My thanks to Buckrider Books and Edelweiss for a review copy of this book.

Taobao is a collection of short stories by Canadian–Chinese author Dan K Woo, set in modern-day China, which sadly turned out to be rather different than I had expected, and which didn’t end up really working for me. The stories are described as ‘chart[ing] the paths of young people searching for love, meaning, and happiness in a country that is often misunderstood in North America’ and stories that are ‘captivating and complex’ set likewise in a ‘captivating and complex country’.

The twelve entries in this collection are categorised in three sections, ‘Chastity’, Courtship’, and ‘Conquest’, and are snapshots that give the reader glimpses of different lives in different parts of the country examining themes like marriage, love, dreams, aspirations, and trauma. From a young woman who finds much in big-city life that she covets but who agrees to her mother’s insistence on finding a suitable groom in a ‘marriage market’ (‘The Marriage Market’), to a bride undergoing prewedding and wedding celebrations on the verge of starting her new life (‘The Drunkard’), or a young village lad dreaming of opening his own restaurant who must first work as a delivery boy to make some money (‘The Delivery Boy’), to young students learning Chinese or attending camp, exploring the city (‘The City’; ‘The Bicycle Thief’), and students who develop a rather obsessive interest in their ‘foreign’ teachers (‘The Professor and the Student’; ‘The Blond Teacher’).  In some of these, a version of the author is a character himself, in the guise of a student, at times lost and lacking direction. In their imagery we see contrasts between urban and rural spaces, rigorous development and extreme poverty side by side, people struggling to make a living in the city, and some contending with other problems. In many of these stories, much is left to the reader’s interpretation with the narrative ending on an almost abrupt note.

To start off with, from the initial description of the book, I was expecting the a far wider range of themes as well as far wider coverage in terms of the segments of society we get a look at in the book. But most were focused on love, marriage, and sexuality (mostly, the latter). Of course, you will say, but didn’t the three sections of the book tell you as much? To an extent they did, but some stories in the first segment, like ‘The Delivery Boy’ which followed a young man who dreams of opening a restaurant selling a soup from his hometown he is expert at making or the young student in ‘The City’ being apprehensive, scared even of exploring his roots had threads reflecting the initial description of the book. And I’d have enjoyed seeing more of these. Afterall, ‘meaning’ and ‘happiness’ in life doesn’t lie in marriage or sexual expression alone. That said, I did like getting a glimpse into how marriages are arranged, and how bride price is viewed, pre-wedding photoshoots (something quite popular in my part of the world too, lately), the struggles and unfairness poor and unskilled migrants to the city face when they arrive in search of a better life, and the conditions they must live in.

The places and people showcased in the collection too, seemed confined to a limited range. Poverty, dirt (garbage and sewage), dilapidation and shabbiness are aplenty in many of these stories which certainly represents one aspect of the country, but that isn’t the only one, and I’d have liked to see a broader picture (This is a complaint that I have with many stories set in India as well—only the slums and the poverty are showcased, clearly meant to appeal to a certain audience). Many of the people (local and foreign) are rather seedy and unsavoury, and most, very unappealing. It is a rare few one feels any sympathy for.

Some stories in the collection were rather disturbing as well. Two of the stories in the ‘Courtship’ section explore an obsession that a couple of students develop with their foreign teachers. In one, a young girl is so blinded by the false idols she has created in her dreams, that she brings about her own ruin, while horrific consequences unfold in the other, where a young man is similarly blinded.

The ‘Taobao’ in the title refers to the Chinese equivalent to Amazon, said to be a thread linking the stories, but here too, the mention of it in some of the stories didn’t feel more than that, a mention, not really adding anything more substantial to the stories or the link between them.

When I started reading this collection, while I didn’t enjoy all the stories in the first segment, since there were elements I found off-putting, some did explore themes that I thought promising, and I’d have wanted to see more of. But as I read on, these aspects seemed to fade away and I even considered abandoning it. I did however, read through till the end, but didn’t find most of the stories to be my cup of tea at all.

(Book info: Buckrider Books, 2022; 250pp; edition reviewed kindle ARC)

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Taobao by Dan K. Woo

  1. I’m very tired of relationships and sexuality being such dominant themes these days, partly because, as you say, they’re not the only important things in life, and partly because frankly there’s a limited amount as to what can be said about them, and surely it’s all been said many times over. I also get very tired of the tendency of some authors to concentrate exclusively on the worst aspects of any society and give no balance. If you judged the world purely by our contemporary literature, what an awful picture you would get of it…

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    1. Same here. I didn’t actually mind the first section, though there were some off putting bits here as well, but if he’d brought more range in terms of the themes he went into, I’d have liked it better. Poor people struggling or spaces without the ‘shine’ and facilities that cities have or indeed the more derelict quarters in cities are one part of the country, no doubt and I’m glad he wrote of them. But there is much more to it too–where were the middle classes or the wealthy for that matter–relationships too could include generational ones or family dynamics as well. To be fair he does bring in things like WeChat being the common means of communication and such, but somehow the people felt either struggling or lost or concerned only with their relationships which seemed such a narrow and limited picture. And the Taobao link felt too weak as well

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  2. That’s a real shame as it could have been so good and educational. I know what you mean about poverty porn, stories set in India seem to be gradually pulling out of this (thinking of a few I’ve read more recently) but maybe it’s a track other cultures’ literature for wider audiences has to go along, too.

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