Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands

Review of Joshua Bird’s Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands (Routledge, 2017)

Review

The ban on Arabic script at halaal restaurants in Beijing last month is a somewhat small, yet unnerving reminder of China’s illiberal relationship with its various minority populations. More serious has been the reported detainment of a million-plus Uighur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang over the past couple of years. Similarly, the on-going detention of many Tibetan Buddhists—as well as a near universal ban of foreign travel for individuals living in the Tibetan region—also indicate a tense relationship between the single-party People’s Republic of China (PRC) and many minority populations.

The 55 “minority nationalities”, as defined by the Chinese party-state, only account for around eight percent of China’s 1.3 billion people. Yet, this non-Han population still amounts to a large number at over 100 million. How they do, or do not, interact with the overarching Han identity will continue to have a profound impact on China’s prosperity—particularly the farther one travels inward away from the coastal megalopolises.

Insightful and measured, Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands by Joshua Bird is a fascinating evaluation of the day-to-day lived experience of those non-Han individuals. This is a measured investigation specifically because Bird focuses his study on ordinary people, making an ordinary living in China, including simple businessmen, small-time retailers, provincial-level traders, and local entrepreneurs. This is not a book about extreme cases of minority repression. Rather, the background assumption here is that by concentrating on those individuals, who are materially tied into the system for their livelihood—which is, indeed, most minorities in China—the researcher can better judge the government’s development plans as a whole on these populations. The outlier cases often make for good journalism, but they rarely represent the experience of most minorities, who are simply trying to maintain some sense of ethnic or religious identity that is independent of the juggernaut that is Han culture and society.

The Chinese authorities’ official view has been that if they were to succeed in improving the economic development of minority nationalities, then this would inevitably lead to a diminishing of political identity. As Bird notes, official policies like the “Open Up The West” campaign

have been created in the explicit belief that increased economic growth in minority nationality areas, and improved livelihoods for those who live there, will facilitate greater national cohesion.

In this case, minority local languages and minority status are fine—even encouraged for reasons of tourism—as long as they don’t signal any type of independent political aspiration. The end goal would be… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Review of Joshua Bird’s Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; follow Josh on Twitter; photo image credit of the Dongxiang girl goes to the talented Peter Morgan, where you can also find him on Twitter. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Interpreter of Winds

Review of Fairoz Ahmad’s Interpreter of Winds (Ethos Books, 2019)

Review

A pious canine argues with a camel, a windy night lasts for years, and a Javanese keris blade is wielded to murder a village witch in Fairoz Ahmad’s enchanting short story collection Interpreter of Winds. A quick and charming read, this book includes four magical tales across Islamic communities in the Indonesian and Malay world. Some take place in a stylized colonial past and some in the contemporary world, where current struggles crash against the fantastical.

The main story with the same title of the collection follows the quest of a talking dog, whose master is unconscious of the adventure his canine pet is about to have. The dog wants to be inducted into the Islamic faith as a true Muslim like his master and sets out on journey after meeting a cantankerousness camel named Ghati on the roads. The dog soon endears himself to Ghati as they go in search of the winds of all four points. Upon meeting one of the fabled winds, the wind requests an “appropriate gift” to assist the faithful canine in his search. Another tale is then woven within the first as the dog responds, “The only gift I could offer to you is the gift of stories.”

This becomes… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Review of Fairoz Ahmad’s Interpreter of Winds originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of for this re-post is via wallup.net. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village

Review of Patcharin Lapanun’s Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village (NUS Press, 2019)

Review

Well-researched and easy to follow, Patcharin Lapanum’s Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village is a powerful reminder of how interconnected the world has become—and how love can emerge between the most disparate of individuals.

Though a work of academic anthropology, based mainly on Patcharin’s PhD research, the book is highly readable. The communities in the Isan region of Thailand, the women who inhabit these spaces, and the western men who end up sharing their lives with them are communicated with a non-judgmental clarity and sincerity. Patcharin’s meticulous examination of the lives of Thais in one village, some of whom have opted for marriage with foreign partners, makes for a fascinating and very contemporary ethnography.

Patcharin’s central argument is refreshing in that she does not want to bend the evidence to fit any narrative that denies women their agency in how they use their sexuality. The researcher is direct in saying that she is less interested in following many of her colleagues, who may be too quick to dismiss these relationships as a “gendered orientalizing project”, and more concerned about allowing the empirical evidence to speak for itself. Focusing on the “victimisation/oppression perspective” exclusively is often detrimental to “our understanding of the complexity of the current transnational phenomenon.”

This book goes against currently popular theories that wish to equate transnational marriage as nothing more than a front for sex trafficking. The research captures numerous moments of this bias, particularly by Western women, who may be inclined to emphasize a material—or even more crudely a transactional—interpretation of these relationships. As one Thai woman, who is married to Dutchman and works in a grocery store in the Netherlands, described in her own words:

Yes, my co-workers sometimes tease me about this. Once I was asked how much my husband paid to marry me. I didn’t take it seriously, but this is the way they think about us.

