The Snakehead

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Modus Operandi PRK: pick an interesting subject, research the f out of it, and write a looong book. He saves his opinions and judgements until the end. A wise choice, you don’t have to agree with his politics to enjoy his work.

‘The Snakehead’ is about illegal migration to the USA in the 1980s and 90s from the Chinese province of Fujian. New kids on the block in New York’s Cantonese-dominated Chinatown, the Fujianese started to form their own gangs. The most famous was the Fuk Ching, whose leader Ah Kay robbed and then worked with a big-time people smuggler, or snakehead, known as Sister Ping. I’d learnt about these characters from researching my own book but PRK filled in a lot of gaps.

‘The Snakehead’ is centred around the disastrous running aground of the Golden Venture, a ship loaded with illegal Chinese immigrants, in Queens, New York. Ten people drowned. Sister Ping and other snakeheads had contracted Ah Kay to unload the passengers onto fishing boats. However, because of a turf war amongst members of the Fuk Ching, he didn’t come through for them.

The second half of the book deals with the legal cases of Golden Venture passengers fighting to stay in the USA, and eventually the trial of Sister Ping. PRK is an exhaustive writer and can go into too much detail, but I didn’t get as bogged down here as I did in his new book about the opioid epidemic, ‘Empire of Pain.’

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They sent me to Wellington for training. Two nights in a hotel room with Sky TV and meals paid for. What else could I have wanted? After a good night’s sleep, I reported to the depot. The muscular Norm waved at me from the other end of the aeroplane-hangar space. Norm was staying in the same hotel, he’d knocked on my door the night before. Catching his measure, I knew arriving early would be a good move. With purpose, he closed the distance between us. “Look at these sorting machines, Ed.” He pointed at a gaggle of contraptions like giant printers from the eighties topped with black induction pipes. “They cost eighty million nine years ago. Now they are done, obsolete. Can only read envelopes with barcodes, not actual addresses. No good.” Eighty million for the machines in Wellington or the whole country? How could a barcode give an address? Before I could ask, a guy with a ginger beard and hands black with grease jumped out from behind a partly disassembled mammoth. “They wanted these bloody things scrapped but now they’ve changed their minds. They can’t afford new ones, so I’m putting them back together again.”

“Typical eh,” Norm said. The man with the greasy hands looked satisfied with this comment and got back to work. For me, this inefficiency was good news. I’d feared the post office would be a super-organised place to work. I conquered the urge to ask about the nine million dollars and the barcodes. Experience had taught me not to show too much curiosity too soon

In the training room, I sat on an uncomfortable chair and turned to page one of the manual. Two other trainees, Polly from England and Arthur from Australia, arrived as I was reading. Only in England can they name baby girls Polly. “Cutting it fine, guys,” Norm told them, tapping his watch. At eight-thirty, he began by declaring he was going to keep the atmosphere of the training session light. “As long as you’re listening, eh!” And in the main he did, although he spent inordinate time on security stuff. His military background gave some context to this obsession. He opened his eyes crazy wide when addressing us: an old technique to make everything one said seem important. 

“Make sure you hang your uniform hidden behind your towels on the washing line. We don’t want it to get stolen and someone impersonating a postie terrorising the neighbourhood.”

Was he serious? I couldn’t tell. What did Polly think? She chewed her pen and rubbed a red spot on her amble cheek. Arthur repeatedly passed his hand over his head looking for non-existent hair. Their expressions gave away nothing. Norm also warned us to be honest about recording the number of letters we sorted, “If the team leader doesn’t get you for writing up too many letters, the algorithms will.” I was nervous that we were paid for the numbers of letters sorted rather than time worked. What if I was slow?

Polly and Arthur lived in Wellington and went home at four. At six I met Norm at the hotel reception. We had forty-five dollars each on his company credit card for dinner, so we went to a flash gastropub. Norm was flirty with the waitress and I was surprised she didn’t mind. She can’t have been much more than twenty. Despite being in his late forties, Norm was still a good-looking fella. After she had smilingly taken our orders, Norm’s mouth was focused my way. To stop him from talking shop, I asked about his military days.

“You’ll never get to that level physically, never experience those extremes,” he told me about his training to get into the Special Forces. “After fourteen days, I was ripped as mate. But on the last exercise, jumping off the top of a four-metre wall, I broke my ankle. I got invited to do the training again when I healed but decided I’d wanted to join the Special Forces for the wrong reasons…”

After the army, he worked as security for weapons inspectors in Saddam’s Iraq. “It was me reporting to Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, who in turn reported to Kofi Annan. I was only a couple of steps from George Bush. If I said let’s get out of here when inspecting a facility…we got the fuck out!”

