Discover a cast of foreigners out to sexually exploit the women of China

August 26, 2014

If God really thought sex was a mortal sin, why did He give young men so much testosterone? If you doubt, I suggest you visit Mayo Clinic.org to discover the facts. The Mayo Clinic says, “Testosterone is a hormone produced primarily in the testicles. Testosterone helps maintain men’s sex drive and sperm production.”

Warning, if you are an uptight, born-again Puritan, this mostly erotic collection of short stories might offend you.

The stories in Isham Cook’s collection, The Exact Unknown, reveal men driven by the often oppressed and censured libido. These stories are not an author’s sex fantasy as some Puritanical minds might claim, because many of the characters in these stories don’t achieve their goal—bedding down Chinese beauties that are not as easy to seduce as some think.

This collection is set in modern China where women are considered equal to men and are experimenting with that freedom and their sexuality. In case you are unaware of it, bound feet women in China and concubines as the property of men—you know, legal sex slaves—was officially ended by Mao after his famous liberating ‘Women hold up half the sky’ speech.

I think the best story in this 5-star collection of testosterone driven characters was Good Teacher, Bad Teacher starting on page 103 of the paperback.  John Cobalt is from Los Angeles and he’s teaching English in Guangzhou, China to Chinese college students. “This strange six-foot-five American dressed in what struck his employers as pajamas … went barefoot both in class and out on the street. … If that wasn’t bad enough, some students complained to the department head they could make out Cobalt’s penis against the flimsy fabric of his pants, in its flaccid state to be sure, yet they considered this to be highly improper nonetheless.”

To discover how Cobalt ends up with a devout and loyal following of Chinese college graduates, who are mostly female, you’ll have to buy the book.

My second best choice would be The Curious Benefits of Neurosis starting on page 130 in the paperback that’s about a sex addict who sets out one night to visit as many massage parlors as possible—with some surprising results.

I must warn you though that there are a few well-written stories in this collection that have nothing to do with the out-of-control libidos of foreigners hoping to exploit the women of China.

The author sent me a complementary paperback copy of this book for my honest opinion that I’m sure modern, born-again Puritans will not approve of.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

Low-Res_E-book_cover_MSC_July_24_2013

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Shanghai and the Complexity of Spoken Language in China

June 24, 2014

The first time I flew into Shanghai, the jet landed at Hangqiao Airport. In 1999, there was no Pudong with its Maglev Train, which moves 150 to 200 km/hour—running eighteen miles to the city.

Even with the larger Pudong airport, Hangqiao still handled more than 31 million passengers in 2010, but more fly into Pudong (44.8 million passengers in 2012).

Model of Shanghai

Regarding spoken languages, China’s leaders are finishing the job Qin Shi Huangdi started twenty-two hundred years ago, and it’s not going to be easy.

The first emperor unified China with one written language but didn’t touch the spoken word. Today, the country is being stitched together with one language, Mandarin. It may take several generations, because most people still speak the language of their parents.

How tough is this goal? Well, there are about 250 spoken languages in China and some of these have dozens of different dialects (especially Mandarin and Tibetan). For instance, Shanghainese, or Wuzhou that’s about 120 miles upstream from Guangzhou, but its dialect is more like that of Guangzhou than that of Taishan, 60 miles southwest of Guangzhou and separated from it by several rivers. In parts of Fujian the speech of neighboring counties or even villages may be mutually unintelligible. Learning English is also mandatory in the public schools. In 2010, there were estimated to be over 100,000 native English-speaking teachers in China.

I’ve shopped on this street.

When England and France started two opium wars with China to force the emperor to allow them to sell the drug to his people, Shanghai was only a sleepy fishing town. The 1st Opium war was 1839 to 1849. The 2nd was 1856 to 1860.

The treaty that ended the first opium war made Shanghai a concession port bringing expats to China from all over the world, and they are still arriving.

Today, there are about 210,000 foreigners living in Shanghai (another 45,500 live in Pudong) out of more than 24 twenty million residents in the municipality of Shanghai with another 21.7 million in the urban area around the city—making Shanghai the most populated city in China and the world. Shanghai has more than 20,000 buildings 11 stories or higher with more than 1,000 exceeding 30 stories.

The 121-story Shanghai Tower will be completed this year, and it will be the tallest building in China. For a comparison, New York City has less than 6,000 high-rises and only 97 are taller than 600 feet.