Patcharin stays true to the complicated nature of… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Patcharin Lapanum’s (พัชรินทร์ ลาภานันท์, ดร.) Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; another version of this review appeared in South China Morning Post; photo image credit of Phayakunkak Museum (พิพิธภัณฑ์พญาคันคาก or Toad Museum) in Phaya Tan public park in Yasothon, Thailand for this re-post is via the talented icon0com, whose website is also worth checking out here. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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We, The Survivors

Review of Tash Aw’s We, The Survivors (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)

Review

Various degrees of financial precariousness and a vibrant—yet maddeningly hot and humid—Malaysia are the theme and setting of Tash Aw’s newest novel We, The Survivors. Through the main character Ah Hock, an ethnically Hokkien Chinese Malaysian, a tantalizing story of broken family life that crisscrosses both the megacity of Kuala Lumpur and the tropical provinces and crashes violently into the country’s often callous use of “dark-skinned and foreign” migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal.

The novel is rich in despair. The author unforgivingly explores the peculiar benefits and vulnerabilities of being Chinese in the Malay-dominated Southeast Asian nation. Ah Hock is raised by a single mother and is shuttled back and forth from the provinces to the capital as they struggle to earn a living. Ah Hock’s mother sometimes works as a maid, sometimes in a restaurant, and later, when they purchase a small plot of land near the sea, as a vegetable farmer. But without luck or any social safety net, their poverty proves intractable when their land is flooded by the rising tides and the mothers becomes terminally ill. A young Ah Hock reflects:

… even at that age I knew, like everyone else, that it was hopeless. We were the wrong race, the wrong religion—who was going to give any help? Not the government, that’s for sure. We knew that for no-money Chinese people like us, there was no point in even trying.

Through an honest desire to better himself, Ah Hock’s situation… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Tash Aw’s (歐大旭) We, The Survivors originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of that yummy-looking Malaysian mooncake for this re-post is via the talented مانفی. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Bangkok Wakes to Rain

Review of Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain (Riverhead Books, 2019)

Review

Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s story of Bangkok is the most complete and engrossing tale of this megacity of fifteen million souls ever portrayed in a single publication. His debut novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain is as much an ode to the metropolis’s extremes as it is to the wide-ranging and singular characters that animate its streets and sois.

All of the characters of this novel connect with Bangkok, or what Bangkok once was, in a meaningful way. Some of Pitchaya’s uprooted individuals are displaced from a physical locality—others from traditions and histories that defined earlier versions of themselves and their communities. Those rituals they perform, some of them spiritual and some of them diurnal, are a way to connect themselves to a remembered past. Bangkok itself is an apt exemplar, as the town was born as a refuge after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in the 18th century. Much of early Bangkok was designed in remembrance of that former international trading port and royal house farther up the Chao Phraya River. Pitchaya artfully intertwines the fate of Bangkok—and what he later imagines as New Bangkok after a terrible flooding—with the main characters’ longing for things past.

The book contains many… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Bangkok Wakes to Rain originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post is via the talented Igor Bilic from Suzanne Nam‘s “The Truth about Thailand’s Rainy Season” in TripSavvy. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth

Review of Veeraporn Nitiprapha’s The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth, translated by Kong Rithdee (River Books, 2019)

Review

Some authors capture a time and place effortlessly. They draw upon aspects of popular culture and spin them into a literary tale that is more powerful and longer-lasting than the milieu from which they sprang. Veeraporn Nitiprapha is such a writer. But as her work has only appeared in Thai, she has been beyond the reach of most of the world.

One cliché that the author has taken aim at recently for the Thai reading public is the Thai soap opera. For context, one of the most viewed television series in Thailand these days is Club Friday—a series in its tenth season, which follows characters as they swim their way through counter-currents of romance, infidelity, and Buddhist karma. Into this media landscape, Veeraporn has published her artful and lyrical novel The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth. This is the first book-length translation of Veeraporn’s fiction in English. The novel is a poetic and surrealistic reimagining of the Thai romance, where the main characters are lost between unrequited desires and fantastical dreams that are realer than their everyday lives.

The story follows two vivacious sisters, Chalika and Chareeya, as they… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post is via the talented Nick Knight. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô

Review of Lōa Hô’s Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô, translated by Darryl Sterk (Honford Star, 2018)

Review

The newest English translation of Lōa Hô’s fiction in Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô is a fascinating reminder that Taiwan’s literary history began well before the Nationalist Chinese retreat to the island in 1949.

To say this is not to downplay the importance of pre-WWII literature in Taiwan—far from it as the thoughtful and picturesque short stories of Lōa Hô (Lai Ho) evidence. Rather, when fiction from Taiwan is translated into English, these stories often reflect the contemporary social world where individuals both thrive and struggle in a nation that is not quite recognized as a state on the international stage. What little Taiwanese fiction is translated into English tends to be from the post-war period.

Lōa Hô’s life spans the period between the start of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1945). This middle period of Japanese occupation of Taiwan during the 1920s−1930s is the setting for all of Lōa Hô’s stories. Lōa Hô’s willingness to compose more in Taiwanese vernacular as he matured as a writer ended up preserving a unique perspective for later generations.

Lōa Hô’s short stories explore the day-to-day machinations of foreign power on a very small scale. These stories capture the… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô, translated by Darryl Sterk, originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post is via Wikipedia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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