Good Reading : June 2010
16 goodreading ı JUNE 2010 Discovering China is like peeling an onion. Sometimes you can get the feel of a place after only a few days, but the longer you stay, the more you realise how little those first impressions count. Books about China can be insider stories (Anchee Min's Red Azalea) or outsider stories (Peter Hessler's River Town), categories further complicated by whether they are written by Chinese or foreigners, and whether they support the prevailing gover nment line or challenge it. Many of China's best known writers are expats whose work is controversial in their homeland. For example, Jung Chang (Wild Swans); Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian; Adeline Yen Mah (Falling Leaves); Ma Jian (Red Dust); and Dai Sijie (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress). But as China develops, the boundaries between insider and outsider are breaking down. Today it is as much cultural fountain as sponge for Western ideas. Beijing may be China's political capital, but Shanghai is the undisputed economic powerhouse, with a population approaching 20 million, the highest GDP per capita, and a never- ending construction program that boasts two of the world's tallest buildings. Shanghai has always been a 'moder n' city. From beginnings as a domestic trading port, it came into world renown following the Opium Wars. The most cosmopolitan of East Asian cities in the century after 1842, it was both the Paris of the East and the Whore of the Orient, home to traders, gamblers, refugees, expats and adventurers (and locals). In the free city, foreigners had their own banks, police and municipal councils. Pidgin English expressions like 'long time no see', 'chop chop' and 'no can do' originated there. By 1930, Shanghai had an estimated 100 000 foreign residents: mostly British, French, Japanese, American and White Russian emigrés. When the Japanese invaded, they moved on to Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere, leaving behind arguably the world's finest collection of Art Deco buildings. Shanghai suffered under Mao's Communist Revolution, but today it is once again a future-focused melting pot of influences, the fizzing East-West test-tube in which communism and capitalism react. This year, from May to October, Shanghai hosts the World Expo, during which 70 million people are expected to visit. Don't like crowds? Maybe wait till 2011, but in the meantime, enjoy Shanghai by the book. Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard The classic account of a boy's life in Japanese- occupied Shanghai, drawn from Ballard's experience of inter nment dur ing World War II. An amazing novel of childhood innocence and experience. Even if you never visit, it should be high on your list. Shanghai: Collision point of cultures 1918 – 1939 by Harriet Sergeant An anectodal history of Old Shanghai's cultural melting pot between the wars. Sargeant interviewed Chinese (Communists and Nationalists), Japanese, White Russians and colonial British to produce an exceptionally readable account. stories of book city SHANGHAI LACHLAN JOBBINS tells us what to read before visiting Shanghai.