Book review: Unsavory Elements

http://www.amazon.com/Unsavory-Elements-Stories-Foreigners-Loose/dp/9881616409

If you happen to be a China expat, no doubt you have a crazy story to tell. I may feel like an old China hand myself at this point, but I came in 2008 just as the last of the real wildness was getting homogenized. I have my own stories, but nothing like the best of these. Somehow editor Tom Carter has captured the cream of the crazy China experiences, and what a read it is.

Like any anthology, it can be hit or miss. However, there are no great misses, only adequate stories lost among the truly memorable. From famed “Oracle Bones” author Peter Hessler’s story of refugee thieves at the North Korean border in “View from the Bridge”, to Michael Levy’s opening “Selling Hope” about crooked English teachers (a theme very familiar to anyone living here), every account is solid and interesting and the consistent quality is impressive. But it seems to get darker as the book reaches its conclusion, and I for one appreciated that. Charming expat family stories – such as Aminta Arington’s “Communal Parenting” and Susan Conley’s “Where There Are Crowds” – give way to tales of extremely illegal activity detailing the underbelly of Chinese society – of which I will list my favorites below. Thing about China though, is the dark underbelly is never that well-hidden and we all knew it was there the entire time… My personal favorites: “Stowaway” by Pete Spurrier, about hardcore backpacking and sneaking through trains and living on the edge of running out of money and visas; “Diplomacy on Ice” by Rudy Kong details the world of Northern hockey with a healthy does of extreme bloody violence; “You Buy Me Drink?” by Nury Vittachi details easily-impressed gangsters and scammers; “One of the People” by Bruce Humes might be the most terrifying of all, about being mugged and his time in a Shenzhen hospital almost getting his hand amputated, and yet horrifying though may be it’s always written with lighthearted humor; “Thinking Reports” by Dominic Stevenson is another downer, an excerpt from the hash-smuggling author’s time in a Shanghai prison writing propaganda reports, and as serious a situation as it is he never wants any pity only to tell his story; and “Empty from the Outside” by Susie Gordon covers more drugs and call girls all while living the highlife. Finally, the namesake story “Unsavory Elements” by the infamous Tom Carter. If you haven’t heard, he goes to a brothel. It’s really not as offensive as I was expecting, it’s one of the funniest pieces and gives an important yet irreverent insight into what’s really goes on after late nights of partying in this country. A unique book with a unique take on China, with none of the standard journalistic flair and dull economic theories. This is about real life and a real window into the emerging soul of the rising Middle Kingdom. There is something for everyone in the midst of all these talented storytellers. While it was very entertaining to me as an expat, I would recommend this book most of all to people who have never even been to China. The world should know, these are the real stories of this insanely fascinating land.

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