Hello everyone, It’s another exciting addition of the “mini-author interview” series. This time, our guest is Ray Hecht, the author of “Always Goodbye” and “2020: A Year in Taiwan”. You can learn more about Ray and his work on his blog: rayhecht.com What does being an indie author mean to you? It means I get […]Mini-Author Interview: Ray Hecht
In this midst of this worldwide pandemic, I’ve found myself passing on those dystopian novels I used to adore and instead seeking out a little more “comfort food” in the books I’ve read this year. Lighthearted, humorous and even self-deprecating stories of people grappling with everyday problems that you wouldn’t find in a disaster film have offered me much-needed refuge in these unusual and challenging times for all. Bonus if they touch on experiences I’ve had living here in China and Asia, including cross-cultural dating and relationships.
Thank goodness Ray Hecht sent me his new graphic novel Always Goodbye, which really hit the spot on all fronts.
The graphic novel spans Ray’s life from birth up to 2019, and it makes for a pleasant read, thanks to its honesty. As much as it charts the highs in his life, the novel also delves into those lows and failures too as he pursues a variety of different careers, not always with success. Ray approaches even difficult topics and moments with a refreshing sense of humor, and we could all use a laugh these days. And Ray’s experiences in moving to China and dating locals will resonate with those of us who have visited or lived here.
I’m honored to feature this interview with Ray Hecht about Always Goodbye.
Here’s Ray’s bio from Amazon:
Author Ray Hecht was born in Israel and raised in the American Midwest. He currently lives in Taiwan.
Why did you decide to create this graphic novel?
I’ve always loved the comics medium. I worry I”m not quite good enough at drawing, and that’s why I’ve been focusing on prose writing for most of my creative career, but after a bit of a dry spell in book publishing I decided to return to my first love…
The decision was partly due to me just trying to practice the art of cartooning again. Focusing on myself has worked well with my writing before, so why not? Autobiography/memoir has been an indie comics tradition for many years, and it simply felt right for me to share my perspective that way. When I sat down and thought about the whole of my life, with the second half focused on being an expat in China until in the “climax” finale I moved to Taiwan, it seemed like a story worth telling.
What’s the story behind the title?
To be honest, I struggled to come up with a title. At last, it came to me.
Perhaps it’s a somewhat dark interpretation, but the one constant in my life seems to be that I always move. I moved from Israel to Indiana to Ohio to California to Ohio again to California again to China to Taiwan.
That’s a lot of goodbyes. So what else could I call this, other than “Always Goodbye”?
In your graphic novel, you chose to organize it chronologically, through your entire life. Why did you choose this approach?
Good question. Indeed, such a narrative doesn’t necessarily need to be chronological. Nor must it start at the beginning. Authors more clever than me may have taken a non-linear approach, but I went with being direct.
Back when I first thought about how to explain my life in a way that made sense, taking notes and interviewing my mom, I realized I didn’t just need to start with my birth; I actually needed to start with my parents. So the first years covered were 1954 and 1956, in Chicago and in the Ukraine of the former Soviet Union. From there, naturally it led to the year that I was born, and so on.
Plus, it was fun to map out a pop cultural or technological marker. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. 1982 to 2019, every year needed at least it’s own little chapter.
What was your favorite year to detail and why?
That would probably be 2008. A seminal year for me.
It was of course the year I risked it all and moved to Shenzhen, China to do the expat thing. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be in the China blog scene at all! But even before I moved, over in Southern California, a lot changed in my life. Maybe in a way that was the year I finally grew up. The crazy Burning Man festival part of that story was pretty interesting as well.
Your graphic novel gets very personal, including in how it portrays people close to you, such as family and friends. How have family and friends responded to your book?
I’ve been very fortunate to so far have almost no negative criticism from anyone portrayed in the book. I feel extremely lucky and grateful for that, otherwise it could have gone awkward.
Even if someone did respond negatively: My philosophy is that they were my experiences and I have a right to express what happened as long as I was involved (so long as I don’t literally libel someone, or expose some deep dark secret or anything). There was a common sense balance to the portrayals. I also didn’t include any last names for obvious reasons.
I needn’t have worried. For the most part, I have found that a lot of people are flattered to be caricatured in a graphic novel by me!
What do you hope people come away with from reading your graphic novel?
I suppose the main hope is to increase readers’ empathy.
If you’ve met me in person, please read to get a better understanding of who I am and where I come from. If you haven’t met me in person, I do hope that my life stories around the world are interesting and entertaining, and can also give some sort of deeper window into a different person’s perspective.
After all, isn’t that ultimately what all art is all about?
