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.

_______________

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

 


Eating Smoke — a question and answer with the author, Chris Thrall – Part 5/5

October 20, 2011

Guest-Post by Tom Carter
Interview with Chris Thrall, author of Eating Smoke continued…

CARTER: Let’s talk about the publishing of Eating Smoke, because I’m sure there are dozens of expats across Asia reading this who feel that they, too, have exciting stories which deserve a place on bookshelves, yet are unsure of how to go about getting published.

So once Blacksmith Books expressed an interest in your proposal what kind of writing process did you embark on to complete the book?

THRALL: After six months of writing, when Blacksmith Books contacted me, I had pretty much the first draft written – 230,000 words at the time. The problem was I’d never studied English above high school level, so I spent a year referring to books, websites and online forums, teaching myself proper punctuation (not what we were taught at school!), grammar, and the art of self-editing.

CARTER: What kind of final editing was done to Eating Smoke? Were there any major changes to it and, overall, was it a hostile or pleasant experience?  I ask because editors and authors don’t usually see eye-to-eye.

THRALL: According to Blacksmith’s editor, the manuscript was structurally sound. I’d pretty much worked out for myself what did and did not need to be in there.

Any anecdote not taking the story forward or adding to the understanding of a character or situation, I took out.

As far as the end result is concerned, it was great to see the manuscript polished, with some incorrectly used words amended, some over-ripe humor taken out, and some excess sentences deleted. That’s not to say it wasn’t a stressful experience at the time.

Editors are good at spotting mistakes and cutting out excess lines. But that can leave un-poetic passages that don’t flow well on the page. My editor and publisher were completely accommodating, allowing me to rewrite any amendments myself in my own writing style – or understanding when I insisted that certain lines were left in the book, for continuity, or sentimental reasons because the story is true-life.

Chris Thrall

CARTER: The literary landscape is changing, some say deteriorating.

Where once New York publishers actually sought out quality literature that would last through the ages (John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck), today they only seem interested in boardroom-created-blockbusters like “Twilight” or throwaway celebrity memoires.

To add insult to injury, newspapers like the “New York Times” are notoriously anti-POD (Print on Demand) and will only review Big 6-published books despite the recent sales surge of self-published titles.

What’s your advice, then, for aspiring authors who lack literary connections but feel that their book is too good for CreateSpace?

THRALL: If you truly believe you have a story that will be of interest to many people, think carefully about sending your manuscript to a busy executive in a publishing house that probably has fifty other manuscripts land on their desk everyday and no time to read them.

Instead, consider hiring (or find) an agent that has some influence with the big players or simply send your first chapter to an author in a similar genre. Authors tend to be very kind and approachable people – as I found out, Tom! – and having been through the process themselves, they know what a publisher is looking for. If they like what they read then there’s a good chance they’ll recommend you.

Writers want other writers to have success. In addition, you’ll get pointers if your writing is lacking in any area. I’m currently writing a free e-book that will be available to download soon from http://www.christhrall.com to guide people through the process of writing a memoir and getting it published.

CARTER: What’s next for Chris Thrall? Tales from your time with the Corps of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines? Or perhaps some fiction?

THRALL: Not sure. You’ll have to ask the readers of Eating Smoke that question!

Return to Eating Smoke – Part 4, start with Part 1, or or if you have the time and do not want to wait for the five-part series to finish posting, click View as Single Page.

Chris Thrall was born in the UK. At eighteen, he joined the Royal Marine Commandos. Following active service in the Northern Ireland Conflict and training in Arctic warfare and survival, he earned his parachutist’s ‘wings’ and went on to serve as part of a high-security detachment onboard an aircraft carrier. In 1995, Chris moved to Hong Kong to oversee the Asia-Pacific expansion of a successful network-marketing operation he’d built, part-time, while serving in the Forces. Less than a year later, he was homeless, hooked on crystal methamphetamine and working for the 14K, Hong Kong’s largest triad crime family, as a doorman in Wanchai’s infamous red-light district. Eating Smoke, a humorous yet deeply moving first book, is his account of what happened.

__________________________

Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, a 600-page book of photography from the 33 provinces of China, which may be found on Amazon.com.

