It is ages since I wrote a book review, about time I remedied that!
The Year of the Shanghai Shark by Mo Zhi Hong is a wonderful lighthearted yet thoughtful depiction of an adolescent growing up in modern China.
Set in Dalian, a big port/seaside city in north-eastern China during 2002/3 (the year of the SARS epidemic ) Hai Long is a fourteen year old lad living with his uncle. It seems both his parents died many years previously. Uncle is a voracious reader, their apartment is full of books, and Uncle is always buying more. He is a quiet dignified man who respects and encourages learning. One is not quite sure what he does for a living. Hai Long has several siblings, all farmed out to other members of his parents’ families. One brother excels at mathematics and sciences, gaining top marks in all the important exams. He plans to go to university in the USA but to do so he has to pass the IELTS English test. Study as hard as he might, he fails it several times, always defeated by the oral exam – for which he blames the Irish/Australian and German examiners who, he claims, speak too fast and not using ‘proper’ American English! His dreams slowly fade and he has to take menial jobs wherever he can find them. A fate which befalls many bright young Chinese.
Hai Long and his close friends Po Fan and Xiao Wang, hangout in the streets, go to school and get up to mischief together. They like nothing better than drinking Coke and eating McDonald’s fries and Kentucky Fried Chicken (which they are amazed to discover are not Chinese companies). Obsessed with basketball, they spend hours watching NBA basketball on TV, and think Michael Jordan is the greatest player who ever lived. It is their dream that the star player of the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, Yao Ming (whose Chinese nickname is: ‘the moving Great Wall‘), should become a major basketball star in the USA , and during this year he does exactly that – hence the title of the book.
Hai Long also makes friends with a wide range of people in the city – some many years older than he is. Their lives as seen through this young man’s eyes give the reader a real picture of urban living in today’s China. There is Old Stone, a semi-beggar who sits unmoving in the street beside an old bathroom scales and people give him small change to weigh themselves; Hai Long takes to reading the newspaper aloud to him after school everyday, whilst Old Stone rails against America a country he believes is China’s worst enemy. Gambler Dang, another character he knows well, lives in an upstairs apartment in the same block as Hai Long and Uncle. He runs an illegal Mah Jiang (mahjong) gambling den in his front room – many men go there to play, gamble, smoke and drink beer – during the Y ear of the Shanghai Shark Gambler Dang’s fortunes go up and down as he attracts the attention of the local police, and bribes are demanded. ‘The Poet’ is a man who spends his days writing poetry on the sidewalks and paved areas in the central park of the city, using a mop and bucket of water to produce the writing – each line evaporating as it dries – leaving just the memory of his words in the bystander’s mind.
During this year Uncle decides that Hai Long has had enough schooling and that he will now teach him to follow in Uncle’s footsteps – as a professional pickpocket! Every month Uncle used to head off to Beijing (only a few hours away by train) and target the hoards of foreign tourists who flock to visit the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven and the glitzy shopping malls. Dazed, confused and usually jet-lagged, their wallets bulge with local currency and with US dollars and they are easy to rob.
Hai Long is made to do hours of practice and many dummy runs before Uncle will take him on an actual crime spree. But soon, between them, they are making more and more money. Uncle then starts them working their own city and eventually starts targeting the rich locals as the number of tourists has dwindled because of SARS. His increasingly urgent desire to amass more cash at any cost however risky, and despite having to unleash violence on some of his targets, only makes sense at the very end of the book.
Both teenagers and adults will find this an interesting, amusing and entertaining read and I really recommend it.