Many thanks to Ray Hecht for this interview! You can learn more about Always Goodbye on Ray’s website. The graphic novel Always Goodbye is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.
Always Goodbye is an excellent title for your book. It really captures the bitter-sweet emotions of constantly moving on, whether that be leaving relationships or physical locations. I could relate to the semi-nomadic upbringing you describe as I’m a first-generation Kiwi with few roots in my home country. On balance do you find that rootlessness liberating?
Why thank you. It’s different for everybody, but I guess I’m just used to being rootless and that helped me to first move to California and then to China. It’s the way I happened to be raised. Not recommended for everyone. Perhaps people who still visit the childhood home they grew up in aren’t my best audience, who knows.
In this increasingly globalist world that we now find ourselves in, more and more might relate to my lack of a homeland…
I know I’m old-fashioned but I find it remarkable that an adult has such an interest in superhero comic books. Aren’t they just for kids?
Ha, this is an old take. Weren’t comics pretty much proven to be a valid literary medium in the 1980s when Watchmen won a Hugo award? Even last year the graphic novel Sabrina was a contender to win the Booker prize.
By that logic Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature would make pop songs a literary medium.
There was controversy about that wasn’t there, but I think an argument can be made that some songwriting is literary for sure. Well, maybe I can’t convince everybody. To me it seems self-evident to me that comics have writers and it is a medium of literature. They do have graphic novels at bookstores, right?
The superhero genre is as big as it’s ever been due to the phenomenal success of Marvel movies, although they are worthy of criticism. However, that criticism – as Scorsese might say – is about the corporate vs. art argument. There’s certainly nothing wrong with adults being entertaining by Superman or whatever.
That said, those black & white indie comics tend to be more literary. Superheroes are just a pop culture fun thing for me, serious or not. And yes, childhood nostalgia is a factor.
While superheroes (or fantasy, or science fiction) may not be for everyone, and that’s fine. My point is I’d passionately argue that everyone should give comics a chance as a broader medium.
Any kind of story can be told with both words and pictures.
You’re only 37 years old. Isn’t it rather a young age to be writing an autobiography?
Perhaps I am too young and haven’t accomplished enough to be able to write a valid memoir. But it is what it is. I start Always Goodbye with an immediate admission that I was creatively spent at the time, and just wanted to practice the comic medium. Perhaps my personal experiment makes for a good read, perhaps it doesn’t.
There is a long tradition of autobiographical comics which can work very well in a slice-of-life type way, and I hope at best I tap into those sorts of stories in my work. If I can be 1% of Harvey Pekar, I’ll take it.
And I’m not claiming that my humble travels through Asia are that terribly special, but still some people may enjoy a window into my personal experiences.
I’m still not sure what to make of your book. It’s different from anything I’ve ever read. However, a friend whose judgment on literary matters I greatly respect was raving about it to me the other day. He said it was a work of historical importance, that it was “a Diary of Samuel Pepys for our times.” What kind of response have you had to Always Goodbye?
I’m honored to have such a comparison! I’ve been lucky to have a lot of positive reviews, even though some people certainly don’t know what to make of my book. Usually, those already into comics more “get it.” I’m still very pleased that others who are new to to the medium have found some things to enjoy about Always Goodbye.
Of course, I’ve had some fair criticism as well from both comics aficionados and novices. Usually concerning the work being overly wordy and rushed. The whole thing is an experiment, and those don’t always work.
The drawings work really well, and are consistent throughout the book. Over what period of time did you draw them (I have vague memories of reading a blog post from years back about you working on the memoir)?
The entire word took me a bit less than a year, about ten months. I did post early drafts of the pages online. For anyone on a budget who doesn’t want to buy a book, check out my blog!
Basically, from mid-2018 to 2019 I drew two pages a week. I interviewed my parents for the early portions, I sorted old photos, I reread my journals, dug through ancient social media. Then day after day I wrote a script, penciled, inked, and lettered.
It was honestly the hardest I’ve ever worked on anything in my life.
One of the things that comes through Always Goodbye is the importance of pop culture in your life. What do you think provides the backdrop to one’s life – is it the big moments of history, the likes of Operation Desert Storm, 9/11, the Olympics, or is it the television, music and movies we consume?
I find that these images of the big thing of each year are a good way to anchor a moment in time. It can be personal, like when Jurassic Park came out. Or tragic, like 9/11. Sometimes they didn’t have much to do with me, like say the fall of the Berlin Wall. I suppose everything indirectly affects us all if it was sufficiently impactful, especially the political ones or even the technologies of the ages. Both are valid, but the music and movie portions do tend to have more of a personal spark even if it’s more arbitrary objectively-speaking.