To subscribe to “iLook China”, sign up for an E-mail Subscription at the top right-hand side of this page and then follow directions.


Eating Smoke — a question and answer with the author, Chris Thrall – Part 4/5

October 19, 2011

Guest-Post by Tom Carter
Interview with Chris Thrall, author of Eating Smoke continued…

CARTER: A really interesting observation I felt you made in Eating Smoke was of those expatriates who come to places like China looking to assert their dominance over the culture, and those expats who “go native” and completely immerse themselves in the language and customs, sometimes to the point of arrogance towards other foreigners.

Why do westerners behave like this in other countries, and why, in your opinion, do Asian immigrants in America or the UK have seemingly the exact opposite attitude?

THRALL: That’s a good question but probably a long-winded answer. It’s important to remember that not all westerners misbehave when abroad and not all Asian immigrants immerse themselves in or accept western culture and etiquette.

When you consider the West’s history and of colonialism and capitalism – arguably practices that require the population of one country to believe they are racially superior to another’s – it’s not hard to appreciate why some westerners behave this way.

Add to that a “functionalist” education system, a class system, a one-sided record of history…I could go on, couldn’t I?

CARTER: Comparisons are being made between “Eating Smoke” and Gregory David Roberts’ “Shantaram” (about a drug-addicted escaped convict who joins a crime family in Mumbai, India) and Alex Garland’s “The Beach” (young backpackers living on an isolated island in Thailand who goes mad from solitude and drugs).

Have you read either of these, and how does Eating Smoke stand apart in this genre?

THRALL: “Eating Smoke” is 100%  true life – whereas “Shantaram” and “The Beach” are fiction, though loosely based on their authors’ travel experiences, no doubt.

Although it’s on my shelf, I haven’t read “Shantaram”, but “The Beach” is one of my all-time favorites.

The reason “Eating Smoke” stands apart in this genre is that it works – or so the reviewers say – on so many levels and therefore appeals to readers of all ages, sex and genre.

I’m told my story is unique and an eye-opener and that my writing style – honesty, humor, originality, and pacing – makes the book impossible to put down. Even though it is over 500 pages as a traditional paperback, I often receive Facebook messages and emails from people who have read it in two days.

CARTER: I’d like to go on record as saying that I think “Eating Smoke” has “Hollywood” written all over it, and I expect your story to be optioned for film rights. Johnny Depp is slated to play the lead role in “Shantaram”, and Leo DiCaprio starred in “The Beach”.

Do you have any preference for actors to play yourself in “Eating Smoke”: The Motion Picture, like Shia LaBeouf or Justin Bieber (just joking!)? Who would you want to direct?

THRALL: *laughing* So long as the guy was English, a good actor, and resembled my character at the time, I wouldn’t mind. I don’t have a preference – I’m not that clued up on 25-year old English actors, to be honest!

As for a director, Danny Boyle would be my choice. I loved “The Beach”, “Trainspotting”, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours”. It would require someone with his perception to be able replicate the psychosis that I experienced, accurately.

Continued on October 20, 2011  in Eating Smoke – Part 5, return to Part 3, or if you have the time and do not want to wait for the five-part series to finish posting, click View as Single Page.

Chris Thrall was born in the UK. At eighteen, he joined the Royal Marine Commandos. Following active service in the Northern Ireland Conflict and training in Arctic warfare and survival, he earned his parachutist’s ‘wings’ and went on to serve as part of a high-security detachment onboard an aircraft carrier. In 1995, Chris moved to Hong Kong to oversee the Asia-Pacific expansion of a successful network-marketing operation he’d built, part-time, while serving in the Forces. Less than a year later, he was homeless, hooked on crystal methamphetamine and working for the 14K, Hong Kong’s largest triad crime family, as a doorman in Wanchai’s infamous red-light district. Eating Smoke, a humorous yet deeply moving first book, is his account of what happened.

__________________________

Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, a 600-page book of photography from the 33 provinces of China, which may be found on Amazon.com.

To subscribe to “iLook China”, sign up for an E-mail Subscription at the top right-hand side of this page and then follow directions.


