Season five of National Geographic’s Route Awakening begins its broadcast run in China on 23rd August. Other territories to follow soon. But for viewers in China, this will be your chance to see me delving into sacrificial rituals at the Wastes of Yin; oracle bone scripts and divination in the Shang dynasty; the violent art of the Dian kingdom; Nanjing in the middle ages; the golden treasures of a deposed emperor; the immense cathedral-like complex built around a relic of Buddha’s skull; burial customs of the lost Yelang kingdom, and the shipyards of Admiral Zheng He.
A nice little tactic by Tuttle’s sales force. Rather than leave it to their reps to explain to booksellers why they should stock my new book, they hand them an iPad and I tell them myself.
Running without fanfare at the China Exchange in the middle of London’s Chinatown, the Making of Chinatown exhibition aims to tell the story of how an immigrant community could suddenly spring into such a vibrant part of a city’s cultural experience. As the timeline that forms the main part of the exhibit makes clear, the Chinese community centred on Gerrard Street is relatively recent – newspaper clippings as late as 1970 point to the media’s growing awareness that the street was starting to accrete restaurants and stores serving the Cantonese-speaking community.
This exhibition has been a long time coming. When New York has a Museum of the Chinese in America, and both Vancouver and Melbourne have their own richly appointed Chinatown museums, London has been left lagging behind. The temporary exhibit here is necessarily small-scale, concentrating on video archives and scattered photographs, and lacking a lot of material content. There are asides about Limehouse, the original centre for Chinese residents in England, but little about the demonisation of the Chinese in the British imagination in the age of Fu Manchu and Broken Blossoms.
This is a Chinatown museum for the Chinese, specifically the Cantonese who flooded here from Hong Kong during the century and a half of British dominion. But it stops short of celebrating the Chinese in Britain in general – unlike say, the Museum of Arab Americans in Michigan, there is little attempt to engage visitors with the contribution made by Chinese people to British society. Nor does it delve too far into some of the more controversial contemporary issues, such as who actually owns Chinatown, and whether rising rates will make it possible for there to even be a Chinatown in central London within a few years.
A few interactive boxes, seemingly designed for school parties, dare the visitor to open them to find answers to common questions. Does Chinatown look like China? No, comes the informative reply, which explains the fact that most Chinatowns worldwide copy the chop-socky architecture of San Francisco’s 1907 post-earthquake reconstruction, infamously masterminded by two white men who had never been to China themselves.
In an inadvertent bit of post-modern micro-aggression, another box asks: “How do you say ‘hello’ in Chinatown?” I opened it, and it was ominously blank.
The gift shop downstairs is oddly under-stocked, carrying very little of interest that can’t be bought in half a dozen shops in the street outside. It did, however, sell me a lovely book about the Chinese Labor Corps, the “unknown” 140,000 men who were airbrushed from history, but played a vital role in the First World War. Long-term readers of this blog will already know that the Chinese Labor Corps is something of an obsession of mine, and the China Exchange is getting behind a drive to give them a monument of their own in East London – I bought a pin for £2, although that’s still a way away from the £400,000 they need. One hopes that in future, the Chinese presence in Britain will also be celebrated in a more wide-ranging and permanent form, of which this exhibition will turn out to be the first exploratory step.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. The Making of Chinatown is running at the China Exchange, Gerrard Street, London, until 30th August.
Chop Suey Nation, Anna Hui’s account of Chinese food in Canada, begins with a moment of horrible shock, when her childhood school’s “China Day” sees the kids served with unidentifiable day-glo slop. This is not the Chinese food she gets to eat at home, but as she comes to discover, it is what constitutes “Chinese food” to many non-Chinese people.
Eventually, this moment of culinary misery transforms into a road-trip across Canada, poking around the obscure restaurants that seem to exist in every town, reminiscing all the while about those many Chinese migrants, including her own family, who came to make a new life in North America.
This is hardly unexplored territory – Hui’s own bibliography includes Lily Cho’s Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small-Town Canada, which answered many of her questions nine years in advance. That was, however, an academic book steeped in the cant of cultural studies, so Hui’s resolutely chatty approach certainly makes the story more accessible. She also, mercifully, treads lightly with the coming-to-Canada story of her own family, which, devoid of a scandal, war, murder or zombie infestation, is frankly rather jejune. The value, however, of the Hui family background is a revelation that crops up early in the book, that even though the infant Anna was traumatised by the sight of ersatz Chinese food, her father had enjoyed a brief career serving it in small-town Canada, before she was born. Hui reacts to this in much the same way as she might react to a parental admission to a backstory as gender-flexible swingers with a penchant for golden showers.
