Cha: Asian literary journal review of South China Morning Blues – Different Shades of Blue

From the March 2016 edition of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

http://www.asiancha.com/content/view/2349/541/

 

Different Shades of Blue: Ray Hecht’s South China Morning Blues

  by Kathy Wong

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Ray Hecht, South China Morning Blues, Blacksmith Books, 2015. 352 pgs.

South China Morning Blues is Ray Hecht’s debut novel and revolves around expatriates living in the Pearl River Delta region where Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are situated. Compared to Shanghai and Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have been less written about in literary works in English. Even when the Pearl River Delta region has been featured, it often serves as a historical backdrop for the political vicissitudes of the early 20th century. Yet, Hecht’s novel shines a spotlight on contemporary Guangzhou and Shenzhen, together with Hong Kong, which are becoming more popular for expatriates looking for a piece of the Chinese Dream. Hecht avoids the clichéd portrayal of the challenges and difficulties faced by expats abroad; instead, with carefully crafted storytelling featuring multiple voices, he leads us through interlocking narratives which depict what life is really like when foreigners are immersed in the Southern Chinese world of the 21st century.

Hecht, who has lived in China for several years, makes use of personal experiences, hearsay, research and his own imagination to create a novel about young expatriates and local Chinese as they struggle and find their way through hardship and temptation. The novel is divided into three sections, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Each of the three cities depicted by Hecht exudes its own unique idiosyncratic features—Shenzhen, the fast-changing and westernising metropolis; Guangzhou, the traditional capital striving for rejuvenation and globalisation; Hong Kong, the hedonistic and frustrated modern gateway between East and West. But the differences between the cities lie not only in the textures of their cityscapes and geopolitical positions, but also in how social relations between locals and foreigners are interwoven.

As hinted at by the title of the novel, South China Morning Blues is filled with the different sorts of ‘blues’ faced by expatriates in the three cities, such as language barriers, cultural shocks and biases, as well as dark moments to do with casual hook-ups, prostitution and alcohol and drug abuse. Hecht strategically sheds light on life in the region by adopting a multifaceted narrative mode: he creates a chain of interlocking stories told by a dozen narrators. Twelve sets of subjective experiences related to expatriate communities are represented—not only foreigners from different cultural backgrounds are given a voice, but local Chinese residents, including those who do not speak much English, are also heard. Interestingly, each of these characters is assigned one of the twelve Chinese zodiac signs at the beginning of the novel, and as the story progresses, each is signified by his or her zodiac sign rather than their real name. This intriguing conceit creates a sense that twelve anonymous and universal archetypes are interwoven to form a coherent narrative.

The novel starts with a nightclub encounter, followed by a one-night stand between Marco, an American expatriate businessman, and Sheila, a local Chinese woman, in Shenzhen. In this episode, rather than giving detailed sensual descriptions from the foreigner’s perspective, Hecht switches between the two characters’ viewpoints. There is not much actual dialogue between them; instead, Marco and Sheila each reveal their own unspoken thoughts:

  兔 [Hare, representing Sheila]

  The sex feels okay. I like the style of his home. It’s very big and neat. I suppose that a cleaning lady must come here every day. What did he say his job is? I didn’t understand.

  虎 [Tiger, representing Marco]

  The sex feels awesome. I’m so turned on that I’m going to cum any second. She’s skinny, no ounce of fat on her. I love that flat stomach. She didn’t put up any resistance. Totally into it! Goddamn, I still have the charm!

Switching perspectives in this fashion not only creates a swift and breathless rhythm for the erotic encounter, but also functions as a tool to juxtapose two sets of competing opinions. Indeed, this experimental narrative mode is what makes the novel so original. Through this storytelling technique, Hecht invents alternative spaces in which individuals’ candid judgments, if not biases, are revealed.

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Chengdu Chinglish

Always on the lookout when I’m traveling, you should know already that I recently visited Beijing and Chengdu on a very fruitful trip.

It’s always interesting to discover Chinglish in a new city. Last week I shared Beijing, this week you can see some interesting pics I uncovered in the lovely city of Chengdu, including flowery poetry and randomness at the airport:

Enjoy!

 

#Chengdu #Chinglish 1: #flowers

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#Chengdu #Chinglish 3: Ok not that funny but I took a great risk photoing so please appreciate!

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#Chengdu #Chinglish 2: Would you like a large bowl of noodles? At the airport no less

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Bookworm Literary Festival: An Overview

What a week!

I was lucky enough to be a part of the Bookworm Literary Festival, both in Beijing on March 14th and Chengdu on the 19th, and what a week it was. I got to share my novel South China Morning Blues and represent Southern China to a whole other side of the expat scene in this big country.

First, I decided to take an express train from Shenzhen to Beijing. It took a reasonable eleven hours, still with no no ears popping it’s preferable to flying, and with the sleeper bunk overnight it was nice. I do recommend the express trains one-way. When I arrived in Beijing on Sunday morning, it was cold!

