Book review: “Building 46” – Much more than a Chinese ghost story
By Sarah Osman
Novel by author and journalist Massoud Hayoun Building 46 probe behind the airbrushed image of the Chinese capital to offer a fascinating (and incisive) look at the daily life of Beijing residents.
Building 46 by Massoud Hayoun. Darf Editors 240 pages, $16.95.
Despite being one of the most populated cities on the planet, Beijing has kept a shroud of mystery. Tourists visiting the city are usually directed to methodically pre-planned tours. Much like Egypt, China dates back thousands of years, but visitors often think of it in terms of trademark landmarks – but there’s so much more to the country than the Great Wall. Novel by author and journalist Massoud Hayoun Building 46 probe behind the airbrushed image of the Chinese capital to offer a fascinating (and incisive) look at the daily life of Beijing residents.
The first volume of the Ghorba Ghost Story series, Building 46 follows Sam Saadoun, a gay Algerian-American from Los Angeles who, after a glorious summer in Beijing, decides to return and study there for a year. During his golden vacation, Sam found a close-knit group of friends. He made a particularly deep connection with Sun, an attraction that made him want to come back to the city in the first place. But when he returns, he quickly learns that Sun has a girlfriend and that his friends were superficial at best. He finds himself alone, wandering the streets of Beijing like in a sad existential film.
However, Sam is not left alone for too long. He makes an eccentric friend, Sandra, who thinks she’s a sexy socialite. She takes Sam and they explore the different nightclubs in town. He befriends the local bootleg DVD seller, who introduces him to esoteric French films. He even helps one of his professors to research what the local Chinese really think about socialism (Sam fails in this mission). All of these interactions are used to dig deeper below the surface of life in Beijing. Hayoun never treats any of the characters in his story with colonialist condescension: each is a fully fleshed out distinct personality. One of Sam’s most intriguing new friends are women: one of them is Meifeng, a local waitress who tells him about her life growing up in a small town before moving to Beijing to earn more money. Meifeng’s blunt revelations of how her boss mistreats her and her co-workers are a critique of Chinese culture, but they also draw connections to how workers around the world are exploited. Much of what makes Building 46 successful is how Hayoun reflects the Eastern and Western worlds. Culture and languages may be different, but class indignities are universal.
The ghost aspect of the narrative revolves around Building 46, next to the building that houses Sam and many other foreign students. He falls in love with Building 46’s enigmatic ping-pong room, located deep within the structure’s bowels. He wonders why the game room is cordoned off and learns that a murder has been committed there. His detective instincts are aroused; he’s determined to figure out exactly what happened – especially when he starts hearing strange noises at night from building 46. No spoilers here, but there’s a tragic heart at the center of this ghost story, a crime which reflects the precariousness of the LGBTQ+ culture in China. As he continues his investigation, Sam begins to examine his own sexuality and he learns that love in Beijing is even more complicated than it is in America.
Building 46 is much more than a fascinating ghost story. It’s a coming-of-age story whose exposure of prejudice weaves together two very different cultures.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, North Carolina. In addition to writing for artistic fuseshe wrote for HQ Water Cooler, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywoodand Matador Network, among other sites. His work has been included in the anthology Fury: Women’s experiences in the Trump era. She is currently a freshman candidate for the Fiction MFA at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she dances, watches movies, travels or eats. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman