The Number Two Space Rocket Factory has closed and the residents of Shaoyang, China are beside themselves. Party Secretary Li doesn't handle the news well. He writes anti-Communist banners and attaches them to his balcony. He dedicated his life to the plant and his country all for nothing. In a moment of despair, he hangs himself causing disgrace to his family and gossip throughout the village.
The other retirees all react differently to the factory's demise. It was more than just a place of employment. Those living within the village walls defined themselves through the impact of their efforts. Would their identities crumble with the demise of the factory?
Autumn Cloud, widowed by her husband's suicide, temporarily leaves the village to be with her family.
Old Zhu, the former President of the factory obsessively tends to his garden and waits to die.
Madam Fan spends her mornings waking her neighbors, singing selections from the Beijing Opera. Her afternoons are devoted to finding an appropriate suitor for her daughter, Peach.
The children of these elders view the world and their country differently from their parents. They came of age during the Tiananmen Square incident, preferring to doubt authority rather than become good little Communists.
Da Shan has returned to the Zhu home from the city. He disgraced his parents when he was jailed for his participation in the 1989 student uprising. Since then, he has found a successful capitalist-type job and returned home divorced and wealthier than those which chose to stay in town.
The Drink and Dream Teahouse follows several of the Shaoyang villagers as they cope with the changes in modern-day China. The two generations clash in their perception of their country's past, present and future.
The story also takes a narrower angle, examining the various relationships of the characters. Da Shan has left his wife and daughter. Before his marriage and during the counterrevolution, he had a relationship with a fellow student named Lu Bei. This story also follows her life, which took a drastically different path than Da Shan's.
There's also a sub-plot involving Peach and her secret relationship with a poor store owner. With little affection and support from her family, Peach's first encounters with love and sex are difficult. This experience with romance may or may not be typical, but readers are given a glimpse of dating and socializing in a rural Chinese town.
The Drink and Dream Teahouse is a refreshing change of pace from the typical books in a chain store display. The modern-day China setting is fascinating. The author took a risk and it pays off. Hill taught English in China for several years, yet he writes as though he's describing his native country. The peculiarities and nuances of Chinese culture translate well.
It's quite easy to compare this work to the novels of Amy Tan. Both Hill and Tan are comfortable describing the determined new ways of the Chinese culture as they clash with stubborn tradition.
That's where the similarity between the two authors ends, however. Tan's books focus primarily on a few characters. Their complicated relationships are analyzed and played out in front of readers' eyes. Hill's story isn't as intimate. Some of the relationships are hard to define and the characters seem distant. Tan is more concerned with the family dynamic. Hill prefers to examine Chinese society as a whole.
However, this isn't a novel about politics. Hill provides a tender story of equal parts sorrow, humor, despair and hope. There is generous use of poetry throughout, enhancing the entire reading experience.
The Taipei Times calls The Drink and Dream Teahouse a "minor masterpiece" and that's a fitting description. Hill weaves a vivid tapestry of Shaoyang and its inhabitants. The story is so interesting that readers want to delve deeper into the characters than Hill allows.
Still, Justin Hill's second novel is a worthy read. It is a welcome distraction from the typical spoon-fed fiction craved by today's readers. The author rose to the challenge of creating a good story based on an entirely different culture from his own. It's a risky move for any writer, and it just happens to work nicely in The Drink and Dream Teahouse.