The next four Shanghai photos are courtesy of Tom Carter,
photo journalist and author of China: Portrait of a People

See the Shanghai Huangpu River Tour

See more at National Geographic, Shanghai Dreams

See more about Shanghai at Eating Gourmet in Shanghai

 

Discover Hollywood Taking the “Karate Kid” to China

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His third book is Crazy is Normal, a classroom exposé, a memoir. “Lofthouse presents us with grungy classrooms, kids who don’t want to be in school, and the consequences of growing up in a hardscrabble world. While some parents support his efforts, many sabotage them—and isolated administrators make the work of Lofthouse and his peers even more difficult.” – Bruce Reeves.

lloydlofthouse_crazyisnormal_web2_5

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Blonde Lotus: book review and guest post by Tom Carter

February 26, 2014

Guest Post (book review) by Tom Carter

If there ever was an expat author in the Middle Kingdom whose enthusiasm and love of life was as contagious as Cecilie Gamst Berg’s, then that person has yet to be published.

Part travelogue of a directionless backpacker, part bedtime stories of a frisky European babe who enjoys seducing young Chinese guys “out of the festering prison of virginity,”

Blonde Lotus is in fact one in the same person.  Gamst Berg, via her alter-ego protagonist Kat Glasø, accidentally arrives in late-1980’s China (“all I wanted was to be on the train; I had no interest in the journey’s destination, Beijing”), back when the mighty bicycle was still king of Peking and foreign tourists were a rare sighting.

Expecting a people with “long, billowing sleeves, reciting poetry and plucking at stringed instruments,” what Kat finds in New China instead are street corners populated with shady money changers and young hipsters whose knowledge of English is limited to the words ‘Okay-la’ and ‘Sex!’  Lulled by their charming incessancy, Kat shrugs her shoulders and good-naturedly gives it to them – the money AND the sex.  “How could so many men find the women of a race attractive, and so few women find the men the same,” she ponders postcoitally over a shared Zhongnanhai cigarette.

Queen gweipo (devil woman in Cantonese) Gamst Berg is an unpretentious, fun-loving writer with nothing to prove.  She’s not out to save China as so many a self-righteous foreigner here are (“I hope this country never modernizes” Kat admits in one of her many blunt moments of sincerity), she’s not trying to force feed them Faulkner (“I loved books and he never read one”), nor is she out to land a career in journalism like the rest of us.

No, the author is clearly just looking to have a good time (“We were young, stoned and in China”), and maybe learn some Putonghua while doing it, and therefore spares us the sappy, sympathetic observations and “deep understanding” of life in China that makes most Laowai Literature such a torture to read.

Conversely, nor is Gamst Berg out to tear Communism apart, vilify Chinese people or point and laugh at the “strangeness” of their culture, a common last-resort for some western travel writers (whom I refrain from naming as a professional courtesy) who don’t want to admit that they have learned nothing about the Chinese during their stay here.

Indeed, while her fellow expats spend their time in China sitting around at bars “shouting out orders in English, and when they weren’t understood, complained loudly to each other about how stupid the Chinese were,” rather than join in, Kat moves tables, literally and figuratively, to the Chinese side of the bar.

Instead of whining about China’s infamously filthy public toilets, Kat hangs out in them (smoking dope), then laughs when there’s a line of squeaming girls waiting to use the stall.

Rather than bitch about the People’s Republic’s chaotic queues at its railway stations, she jumps right in, elbows swinging, with the rest of the seething proletariat.

Our Blonde Lotus ain’t no saint, and she would laugh in your face if you dared suggest it.  “I wanted to experience everything and sleep with everybody…” confesses, nay, asserts the Norwegian-born Kat Glasø – and then proceeds to actually do so, from coal-and-petrol-scented industrial North China all the way down to the steamy islands of Hong Kong, her final destination.

Throughout her candid memoir, the author employs an uproarious combination of reluctant intellectualism (“learning Chinese was better than being in love because there was no danger of waking next to the Chinese language wanting to kick the f*cker out of bed”) and ribald hedonism (“I felt something push into me, shudder and expire. Was it an asparagus?”) that is sure to win Gamst Berg as many fans as frighten them away.

If Blonde Lotus is a window into China, then that window has been fogged with the sultry breathe of its occupants.  If it is a work of reportage; then the author was too distracted by eating, drinking, smoking and playing cards with the peasantry to be concerned about making the front page.  And that nonchalance, that self-depreciating humor, is exactly this novel’s charm.

Blonde Lotus is a refreshingly unserious memoir of an infectiously upbeat young woman (this reviewer’s favorite line in the whole book: “Ha ha, life was perfect and made for me!”) who, lost in China and unsure of what she wants to do with said life – as many of our kind are – inadvertently ends up making a new, better one for herself.

