I once described Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island as a love letter to the United Kingdom. Ian Mote’s From Chicken Feet To Crystal Baths is a love letter to China. Most Westerners know little about China, and what we think we know is often wrong or at least badly incomplete. Here, Mote is our friendly, ever cheerful, indefatigable tour guide to the Middle Kingdom.
Besides being just a delightful romp, this book gives readers something travel books rarely do: a sense of the place from the POV of both tourist and resident. Mote takes us to Tiananmen Square and the display of Mao’s body, but he also takes us to supermarkets and barber shops, video rental stores and aluminum plants. He is our guide as we peek into what life is like in China, not only for the world traveler, but for the people who live there.
Mote is able to do this because he lived there—and as of this writing still does. Working for an English bank in China (he describes his job as “lending large amounts of money to people in complicated ways”) gave him the opportunity not only to live in Shanghai, but to travel all over the country. He set himself the goal of visiting every province in China, and by the time the book is over we have accompanied him to all of them.
The first thing you learn about China is that it is big. Very big. Even bigger than you probably think, even though you probably think that it is very big. And more, perhaps, than other large countries, the regional differences are still quite strong. A book about China if done well, and this one is done very well indeed, is of necessity about many places.
The book is full of delights and observations, from the traffic to the food (both as bizarre as you might expect—the chicken feet of the title) to holidays and festivals to how the work day is typically scheduled in Shanghai. I was intrigued by the different ways of doing business in a nation that is perched between a capitalist economy and a centrally planned one. Thanks to the nature of Mote’s job, we learn a little bit about the complexities of Chinese economics.
Don’t get the idea, though, that our tour guide is a stuffy banker. Mote is a fun-loving, party guy who may be the first Westerner to out-drink the heavy drinking China business people (these guys make the three-martini lunch look like child’s play). Mote has that wonderful, quirky sense of humor that you so often find in the English, and while he keeps the book light with little or no political discussion, he nonetheless provides a subtle and interesting take on a few things many of us have no first-hand experience of.
But the heart of the book, and what makes it such a joyous read, is the quirky, fun experiences Mote shares. From his experience on his very first trip to Hong Kong buying a counterfeit watch from a street vendor to taking part in a traditional Chinese wedding, we experience China as few Westerners ever have.
China is a difficult place to visit, and if you do manage to get there, it is far too big to truly explore during the average holiday. This book will not only give you an idea of what you are missing, but just might lure you to go see for yourself.
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