China / News / Travel

Extracts from ‘Chasing the Chinese Dream’ by Nick Holdstock

chinese dream square

To celebrate the publication of Nick Holdstock’s Chasing the Chinese Dream: Stories from Modern China, we’ve chosen some vignettes from the book to give you flavour of its surreal, picaresque and immersive atmosphere.  

Journalist and writer Nick Holdstock has travelled the length of this huge country in order to find out the reality behind this rhetoric – from the factory-owner, to the noodle seller, from the karaoke maids to the hoteliers, and from the deserted, ageing countryside to the young and overcrowded cities.Chasing the Chinese Dream follows a cast of extraordinary characters: we meet the people getting rich; running factories and buying luxury cars and Louis Vuitton bags. But we also meet those left behind, trapped by a system which forces long hours and no prospects upon them. A spell-binding and magical narrative, this book looks to tell the story of modern China through the people who are living it.

“We turned off onto a small street where two teenage girls in identical blue tracksuits were hitting a shuttlecock back and forth, watched by a third girl who was texting while eating sugar cane. We passed a hairdresser, a small supermarket, then Wenli asked me to wait. He disappeared into a small shop whose windows were covered by photos of afflicted skin. I saw boils, rashes, nodules, spots, blotches, welts and what appeared to be some sort of orange mollusc growing from a neck. As I stood there, wondering what else to ask Wenli, I remembered two things about him. The first was that his sister had killed herself after years of emotional problems. The second was that his final dissertation — a brilliant analysis of how corporations choose their names — had been almost entirely plagiarised. Wenli came out holding a red plastic bag. He took me to a small restaurant below street level whose walls were covered with posters of waterfalls, flower-filled meadows, and blonde women with electric guitars astride Harley Davidsons…


…One problem with trying to assess the scale of corruption in China, at least at a low level, is that there’s often a grey area about what someone expects when they ask for a favour. Even if the request seems legitimate, it can open the door to more problematic demands. In Shaoyang many of my colleagues asked me to do favours for their friends, most typically visiting a local school. Though I was usually glad to do so, after the visit my colleague’s friend (often a local businessman) would take me for a meal, get me drunk, then ask me for a much bigger favour. Most wanted me to become a private tutor for their children, but I was also asked to help promote their school by appearing on local TV or posing for photos for its prospectus. In most cases, my refusal was taken gracefully, but there were instances when it was mistaken for a negotiating strategy, prompting a flurry of gifts, and once with a red envelope full of money being thrust at me. When I refused, the man stuffed into my pocket. I tried giving it back, but the man refused to take it, so I put the envelope on the ground, which made him actually roar with anger. I was later told by a friend that this was such an insult that the man would have beaten me if I had been Chinese…


…After three years Wenli left his job in Kunming and went to work in Guilin (capital of Guangxi province, and only a nine-hour bus ride from Shaoyang). He was in business with one of his childhood friends — doing what he wouldn’t say, only that there was a lot of money involved — but soon realised that their business was illegal (and perhaps too risky as well). When Wenli told his partner he wanted to stop, he was locked in a room. His mobile phone and wallet were taken, and guards were posted outside the door. When, on the third day, he escaped through a toilet window, he found himself alone in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, being pursued by two angry men.

‘I had no money, no phone, I was just running, but then I remembered a coin my friend gave me when I left college. It was in a small pocket of my trousers for years, I never took it out, not even when I washed them. It was only one yuan but it was enough to make a call. I phoned my friend who works in the Kunming police department, and he said he would call his uncle who is the police chief in Guilin.’

‘But the men were still chasing you?’

‘Yes, but when they caught me I told them about the police. Then they went away.’

He smiled, took a mouthful, then said, ‘After I left Guilin I heard about this job and I came here. Now I am a… a niu bi.’

‘A what?’

