Unsavory Elements, edited by Tom Carter

I’ve never met an expat in China who didn’t have his or her own extraordinary stories to tell, stories that at times made them stop and ask themselves, “What exactly am I doing here?” Every day one can experience an “only in China” moment, like waiting three hours to see a bank teller or seeing teenagers sleeping and snoring at an Internet cafe. I’ve described many such situations on this blog, like my being harassed for being a “laowai” in Kunming, or my delightfully nauseating experience at a Beijing duck restaurant, or my experience watching a beggar on a bus.

Having lived in Singapore and Taipei, I’ve been struck by the cities’ huge differences with China in terms of daily life. In the former two, there are rarely any surprises at all. They are great places to live, but they are also predictable (which is why expats with kids love living there). You are rarely taken aback by what you see on the street. China, as we all know, can be one surprise after another. We all have a battery of stories that prove it.

Which brings me to Tom Carter’s superb book of short stories, Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, written by some of the most prominent writers in (or formerly in) China, like journalist and author Jonathan Watts, Alan Paul (author of Big in China), Deb Fallows (a linguist, author and wife of James Fallows), novelist and Fulbright Scholar Kaitlin Solimise, and an epilogue by the great Simon Winchester, author of The River at the Center of the World. And there are 23 others, most of them writers of incredible competence and backgrounds rich in China experience. Somehow, Tom Carter, the photographer behind the acclaimed photo-essay book China: Portrait of a People, has achieved the impossible, tracking down 28 of the most brilliant China hands and inducing them to write first-rate stories about some of their most exceptional experiences in China. (Peter Hessler also contributed a story, but it’s a piece he originally wrote for the New Yorker, the only story that wasn’t commissioned for the book.) Carter somehow got them all to deliver their stories, edited them and whipped them into a book that is fast paced (I read it in two or three sittings) and, like China, full of surprises.

It is impossible to write a thorough review of this book. That would take 28 posts, one for each story; trying to choose which ones to mention in this review is painful, because there is so much good in so many of them. You really need to read the whole thing. If you live in China or are curious about expat life there, this is required reading.

Like any book with 28 authors, there is going to be some unevenness. There was one story that I found disappointing, as I thought the author was puffing it up. One or two were too long, a couple were inconclusive and begged for more finality. But the remarkable thing is just how high the quality of nearly all the writing is and how remarkable the situations are, some of them downright bizarre.

Michael Levy, author of a book I should have reviewed a long time ago, Kosher Chinese, kicks the book off with the kind of moral dilemma China is known for: Michael, teaching at an English training school for rich Chinese kids, is offered a bribe to write the students’ admission letters so they can get into exclusive American boarding schools. At $1,000 an essay, it’s a tempting offer. Levy takes us into the world of teaching in China and, coming back to the bribe, leaves us hanging in a surprise ending.

One story that fascinated me for its sheer strangeness was by author Dominic Stevenson about his stay at a Shanghai prison for smuggling dope across the border. When I’ve read in the newspaper about foreigners being arrested in China and put in jail I’ve always wondered what they go through and how they survive. While this story isn’t poetic, it paints a wonderful picture of life behind bars and the special privileges foreigners enjoy there. (Despite some of the relative comforts they enjoy, it’s an experience I plan on never knowing first-hand.)

The most breathtaking story is told by Susie Gordon about her night out with a fabulously rich Chinese businessman who, with no second thought, plunks down $20,000 for a few bottles of wine in a single sitting. Describing one wild night with Mr. Zhou and his son and friends, Gordon transports us into the rarefied world of China’s super-rich, with all the luxuries, the trappings, the sins and temptations. She describes the behavior of Zhou’s son and his obscenely wealthy friends at a lavish karaoke bar operated by a friend, Yu Haiming.

The customary libation at KTV is whiskey mixed with green tea, or watery beer from tall green bottles, but Yu Haiming’s place was unsurprisingly different. He had two of the girls bring in a magnum of champagne, a little silver tray arrayed 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.

