China Books

Zachary Mexico's China Underground

China Underground

Zachary Mexico (Mexico is a pseudonym) plays in a band, and makes videos for Current TV. He wrote a book, called China Underground, depicting his experiences of Chinese youth culture.

Mexico participated in the International Bookworm Literary Festival, which has just ended here in the cities of Beijing, Suzhou, Shanghai and Chengdu.

From the preface of Mexico's China Underground (Soft Skull Press):

While most journalists were focusing on these kinds of macro-level, socio-economic situations, others, most notably the sublime New Yorker correspondent Peter Hessler, were publishing narratives about their own experiences in today’s China. But I wanted to read something different. I wanted to read about the crazy people I’d met in China and the even crazier people they’d introduced me to. I wanted to read about the streets that hum with the energy of constant change, and how that change affects the young Chinese of my generation.

Scott Sykes interviewed Mexico about the book for his blog 36PR:

So Mexico wrote his own book. Whilst not claiming that it's anything new, it did mean that Mexico could stop waiting for what he really wanted to read. Here's a taster:

Chaper I: The Peasant Who Likes to Take Pictures; excerpt

by Zachary Mexico

After just a few weeks of study and meditation at the monastery, Maohair shaved his head and dressed in monk’s robes. He had made his decision: he was going to pursue a monastic life. First, though, he had to travel back to his village to get the blessing of his parents.

Back home, his father was irate. Buddhism was okay, it was sanctioned by the Communist Party and everything, but a monk was even lower in social status than a peasant! Monks made even less money than peasants! They had to beg for their food! No way are you becoming a monk, said his father, and Maohair reluctantly listened.

Maohair wanted to become a monk to seek intellectual and spiritual fulfillment. But now that he had reluctantly agreed not to return to the monastery, he couldn’t stay in his village: there was nothing to do there except get pressured by his parents. He decided to travel south to Beijing, China’s political and cultural capital, and expand his mind in a different way.

He had no friends in Beijing, and he rode the train still wearing monk’s robes, carrying only a small bag containing his camera and a few books. When he got to the city, it blew
his mind: enormous wide avenues, giant skyscrapers jutting into the sky, and people walking down the streets so fast it was almost as if they were running.

During his first few days in Beijing, Maohair wandered around the city, sleeping in empty stairwells at night. He couldn’t believe how big the place was, and how expensive; he had a few hundred yuan in his pocket left over from his wedding photographer days, and his father had slipped him some money before he left, but he needed to find some work and a place to live.

He exchanged his monk’s outfit for a T-shirt and jeans he bought at a secondhand market and found a hostel where a dormitory bed was only 8 yuan ($1) a night. “It was at that hostel,” Maohair remembers, “where I truly began to learn new things. The place was full of rock musicians, wandering artists, and wandering writers. Guys who played guitar in the subway to make money. That is where I learned about life.”

At night, these bohemians would sit in the courtyard out- side the hostel, eating peanuts and drinking Beijing’s infamous and dirt-cheap erguotou rice wine from a communal bowl.

They would stay outside, drinking and swapping stories, until the sun was about to come up and then they’d all go inside to the huge dormitory and try to fall asleep amid the cacophony of their roommates’ drunken snoring.

Maohair enrolled at a cheap private arts school taught by moonlighting teachers from the famous Qinghua University Institute of Media Studies, near Beijing’s China World Trade
Center. A couple of China’s most famous photography teachers were Qinghua faculty, and they would teach at this private arts school to make extra money on the side.

He didn’t have enough money to go to the actual Qinghua but, he reasoned, the teachers were the same, and that was good enough for him. He would sneak into Qinghua University lectures, and students soon began to recognize him and even make small talk after class; they thought he was a classmate of theirs even though he hadn’t paid Qinghua a cent. “I studied at Qinghua University,” remembers Maohair with a grin, “but I was never a student there.”

In order to make money to pay for the tuition at the private school, Maohair worked a variety of odd jobs. First, he handed out cards advertising travel agencies on the street for
ten yuan ($1.20) a day. Once he’d saved up a little capital, he set up a small fried tofu stand, making sure to keep far away from neighborhoods where people he knew from school might see him. When such work was available, he joined other artists from the hostel as an extra on movie sets. The pay wasn’t bad, and he didn’t really have to do anything except sit still. Every night, no matter where he worked during the day, Maohair headed back to the hostel to hang out with his new friends, bullshitting and drinking until the sun came up in the hazy Beijing sky.

One day when he went to work as an extra, Maohair brought his camera along. He took pictures of the other extras, dressed up in their costumes, smoking cigarettes, talking on their cell phones, and adjusting their makeup.

He posted the photographs on the Internet, and soon enough they were picked up by a number of magazines and newspapers. Maohair realized that it might be possible for
him to make a living as a photographer, again. One of his teachers saw his pictures, and encouraged him to enter a photojournalism contest, where he was awarded first prize. “Even though I didn’t go to college, my pictures were better than the pictures of those who had graduated,” the ever-confident Maohair recalls.

He adds, pointedly, “Maybe it was because I didn’t go to college that they were better!”

Maohair decided that he was going to become a photojournalist. He said goodbye to his friends at the hostel and took the train north, returning home to Liaoning for a visit with his parents. After a few days at home, he walked into the offices of The Morning News in Shenyang and demanded a job. The boss looked at his portfolio and hired him on the spot at a princely salary of 3,000 yuan a month, twice as much as his parents made in a year.

There are currently 11 Comments for Zachary Mexico's China Underground.

Comments on Zachary Mexico's China Underground

China Underground is one of the more interesting China books I have read in a while. He uses a Peter Hessler-like style of story telling through people he meets in China. There are a lot of pretty good China books out there, many of them business-focused, but I think this is one of the more interesting, light, non-business China books.

I wonder if he's related to Ron Mexico?

The attention has even thrust an unwitting Ron Mexico (not an alias) into the spotlight.

“I’ve been getting a ton of calls. People are asking me if I know him. I don’t, of course,” said Mexico, an auto parts supplier in Brighton, Mich.

“How do you pull a name like that out of the air? Use Bob Smith or Jim Johnson; there’s 50 million of them. Out of all the names in the whole world, I wanna know how he picked this name out,” Mexico wondered.


"Mexico participated in the International Bookworm Literary Festival, which has just ended here in the cities of Beijing, Suzhou, Shanghai and Chengdu."

Should read:

"Mexico participated in the Shanghai International Literary Festival and the Bookworm Literary Festival in Beijing, Suzhou and Chengdu."

"3,000 yuan a month, twice as much as his parents made in a year."

he's embellishing right? there's no way anyone could survive in China off 1 500 kuai a year. even beggers make more than that.

No, he is not embellishing. Families in poor areas of the countryside in China may make even less than 1500 RMB a year, living at subsistence level by consuming vegetables they grow themselves and bartering things they need with neighbors or people from nearby villages.

Do we know how's Maohair doing currently?

Kerstin's right on -

Maohair is hard at work and now contemplating a move to Beijing, I've heard.

anybody know where I can get a copy of China Underground? They were all sold out at lit fest, so I'm assuming they don't have them in stock at chaterhouse either..

i know garden books has it on order, should be there soon.

have a feeling this book is developing a good hype; hope to get a chance to read it soon.

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