Martin Alexander (editor) Asia Literary Review 25, [Northern] Autumn 2012
Chinese artist and filmmaker Zhang Bingjiang has an ongoing project entitled Hall of Fame: a series of portraits of officials convicted of corruption, each painted in the colours of the 100-yuan note. No mainland gallery has agreed to exhibit the paintings, of which there are so far more than 1600. Journalist Audra Ang explores the story behind food contamination scandals in China. He Jiahong, a crime novelist (whose ‘Hanging Devils’ is reviewed elsewhere in the issue) and former high-up official in a Chinese anti-corruption agency, outlines a basic, probably over-optimistic proposal for curbing corruption in the People’s Republic.
This issue of Asia Literary Review is dedicated to crime and corruption, and as those three articles indicate, it comes at the subject from many angles.
The Philippines get a double guernsey: Luis H. Francia reports on Give Up Tomorrow, a film by Marty Syjuco and Michael Collins about a blatant miscarriage of justice in which seven young men were found guilty of rape and murder in a case whose every aspect was shaky, including the identity of the victim. Carla Camille L. Mendoza reminds us with lyrical sarcasm of the spectacularly corrupt times of Imelda Marcos and her husband ‘Ferdie’.
Jang Jin-sung, a defector from North Korea, paints a grim picture of endemic corruption in his country resulting from a failed economy in an authoritarian state. Veteran journalist Farrukh Saleem describes systemic corruption in Pakistan. Mumbai resident Dilip D’Souza does the same for India, but undermines any easy self-righteous indignation by relating the large-scale political corruption to the almost universal disregard for the law by ordinary Mumbai residents: on his daily five-kilometre drive to his son’s school, ‘Nobody, and I mean nobody, stops for a red light.’
Still in India, Shashi Warrier, a thriller writer, interviews a rural worker whose brother is probably a member of a violent Maoist group. These groups are evidently a bigger threat to Indian security than the Pakistani-backed Kashmiri secessionists, and it’s clear that endemic government corruption is as effective a breeding ground for Maoists in India as it is for lethal fly-by-night food operations in China.
There’s fiction too, of which three stories stand out for me. Prosper Anyalechi’s I’m Praising Him Right Now, translated (from Japanese? Igbo) by Dreux Richard, is a wonderfully animated story of Nigerian immigrants living by their wits on the edges of the law in Tokyo. John Burdett’s A Day in the Life of Curly Jones, Lawyer brings a similar relish to Western expat lawyers wheeling and dealing with dubious legality in Hong Kong. Tew Bunnag’s Eyes of Karma, which begins with a monk meditating in a Thai monastery, turns out to be non-comic version of Sister Act.
I do have a complaint: a number of the fiction pieces are excerpts from longer works, but there’s no warning of this except the end of each one. I’m a primitive reader – I read for the story. So after being left hanging once, I checked each story and skipped the ones that said they were extracts. I made an exception for the extract from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves Reloaded by Poulomi Mukherjee and Amit Tayal, a comic book which may be worth seeking out in its entirety.
And there’s poetry. I’m not sure what to do with poems written by people with Western names lamenting how hard life is in a North Korean prison camp (without evidence , who’s to know if it’s US propaganda or someone speaking of what he knows?), or those that are hard to distinguish from touristic observations. And my familiar sense of being an outsider looking in when reading poetry is given a little boost by opaque cultural difference in a number of the poems here. I did, however, enjoy encountering all of them. I particularly liked Sivakami Velliangiri’s ‘Silent Cooking and Noisy Munching‘, which describes ‘old women with gagged mouths / cooking for the gods, in silence’, and discovers in their discipline and grace a metaphor for her art, and Changming Yuan’s ‘A Concise History of China in English‘, a witty piece made from little more than a list of Chinese words that have had vogues in the West over the centuries.
In short, a good read.