The China program where I went to college was almost shut down once when a student was arrested in Beijing for crawling out of a hotel window in an attempt to avoid paying a prostitute. At first he told the cops that he was doing it as a joke. This excuse began to seem a lot less believable when he was arrested doing the exact same thing a few days later.
After this student was released into the custody of his study abroad program to await deportation, the phone at our rinky-dink student newspaper began ringing incessantly. When the receiver was lifted, a robotic voice droned, "Will you accept a reverse-charge phone call from China." But something about the way this particular student played Andrew Lloyd Weber CDs full blast at all hours of the day and night made it even harder than it would normally have been to accept his version of the story. (It was an accident. I was framed. Ninjas. Etcetera.) Someone's hand would reach for the phone, and then it was as though the distant strains of the theme from Cats would swell to fill the room. The hand in question would drop, and we would all go back to writing our articles about upcoming renovations to the school cafeteria.
Which is why it's refreshing to run across a book like China Underground. The books that people are likely to press into the hands of American students bound for China are like River Town by Peter Hessler and Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret. Those books are masterpieces, but they're also written by extraordinary, earnest people who, perhaps unsurprisingly, tend to hang out with other extraordinary, earnest people. China Underground is about a China more familiar to American undergrads studying in Beijing: hookers, shopping malls, noodle stands, punk shows in which Ramones songs are sung phonetically by native Mandarin speakers, and Nigerian immigrants who sell cocaine in nightclubs because it's hard to get a job doing anything else. A China that is almost a fully globalized non-place, were it not for the extremely good street food, and the enduring penchant for putting journalists in prison.
The author's name is a pseudonym. "Mexico" lived in China for several years and would like to go back again, despite having written a book that depicts the country as full of ketamine-snorting slacker youth, airborne particulate matter, disaffected and stifled journalists, and men who enjoy having sex with other men. It's unlikely that, had Mexico published the book under his own name, he would be seeing China again anytime soon.
Certain details stand out: the Nigerian coke dealer who no one, until Mexico, bothers to inform that in China drug dealers are executed, (but, mercifully, not on television anymore.) Also: the story that the Nigerians travel back and forth on swapped passports and visas under the theory that the Chinese airport security can't tell one Nigerian from another. The detail that Brokeback Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean were banned from Chinese movie theaters (too gay and too many ghosts, respectively.)
There are flaws: your reader would be happy if she never encountered another example of prostitute journalism, domestic or international (Hire prostitute. Inform prostitute that you don't want to have sex, just ask her lots of intrusive questions about her occupation. Express shock that prostitute doesn't know how many men have paid to have sex with her, because, why? All sex workers should have a notebook with a running tally? I've got an idea: go find a bricklayer and ask her how many bricks she's laid.) There are times when the reporting feels too rushed, like a stone skipping across shallow waters. But there are as many Chinas as there are Americas, and China Underground is a peek into a previously underexplored one.