She comes into her own both with the gin-clear concision of her prose, which is so readable that the book just rockets past before you know it, and with the odd-couple experiences of her discount road-trip, for which she has inadvertently rented a comically unsuitable Fiat 500. In a discovery that has also hounded my own investigation into Chinese foods, she grapples with the difficulty of being able to adequately access the contents of a new menu without stuffing herself so full every day that she never needs to eat again. She also contends with a common problem in folk history, which is that often those who are most available to be interviewed are the least likely to have anything pertinent to say. I feel for her in a Fisgard restaurant at the very start of her journey, facing a waitress with no interest whatsoever in answering any of her questions.
Some still go unanswered. There are some tantalising moments in early chapters when she seems poised on the verge of investigating a fascinating issue in cultural history – who the hell designed the generic look of all those far-flung restaurants with their matching roof adornments, chop-socky fonts and red vinyl seats? Instead, she concentrates on the spread of intellectual property – how cooks like her father learned specific recipes, some of them invented in Canada like “shredded ginger beef”, and adapted then to satisfy the whims of local diners – the restaurant in noodle-free Newfoundland, for example, that substituted shredded cabbage and completely confused east-coast definitions of chow mein, or the manager in pensioner-packed Deer Lake, who realised that his diners hate his crispy-skinned spare ribs because they could only chew soft meats. And in Quebec, home of already-stodgy poutine, the terrifying prospect of stir-fried macaroni.
By the time she has reached peak weird, dropping in on a lone Chinese lady running a year-round Chinese restaurant on a remote island, she has found her true subject, and it does indeed lead to some family revelations. Possibly by total coincidence, Hui’s story displays what appears to be a template for many books I have read on Canadian themes, most notably Colleen Mondor’s Map of My Dead Pilots – a family narrative nested within a broader tale of human migrations, but here leavened with the image of a shivering Chinese woman and her Star Trek-loving husband, trying to drive several thousand miles in a toy car.
Ten years after the original publication of the English edition, my biography of Wellington Koo has been published in Chinese by CITIC as 顾维钧与现代中国 [Wellington Koo and Modern China], translated by Wang Huaihai and Hu Liping, and with an introduction by Her Excellency Xue Hanqin, Vice President of the International Court of Justice. She writes: “Only when a nation remembers its history can it better grasp the future of its people.”
Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s narrator, Cameron is Adrift in the Middle Kingdom, a man sure of himself at sea, but increasingly out of his depth on land as he journeys ever inwards from the coasts on a mission to a distant city. On the way, he experiences a China that both is and isn’t the real-world place of the year 1934, when Slauerhoff wrote this novel, only now translated into English.
There are two Chinas nested in Slauerhoff’s narrative. One is born of his the author’s visits to the ports of the Chinese coast as a ship’s doctor – a gritty, realistic, and beautifully detailed snapshot of life in inter-war Amoy and Shanghai (here renamed Taihai). “People here may earn ten times more than in Europe, but they spend it twenty times as fast and enjoy it a hundred times less,” he writes, of the city that is a playground for the European visitors, but a ghastly sentence for its Chinese inhabitants, with “the ruthless grind of the city consuming its people.”
But as he travels into the Chinese hinterland, he leaves behind the sure-footed, personal observations of the author, and comes to rely increasingly on a China of the mind. One imagines Slauerhoff in his cabin on yet another long voyage, putting aside his diary and devouring the reportage and fictions of his era – James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933) and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), before spinning his own story of a man adrift in China.
Slauerhoff’s protagonist ends up in “Chungking”, a place that cannot possibly be the Chongqing of the real world, since it is on the wrong river and in the wrong location. It is not quite the lost world of Shangri-La, but instead a bastion of the true China, a trading post beyond the Great Wall where the local authorities diligently hold foreign corruptions at bay. The value of Slauerhoff’s China, in the words of Wendy Gan’s introduction, “lies in its rejection of modernity.” In a book suffuse with gentle orientalism, but also a melancholy assurance of the decline of the West, Slauerhoff’s Chungking is China at its purest, stoically resisting an onrush of foreign trinkets and concerns. Cameron even tries to dissuade a local warlord from acquiring a radio, pleading that it will be an anticlimax: “What you would learn about Western science and wisdom would greatly disappoint you. You will not like opera or music, propaganda speeches will offend your ears, sermons will bore you. The voices of science cannot be heard with this device. Most European countries are driving out whatever great minds remain to us.”
Beyond human traffic, two commodities dominate Slauerhoff’s book. One is oil, the discovery of which in Chungking creates a literal flood of problems for a town out of time – the onrush of the twentieth century. The other is opium, which, like China itself, is an addiction that washes gradually over Cameron until it consumes him. By the book’s final chapters, he is either so addled that he can no longer see straight, or finally, magically lucid, able to see the truth of the world, and the nature of an eternal struggle between ancient masters and the spirit realm. He is another drunken, broken expat in a Chinese village, smoking his life away, or a recuperating casualty in an ongoing war with another world.
Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I contribute entries on the East Asian anthology films inspired by the controversial Ten Years (Hong Kong). Click on the links to find out about a dozen local film-makers’ takes on what the future could be like in Ten Years Japan, Ten Years Taiwan, and Ten Years Thailand.