Travel literature review: China Underground

China Underground by Zachary Mexico

Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Louise McGregor

Louise McGregor lives in Amsterdam, works on websites, and spends her spare time reading and planning her next trip.

China Underground has a cast of hundreds; from a photojournalist to the rock star, from a prostitute to filmmaker, from the gay scene in China to the dark world of a game known as “Killers”, Zachary Mexico takes us through the underworld of China. It’s a world that visitors to China rarely glimpse.

There is a strong focus on the people of this world so it reads more as a collection of short stories rather than a travelogue. The star of each chapter is someone from a subculture, sometimes borderline legal, sometimes undoubtedly illegal. Some would be more mainstream in the West, but others – the gangsters, prostitutes and drug dealers – inhabit a similar milieu wherever they exist.

Mexico has a talent for explaining the cultural or historic background with a light touch, and it’s often important to know that background to understand the present. It’s hard to fathom the complete underground nature of homosexuality in China without understanding that Confucianism sees it as unnatural and the Communists labelled it a mental disorder until relatively recently.

Through the eyes of students, filmmakers, prostitutes, and drug dealers we see evidence of some of the weaknesses or failures of China, and the resulting cracks in society. It’s very far from the official stories, and although it’s always told factually you get a sense of the writer’s affection for China.

There are occasional errors; Uighur is a Turkic language, not Arabic although it has used an Arabic script. But on the whole this is an enlightening read, showing a side of China usually kept hidden.

In essence Zachary Mexico has written about modern life, modern life with Chinese characteristics.

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