Eating Smoke — a question and answer with the author, Chris Thrall – Part 3/5

October 18, 2011

Guest-Post by Tom Carter
Interview with Chris Thrall, author of Eating Smoke continued…

CARTER: One of the main characters in “Eating Smoke” is a Filipina prostitute named Apple who, after being your friend, sells you out to the triads.  Filipinos are the second largest ethnic group in Hong Kong, however their career paths seem to be limited as nannies for wealthy families, cover bands, or bar girls.

Why is that, and do you think their situation will ever improve?

THRALL: I think it’s because the Philippines’ economy is relatively poor when compared to Hong Kong’s. Even with the pittance they receive in wages, these women are able to send a lot of hard-earned dollars home to their families, while getting a travel experience they likely otherwise ill afford.

As to whether their situation will improve, Filipinos are generally humble, in my experience. They don’t complain and seem to appreciate the chance to earn money abroad.

Of course, wherever there is inequality, they’ll be incidents of exploitation, which isn’t nice. But if their union – if there is such a thing – pushed for higher pay then perhaps the demand for their services would drop off as there are Hong Kong locals who could fill these jobs.

CARTER: Another reoccurring character in Eating Smoke is an expatriate named Cameron who insists on trying crystal meth despite your warnings of its highly addictive nature.  Cameron shows up later in the book exclaiming how much he loves the drug even though it’s obvious that he, too, is now addicted.  To quote a passage in your book, “Unable to stop and not wanting to anyway.”

What about methamphetamine makes it so popular even though everyone knows that it can, nay, will destroy you?

THRALL: I can only speak from my own experience. Some people try meth and say, “Ah. It’s OK. But nothing special.” Then get on with their life. For others it seems to be the key in lock, the answer to all of life’s insecurities and problems. Perhaps people in the former category have had more stable upbringings and hence less insecurity and the resultant need to feel “right” for a change.

A drug that makes you feel cool, calm and supremely confident, in addition to giving you a massive surge of creative energy – allowing you to discover abilities you were told you were a failure at in school – is always going to be in demand.

The problem is, like Superman with his Kryptonite, you begin to crave that feeling more and more to the point where you no longer feel normal without it. That’s called addiction. Either you beat it or it destroys you.

Continued on October 19, 2011  in Eating Smoke – Part 4, return to Part 2 or if you have the time and do not want to wait for the five-part series to finish posting, click View as Single Page.

Chris Thrall was born in the UK. At eighteen, he joined the Royal Marine Commandos. Following active service in the Northern Ireland Conflict and training in Arctic warfare and survival, he earned his parachutist’s ‘wings’ and went on to serve as part of a high-security detachment onboard an aircraft carrier. In 1995, Chris moved to Hong Kong to oversee the Asia-Pacific expansion of a successful network-marketing operation he’d built, part-time, while serving in the Forces. Less than a year later, he was homeless, hooked on crystal methamphetamine and working for the 14K, Hong Kong’s largest triad crime family, as a doorman in Wanchai’s infamous red-light district. Eating Smoke, a humorous yet deeply moving first book, is his account of what happened.

__________________________

Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, a 600-page book of photography from the 33 provinces of China, which may be found on Amazon.com.

To subscribe to “iLook China”, sign up for an E-mail Subscription at the top right-hand side of this page and then follow directions.


Eating Smoke — a question and answer with the author, Chris Thrall – Part 2/5

October 17, 2011

Guest-Post by Tom Carter
Interview with Chris Thrall, author of Eating Smoke continued…

On October 16, 2011, nearly two years since Chris Thrall originally contacted me, his long-awaited book, “Eating Smoke”, will be released in America and Amazon.com.

Advanced sales have already brought the title to the top of the Hong Kong bestseller list (patting my own back for my prediction) while Eating Smoke has achieved a massive cult following on Facebook.  Hailed as a “Sin – Shantaram” in a review by the South China Morning Post, and being compared by fans to Alex Garland’s The Beach for its drug-adelic theme, we can now confidently predict that Eating Smoke will, too, be optioned for film rights and follow those popular books to Hollywood.

Despite his past connections with Chinese triads, and in spite of his newfound celebrity as a bestselling author, Thrall remains one of the nicest and humblest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing…even though I have yet to actually meet the man in person.  So it wasn’t too hard to twist his arm into putting my Q&A at the top of his to-do list of media interview requests (ah, the fame!).