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Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of China: Portrait of a People (San Francisco Chronicle Book Review), a 600-page China photography book, which may be found at Amazon.com.

Discover more “Guest Posts” from Tom Carter with Is Hong Kong Any Place for a Poor American?

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Shanghai Susie, a guest post by Tom Carter

December 18, 2013

Unsavory Elements editor Tom Carter talks with aspiring novelist Susie Gordon in her debut public interview on Shanghai’s expatriate scene, writing fiction versus non-fiction, and partying with China’s nouveau riche.

As the editor of Unsavory Elements, China’s first-ever expat anthology, I was conscious about balancing out the cast of contributors with both established writers and emerging talent. Surprisingly, it was far easier to commission best-selling authors for the project than it was to unearth unknown writers who not only had an interesting tale to tell, but could tell it well.

Whilst scouring the Sino-blogosphere and bookshops for potential contributors, I stumbled upon the works of Susie Gordon, a Shanghai-based Brit whose love for this cosmopolitan city is evident in her poetic prose and appropriately-risqué story telling. I thusly commissioned her to write a true, first-hand account about Shanghai’s legendary nightlife, and she came through with what critics are saying is one of the anthology’s most stunning stories – a glittery glimpse into the decadent lives of China’s fu er dai (second generation nouveau riche).

Unsavory Elements, published by Shanghai’s own Earnshaw Books and launched this past spring at a sold-out session of the Shanghai Literary Festival, has received mixed reviews from the local expat ‘zine scene, many whom were admittedly entranced by Susie’s story but offended if not outraged by my own “exploitative” (their words) essay about patronizing prostitutes.  The western mass media, on the other hand, have haughtily refused to review the book owing to its boutique publisher, but steady sales in Shanghai and Beijing bookstores, and polemic word-of-mouth from netizens, have relegated Unsavory Elements to cult status – an admittedly better place to be than out of print.

We agree to meet in the crisp, early morning hours of November 1 at a café on Yongkang Lu, Shanghai’s newest expat hotspot which has made news recently for its rampant and rowdy gentrification. I am not a little surprised that someone so smitten with this city’s history and culture (Susie is also the author of the Moon Shanghai guidebooks and runs the local branch of the Royal Asiatic Society) would suggest that we patronize one of Yongkang Lu’s foreign-owned establishments instead of a local shop.  Between drags of green Esse and several cups of coffee, the strongly opinionated Shanghai Susie aka “Unsavory Susie” expounds on such contentious topics during this, her first-ever public interview.

susiegordonphotoSusie Gordon

TOM: Do you live around here?

SUSIE: Yes, I live on Taiyuan Lu, the heart of the former French Concession, one of the most attractive areas in town.

TOM: Why did you decide to live in an expat enclave as opposed to elsewhere in the city?

SUSIE: It’s commonly believed that the French Concession is where all the foreigners go, and from Yongkang Lu you’d think that was true, but the street where I live is very local. I live on the top floor of a lane house, my neighbors on the other floors are all Shanghainese people who have lived here their whole lives, and I hardly see another expat face unless I come up here.

TOM: I’ve read in the news that the Chinese residents who live above the bars here on Yongkang Lu are throwing water down on the noisy foreigners because they feel their neighborhood has basically been invaded by white people. So apparently developers are planning on buying out all the locals and turning this street into another Laowai Jie. Do you feel such gentrification is beneficial to the community?

SUSIE: No, not at all. I think it’s a really insidious form of neo-colonialism, but then again Shanghai is a city that was built on such practices, it’s a city that thrives on vogue and trends. And the government will let it progress so long as it continues to bring money in.  How about yourself?

TOM: I’m over near the Central Railway Station, which is like the last place anyone wants to be, but I’ve only lived in Shanghai for a year and a half. From having lived in many other provinces and traveled so extensively in China, I can honestly say that Shanghai is one of my least favorite cities.  It has to do with that gentrification – an elitist city built by and for foreigners in the Mainland who don’t really want to be here – and how it’s turned the locals into mean mercenaries.  Wouldn’t you agree that the Shanghainese are not nearly as friendly as people elsewhere in the country?

SUSIE: I think it’s like in any big city of trade and economy. Shanghai was founded on making money, so certainly the local personality has developed around that, where everyone is on the make. But that’s happening all over China now during this development boom, as I’m sure you’ve encountered during your travels.

TOM: So what brought you to China and Shanghai in the first place?

