Staff Picks

Christmas Staff Picks8 min read


It’s not too late for some last minute Christmas shopping – so the editors of the China Channel are stepping in with the third installment of our winter staff picks. From books to films to music and audiobooks, these recommendations are of the overlooked fringes of Chinese society – junk, gangsters, domestic workers, Turkic beats – and so not your traditional festive fare. But who needs It’s a Wonderful Life when you can watch a slapstick Sino-Russo romcom instead?  – The Editors

Recommended by Jeff Wasserstrom (founder):
Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, by Adam Minter

I’ll begin this recommendation with a disclosure and a confession. The disclosure: Adam Minter is a friend whom I have enjoyed meeting up with and talking to about China since the scrap metal beat, of all things, took him to Shanghai about a decade ago. The confession: I’ve only had the chance so far to read the first part of his second book. There are three reasons, though, while I still feel confident suggesting Secondhand as a gift. One: it is written in the same unpretentious yet informative, personal yet knowledgeable style as his debut book. Two: that first book, Junkyard Planet, on a similar topic of China’s trash and recycling, was excellent. Third: while blurbs should always be taken with a grain of salt, climate-change writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s endorsement speaks volumes: “Minter’s travels through the afterlife of stuff are revelatory, terrifying, but ultimately hopeful.”

Recommended by Alec Ash (managing editor):
Murders of Old China, an audiobook by Paul French

At risk of further rolling the yule log, I’m recommending a new project from China Channel contributor Paul French, author of China noir Midnight in Peking. This narrative non-fiction audiobook investigates a dozen murder and true crime stories from across China in the early twentieth century. French’s lilting London tones take listeners from warlord-wracked Beijing, through Shanghai’s skyscape and onto the bandit-ridden hinterlands of the Tibetan border and Inner Mongolia. The historical backdrop is the dying days of the Qing Dynasty and the first decades of the Chinese Republic, with asides on the foreign community in China, racial tensions and the criminal underworld. From imperialism to revolution, history to homicide, it’s the perfect antidote to Christmas cheer, and you don’t need to lift a finger – just lie back, stuffed full of fowl, and press play.

Recommended by Anne Henochowicz (contributing editor):
Eagle, an album by Mamer

The eponymous opening track of this album crackles to life with the tuning of a radio, shifting from Chinese opera music to a Turkic-language talk show, then settling on Mamer’s deep, clear voice. It’s an homage to the Kazakh folk music that still lingered on the airwaves when he was growing up in Xinjiang, and to his dedication to the living Kazakh musical tradition. Mamer learned to play the dombra when he was four, and plays the two-stringed lute as if it were an extension of his voice. He strums joyfully in ‘Celebration,’ where he’s joined by Béla Fleck on the banjo. The dombra anchors him in my favorite song, ‘Mountain Wind,’ holding a line to the surface as he dives into the lowest, most resonant corners of his vocal range. To me, Eagle is just as fresh and intense as when it was released in 2009 by Real World Records (Peter Gabriel’s world music label). Yet with the ongoing mass internment of over one million ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, the album sounds all the more open and free – like a bird of prey unaware that it will soon be pinioned and hidden from the world.

Recommended by Nick Stember (contributing editor):
How I Became Russian, a film by Xia Hao and Akaki Sakhelashvili

Taking the tone down a bit, my recommendation for your holidays is a slapstick Sino-Russo romcom. Imagine, if you will, Meet the Parents directed by Werner Herzog. More seriously, How I Became Russian (or in Chinese “Battle Nation Bildungsroman” 战斗民族养成记) is a great example of the emerging wild and woolly world of international co-productions that are sidestepping Hollywood entirely, even as they continue to borrow heavily from mainstays of the Sunset Strip such as Farrelly and Phillips. While everything is, undeniably, funnier with farts and booze, it’s a treat to see a movie whose target audience splits the difference between two nations that (with the exception of the brief realpolitik romance between Stalin and first Chiang, then Mao) aren’t exactly known for seeing eye to eye. Jokes are had at the expense of both, but in true romcom fashion, love conquers all. If you’re not convinced yet, just look at that poster!

