March 25, 2012

"The Chinese attitude was more straightforward. Money equals power, that's it."

Liu breaks for lunch in Flushing (by Pari Dukovic) via NY Mag
Unlucky 800 by Mark Jacobson
New York Magazine

I remember when John Liu was elected to the NYC council! Well, I remember when he came to my elementary school in 2001 and spoke to an assembly of sixth graders about god knows what and someone (the principal? Or assistant principal?) presented him with a T-shirt. He had a successful career and eventually became NYC comptroller, which he still is today. But recent allegations challenging his use of campaign money have thrown him into the spotlight—two people from his campaign were arrested—and threatened his career and prospects of becoming NYC's mayor in 2013. Jacobson explores how Liu's Asian background and family have shaped Liu, his career, and the communities he represents.  Also, in turn, how those communities view him. Jacobson presented some interesting observations and conclusions.

"That was John Liu's story back in January, when there was every reason to hope that he was telling the truth, or close enough to it. This was because John Liu's story is that same old New York story we never tire of hearing about ourselves, preferably with swelling Aaron Copland music and the Statue of Liberty in the background. Liu's family were "pioneers," part of the initial wave of Taiwanese to come to Queens following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which swept away the last vestiges of the neo-genocidal Chinese exclusion acts that once effectively prohibited Chinese women from entering the country. The Lius settled in Flushing, in part, because Manhattan's Chinatown was viewed as a packed tenement pile, devoid of grasslands and terrorized by youth gangs. Chinatown was also controlled politically and economically by a Cantonese-speaking Old Guard with strong ties to Chiang Kai-shek's mostly despised Kuomintang. In comparison, Flushing, which had maybe a couple of chop-suey restaurants, was wide open, a veritable golden mountain of opportunity, and low rents, with access to the 7 train. With people like me moving out, there was plenty of room to build another, better life."

"Nowadays, no serious pol can afford not to show his face on Chinese New Year's."

"People say that if you want to figure out who John Liu really is, you have to go back to the day his father Americanized the family's first names. "Dad was a Kennedy fan. So when we came here, he changed his name to Joseph. He had three boys, so I became John and my two brothers Robert and Edward," Liu said, adding that when his own son was born, he was named Joey, which "broke the tradition."
"The Taiwanese tradition?" I inquired dimly.
"No," Liu replied. "The Kennedy tradition ... you're supposed to name the first boy after the father, which would have made Joey named John Jr., but we decided not to follow that and name him after my dad.""

"Nonetheless, this was how a number of people, Asian and otherwise, felt about Liu's current predicament: It was a cultural thing. Much of this has to do with money, or at least the perception of the Chinese attitude toward money. In the late nineties, after my father died, my mother decided to sell our Flushing house. My parents had purchased the place for $12,000 with the help of a G.I. loan in the early fifties. But this was a whole new world, the real-estate lady told my mother. The place was worth at least $300,000, maybe more if the buyer turned out to be a stooped-over Chinese guy who got out of his dented Toyota holding a suitcase stuffed with cash.
"Sounds typical," said Jeff Yang, who writes the "Tao Jones" column for The Wall Street Journal and once edited a book called Secret Identities: The Asian-American Superhero Anthology. "In the West, we tend to think about money in the abstract—what does my money and what I do with it say about me? The Chinese attitude was more straightfoward. Money equals power, that's it," Yang said. For the immigrant, cash mattered because "they can't speak the language, they can't vote. Yet they need some control, some power over their surroundings. That power is cash, and the transfer of it is simple, direct. If a John Liu comes along, he's the comptroller, a successful and powerful man with an even better future. So people want to connect with him in the best way they can. They want to give him their money. It doesn't matter how rich they are, if they're broke, or what some convoluted law they never heard of says: It is an honor to give money to John Liu."

There's more but the article is worth reading for it. Lastly—because I think it's become evident I'm a sucker for great endings—I loved the end. Jacobson is with Liu at the Chinese New Year's parade this year when he noticed him talking to the "Money God" (sort of Chinese equivalent of Santa Claus; the figure hands out red envelopes with money and candy inside to children). When Jacobson later asked the man what he said to John Liu, the reply, from one money figure to the other, was: "I told him good luck, because he is going to need it."