SUSIE: It was curiosity mixed with a tiny bit of family heritage; my grandfather was a shipping merchant from Liverpool in the 1950s and he used to come to Shanghai quite frequently and always talked about it. So I came here in 2008 on holiday and liked it so much that I made the rash decision to move here even though I didn’t have a job or any money or any friends, so in a way I’m indebted to the city for providing for me in that way. I was also pleased to find a writing group when I moved here: HAL is one of the first independent writing groups that turned into a publishing house, and they’ve published two collections of writings, both which I’ve contributed to.

TOM: And that is exactly how I discovered you!  I’d read both of the HAL publications and the two stories that stood out to me the most were written by “S.C. Gordon”.  It took some online sleuthing to track you down since that was just your pen name. Your story in Party like it’s 1984 was kind of a satirical maybe-true take on the local expat editors scene.

SUSIE: Yes, I had spent a couple years working for a now-defunct expat magazine. The stories in general you hear about expats who come to Shanghai to set up businesses that ultimately go wrong due to cheating or just due to failure are very easy to satirize.

TOM: Middle Kingdom Underground is where I really fell in love with your writing. Your story “The Den” is set in a single night in the early 1900s and is about a Western woman trying opium for the first time; her matriarch is attempting to seduce her while she’s trying to seduce her matriarch’s Chinese house-girl. The plot is rich with layers of seduction and deceit; you’ve done in a mere 15 pages what would take a Chinese television costume drama an entire season. Where did the inspiration for this come from?

SUSIE: I’m fascinated by Shanghai’s history with the opium trade, and I’m influenced by the British writer Sarah Waters, so I wanted to theme my story around female relationships during the Victorian-era.

TOM: Have you ever tried opium?

SUSIE: I haven’t – I don’t even know where you’d get it these days! It’s certainly not available from the Uyghur drug dealers on Yongfu Lu or Fumin Lu, you never hear them whispering “hashish, marijuana, opium…”

TOM: So after I read your HAL essays I knew I had to include you in Unsavory Elements, and I remember I specifically asked if you could give me a non-fiction, present-day version of “The Den” and take us on the ultimate night out in decadent, sexy Shanghai. But the clever thing about “Empty from the Outside” is that you’re not the one being naughty, you’re just observing all these self-indulgent people around you.

SUSIE: I used to do business with a wealthy Chinese man and his spoiled sons, and they’d go on these extravagant nights out, laying down tens of thousands of Yuan on wine. And what I learned from spending time with them is that desire is the same all over the world: if you have the money to buy designer drugs and expensive wine, you will.  And even in China, whether you are drinking a cheap bottle of erguotou or a pricey bottle of champaign, people in the big city have the same desires as in the countryside.

TOM: You’ve tapped into a topic that I’m pretty sure no other foreigner has ever written about – a long-form, first-hand expose on China’s privileged class.

SUSIE: I think the reason no foreigners are writing about it is because they don’t experience it; a lot of Westerners come here expecting to be worshiped and have dominion over the locals, but then they see these fu er dai (second generation) who are so incredibly wealthy and the Westerners realize they are not the richest or the best educated or the most ambitious, and it kind of puts them to shame, and thus they lose their access to that class of Chinese. But really I’m more of a fiction writer, it’s the genre I feel most natural in.

TOM: You’re currently working on a novel, right?

SUSIE: It’s a four-part novel spanning 20th century Shanghai to the present, like the history of the city as seen through four different generations of people who all lived in the same apartment in the old French Concession.

TOM: You know I love your writing, Susie, and allow me to be the first to publicly predict a publishers bidding war for your book, but as I’m someone who doesn’t love Shanghai as much, don’t you feel that early 1900’s Shanghai has been done to death in novels and movies?

SUSIE: I think there’s always something new to be written about Shanghai, and my approach would be classified as “queer literature” (even though there are a few straight people in the book too) so for that reason alone it’s unique. But I was conscious about skipping the 1930s, which is the most clichéd period of Shanghai’s history.

TOM: Yeah, it seems that for books about China the published industry has limited itself to either the Cultural Revolution or 1930s Shanghai, replete with recycled hai pai (Shanghai style) advertisement artwork for their book covers.

SUSIE: That’s because the publishing industry knows what will sell, and there’s not much experimentation because they have to play to a ready-made audience. And there’s certainly not much being written about modern Shanghai apart from expat memoirs.

TOM: And as we’ve unfortunately learned with Unsavory Elements this past year, expat books are hit or miss.