‘A cow’s vagina. It means that I am someone who is up and coming. If I stay here four more years I will get a household permit for Shanghai, which means my kids can go to school here. Or maybe I will sell it. On the black market it is worth 200,000 yuan.’…


…Xiao Long led me through a door at the back of the classroom. We entered a small room with a concrete floor and bars on its windows; its furniture consisted of a single bed, two tables piled with books and papers, a small sink, a two-ring cooker and a desk. On this there was a computer whose desktop photo was of a very different room, a spacious, well-furnished lounge with ornaments on its coffee table and flowers in vases. I realised his screensaver was a picture of how he wished that his room looked.

Most of my students had chosen English names, often because they liked the sound of the word. In one class there was ‘Adidas’, ‘Camel’ and ‘Salon’ plus a host of strange neologisms: ‘Brogy’, ‘Bund’, ‘Clant’, ‘Serut’. If one of them had said their English name was Horse, I would have believed them, then told them to change it. In Mr Ma’s case, I knew it was just because that was what his Chinese surname meant. But I still felt uncomfortable calling an adult man ‘Horse’…


…In June 2015 four children died in a village in Guizhou province after drinking pesticide. The youngest was five, the oldest thirteen. It wasn’t an accident. The eldest child left a note to his parents that said, ‘Thanks for your good intentions. I know you are good to me, but it is time for me to go. I swore I would not live beyond 15 years old and death has been my dream for years.’ The children had been living alone for several years, as their parents had jobs in other provinces. At the time, their mother had been working in a toy factory in Guangdong province. When she returned to the village for their cremation she said, ‘I have truly failed them.’…


…There was, however, no sign in the picture of the city’s oldest buildings, its North and East towers, built in the Ming Dynasty. These were octagonal and built of yellowish grey brick; that they didn’t merit inclusion in the vision of the future wasn’t that surprising. I often felt a pinch of disbelief they’d survived as long as they had. Whenever I visited Shaoyang I made a point of visiting at least one of the towers, just to check they were still there. At the base of the East Tower there was a house where the caretaker lived with his son, who used to drive a motorcycle taxi, until a regulation was passed banning them from the city for being hazardous and causing congestion. The last time I saw the son he was sitting in front of the tower with one of his trouser legs rolled up and slapping his knee repeatedly. He was hitting it very hard, and the knee was swollen and red. ‘I’m moving the poison around,’ he said. ‘Look here.’

I saw a darker patch of skin.

‘In Chinese traditional medicine there are sensitive points and this is one of them. My father does this and he has no black marks.’

He went back to slapping, then held out his hand.

‘Smell this, it’s the way that dead people smell.’

He thrust his hand under my nose. I didn’t smell anything…


…There’s no sure-fire way to find the older parts of an unfamiliar place, but getting far away from the larger roads is usually a good start. On the main street in Zhengao the houses were packed tightly for three or four rows on either side, and had probably been built around the same time as the road. If you were driving through you might think Zhengao was a fairly substantial town. But it was like the façade of a Wild West settlement; behind the four-storey buildings the ground sloped down to an open space of small fields and lush vegetation. There the presence of the city was limited to an abandoned sofa and a pile of antibiotics someone had tried to burn.

Between the fields and the apartment blocks there was still a single layer of small brick houses, many of which had vertical strips of red paper asking for good fortune and health pasted either side of their wooden doors. A narrow road curved up through these back towards the main street.  By the side of it, against a brick wall, porcelain figurines clustered round a headstone. The woman had died in 1999 but the grave was well tended. There were seven statues of the goddess Guanyin to watch over it, five of them weather-faded, but two in which she was resplendent, robed in gold, enthroned on a lotus flower.”

Nick Holdstock is a journalist and writer. His writing can be found in Vice, The LA Review of Books, n+1, The Independent, The Dublin Review, Times Literary Supplement, the Edinburgh Review, Dissent and amongst others. He worked for many years under Isabel Hilton at China Dialogue – part of the Guardian environment network. He is the author of China’s Forgotten People, a biography of Xinjiang. His first novel, The Casualties, was published in 2015. He writes regularly on China for the London Review of Books.

Chasing the Chinese Dream: Stories from Modern China is available to order here



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