Good thing I packed warm clothes. Four days scheduled in Beijing, I then set out to explore. Staying nearby Bookworm in the Sanlitun area, I went to several panels at the literary festival, including one about pregnancy abroad featuring Ruth from ChinaElevatorStories.com.

#BookwormLiteraryFestival

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The obvious tourism thing to do was to visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I got some good photos, but mostly the experience was more about seeing all that security than it was seeing the major BJ sites. Due to the big government meetings currently of course. Seriously, the situation was insane. The padding, the lines on the streets. I must have had my bag x-rayed a dozen times; it was glowing green by the end of the day.

I do recommend going to the 798 arts district, though it may not be what it once was. The exhibition at the UCCA was particularly interesting, and I will write about that in detail later.

My talk on Monday went very well. I read a favorite scene, had an excellent conversation about blogging with Adam Robbins of CityWeekend.com, and the questions from the audience were very thought-provoking. And I am happy to say that my book is now officially stocked at the premiere bookstore in Beijing.

Been great, #Beijing!

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My flight to Chengdu on Thursday went smoothly. The Bookworm was even kind enough to send a representative to pick me up! I also met my lovely girlfriend there — who could only get a three-day weekend off, and it was all timed well in that she was flying from Shenzhen.

Together, we had a great time in Chengdu. We enjoyed the hotel and went to various famous spots such as Kuanzhai Alley, Song Xian Qiao antique street, and Jinli. The food was absolutely wonderful. Don’t get me wrong, Beijing is worth visiting, but it can get a bit grey and looming and just overwhelming in scope. Chengdu was incredibly welcoming and reminded me what I have always loved about China travel all over again.

It's been brilliant, #Chengdu! 我喜欢 #成都 😀

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My talk on Saturday was fun. In fact, girlfriend was nice enough to record much of it so you can watch below. Yes I know I say “um” too much, but I do like to think I am improving at expressing myself somewhat at these sorts of things.

I would also like to add that it was a pleasure to meet and hang out with renowned Irish author Eimear McBride — she of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing fame. Her talk was powerful and full of literary inspiration. Bought a book, got it signed, and will definitely read soon. The world needs more books like that, and authors like her.

I was sad to leave Chengdu on Sunday, but it was time to go home and resume my normal life down in the humid tropics. Phew. Well, that was the most intensive book tour week I have had so far in my career. I will be forever grateful to the good people at Bookworm (and one day I must go to the other location in Suzhou), yet at the same time I feel relieved to be back home to plan the next stage of events…

Beijing Chinglish

Hello readers,

My tour continues in Beijing and beyond to Chengdu, and more on that soon enough. (And more on the security situation in Beijing, on a serious note…)

But first, via Instagram, some Chinglish in Beijing. Including disgusting meat. And a just plain weird candy.

Without further ado:

#Beijing #Chinglish 1: Donkey burger/buregr?? Ew. I really hope that's a mistranslation

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#Beijing #Chinglish 2: nice pootty toilet? Ew again

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#Beijing #Chinglish 3: Yeah man, I wanna be a pure menfolk! And so cheap

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No witty puns necessary. Ummm....? #balls

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BECAUSE WE (ALMOST) MISSED IT: Best of expat nonfiction 2015

The Displaced Nation

Best of Expat Nonfiction 2015

As some readers may recall, I posted, at the end of January, a “best of” list of fiction works by, for, and about expats and other international creatives that came out in 2015.

I know, I know, it should have come out in early December.

And now it’s nearly the end of February, and I still haven’t posted my list of nonfiction books that appeared last year: all of those lovely memoirs, photo guides, guides to expat life, and so on.

But then Leap Day arrived, and I thought to myself: we only get an extra day every four years; why not take the leap and tackle my nonfiction list (so much longer than the fiction one!) once and for all?

Today I present the fruits of my Leap Day labors. May I suggest that you follow my example by springing for one or more of these for your…

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Attending the Bookworm Literary Festival: Beijing and Chengdu

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http://bookwormfestival.com

 

Next week I will be continuing my book tour to all-new heights: I will be traveling to Beijing and Chengdu to participate in the Bookworm Literary Festival!

This is my first time attending, and I’m very excited.

 

Beijing Bookworm Festival

On March 14 (Monday), I will be discussing and reading from my novel South China Morning Blues, at 7:30 p.m., at the iQiyi venue located next to Bookworm. The moderator will be City Weekend’s Adam Robbins. Attendance is 50 RMB.

 

Chengdu Bookworm Festival

Then on March 19 (Saturday) I will be traveling to Chengdu. The talk there is at 4:00 p.m. at The Bookworm Chengdu. Tickets are also 50.

 

Please click on the links for more info.

I haven’t visited Beijing since 2009, and it’s unbelievable that it’s been so long. It will be my first time in Chengdu ever. I’m really looking forward to further traveling in China, and meeting other authors and readers. Most of all, I am grateful – and lucky – for the opportunity to be a part of these events.

Hope to see you there!