TOM CARTER: My first and most pressing question, Chris, is if you are at all worried that the 14K will be hitting you up for a percentage of your book royalties once word of Eating Smoke’s success trickles up the Wan Chai gangland hierarchy?

CHRIS THRALL: Ha ha! The news from Hong Kong is that “serious players” are reading my book as we speak. But I’m not worried as it’s not a tell-all on Hong Kong organized crime. It’s more the story of a former Royal Marine Commando who thought he knew a bit about life, who then moves to Asia to run what was a successful business but spirals down into psychosis from drug addiction.

In that respect, Eating Smoke is unique. I’m not aware of any other book that gives the reader the opportunity to experience what it’s actually like to descend into mental illness through the eyes of someone as they do. I just happened to work for the 14K as a nightclub doorman – moreover, their “East-West go-between” – when it happened.

CARTER: Eating Smoke is about your decent into drug psychosis in Hong Kong’s triad heartland, but it’s also about the series of unfortunate, albeit hilarious, events that prevented you from ever finding your financial footing in Hong Kong, ironically Asia’s wealthiest city; a “testament to the stark reality and ephemeral nature of the relationship between people, drugs and profit,” as you wrote in the book.

Do you have anything to say to all those coked-out rich white bankers that Hong Kong is notorious for?

THRALL: No! I have nothing to say to anyone – coked-out rich white bankers included. If people truly enjoy what they do, they should carry on doing it.

Personally, I didn’t want to see my youth slipping away in a suit as I chased dollar signs at the expense of more fulfilling experiences. So having overcome addiction, I made an inventory of what I wanted to get out of life. Then I set out across six continents through seventy-five countries to get it. Writing a book was the last thing on my bucket list.

CARTER: China is adamantly anti-drugs, and the court system does not hesitate to execute drug traffickers, even foreigners.

In fact, China even blames foreigners for being responsible for a majority of its drug trade, a grudge no doubt held over from the Opium Wars.  Even though there are arguments to be made against the death penalty, the fact remains that, due to their zero-tolerance policy, China has one of the world’s lowest crime rates, a statistic that, all things considered, I’m sure America and the UK envy.

As a former drug user, what’s your take on criminalization of drugs, and do you think the west should follow China’s example?

THRALL: I don’t have a take on it. I’m not a spokesperson on substance use or the law surrounding it. I just told my own story.

However, research would likely show that mankind has always taken drugs in various forms and continues to do so (alcohol and cigarettes often cited as the most damaging), which might suggest that education on their usage and dangers is the way forward, in addition to harm-prevention strategies.

As for crime, a sociologist once said that a zero crime rate would make society a frightening place to be. I think Orwell’s 1984 was meant to imply this. I take no stance on drugs per se or cast judgment on people who choose to buy, sell, or use them.

It was addiction that I battled and that’s a separate issue. It’s a psychological condition that could relate to gambling, sex or food. It makes you wonder how prohibition could ever fix this.

Continued on October 18, 2011  in Eating Smoke – Part 3, return to Part 1, or if you have the time and do not want to wait for the five-part series to finish posting, click View as Single Page.

Chris Thrall was born in the UK. At eighteen, he joined the Royal Marine Commandos. Following active service in the Northern Ireland Conflict and training in Arctic warfare and survival, he earned his parachutist’s ‘wings’ and went on to serve as part of a high-security detachment onboard an aircraft carrier. In 1995, Chris moved to Hong Kong to oversee the Asia-Pacific expansion of a successful network-marketing operation he’d built, part-time, while serving in the Forces. Less than a year later, he was homeless, hooked on crystal methamphetamine and working for the 14K, Hong Kong’s largest triad crime family, as a doorman in Wanchai’s infamous red-light district. Eating Smoke, a humorous yet deeply moving first book, is his account of what happened.

__________________________

Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, a 600-page book of photography from the 33 provinces of China, which may be found on Amazon.com.

To subscribe to “iLook China”, sign up for an E-mail Subscription at the top right-hand side of this page and then follow directions.


Eating Smoke — a question and answer with the author, Chris Thrall – Part 1/5

October 16, 2011

Guest-Post by Tom Carter
Interview with Chris Thrall, author of Eating Smoke

Tom Carter, author of “CHINA: Portrait of a People”, catches up with Chris Thrall to discuss his new book “Eating Smoke, a memoir about Thrall’s descent into drug psychosis in Hong Kong’s triad heartland.

