We are constantly barraged with emails from book publishers asking that we review their books on China. These emails usually ask whether they should send us the book and my usual response is usually, “sure, but we make no promises that we will ever read it or review it.”
Westerners are flocking to China in increasing numbers to chase their dreams even as Chinese emigrants seek their own dreams abroad. Life as an outsider in China has many sides to it – weird, fascinating and appalling, or sometimes all together. We asked foreigners who live or have lived in China for a significant period to tell us a story of their experiences and these 28 contributions resulted. It’s all about living, learning and loving in a land unlike any other in the world.
Anyway, to make a long story about a book of short stories short, I read about half of the book and really liked it, but was having trouble finding time to read the rest of it and to review it.
Enter Christopher Cottrell. Chris has been living in China since 2003 and he has written on China for the Associated Press, Boston Globe, CNN, Fodor’s, Los Angeles Times, and South China Morning Post. He also launched That’s PRD in 2006 and edited the book Macau 2002-2012: 10-years of Gaming Success. Most importantly, Christopher has written the book review I had been meaning to write and his review follows.
Pouring over Unsavory Elements, an anthology of true stories about foreigners “on the loose” in China, readers of China Law Blog might be impressed not just by the high name recognition of its best-selling cast of contributors, but with the sheer levels of illegality and ethics it probes.
The authors and journalists who participated in this book of expat essays did not set out to write about impropriety in Chinese law. They simply wanted to tell their tales of some of the more colorful or trying moments that they experienced while living in China over the past decade.
Ranging from transactions and deeds that would raise the eyebrows of those enforcing America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to stints in prison for drug dealing to flagrant violations of prostitution laws, what results is 300 pages of business and law school case studies written not in legalese but in literary prose, and what a read it is.
“What do we take away from this theme of foreigners who go to China only to become corrupted in a short time span?” Tom Carter, the editor of Unsavory Elements, discussed all this in a recent interview:
While it may appear to anyone perusing the pages of this book that these are simply chronicles of corruptible Caucasians in China, I’d hope that readers would glean a deeper cultural subtext, whereby we the writers are struggling to adapt in a pseudo-socialist society where laws are notoriously fluid; where invariably the only way to survive is to set aside our own Western black-and-white concepts of morality and ethics and learn to navigate the vague China Gray.
Indeed, one might take special note of the chapter “Playing in the Gray” by Graham Earnshaw, of the eponymous Earnshaw Books, publisher of Unsavory Elements and of the Shanghai Buzz weekly, the first foreign owned and operated publication in China since the founding of the PRC.
As Earnshaw explains:
For venues and marketing companies, Buzz represented an entirely new channel for contacting the market, and it worked well. So well, in fact, that one state publication in Shanghai, the Shanghai Star, started to feel threatened. They presumably tapped into their guanxi with the Shanghai government’s news and publications department, but, for a time, nothing happened. This was partly due to the puzzlement on the part of the communist officials, and partly due to a contretemps in progress at the time between the Shanghai propaganda authorities and Beijing-controlled China Daily, both eager to control the only official English newspaper in the city. Due in large part to the non-confrontational way in which (we) dealt with the Publication Bureau, and the way in which the Buzz content never overstepped any sensitive lines, we were never fined for having published an illegal publication in China, although we had of course broken every relevant law.
Earnshaw soon found a competitor, “In Shanghai,” founded by fellow British expatriate Mark Kitto (who also contributed to Unsavory Elements) and restaurateur Kathleen Lau. In Shanghai later became That’s Shanghai magazine, which went on to garner notoriety after it was wrested away from Kitto by State-owned media agencies. Kitto’s experiences have been chronicled on China Law Blog and elsewhere, but Earnshaw’s chapter in Unsavory Elements is seminal to understanding how foreign media began flourishing in China.
And if Earnshaw’s publishing experiences define China’s 5,000 shades of gray, editor Tom Carter profoundly illustrates Chinese culture’s darkest shades of pink. Mr. Carter is best known for his critically acclaimed book of photography CHINA: Portrait of a People, [Editor's Note: an absolutely gorgeous book] but his controversial essay in Unsavory Elements pertains largely to the seamy underbelly of prostitution.
Under Chinese criminal law, prostitution is technically illegal, though the U.S. State Department estimates upwards of 6 million women across China engage in this occupation.
Mr. Carter elaborates:
Pretty peasants looking to make easy money migrate to China’s major metropolises to work at karaoke parlors or massage parlors. Their plain-of-face counterparts in the countryside, however, are consigned to bottom-tier brothels, such as the ones my friends and I were standing in.
According to his essay, Mr. Carter escorted a companion, from Kenya, to a rural brothel staffed by teenagers. In raw and provocative prose unfit for quoting on China Law Blog, he describes the illicit offerings there.
Statistics show that crackdowns on China’s brothel buffet culture, including the most recent high-profile campaign in Dongguan in February 2014, do little to dissuade single men from patronizing prostitutes, but have they dampened the use of young Chinese women for business purposes?
Not if one reads Susie Gordon’s essay “Empty from the Outside.” This young English journalist arrived in China in 2008 and has been covering China’s business culture for local media. She is one of the newer voices this collection presents, and her expose in Unsavory Elements about the excesses of her wealthy business partner’s second-generation “fu er dai” sons, is a highlight of the book.
After China joined the WTO in 2001 and won its chance to hold the Olympics, the country witnessed a huge influx of foreigners and FDI. Many were businessmen and many were taken by their Chinese hosts to KTV (karaoke) to negotiate lucrative contracts in the persuasive company of prostitutes. Ms. Gordon writes:
He had two of the girls bring in a magnum of champagne, a little silver tray with slim white lines of powder that might have been coke but in all likelihood was ketamine, and pills nestled like candies in a brass bowl. At one point, I remember looking around at the girls, the men, the drugs, and the money, and wondering how long this utopia could last: the Chinese dream, in its second, prodigal generation.”
How long indeed. In the fall of 2013, Xi Jinping unleashed an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign that has resulted in the prosecution of some very high profile individuals and companies.
How, then, does one find transparency in China’s business and legal culture? And more specifically, how do foreigners side-step being brought along to brothels, or just say no to the narcotics in front of them, when doing business with the Chinese without wholly insulting their overly gracious (and easily offended) hosts?
These are looming questions that, unfortunately, the authors of Unsavory Elements do not attempt to answer. They simply present the rough and tumble experiences they have gone through as China has risen economically in the past decade. This book fundamentally underscores the variety of unseen personal risks foreigners in China start facing the moment they enter China.