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Thomas Carter (Beijing, China)
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The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream
The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream
by Dan Washburn
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.57
31 used & new from CDN$ 11.46

5.0 out of 5 stars Caddyshack with Chinese Characteristics, Nov. 9 2014
Here’s a fun fact for all you expat putters in Shanghai: upon assuming power in 1949, one of Mao Zedong’s first directives was to denounce golf as a “sport for millionaires” and plow all existing courses in China; Hung-Jao Golf Club became Hongqiao’s Shanghai Zoo, and a nine-hole course at the city center was turned into People’s Square.

The Forbidden Game, the new book by Shanghaiist founder Dan Washburn, is not another Chinese history tome, though, and in many ways it’s not even a book about golf. Instead, the game is but an apt allegory for the corruption, land grabs, environmental issues and escalating economic disparity that have become hallmarks of New China. This “sport for millionaires” thus offers readers a deluxe tour of a nation that now has more millionaires than any other country but America.

But all is not soulless in today’s PRC. The Forbidden Game is also an uplifting story about the underreported yet very-real Chinese Dream, and how the proletariat of a rapidly-developing society stand a greater chance than generations past of rising up in this vast field of dreams. “While many in China still rightfully believe the deck is stacked against them, it’s true that more Chinese than ever before are not only able to dream, but are also in a position to expect some of their dreams may come true,” writes Washburn.

In three entwined profiles, the book traces the lives of three men who unwittingly “stumbled into a sport that for most of their lives they never knew existed.”

American executive Martin Moore’s story of stop-and-start projects funded by eccentric Chinese tycoons with “dreams as big as their bank accounts” will resonate with foreign businessmen here. His recounting of contract negotiations, “Byzantine Chinese politics” and playing in the guanxi-gray explain how contractors have grown wealthy building courses that are technically illegal. “To get around the restrictions, savvy developers would label their projects as ‘resorts.’ Plant some flowers and trees…maybe some people grab a club and hit a ball. That’s just leisure.”

Wang Libo, a farmer in rural Hainan, sees his rightful land legacy devoured by golf developers with the help of unscrupulous local officials. “The decision to sell or not to sell had already been made for them.” Wang, however, realizes this might be a golden opportunity to realize his dream of a “cement home near a cement road.”

Zhou Xunshu, a Guizhou peasant turned golf pro, escapes to the big city to carve out a living as a security guard on something called a golf course. In a Caddyshack-like moment, Zhou breaks club rules and, in front of disbelieving executives, knocks his first-ever ball 280 yards!

Washburn is not only a gifted writer, cleverly sketching out interconnected, character-driven portraits, but an empathetic reporter. These stories have heart, and it is clear from the first passage that the author has taken a deeply personal interest in the people he is profiling. The Forbidden Game is China writing at its most thoughtful.

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Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong
Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong
by Susan Blumberg-Kason
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.13
27 used & new from CDN$ 7.97

4.0 out of 5 stars Certain to generate debates about custody and culture, July 29 2014
A true cautionary tale for any romantics abroad who believe that exotic intrigue is enough to sustain an interracial marriage, Good Chinese Wife will wrench hearts as much as it will enrage readers on both sides of the gender debate.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is a shy, frizzy-haired American exchange student in Hong Kong, where she meets an attractive Chinese scholar ten years her senior. Waltzing their nights away in dance halls, the previously married Cai doesn’t waste time. “In China couples traditionally date only if they plan to marry.”

Susan’s insecurity, which is her biggest folly, gets the best of her, and gets hitched, simply so “I’d no longer worry about whether he’d still want to meet me every night.”

The realities of marrying into China, however, become apparent during a visit to Wuhan to meet her in-laws. “Kids don’t learn anything until they are five. The baby can stay with us, for several years,” her new “mama” exclaims. Cai’s true colors are also soon revealed: he prefers to watch porn on their honeymoon instead of consummate their marriage, and play cards with pals in their underwear instead of spend time with his new wife.