As you’re flying to China to take up a teaching position in Shenzhen, you reflect on how it all started: “I’d been interested in China ever since I saw Farewell My Concubines. Anime –> Kurosawa –>Fifth-Generation Chinese cinema, that was my journey.” Can you say more about the attraction to East Asian culture and also why you chose China over Japan?
Well, obviously Japanese popular culture has been more open to the West for a longer time. And with regards to my nerdy youth, I did love me some manga and anime. But as I got older I was also more interested in “serious” film as well and then Chinese cinema was my entry-point.
And I’m not even into martial arts.
Maybe the real reason I liked Asia was because it was as far from my homelands as possible. I always did want to get away.
Japan is a great place I love to visit, by the way, but how Rising China is both developed and undeveloped suited me better. It’s been quite the adventure learning about this massive part of the world, even considering the negative factors of living in a communist dictatorship. I was lucky I happened to end up with a job in China after that momentous Burning Man conversation…
You went to China in 2008 to teach English. Those days were pretty good going for a young Westerner. What’s it like now?
From what I understand, the standards are much higher today. More expenses, less breaking of the rules. Not quite as worth it.
To be frank China isn’t so desperate for random white teachers anymore, and a lot of unqualified people are getting kicked out. Fair enough on that. I wouldn’t recommend others to movie the mainland anymore, at least not to teach, but for a real professional it’s not a bad deal to live in places like Shanghai or Shenzhen. I do still like visiting on occasion, even if it is less wild.
As well as teaching English you also worked for the Shenzhen Daily, first writing articles part-time and then full-time as a copy editor. How were those experiences?
I enjoy a bit of journalism, writing little restaurant reviews and the like. I still do full-on film and book reviews all the time basically for free. Overall it wasn’t my particular dream or anything.
As for working as a copy editor in the office, I absolutely loathed it. Eight hours a day drained me of all my creativity. It was a good day job for a while, and I gained valuable experience (I still work as a freelance editor on occasion), but most of all that time in my life taught me that office jobs are not for me. Chinese offices in particular are so boring.
How are enjoying Taiwan so far?
Taiwan is perfect for me! A mix of Japan and China, but not crowded and very chill – in particular, the literary scene in Taiwan has been good. Most of all, I’m happy to live in a free country that speaks Mandarin. No more VPNs for this guy.
Yep, a mix of Japan and China – that’s the short-hand I often use for describing Taiwan to people back home. Hopefully, you’ll stay here a while and write something about the country.
I hope so. My current goal is to stay here for at least five more years and then get a permanent residency status. After that, shall see what’s next.
Indeed, one day I hope to write something important about Taiwan and it’s precarious position in the world…
Always Goodbye is published by TWG Press and is available from Amazon.com for a very reasonable $5.99 for the paperback and half that for the ebook.
You can find out more about the Ray Hecht and his writing at rayhecht.com.
About the Author: John Grant Ross
Ray is the author of the novel “South Morning China Blues” and many other works of fiction and autobiography.
At the moment, he is working on an autobiographical graphic novel entitled “Always Goodbye”. You can follow his progress on Webtoons here:
What does being an indie author mean to you?
To me, being an indie author means being an author by any means necessary. The writing and story-telling and creativity in-of themselves are more important than being part of some big publishing company. Learning to market oneself is key, of course, but ultimately the fact that I’m willing to put myself out there without a big support structure shows that the writing is at the core of being an indie author…
What are your writing quirks and habits?
I used to stay up late writing, because it’s a quiet peaceful time and everyone would leave me alone. I don’t…
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Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.
Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?
Hello, thanks for having me. I am Ray Hecht, and I’m a thirty-five year old writer.
Fiona: Where are you from?
Where I’m from is a bit of a long story. I identify as American, but I was born in Israel. My dad is American, and my mom is from the Soviet Union. They met abroad and got married, but my sister and I moved to the United States when we were just babies. My earliest childhood memories took place in Indianapolis, Indiana but I consider my hometown to be Cincinnati, Ohio because that’s where I came of age and where I lived the longest in my life.
I went to college to study film in Long Beach, California…
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In my latest interview series, I’d like to introduce Taiwan-based bloggers. Since coming here, I’ve already met many promising writers and it is my pleasure to share some of the greats I have come across.
She even happens to live in the same region of the ROC as myself, Hsinchu.
Well, she can introduce herself best in her own words. Interview begins here:
First off, how would you best introduce your website?
My blog getupandgetlost.com is about our life as a travelling family, currently based out of Taiwan. It’s about our family experiences here as we navigate this new culture and discover the beauty of this diverse country. It’s about the ups and downs and funnies of everyday life for us. It’s also veering towards becoming a guide for other families wanting to live or travel in Taiwan.
