Thursday, March 27, 2014

Part 1: All Time Favourite Short Stories

1. "The Shadow Industry" - Peter Carey 

Simply the best distillation of consumerism in English literature. It could also have been written in the form of a sestina. The last paragraph also makes it a masterpiece of post-modernity.

Also recommended by the same author: "A Schoolboy Prank" - Anybody who went to an all-boy's school will relate to it.

2. "The Garden Party" - Katherine Mansfield

An obvious choice that beats "The Prelude" and "At the Bay" by the same author because they're more novellas than short stories. What this story has to say about classism still rings true today. More importantly, what it has to say about the facade of civilisation and its tactical remoteness from death is still relevant.

And like all great literature, it offers more questions than answers, ending with the line: "Isn't life...?"

Also recommended by the same author: Among many others, "The Wind Blows" is a finely-tuned reverie. "Feuille D'Album" is also a masterclass in portraying a character without boring the reader with too much description and a very rare example of shifting viewpoints working well in a short story.

3. "The First Class Passenger" - Anton Chekhov

A reminder that society's obsession with celebrity is neither a recent nor uniquely Western phenomenon. It's about an intellectual lamenting his lack of fame or status to a stranger on a train, until he learns who that stranger is. It's also a nice little anecdote on how professors deal with the resentment of not having much influence outside their own citadels.

Also recommended by the same author: "The Devil and the Shoemaker" does something similar for money as "The First Class Passenger" does for fame.

4. "Little Louise Roque" - Guy de Maupassant

A suspenseful story about madness and murder. The picture it paints of repression in the ruling class illustrates why so many people in positions of great responsibility (judges, surgeons, etc...) end up developing psychological issues. And like "The Devil and the Shoemaker," it shows that the rich live lives of quiet desperation just like you and I.

Also recommended by the same author: "Mother Sauvage" is the most powerful non-combat story about war I have ever read.

5. "The Mysterious Stranger" - Mark Twain

Even though it's set in 16th century Austria, it gives early 20th century anthropocentrism a kick in the nuts. Admittedly, this might have been developed into a novel had Twain lived longer, and there is no consensus as to what the most faithful version of the shot story is, but it does more to take apart organised religion than the entire careers of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins put together.

Also recommended by the same author: "Luck" is about a complete idiot who achieves all kinds of success without knowing how little he deserves it.

6-10 to come next month.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Creative Writing Tips

