A China that never was.

There are some books that I dont want to lose, and have read multiple times. The three novels from Barry Hugart, listed here, are among them. In part this is because I lived within a Chinese family for two decades, and the grotesque parts of the culture — not the elite culture, but the culture of the diaspora — were very real to me. My sons are direct descendants of people who payed the poll tax in New Zealand. The omnibus is a labour of love, and now, sadly, out of print. The publisher wrote this on goodreads.

I loved these books so much that I published this one. All three novels concern the same two primary characters, but can be read completely independently. Bridge of Birds, the first of the three, is such a just generally appealing and interesting novel that I sold it “satisfaction guaranteed” at my bookshop. You don’t care for it? Bring it back for a full refund. In 16 years and over 1,500 copies of the paperback sold, I had two people take me up on it. (And one of them said he did kinda like it, but really wanted the cash.)
The frustration at that time was that folks would come rushing back, delighted with this new find of theirs and ask what else this author had written. “The good news is, there are two more books. The bad news is, you can’t have them.” Both of the later books had gone out of print shortly after publication, and were astonishingly expensive in the used book market.
That’s why, in 1998, while looking for a really big thing to do to celebrate 10 years in the bookstore business, I decided to contact Mr. Hughart, hire a book designer (the amazing Robert Garcia), and take my friend Kaja Foglio up on her years-ago idea to illustrate these books if there was ever a chance. We published an omnibus edition of all three novels, with a color cover, and six full page black and white illustrations. While the collection we published is also now out of print, Bridge of Birds has always been available, and the other two have been showing up in sporadic reprints.
Set in “a China that never was”, these books have elements of both fantasy and mystery novels, but fit best into the “just try it and see if you like it” genre. 

Alice Bently, Goodreads

Well, I have paperback copies of all three books and I have the omnibus and if someone removes them from the library I will be right royally distressed. The good news is that the electronic copy is available from Kindle, and also here. You have to understand that this is based on Daoism> The bad thing about Daoism is that it plays with the spiritual, but the good thing is that it pays attention to fairy tales and children’s stories. This series started with children’s stories and sadness. A need to have a world that was magical and safe.

When I got out of Andover in the 1950s I suffered from fairly severe depression, but this was back when the only such term recognized by the medical profession was “depressive” following “manic” which was one bad gig until some genius renamed it “bipolar disorder” and after that it couldn’t harm a fly. Since I wasn’t lucky enough to qualify for manic and clinical depression didn’t exist they diagnosed schizophrenia and packed me off to a booby hatch. (Which was not entirely a bad thing. Man, the scene at Kings Count Psychotic Ward was like awesome!) Then I was promoted to a slightly less odorous asylum where Doctor Oscar Diethelm expounded upon the delights of going snickety-snick on my frontal lobes, and while it would take too long to explain I managed to escape to Columbia University. There I found myself groping through weird landscapes obscured by clouds of pot behind which pimpled prophets of the Beat Generation shrieked, “Our minds destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging through black streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, or what the fuck, something like that. “Yo, daddy-o!” and I said to myself, “Barry, you have found a home.” When I wafted back into the world a few years later my depression was still there but I was allowed to prove my sanity by blowing things up for the U.S. Air Force. No, not Vietnam. Planting ingenious and mostly illegal mine fields around the eternal DMZ in Korea. Time passed but not much else. I moved to the Arizona/Sonoran Desert where I could live quietly, surrounded on all sides by prickly pear, cat’s claw, devil’s horns, barrel cactus, jumping cactus, and illegal immigrants. I still occasionally dreamed of bright flashes followed by BOOM! which was a shame because I had other memories of the Far East: good memories, warm memories, and in 1977—ten years before Prozac—I decided to use those and whatever else I could come up with to create an alternate world into which I could creep on dark and stormy nights and pull over my head like a security blanket. So I read a lot and scribbled a lot and gradually the land of Li Kao began to take shape. But the first draft of Bridge of Birds didn’t really work and I couldn’t see what was wrong, so I dumped it into a drawer for a few years. Then one day I read Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Understanding and found the prayer to a little girl that I mention in a footnote in the final version. It made me realize that while I’d invented good things like monsters and marvels and mayhem the book hadn’t really been about anything. I opened the drawer. “Okay!” I said to myself. “This book is going to be about love.” And so it is, and so are ones that followed.

Barry Hugart.

And it is, but Barry forgot that he had spent enough time in Asia to get the sense of humour. I like the fact that the Emperor, having been ripped off by Master Li, made him con a Roman emissary.

“O great and mighty Master Li, pray impart to me the Secret of Wisdom!’ he bawled. A silly smile was sliding down the side of his face like a dripping watercolor, and his eyeballs resembled a pair of pink pigeon eggs that were gently bouncing in saucers of yellow won-ton soup. To my great credit I never batted an eyelash. ‘Take a large bowl,’ I said. ‘Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei—which means “dry cup”—and drink to the dregs.’ Procopius stared at me. ‘And I will be wise?’ he asked. ‘Better,’ I said. ‘You will be Chinese.’”

Bridge of Birds.

I like all three books. The first book, which is about the love of a human and a god, is wonderful. The second book, with a trip to Hell in the second book (the story of stone) is particularly apt, with a detailed description of how the barbarian west have things wrong. Hell is not made of circles: it is square.

Master Li is fun, cynical, and whenever possible cheats, but it is the comments of Number Ten Ox which are often more truthful.

“The emotional health of a village depended upon having a man whom everyone loved to hate, and Heaven had blessed us with two of them.”

Bridge of Birds.

I have to warn you that if your child has an imagination he should be kept from this book until he finds Harry Potter boring and the rainbow flag tedious. Hugart is far more witty, and blasphemous, and funny and truthful. (At one point one person comments, after seducing a gigantic demon, that Hell is under rated and he needs to return more often).

I will leave the final words with Number ten ox.

“I shall clasp my hands together and bow to the corners of the world.
May your villages remain ignorant of tax collectors, and may your sons be many and ugly and strong and willing workers, and may your daughters be few and beautiful and excellent providers of love gifts from eminent families that live very far away, and may your lives be blessed by the beauty that has touched mine.