SUSIE: But an anthology like Unsavory Elements has its place in the wider canon of post-colonialist literature; this diaspora of westerners coming over to China as economic refugees, and the strange spectrum of experiences that ensue.  And I think it was important to include in the anthology stories such as mine and yours that explore the underbelly of China. What was the inspiration for your “Teen Street” story?

TOM: It had nothing to do with inspiration, it was just the sheer absurdity of that situation we’d gotten ourselves into (about a boy’s night out to a brothel staffed by teenage prostitutes) which compelled me to immortalize it in words. I suppose I should have expected all the ire that’s been directed at me because of it, though it seems that most of the people who have criticized me online for this story haven’t actually read it.

SUSIE: I think certain critics have seen that it’s by a male expat writer so therefore it has to be “exploitative”, but if they read between the lines they’ll find that isn’t necessarily the case. You’ve chosen a topic that can be controversial, but within the narrative you were quite careful to point out, for example, when your friend points to a prostitute and says “Wo yao zhege” and you respond “She’s not a thing, she’s a person.”  It’s a very considerate piece of writing, and just needs more of a detailed reading.

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Tom Carter is the author of China: Portrait of a People

Unsavory Elements, edited by Tom Carter, is a collection of original, true stories commissioned from 28 renowned writers about their experiences living in China.

This interview originally appeared in the Asia Literary Review November 4, 2013

 


Foreign Elements: a guest post by Alec Ash

December 11, 2013

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Photo by Eelco Florijn. The picture was taken in Kham, Tibet, at the Dongdola pass.

There have been expats in China since the first Jesuit missionaries started arriving in the 16th century. But what characterizes the hundreds of thousands of Westerners who call China home today? And what are the challenges and identity issues that they face?

Tom Carter, originally from San Francisco, has been living in China for a decade. He did a well received book of photography [China: Portrait of a People] based on trekking 35,000 miles through 33 provinces for two years. More recently he edited a collection of true stories from expat China called Unsavory Elements, which has generated both praise and controversy.

I sat down with him over lunch in Shanghai, and followed up with questions over email, to dig deeper.

Alec Ash [AA]: Why did you feel there was a need for a collection of stories and anecdotes by Westerners living in China? What is it about that experience that interests you?

Tom Carter [TC]: It was a project whose time had come. The past decade has seen an unprecedented number of new books and novels about China, but aside from a handful of mass-market memoirs there was nothing definitive about its expatriate culture. As an editor and avid reader, I had this grand vision of an epic collection of true short stories from a variety of voices that takes the reader on a long, turbulent arc through the entire lifetime of an expat – bursting with ephemera and memories from abroad. That’s how Unsavory Elements was conceived.

Of course, the landscape of China in 2013 is vastly different than 2008 – generally considered the new golden age for laowai (foreigners) – and virtually unrecognizable from 2004, which is when I first arrived. Such rapid changes are the subject of just about every book on China these days. But swapping stories with other backpackers I bumped into on the road while photographing my first book, I noticed that there was something profound about our experiences and adventures – the tales we told might just as well have occurred in the 1960s or even the 1860s. And that’s when it struck me: the more China changes the more it stays the same. So I wanted to switch up the trends of this genre and feature stories that were not only timely but timeless.

AA: But how has the foreigner community in China changed over the past decades? Do you feel there’s anything Westerners in China have in common, among all the diverse reasons that people have to end up here?

TC: Expatriates in China are certainly a motley crew. I’ve lived and traveled extensively across many countries in the world, but none seem to have attracted such a diverse crowd as China, this eclectic mix of businessmen and backpackers, expense-account expats and economic refugees. It really could be the 1800s all over again, like some scene out of James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan [about the aftermath of the Opium War] except now with neon lights and designer clothes. What we’ve seen this past decade surrounding the Beijing Olympics is history repeating itself. The Western businessmen who have come and gone these past ten years during the rise of China’s economy are the exact same class of capitalists who populated Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1800s. They’ve come to make their fortunes and then get out – which is what we are witnessing with the recent expat exodus [now that China’s economy shows signs of faltering].

The darker side of China’s history also seems to be repeating itself. The Communist-conducted purges of “foreign devils” and foreign-owned enterprises that occurred in the Cultural Revolution are happening all over again – perhaps not as violently (with the exception of the looting of Japanese businesses during the Diaoyu Islands dispute in 2012) but certainly with as much vitriol. There was last year’s poster depicting a fist smashing down on the characters for “foreigner” and various video footage (possibly staged) of foreigners behaving badly, used to justify their Strike Hard crackdowns [against foreigners in China with black market visas]. The title Unsavory Elements is a playful homage to Communist terminology. To be sure, China has a love-hate relationship with outsiders – our success and our status here rises and falls on the whims of the government. In spite of this, as many foreigners continue to arrive in China as leave (or are expelled). So what do we all have in common? If nothing else, a degree of masochism.

