Sexpat Memoirs of China: 5 of the Best

By Paul French

Recently “sexpat” made it into the online urban dictionary —

Sexpat (noun), a compound of sex and expat or expatriate.

A sexpat is one who participates in tourism with the express intention of having sex.

Lately a number of “sexpat” memoirs concentrating on experiences in China have aroused some amount of curiosity and indignation on the internet. The most recent Shanghai Cocktales: A Memoir: 1 (indicating that there may be more to follow!!) by Tom Olden (a pseudonym) recounts various sexual encounters between a young European in the Shanghai of the early 2000s and an array of women. It sparked a bit of debate, some outrage, a few laughs, and one of the most amusing literary spats in China for a while. However, when considering your position on sexpat memoirs, please do not think they are anything new. Here, then, is a list of five of the best (none of which were written under pseudonyms, incidentally): 

5) Aleko Lilius — I Sailed with Chinese Pirates (1931). The journalist Aleko Lilius spent a good part of the late 1920s chasing pirates around the South China Seas. He was particularly fascinated with the infamous female pirate chief Lai Choi San. When not escaping near death on the high seas, Lilius stayed in Hong Kong, where he recounts regularly visiting a brothel run by a European woman he dubbed Madame Pompadour, “a thorough sinner.” Madame Pompadour catered to everyone from sailors, ne’er-do-wells, grifters, and the occasional pirate come ashore. Her brothel seems to have employed mostly low-end grisettes, French working-class girls who had fallen or been trafficked into prostitution. Lilius admitted that while the place was thoroughly disreputable, a “dive,” and that Madame Pompadour had met him apologizing for not having put her false teeth in, the most popular girl, “La Belle Marie,” was stunningly beautiful. Lilius claimed to have spent a night at Madame Pompadour’s with La Belle Marie and, “another silly, ravishingly beautiful little thing,” but to have ended up only paying for two bottles of overpriced champagne.

4) James Lee — Underworld of the East. First published in the 1930s, but covering the period from the late 1890s to the early 1920s. Sexpat memoirs often like to throw in a bit of drugs with their copulation. However, James Lee was no casual user, but rather a serious connoisseur of narcotics. Lee, a jobbing English engineer, contrived to arrive in Shanghai in 1906 for a couple of years. His Shanghai experiences involved opium, morphia, cocaine, and other delights, such as hard liquor, a large number of encounters with prostitutes, and pornography — he is, to the best of my knowledge, the first person to record attending screenings of pornographic films in the city. His memoirs are a bit sketchy on detail due largely to the fact that he was, frankly, out-of-it for most of his stay!

3) Percy Finch — Shanghai and Beyond (1953). Finch, a long time China coast journalist, was a regular at No. 52 Kiangse Road after a good pay day — Shanghai’s most infamous and long-running brothel, overseen by the legendary American Madam of Shanghai, Gracie Gale. Finch spent vast amounts of his salary on Gracie’s girls (who were all American born and bred) between the wars and described the Madam herself as, “a well-built woman with merry eyes and a loud, throaty Tallulah Bankhead laugh.” And No. 52 was no ordinary cat house either, as Finch recalled: “With energetic finesse, Gracie Gale pushed the American girl to the top of her profession. What Ming was to porcelain and the Rolls Royce to cars, the American girl was to commercial vice in Shanghai.”

2) Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse — Décadence Mandchoue (1943). In terms of sexpat claims, Backhouse stands in a league of his own; his memoirs are so wholeheartedly filthy that for decades they were consigned to the dark corners of the basement stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library and unavailable to the general public. Even if we believe that Backhouse, a lover of old Peking’s bathhouse culture, really did meet Cassia Flower and his “elephantine” member or the Duke Lan, who required his regal buttocks to be stingingly whipped till lacerated, a process then followed by apparently endless ejaculations, can we really believe he was bedded by none other than the Empress Dowager Cixi? Nobody’s memoir, then or now, has come close to claiming anything as outrageous as that the then ruler of China penetrated him with her enlarged clitoris! (and I did re-read that bit several times to make sure that is what he claims). Sadly though, despite having his defenders, Backhouse was probably more fantasist than reliable source and so cannot claim the No.1 position.

Which brings us finally to the far and away best ever sexpat memoir of China — and one we can (probably) believe….

1) Ralph Shaw — Sin City (1971). Sadly, modern day propriety (and space!) prevents me from detailing Shaw’s recorded sexual exploits in the Shanghai of the late 1930s and early 1940s. He came to Shanghai as a British soldier, became a journalist and got out just ahead of the Japanese invasion. His memoir is an incredible mix of on-the-ground reporting of the deteriorating situation in Shanghai in the run up to Pearl Harbor and night-time escapades through the numerous dive-bars, brothels, cinema back rows, and single female dormitories of the city. Suffice to say Shaw was a great experimenter with a vivid imagination who seems to have met many, many women with similar skills. “Racy” doesn’t do it justice — Sin City is flat out down and dirty in a way poor old Tom Olden could only dream, of I’m afraid.

And so, as with so many things in life, the sexpat China memoir has been done before and definitely been done better.

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