March 18, 2012

It was an electric summer, with the nymphets batting around like moths against the screen.

Looking for Hemingway by Gay Talese

Really loved this one. For some reason I didn't expect to, or didn't expect anything but Talese painted such an interesting, magical portrait of what the early years of tbe Paris Review was like for the men (and few women) who were involved. It was such a wonderful read and the way James Baldwin brought it all back to reality in the end perfected it.

"He became a chess hustler in cafes, earning several hundred francs a night. It was in the cafes that he met Peter Matthiessen, and they both talked of starting a little magazine that would be the Paris Review. Before coming to Paris, Humes had never worked on a magazine, but had grown fond of a little magazine called Zero, edited by a small Greek named Themistocles Hoetes, whom everybody called "Them." Impressed by what Them had done with Zero, Humes purchased for $600 a magazine called the Paris News Post, which John Ciardi later called the "best fourth-rate imitation of the New Yorker I have ever seen," and to which Matthiessen felt condescendingly superior, and so Humes sold it for $600 to a very nervous English girl, under whom it collapsed one issue later. Then Humes and Matthiessen and others began a long series of talks on what policy, if any, they would follow should the Paris Review ever get beyond the talking and drinking stages.
When the magazine was finally organized, and when George Plimpton was selected as its editor instead of Humes, Humes was disappointed. He refused to leave the cafes to sell advertising or negotiate with French printers. And in the summer of 1952 he did not hesitate to leave Paris with William Styron, accepting an invitation from a French actress, Mme. Nenot, to go down to Cap Myrt, near Saint-Tropez, and visit her fifty-room villa that had been designed by her father, a leading architect. The villa had been occupied by the Germans early in the war. And so when Styron and Humes arrived they found holes in its walls, through which they could look out to the sea, and the grass was so high and the trees so thick withg rapes that Humes's little Volkswagen became tangled in the grass. So they went on foot toward the villa, but suddenly stopped when they saw, rushing past them, a young, half-naked girl, very brown from the sun, wearing only handkerchiefs tied bikini-style, her mouth spilling with grapes. Screaming behind her was a lecherous-looking old French farmer whose grape arbor she obviously had raided.
"Styron!" Humes cried, gleefully, "we have arrived!"
"Yes," he said, "we are here!"
More nymphets came out of the trees in bikinis later, carrying grapes and also half cantaloupes the size of cartwheels, and they offered some to Styron and Humes. The next day they all went swimming and fishing, and, in the evening, they sat in the bombed-out villa, a breathtaking site of beauty and destruction, drinking wine with the young girls who seemed to belong only to the beach. It was an electric summer, with the nymphets batting around like moths against the screen. Styron remembers it as a scene out of Ovid, Humes as the high point of his career as an epicurean and scholar."

"But as much as anything else, the Paris Review survived because it had money. And its staff members had fun because they knew that should they ever land in jail, their friends or families would always bail them out. They would never have to share with James Baldwin the experience of spending eight days and nights in a dirty French cell on the erroneous charge of having stolen a bedsheet from a hotelkeeper, all of which led Baldwin to conclude that while the wretched round of hotel rooms, bad food, humiliating concierges, and unpaid bills may have been the "Great Adventure" for the Tall Young Men, it was not for him because, he said, "there was a real question in my mind as to which would end soonest, the Great Adventure or me.""

"A few blocks away, in a small, dark apartment, another exile, James Baldwin, said, "It didn't take long before I really was no longer a part of them. They were more interested in kicks and hashish cigarettes than I was. I had already done that in the Village when I was eighteen or seventeen. It was a little boring by then.
They also used to go to Montparnasse, where all the painters and writers went, and where I hardly went. And they used to go there and hang around at the cafes for hours and hours looking for Hemingway. They didn't seem to realize," he said, "that Hemingway was long gone."