In the fall of 2009, whilst traveling in India to create my next photography book, I was contacted via email by a British writer who had read Down and out in Hong Kong, one of my online travel articles, which described this poor, dusty backpacker’s real-time impressions of Asia’s wealthiest city.

Chris Thrall said he connected with my article’s conclusion that, in spite of my western heritage, and due to my personal circumstances, I ultimately had more in common with the destitute third-world inhabitants of the Chungking Mansions, the infamous immigrant ghetto of Kowloon, than I did with the rich white bankers et al who comprise the other half of Hong Kong’s multinational population.

Chris went on to explain that he was writing a book about his own experiences living in Hong Kong, which was dramatically different from mine or any other expatriate I ever knew, and that he once worked for the 14K, the world’s largest Chinese crime family.

Attached to his email was the first chapter of his memoir, a gripping opening salvo that finds the narrator hiding from pursuing henchmen on a roof top—alongside two corpses, a disemboweled mother and child.

As a voracious reader, I know a bestseller when I see it.  I immediately forwarded Chris’s manuscript to my publisher in Hong Kong, Pete Spurrier, who runs the iconic Blacksmith Books, which specializes in Asian-themed literature.

Pete likewise was knocked off his feet by Chris’s incredible story; the next I heard, Chris was a fellow Blacksmith label mate with a book deal.

Chris Thrall was born in the UK. At eighteen, he joined the Royal Marine Commandos. Following active service in the Northern Ireland Conflict and training in Arctic warfare and survival, he earned his parachutist’s ‘wings’ and went on to serve as part of a high-security detachment onboard an aircraft carrier. In 1995, Chris moved to Hong Kong to oversee the Asia-Pacific expansion of a successful network-marketing operation he’d built, part-time, while serving in the Forces. Less than a year later, he was homeless, hooked on crystal methamphetamine and working for the 14K, Hong Kong’s largest triad crime family, as a doorman in Wanchai’s infamous red-light district.

Eating Smoke, a humorous yet deeply moving first book, is his account of what happened.

Continued on October 17, 2011 in Eating Smoke – Part 2, or if you have time and do not want to wait for the five-part series to finish posting daily, click View as Single Page.

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Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, a 600-page book of photography from the 33 provinces of China, which may be found on Amazon.com.

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Eating Smoke — a question and answer with author, Chris Thrall (Viewed as Single Page)

January 28, 2010

Guest-Post by Tom Carter
Interview with Chris Thrall, author of Eating Smoke

Tom Carter, author of “CHINA: Portrait of a People”, catches up with Chris Thrall to discuss his new book “Eating Smoke, a memoir about Thrall’s descent into drug psychosis in Hong Kong’s triad heartland.

“In the fall of 2009,” says Tom Carter, “whilst traveling in India to create my next photography book, I was contacted via email by a British writer who had read Down and out in Hong Kong, one of my online travel articles, which described this poor, dusty backpacker’s real-time impressions of Asia’s wealthiest city.”

Chris Thrall said he connected with my article’s conclusion that, in spite of my western heritage, and due to my personal circumstances, I ultimately had more in common with the destitute third-world inhabitants of the Chungking Mansions, the infamous immigrant ghetto of Kowloon, than I did with the rich white bankers et al who comprise the other half of Hong Kong’s multinational population.

Chris went on to explain that he was writing a book about his own experiences living in Hong Kong, which was dramatically different from mine or any other expatriate I ever knew, and that he once worked for the 14K, the world’s largest Chinese crime family.

Attached to his email was the first chapter of his memoir, a gripping opening salvo that finds the narrator hiding from pursuing henchmen on a roof top—alongside two corpses, a disemboweled mother and child.

As a voracious reader, I know a bestseller when I see it. I immediately forwarded Chris’s manuscript to my publisher in Hong Kong, Pete Spurrier, who runs the iconic Blacksmith Books, which specializes in Asian-themed literature.

Pete likewise was knocked off his feet by Chris’s incredible story; the next I heard, Chris was a fellow Blacksmith label mate with a book deal.

