The Nanfang / Blog


“Unsavory Elements” and the changing nature of being an expat in China

Posted: 07/22/2013 3:19 pm

There’s no doubt that living in China is like living life in overdrive; everything is faster, crazier, more unpredictable, and thus a whole lot more fun (if you can minimize the number of Bad China Days).  We all have stories of crazy things we’ve seen, odd things our colleagues have done at work, or strange things our students have said.  The sheer randomness of China is what lies at the heart of its attraction.

Tom Carter, an author now based in Shanghai, has decided to collect a number of these expat China adventures in a volume titled Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China.  One of the contributors is Shenzhen’s very own Bruce Humes, who we profiled here on The Nanfang a few months ago.

Nobody on The Nanfang staff has read Unsavory Elements yet, but we plan to do it soon. In lieu of a review, we recently chatted with Carter by email regarding his anthology and the changing nature of expatdom in China.

You have an eclectic mix of writers: everyone from Simon Winchester (The River At The Center Of The World) and Peter Hessler (Country Driving) to Matthew Polly (American Shaolin) and Alan Paul (Big in China). How were you able to get so many notable people sign on for the project?

Probably because I conceived and approached this project as an actual fan of all the writers who appear in it, as opposed to an agent or publisher just looking to squeeze some money out of their book extracts, which unfortunately is how most anthologies come about.

I read the works of many of these authors for the first time during my 2-year backpacking sojourn across China – my pack was constantly filled to bursting with physical books. I respected them for inspiring generations of expats to follow in their footsteps and felt the moment had come to bring them all together, for the first time, on a single literary project to share all-new, never-before-told stories.

Even though I myself was also a published author, I didn’t know any of my contributors personally prior to this.  I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible they were: most immediately wrote back, expressed an enthusiasm in contributing to this long-overdue showcase, and encouraged me to try to get it published.

I eventually took my proposal to Graham Earnshaw, an old China hand whom I had mad respect for for his decade-long walk – entirely by foot – across the length of China. His book The Great Walk of China is one of my favorites. Graham is also a publisher, he saw potential in my idea, and the rest is literary history.

The ‘expat adventures in China’ theme has been done before. What makes Unsavory Elements stand out?

Anthologies like Unsavory Elements are for those readers who enjoy dipping into short stories at their leisure.  It offers a wide range of prose and a variety of perspectives that, in the spirit of our dissimilar backgrounds as expats, at times may contrast, and other times compliment each other.

I modeled the Unsavory theme after my backpacking days when I’d find myself lazing around some hostel in Dali or Dalian swapping travelers tales and debating issues with other backpackers from all over the world. Only an anthology can offer that kind of rich diversity.

The book is filled with expat adventures. Do you think as the country modernizes and becomes, in some ways, more western, that expats coming to China now and in the future will miss out on some of the crazier and more fun times?

As the editor, I was intent on making sure that all the stories in Unsavory Elements had a sort of timeless feel to them – experiences that occur just as commonly today as a decade ago – so that new and future expats could relate. And yet, modernization is a constant theme unintentionally running throughout the entire anthology; an undeniable variable that has not necessarily constrained the expat experience, but rather has taken the adventures to be had here to a new level.

A few examples from some of the more shocking essays in Unsavory: Susie Gordon’s Shanghai evening of ketamine, cocktails and KTV; Dominic Stevenson’s imprisonment for drug dealing; Bruce Humes getting knifed by a mugger in Shenzhen; Rudy Kong’s brawl with a bunch of off-duty policemen; and my own story about a boys-night-out at a brothel.

Of course the book is balanced out with an equal number of every-day accounts – a glimpse into our ordinary lives as foreigners living and working in China – but my point here is that China is as lawless today as it was last decade…just a bit more shiny is all.

China had a tremendous run up to the Olympic Games in 2008, but it seems interest in the country may be waning slightly. Do you believe there is still as much interest in China as there was a few years ago?

It’s true that many expats and entrepreneurs have been jumping ship lately – and making headlines for it – now that China’s economy has leveled off. In fact, in 2008 I myself left China for the very first time in four straight years because Beijing, where I had been based, was getting ridiculous with tourists and newcomers and journalists. I spent a year in Japan, and then another year in India. By the time I came back to China in 2010, I was admittedly happy to see the scene had calmed down.

But I can’t say I agree that interest in China has waned. Even though certain press agencies are pulling out their long-term correspondents, and even though some western businesses are retreating after realizing that there’s no more money to be gleaned, there’s more global attention on China today than ever before.

Granted, a lot of this is just a kind of cruel excitement by the western media who are waiting for the bubble to burst. And there’s also that contingent of China watchers who are predicting a new country-wide revolution if The Party doesn’t do something about the widening income gap. But the interest in China is still undeniably there.

Where / how can people in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan buy the book?

Unsavory Elements has been a true grassroots project since inception. It was published in Shanghai by Earnshaw Books, launched at the Shanghai Literary Festival, the awesome cover art was donated by Plastered T-shirts in Beijing, and we are relying primarily on coverage in local expat scene ‘zines that I personally follow, such as The Nanfang, to help generate a buzz. In other words, the antithesis of a mass-market release; no agents, no publicists, no bought-and-paid for reviews.

But this also means that our China distribution will be limited to independent foreign language bookshops. Readers in Guangdong can pick up the physical book at Bookazine in Hong Kong, or just order it directly from Earnshaw Books – they’ll kuai di it out to you. And of course there’s always Kindle on Amazon. Needless to say, we are very much obliged for everyone’s support.

  • Kevin McGeary

    Bruce Humes lives and studies in Turkey now. But he’ll probably end up back in Shenzhen.

Keep in Touch

What's happening this week in Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou? Sign up to be notified when we launch the This Week @ Nanfang newsletter.

sign up for our newsletter

Nanfang TV