AA: And how, if at all, does living in China long-term change you?

TC: I expect it’s tempered me, much like in metallurgy, from the constant pounding and heating and cooling and reheating of my patience. Suan tian ku la (sour sweet bitter spicy) is an old Chinese adage, and this country definitely serves up its share. But it hasn’t been easy to swallow. Westerners tend to arrive in China a bit hot-headed, and we’ve all had our explosive moments: with the taxi driver who runs his meter fast or takes us the long way, at a train ticket office jostling with queue jumpers, due to endless red tape, or when you are ripped off by your business partners.

Few foreign writers ever admit to having these moments so I encouraged my anthology contributors to be more forthcoming about their darker feelings – seeing red, so to speak. Alan Paul, writing in the book about a stressful family road trip across Sichuan, has a line: “I stood there bitterly looking down into that hole, silently damning New China’s incessant construction.” I can relate to that every time I hear a jackhammer. Even the famously mild-mannered Peter Hessler confesses in his essay to going ballistic with his fists on a thief he catches in his hotel room. I’ve been there as well, taking out all my pent-up frustrations on some poor pickpocket who wasn’t quick enough to escape the reach of this 6’4” foreign devil. I expect that having had my patience tried so often here has forged me into a calmer, more levelheaded person than the clenched-fisted, teeth-gnashing, Thundarr the Barbarian in Beijing I arrived as.

AA: A foreigner also has special status and perks from being in China – for instance, they always stand out, whereas back home they’re just another face in the crowd.

TC: Special status, yes, but not in the way it’s been mythologized. Sure, in the countryside it’s nice to be invited in for tea by villagers who’ve never encountered a Westerner before, but in Shanghai you’re bumped into and cut in front of and run over by cars like any other laobaixing or common person. That oft-eulogized “rock star status” was more of a vague concept that the Chinese used to have about the West – the branded clothing, the rebellious music, the casual sex. But actually there’s nothing special about being gawked at, openly talked about and cheated because it’s assumed that you’re wealthy. And there’s certainly nothing special about the hell-like bureaucracy foreigners are burdened with, or not having access to basic public services like hospitals, schools and even hotels, or the frequent suspicions that the government casts over us.

In fact, in just the past five years following the global recession of 2008 – during which nearly every world economy collapsed except for China’s – our collective esteem in the eyes of the Chinese has plummeted from superstar status to that of some invasive species, a metaphor which the environment journalist Jonathan Watts also makes in the book, comparing non-indigenous plants with foreigners. And there’s a wholesale fumigation of Western corporations [that exploit China’s low labor costs], which the Communist government now considers a threat, like the imperialist military incursions of centuries past. They want and need our business, but they are no longer going to make it easy for us. As a result, the Xi Jinping administration is coming down hard on foreign firms that have historically gotten away with shady practices like price fixing, influence buying and general non-compliance.

AA: Do you think it’s hard to adjust to life back home if you return? With no cheap taxis, eating out, cleaners, massages…

TC: I honestly couldn’t tell you. I’ve only been back to the States once in nearly a decade; China is “home” now. I’m not that laowai who skips out on China when it’s convenient, or because living here is no longer convenient. I’m also not that Westerner who has a driver or only takes taxis – I ride public transportation and my rusty trusty 40-year-old 40-kilogram Flying Pigeon bike. Nor do I hire old ayis [housekeepers] to do my dirty work – my wife and I raise our child ourselves, make our own meals, and clean our home ourselves. I can just hear all the gasps from colonialist-minded “enclave expats” who could never conceive a life in Asia without servants.

I did live in Japan for a year after four straight years in China, and found the orderliness and politeness and emotionlessness of it all quite difficult to adjust to. So I spent the following year wandering around India, which provided me with a much-needed dose of dust and disorder. After that I returned to China and for the following few years lived in my wife’s native farming village in rural Jiangsu province. That to me was like an epiphany, as if I had finally found home. But for my wife – who in her youth had strived to escape the countryside and eventually made her way up to Beijing, where we met – it was coming full circle back to where she started. So now we divide our time between Jiangsu and Shanghai, which I guess gives each of us the best of both worlds.

AA: I’ve had friends who went back home after living in China, but missed the excitement and buzz so much they couldn’t help but come back. Is China a drug?

