This post continues a tradition, first begun at The China Beat (a publication that began a four-year run in 2008) and then carried on here more recently, of inviting contributors to recommend books they thought could make good holiday presents for those obsessed with or merely curious about the world’s most populous country. What follows, in what will likely be the first in a two-part series, are multiple recommendations from contributors Paul French and Susan Blumberg-Kason and, starting things off, a single suggestion from Mengfei Chen, who wrote “Reading Middlemarch in Jiangxi” for this blog, while she was working in publishing in Beijing, and is now based back in California and will be joining the LARB team as co-editor of this blog.
I stumbled across my recommendation, a beautiful work for children by the young Chinese illustrator Guojing, at a bookstore in Beijing. Titled The Only Child, it is completely wordless and relies on Guojing’s soft, whimsical pencil drawings to tell the story of a little girl who, alone at home while her parents work, grows bored and decides to take the bus by herself to see her grandmother. She falls asleep and wakes to find the bus parked for the night and everyone gone home.
As sometimes happens in children’s books, a kindly stag arrives. He guides her into the woods where magic ensues: giant cloud bears, whales, a midnight ride through the stars before the little girl is brought safely back into the relieved and warm embrace of her family.
The book was first published in the United States at the end of 2015, winning awards and accolades before being published in China this fall. Guojing, an only child born in the 80s, has said that book reflects the loneliness she felt growing up, but it’s really a universal story about the connection between love and loneliness, fear and adventure and the joy that can come from encountering the unknown.
Several American reviewers pointed out the bleakness of the Chinese city landscape depicted in parts of the book, but I have a soft spot for mid-rise concrete blocks after living quite happily in one for years. The illustrations of the northern Chinese city in winter, with the vendors selling roast sweet potatoes and hawthorn lollies made me quite nostalgic.
Without doubt 2016 was an annus horribilis for preservation in Shanghai. Not since the end of the last decade, and the run-up to the wholesale bulldozing that preceded EXPO 2010, has the city seen such wholesale destruction of its built heritage – from industrial relics in Yangpu to houses in Hongkou; and from shikumen in Frenchtown to almost the last vestiges of the old town (Nanshi). It seems all we can do is curate and record what was. Shanghai-based Katya Knyazeva and Adam Sinykin have emerged as the leading chroniclers of Shanghai’s old town and their book Shanghai Old Town: Topography of a Phantom City (Suzhou Creek Press, 2015) recalls a diminishing old town that has significantly shrunk since publication just a year ago. And on it goes…by Christmas Waicangqiao Jie, the old Tailor’s Street, in Nanshi will be gone as will three historic European-style blocks of Beijing Lu in the former International Settlement.
Dead blondes in the Suzhou Creek, serial killer stalking the city’s dancehalls, mysterious shootings…all in a day’s work for author M.J. Lee’s Inspector Danilov (a former Tsarist policeman in Minsk now working for the Shanghai Municipal Police) as he investigates crimes in 1920s Shanghai. Death in Shanghai (Carina, 2015) and City of Shadows (Carina, 2016) are both page-turners (or screen flickers, if you prefer) with plenty of atmosphere and local detail. Christmas is the perfect time to catch up on Inspector Danilov’s adventures, as the third in the series, The Judge of Souls, is out early in 2017. Go forth by all means this festive season my friends; but tread carefully.
I lived in Hong Kong for much of the 1990s as an adult, but my fascination with it goes back even further. To 1982, to be precise, a year when I was twelve, Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping met to begin working out the handover deal that would transfer the city from British to Chinese rule, and I first heard tales of the city from my grandparents when they returned from visiting it. Now living back in the US, I rely on tales told on paper to keep me connected to my favorite metropolis, and while there are never as many English language books published on it in a given year as I would like, 2016 was better than most. I liked Jason Y. Ng’s Umbrellas in Bloom (Blacksmith Books, 2016), for example, with its excellent narrative of 2014’s protests, and Michael Wolf’s Informal Solutions (WE Press, 2016), a photo book that celebrates innovation in densely populated areas. The two I want to recommend here, though, are new novels: Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates (Viking, 2016) and Shannon Young’s self-published Ferry Tale (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016).
Lee’s novel focuses on three American women whose lives intersect and unravel in the city. It’s not a happy story, but it captures well how tragedy stands out in compact living spaces. Plus, Lee descriptive passages about Hong Kong are spot on. “The outdoor tiles are wet in the morning with accumulated moisture,” she writes at one point, for example, “and when you sniff, there is a sharp, moldy tinge to the air. It means the heat is coming.”
Young’s novel, much lighter in tone, is a romantic comedy centered around two expats who meet by chance on the Star Ferry. Katrina Keller is a lounge singer who has escaped the US after an Internet scandal. Sam So is a Chinese Canadian investment banker who relocates to Hong Kong after a painful breakup. After Katrina lies about her identity, so that Sam won’t learn the truth about her, she worries that she has sabotaged their relationship for good. The story is both an account of a love affair and a gripping love letter to the city that has captured Young’s heart—just like it did mine a couple of decades ago.