As an American, Zachary Mexico found it easier to run a bar in China than in New York City. "In New York, we always get inspections from the police, the fire department, and the health inspectors right when we're busy," he says in a Skype interview from Chengdu, China, where he's traveling. "They clear everyone out just to fuck with you." At his old Chinese bar, Paper Tiger (named after Mao's famous assessment of the United States) in Kunming, "The police came in, and we just gave them a bunch of food and drink, and it was cool." The police only shut down the bar once, when one of its patrons was stabbed with a machete. The guy didn't die, Mexico says, but that's all he knows about it: "Sometimes you don't want to ask too many questions—you don't want to get yourself in trouble."
Every week brings a fresh raft of nonfiction books about China (hundreds since January alone) in a predictable set of clichéd genres—how to do business in the Inscrutable Orient, what's wrong with China's environmental and human-rights record, the Tao of dating/dieting/dachshund-grooming. But China Underground, a collection of short profiles, is different. Mexico first visited China at 15, as a foreign exchange student. He returned for part of his collegiate schooling, then returned again to open a bar. He writes about woefully underexposed slices of Chinese society—rockers, slackers, clubgoers high on ketamine (it's surprisingly popular over there), Nigerian hustlers, harried local journalists, gay professionals living in the closet—with a casual authority one can only get through lived-in, ground-level experience. From a chapter about a low-level member of the Chinese mafia:
I remember one evening in Qingdao, I was sitting on the patio of a Western-style bar with some friends, playing a game of liar's dice and shooting the breeze, and a black Mercedes 300 series came zooming up to the entrance. A stocky guy, dressed in athletic clothing, got out of the car. He strolled up to us, produced a moist towel from his leather man-bag, and started wiping his forehead. He knew the people I was with and started jabbering nonsense at them. He pulled out a tobacco pipe and lit it, still speaking nonsense. When he got close enough, I looked at his eyes. His pupils looked like saucers; he was clearly on some kind of psychedelic drug. After a few minutes he jumped back into his Benz and drove away.
"Was that a mafia guy?" I asked my companions.
"Nope," said one. "He's a police officer."
"I definitely don't want to call myself a journalist," Mexico says. And he shouldn't—he's something else. Mexico writes with the storytelling economy of a foreign correspondent, the authority of an anthropologist, and the colloquial ease of a blogger. The combination, especially among writers about China, is too rare. "There are books kind of like my book," he says. "But those usually involve a white dude as the main narrator, a travel-memoir kind of thing. My book focuses more on the people I'm writing about."
And those people are fascinating. One passage describes an addictive, in-person role-playing game sweeping China, a variation on the party game Murder in the Dark: people gather and pretend to be "policemen" ferreting out "killers" with the help of "peasants."
The lobby of the Killing People Club is sparsely decorated. It looks like a cross between a flophouse and a defunct bowling alley. In one corner, a few ratty couches bracket ashtrays the size of garbage cans. Across the room, a small shop sells water, Red Bull, tea, sunflower seeds, cigarettes, and other staples of the all-nighter... The passion of the members of the Killing People Club often becomes brutally intense: They scream at each other and even threaten physical violence when their teammates make mistakes. The Club members are part of the white-collar class of Chinese urbanites. Yet here they are, playing unfairly victimized peasants and sinister policemen. They are paying money to engage in psychological warfare against each other, just as they, or their parents, were forced by their government to do.
"China is wild," Mexico says. "The malleability of what is permitted and not permitted is unclear. It's kind of awesome." Driving, for example, is fairly new to most Chinese. "Fifteen or twenty years ago, there were very few private cars. Now many urban people have cars, and it's a massive paradigm shift—a whole nation of 17- to 18-year-old drivers."
Mexico is also enjoying his growing reputation. A couple of nights before, he'd been out with a reporter from, he chuckles, "a little rag called Newsweek." The article's title: "Exploring China's Underground with Zachary Mexico." He co-owns a Manhattan bar called the Arrow, right off Tompkins Square Park, and plays in two bands, the Octagon (indie rock) and the Gates of Heaven: "We play electronic music while wearing salwar kameez [a South Asian robe]—it's samples and wireless mics, a peace and health session." He hopes to come to Seattle, he says, on a combined band and book tour, since publishers aren't able to afford regular book tours anymore.
Mexico has left Soft Skull Press in the wake of its acquisition by Counterpoint and the departure of longtime publisher Richard Nash. But he's working on a new book, tentatively titled The 18 Oddities of Yunnan Province. "Yunnan is very ethnically diverse and very mellow," he said. "It's a world away from Beijing and the coastal metropolises. It's mostly written about hanging out with people."
Hanging out with people, and reporting on the results, is what Mexico does best.