TC: I should first disclaim that the Ministry of Public Security takes drug dealing in China very seriously, as Dominic Stevenson, who wrote about his two-year incarceration in a Chinese prison for dealing hash, can attest. But I’d venture to say that, like any drug, it depends entirely on the user’s own state of mind. If we’re making metaphors, for old China hands I’d imagine their time here draws parallels with the soaring euphoria and bleak depths of smoking opium, while China for the uninitiated is probably a bit like bath salts: the constantly convulsing nervous system, the paranoia, the god-complex, the rage.

I’d liken my own China experience to a decade-long acid trip. It began with liberating my mind from the restraints of Western society. Then I departed on an odyssey that took me tens of thousands of miles across China, experiencing various metaphysical and spiritual states as my journey progressed, punctuated by periods of intense creativity due to my heightened sensory perceptions. To a background score of warped erhu and guzheng [classical Chinese instruments], and the looped calls of sidewalk vendors echoing into the void, the kaleidoscopic chaos of this culture surged around me like the Yangtze river – in outer space. Now I’m one with China’s cosmic consciousness. I want to reeducate the communists with love. Or maybe I’m not even here. Maybe I really did perish during my Kora around Mount Kailash and none of this ever happened …

AA: Ground control to Major Tom. Your own story in the book is about a visit to a brothel with two lecherous laowai. How representative do you feel that this kind of foreigner in China is, especially those who come to try and pick up Chinese girls?

TC: It’s been fascinating for me to see how much polemic this single story has stirred. I kind of knew I’d be martyring myself when I decided to include my account of a boy’s night out at a brothel in the anthology instead of, say, a story about my marriage in a rural village, or about delivering our firstborn son at a public People’s hospital in the countryside. My publisher, Graham Earnshaw, even tried to warn me about the inevitable ire that would follow and suggested I pull the piece for my own well-being. His forecast was unfortunately accurate. Immediately following a Time Out review that dedicated most of its page space to criticizing my brothel story, certain women’s reading groups called for my arrest and deportation from China because, they said, I “patronized teenaged prostitutes”.              

And yet, the story has received as much praise as it has hate. An equal number of readers seem to find it refreshing that a foreigner is finally writing about experiences many single males in the Orient have had but never dared admit – especially not in print. And considering the Party’s penchant for keeping extensive dossiers on Chinese and foreigners alike, I can understand their reticence. But I can’t help but consider as downright disingenuous the glaring omissions of any situation involving prostitution – an impossible-to-overlook trade found in nearly every neighborhood in every city and town – by certain best-selling Western authors in China. Do they not consider the women of this profession worthy of writing about? Or are they simply lying?

I’m not saying I had some altruistic intention with my story – it was just an absurd situation that my friends and I got ourselves into that also happened to make for ribald writing. But the truth is, I conceptualized the entire anthology around that brothel incident, because I wanted to compile a collection of candid and truthful experiences that left nothing out, including visits to your neighborhood pink-lit hair salon. Only the discerning reader can tell you how representative it is of them, but maybe, nay, hopefully, my story will kick off a new era of honesty by Western writers in China. We’ll see.

This interview was first posted on Tumbler September 25, 2013 and on The Anthill.org September 26, 2013


Seeing China through Multiple Lenses

October 29, 2013

Unsavory Elements edited by Tom Carter, the author of China: Portrait of a People, has twenty-eight short memoirs that offer a balanced view of China from expatriates who have lived and/or traveled there.

But the title almost misleads because not all of the authors come off as unsavory elements—most are there to learn and not to judge. Only a few of the stories in this collection were written by expatiates suffering from some form of sinophobia.

I also value books that teach and I think that many of the stories in Unsavory Elements did that refreshingly well.

For a few examples, first there was Paying Tuition by Matthew Polly who wrote: “One of the first things I had learned during my stay was that the Chinese love to negotiate. They love it so much that even after an agreement is reached, they’ll often reopen negotiations just so they can do it all over again.”

I have visited China many times and—unlike most Westerners—I enjoy negotiating, but I didn’t know about the reopening gambit. Next time, I may want to give that a try and extend the fun.

In Communal Parenting by Aminta Arrington, I learned that the “Chinese have a fundamentally different relationship with their history than we Westerners. History is a subject we study in schools,” and that history is not connected to who we are.

“Not so for the Chinese,” Arrington writes. “History here [in China] is not book knowledge. Rather, their history is carried along with them as they walk along the way, an unseen burden, an invisible shadow; unconscious, and therefore, powerful.”

