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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 5: The Chinese Tunnels of Mexicali

Sacromonte Gypsy Cave DwellingSacromonte Gypsy Cave Dwelling (Cordoba, Spain 2008)


Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower
Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea
Vollmann Diaries 3: Into Mexico
Vollmann Diaries 4: Progress, Always, Progress

I had heard about the Chinese caves/tunnels of Mexicali Mexico before I read Imperial. Independently of that awareness, I maintain an active interest in cave/tunnel dwellings of any sort. I think it's the idea of "living in the earth" that attracts me. Above is a photograph of the gypsy caves of the sacromonte district just outside of Cordoba, Spain. The settlement of the caves in Spain is related to the utter collapse of society in between Roman and Muslim control and so the caves, despite their historical pedigree and attempts by the government to class the place up for educational purposes, maintain a tingly sense of nascent (or on going) collapse.

It's funny living in caves in Spain, versus tunnels on the United States/Mexican border. In the course of writing a central chapter of one of the best books written in a long while, Vollmann conclusively proves the existence of Chinese created tunnel networks underneath the streets of Mexicali. These tunnels exist in an "urban legend" state on the United States side of the border. I can attest personally to that attitude among residents of El Centro CA. This denial/ignoring of a very real, interesting phenomenon is a microcosm of Vollmann's approach in Imperial. Here, he is working with a real myth: His trips into the tunnels underlying historic China town in have all the excitement and tension of your standard Indiana Jones movie.

a view of downtown mexicalidowntown Mexicali, BC

Vollmann writes about his investigation into the tunnels, which involves at least twenty different interviews, employing chinese translators and even hiring a pair of Chinese-American women from Sacramento in an attempt to penetrate the tight-knit Mexican-Chinese community of Mexicali, Mexico. He places the community in the context of 19th and 20th century economic and labor history: The Chinese, like the Chinese in other Pacific coast communities, came to work and build towards a middle class shop-keeping existence. To this day, that population persists in Mexicali.

In the end, the mysticism and magic is stripped away, as is ignorance, and the "truth" is revealed, these tunnels were constructed to help early chinese immigrants cope with the heat by allowing for an underground "hanging out" area. With the invention of air conditioning and multiple fires, the tunnels found into disuse, and then they were ignored after.

mexicali, mexicoa view of mexicali bc

I'm reminded to my trip to Cordoba, Spain. Cordoba is the location of an amazing Muslim era fortress/castle called the Alcazar. The Alcazar was literally being ignored to death in the 18th century when American diplomat and author Washington Irving (the legend of sleepy hollow) wrote about "rediscovering" the fortress in a state of negliect. It is now the largest tourist attraction in the country of Spain.

I'm close to being 500 pages in. I feel like the Chinese Tunnels chapter alone could be a satisfactory conclusion to Imperial, but I do feel compelled to read on. I am in awe of Vollmann's technique.

1 comment:

Alison Jean Cole said...

So happy to find these old posts on the web - I also read Imperial years ago and it still stays in my memory.

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