- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2001

By Justin Hill
Little, Brown, $23.95, 360 pages

It's often the complaint of the older generations that young people don't appreciate, or that they even tear down, what the seniors built in their prime. Nowhere is this more evident than in societies that undergo changes on a revolutionary scale within successive generations.
A few decades ago, in the People's Republic of China, thousands of years of imperial dynasties were traded for various versions of communism. And then came Tiananmen Square and the revolt against a totalitarian regime. Now, China is moving toward a new system in which segments of communism and market economy are combined. Future generations will know if it worked.
This is the setting in which Justin Hill, the novelist and longtime China resident, lays out "The Drink and Dream Teahouse," a tale of old versus new, hopes and illusions crushed and generations attempting to understand each other, and themselves. It is a story about the search for ideals and meaning in a time of change and political and economic turbulence.
Party secretary Li is the character readers first encounter. He was a force behind the building and running of a space rocket factory in a remote Chinese village, Shaoyang. One day he's told the factory will be torn down in favor of more money-yielding business ventures. Now age 78, and with his lifelong beliefs shattered, Li writes down his angry and confused thoughts in calligraphy on long sheets of paper and hangs them out the window for the world to see. "Our Leaders are Drunk on the Taste of Corruption," reads one. Then he hangs himself.
Against this backdrop, love stories, corruption and sleaze unfold at breakneck speed within a money-hungry younger generation, while an older one tries to make sense of why all their values have been thrown out the window like dirty dishwater.
Da Shan, one of the young, well-to-do men in the story, returns from the big city to spend time with his father, Old Zhu, and his mother, referred to only as Old Zhu's wife. He also is looking for a former sweetheart, Liu Bei, with whom he fought the communist regime a decade ago, a subversive activity for which he served a prison term. But no one will tell him where Liu Bei is. His mother doesn't want her only son to reconnect with Liu Bei, who has since her and Da Shan's love affair become a prostitute to support herself and a son. When Liu Bei brings Da Shan letters with beautiful poetry expressing a wish to see her sweetheart, two-faced Old Zhu's wife throws them away.
Da Shan's sometime business partner is Fat Pan, a corrupt regime representative and gangster, who runs The Joy Happiness Night Club and doesn't reveal Liu Bei's whereabouts because he wants her all to himself. Fat Pan is a frequent customer at The Drink and Dream Teahouse, the whorehouse at which Liu Bei works under the name Pale Orchid. Mr. Hill describes in detail the abusive sex to which Fat Pan subjects Liu Bei in his effort to get back at Da Shan who has more success and sophistication than he, the gangster who never left town. Liu Bei is described as a "lonely whore," and her Aunty Tang tells her and her mother, a former prostitute who was reformed during the Cultural Revolution, that "Heaven hates you all," to which the kind and patient Liu Bei says nothing.
Another young couple in unhappy love is Sun An, a poor video store owner, and 19-year-old Peach. Madam Fan, Peach's mother is against the love because her main mission is to get her daughter married off to a rich man, and Sun An is certainly not that man. In fact, Sun An is so poor that a dinner of roast cow liver, five-spice roast meat, chicken stomach with Sichuan pepper dressing to which he treats his young girlfriend almost wipes him out, which embarrasses Peach enormously. Their love is more desperate than it is tender, and Mr. Hill splashes the text with uncomfortable sex scenes Peach, whose home life is difficult with her constantly nagging mother and drinking father, is attention-starved, Sun An just craves sex.
Mr. Hill has a strong sense of language and his frequent use of sayings, such as "We all got washed away in the end and the muddy stream soon ran clear again," seems fitting for a story set in China, a society in which culture and language are peppered with symbolism and superstition.
Employing several plot lines and protagonists, his story moves along briskly, and his musings over generational differences and quashed ideals are rewarding.
His characters, though, tend to be one-dimensional. The women seem to be either naggers, like Old Zhu's wife, or thoughtful prostitutes like Liu Bei. The males fare a little better, being somewhat more fleshed out, but even they fall short of coming fully to life.
The common denominator among these characters is unhappiness of the most unrealistic kind. No one seems pleased with the path he has chosen in life. The only character who seems to have found a bit of peace is Old Zhu who appreciates the simple things in life, such as watching vegetables grow in his tiny government-assigned plot.
Mr. Hill is best when he describes aspects of the Cultural Revolution (during which Old Zhu was kept in a broom shed for a year), the crushing of ideals and the cyclical nature of human history: Old Zhu's father was an opium smoker, Old Zhu was a hard-working communist who helped reform prostitutes, and his son is a money-hungry drinker. It seems the story goes through the same ups and down as life itself.
The novel starts out promising, then takes a turn for the worse and unfortunately doesn't have any correcting upturn at the end. "The Drink and Dream Teahouse" is an uneven piece of work that shifts between thoughtful considerations of generational differences and plain over-lathered soap opera a la Chinois.

Gabriella Boston is a reporter on the features desk of The Washington Times.

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