Considering that having a ridiculous plan is better than having no plan at all, I have started on a short-story writing project that is an attempt to become the Chekhov of Shenzhen. Because successful artists are so worshipped, the arts tend to attract the kinds of people whose chances of being taken seriously are such that they might as well be wearing a pink bikini. Plus, there is nothing more cruel or vain than a failed artist. 
But when you're working in Shunde you have to pass the time somehow so why not do so in the most megalomaniacal way possible? As Scottish academic Alastair McIntosh put it: The world is a ball of strings (economics, politics, philosophy, ecology) and we can't pull on one without unravelling some others. Literature, in my opinion, is the best way of unravelling all these strings at the same time.
Here are some tidbits of wisdom I have picked up so far. 
1. Listen to the advice of the greatsThis goes without saying. But ultimately, they all have their own idiosyncrasies and so will you. You have to carve out your own way. Here is mine. 
2. Have a plot: As screenwriting guru Robert McKee wrote in Story, politics is the art of making lies sound truthful, science garbles with complexity and perplexity, and religion is a series of moth-eaten rituals designed to mask hypocrisy. The medium people turn to nowadays is story, and - as neuroscience will tell you - storytelling is hardwired into our brains. We are our own heroes in our own stories, and every story we tell in a barroom is fictionalised in the sense that it is restructured to have a beginning, middle and end (and usually a hero and a villain). 
Don't worry about conveying a message. Your world view will come through if it's written well. 
3Try to stick to the 25-50-25 rule: The story should be structured to have the beginning make for about 25%, the middle account for about 50% and the end be about 25%. The middle 50% is the hardest and most important part to do well. Anybody can come up with an arresting opening paragraph or a heartwarming last sentence. It takes skill to keep the story moving forward without boring people.
4Write dialogue in characters' own voices: Dialogue should probably count for around 30% of the text but there are successful examples of it accounting for 0% or 100%. Most importantly,  the characters should talk in a way that sounds like themselves rather than the narrator or the author. But if a character has, say, a thick Oklahoma accent try not to make it too irritating, e.g. "Well I declare that that was darn rootin' tootin'. 
5Seek unobtrusive ways of evoking the appearance of a character: In 19th century novels such as "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo, when a character is introduced the author tends to spend a couple of paragraphs telling you outright what they looked like and what their personality was like. 
Christopher Isherwood's "Goodbye to Berlin," written at a time when novels were competing with the movies for people's attention, evokes the appearance of Sally Bowles by describing her tacky nail varnish and lipstick, giving a good enough impression of what a lost soul she is. To show that somebody is unrefined, have them snort loudly while they laugh or something. 
6. Read, read, read, read, read and read: This is the most important tip of all. Read all the good writing you can get your hands on. Bad writing is contagious. 
7. Creative writing courses are probably not a good idea: I did one and had a great time, but writing is not a career the way engineering or dentistry are careers (see number 10).  People way more qualified than me to have an opinion about it have called creative writing courses the biggest racket in academia. In what Philip Larkin called the "rented, intricate, uncaring world" of offices and factories, a qualification in creative writing is worth nada and to try to convince a young person otherwise is just irresponsible. 
What I have done for this project is find a writer who I admire (a published novelist, award-winning poet and prolific journalist) and employed him as a sort of mentor, at least in the early stages. When I've finished a draft, I'll pay a couple of thousand to one of the handful of people who knows Shenzhen well and has a proven track record of good writing to make sure the whole thing makes sense. 
8. Go out and hunt inspiration, don't sit waiting for it: At first I thought the inspiration for stories about Shenzhen would be the bizarre news items I covered and the even more bizarre people I befriended. Then I realised that the problem with this is that fiction has to be believable. 
It's up to you what you think can be the basis of a good story. In 1905, Arnold Bennett glanced at a peculiar old lady in a restaurant and she was the inspiration for a whole novel "The Old Wive's Tale." The other day I was in KFC (I'm not proud of it, I was hungry) and it was grossly understaffed so the queue was a bitch. When I got to the front, the girl serving me had a gentle smile on her flabby, acned face, not one of those awful fixed smiles you get from staff at 5 star hotels, but a sign that she really wasn't miserable in her work. Or maybe she was daydreaming. Either way, she would make a great character in a novel.
9. Don't try to write beautifully: Language is the window through which people look at the story. No bugger goes to a museum to admire the glass behind which the artefacts lie. Beautiful writing will ensue with practice. Pretty flourishes tend to only distract from the narrative and get cut out by editors anyway. 
10. We write because we write because we write: Writing is not utilitarian, neither are smiling, laughing or dancing. Those things make life worth living, so people shouldn't look for usefulness in them. 
Anyway, to tell people there is big market demand for good creative writing is neither helpful nor kind. The boom of the 80s and 90s is over and in the post-financial crisis world, the market is small and getting smaller. Even a lot of the well-known ones are struggling. 
Plus, worldly success (awards, bestseller lists, 5* reviews, etc...) is not a good thing to think about while writing. You have a star to follow. As Clive James put it: "If would be writers aren't capable of writing a book for its own sake, they shouldn't be writing at all." If you need to go to your grave knowing for sure whether your life's work had any value, writing is not for you. Go into animal psychology or something. 
The spirit of self-expression for its own sake is well encapsulated in the poem "Self-Protection" by D.H. Lawrence (who probably wouldn't have passed many biology tests):
When science starts to be interpretive
It is more unscientific even than mysticism.

To make self-preservation and self-protection the first law of existence
Is about as scientific as making suicide the first law of existence,
And amounts to very much the same thing.

A nightingale singing at the top of his voice
Is neither hiding himself nor preserving himself nor propagating his species;
He is giving himself away in every sense of the word;
And obviously, it is the culminating point of his existence.

A tiger is striped and golden for his own glory.
He would certainly be much more invisible if her were grey-green.
And I don’t suppose the ichthyosaurus sparkled like the humming-bird,
No doubt he was khaki-colored with muddy protective colouration,
So why didn’t he survive?

As a matter of fact, the only creatures that seem to survive
Are those that give themselves away in flash and sparkle
And gay flicker of joyful life;
Those that go glittering abroad
With a bit of splendour.

Even mice play quite beautifully at shadows,
And some of them are brilliantly piebald.

I expect the dodo looked like a clod,
A drab and dingy bird.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On translating comical lyrics into Chinese

Author and linguist Alan Garner once said: "The more I contemplate the process of translation, the more I want to find a dark corner and die."

The process is particularly tricky with humour. There are all kinds of reasons why much humour does not easily cross cultural boundaries. One of them is that different cultures have different taboos. 

George Carlin once said: "I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately." But when in an alien culture, finding the line is easier said than done. And the crossing of the line has to be done artfully. Mere offensiveness does not a funny person make, as Roy Chubby Brown's tedious rant against political correctness proves. 

Below is the video and lyrics of a song I wrote last year which is based on this article. Below that is my attempt at rendering it in Chinese. 

Billy - If you can't open YouTube, the Youku version is here

Billy would have sex every night his friends all wanted to know why 
He wasn't handsome and his income was low as you or I
Women would send him Facebook messages and call him on the phone
Honestly I don't think Billy's ever slept alone

I said: "Billy I know this afternoon you're getting laid twice.
But could you please take the time to give me some advice"
Billy said: "Son there's only one thing about me you should know
My standards are very very very very very very very low.

