Author: Huang Nubo
Title: Herr Huang In Deutschland [Mr. Huang in Germany]
Destination: Germany (some China, some UK)
Length: 26 days
Type: guided tourism
The babbling rich guy
The story: HNB is a Chinese billionaire who enjoys a challenge. He climbs mountains and writes poetry, he gives to charity, and his company supposedly tries to protect cultural relics in China. In 2013, he decides to embark on a mission that is supposed to last him ten years: a visit to each and every World Heritage Site on the face of the earth. He starts with Germany, spanning the 30+ sites that the country has to offer within 26 days. And he travels in style: only flying first class, only staying in the very best hotels available, always accompanied by an entourage of at least 2 people (sometimes up to half a dozen). During this trip, he talks to the rich and to the poor (though it is not clear how much he has to rely on an interpreter for this), and he keeps notes in a rather unorthodox style: he speaks into a dictation device, and a team then transcribes his thoughts and enriches them with researched materials. He also has a personal photographer who is responsible for photographing and filming his endeavors. So far so good.
some positive things
Let’s stay with the word „good“ for a while. What good can be said about this book? Well, there are a few things. First and foremost, it is a high quality print, with colored photos throughout. Second, it seems as though most of the information that HNB’s writing team was able to gather is legit, so if you want to get an overview on Germany’s World Heritage Sites, then this book might be interesting for you (or you could get a simple brochure, whatever suites you best). The third good thing is that it might be interesting to see one’s own country (Germany in this case) through the eyes of a foreigner (HNB). Last but not least, HNB seems to be at his best when he talks either about his own past or about protecting cultural sites. These are also the rare instances when this book reads like something that a person might have taken the time to sit down and „write“. Because otherwise the problems are just too many.
The first problem with this book is that it is way too long. HNB freely admits that he does not want to filter his thoughts, instead he wants to give us the rough cut of what was going through his head at any given time, a stream of thought if you will. So far so good, other travel writers like Jack Kerouac have pulled this off before, so it shouldn’t be impossible, right? Yes, only this time the stream is almost 700 pages long, and there is so much repitition in it that at some point you might just want to take the book and slap someone upside the head with it. Obviously I didn’t. I kept crawling through the shallowness that is HNB’s mind.
The sorrows of Huang Nubo
Did I say shallow? Unfortunately, yes. Here’s what a typical day in HNB’s diary looks like: wake up early in 5-star hotel –> look for gym –> get mad at dissatisfactory gym –> ponder about service quality of 5-star hotel –> have breakfast –> ponder some more (has someone been specifically unfriendly to HNB because he is Chinese?) –> hop in car, take in some scenery –> find World Heritage Site and read from book of self-written poetry in front of it –> have lunch, ponder about quality of service and wine –> spend more time in car, look at more World Heritage Sites, read more own poetry –> interview random person –> buy huge amount of souvenirs –> have dinner with local elites, drink, talk –> sleep.
Sure, sometimes HNB tries to intersperse his stream of thoughts with quotes from the likes of Nietzsche, Heidegger or Foucault. But it often has a generic feel to it, like something we would do if we were writing a thesis and felt like we had to borrow some credibilty from thinkers we don’t really understand. HNB’s original thoughts are mostly bland, revolving around clichés like „back then everything was better“ or „this person treated me badly, is she/he a racist?“ or „money isn’t everything“. Yeah.
Don’t get me wrong, this guy isn’t stupid. He might be naive and grotesquely fond of himself, but he has a certain practical intelligence. And sometimes, he is just plain cold.
Like when he talks to a German journalist about human rights:
„Germany always says that there are no human righs in China. (…) So I’m asking: what about my human rights here? (…) Why do I get fucked over by hotels here? Why do they claim to have a gym when there really is none? Why do they say breakfast is included, but when you’re done eating these words don’t count anymore and they hand you a bill?“ (p.415, translation my own)
Yes, this is apparently what „human rights“ are all about. Forget about freedom from torture and freedom from slavery, forget about the right to a fair trial, forget about freedom of movement, freedom of speech or freedom of religion. Forget all this. Essential „human rights“ get violated when HNB doesn’t get to use the gym or have his free breakfast in a five-star hotel. Now I am always one to argue that the view of a lot of German media on China seems to be at least a bit partial, but still: WTF?
What happened here?
HNB grew up during the Cultural Revolution and then got into Peking University, one of the most prestigious institutes of learning in the country. During the 1980s, he worked at the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China, which is one of the main propaganda organs and also in charge of media censorship. During the 1990s, HNB then got his MBA and started a successful business, getting involved in real estate and tourism.
I wonder: at what point did he simply stop caring?