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Book Review: Beijing Blur: A head-spinning journey into modern China by James West

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There are hundreds upon hundreds of books to go through on you decide to get on that Siberian Express train and decide to stop at the end of the line in Beijing. Even if you don't go the adventurous way, you still pretty much need a guide to prepare yourself for what China is about to give you. There is no lack of information when one decides to fly east – that includes the Lonely Planet, a bible used by ten out of ten travelers. Though it is not a book about China, Beijing Blur – a head-spinning journey into modern China — will prepare you for, well, life in Beijing.

Beijing looked like a city in a children's book, or the city your parents warned you about. There were dark structures and streets flying off in all directions. 'I bet it will look alien, like the landscape of another planet', a friend's voice came to me. But then it didn't seem alien; it was, in fact, the opposite – bleakly generic, leaving me suddenly without traction. I felt like I was going backwards and downwards to somewhere very dark. Beijing Blur.

This flamboyant portrait of the Chinese capital was written by James West, an Australian journalist who ended up inside the Great Walls because of work. He chronicled his days in Beijing with a narration somehow as if they were all blog entries, this book putting you right in the middle of Chinese society more than anything else. It is funny without being obvious, and witty with just the correct amount of cynicism.

What makes West different is that he takes the huge numbers that contextualize China and set them as a background for his journey in the city. It is a portrait of Chinese society and all the minimal nuances of a country that is probably growing way too fast for its people. He plays a listener to people that wouldn't usually make news, but pretty much will give you a sense of what is it like to be gay, a journalist, a police guard, or a boss of the biggest media conglomerate of the world. Doing gonzo journalism and living his stories as they appear to him, West explores the city in a very truthful yet simple way. And even if some of the places, websites, and bars he mentions are not open, accessible, or that hot anymore, you can still get the feeling of a city that is strange by definition, but tremendously charming because of its characters.

This is a very intimate writing to begin with. And, because West is openly homosexual, his book is also a very revealing insight of the sexual confusion that Chinese rules, laws, and family ties has set up over young people's heads.

Reading Beijing Blur would be to China what Hunter Thompson was for the Hell's Angels, just because it is not a compilation of historical facts, but a story of discovery of the feared, the talked about, and still unknown.

"For nearly a year I had lived in a world that seemed, at first, like something original. It was obvious from the beginning that the menace bore little resemblance to its publicized image, but there was a certain pleasure in sharing the Angels’ amusement at the stir they’d created. Later, as they attracted more and more attention, the mystique was stretched so thin that it finally became transparent." — Hunter Thompson's Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1966)

Furthermore, Beijing Blur is the most psychedelic you can get when in Beijing.


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About Fernanda Morena