Isham Cook's Reviews > Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China

Unsavory Elements by Tom  Carter
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Jun 27, 13

Even before this book came to press it was already in the thick of polemic and controversy - for all the wrong reasons. Some advance-copy reviews by feminist editors in the expat zines of Beijing and Shanghai have been withering, particularly of editor Tom Carter's own "exploitative" and "juvenile" contributing story on a brothel visit (e.g. It is actually one of the best pieces in the book, its slapstick style perfectly suited to the tawdry circumstances of a group of clumsy foreigners haggling in the shabbier variety of Chinese brothel. It is the only story in the entire collection, in fact, that merits the book's title. Before I came to the book, I was expecting and hoping for just that, something unsavory, stories of a refreshingly seedy and disreputable nature, peeling back a new layer of reality in Chinese society as more and more foreign pioneers venture deeper into the country. Inevitably, someone would take it upon himself to dredge up a collection of lascivious or discomfiting encounters and slap it together as a book. What we have here instead, alas, is a much more banal take on "unsavory elements": "the communist propaganda machine" use of the phrase (as Carter first recalled it) to describe anyone of questionable, less than revolutionary morals. Foreigners - formerly "foreign devils" - are by definition unsavory; their mere presence in the Middle Kingdom unsavory. It is not possible to be a foreigner in China and not simultaneously bumbling, gauche, vulgar and unsavory. Thus any random collection of non-fiction stories of foreign devils wandering around or working and living in China will do. The 28 contributors represent quite a spread, scattered about the country in pretty much all walks of life, but what cannot be said about them (with a few exceptions) is that they are unsavory. They are, on the contrary, painstakingly polite, respectful and normal. They are strenuously family-friendly; nine of the stories - those by Levy, Paul, Muller, Bratt, Arrington, Washburn, Solimine, Watts, and Conley - concern actual families and children or the teaching of children. The pieces are all good clean fun, worthy of inclusion in Reader's Digest or those bland, antiseptic Intensive/Extensive Reading textbooks for freshmen English majors in Chinese universities.

Inevitably, the collection is uneven. The pieces by Peter Hessler and Simon Winchester are predictably the most assuredly written, though they don't really tell us anything we can't get from their own books about China. Meyer, Polly, Earnshaw, Spurrier, and Kitto are competent writers but fail to particularly stand out, unlike Watts' piece on the German botanist and eccentric Josef Margraf, and Fuchs on Tibetan muleteers, which benefit from their intriguing subject matter. Stevenson mars his intriguing subject matter of life in a Chinese prison with snideness (here I direct readers instead to the extraordinary book Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Jail in Modern China by Robert H. Davies of his experience in Chinese prisons). Humes' horrific account of being violently mugged suffers from his gratuitous histrionics while recovering in the hospital; the tantalizing question and cliffhanger of how he was able to pay for the huge medical expenses (without any cash or insurance) is hinted at and then forgotten. Some pieces lack contextualization, like Eikenburg's account of her daring courtship with a Chinese male, but what decade is she referring to, exactly? Interracial relationships on the Mainland are far more ubiquitous and accepted now than two or three decades ago, when I imagine her relationship took place; a reader unfamiliar with China might wrongly assume things are as stringent and racist today as ever.

If I had been given the same anthology project with the same title and the same contributors to choose from, I would keep three. I would start the book off with Winchester's piece as a prologue (instead of its current slot as epilogue), then proceed with the spicy if rather innocuous account of KTV escorts among China's privileged by Susie Gordon, followed by Carter's aforementioned piece. For the succeeding stories, I would have to find alternative, more intrepid contributors willing to challenge bourgeois readerly expectations and really get down and rock 'n' roll in China's seamy, truly unsavory underside. After all, I would only be doing what China's own writers have already done, like Wang Shuo, Jia Pingwa and Zhu Wen back in the 1980s depicting life among hoodlums and lumpen elements at large or the graphic accounts of casual sex and drug use by Hong Ying, Wei Hui, Mian Mian and other female writers of the 1990s. Until that happens, pass on the word of Tom Carter's enticing new collection at the local bake sale or church group back home when queried on a latest wholesome introduction to China to curl up at the fireplace with.
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06/26/2013 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Alan Paul Well, you gave me some ideas fo other stories I could have written instead...

Isham Cook I've perhaps been not as charitable toward all the writers as they deserve, but if I had commented on all 28 of the pieces the review would have been almost as long as the book!

Alan Paul I was not complaining, just to be clear... I don't agree with everything you said, but you raise some interesting points...I really do have another, more unsavory story read for Vol. 2... I was asked to do a family piece, which I enjoyed... raising three blondies in China was always interesting and fun.

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