Books: Pretending it’s something it’s not

Written By: Cary Gee
Published: January 29, 2018 Last modified: January 29, 2018

China In Drag: Travels With A Cross Dresser

by Michael Bristow

Sandstone Press. £8.99

If asked to identify the embodiment of the post-Maoist Chinese revolution, you might not necessarily think of an elderly Chinese transvestite. But that is exactly who Michael Bristow, the BBC’s former man in China, has used as both allegory and metaphor on which to hang this unexpectedly delightful chronicle of China’s 21st century march towards state-run capitalism.

Before Bristow contemplates moving his young family back to Yorkshire after years of struggling through the miasma that is Chinese bureaucracy, he determines to fulfil a promise he made to his Chinese teacher to write the teacher’s life story. So begins a ‘road-trip’ to visit the people and places that have shaped the teacher’s life. We never get to learn the teacher’s real name, for reasons that finally become clear to Bristow while visiting Changsa, the capital of Hunan.

“In retrospect,” recalls Bristow, “it seems obvious that the teacher had a secret. I’m a BBC journalist. I’m supposed to spot these things.” Nonetheless, it comes as surprise when, on opening the door to his hotel room one evening Bristow finds the teacher “in a full outfit of women’s clothes. He was wearing a tight white T-shirt that clearly showed a bra underneath. It had glitzy silver writing on the front. He was also wearing matching white trousers. They were three-quarter length, which allowed me to glimpse the tights he’d pulled on … He wore pink lipstick and light-blue eyeshadow, and had used a thick black pencil to trace the line of his eyebrows.” Bristow’s description of the teacher’s outfit certainly wouldn’t win him a writing award from the Fashion Monitor, but his shock is palpable, as he “settles down to hear the life story of a cross-dressing Chinese pensioner”.

By now I was gripped, and remained gripped throughout, although for very different reasons than I had imagined. Expecting a sensationalist tale of gallantry and glitter, the acts of heroism described are instead of a much more intimate nature, albeit (in the case of the teacher) often performed in high heels.The teacher’s struggle is the struggle of his country, to emerge from the wastes of the Cultural Revoution into a confident, outward facing superpower. And if that means appearing to accept at face-value the lies told by the government, then so be it. “Like most Chinese people the teacher is prepared to talk about many things in private, but in public he’s more cautious,” observes Bristow. It is a theme that runs through Bristow’s tale, and ultimately prevents us from ever feeling we are being the told the whole truth.

But what we are told offers a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of a people who are only now beginning to re-evaluate the devestation wreaked on them by the Communist Party, which came to power just two years before the Teacher was born.

We travel from the teacher’s childhood home in Beijing, observed by security gaurds, to Double River Farm (a gulag in China’s most northerly province) where the teacher was one of millions of young people sent to till the fields in the belief it would make them “more communist”, to Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan, where Mao constructed the lavish Dripping Water Cave villa. “Mao might have grown up in relative poverty,” notes Bristow wryly, “but by the time his villa was built in the 1960s he had fully embraced the joys of modern living.”

You might think, that having watched miliions of his compatriots starve to death the teacher would despise the Chairman. But no. “‘I was as enthusiastic as anyone in the 1960s. But in the 1980s I realised he was just a man, like anyone else’ was all I could get out of him,” writes Bristow. This is a great pity, and you can’t help but feel the mass of China’s security apparatus weighing on both writer and subject. Bristow attributes China’s great famine to a disatrous fall in crop yields as a result of Mao’s drive to a higher state of communism, making no mention of the fact that Mao was selling grain to the USSR in exchange for a nuclear bomb.

It is not the big defeats dealt by Maoism that remain with you on reading this book, but the little victories of everyday life. A celebratory meal prepared in honour of an old friend, the gaining of a driving license or admittance to university to study for a degree, and in that sense, the teacher’s life has been no different to everyone elses. But for the frocks of course.

While napping on the upper bunk of a train the stuffing falls out of one of the teacher’s falsies and lands on the head of the passenger below, who is eating a bowl of noodles. With practised dexterity the teacher quickly retreives it and stuffs it back in, unnoticed. Somehow the fact this happened on a Chinese train makes a much better anecdote that it would otherwise have been, and that is purely because China remains such a great mystery to the west, not least because
“If there was a general election tomorrow the Communist Party would have a good chance of winning;” states Bristow, recalling his surprise he felt on being told by an activist that she “didn’t want to overthrow the system, she just wanted to tweak it”.

Bristow writes that “with a little more thought, the party could co-opt the activists, lawyers and campaigners instead of turning them into enemies. The fact it doesn’t seems to be down to pure paranoia. China’s current leaders want to stay in power and they are prepared to crush even the tiniest challenge to their authority … Whatever anyone says Chinese citizen’s are just a few poorly chosen words or actions away from detention.”

Bristow last saw his teacher during the teacher’s first foreign holiday, in London. “Your Chinese has gone backwards,” he tells the author bluntly. “We embraced, a little awkwardly, on the roadside. It was good to see him,” Bristow admits, before musing on the nature of drag.
“To some extent he was pretending when he dressed as a man” but “there were others who’d pretended far more in China, mostly government officials. They’d often argue their homeland is something it’s not … How can anywhere claim to be truly open and honest if a famine that killed tens of millions within living memory is off limits for proper discussion? If we’re talking about pretence, sometimes it’s China that’s in drag,” concludes Bristow.

A beautiful offbeat on which to end this most unconventional of fables. And it is a fable. Until China becomes a full democracy, it can’t possibly be anything else.

About Cary Gee

Cary Gee is a freelance journalist and Tribune columnist