What originally brought you to Taiwan?
The answer to that is more complicated than one might expect. The simple answer is that my husband accepted a position as a high school math and art teacher in Taiwan. It was in our plans for a long time that after baby number three, that we would embark on a yearlong adventure abroad. In Canada, one parent receives a maternity/parental leave salary for the first year after the birth of a child. This factored greatly into our timing. We chose Taiwan, in part because of it’s proximity to Beijing. Our oldest child is my husband’s daughter from his previous marriage. My husband’s ex wife was eager to move to Beijing, but we were no so inclined. Taiwan’s proximity to Beijing means that our daughter can live with one family while still visiting the other family frequently.
You write about raising a family while living in Taiwan, how would you rate the country when it comes to kids and families?
From this expat’s point of view, I would probably give it an overall pretty good or 7/10. For us, we don’t speak Mandarin, and we have found it very hard to find things to do for our kids. Luckily, I made local friends soon after our arrival here, so they have helped me navigate the language barrier.SAFETY: For the most part, Taiwan feels very safe. I send my 10-year old to run errands for me in the community. I don’t have to worry about my kids walking on drug needles at the park. Community members generally keep an eye out on each other’s children. Streets safety is basically our only issue here. Cars and scooters are not very pedestrian friendly.
COMMUNITY: If you put some effort into connecting with people here, both locals and expats, you will become part of a great community. People here are very welcoming and supportive of each other. From my experience, the locals are incredibly kind to foreigners.
MEDICAL: The medical system here is efficient and inexpensive, but it feels very transactional. You can easily access things here that would take months to access back home, such as an MRI. From our experience, however, we find most clinics to be very busy, and doctors tend to treat the symptoms first (and quickly! – five minutes would be a long visit), rather than look for the root of the problem.
EDUCATION: I think education varies from city to city, and I don’t know enough yet to really comment much on it. It seems like many schools here are very focused on rote learning. Outdoors time, brain breaks, inquiry-based learning, and other current trends of learning are less common here. I have seen some schools, however, that are implementing very impressive and contemporary methods of learning.
AMENITIES: These seem far and few between. As an expat parent who doesn’t speak Mandarin, it’s been tough to find kid-centric centres that are free or low cost. I’ve found one free government run play centre for kids in my city. Pools, for the most part (in my city at least) are very dull and not that exciting for kids. I feel like there are pockets of great things for kids to do, but it’s not consistent within cities or in the country. It would be great to see the government take a bigger initiative here.
OUTDOORS: Taiwan has amazing natural diversity. If you are committed to the outdoors, you can definitely go out and find things to do as a family. There are natural water holes and lovely walks. Again, as an expat, I often struggle to easily explore outdoors because I am simply not aware of where to go.
What are some of your favorite places you’ve been to in the world?
One of the favorite places I’ve been to was a small town in the Sacred Valley of Peru called Ollantaytambo. Our time there was very chilled out. The town is built on ruins, and there are hundreds of ruins surrounding it. It’s a great place to chill, hike, explore and enjoy work by local artisans.
British Columbia, Canada:
I may be biased, but my home province is such an amazing place! For anyone wanting to visit, you won’t go wrong visiting any one or more of the following places: Vancouver, Victoria, The Okanagan, The sunshine Coast, Tofino/Uclulet and the Rockies.
This is just such a cool town. I lived there for a year during a university exchange. The old city is beautiful and the history is super cool.
What were some of your best experiences living in Taiwan?
The first would honestly have to be becoming part of my community. Most of my friends here are locals who live within a block of me. Connecting with locals and making friends has given me such an insight into the culture here. It’s been awesome! The second would be a 200-kilometer cycling trip we did along the East Coast. We tugged our two younger kids in the trailer and the older one rode her own bike. We joined another family and cycled from Hualien down to Taitung, camping along the way. It was amazing!
How would you compare life in Taiwan with Canada?
DIFFERENT! Life here is less expensive than back home. We can kind of manage on one salary in Taiwan. In Canada this isn’t remotely possible. Life here is simpler and runs at a slower pace, or so it feels. Taiwanese people here are extremely friendly, more so than Canadians on the whole. I know there are different aboriginal groups in Taiwan as well as people who have immigrated here, yet I feel like in Taiwan, there is a firm cultural identity and set of rules or normative values which dictate how we behave towards one another. In Canada, it’s less set in stone as people have so many different beliefs and backgrounds. As a family, life is a bit harder for us, but that could be due to the language barrier. I feel like many families spend a lot of time inside. We struggle with this as we love to be outside with the kids, but the weather makes that challenging at times.