Eyeballs popping out of his skull, Norm used what was available on the table to reinforce my understanding of the chain of command. Secretary-General of the United Nations Annan was the salt shaker, Blix the pepper, and Norm himself the large tomato sauce bottle. As he was arranging these objects, I noticed the vascularity of his forearms. The bastard was still in great shape. 

I flew back from Wellington happy and unprepared for sorting and delivering mail. Norm had given us useless theory, now I needed practical training. The most important thing was to learn to drive the postal delivery vehicle, the Kivurz. From now on, I’d be on one four hours a day, six days a week, and dreaming of them at night.

Our depot was much smaller than the one in Wellington. Windowless because you couldn’t have members of the public peering in, on the beige linoleum floor, twenty-odd black plastic sorting cases lined up in uneven rows. In front of each case, was a trolley stacked with grey plastic trays full of letters. 

I kept a low profile at the depot. I was twenty-eight years old but felt like a shy teenager around the grim-faced, fast-moving team of posties. I knew if I stayed silent for too long they would think me a weirdo. So, one morning tea time in the smoko room, I decided to make conversation. I sat at one of the particle board tables and looked through yesterday’s paper. Two other posties, Dawn, with hair dyed bright red, and the strongly-built Ross, sat on an adjacent table barking about how to best fill in a daily docket. “Doesn’t make any difference how you fill it out, Dawn. Inside they pay you for the letters you sort and outside for the time it takes you to deliver – they assume you take two fifteen-minute breaks.”

“What you don’t know smart arse is that I put in lost time – it doesn’t affect my pay, but it does affect my performance times.”

“This isn’t the bloody Olympics.”

Ross was considerably younger than Dawn and his tone indicated he thought her a middle-aged fool. Dawn ‘humphed’ at Ross’s comment and they were quiet for a moment. This was my opportunity, although I had nothing to add about the dockets. I put down the paper and prepared to express something positive about the job. But simply coming out with a phrase along the lines of ‘the job is great!’ would have been out of character. Too enthusiastic. I went with, “The good thing about this job is that you never touch a computer…” They both looked at me. Was I talking to them? My comment had come out of the blue. Awkward. I feared they’d ignore me, but no, it wasn’t a cliquey workplace.

“Is that what you used to do? Were you a computer guy?” Asked Ross. He held his hands out and typed on a ghost keyboard. I had to be careful, I didn’t want to get painted with that brush. A computer geek I was not.

“No no, computers were just a part of some jobs I’ve done. What I didn’t like was working with Microsoft Excel. Some managers love Excel…constantly creating more pretty coloured spreadsheets to be filled in by their underlings.”

Ross looked confused. Hadn’t he heard of Excel? He can’t have been much more than thirty. Lucky him if he hadn’t. Was he having me on? 

I helped him out, “Excel is a program used for doubling up admin records, financial calculations and a bunch of other stuff.”

“I see…”

“I like Excel, it’s logical,” said postie Dawn.

“Yes, the problem with me is I’m not detail-oriented, so Excel doesn’t appeal.” I reckoned that was diplomatic, rather than saying fuck off Dawn, Excel is awful.

“Yea I’ve noticed you aren’t a detail guy,” said Ross.

“How’d you get this job then?” asked Dawn.

“Some people are good at interviews,” remarked Ross.

I was surprised he’d noticed something about me, and then I thought, shit, postie-ing was about being meticulous about your redirections, holds, PO boxes, etc., and now these guys thought I didn’t give a fuck. So much for a successful foray into small talk waters.

Johnno, the postie from Birmingham, made his entrance saving me from continuing the awkward conversation.

“Blimey not even time for a copa tea,” he lamented, flopping down, all arms and legs, on one of the well-worn couches. Johnno was an old salt who’d been on the job far too long.

“How many circulars you got to deliver today Johnno?” Dawn asked.

“Too bloody many.” Johnno stood up, struggled into his high-visibility vest and left. My fifteen-minute break was up and so I followed him out.

