With the following type of writing, a question exists as to how much description is necessary, of the choice of theme, or the illustrative capacity of any given action. What makes for invigorating “travel writing,” and what makes for mundane work in the same genre? Or is it the place of academics to be constantly contextualizing everything, which is to say, “overreading” every gesture, encounter, sight along the way?
In any event, here is the pedestrian version, comments and critiques are of course welcome — and is anyone aware of an extended essay along these lines on Kim Jong Il’s peculiar connection to Mudanjiang?:
I needed to get out of Harbin and into the Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang province’s small and isolated eastern city. Mudanjiang had hosted Kim Jong Il in April 2010, where he toured the city’s anti-Japanese memorial sites and talked about tourism exchanges. But for the moment, the North Korean tourists in Heilongjiang province didn’t seem to be mobbing my hotel or the beaches of the big rivers in Harbin. It was easy enough to find a tall man in black who had been prowling the lip of the Songhua Hotel Lobby in Harbin to agree to take me to Mundanjiang in some modicum of style. After all the Suzuki rides around this earthy capitol of Northern Manchuria, a smoother ride to the outlands was called for.
A bit of bartering and one thousand yuan got me into his vintage 1991 ox-blue Hong Qi (Red Flag) sedan. We made a languorous stop at a Shell station, ostensibly to pump the beast full of Daqing crude but in reality to remind me I was now on his schedule. After the obligatory laying on the horn and nearly running over some civilians scrambling out into traffic for a few boiled eggs or half a duck for the trip to Shenyang and Qiqihar, we spurred out for the voyage East.
The driver, as it turned out, was a clever old Red Guard who had mobilized as a teenager to defend the border. One of the reasons the Cultural Revolution was so intense in this part of China was the threat of Soviet invasion. Having been primed during the Korean War to expect some fifth column to emerge, the forceful rejection of Soviet influence in the early 1960s rapidly turned the Russians into enemies.
Woe betide the foreign mentor whose services are spurned! I imagined the difficulty of defending these vast expanses; the very feature that had allowed the CCP to survive annihilation in the 1940s against the Nationalists could now prove to be a serious drawback.
The likelihood of finding high rollers or foreigners such as myself in Mudanjiang, particularly in the lengthening twilight, was exceedingly low, so the driver left me off at the edge of town and turned back toward Harbin, undoubtedly already on the phone about some immense dinner awaiting him.
The cab drivers in Mudanjiang were, to a man, bitter laid-off industrial workers. They flared out in their cramped cars against corrupt local officials and spat at the mention of old Zhu Rongji, the former Finance Minister who was beloved by Clinton and went to a Denver Bronco’s practice and had ushered China into the WTO but smashed the “iron rice bowl” of lifetime social benefits concurrently.*
* In 1998, Zhu traveled to the U.S., where he was feted by administration officials and headed by Chinese media. Recalling Deng Xiaoping’s visit to a Texas rodeo in 1980, Zhu donned a cowboy hat and went to see John Elway practice with the Denver Browns. The singular optimism of this symbolism was lost amid an ocean of regrets by the workers whose protections he was stripping. These last couple of weeks (late April, 2011), he has made a public relations comeback in China with a book and a big stream of interviews.