Feeling “like a lowly daughter-in-law in a Chinese backwater town,” Susan persuades Cai to relocate to San Francisco, where they conceive a son. Flying in the in-laws proves to be a mistake, and the ensuing childcare differences (force feeding; four layers of clothes indoors) will resonate with Westerners considering breeding with the Chinese.

Cai becomes increasingly sullen and verbally abusive (“No meaning, no anything here,” he huffs. “I thought you had a wife and son here,” Susan responds, to which he snaps “You’re so lucky I don’t hit you.”).

Wishing he’d go back to China only fuels her paranoia that, if he actually does, Cai will take their son with him (“China hasn’t signed the Hague Convention,” a lawyer warns). Susan’s grand finale “escape” will leave women readers woot-woot!’ing aloud – and fathers instinctively gritting their teeth.

It’s hard to be critical of an intensely personal memoir such as this, but the authoress offers little self-examination other than the occasional “was my tone too harsh?”, nor any insight into Cai’s perspective except his outbursts: “I know what American wives are like. I also know what Chinese wives are like. And then there’s you!” And Susan’s final musing that “I was abandoning him in a country he didn’t like, taking away his son, and leaving him with a house, two cars and no way to pay the mortgage or other bills” could also come across as vindictive rather than remorseful.

Good Chinese Wife is a fascinating read for anyone suffering a dose of yellow fever and contains topical issues that are certain to generate heated debates about custody and cultural differences. Yet one wonders if Susan and Cai might have made it work had they remained on Hong Kong’s east-west cultural middle ground, where they met, without the pressure of the Mainland’s blind filial piety or the influence of divorce-happy Americans.

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How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?: True Stories of Expat Women in Asia
How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?: True Stories of Expat Women in Asia
Price: CDN$ 8.51

4.0 out of 5 stars Broads abroad, July 1 2014
“Fempat” is a new word that was coined during the controversy surrounding last year’s debut of my own China expat anthology, Unsavory Elements, and while it is wrongly attributed to me, my defining it in media interviews as “those angry, lonely, single female expats in China who are overlooked by western males seeking Chinese girlfriends” only served to secure it in the lexicon of world travel terminology.

The latest collection of stories by expatriate women in Asia, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?, was being assembled and edited at the same time as Unsavory’s “fempat” fallout, and editor Shannon Young does not hesitate to touch on the topic in her introduction: “Too often expat women’s voices go unheard. We are labeled and dismissed…”

What follows in theses 26 true tales, however, is not the call to arms by broads abroad male readers not unlike myself might fear it to be, but more of a “traveler’s soliloquy to prove my independence” (borrowed from ever-quotable contributor Kaitlin Solimine) as women of the world.

Neha Mehta compares India’s lack of personal space with Bangkok (“When you object, they get infuriated and suddenly they are no longer human”); American-born Edna Zhou distinguishes ethnicity from nationality in the P.R.C. (“The person’s face changed from being impressed by the foreigner who speaks Mandarin to disgusted at the Chinese girl whose tones weren’t perfect”); and, in one of the collections more potentially divisive essays, privileged expat wife India Harris owns up to being the face of Filipina maid abuse (“Please, ma’am, I need work. My daughter is hungry. I don’t care. That’s your problem”).

Romantic interludes are refreshingly balanced out with rocky relationships: Susan Blumberg-Kason in Hong Kong addresses infidelity in a mixed-race marriage (“Please know that in Chinese culture husbands might cheat, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love their wives”); Jocelyn Eikenburg brings her new Chinese father-in-law along on a Huangshan honeymoon (“He probably just thought all foreigners are a little ‘luan’, promiscuous”); and the aforementioned Kaitlin Solimine lets slip a tragic love story during hard-seat travel through China, admitting “I’m too preoccupied with my own narrative of romantic tragedy.”

Shannon Young does a fine job as editor, weaving fun travel jaunts with intensely personal domestic revelations to keep the pace lively and, dare I say, feminine.

