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 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.
Here’s more about Susie Gordon, who was born in Lancashire, England, and studied English at Oxford University before moving to London to work as a web content writer for an internet agency. She became interested in China at an early age, listening to her grandfather’s stories about the time he spent there as a shipping merchant in the 1950s and ‘60s, but it wasn’t until 2008 that she saw the country for herself. After just one week there, she was already hooked: she was intrigued by Shanghai’s mix of the contemporary and the historic—from the neon and steel of the modern skyline to the tree-arched lanes of the Old French Concession—and she fell in love with the contrast between the austerity of Communist architecture and the romantic, painted eaves of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
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