Kaitlin Solimine in Water, For Li-Ming writes about the five-months she stayed in China as a teenager in a high school, home-stay program, and it was her first time outside of the United States. For those few months, Li-Ming was her Chinese mother.

Here is the gem that Solimine shares with us: “That’s the thing about Chinese mothers: hidden behind their maternal expectations and critical diatribes are women who will fight to the death for you. As soon as I called her Mama, Li-Ming would be my strongest ally for the only months I knew her.”

From Graham Earnshaw in Playing in the Gray we discover: “There were no rules. Or rather, there was only one rule: that nothing is allowed. But the corollary, which reveals the true genius of China’s love of the grey—in contrast to the black and white of the West—is that everything is possible. Nothing is allowed but everything is possible. It’s just a matter of finding the right way to explain what you’re doing.”

Reading Empty from the Outside by Susie Gordon we see that the “New China isn’t shackled with the Judeo-Christian Morals of the West.”

Some in the West may see this lack of Judeo-Christian morals in China as a bad thing but that depends on how deeply entrenched a Westerner is in fundamentalist Christian morality. China—believe it or not—does have a moral foundation that many in the West turn a blind eye to. If you are married to a woman who was born in China and grew up there during Mao’s puritanical repressive twenty-seven years as its leader, you might understand what I mean.

In conclusion, there is Tom Carter’s signature-title piece. In his short Unsavory Elements, Carter says in one passage, “Claude admittedly couldn’t care less about Chinese culture; he was simply, like so many other foreigners in China—myself included—aimless and desperate for an income.”

There is so much more to this book called Unsavory Elements than these few examples. If you are have an open mind that isn’t infected by sinophobia and you want a better understanding of the Chinese, I highly recommend this collection.

_______________

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

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Interracial love in China during World War II, a book review of “Shanghai Love”

August 13, 2013

From the title, we already know the story is about love in Shanghai, and it doesn’t take long to discover who the two main characters are that are destined to meet.

It is 1938, and in chapter one, we are introduced to Peilin in China. In chapter two we meet Henri in Nazi Germany.

But the love story isn’t what made this novel worth reading. It was the journey the two characters must take to find each other. They are both doctors. Henri is Jewish and trained in western medicine. He has to leave his family behind in Germany and flee to China to avoid Hitler’s Nazis who are hunting for him because he dared to love a woman who was not Jewish.

Peilin was trained by her grandfather in Chinese herbal medicine, and by the time Henri meets her, she has already been married to a ghost for some time.

As a young girl, a marriage was arranged to a boy almost twice Peilin’s age, but when he was a young man—before the marriage—he was killed in combat fighting the Japanese who invaded China in July of 1937. By the time Pearl Harbor is bombed by the Japanese in December 1941, China has already been fighting Japan for more than four years. To give you an idea of how horrible it was, by the end of World War II, China lost ten to twenty million people to the war compared to 418,500 for the United States.

One would think with her fiancé dead, Peilin would be free to move on with her life, but no—because in China it is expected that Peilin must still marry the man’s ghost, stay a virgin for life and live with her in-laws who will buy a baby for her to raise as if she were its biological mother and the dead man its father.

Shanghai-Love-front-cover-194x300

The story is set in an era when both the Chinese and Europeans disapproved of interracial relationships. In Germany, there was racism against the Jews. But in China, there is prejudice from some Chinese because Henri is white. In addition, many of the Jewish refugees look down on the Chinese culture and disapprove of Henri spending time with Peilin. It seems that these two are fated to be star-crossed lovers.

I recommend reading this story because it offers a reminder of the horrors of war and racism. During World War II, 20,000 European Jews fled to Shanghai, one of the few places in the world that put no limits on the number of Jews it would accept.

Another plot thread that runs through the novel is the focus on Chinese herbal medicine and how different it is from the western concept of medical care. The Chinese were studying advanced medical care long before the West. In fact, Chinese medical tradition is more than 5,000 years old including herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, exercise and dietary therapy—concepts that the West didn’t pay serious attention to until near the end of the 20th century.

I’m not going to tell you how the love story turns out between Henri and Peilin. You will have to buy and read the novel to discover that.

Layne Wong, the author of Shanghai Love

Layne Wong, the author of Shanghai Love

I bought my copy of “Shanghai Love” by Layne Wong at an author event held at the Bancroft Hotel in Berkeley, California earlier in 2013.

_______________

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

Subscribe to “iLook China”!
Sign up for an E-mail Subscription at the top of this page, or click on the “Following” tab in the WordPress toolbar at the top of the screen.

About iLook China

China’s Holistic Historical Timeline


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