Would you recommend Taiwan more as a place to visit or a place to live?
It depends on your purpose I suppose. You could easily spend a week or two in Taipei, eating great food, strolling the streets and exploring the nearby hikes and hot springs. I think you would come out of that having had a meaningful trip. That said, Taiwan is so diverse and the people so kind and interesting… I really believe that you only truly experience and understand this when you’ve lived in Taiwan (or maybe slow traveled).
Do you think you will be inspired by travel writing in Taiwan for the long-term?
Lastly, do you have any advice for other travel writers passing through Asia/Taiwan?
I can only really speak to Taiwan, but I would advise: 1.) Learn as much Mandarin as possible, starting with numbers (buying things). 2.) Get to know the locals. This is how you truly get to know Taiwan. When a stranger starts to talk to you, engage with them for a few minutes. Taiwan is very much about who you know. Connections get you very far here!
Thanks, Marisol! Look forward to reading more of your adventures in the future…
Party Members was certainly one of the more interesting of my reviews on China-centric books. Whether one agrees with the intense tone of the novel, or thinks it goes too far, no one can deny that the author displays a uniquely powerful talent at expressing his particular vision…
I was lucky enough to recently procure an interview with author Arthur Meursault, in which I ask questions to explore his writing process and inspiration.
And a very interesting interview it was, henceforth below:
Party Members is a rather unique China novel that delves into themes few other novels would dare to tread. What was your process like in writing the novel?
This will be ammo for my critics, but honestly speaking the book was remarkably easy to write. Once I decide to write something I find it difficult to concentrate on anything else until it is completed. Just ask my wife: She had to clean the house single-handed for about twelve months. Initially, Party Members started as just a short story about some middle-class Chinese nouveau riche one-upping each other over dinner (the current Chapter 3 in the book), but I just kept adding more and more detail till it mutated into a full-blown novel.
In total it took me about a year to write, then I just left the file in a hard drive folder doing nothing for another year before I went back and did some editing to it. When I get the urge to write I can do just that–I’ll write and write until the demon is out of me and the words are on the page. It’s like a madness that I have to exorcise and I genuinely find it difficult to sleep or concentrate at work if I have an idea that I haven’t committed yet to the page. Editing, on the other hand, is a tiresome process and one that I don’t find enjoyable. The resident Grammar Nazi at my publisher is an extraordinary individual who has a passion for correcting obscure grammatical errors with his red pen of pain. At first I thought that I had done a decent job of proofreading my own copy, but Mark at Camphor destroyed my confidence like a nerd at a prom night getting drenched in a vat of pig’s blood.
The book does go into some dark places. As an author, do you ever feel disturbed that your imagination goes in unexpected directions?
If you were to read some of my other short stories–and you can find a couple on my blog–you’d be surprised at how light Party Members is compared to some of the other things that I dream up. I’m generally a pretty misanthropic type of guy. If you were to ask me what my belief system is I’d probably tell you I was a nihilistic antinatalist who views all life as malignantly useless – but I’d tell you that with a smile and follow it up with a “knock knock” joke. As for whether I get disturbed by my dark thoughts or not, my answer would be that I feel I’m just one step ahead of most people. Look at the way the world is turning, and my dark thoughts are increasingly becoming today’s reality.
Since releasing the novel, have you been surprised at some of the reactions whether positive or negative?
It is divisive and the classic type of book that will get one star from one reader and five stars from another. That’s how I intended it to be. I didn’t want to write a safe harmless book that people could agree on, I wanted to write a book that would upset and disturb those who kid themselves to the nature of reality and bring solace or a knowing smirk to those who see the darkness in life. The response has been exactly that, but with some additional modern criticisms from “the current year’s” SJWs who stifle thought by saying that a straight white male shouldn’t be allowed to express a negative thought about anything other than himself.
When did you know that you were going to be a novelist?
I’m not a novelist–I’m very clear on that. I have a full-time job which takes up 95% of my waking life… and I just so happen to have written a novel. As much as I would like it to define me,it unfortunately won’t. Tomorrow I will still have to continue the day job and the reality is that a niche interest book about China with naughty content in it most likely won’t sell that well and will be all-but-forgotten once I tire of trying to promote it. Maybe, just maybe, one day I will swallow my pride and write something that has a potential of selling: An erotic fiction featuring vampires or the story of a tenacious black woman who fought against 1960s racism to become the first botanist in space. However, having sold my soul, I still wouldn’t call myself a novelist.
What authors and books have inspired you?
