Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China

HK Magazine - - CULTURE - Adam White Com­piled by Jes­sica Wei jes­sica.wei@hk­mag­me­dia.com

Pi­cador, 2016

Liv­ing in Hong Kong, it’s easy to think of China as that mono­lithic dragon; the giant north of the bor­der full of “lo­custs” and hos­tile dic­ta­tors. It sim­pli­fies the nar­ra­tive, makes the whole vast coun­try eas­ier to hold in your head.

But that’s not how it works, is it? China is home to more than 320 mil­lion peo­ple in their teens and 20s, those with no mem­ory of rev­o­lu­tions, of Mao or Tianan­men Square. They’re just try­ing to make a place for them­selves in the world.

“Wish Lanterns” fol­lows six of them, young Chi­nese mil­len­ni­als grow­ing up in a fran­ti­cally mod­ern­iz­ing China. Alec Ash, a Bei­jing-based writer and jour­nal­ist (and, full dis­clo­sure, friend of mine) spent years with th­ese six, be­friend­ing them and delv­ing into their dreams.

There’s Da­hai, son of a mil­i­tary of­fi­cer who finds him­self stuck in a low-pay­ing state job. His only so­lace is the in­ter­net, the only place he can ex­press his anger—via eu­phemisms and work­arounds, of course. He styles him­self a “pe­nis hair,” ne­ti­zen slang for “loser.”

There’s Xiaox­iao, a vin­tage store owner and barista who’s al­ways dreamed of the wider world. Or Fred, the in­tel­lec­tual daugh­ter of a Com­mu­nist Party of­fi­cial, whose pol­i­tics shift across the spec­trum as she spends time in Bei­jing, New York and Taipei.

There’s Snail, the yokel from An­hui prov­ince whose par­ents man­age to send him to univer­sity—where he gets ad­dicted to World of War­craft. Or Mia from the con­flict­torn Xin­jiang prov­ince, a su­per-smart fash­ion­ista (and ex-skin­head).

And then there’s Lu­cifer, the flam­boy­ant singer with an unas­sail­able, uni­ver­sal dream… to be a su­per­star.

Ash has clearly taken the time to get to know th­ese peo­ple, and they’ve opened them­selves up to him. What emerges are nu­anced por­traits of six very dif­fer­ent peo­ple, not the pen­cil-sketch car­i­ca­tures you might ex­pect from a China book writ­ten by a laowai.

In Hong Kong, we’re all so used to be­ing down on China, and see­ing its peo­ple as an un­en­light­ened mass. But of course that’s not true. Th­ese six peo­ple are strug­gling, ques­tion­ing and seek­ing their own equi­lib­ria. Above it all, the specter of mar­riage looms, in the form of anx­ious par­ents hop­ing for a tra­di­tional kind of hap­pi­ness. In the mean­time, th­ese mil­len­ni­als are look­ing for the kind of peace that (hope­fully) be­gins to de­scend as your 20s come to an end.

Ash un­packs th­ese lives del­i­cately, show­ing us hopes, fears and fail­ures: snap­shots not of teem­ing “lo­custs” over the bor­der but of young peo­ple try­ing hard to suc­ceed in a coun­try that’s chang­ing al­most as rapidly as they are. To suc­ceed in the face of tra­di­tion, of his­tory, of their par­ents: They’re join­ing China in a quest to find a place in the world.

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