Decadence Mandchoue is the most memorable book I read in 2013. It’s the memoir of Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, and it covers China’s last decade under the emperors. Backhouse was an English eccentric and talented linguist who gained access to the Forbidden City and became one of the Empress Dowager’s many lovers. His own predilection was unambiguously homosexual, however, and his reminiscences in this sphere are nothing if not outrageous. The book was long considered a pack of lies, but Earnshaw Books in Hong Kong has come up with this newly-edited edition that makes Backhouse’s revelations seem entirely credible, as well as irresistibly readable.
Of the other books reviewed this year,The World’s Rarest Birds is remarkable as a passionate plea for the world’s most endangered avian species. Notable is the plight of the albatross. With 100,000 being killed every year on the baited lines of modern industrial-scale fishing boats, this fabulous bird is facing certain extinction if nothing is done to help it. Simple procedures, such as weighting the lines, can reduce the carnage to zero. Altogether, this book is a full-color, information-packed catalog of some of the most spectacular inhabitants of our beleaguered planet.
Thai Stick is a vivid account of marijuana smuggling between Southeast Asia and the US during the 1960s and 1970s. It makes for compulsive reading, and was put together by an academic (Peter Maguire) in conjunction with a self-confessed former smuggler (Mike Ritter).
The First Bohemians is the second book by art historian Vic Gatrell to survey the riotous world of London’s 18th-century satiric cartoonists, following City of Laughter in 2007. It’s an account that manages to be both scurrilous and authoritative. Gatrell is an expert with the common touch, who gives special emphasis to the sexual exploits of the artists then living in London’s Covent Garden area.
The Last Train to Zona Verde is Paul Theroux’s dyspeptic account of an overland trip from Cape Town to Angola. He sees both sides of life in South Africa, is reasonably tolerant in Namibia, but finally blows his top when he reaches Angola. And as always, Theroux is best of all when he’s angry.
On Taiwan, The Third Son by Julie Wu (吳茗秀) is an excellent first novel that’s expertly constructed and lucidly written. Though mostly set in the US, its theme is the oppressiveness of the traditional Chinese family. “A wound that never healed. A promise never to be fulfilled. That was family.” But it’s an optimistic and buoyant book nonetheless.
Finally, Thunkbook 1 surfaced this year, as the incarnation of the former Taiwan-based English-language literary magazine Pressed. In August, I found that the best item it contained was by H.V. Chao, and I had announced an imminent first collection of his short stories. Unfortunately this arrangement fell through, so anyone in the book business wishing to publish real talent should contact him (he’s Edward Gauvin on LinkedIn) immediately.
On those rare days in Kaohsiung when the air is crisp and clear, the eastern horizon is dominated by a green wall that towers high above the Pingtung plains. This is the ridge running from Wutou Mountain (霧頭山), up to Beidawu Mountain (北大武山) at 3,092 meters. Many make the trek up to Beidawu, but very few walk the top of this wall over to Wutou, and for good reason: it is an unmarked, overgrown death trap with no reliable water and steep slopes full of rotten wood and crumbly rock. Last week, news emerged that a French couple called for rescue
Last week, the presidential campaign of Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) tapped Cynthia Wu (吳欣盈), the granddaughter of Shin Kong group founder Wu Ho-su (吳火獅), as his vice-presidential candidate. Wu and her vast wealth seem to fly in the face of Ko’s claim to be offering new, cleaner politics. She wasted no time putting the peasants in their proper place. Asked last week by a reporter if she would publicly reveal that she had given up her US citizenship, Wu tartly responded that it was an issue between herself and the US government. The following day, when
One stormy night in May, Kim loaded his family into his home-made wooden boat and sailed away from North Korea, hoping to give his children a life of freedom. Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled to South Korea since the peninsula was divided by war in the 1950s, but most go overland to neighboring China first. Defecting by sea is extremely rare and seen as far more dangerous than land routes, with only a handful of people making it across the de facto maritime border, the Northern Limit line. But Kim, a 31-year-old fisherman who asked that AFP use only his
Hitting tennis balls across a tree-lined court in Thailand’s mountainous north, Connie Chen’s weekly private training session is a luxury the Chinese national could barely afford when she lived in Shanghai. China implemented some of the world’s toughest COVID restrictions during the pandemic, putting hundreds of millions of people under prolonged lockdowns. In the aftermath, younger citizens — exhausted by grueling and unrewarding jobs — are taking flight to escape abroad. With a relatively easy process for one-year study visas, a slower pace of living and cheap living costs, Thailand’s second-largest city Chiang Mai has become a popular destination. “During the pandemic, the