Have you ever heard of The Fourth Turning? It’s a theory published in the late 1990s that claims history follows the same 80-year cycle continuously. It also says that within that 80-year period there will always be four individual generations with four individual personalities. Furthermore, a person can look for people with similar thoughts and moods by looking for their generational counterpart in the previous cycle. So a person like myself who grew up during the “Unravelling” of the 1980s and 90s should find like-minded authors within the generation that grew up approximately 80 years ago during the previous “Unravelling” cycle. Since all my favourite moody and cynical writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Albert Camus and F. Scott Fitzgerald are from that era, I’d advise any author seeking inspiration to do the same process.
God, that’s a bit of a dry response, isn’t it? I’m in danger of taking myself too seriously.
Do you prefer reading books about China, or more international literature?
There comes a point in any man’s life when he simply can’t read anymore books about China. One more autobiography about the Cultural Revolution or an alcoholic English teacher in tier-88 Hunan, and I’d probably grab a samurai sword and go berzerk outside a Beijing branch of Uniqlo. I still read books about China, and when I do I post reviews of them on my blog, but for every book I read on China I now read another ten on something else. Michel Houellebecq is the king of the current European zeitgeist.
Are you working on anything new?
It isn’t easy when struggling to keep hold of a full-time corporate job during a period of economic decline, but I’m slowly working on a collection of short stories. I’ve written about half of them and they’ll be so dark that they’ll make Party Members look like The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Some of the stories include tales of a woman driven mad by her garden wall and a new computer game craze that makes people infertile. If that sounds all a bit too much then I can try and appear a little more balanced by telling you that I have already written a full-length children’s story about pugs but I keep getting tempted to add sinister undertones to the draft.
What advice if any would you give to aspiring expat writers?
Do it. Please. The world needs more writers. That vlog on YouTube you are planning may seem tempting–and there’s probably more money in it too–but there are already enough spiky-haired excitable people giving us 8 Reasons why Asian Girls are Better or The 3 Best Pumpkin Spice Lattes in Beijing. Buzzfeed might thank you for that, but your grandchildren won’t.
Lastly, do you have any thoughts on the future of literature in Asia be it by foreign writers or by locals?
Big Western Publishing will continue to publish boring but “worthy” books by well-connected authors who say the right things. Small Independent Publishing will continue to publish interesting and original works by new authors that will be ignored by almost everybody. And Chinese Publishing will continue to publish the works of Xi Jinping.
A LONG way from his hometown, Kitimat, British Columbia, Canada, Matt Sigurdson has opened a Western-style vegan restaurant called Green Room in the Coastal City shopping mall in Nanshan.
He is relatively new to China, having moved to Shenzhen in January 2014. “My brother was living in Shenzhen at the time so I came to see him,” Sigurdson explained.
The 38-year-old has already had years of experience working in restaurants. “After moving to Calgary, I started as a weekend waiter in a family restaurant and quickly grew to love the environment. I was challenged further, and took on the lead waiter role. I spent three years there before I moved on to a newly built high-end concept restaurant, and took on a management position.” Eventually he moved to Shenzhen, and became a bar manager at a restaurant in Sea World in Shekou.
Sigurdson spent a lot of time examining the market in Shenzhen, and found that people were already making healthier choices in their lives. “I spent a lot of time examining what was going on in Shenzhen, and found that people here were already taking a healthy direction in their lives. I noticed an abundance of gyms and fitness centers. There were already a handful of Chinese vegan and vegetarian restaurants so we knew that it wasn’t a completely foreign idea. It would be a risky move, but we could pull it off.”
Sigurdson had many challenges in opening Green Room. “Every new thing we had to do to take the next step forward was a trial,” he said. “From learning the value of equipment and products to trying to explain how we wanted the place to be built. Day by day I learned more and more about each step, the vision became clearer, and we persevered and stuck through to the end to accomplish one of my goals in life.”
Some of the popular items are the eggplant rollups, rainbow spring rolls, Thai coconut soup, and avocado tacos. The restaurant produces all their own sauces and dressings from scratch. Juices and smoothies are made fresh when ordered. Sigurdson especially appreciates his regular customers. “The positive feedback I’ve received has made it all worth it,” he said.
Green Room is located near Coastal City mall adjacent to the Houhai metro station. The address is Wen Xin 3rd Road, Tiley Fame City Center, Block B, #142.
Our interview today is with the well-traveled Hilton Yip who blogs @–
My Take: hcyip.wordpress.com
He currently resides in the nearby city of Hong Kong and was nice enough to talk with me about writing and seeing the world. I’m happy to introduce him herein!
How long have you been writing?