Chris Thrall was born in the UK. At eighteen, he joined the Royal Marine Commandos. Following active service in the Northern Ireland Conflict and training in Arctic warfare and survival, he earned his parachutist’s ‘wings’ and went on to serve as part of a high-security detachment onboard an aircraft carrier. In 1995, Chris moved to Hong Kong to oversee the Asia-Pacific expansion of a successful network-marketing operation he’d built, part-time, while serving in the Forces. Less than a year later, he was homeless, hooked on crystal methamphetamine and working for the 14K, Hong Kong’s largest triad crime family, as a doorman in Wanchai’s infamous red-light district.

Eating Smoke, a humorous yet deeply moving first book, is his account of what happened.

On October 16, 2011, nearly two years since Chris Thrall originally contacted me, his long-awaited book, “Eating Smoke”, will be released in America and Amazon.com.

Advanced sales have already brought the title to the top of the Hong Kong bestseller list (patting my own back for my prediction) while Eating Smoke has achieved a massive cult following on Facebook. Hailed as a “Sin – Shantaram” in a review by the South China Morning Post, and being compared by fans to Alex Garland’s The Beach for its drug-adelic theme, we can now confidently predict that Eating Smoke will, too, be optioned for film rights and follow those popular books to Hollywood.

Despite his past connections with Chinese triads, and in spite of his newfound celebrity as a bestselling author, Thrall remains one of the nicest and humblest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing…even though I have yet to actually meet the man in person. So it wasn’t too hard to twist his arm into putting my Q&A at the top of his to-do list of media interview requests (ah, the fame!).

TOM CARTER: My first and most pressing question, Chris, is if you are at all worried that the 14K will be hitting you up for a percentage of your book royalties once word of Eating Smoke’s success trickles up the Wan Chai gangland hierarchy?

CHRIS THRALL: Ha ha! The news from Hong Kong is that “serious players” are reading my book as we speak. But I’m not worried as it’s not a tell-all on Hong Kong organized crime. It’s more the story of a former Royal Marine Commando who thought he knew a bit about life, who then moves to Asia to run what was a successful business but spirals down into psychosis from drug addiction.

In that respect, Eating Smoke is unique. I’m not aware of any other book that gives the reader the opportunity to experience what it’s actually like to descend into mental illness through the eyes of someone as they do. I just happened to work for the 14K as a nightclub doorman – moreover, their “East-West go-between” – when it happened.

CARTER: Eating Smoke is about your decent into drug psychosis in Hong Kong’s triad heartland, but it’s also about the series of unfortunate, albeit hilarious, events that prevented you from ever finding your financial footing in Hong Kong, ironically Asia’s wealthiest city; a “testament to the stark reality and ephemeral nature of the relationship between people, drugs and profit,” as you wrote in the book.

Do you have anything to say to all those coked-out rich white bankers that Hong Kong is notorious for?

THRALL: No! I have nothing to say to anyone – coked-out rich white bankers included. If people truly enjoy what they do, they should carry on doing it.

Personally, I didn’t want to see my youth slipping away in a suit as I chased dollar signs at the expense of more fulfilling experiences. So having overcome addiction, I made an inventory of what I wanted to get out of life. Then I set out across six continents through seventy-five countries to get it. Writing a book was the last thing on my bucket list.

CARTER: China is adamantly anti-drugs, and the court system does not hesitate to execute drug traffickers, even foreigners.

In fact, China even blames foreigners for being responsible for a majority of its drug trade, a grudge no doubt held over from the Opium Wars. Even though there are arguments to be made against the death penalty, the fact remains that, due to their zero-tolerance policy, China has one of the world’s lowest crime rates, a statistic that, all things considered, I’m sure America and the UK envy.

As a former drug user, what’s your take on criminalization of drugs, and do you think the west should follow China’s example?

THRALL: I don’t have a take on it. I’m not a spokesperson on substance use or the law surrounding it. I just told my own story.

However, research would likely show that mankind has always taken drugs in various forms and continues to do so (alcohol and cigarettes often cited as the most damaging), which might suggest that education on their usage and dangers is the way forward, in addition to harm-prevention strategies.

