What you are about to read is most savory. And while the title of the new book, Unsavory Elements tries to indicate otherwise, it could simply be a reference to foreigners (you know, those unsavory devils from outside, with ratty red beards). Tom Carter’s new book is a collection of stories from some of the better-penned westerners to scale the Great Wall and make their mark on China. Writers such as Peter Hessler (speaking in the video above), Audra Ang and Jonathan Watts are all names that jump out on our shelves of China literature and they, plus many more, have contributed to this exciting new anthology of foreigners on the loose.
Launching this new book as part of Capital Literary Festival, and boasting a sold-out event on the 15th in Shanghai, Tom Carter was kind enough to provide us with a few cliff-hanging excerpts from the anthology. The gorgeous cover art shown above is by Plastered T-shirts.
The Partitioned Pot
By Audra Ang
After making the final turn into Xiahe, we immediately spotted what looked like a checkpoint, wooden barriers blocking the way. Not wanting to stare out the window, I couldn’t tell if anyone was manning the post. Han and I sank a little deeper into the backseat.
My clothes – austere cuts in dark, monochromatic hues – often set me apart from other modern Chinese women, and my Mandarin accent, a hybrid of a sibilant southern one peppered with the guttural “er” sounds of Beijing’s northern dialect, marked me as a “non-local” wherever I went. But being ethnically Chinese was still a gift of conformity while covering sensitive stories. My skin color had helped me blend into a crowd many times as authorities, anxious to deter and detain foreign journalists, zeroed in on Western faces.
At a road-block, however, the only thing that mattered was identification papers. The journalist visa in my bright orange-red Singapore passport was a guaranteed trip to a police station or government office. I held my breath and stared fixedly ahead, praying that we wouldn’t be stopped; not now, not when we were so close.
East of Nowhere, South of Heaven
By Alan Paul
As I stood there bitterly looking down into that hole, silently damning New China’s incessant construction, I felt my face growing warm and wet. It was blood gushing from my nose. The dust, dryness, altitude – and stress – had gotten the best of me. I pressed a towel to my face as Wang spoke to some scurrying workers.
“Only one driver for machine,” Chris said, indicating the huge backhoe sitting by the side of the hole, “and he’s eating, or sleeping. They trying to get him. His name is Lu.”
Based on past responses from the roadside workers I was not brimming with optimism. But within minutes, someone did emerge from a tent and, waving at the bus full of foreigners, climbed aboard the backhoe and began furiously filling in the crater. My favorite childhood book, Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, came to mind…except now Mike was a migrant Chinese named Lu with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
By Matthew Polly
“Because you are my new American friend, maybe I could give them to you for $2.25.”
“You are too kind,” I replied. “And because you are my new Chinese friend, I could pay $1.10.”
“Impossible,” he scoffed. “I would lose money on each one. It would be like you snuck into my house and stole from me. $2.15.”
And so it went for the next five hours. At various impasses I would pour us each two shots of baijiu. The rural Chinese in Henan Province mixed alcohol and business like you wouldn’t believe. Perhaps as a result, they also had a charming nationalistic blind spot: they honestly believed they could out-drink everyone else on the planet.As an Irish-American who outweighed them by 50 pounds, I had come to find this both amusing and useful.
About the Authors:
Audra Ang was a Beijing-based correspondent for The Associated Press from 2002 through 2009. In between meals of “saliva chicken” and “fragrant and spicy potato shreds,” she covered disasters, disease and dissent while chronicling the breakneck changes that were convulsing China. Ang also reported from North Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan and Afghanistan during that posting. She grew up in Singapore and regularly eats unseemly amounts of food at one sitting. Her book To the People, Food is Heaven, about her experiences reporting and eating in China, was published in October 2012.
Alan Paul is the author of Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing. Director/producer Ivan Reitman is developing a film version of the book, which detailed the story of Paul’s Chinese blues band, Woodie Alan. Paul wrote the award-winning “The Expat Life” for WSJ.com from 2005-09 and also reported from Beijing for NBC, the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated and others. A longtime senior writer for Guitar World, Paul’s book, One Way Out: An Oral History of the Allman Brothers Band, will be released in March, 2014.
Matthew Polly is the bestselling author of American Shaolin and Tapped Out. He spent two years studying kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China, and became the first American to be accepted as a Shaolin disciple. A Princeton University graduate and Rhodes Scholar, his writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Esquire, Slate, The Nation, and numerous other publications. He is currently working on a biography of Bruce Lee for Penguin Books. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Tom Carter will be speaking alongside publisher Graham Earnshaw of Earnshaw Books and five of the authors, including the above three, who contributed to Unsavory Elements at the Capital Literary Festival on March 17. The event is likely to sell out fast, so get your tickets soon here.