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Three Souls
Three Souls
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers CA
Price: CDN$ 13.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Supernatural historical romance, May 7 2014
This review is from: Three Souls (Kindle Edition)
A young woman of privilege raised on the cusp of civil war in 1920s China longs to break free from the aristocratic shackles of her family’s feudal wealth. Book-smart and impertinent, Song Leiyin has no desire for the “comfortable life of a wife and mother” awaiting her.

Heeding Madame Sun Yat-Sen’s call, she applies for a scholarship to university, but her unflinchingly old-fashioned father dismisses it as a flight of fancy. “This was the first time she realized education was only meant to increase her value in the marriage market.”

Following her first failed attempt to deceive her father, a husband is hastily arranged for Leiyin. Motherhood tempers her angst, but the reemergence of an old flame, who also happens to be a wanted socialist sympathizer, sets off a slippery slope of betrayal, ultimately resulting in her death. This is not a spoiler; this is just the beginning! Leiyin’s three souls – her yin, yang, and hun – must right her past wrongs in order to ascend to the afterlife.

At once a supernatural fantasy, romantic drama and historical thriller, first-time Taiwanese authoress Janie Chang is to be applauded for creating such a haunting story of love, politics and the beyond.

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Yang Shen: The God from the West, Book I, 2nd Edition
Yang Shen: The God from the West, Book I, 2nd Edition
Price: CDN$ 5.17

4.0 out of 5 stars An historian’s historical fiction, May 7 2014
In the grand tradition of ambitious nautical classics Tai-Pan and the Aubrey-Maturin series, James Lande’s debut novel Yang Shen brings us back to the well-sailed yet never-dull seas of 1800’s Imperial China. The southern coast is in the bloody throws of the Taiping Rebellion and tens of thousands of pissed-off peasants are descending on Shanghai.

The waning Manchu-led government’s only recourse is to retain American sailor Fletcher Thorson Wood (based on real-life soldier-of-fortune Frederick Townsend Ward and his “Ever Victorious Army”) to train a ragtag band of Chinese soldiers in the Western military style.

It is obvious from the first page that Lande has invested as much time researching this rich period piece as he has crafting an elaborate story. Yang Shen is an historian’s historical fiction, replete with extensive glossary, detailed maps, captain’s logs and technical interlinears.

The Far East setting provides Lande, a deft storyteller, with a vast expanse of literary canvas; perhaps too vast: coming in at a self-indulgently dense 555 pages (in 8-point typeset with half-inch margins, which translates into 2,000-pages in standard format) oddly interspersed with hanzi, even this insatiable history buff had his attention span tested. And this is just the first volume!

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The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China
The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China
Price: CDN$ 3.32

5.0 out of 5 stars Delirious, hilarious surrealism, May 7 2014
At once reviled and respected by his contemporaries, underground blogger Isham Cook is an expatriate to contend with, covering sexy and sordid subject matter that not even the most cavalier Old China Hand would confess.

His debut book, Lust & Philosophy, was a primal rampage largely set in Beijing (where Cook moonlights as a professor), though its experimental narrative ensured that it never reach a mass-market audience. In The Exact Unknown, Cook presents a more palatable read, but still manages to disregard all literary decorum that the old guard of China writers have put in place.

Pieced together from his most outrageous blog posts, this collection is an intoxicating, and at times toxic, cocktail of freshly fashioned creations of flesh and of fantasy. Cook obviously delights in the “distress (his writings) cause many Western readers, particularly on the subject of the Chinese having sex, or having sex with foreigners.”

Several of the stories pruriently portray the narrator’s seduction of his female Chinese students (“You’re already a college senior and still a virgin? Oh, boy.”), though each encounter tends to conclude with the delirious if not hilarious surrealism that only happens in China: unsuspecting girl trips out on LSD… extortionate lover demands Apple products… State spy secretly videotapes a sexual escapade from afar…

The book is disclaimed as fiction, though the details and dialogue are too precise to be purely imagined. Female expats will predictably be turned off if not outraged, but for worldly libertines this may become required bedtime reading.

