“Tinpot dictator” are the two key words in the title of this opinion piece, as if the United States or the UK has never hosted and/or supported “tinpot” dictators.
A well-written criticism of the U.S. government from Sri Lanka sets the record straight.
“I wish the spokesman of the (U.S.) State Department … would explain how Washington’s concern for democracy in Sri Lanka squares with US support for repressive regimes such as the one in Uzbekistan or the autocratic rule in Saudi Arabia, both countries in which the U.S. has military facilities.
“In post-World War II period, Washington has militarily propped up such dictators including several in South Korea, Ferdinand Marcos who was ousted by the Filipino people, Indonesia’s Suharto also thrown out by the people, Vietnam’s Dinh Diem, various military governments in Thailand, Singapore’s autocrat Lee Kwan Yew, the military dictators in Pakistan from Ayub Khan to Pervez Musharraf, all of them from our part of the world…” The Ugly Americans Once More (Lankaweb, Sri Lanaka’s first Social Media website)
The Economist only mentions a half century of history between China and Burma/Myanmar, yet, China’s history with Burma and then Myanmar goes back about two thousand years.
The opinion piece also does not mention that China, since 1982, has not been into nation building as the U.S. has since 9/11, when President G.W. Bush launched wars against Iraq and Afghanistan with threats to Iran and North Korea.
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.
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 asingle 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.
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.
My wife often cooks with ginseng. She slices the ginseng thin and it goes into the wok with what she is cooking—tofu, cabbage, edamame, Bok Choy, etc. Ginseng is a dried root that the Chinese believed possesses magical powers because it’s shaped sort of like a little person.
At one time, modern scientists rejected these claims, but recent research shows it does help the body resist illness and heal damage caused by stress by stimulating the immune system.
Because I only eat ginseng with food my wife cooks, I’ve never taken the herb for its healing properties but I love what it does for flavor.
Records in China show that ginseng was used as an herbal medicine over 3,000 years ago and in cooking as far back as 5,000 years. Chinese emperors valued ginseng enough to pay for the herb with its weight in gold. In America, ginseng was also used by several North American Indian nations. Source: Ancient Ginseng History
America’s Congress passed its Clean Air Act in 1970 because of dense, visible smog in many U.S. cities and industrial centers. The U.S. has emitted over 90 billion metric tons of carbon since 1800 from fossil-fuel consumption and cement production. U.S. fossil-fuel emissions have doubled since the 1950s but the U.S. share of global emissions has declined from 44% to 19% over the same interval because of higher growth rates in other countries. Source: cdiac.gov
China’s Clean Air Act was first introduced in 1987. For an example of China’s progress, in 2006, Greenpeace was consulted by the CCP on an early draft of a renewable energy law by China’s National People’s Congress. Today—seven years later—China is the world’s leader in the production of renewable energy—in 2011, China produced 797.4 billion annual kilowatt-hours from alternative sources of energy production [hydroelectricity, wind power, biomass and solar] compared to the United States in second place with 699.3 billion.
While China’s air pollution problems may sound extreme and incomparable to air quality here in the U.S., we should not forget that America actually did face a very similar environmental situation during its industrialization. Source: Think Progress.org
Since 70% of China’s electricity comes from thousands of coal burning power plants, Chameides expresses doubts that China will be able to meet these lofty goals. However, I disagree. When you discover the downside of China’s coal burning power plants, it is obvious there is no choice but to clean up.
China’s one-party system has demonstrated the ability to get things done quickly and mistakes are made but so are course corrections. I witnessed China’s ability to get things done in Shanghai. We were staying in what was once the French concession. The stately mansions that had housed wealthy French families and their Chinese servants had been converted to communal multi-family homes still surrounded by high walls. When we went to sleep, the walls were there. In the morning, they were gone.
An army of workers arrived at night, took down the walls and trucked out the debris without making enough noise to wake people.
Although I disagree with Chameides conclusion, his piece is worth reading. And we should not lose sight of the fact that China’s population represents 19% of the earth’s total compared to 4.5% for the U.S. In addition, China’s average per capita CO2 emissions in 2011 was 7.2 tonnes per capita (per person) compared to 17.2 tonnes in America—one of the largest in the world. Imagine how many tons of CO2 the US would pollute the environment with if it had China’s population. Source: PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency