In the 1930s, rich European expatriates loved imperial China for its culture — its opera, its scholarship and its incomparable graphic arts. But as this collection of 28 recollections consistently shows, nowadays foreign enthusiasts for the PRC face an emphatically different land, one characterized by endless shopping-malls, protracted drinking sessions, road-side dumplings, shadeless urban boulevards, corruption, pollution and the inescapable results of the one-child policy.
When I first got hold of Unsavory Elements I thought I was going to be bored. Surely what it would consist of would be predictable language teachers’ tales of their avaricious employers, unadventurous students, and wild exploits on their days off. But this turned out to be far from the case.
To begin with, there are some distinguished contributors here. Admittedly there’s no Paul Theroux, Jan Morris or Colin Thubron. But Peter Hessler contributes a piece on the view over the border into North Korea, admittedly reprinted from The New Yorker in 2000, and Simon Winchester has written an Epilogue. Many other writers included here have books to their names, and by and large language-teacher angst is thankfully in short supply.
The piece that’s attracted most attention is the last, by the book’s editor Tom Carter. It describes a visit to a bar that offered no drinks, only young and not very attractive prostitutes. A grotesquely impolite Canadian and a Kenyan choose to take three girls between them, Carter having opted out on the grounds that he had a girlfriend. The Canadian fails to achieve orgasm due to excessive alcohol intake, while the girl the Kenyan choses wants to take a photo of his member on her cell-phone.
Edited by Tom Carter
Someone online has complained that the story exploits very young Asian girls in a way the American author should be ashamed of. It seems to me, however, to portray an aspect of life in the PRC that would otherwise have gone unrepresented, and the undoubted humor of the narrative makes it seem, all in all, unobjectionable.
For the rest, there’s an account of his time in a Shanghai jail by a hashish-smuggler, another of life in a Shenzhen hospital following a knife-attack, and a story by the well-known Hong Kong humorist Nury Vittachi about someone being enticed into an underground Beijing bar and relieved of 100 Euros.
All the chapters are around 10 pages long, and inevitably some are more gripping than others. These are the tales I found most memorable.
First there was a fragment by Jeff Fuchs about journeying the so-called Ancient Tea Horse Road from Lhasa to Yunnan Province. This was enthralling, and Fuchs has published a book with the same Tea Horse title. Then came a narrative by Pete Spurrier, excellently written, about traveling from Urumqi to Hong Kong by train, mostly without a ticket.
Also memorable was an account by Susie Gordon of a night in the company of some of Shanghai’s ultra-rich that included eight bottles of wine at an unbelievable $RMB60,000 a bottle, followed by champagne, 60-year-old baijiu, cocaine and marijuana. Girls were laid on, though one of the party preferred to look for gay contacts via a cruising app.
I was surprised to discover that a story about a Westerner mistakenly trying to win a drinking contest in Chengdu had been penned by Derek Sandhaus, the redoubtable editor of Trelawny Backhouse’s extraordinary Decadence Mandchoue [reviewed in the Taipei Times Oct. 17, 2013]. What was surprising was that Sandhaus was listed as actually living in Chengdu itself, where he “writes about Chinese alcohol and drinking culture.”