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Friday Bites: China's Breaking Bad, Chaoyang Trap, Gaokao Factory, and NYC's Best Uyghur Food
The Knockout 狂飙
Through the first five episodes, Iqiyi’s The Knockout 狂飙 is thus far the best Chinese modern drama of the 2020s. It’s a Breaking Bad-esque tale of a fishmonger who, bullied by street toughs and frustrated at his lack of prospects, ends up pursuing a life of crime. The antihero is deliciously written and acted, and the initial portrayals of corruption are pretty unflinching. The language is naturalistic and all the actors feel comfortable in their roles. I’ve particularly been enjoying the sound design, an aspect of tv many contemporary Chinese dramas fail to deliver in.
Having never lived in China in the ‘bad old days’ of the go-go 2000s, getting a little glimpse into that world through this dramatized account has been really entertaining. Some of the characters, from the street hoods to the clean cop and corrupt businessmen, seem a little archetypal, but I trust these writers to continue to layer on depth as the drama unfolds. If you haven’t watched a ton of Chinese tv, these archetypes will feel fresh to you! Do consider checking out the first few episodes of the show on YouTube—Iqiyi has invested in serviceable English subtitles for those less comfortable with Chinese.
When ChinaTalk really hits the big time, we’ll create a lair like this gang don’s court in an abandoned tower outfitted with fancy traditional furniture.
Chaoyang Trap put out its last edition this past week. For the past two years, a collective of some of the most vital young writers covering China lovingly explored contemporary internet culture. I wish I was cool enough to have written for them.
A few of my favorites include an exploration into ‘wanghong urbanism,’ an attempt to explain the appeal of murder mystery games, and how a beloved NBA fansite turned into a hotbed for incels. Do give their archive a read.
Irene: Reporting on Web Novel Censorship and ‘Gaokao Factories’
This Wainao investigation discusses how censorship has made the enormous web novel industry in China more puritanical and how a new generation of readers raised in a filtered environment is projecting particularly rigid tastes onto the media they consume.
“They don’t like it when the male protagonist is too soft, and they don’t like it when the female protagonist is too evil. They don’t like it when characters say bad things or make mistakes. Sometimes I think what they want to read is a perfect mold of a human being, not diverse personalities created by authors.”
[Jordan: for those not familiar with Wainao, the disclaimer on its site runs as follows: “The headquarters of Wainao are located in Washington DC, the capital of the United States. Wainao was established by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) through an allocation of dedicated public funds. All content is produced independently.”]
Southern Weekly spoke with students and educators to understand Hengshui No. 2 High School, a notorious “gaokao factory.” The school recently became the subject of viral controversy after a student accused it of severe physical and mental abuse. The piece looks at the contradictions that underpin Hengshui and how China’s education system incentivizes troubling ideologies:
Xia Chun remembers that one time, a school executive said to Grade 12 students at an assembly that all they needed to do was study. The world and their parents have nothing to do with them, and they have no obligation to care. She couldn’t bear the indifference of those words - the sense of total severance from the rest of the world.
To learn about the economics of “gaokao factories” modeled after Hengshui and how, though their mission appears to be social mobility, they end up leeching resources from public education, this Zhishi Fenzi piece is excellent:
In Henan province, there are nearly 10,000 students and staff at the Henan Experimental Secondary School’s main and branch campuses; at Linchuan No. 1 High School in Fuzhou, Jiangxi, the student body used to be mostly made up of local students, but it’s now a mega-school with nearly 10,000 enrolled as well. These mega-schools offer [local education authorities] ample cash to lure top students away from their county high schools, while charging non-catchment students “school-choice” fees of tens of thousands in RMB. Super high schools [i.e. gaokao factories] have metastasized far beyond the David and Goliath tale of small-town schools competing against resourceful peers in provincial capitals. The one who slays the dragon has become the evil dragon itself.
Jordan: NYC Chinese Restaurant Review of the Week—Tengri Tagh Uyghur Restaurant
Located just a few blocks off Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, ‘Uyghur Restaurant’ serves the best Uyghur food I’ve encountered in the US. Their noodles are expressive and 烤包子 wonderfully doughy. I’m most partial to their stir-fried noodles and 丁丁炒面, lovingly translated on the menu as ‘Pearl Noodles’, tiny couscous-sized noodle bits with lamb. The atmosphere is utilitarian, so perhaps not the best location for a business meeting, but otherwise, the menu has enough quality and variety for it to be a weekly staple for anyone working in the area.
Sorry folks I’m not the best food writer…but neither is ChatGPT at the moment! Here’s my attempt to get a ChatGPT Kenji Lopez Alt to describe a Uyghur meal.
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