The entire story is a tour de force. And there’s much more: Deb Fallows’ observations on all the things you’re not allowed to do in China (the story is appropriately titled Bu Keyi), and how she and her husband came face to face with the law while shooting photos on Tiananmen Square on the 20th anniversary of the June 4 “incident.” Jonathan Watts making a visit to an environmentalist in the rain forests of Xishuangbanna. Bruce Humes’ truly harrowing depiction of his brutal mugging and subsequent experience in a Shenzhen hospital… The most poignant story is Kaitlin Solimine’s gorgeous depiction of her “second mother” when she lived in China as an exchange student, who became a lifelong friend.

Unsavory Elements is the title of editor Tom Carter’s own story, a tale of his visit with two friends to a seedy Chinese brothel in the countryside on a lane called “Teen Street.” The story has generated considerable controversy, as you can see in this review and its explosive comment thread. The story is hilarious — one of the friends is a consummate loser and Carter’s description of him caused me to laugh out loud. It took a lot of chutzpah to write a story like this, and I give Carter credit for his daring to tell a story that many expat men experience but usually choose not to tell to the world. I enjoyed reading this fast-paced piece, but I have to say that I understand why it is so controversial. The story is farce, and to shift gears and go the politically correct route and tell about the sorrows and tragedy of prostitution would have disrupted the tone. I thought, however, that Carter could have woven at least something into this story that conveyed a bit more empathy for the girls’ plight, without being preachy. It’s a hard thing to do, interjecting such a serious note into such a side-splitting narrative, but I know Carter has the skill to do this. Nevertheless the story stands out as one of the highlights of the book, another look behind the scenes of what most of us will never experience ourselves.

Do yourselves a favor and read the book. From high farce to heartbreaking poignancy, it’s all here, and you get to peer into aspects of China you may never have known about otherwise (like Dan Washburn’s trip deep into the Guizhou countryside, or Kay Bratt’s moving story of a girl in a Chinese orphanage). One can only marvel at Carter’s ability to get these stories written and then to draw them all together to form a unified whole. I’ve now read the book twice. It is a labor of love, and I think you’ll love it, too.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

[…] Peking Duck has a nice review of Unsavory Elements, Tom Carter’s collection from China.  My story of teaching in Beijing […]

September 14, 2013 @ 3:03 am | Pingback

Richard, I just downloaded Unsavoury Elements on kindle and read Mr. Carter’s prossy piece first. Funny it was, and defiantly so. Good to know you read it with a sense of humour as well, but why do you say he ought empathize with these girls? What “plight” do you speak of? Surely the author of “Sex in China” knows that Mainland-based prossys are the furthest thing from pitiable – they get into this trade out of laziness and greed. And as Mr. Carter’s short-story illustrates so comically, they are quite in control of their circumstances. In fact, mate, I’d say that the Russian harlots you advertise (and profit off of) in your sidebar stand a greater likelihood of being trafficked than any Chinese prossy. Not judging you, mate – Russian harlots need love to – I just hate to see you catering to the politically correct crowd.

September 14, 2013 @ 7:55 pm | Comment

Levi, with respect, I totally disagree with your take on Chinese prostitutes – those at the bottom rungs of the ladder like the ones described in Tom’s story. I interview one of these in my book; read it and you’ll see what i mean. They are often trafficked, raped by the police, forced to pay bribes, and endure terrible abuse. I’m not talking about ernai or expensive KTV hostesses, obviously. Not a drop of political correctness here in empathizing with desperate, impoverished young women with no option.

And I don’t operate any ads for prostitute in my blog’s sidebar. All of the ads are put there by google’s bots based on keywords.

September 15, 2013 @ 2:18 am | Comment

I remember looking around at the girls, the men, the drugs and the money, and wondering how long this utopia could last

Sounds more like one of the seven levels of Hell and a situation I would want to extract myself from as quickly as possible!

September 15, 2013 @ 6:23 pm | Comment

Well, to the young men it was utopia, indeed, as it would be to many young men, the temptation of infinite sex and stimulation. Of course, later they’d understood they wasted their lives, but at the moment it would seem like Paradise personified.

