|Oct/Nov 2001 Book Reviews|
Wieidenfeld and Nicolson (June 2001) 344 pages
ISBN: 0 297 64697 4
"Stories are just like families. They only have beginnings in books".
The Drink and Dream Teahouse is the name of a Chinese brothel. Just why Justin Hill chose to use it as the title for his book is food for thought. Perhaps, because to outsiders China itself sounds similarly exotic and enticing, but those who actually live and work there know that the reality is unromantic, hard work and gives them little control over their lives. Hill's book is certainly realistic about modern-day China and he does not romanticize it, but it is not a book of philosophy or polemic. It is a novel. And it is a wonderfully warm and humorous story of the lives of ordinary people in a village in Northern China.
The Drink and Dream Teahouse pictures China rather as films like "Farewell My Concubine" and "To Live" do. The story begins and ends in the village of Shaoyang where Number Two Space Rocket Factory, built by young Communist idealists just after Liberation in 1978, has just been closed down. Rumours as to what is to happen to it range from it being pulled down in order to build a bowling alley or a luxury hotel, to the land having been sold for nothing.
Old Zhu, as a young man, had helped to build the factory with his bare hands, believing that he was building the New China. He, like many of his neighbours, fought for Communism, lived through the Cultural Revolution, and has survived many hardships and changes. Now, he sees that he is expected to help build the new Socialist Market Economy. His son, Da Shan, has already become a rich capitalist entrepreneur in Guangzhou but his return to Shaoyang brings back memories of past disgrace, the result of his support for the fledgling Democracy Movement which was crushed in Tienanmen Square. Liu Bei, Da Shan's former student lover, was similarly disgraced but stayed on in Shaoyang with her small son. She works in the brothel.
The story follows these people and some of their neighbours through a single year, from Autumn to Autumn. It is a rich story, with a rich mixture of family life, love, sex, politics, corruption, laughter and sadness. And Hill, who has lived and worked in China, knows the people and the lives they lead well. He draws believable characters and pokes gentle fun at the customs and foibles of the villagers whose oddities are different, but no less odd, than those of our own Western society. And through their lives he gives us a glimpse of modern China and of the ways in which the Chinese deal with the radical changes through which they have lived and continue to live.
None of Hill's people is wholly happy: few, wholly sad. Life for all the characters is a matter of making the best of things and surviving, of enjoying small pleasures and bearing the sorrows. Perhaps this is more so in China, where life is less free, than it is for many outside China, but the people of Shaoyang are as sane, mad, weird and determined as the rest of us and it is a pleasure to briefly share their lives.
Whether the book deserves the $150,00 advance which was paid for it when it was still only 50 pages long, is questionable, but that is currently one of Western society's strange customs. It is, however, an unusual book which belies its pretty, romantic cover and is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
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