Telegraph Hill
Telegraph Hill

4.0 out of 5 stars As much about finding as it is being lost, May 7 2014
This review is from: Telegraph Hill (Kindle Edition)
“San Francisco: where you went when no one was talking to you anymore.” So illustrates the ostracized tone of Telegraph Hill, the new neo crime noir penned by real-life private eye John Nardizzi that is just as much about finding as it is being lost.

Sculpted after the PI pulp of days past, Nardizzi covers a tried and true page-turning formula: disenchanted detective tracking down an elusive prostitute who witnessed a gang shooting before blood-thirsty Chinese triads get to her first.

The story encompasses all the classic requisites of an urban thriller – narrow escapes, sexy femme fatales, investigative interludes and violent crescendos – but is refreshingly countered with cheek towards clichéd noir symbols (“He wondered why steam still drifted from manholes in the 21st century”).

The author squeezes in, at times a bit forced, nearly every Bay Area landmark, but might have done better with a retro ‘70s setting, as today’s triad syndicates, mostly operating through legitimate multinational corporations, are not nearly as prevalent nor trigger-happy as portrayed.

Where this novel stands apart, then, is the lyrical prose and intimate observations of lesser-known S.F. neighborhoods and their respective counter-cultures (The Tenderloin “where trannys look better than the real women”).

Chinese cultural references and scenes in Hong Kong appealed to this San Francisco City native living as an expatriate in China, as did the subtle themes of displacement, from the cast-out protagonist to the astray prostitute (“She realized there was no one here for her anymore”).

The Curious Diary of Mr Jam
The Curious Diary of Mr Jam
Price: CDN$ 8.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Vittachi the Vidushak, May 7 2014
Like many other westerners in China, I was first introduced to the written works of Nury Vittachi from his Feng Shui Detective serial circa 2005 in City Weekend magazine. The Vittachi empire has expanded since then, from columnist to public speaker, pundit, founder of literary festivals, and the author of over 30 books. But according to his latest tome, The Curious Diary of Mr Jam, it has been a humble, hand-to-mouth existence.

A comical memoir highlighting the less-glamorous side of being "that guy whom media-consuming people in Asia are vaguely aware," the Sri Lankan vidushak (jester) regales the reader with self-effacing stories as a humorist in Pan-Asia, a place "where satire is a criminal offense," including cross-cultural confrontations and repeated sackings from media outlets ("You have to conform" suggests one humorless Hong Kong editor requiring a fact-checked knock-knock joke).

Beneath the wry tales and occasional "35-percent mildly amusing" one-liners, Vittachi's diary is in fact a real person's record of worrying about the things that real people worry about, his pursuit of laughs often interrupted by family matters, overdue bills and other relatable issues, all from which Nury nobly manages to emit a jocular tone.

At 335 pages (in a 10-point typeset no less), the year-in-the-life minutia of making a living telling funny stories will test some readers' patience, but his frequent jabs at Asian elite and Chinese officialdom, who work hard to prevent Vittachi's brand of "subversive" satire from being printed, ensure that the smiles are ceaseless. "Asia is a funny place," he writes, "just not intentionally."

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Lust & Philosophy
Lust & Philosophy
by Isham Cook
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 11.57
7 used & new from CDN$ 8.70

4.0 out of 5 stars Delirious, primal rampage, May 7 2014
This review is from: Lust & Philosophy (Paperback)
Does China's re-emerging sexual liberation bring out the prurience in its expatriate populous, or does it merely attract the most prurient OF us? Lust & Philosophy, the proudly obscene debut novel by Isham Cook, forces us to confront this and other uncomfortable moral questions through a part fact, part fictional journey of psychotropic and sexual story-telling.

