reviewed by Travis Lee
Something kept bothering me throughout Scott Savitt’s memoir Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China, and it comes to a head near the end of the book. After his newspaper’s offices have been raided and Scott is arrested, the police interrogate him, where Sergeant Wang kills Savitt’s unregistered dog in a scene of such mustache-twirling villainy it must be read to be believed:
Officer Lee hands the golden-colored Tibetan dog to Sergeant Wang, who strokes him in his lap in front of me like an evil Nazi interrogator.
“Are you sure you won’t change your mind?” he taunts me.
I don’t even look up, just shake my head. Sergeant Wang smiles at me and makes a mock hand motion of breaking a small animal’s neck. He then calls Officer Lee back in, shoves Nao Nao at him, and orders, “Sha ta. Kill the dog.”
I can’t look up as Nao Nao is taken away for the last time. Officer Lee walks out the door and around the office corner, and I hear Nao Nao let out a piercing, high-pitched squeal of pain.
I’m completely numb and beyond anger.
I find myself repeating the words of Jesus on the cross: “Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they do.”
Crashing the Party is filled with moments like these. Embellishments, exaggerations or flat-out lies, they craft the false narrative of a martyr, tarnishing what could have been an amazing memoir by someone who was there for the birth of Chinese Rock & Roll, Tiananmen Square and who founded China’s first independent weekly newspaper, Beijing Scene.
We open with Savitt in prison. He is on a hunger strike, part one of his heroic stance. Part two we see during his interrogation when he refuses to divulge the names of his Chinese accomplices. On the march back to his cell, he notices a pen on the ground, pretends to stumble, falls and returns with it, where he begins this memoir on toilet paper.
It’s also where the major problem with this book begins. Instead of an engaging memoir providing us an alternative to the current crop of China books by the same well-connected people, we get daring window escapes and clairvoyants. The embellishments simply detract from the story and raise too many questions. Did a monk really foretell Scott’s entire life in China? He certainly accepts the monk’s “power” without question. What’s more, did Savitt jump out of the second-story window of Beijing Scene during the police raid?
We cannot accept everything we read at face value. We can only suspend our disbelief so much, especially for something that is supposed to be true. So, we must ask ourselves: what happened, what did Savitt add, and why? Any memoir is bound to have “enhancements”, but Crashing the Party doesn’t know when to stop. During his first job in China, Scott becomes friends with Lisa, a Chinese English teacher. She tells him of her suffering during the Cultural Revolution, and he writes it down. Then the inevitable happens: police discover his notes. They don’t punish him, they punish Lisa by imprisoning her in a military academy with roommates ready to snitch at any second.
So far, so good, and I appreciate the details of the Cultural Revolution, a horrific event perpetuated by a senile leader’s final grasps at power. But apparently that’s not enough. Scott dons some military clothes common at the time, a sick mask to hide his face and takes a daring trip to the military academy. He passes by the guards and happens to catch Lisa in her room when her roommates are out. They make love, Scott leaves undiscovered and he later learns that Lisa hanged herself. He doubts the story, and tries to find out what really happened, but never learns for sure.
Scenes like that are superfluous, giving me the impression that Scott wanted to give his memoir some fictionalized structure it simply did not need. The best parts of Crashing the Party come when he leaves the dime-store heroics alone and focuses on the pro-democracy movement of the late eighties.
For Tiananmen Square, Scott was at ground zero when Liu Xiaobo negotiates with the soldiers on the students’ behalf. We get a perspective straight from the protestors and Scott uses his own knowledge of Chinese history to illustrate the tragedy that awaited everyone in that square in early June, 1989. The sense of patriotism and optimism these people felt must have been magnetic, until of course, the tanks rolled in. And how many people today think of the massacre? My fear is not that the CCP and its enablers have made a whole population ignorant of recent history; it’s that they’ve made them apathetic, and perhaps that was their goal.
Similarly, the founding of Beijing Scene works well. The ins and outs of starting up the first independent English-language newspaper in post-Tiananmen China are fascinating, and that is the memoir I wanted to read. I don’t need Savitt’s father’s cliched admonishments about not attending law school and someone needs to put a lid on John and his Chinese proverb of the day, though day is too generous; he dispenses those babies by the second.
I wanted an interesting memoir. Instead I got an attempted Hero’s Journey with pseudo-thriller elements…and the afterthoughts of a memoir. Reading this book, you get the sense that Scott Savitt has much more to say, but it’s hard to do when you’re making a daring incursion into your fateful lover’s room or fleeing the police.
Chinese authorities deport Scott at the end of the book. To properly round out everything, Scott informs us that he has smuggled his toilet-paper written memoir, exactly where you think he’d hide it. Our villain, Sergeant Wang, escorts Scott onto the plane and promises to him again. And that’s it. Is Savitt banned for life? Will he return? Savitt leaves China with a “zaijian” and his readers with too many questions, and not enough concern to find out the answers.
Author of six books, Travis Lee’s fiction has appeared in The Colored Lens and Independent Ink Magazine. His latest book, Expat Jimmy, is available on Amazon. He lived in China for two and a half years. He currently resides in the States. http://www.travis-lee.org