Alec Ash

Alec Ash is a writer in Beijing, and founding editor of the Anthill. His book Wish Lanterns (Picador, 2016) is available at the Beijing Bookworm

Posts by Alec Ash

Out of Tibet

One Tibetan's story, caught between identity and modernity – by Alec Ash


When Tashi calls, I am in a temple overlooking Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province in western China. Loud, slurred, distraught, he asks me to come quickly.

Tongren, or Rebkong in Tibetan, is eight bumpy hours south, high on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, and the next bus is at noon. When I arrive, it is dusty evening. Tibetans in cowboy hats or Adidas beanies walk the markets, where Hui Muslims in characteristic white hats sell fried chicken and chilled Coke to Han Chinese immigrants. Monks from the Tongren monastery stretch their legs, trainers poking out from underneath their dark crimson robes. Although this region is not politically defined as Tibet (“China’s Tibet,” the autonomous region established by Beijing in 1965, is many miles to the southwest), ethnically and historically, it is firmly Tibetan. It is Tibet out of Tibet.

I find Tashi in a bar on the outskirts, in the middle of a self-hating drunk. He is in his mid twenties, with dark Tibetan skin, brown puppy dog eyes, and a greasy waterfall of black hair. On the table in front of him is a small Everest of cigarette butts and a display of beer and liquor that would make the poet Li Bai, famous for his verses on wine, blush.

“I’m an animal,” Tashi says, looking up. “She left me.”


Escaping Azeroth

Addicted to World of Warcraft – an excerpt from Wish Lanterns by Alec Ash


Snail flew on dragon-back across the Great Sea of Azeroth. He soared over the islands of Kezan and Zandalar, and above the candy swirl of the Maelstrom vortex which hides the aquatic city of Nazjatar, to land on the western continent of Kalimdor. To the south were the Caverns of Time, where the dread wyrm Nozdormu lay undisturbed since the War of the Ancients. Snail let him lie a few aeons more, and set off across the Abyssal Sands to where his true foe lurked.

Meanwhile, in the flesh-and-blood realm of the Internet bar outside the east gate of China Mining and Technology University, Snail stared at pixels on a screen. His lunch breaks in World of Warcraft had turned into afternoons, the afternoons into evenings, the evenings into days. He skipped lectures, blagged assignments, and designed a rota with his classmates who took turns covering for each other at roll call. Soon he was spending ten hours a day in Azeroth. All-night sessions were a regular habit. His longest marathon was sixty hours straight—three days and two nights—eating hot meals for five yuan out of boxes trolleyed by, washing them down with sugary drinks to keep his energy high. His mouse hand darted purposefully as his fingers tapped and clicked like gunfire. His eyes never left his avatar, a scantily clad female elf mage. 


Bright Lights, Big Dreams

Inside the world of reality TV dating shows – by Alec Ash


When rock didn’t make him famous, Lucifer tried TV. Rustic had burnt bright but short. D-22 club had closed in early 2012, and the scene had moved on. But talent and dating shows were booming, and here he looked for a new adoring audience.


Wish Lanterns

A new book by Alec Ash


While we've been publishing stories from China by you, dear readers of our little colony, your humble editors have also been beavering away at their own writing. Now that fruit is ripe for the tasting. So gather around. That's right, it's time for some shameless self promotion and abuse of editorial privilege as I plug my own book.

On top of my own journalism, and anything else that keeps me in my noodles, for the last four years I've been germinating, researching and writing my first book, Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China. It's literary nonfiction, a deep dive into the lives of six young Chinese of my own generation, and it was published yesterday by Picador.

The book is very narrative in conception, and jumps between the six people I write about, telling their stories from childhood to mid to late twenties. There's Lucifer, an aspiring superstar (who was in Rustic for those who know it); Snail, a country migrant from Anhui who gets addicted to World of Warcraft; Fred, daughter of a Party official from Hainan; and even a love story, though I won't spoil the surprise by revealing which two characters meet each other halfway through the book.


Hutong Neighbours

The unbearable lightness of Beijing – by Alec Ash

This story was published in While We're Here, the Anthill anthology just out from Earnshaw Books 


Mrs Wang the widow has lived on Xiguan Hutong for thirty-five years. She's an old Beijinger, born in 1951, and has been within a cabbage's throw of the same vegetable market for most of her life. Her childhood home was in Daxing Hutong, in the same block; her primary school was in Fuxue Hutong, two alleys down; her early teens were in Nanluoguxiang, back when it was just another residential ginnel. In 1980 she married a man who owned property in Xiguan Hutong (reinstated after the Cultural Revolution ended). She worked in a small factory five minutes walk away, making musical instruments from flutes to French horns. When her husband died four years ago, her son moved in with his Mongolian wife. Mrs Wang took a bedroom at the back to live out her retirement watching Chinese soaps, coddling her infant grandson and complaining about how her daughter-in-law complains about her.