As for crime, a sociologist once said that a zero crime rate would make society a frightening place to be. I think Orwell’s 1984 was meant to imply this. I take no stance on drugs per se or cast judgment on people who choose to buy, sell, or use them.

It was addiction that I battled and that’s a separate issue. It’s a psychological condition that could relate to gambling, sex or food. It makes you wonder how prohibition could ever fix this.

CARTER: One of the main characters in “Eating Smoke” is a Filipina prostitute named Apple who, after being your friend, sells you out to the triads. Filipinos are the second largest ethnic group in Hong Kong, however their career paths seem to be limited as nannies for wealthy families, cover bands, or bar girls.

Why is that, and do you think their situation will ever improve?

THRALL: I think it’s because the Philippines’ economy is relatively poor when compared to Hong Kong’s. Even with the pittance they receive in wages, these women are able to send a lot of hard-earned dollars home to their families, while getting a travel experience they likely otherwise ill afford.

As to whether their situation will improve, Filipinos are generally humble, in my experience. They don’t complain and seem to appreciate the chance to earn money abroad.

Of course, wherever there is inequality, they’ll be incidents of exploitation, which isn’t nice. But if their union – if there is such a thing – pushed for higher pay then perhaps the demand for their services would drop off as there are Hong Kong locals who could fill these jobs.

CARTER: Another reoccurring character in Eating Smoke is an expatriate named Cameron who insists on trying crystal meth despite your warnings of its highly addictive nature. Cameron shows up later in the book exclaiming how much he loves the drug even though it’s obvious that he, too, is now addicted. To quote a passage in your book, “Unable to stop and not wanting to anyway.”

What about methamphetamine makes it so popular even though everyone knows that it can, nay, will destroy you?

THRALL: I can only speak from my own experience. Some people try meth and say, “Ah. It’s OK. But nothing special.” Then get on with their life. For others it seems to be the key in lock, the answer to all of life’s insecurities and problems. Perhaps people in the former category have had more stable upbringings and hence less insecurity and the resultant need to feel “right” for a change.

A drug that makes you feel cool, calm and supremely confident, in addition to giving you a massive surge of creative energy – allowing you to discover abilities you were told you were a failure at in school – is always going to be in demand.

The problem is, like Superman with his Kryptonite, you begin to crave that feeling more and more to the point where you no longer feel normal without it. That’s called addiction. Either you beat it or it destroys you.

CARTER: A really interesting observation I felt you made in Eating Smoke was of those expatriates who come to places like China looking to assert their dominance over the culture, and those expats who “go native” and completely immerse themselves in the language and customs, sometimes to the point of arrogance towards other foreigners.

Why do westerners behave like this in other countries, and why, in your opinion, do Asian immigrants in America or the UK have seemingly the exact opposite attitude?

THRALL: That’s a good question but probably a long-winded answer. It’s important to remember that not all westerners misbehave when abroad and not all Asian immigrants immerse themselves in or accept western culture and etiquette.

When you consider the West’s history and of colonialism and capitalism – arguably practices that require the population of one country to believe they are racially superior to another’s – it’s not hard to appreciate why some westerners behave this way.

Add to that a “functionalist” education system, a class system, a one-sided record of history…I could go on, couldn’t I?

CARTER: Comparisons are being made between “Eating Smoke” and Gregory David Roberts’ “Shantaram” (about a drug-addicted escaped convict who joins a crime family in Mumbai, India) and Alex Garland’s “The Beach” (young backpackers living on an isolated island in Thailand who goes mad from solitude and drugs).

Have you read either of these, and how does Eating Smoke stand apart in this genre?

THRALL: “Eating Smoke” is 100% true life – whereas “Shantaram” and “The Beach” are fiction, though loosely based on their authors’ travel experiences, no doubt.

Although it’s on my shelf, I haven’t read “Shantaram”, but “The Beach” is one of my all-time favorites.

The reason “Eating Smoke” stands apart in this genre is that it works – or so the reviewers say – on so many levels and therefore appeals to readers of all ages, sex and genre.

I’m told my story is unique and an eye-opener and that my writing style – honesty, humor, originality, and pacing – makes the book impossible to put down. Even though it is over 500 pages as a traditional paperback, I often receive Facebook messages and emails from people who have read it in two days.