September 16, 2013 @ 11:51 am | Comment

I sort of agree with Levi, though I understand the politics of this. I have quite extensive experience with Chinese sex workers over the years. Of course, if you look at the bottom rungs, you see the greatest amount of trouble, abuse, and degradation, as you would anywhere. But if this were a story set in the US about American prostitutes, would Mr. Burger still feel the need to “convey a bit more empathy for the girls’ plight”? There is the universal assumption among Westerners writing about China that Chinese sex workers are somehow more vulnerable or helpless than their Western counterparts (all Chinese/Asian women are stereotyped like this in fact), and therefore Western males have no business involving themselves sexually with sex workers here or with any Chinese females in whatever capacity for that matter. (And then there is the patronizing standard PC view that all sex workers are leading tragic lives – I suppose it makes those of us who are not sex workers feel better about ourselves.)

The surprising conclusion that I have come to after meeting hundreds of Chinese sex workers (mostly in the massage industry) is that on the whole they seem more mentally sound, stable and “together” than so-called Chinese women of “good morals” who could never imagine themselves in such a sordid occupation. I think the reason for this paradox is that the burden of “female virtue” with the attendant virginity cult remains so backward and unrealistic in the midst of Chinese women’s relative economic and lifestyle freedom today that unconsciously a kind of schizophrenic condition arises with many women – based on the frequency of mental health problems among ordinary and even highly educated Chinese women I’ve known.
Another minor quibble: Mr. Burger refers to Carter’s “superb book of short stories.” Unless the English language has changed overnight, a “short story” is a work of short fiction. The book is, on a contrary, a collection of short nonfiction pieces (though many are in narrative format). Wouldn’t want to mislead potential readers expecting fiction.

September 19, 2013 @ 2:45 pm | Comment

Yeah, I should have added the word “nonfiction” short stories, though I make this clear in the very same paragraph when I write “first-rate stories about some of their most exceptional experiences in China.” So yes, that is a very minor quibble.

But if this were a story set in the US about American prostitutes, would Mr. Burger still feel the need to “convey a bit more empathy for the girls’ plight”?


September 20, 2013 @ 9:07 am | Comment

Have to say I would be more likely to buy this book if two of the authors hadn’t shown such a lack of class in responding to a negative review by insulting the reviewer here:


October 2, 2013 @ 2:02 am | Comment

Hang on – two out of 28 authors turned out to be lacking class, and you feel disinclined to read the book, Foarp? That’s out of propotions, in my view.

Having said that, I think there is very little required reading in this world, Richard. It has become almost regular book-review language, seems to me, but it isn’t necessarily true. 😉

October 2, 2013 @ 3:25 pm | Comment

Set/required reading lists. What an abhorrent idea akin to the idea of drawing up a list of one’s ten favourite ice creams, holiday destinations, blogs etc.

October 3, 2013 @ 2:30 am | Comment

What an abhorrent idea akin to…

With the possible exception of Desert Island Disks.

October 3, 2013 @ 2:42 am | Comment

I agree it’s a little silly, but on the other hand it’s just a way of expressing enthusiasm and urging others to enjoy what you did. Definitely a cliche which I’m guilty of using, too.

October 3, 2013 @ 4:23 am | Comment

@JR – Desert Island Disks is the awesomest. Intellectually I get the objection to lists of “100 top movie bad guys” or whatever, but I am a voracious consumer of them anyway – particularly the fiendishly addictive lists on http://www.cracked.com

October 4, 2013 @ 1:25 pm | Comment

Was confused by disks/discs, but had a suspicion.

FOARPs 10. Oasis, Oasis……

Back to books on China, or should I say approved curriculum.

This Carter thing sounds slight to put it mildly. 28 war stories which most folk who’ve spent a few years in China could replicate.

The last decent read on contemporary China was Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls. More to the point, and given the momentous changes in China over the past 30 years, you would expect a ton of insightful books. Not so. You would have trouble filling a shoe box. Forgot, McGregor’s The Party.

October 4, 2013 @ 6:06 pm | Comment

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