Thu, Apr 03, 2014 - Page 11 News List

Book review: UNSAVORY ELEMENTS: Stories of foreigners on the loose in China

This collection of 28 essays offers a feast of recollections by expats about their experiences living in and traveling across China

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Politics only surface occasionally, though the Chinese Communist Party is ever-present beneath the surface. Singaporean Audra Wang, for example, writes about approaching Tibet from Gansu on a reporting assignment just after the anti-government riots in Lhasa and elsewhere in March 2008. Michael Meyer writes about roller-blading to Tiananmen Square, while Deborah Fallows tries to visit the same location on the 20th anniversary of the 1989 crack-down.

Ohio’s Jocelyn Eikenburg has an interesting piece about being a Western woman dating a local (“From the first time I started to love a Chinese man, hiding became a part of my life”).

For the rest, there are tales of buying a pair of shoes for a one-legged child; playing ice-hockey, with on-pitch fights, in Dalien; appearing as a rock ‘n’ roll band at a music festival 200 miles into the wilds from Chongqing (a “megalopolis of 35 million”); and trying to export 2,000 hand-painted kung-fu T-shirts to the US.

There are, as it happens, two pieces about teaching English. One tells of an offer of huge payments for penning essays to be offered by students as their own work when applying for colleges in the US, while another contains what may be a motto of almost universal validity in Asia, “My presence improved the school’s image, but nobody was interested in putting me to any good use.”

Especially engaging is a piece by Graham Earnshaw, who founded Earnshaw Books — this book’s publisher — in 1997, describing setting up a what’s on weekly on Shanghai the following year. It lasted only seven weeks, but the achievement, Earnshaw considers, was nonetheless historic, exemplifying the maxim that in the PRC “nothing is allowed but everything is possible”.

The book has an attractive cover with artwork by Nick Bonner and Dominic Johnson-Hill, though apparently with significant North Korean input.

Earnshaw remarks that in Shanghai’s supposedly golden age in the 1930s the city was full of just such “raffish foreigners” as he and his colleagues. Maybe the aesthetes tended to head for Beijing while the more unsavory elements preferred life in the newer port city to the south. Either way, though, the moral of this collection appears to be that though almost everything has changed, one basic thing — the allure of China to a certain kind of Westerner — remains curiously consistent.

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