CARTER: I’d like to go on record as saying that I think “Eating Smoke” has “Hollywood” written all over it, and I expect your story to be optioned for film rights. Johnny Depp is slated to play the lead role in “Shantaram”, and Leo DiCaprio starred in “The Beach”.

Do you have any preference for actors to play yourself in “Eating Smoke”: The Motion Picture, like Shia LaBeouf or Justin Bieber (just joking!)? Who would you want to direct?

THRALL: *laughing* So long as the guy was English, a good actor, and resembled my character at the time, I wouldn’t mind. I don’t have a preference – I’m not that clued up on 25-year old English actors, to be honest!

As for a director, Danny Boyle would be my choice. I loved “The Beach”, “Trainspotting”, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours”. It would require someone with his perception to be able replicate the psychosis that I experienced, accurately.

CARTER: Let’s talk about the publishing of Eating Smoke, because I’m sure there are dozens of expats across Asia reading this who feel that they, too, have exciting stories which deserve a place on bookshelves, yet are unsure of how to go about getting published.

So once Blacksmith Books expressed an interest in your proposal what kind of writing process did you embark on to complete the book?

THRALL: After six months of writing, when Blacksmith Books contacted me, I had pretty much the first draft written – 230,000 words at the time. The problem was I’d never studied English above high school level, so I spent a year referring to books, websites and online forums, teaching myself proper punctuation (not what we were taught at school!), grammar, and the art of self-editing.

CARTER: What kind of final editing was done to Eating Smoke? Were there any major changes to it and, overall, was it a hostile or pleasant experience? I ask because editors and authors don’t usually see eye-to-eye.

THRALL: According to Blacksmith’s editor, the manuscript was structurally sound. I’d pretty much worked out for myself what did and did not need to be in there.

Any anecdote not taking the story forward or adding to the understanding of a character or situation, I took out.

As far as the end result is concerned, it was great to see the manuscript polished, with some incorrectly used words amended, some over-ripe humor taken out, and some excess sentences deleted. That’s not to say it wasn’t a stressful experience at the time.

Editors are good at spotting mistakes and cutting out excess lines. But that can leave un-poetic passages that don’t flow well on the page. My editor and publisher were completely accommodating, allowing me to rewrite any amendments myself in my own writing style – or understanding when I insisted that certain lines were left in the book, for continuity, or sentimental reasons because the story is true-life.

Chris Thrall

CARTER: The literary landscape is changing, some say deteriorating.

Where once New York publishers actually sought out quality literature that would last through the ages (John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck), today they only seem interested in boardroom-created-blockbusters like “Twilight” or throwaway celebrity memoires.

To add insult to injury, newspapers like the “New York Times” are notoriously anti-POD (Print on Demand) and will only review Big 6-published books despite the recent sales surge of self-published titles.

What’s your advice, then, for aspiring authors who lack literary connections but feel that their book is too good for CreateSpace?

THRALL: If you truly believe you have a story that will be of interest to many people, think carefully about sending your manuscript to a busy executive in a publishing house that probably has fifty other manuscripts land on their desk everyday and no time to read them.

Instead, consider hiring (or find) an agent that has some influence with the big players or simply send your first chapter to an author in a similar genre. Authors tend to be very kind and approachable people – as I found out, Tom! – and having been through the process themselves, they know what a publisher is looking for. If they like what they read then there’s a good chance they’ll recommend you.

Writers want other writers to have success. In addition, you’ll get pointers if your writing is lacking in any area. I’m currently writing a free e-book that will be available to download soon from http://www.christhrall.com to guide people through the process of writing a memoir and getting it published.

CARTER: What’s next for Chris Thrall? Tales from your time with the Corps of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines? Or perhaps some fiction?

THRALL: Not sure. You’ll have to ask the readers of Eating Smoke that question!

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Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, a 600-page book of photography from the 33 provinces of China, which may be found on Amazon.com.

For more guest posts by Tom Carter, discover Daughter of Xanadu, Teaching English in the Middle Kingdom, China’s Real Karate Kids, or On Crime in China.

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Note: This “Guest Post” by Tom Carter originally appeared as a five-part series starting October 16, 2011 in Eating Smoke – a question and answer with author Chris Thrall – Part 1