GZ Poet Aaron Styza

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Guangzhou-based poet Aaron Styza organized and spoke at the Yi-Gather event of which I was a part of last month. His poems have been published on Heron Tree, Sediment Literary Arts Journal, and Two Cities Review.

As he is a talented writer in China, I thought it would be nice to interview Sytza and talk about the craft. Little did I know what a fascinating conversation it would be:

(Also, not that I am an expert at poetry but I have occasionally tried to expand my own writing palette…)

 

What issues or answers does poetry provide or provoke for you?

I’m concerned with the limits of language: how can we measure the effect of what we say? The truth is language cannot adequately express anything. If language were able to express the complexity of thought, there would be no need for poetry. I would say X, and you would understand X. This is not the case. But the inherent inadequacy of language is the very thing that gives poetry its agency: the freedom to investigate a subject obliquely rather than approaching it head-on. Language has a duel effect that causes intense intimacy and terrifying alienation, like birth.

The relationship (or metonymy) between intimacy and alienation haunts a lot of my poems.

 

How has China shifted your aesthetic focus?

The personas in my poems are often coping with psychological trauma. And like a patient hypnotized into summoning their repressed experiences, poems replay that trauma. Trauma manifests itself as a subjective experience and as a reoccurring, collective experience.

Myths and Fables are a great example of a collective experience: something so ingrained in a culture that it’s inextricable from it. They are our first life lessons and indelible marks on our consciousness. I allude to, and re-appropriate, elements from such sources to “fable-ize” modernity. That is, distance a subject from its context and place in time. And China, with its innumerable stories derived from different characters and dynasties, has opened up a new store for me to work with. This may further reinforce what I said earlier about intimacy and alienation.

 

What poetic conventions do you avoid or adopt?

I tend to avoid intellectual witticism most, because that techniques imposes the writer’s voice too much and becomes didactic. I admire the poet Robert Frost for his ability to ground his subjects in reality, without intruding his predispositions onto the poem. Even the times when Frost’s voice spikes through the poem—I’m thinking of his piece “West-Running Brook”—he’s laughing at himself, poking fun at his own authority (this is one of many subtleties in Frost’s work which caused him to become one of the most misread and mistaught poets). Yet his representations of the world are some of the closest poetry has come to accessing the humanities. For him, surrendering to the world was a release from it.

Grounding poems in common, understandable images aligns with my own goals (or tastes), rather than getting tied up in heady, theoretical subject matter, or racing to create a new poetic form, which is plaguing a lot of contemporary writing. I’m a sucker for crisp, well-laid images.

 

 

As it pertains to artistic inspiration, how does being in Guangzhou, China, contrast with the Mid-West in the United States?

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Interview with Glen Cornell

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Glen Cornell is a local friend, and heads the ChinaSquat language & teaching resource website for expats. He lived in China for a total of five years, starting out as an English teacher in Dalian and finishing up in Shenzhen for three years working for a manufacturing company while simultaneously working as a freelance teacher. He also started up the Shenzhen Book Exchange, an amateur library of sorts for expats to find books in their own language. He recently returned to America and I thought we could catch up via blog…

 

Hi Glen, how’s the transition back home been? Where are you living now?

I was very ready to move back to the US, but to be completely honest it’s been a bit of a whirlwind the past month, but that’s what I expected. I left China in a bit of a hurry going after a job opportunity that I really couldn’t pass up on. Part of me had hoped things could have gone more smoothly, but normally the transition for expats from China to the U.S. can be a really tough one, with weeks of unemployment, so I’m really glad that I was able to avoid that.

I’m now living in Boston, Massachusetts, working in sales for a marketing software company called HubSpot.

 

Can you go over about your decision to move to China? Where were you in your life when you made the choice? Why China?

I first decided to come to China about six months after graduating. It was 2010, and the recession still felt like it was in full swing. My “dream job” after college fell through and I was working at a steakhouse living with Mom and Dad. It wasn’t ideal. However, two of my good friends, one from childhood and the other college, were living in China and pushing for me to come check out that side of the world. On my end, I was just happy to get out of my current situation and see a new country. I was also thinking that learning Mandarin would be a good career move, as China and Chinese were becoming more important in the world.

 

How exactly did you actually get to China? Did you have a job lined up?

So I took a pretty risky move and just came on my own. My friend Eric Lewandowski was currently living in Dalian and he encouraged me to just get myself there with a tourist visa and then I’d find something. In retrospect, that was probably a dumb move, but luckily for me it worked out. I flew in to Chengdu and did some “sightseeing” for a week, and then moved to Dalian to crash on Eric’s couch while looking for work. I found a job my first day in Dalian, and moved into a new place within 5 days.

 

So clearly you’re not afraid of making big decisions in a hurry.

I guess one could say that.

 

Without getting into too many specific details, how would you generally summarize your time living in Dalian and working as an English teacher? And how did you get to Shenzhen?

Actually I lived in Xiamen too before I moved to Shenzhen. Haha, it’s a pretty important part to my personal story, but I’ll get to that later.

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