The next day I got to work early enough to grab a coffee in the smoko room before sorting time. The first time I’d been in there alone, I checked out the walls covered with posters and newspaper clippings. ‘Salsa classes Tuesday nights?’ No thank you. ‘Postie Retires After 42 Years.’ Bog help us. Then I looked at the table. What luck! As an exception to the rule, today’s paper presented itself. The local paper mind, not the Dominion Post from Wellington. The lead story was about rats. The local exterminator was getting lots of callouts. In the cold weather, the rodents were seeking shelter in people’s houses. The biggest nuisance was they chewed through your pipes. You could tell how big a specimen was by the teeth marks. ‘The largest one I’ve trapped this year was about the size of my Chihuahua,’ according to the exterminator. That didn’t sound very big.

Ross stormed in and set about making an instant coffee with unnecessary intensity. He sat down and took rapid sips from his plastic cup. I recognised the ‘ God, another day’ expression on his face. I took advantage of having something to talk about.

“You seen this article about rats, Ross?”

“No? Let’s have a look. Hey, this is today’s paper! Awesome.”

I gave him a few minutes to read it and then said, “Something a bit fishy about the story. What kind of rat exterminator would have a Chihuahua? I don’t buy it, these journalists will do anything to flesh out the story. What do you reckon?” 

“You might have something there,” Ross said. “I bloody admire rats, very resourceful animals… Did you know they can’t vomit? They either stomach something or die.”

“Wow, interesting.” Maybe this Ross was worth getting to know. But further chat could wait, we had to go to the morning brief. 

And a serious meeting it turned out to be. Team Leader Mavis was fuming, “If anybody else rolls their Kivurz the pilot program is off. Cancelled.”

Failure. Shame. Budgetary mishap. Taxpayers’ lament, think big over. We’d be off our electric Swiss three-wheelers and back on push bikes to deliver the mail. Only two people had rolled a Kivurz trike and neither had been injured. A larger number of us had committed the lesser crime of tipping over our trailers. I looked around me at the other posties, hardly a crew of Hell’s Angels or reckless drivers. Quite the opposite in fact, all around me I saw patient, attentive faces.  

“If all eyes weren’t on us before, believe me, they are now,” Mavis barked. “Come on guys we’ve worked too bloody hard for this to be taken away from us now.” 

We were the pilot city for these fancy Kivurz electric vehicles. An honour to be chosen. No more slogging it out on push bikes. They had introduced the Kivurz for mail delivery in Switzerland five years ago. It was a three-wheeler, powered by a battery. That the Kivurz was electric was a PR coup for the post office. They could brag about how environmentally friendly the new vehicles were. Not as friendly as a bicycle though. The Kivurz had a top speed of forty-five kilometres an hour, making it uncomfortable to drive them in traffic because cars would tailgate you. While delivering we drove them along the footpath. At the front of the Kivurz was a box-shaped container with handlebars behind it. Either side of the seat were plastic yellow panniers. Next to one of these panniers was a special compartment for the barcode scanner. The back of the vehicle featured a double-doored cupboard with shelves – a good place to store parcels and letters for the second half of your delivery run. 

If you had more mail than would fit in the front box, panniers and cupboard you could attach a trailer to the back. The trailer meant you had to take corners slow, so many posties tried to overpack the back cupboard to avoid taking it. 

The uniform was not the same as the old bike postie version. It made you look ridiculous: a large white helmet, a long-sleeved red and yellow shirt with elbow pads, and MC Hammer-style pants. Shorts weren’t allowed – they wouldn’t afford any protection in a crash. However, the union was fighting for the return of shorts, as the Hammer pants would be sweltering in summer.

The Kivurz did have some good features. When there was no weight on the seat, the brake automatically engaged. So you could jump off to deliver a letter on a hill without the fear it would roll off. It also had a great wheellock and could make very tight turns. And you could zip up hills without any physical effort, in contrast to the sweat-covered days of the bikes. The main drawback of these machines was their lack of stability. If you came off the curb at an angle one wheel would go up in the air. Your heart would be in your mouth for that split second before it touched down again. And the bloody trailers should have had trainer wheels like on kids’ bikes.

All the doom and gloom of rolling machines and denting trailers was forgotten when Mavis reminded us today was the monthly morning tea shout. If eating a piece of cheesecake made you feel like you were taking part in a Marques de Sade-type fantasy, I reckon you were on the right track in life. After three hours of mail sorting, we made our way to the smoko room. And indeed there was cheesecake as well as sausage rolls and lollies. No company-provided morning tea in New Zealand could be called complete without sausage rolls. Everybody had a cup of tea or coffee in hand too, except for bloody Johnno. That speedy stick insect had forfeited the morning tea and already gone out on his run so he could brag the next day about how early he’d finished.