"So son when you meet a girl just be your charming self

Go for the under-confident ones who are left out on the shelf
It doesn't matter if she's ugly, sweaty, flatulent or rude
Most important go for the ones with really low I.Q."

One of his partners was a big fat tattoo wearing seven time mum

One of them couldn't even come without a thumb in her ear
Whenever Billy walks up to a barrel he doesn't scrape from the top
He even says yes to the girls who use the phrase "Paki shop"

Billy said: "Son you'd never believe the fetishes some people have
One girl asked me to spit in her face and call her a dirty chav
One night in a public toilet a girl said "Let's do it here"
Even though the guy in the stall next door had raging diarrhea."

Billy said all this wisdom applies to women too
Say yes to all the dirty old men who grope and ogle you
Some of these men won't even bother taking off their socks
Scientists call this phenomenon the Wanker's Paradox

Nowadays I use this knowledge to chase after girls
I'm not after yoga teachers, film stars or Miss World
I don't care if she's a beautiful soul or has a charming face
Now I'm going on a date with a woman who looks like Ricky Gervais

Aside from the U.K slang words such as "chav" (white trash) and "Paki shop" (a racist term for a corner shop owned by people from the subcontinent), this can't be directly translated into the language of a nation where sex isn't ubiquitous in the media.  You can't sing about taking pride in having one-night-stands, let alone in public toilets. 

So, how could I maintain the spirit of the English version while singing about things the Chinese could relate to? 

I changed the main character to a female, and changed the character's goal to finding a marriage partner rather than getting laid. 

This makes it about an issue that gets a lot of media attention in China and among China watchers (leftover women). And it ends by talking about a much bigger social timebomb (leftover men). It attempts to maintain the spirit of the original without being filthy or discussing taboo subjects.

《小美》 - Xiao Mei (with subtitles) If you can't open YouTube, you can see the Youku version here

Xiao Mei from Dongbei is almost 28
She has a very high income but she still hasn't married
Her parents, colleagues, friends, brothers and sisters
Have all told me of their fear that she'll become a leftover woman

Recently I asked Xiaomei: "Are you worried too?" 
On the spot, she invited me to her wedding next year
She said she'll find a husband, she knows this for sure
Because her standards are very ve very very very very very very low

She said she'll start dating very soon
She said she doesn't require her boyfriend to be rich
She's not after a government official or a tall, dark, handsome millionaire
She'll also accept men who gamble and smoke

Her ex-boyfriend was a loser who never graduated
She left him after they were together for a year
It wasn't because her boyfriend took a shit on the street
It's because he didn't allow Xiaomei to swear

Xiaomei said single men should have the same attitude as her
Please don't care too much about girls' apperance
You also shouldn't care too much about whether her skin is pale
The only thing that matters is whether she can give you a baby

I've learned a lot from Xiaomei
Now I don't mind girls who pick their noses
My married life will start very soon
Now I'm going to tell my parents about my highly flatulent lover

Straddling the boundary between mindless vulgarity and mindful vulgarity can be a challenge. 

Billy - Kevin McGeary

Friday, August 24, 2012

Still alive

Seeing as Blogger's blocked in China, these are some of the places I now hang out online:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Translated lyrics

Here are English translations of some of my Chinese song lyrics.

I see migrant workers every day
I know nothing about their lives
Today I have nothing to do
So I ask a migrant worker about his life

He seldom sees his wife or son
From sun-up to sun-down he hands out fliers on the street
He seems to have it really hard
And every day he eats food made with gutter oil

But even migrant workers have their dreams
Some day he'll become a boss who bullies his workers

He can't make it home next Spring Festival
He has to be in an internet bar to go on QQ
He really faces a lot of pressure
And he's looked down on by a lot of useless people

Right now this migrant worker has a life full of hardship
But some day he'll be a playboy with three mistresses

Every day he meets people who don't accept fliers
But one day he'll run them all over in his BMW

In the past I wasn't a good man, I've never married but I've kept mistresses
At that time I loved drinking, chasing girls, smoking, eating fast food and playing cards
I loved swearing, I also often picked my nose
I was a non-conformist

Now, my only hobby is staying at home and looking after my sister's baby
In the evenings I watch TV such as "Desperate Housewives" and "If You Are The One" 
I'm getting better and better at changing the baby
I'm a house husband

Aiyayayeah Aiyayaoh!
Being boring makes me happy
Aiyayayeah Aiyayaen
I'm slowly becoming
An urbane man. 

In case I have dirty thoughts, I keep a condom on at all times
Because there's porn on the internet, I don't allow computers in the house
When I'm in a bar, I will only drink 7-Up
On occasion I'll drink Sprite.

