Inside Capitalist China: A Tour de Force Travelogue
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007; C01
So Colby Buzzell is standing in the underwear aisle in a Wal-Mart in Shenzhen, China, one of the nine Wal-Marts in the city, minding his own business and shopping for socks, when suddenly this guy with rotting teeth taps him on the arm and shows him a cellphone picture of a cute, smiling Chinese girl.
"You like?" he says. Then he types into the cellphone the price of a night of bliss with this woman -- 1,200 yuan, or about $150.
Buzzell shoos the pimp away and chooses a five-pack of white socks, but the pimp returns with a special sale price -- 800 yuan.
"I looked around for security or maybe somebody else who thought it was a bit odd that some stranger was approaching me inside a Wal-Mart trying to pimp out this Chinese girl," Buzzell writes in his weird and hilarious article on Shenzhen in the August Esquire.
But nobody else in the packed store seemed to think pimping in Wal-Mart is the least bit odd. Perhaps that's because nearly everything in Shenzhen is completely bizarre, as Buzzell demonstrates in this deadpan comic travelogue.
Buzzell is not a China correspondent. He's not really even a reporter. He's a 31-year-old Californian, a former stoner and skate punk who joined the Army and served as a combat infantryman in Iraq in 2003. He started blogging about his experiences in Iraq. The blog attracted a lot of attention and became the basis of Buzzell's widely praised book, "My War: Killing Time in Iraq." Now, Esquire periodically sends Buzzell out to some interesting part of the world to wander around and report what he sees in a style that could be described as "chatty, with attitude."
Shenzhen is a perfect topic for Buzzell. In 1979, it was a tiny fishing village near Hong Kong. Then the Chinese Communist government decided to make Shenzhen an experiment in its new policy of no-holds-barred capitalism. Now, the place has 11 million people, many of them working in foreign-owned factories for a couple of dollars a day, and others working as hookers, dope dealers, pickpockets, beggars, McDonald's fry cooks, Starbucks baristas and the "second wives" of rich Hong Kong businessmen who still have first wives back home.
It's also "the world capital of faux merchandise," Buzzell writes, a place where "everything is bootlegged" -- clothes, sneakers, iPods, PlayStations, movies and millions of T-shirts. Many of the T-shirts bear slogans in English, sort of. Buzzell saw shirts that read, "Who The Wish Are Blackwire" and "Bizarre Must Awesome Want."
He also saw boxes of tea inexplicably decorated with a John Deere logo.
"Those Che T-shirts are made here, too," Buzzell writes. "Shirts made in a communist country by workers who make $1.50 a day, shipped to slackers in a rich country who'll pay twenty bucks they got from Dad for a T-shirt. I'll bet that's just the way Che wanted to be remembered."
Buzzell doesn't act like a reporter, interviewing officials and experts. He just sort of wanders around until he runs into people who speak a bit of English and then he asks them to show him their world. Through this method, he ends up singing a karaoke version of a Celine Dion song in the tiny high-rise apartment of a Chinese Starbucks barista, then climbing up to the roof of the building and gazing out at the Shenzhen skyline "with its hundreds of construction cranes staking the landscape like dinosaurs."
At one point, Buzzell ends up drinking beer with young businessmen, two Brits and one American, who explain the brave new world of globalization.
"Back home, there's this place that used to make these tile bricks," one of the Brits tells Buzzell. "The problem was, they lasted for 80 years. The Chinese make their bricks for cheap, and theirs last only 18 months, which means in 18 months you have to buy more bricks, thus it's good for the economy because it keeps everybody with a job."
"Is that why everything I buy from China falls apart so fast?" Buzzell asks.
"Exactly!" the Brit says. "It keeps everybody with a job."
"It's the finish of one historical cycle," adds another businessman as he chomps into some ribs, "and the start of another."