The topic around the crumb-covered tables was the Kivurz vehicles: “First time I saw all you guys head out on those eco-numbers I was choked up. Beautiful what we’ve done here…”

“Yep makes you think! Just plug the fucking things in and they go all day. Fourteen dollars a week it costs to run them…”

“But twenty thousand to buy one and they don’t even keep you dry, I still want an electric push bike…”

“Yea bring back the bikes!”

Because of the sausage rolls inside me, sitting on the Kyvurz was difficult for the first hour of delivery. My digestive system had dealt with the problem by the time I reached the Masonic Retirement Village. “Hope it’s not all bills today mate,” one white-haired gent said. Haven’t heard that before mate. He wasn’t the only one waiting by the mailbox. “No good, it’s no good,” grumbled a hair-in-rollers octogenarian, “the mail was slow before…but now it only comes every two days it’s even worse. When I get my TV guide the week is nearly over.” I felt bad for her and I couldn’t tell her to check online. Reliant on the mail and TV, here lived relics of an ancient civilization.

The Tainui Rest Home had a great view of the mountain but the residents were less active than at the Masonic. One old guy with a bandage on his head staggered out his front door and thanked me profusely for the Pizza Hut flyer I handed him. I hoped for some old know-it-all to materialise and lecture me on the mountain. “Stratus clouds hanging off its leeward side, see there!… The mountain rose above a group of cumulus clouds early this morning…lenticular clouds covered it not long after you dropped off the wrong mail the other day young man…” No such fucking luck.

Five hundred mailboxes done, the clouds thickened and the mountain disappeared robbing me of my view, but on with the mail. Rusty with sharp edges, small slots stuffed with slug-eaten newspapers, rotting wood that would fall apart if you weren’t careful – some hazardous mailboxes on this street. My soft hands got bloody trying to get letters in. If you bled on a letter that wasn’t good. I coloured over the blood stains with a black marker pen. Problem solved…I needed a break, so I got a filled roll at the bakery and burned over to the church cemetery. The electric motor of my machine turned off with a beep as I touched the sensor with the circular key. I walked about munching my roll and looking at the headstones.

Here rest the earthly remains of Henry George,

Who was born June 17, 1842,

And killed in action at Mahoetahi,

Nov 6th, 1860.

The trumpet shall sound and the

Dead shall be raised incorruptible.

The next part of my run featured back streets where you wondered what year it was. I spotted the DX mail guy up the road, anonymous with his visor pulled down. He was riding his motorbike across immaculately manicured grass berms, leaving tyre tracks without a care in the world. I burned with envy. An organisation like ours with all its rules and regulations would never compete.

“Is that solar-powered buddy?”

A member of the public had appeared, shouting at me from the other side of the road. He was a big guy, wearing Air Jordan basketball boots. 

“No mate it isn’t.” 

“Well then, you should put some solar panels on it.”

“Yea yea it might make it go faster,” I shouted back, trying – without stopping – to replicate his friendly enthusiasm. But doing two things at once was inadvisable; as I turned the corner onto Hine Street I clipped a power pole. My vehicle went up on one wheel, hesitated, and then came back down the right way. The trailer, however, crashed with a clang onto its side. I got out and righted it, but the red paint on the side panel was scraped and the mudguard dented. At the least, this would be two forms to fill out and a telling-off. Hardly a dramatic accident, but would the pilot be called off because of this wee mishap? Would I become a pariah? ‘If it wasn’t for that idiot we’d still be going up hills on our electric numbers’ – or was a reversion to push bikes what everybody wanted? I told myself to calm down, the big deal was rolling the machines, not tipping trailers.

Mr Renewable Energy, him in the Air Jordans, had followed me. He was laughing his arse off. 

“Where did you learn to drive mate? How long you been a postie?”

“Jesus Christ himself couldn’t drive,” I answered. A stupid thing to say, but unexpected and it left the guy flummoxed. When does doing the unexpected ever fail? Seeing his fuddled features trying to come up with a response, I’d achieved a small victory. Before he opened his mouth, I took off to my next delivery point, some hundred metres down the road.

When I got back to the depot, Dawn was unloading her trike…her eyes went to the damage on my trailer. “Well”, she said dryly, “I guess that’s the equivalent of falling off your bike. We used to say you weren’t a postie until you’d taken a tumble.” 

I suspected Dawn would make sure everybody got to know I’d had this little accident. But this was it, at last, I felt like one of the team.

Sexual Fascism

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.

View all my reviews

8 great self-published/small press books I reviewed in 2021

Links go to my GoodReads reviews.

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

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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Buenos Aires Triad Chapter 1


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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