Aiyayayeah Aiyayaoh!
Being boring makes me happy
Aiyayayeah Aiyayaen
I'm slowly becoming
An urbane man. 

Baby baby 我真爱你
Baby baby I love you
But we have to wait until we're married before we can hold hands. 

Before parting
I would like to tell you
I often caress your face
In my daydreams

You are my third favourite married woman
我永远忘不了你, 我暗恋的老板。 
I will never forget you, the boss I had a crush on

Since parting
I regret not telling you
I intend to break up with my girlfriend
Do you intend to leave your husband?

You are more mature than my girlfriend, and you make more money
I still want to be your free toy-boy

Maybe I'm immoral
But I have a house and a car

Northeastern women are not beautiful
Taiwanese singers are all gay
Xinjiangese people speak Chinese even worse than I do
I hate Hunan the least

Hong Kong men all have mistresses
Chongqing people aren't corrupt enough
I also hate Hebei and Henan
I hate Hunan the least

I don't love Changsha
I can't eat soy duck
I want to beat up Wang Han (a Hunan TV star)
But, but, but
I hate Hunan the least

Yunnan has nice air
Shanghai has no domestic violence
I also don't hate Sichuan
But I hate Hunan the least

Beijing scholars are stupid
They look down on Shenzhen
Shenzhen people look down on their own hometowns
I hate Hunan the least

I don't love Changsha
I can't eat soy duck
I want to beat up Wang Han (a Hunan TV star)
But, but, but
I hate Hunan the least

But but but
I really hate
I really hate
I really hate Yueyang

I eat pizza every day
我经常说 “Hey man”
I often say "hey man"
I'm afraid I don't have a QQ number
I only have MSN

I drink beer like it was juice
I can't eat spicy food
I have a hairy chest
I don't shower in the morning

I don't play Mahjong
I don't have black hair
I quite admire Li Yang
But I'm afraid of being hit by him

I hate being called Laowai
My Chinese pronunciation is very strange
My sister has pale skin
She also has big eyes

I eat pizza every day
我经常说 “Hey man!”
I often say "hey man!"
My country is more developed than China
But needs your money

Thursday, May 05, 2011

current blog

I do my blogging at now.

The English is on the lower half of every post.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Wisdom of The Simpsons

Below is another post relating my all-time favourite TV show to some life-experiences I've had.

When I was 14 and underperforming in school...underperforming is too weak a word, the kind of word that parents use to deflect talk of their problems. I was failing and frequently being called "a disaster" "a failure" "a fuck-up" from all directions.

In an attempt to get me focused on my studies, my parents first banned me from playing the guitar, then banned me from watching the Simpsons.

Of course I was angry, but this is just the kind of thing that would have happened in The Simpsons, and if it did, it wouldn't be portrayed judgmentally, but portrayed with equanimity.

Two such scenes from the Simpsons reflect my situation well. In the first, Homer and Marge are called in to meet Bart's school counselor, and when asked for his opinion the counselor declares "Bart needs to learn to be less of an individual and more of a faceless blob." In the other, Homer first meets Marge in a detention. When explaining why he is there, Homer says "they put me in detention for being me. I come here every day and be me, and they punish me for it."

Directly after graduating from my Bachelors, I took a summer job. It was a job in which some students make a lot of money, but most make a net loss. The company that ran this summer program were excellent at taking credit for the successes and dodging responsibility for the failures.

In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer gets sponsored by the Power Sauce Energy-Bar company to climb a mountain. When the company loses faith in Homer, they start looking for other people to blame. On reaching the top, Homer scraps the plan of planting a Powersauce flag on the top, and instead places a 'Simpsons' flag. For me, this symbolizes a rejection of the pseudo-collectivism that some companies cultivate for their own self-interest.

For the last three years, I've been working as a teacher. In an episode of the Simpsons where Lisa meets a particularly inspiring teacher, the teacher explains: "One day you'll miss your brother's antics. When your life takes you to far away places, places where your itelligence is an asset, not a liability. " I've always been aware that I'm a pawn in this education-system (same as I would be back home), but I've always striven for this level of connection with my students. As for the substance of what he says, "places where your intelligence is an asset, not a liability." The (as I then thought) exam-orientated, spirit-crushing, secondary schooling system I went through, was an innocent child compared to the one I'm working in now.

And the last scene I'd like to reference, Bart sits down with his fallen idol Krusty the Klown. Bart explains to the impoverished, crestfallen clown "My mom says God never closes a door without opening a window." Krusty prompty replies "No offence kid, but your mom's a dingbat." In Empire of Illusion Chris Hedges writes eloquently about how positive psychology can strangle creativity and moral autonomy. I also have experience of the tyranny of mindless optimism, and Krusty the Klown so eloquently defends my position here.