Last Kiss in Tiananmen Square by Lisa Zhang Wharton

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Today we’re talking about China. Glorious China. Not Taiwan. The PRC. They have the best China, the biggest China you’ve ever seen. Let me explain. Lately about 3.8% of my traffic has been Chinese users who have found me on Baidu. Other search engines provide less than 2%, because of course they do; I’m not exactly a hot commodity. So something is causing Hot Off the Presses to generate buzz in China, and that led to today’s experiment. I want to get banned in China, not because I don’t want the lovely people of that country to read my content, but because not being banned by the PRC feels gross. It’s like finding out you were on Charles Manson’s approved visitor list. Actually, now that I type that I would have loved to be on that list, but it’s not the same. Anyway, I wanted to know what happens if I review a book that has “Tiananmen Square” in the title, so here we are. Last Kiss in Tiananmen Square by Lisa Zhang Wharton is a slice-of-life historical romance set in 1989 during the large scale student uprisings in Beijing in the late spring of that year.

“A new world appeared in front of Baiyun. She did not know what it was yet, but it was becoming clearer and clearer.”

Our main protagonist is Baiyun, a university student dealing with family drama and daily challenges in the bustling, chaotic city. Her home life is strained by her father’s mental incapacity and her mother’s conga line of boyfriends. At school she makes the most of the austere facilities and hectic schedule. Our extended introduction to her life carries through a long description of using the common showers and lackluster cafeteria with her dormmate, resident slut-bucket Yumei, until the pair is yanked from their routine by students ominously handing out flyers about the death of reformer Hu Yaobang.

Zhang Wharton pays close attention to the food, from the crappy cafeteria fare to her mother’s reheated leftover stir fry, and this goes a long way toward making the setting feel real, but it also put me in my familiar “prepare to flinch” stance, because these are college students we’re talking about, and it was only a matter of time before these food descriptions turned to a proper Chinese booze up. Gather round the good chair, children, and listen to the story of that time your weird aunt who is no longer invited to Thanksgiving for reasons we won’t get into here was introduced to gaoliangjiu. Somewhere in Shandong province there is a factory that makes paint thinner. Any batch that is too astringent to be used as paint thinner in a closed room without PPE gets sent to the rat poison factory down the road. Sometimes you don’t pay attention and your rat poison goes off, and the only thing to do is send it down the road to the baijiu factory. And every once in a while, just once in a blue moon mind you, you get a rusty bucket (I assume it comes in rusty buckets) of flammable rot gut that is unacceptable to the delicate palate of the discerning baijiu customer. When that happens, you distill it one more time, vent the fluorocarbons, strain out some of the mice, and slap a label on it that says “gaoliangjiu.” Gaoliangjiu is a palate flenser* that offers no escape. You can’t mix it with juice, because whatever you add will either curdle, cook, or sublime directly into a gas and escape. It’s like if you stuffed a filing cabinet full of plastic waste, set it on fire, and threw it down a spiral staircase, only the staircase is your esophagus, and when it hits the bottom all the drawers fly open releasing angry bees.

*You try writing jokes every week and see if they’re all winners.

“During the five years of re-education in the countryside, he had worked hard. He wanted the sweat to wash away his sorrow, and the soil to bury his grief.”

Where was I? Ah, yes. Next we are introduced to Dagong, the son of a business owner who has been beaten down by the Cultural Revolution. He is now a middle aged engineer, living in a crowded building that was once his deceased aunt’s home and playing too much chess with his friend Lao Liu. Lao Liu is a disaffected cop, tired of busting teenagers for agitating for a better life. Both men feel that there are political winds shifting, and Dagong wonders for the first time in decades if real change might be possible.

Dagong and Baiyun run into each other when they find themselves swept up in a student protest on a chilly, wet day. Dagong offers to take Baiyun and Yumei away on his bicycle before the latter gets hypothermia, and later spends more time with Baiyun. The two wander the university campus and catch a popup concert by a young rock star. Baiyun is flattered by the attention of the handsome, chivalrous older man. We learned in an earlier chapter that she’s into older men anyway, and is still getting over her romantic feelings for one of her mother’s previous boyfriends. Dagong for his part feels rejuvenated, woken up by the passion of the student movement, and the beautiful young woman in front of him.

I already mentioned that the setting feels very real. The daily habitus of life in late twentieth century Beijing is laid out in intimate detail. There are scenes in which traffic cops try to regulate how many people can ride on the same bicycle (apparently being able to fit a lot of people on your bicycle was a major preoccupation at the time), and cyclists happily ignore them. It’s charming, but not nostalgic. The book gives a powerful sense of being in the middle of something large, amorphous, and energizing. I’ve seen criticism of the 1989 student protests that boil down to not having a very coherent set of ideals other than the vague demand of reform, but this is often how grassroots movements work: no one is steering the bus, and no one is even sure where the bus is going. Also, there is one guy on the bus who is convinced that every demonstration he goes to is an invitation to rant about the electoral college. Give it a rest, Warren.

“‘Even a dead man like me can come back to life,’ said Dagong.”

I take democracy for granted, and deep down I probably take authoritarianism in China as a given as well. Living as I do in a country that slaps you with one hand and pats you on the head with the other, I can sort of appreciate the Chinese government’s complete lack of pretense. Google the Great Hall of the People where the National People’s Congress meets. It’s literally an auditorium. Like, the kind you would have pep rallies in. You know how, when there’s a play happening on stage, people in the auditorium will raise their hand and contribute a constructive idea? Remember all the times you’ve seen that happen? Whoever built this thing was like “Yeah, nobody’s gonna need to have a two way conversation in this room.” Beautiful ceiling, though. Communists consistently have better ceilings.

I don’t know if stories like Last Kiss in Tiananmen Square make the problem of authoritarianism in China feel more immutable, because so little has changed in thirty years, or more urgent and immediate. Either way, this was an engaging love story with likable characters and a fascinating setting. It’s three dollars on Kindle. I don’t know if Amazon is blocked in China, or if you can get the book on Alibaba, which seems inconvenient. But I’m sure if anyone in the PRC had a problem with their government’s internet policy, we would have heard them complain about it online by now.

I’ll be traveling too much in December to post, but I will be sure to keep up with whatever Amazon throws at me and get back to you in January.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

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