I started writing in university and my first published article in a non-student publication was in 2008. I wrote for the main college student newspaper. I wrote for the news team, but I also did opinion, arts and travel pieces too. When I think about it, that’s how my writing and my blogging have developed, in that I’m interested in a few different fields and I write about different things.
How did you get started in blogging?
When I was in university, a lot of people I knew had one so I felt it’d be good to have one as well. Since then, I’ve continued blogging.
My first blog was mainly about personal stuff with a bit of political rants. Some of it is probably embarrassing, but when you’re that age and you’re new to a form of social media as blogs were then, it’s easy to get caught up and write whatever nonsense comes to your mind. The people I knew mostly wrote about personal things too, but I also remember reading some really interesting geopolitical blogs. It’s kind of a pity that blogging doesn’t seem too popular, for instance a lot of China-based expat blogs I knew from a few years ago have stopped, but at least WordPress, which I also use, is still going strong.
You used to live in Beijing, and now live in Hong Kong. How do you feel each place compares when it comes to literary inspiration?
I’ve only been in HK for several months so there’s probably a lot more I need to find out. I think HK feels more hectic and smaller than Beijing but more international, whereas Beijing is more historic, is the capital of China so you’ve got tons of people from all over the country, and is still developing.
Beijing is at least 800 years old as a city. It’s full of centuries-old sites like the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the hutongs. On the other hand, it is still a city in flux with a lot of strata in society from the obscenely powerful to well-off, urbane folks to migrant workers, educated and not-so-educated. The city itself is still growing in terms of both buildings and people, so much so that it wants to reduce its population. Hong Kong is more international in the sense that besides a large and established expat population and Western restaurants and stores, it has a longstanding Western heritage due to its colonial past.
You have a lot of published articles, as well as personal travel blogs. Is there anything you like better about writing your own blogs as opposed to writing for pay?
Yes, certainly. Writing on my blog allows me to write about anything I want or feel like. Of course, when I write for pay, I usually write about topics that interest me. I’d never write about something I didn’t believe in. But with blogging, there are absolutely no constraints such as word limits or deadlines except in your own mind.
But I have written a few feature articles including couple about Taiwan that I feel proud of, not because it’s spectacular but because it took a lot of time, effort and interviews. One was about English-language programs in Taiwan-taiwanreview.nat.gov.tw.
The other one was about mainland students studying in Taiwan fulltime, one year after they were allowed to do so: taiwanreview.nat.gov.tw. Mind you, these are for a Taiwan state magazine so it may not be accessible without a VPN from China. I’ve done about a dozen travel articles and two of my travel pieces – Travel: Milan, Italy
What kind of places are your favorite to visit?
I like cities with a lot of history and that are bustling, but which are also attractive. Nanjing is my favorite city in China precisely because it has both history and pleasant scenery and streets. In terms of natural places, I like hills and mountains. That is one really good thing about Hong Kong that not many people outside of HK know- that it’s got a lot of good hills to hike with great scenery.
It may sound boring but I really like history museums and I always make sure to visit one whenever I’m in cities, especially major ones. No matter whether it be Tokyo, Seoul, London, Cape Town, Nanjing, Shanghai or even Hong Kong, I always make sure to check out history museums. In general though, I like cities that have a lot of history like Rome, Nanjing and Hanoi and historical landmarks like palaces, ancient structures and old city walls. For instance, I would say the best thing about Xian is not the terracotta warriors but the drum and bell towers, the nearby Muslim quarter, and the city walls. Of course, I like other things like interesting buildings and skyscrapers and especially old neighborhoods where you can walk around and explore.
What kind of places are your least favorite to visit?
There hasn’t been a country that I visited and I didn’t like. Now I don’t quite like China, but that’s from living there, not from traveling. I’m generally open to different kinds of places, but I admit I’m not much of a cafe person. I don’t mind meeting up with people in cafes but I won’t visit a neighborhood for its cafes; I’m not a cafe coffee drinker and I don’t have the habit of doing work like writing in them.
What exotic locales can we expect to see on your blog next; any interesting travel plans?
I haven’t decided on any trips for the near future, since I did a lot of traveling late last year and earlier this year (Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Italy, France). I hope to visit India though that’ll probably be next year.
The obvious first question: What brought you to China in general and Guangzhou specifically?
I first came to China (Guangzhou) when I just around 10 years old, with my strongest memory from that trip being stepping off the plane and feeling uncomfortable with the polluted air even in the airport. And yet, after taking up Chinese in college, I ended up studying and interning abroad for a semester in Shanghai and falling in love with the city and living in a Chinese megalopolis. Then when it came time to graduate and look for jobs, I looked for opportunities in Asia. In typical Chinese fashion, through some guangxi, I ended up landing an interview at Guangdong TV and then the job I have now. Guangzhou ended up being the perfect city because many of my relatives still live here, so they have been incredibly helpful in getting me settled. Plus, it’s close to Hong Kong, which is where I inevitably want to be.