Cook, the pseudonym of a self-professed sensualist teaching in Beijing's university district, is not shy about his admittedly neurotic pursuit of "flawed" and vulnerable Chinese women ("they are never more ready than when they are confused"). As a result, a delirious, primal rampage across the unobvious twilight spaces of Beijing's "blank metropolis" ensues. "Lest this strike you as implausible, it can actually be gotten away with in the Chinese café," Cook disclaims after detailing an unexpected encounter in the booth of a coffee shop as fuwuyuan (waitresses) look on indifferently.

The story arc shifts focus when Cook self-indulgently reflects on his drug-fuelled coming of age in Europe, followed by a presumably-therapeutic admission of a series of failed career paths in Chicago (where he is "wrongfully" yet repeatedly terminated for sexual harassment), until convolutedly tying these experiences all back in to present-day China.

Lust & Philosophy's experimental prose and non-linear narrative spans continents, decades, and states of mind, calling to mind William S. Burroughs' equally-bizarre Naked Lunch, while fans of Henry Miller will empathise with - but may not always like - the libertine expat Cook.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China
Behind the Red Door: Sex in China
by Richard Burger
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.68
24 used & new from CDN$ 11.35

5.0 out of 5 stars Taboo is the New Normal, Jan. 17 2013
Among the many misimpressions westerners tend to have of China, sex as some kind of "taboo" topic here seems to be the most common, if not clichéd. Forgetting for a moment that, owing to a population of 1.3 billion, somebody must be doing it, what most of us don't seem to know is that, at several points throughout the millennia, China has been a society of extreme sexual openness.

And now, according to author Richard Burger's new book Behind the Red Door, the Chinese are once again on the verge of a sexual revolution.

Best know for his knives-out commentary on The Peking Duck, one of China's longest-running expat blogs, Burger takes a similar approach to surveying the subject of sex among the Sinae, leaving no explicit ivory carving unexamined, no raunchy ancient poetry unrecited, and *ahem* no miniskirt unturned.

Opening (metaphorically and literally) with an introduction about hymen restoration surgery, Burger delves dàndàn-deep into the olden days of Daoism, those prurient practitioners of free love who encouraged multiple sex partners as "the ultimate co-joining of Yin and Yang." Promiscuity, along with prostitution, flourished during the Tang Dynasty - recognized as China's cultural zenith - which Burger's research surmises is no mere coincidence.

Enter the Yuan Dynasty, and its conservative customs of Confucianism, whereby sex became regarded only "for the purpose of producing heirs." As much as we love to hate him, Mao Zedong is credited as single-handedly wiping out all those nasty neo-Confucius doctrines, including eliminating foot binding, forbidding spousal abuse, allowing divorce, banning prostitution (except, of course, for Party parties), and encouraging women to work. But in typical fashion, laws were taken too far; within 20 years, China under Mao became a wholly androgynous state.

We then transition from China's red past into the pink-lit present, whence "prostitution is just a karaoke bar away," yet possession of pornography is punishable by imprisonment - despite the fact that millions of single Chinese men (called "bare branches") will never have wives or even girlfriends due to gross gender imbalance. Burger laudably also tackles the sex trade from a female's perspective, including an interview with a housewife-turned-hair-salon hostess who, ironically, finds greater success with foreigners than with her own sex-starved albeit ageist countrymen.

Western dating practices among hip, urban Chinese are duly contrasted with traditional courtship conventions, though, when it comes down to settling down, Burger points out that the Chinese are still generally resistant to the idea that marriage can be based on love. This topic naturally segues into the all-but-acceptable custom of kept women ("little third"), as well as "homowives", those tens of millions of straight women trapped in passionless unions with closeted gay men out of filial piety.

Behind the Red Door concludes by stressing that while the Chinese remain a sexually open society at heart, contradictive policies (enforced by dubious statistics) designed to discard human desire are written into law yet seldom enforced, simply because "sexual contentment is seen as an important pacifier to keep society stable and harmonious."

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