Recommended by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (advising editor):
Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home, by Megan K. Stack

I can’t remember anything I’ve read lately that fulfilled the journalistic mandate “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” so perfectly as this book by journalist Megan Stack. Stack, who reported from the Middle East and Moscow before she and her husband landed postings in Beijing, left her job while pregnant with her first child, planning to switch gears and write a novel. Instead, she found herself struggling to work, her attention divided between words on a screen and the women who made their lives possible – the housekeepers who cooked, cleaned, and cared for her son, while spending precious little time with their own families and earning wages far below what they’d get in the West. Women’s Work is both a memoir and a piece of investigative journalism, as Stack seeks to understand the ethics of the domestic labor market in Asia and her position of privilege within it. We would all benefit from deeper reflection on the choices we make and how they embed us in systems of labor and capital that often force us to rationalize the ethics of our decisions.

Recommended by Brian Spivey (assistant editor)

Living Shrines of Uyghur China, a photography book by Lisa Ross

This book is a collection of beautiful photos of Xinjiang’s “living shrines” – Islamic holy sites built and maintained by pilgrims over the course of centuries. Fashioned with plain items like sticks, flags, stones and sheepskins, these shrines nonetheless appear as otherworldly apparitions in the middle of the desert, yet are of profound spiritual significance and meaning. The photographs provide a visual journey to a part of China that even the most seasoned traveler will likely not have encountered. It is hard to know how many of these shrines photographed by Lisa Ross, who spent ten years traveling to the region to capture these photos, still exist in the same form or if at all today. As such, the 2013 book might turn out to be important historical documentation. Ross’s ethereal photographs are accompanied by essays from Beth Citron, Rahila Dawut and Alexandre Papas, which provide a useful context and history for the reader.

Recommended by Olivia Humphrey (assistant editor)
Mirrorlands: Russia, China, and Journeys in Between by Ed Pulford

My pick (itself a recommendation from Jeff Wasserstrom) is Mirrorlands by Ed Pulford. Mirrorlands is a travelogue that charts the author’s 2,600 mile journey from Moscow to Beijing, and takes a decidedly unusual route that criss-crosses the Sino-Russian border. Pulford is fascinated with the relationship between these two countries – a fascination that lead to an anthropology PhD on a small town at the frontier. This book is wonderfully readable (presumably, more so than that dissertation) and a great blend of past and present. Pulford charts “chance encounters” that sparked “conversations with traders at Siberian or Manchurian markets, Asian’ Russians trying to belong in a country ignorant of their existence, and ethnically ‘Russian’ citizens of China who speak no Russian.” A personal favourite of mine was the chapter on Manchuria, where Pulford introduces the border town of Hunchun with a visit to an emporium selling “a variety of typo-ridden cans of fake Baltika beer.”

Recommended by Paul French (contributor):
Ash is the Purest White, a film by Jia Zhangke

Christmas TV ain’t what it used to be in these days of downloads, streaming and Blueray. No more are we all gathered round the Idiot Box after dinner to watch The Great Escape and listen to grandma snore. Yet Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s newest masterpiece, a study of the jianghu outlaw lifestyle of a gangs in a depressing mining town, might make for more unusual Christmas watching. Somehow, it was given a cinema release in China (though I suspect if it was to be released now it would fall victim to the deep winter afflicting China’s movie business). The film tells the story of Qiao, whose boyfriend Bin is a dashing gangster working for a corrupt property developer. After his boss is murdered, Bin ascends in rank within the jianghu (criminal brotherhood) and finds himself vulnerable to rival hostilities. It’s a great movie with stand out performances from Zhao Tao and Liao Fan. Perfect post-gluttony film fare. ∎