by Japanese military uniforms and tunics worn by Chinese men in Southeast Asia, where there are many other examples of traditional closed-neck jackets and shirts. It is possible that a Filipino formal dress for men, the barong Tagalog, influenced both the Mao suit and the liqui liqui. But while the former became synonymous with Chinese communism, the official attempt at the rejuvenation of the latter will perhaps now become associated with President Maduro’s flattery of China through sartorial similarity.