THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The defining thought of China in Drag, the debut novel of Michael Bristow, Asia/Pacific an editor for the BBC World Service, is of the writer constantly chiding himself for not having seen the obvious. Starting from the very first pages, the thought recurs until the book’s end — how could he, as a journalist, not have read the obvious signs?
The story Bristow recounts, looking back over a two decades-long stint of reporting on China, is about his Chinese teacher, who unexpectedly shows up at his door one morning, dressed from head to toe in women’s clothes. “He smiled and said: ‘You don’t mind, do you?’ as he wafted a hand casually in the direction of his clothes,” describes Bristow in the book.
But China in Drag, tag-lined “Travels with a cross-dresser”, isn’t a document on the transvesite community in China. “I wouldn’t like to be a spokesperson for cross-dressers or try to work out why people do it,” says Bristow in an email exchange.“I’m sure each person who decides to wear the clothes of the opposite sex has their own reasons for doing so, and each motivation will be different. I just told the teacher’s story and his reason for dressing as a woman,” he says. As a personal account, China in Drag is in fact thoroughly entertaining, and very endearing.
“The book was intended for people outside China who want to know more about the country and its people, but don’t necessarily want to read something heavy about politics or economics,” explains Bristow.“The book I wrote is not necessarily more balanced than my journalism, but it did include topics and incidents that I perhaps wouldn’t cover as a reporter, in order to give a fuller view of China,” he says. Bristow doesn’t bother with pointers on Chinese culture, or lessons in the language.
The sexuality in the book, though stated up front, is actually rather latent, and secondary, almost a reflection of Chinese society in the present day. Fantastic as the realities of Bristow’s story are, they’re far from unreal. Bristow is still in touch with his teacher, and even told him about the book. As for recognising members of the gender now, Bristow says, “I don’t think I’m any more adept at picking up the things people want to keep hidden... and really that’s as it should be. As you’ve realised though, I should have perhaps asked him a few more questions.”
Sandstone Press (Paperback import edition), `1,530