How familiar were you with China before you moved permanently?
With some family trips and the study abroad experience, I came thinking I knew at least some of what to expect. But man, soon enough, we expats realize shit happens and there will be many moments, especially in the beginning, when we’ll want to escape ASAP. As a sheltered ABC (American Born Chinese) from a suburban town, I’m realizing that I will never get used to many things about living in Guangzhou, let alone China. There are plenty of ups and plenty of downs, but it helps to try to develop a deeper understanding of China’s history and its people to get you though some of the outright unacceptable-to-foreigners aspects. Within these several months I’ve been here, I’ve already explored so much of my family’s hometown and continue to learn every day.
What has been the biggest challenge to living abroad?
While my language skills need work, I would say cultural differences are more challenging. Even if you know how to express something in Chinese or even if you’re talking with a local who speaks English fluently, at the end of the day, we have different ways of thinking, perceiving, acting, etc. It can be cool to learn about these often-vastly different points of view, but it can also be frustrating to have to explain why freedom of press, for example, is so very important while stuck in the land of the Great Firewall. Frankly, priorities vary in a country where someone with a monthly income of 10,000 RMB ($1,500 USD) in the 1995 was considered today’s version of millionaire and the poverty line was 173 RMB, compared to around 2,000 now, according to my cousin. It can be hard to keep that in mind when you see kids drop their pants and pee on the streets on your morning walk to work.
What is it like working in the media in China?
Among the many constant reminders that we are no longer in America, working in media is one of them. Propaganda, which is not a negative term here, is as rampant as one would expect. I could go on for days or even weeks about my experiences.
Do you like working on-camera doing interview and hosting shows?
I’ve been working both on and off camera, even directing, hosting, and producing my own shows. That statement alone speaks to the insane opportunity one has in China. Working for the TV station itself opens so many doors. I’m grateful.
Your blog is called “adventures abound”; do you consider yourself an adventurer?
I’m an adventurer from the perspective of someone born and raised within the bubble of American suburban life. From another, perhaps not. For the most part, these aren’t exactly the typical adrenaline-pumping adventures of a world traveler. Just recently, I had to go on a last-minute visa run. To someone else, that sounds like the worst “adventure,” but then you read my blog and find out I actually had an amazing time making the most of such scenarios. And the fact that I live on my own on the other side of the world makes anything I do an adventure I need to record.
Your blog is about the day-to-day life, and you do post rather frequently. Do you ever find it difficult to come up with new content or do you write all the time?
I rarely have trouble coming up with something to write about. Even if I were still in Maryland, I would probably write about how I have nothing to do. But I’m in China. When is there not a day when I don’t experience something crazy or at least potentially interesting to my readers?
I’ve also just always been a writer in some way. I grew up very soft spoken and would let out my thoughts via journaling. That said, my blog is far from being any literary masterpiece. I write very casually.
How would you describe your writing practice?
Now I tend to blog weekly about the experiences and observations I’ve collected. I take a look at all my photos and notes and go from there. And given how many photos I generally take, blogging ends up taking quite a bit of time but is definitely worth it. Taking notes is essential, not necessarily because I’ll forget experiences so soon, but rather those minute details that make a story better.
What do you like to read?
I’m less of a blog reader and more of a newsletter reader. I subscribe to an unhealthy number of newsletters, which include blogs, but as for going directly to blogs or websites that aren’t Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, that ironically isn’t a habit of mine.
Being in China and understanding that there’s a lot I don’t understand, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction on China. One of my 2016 resolutions is to read at least one book a month, so I’m currently finishing up Peter Hessler’s Country Driving. It’s my first Hessler book, and I already can’t wait to read his others. I also highly recommend the Sinica podcast for anyone interested in China.
What’s next? Do you plan on staying in China?
I’m planning on applying to grad school to get a Master’s in Chinese studies. When I first came and got the job, I had only planned on staying at most two or three years, but now I’ve realized the need to continue my studies, whereas before I would always tell my dad a Master’s isn’t necessary for what I want to do, which was just journalism at the time. Living in China as an ABC has really sparked that passion in me to delve deeper into U.S.-China relations and aspire to be a “China expert,” or at least follow those out there now, including many who appear on the Sinica podcast. So I’ll stay probably until the end of this year, but you’ll definitely find me back here eventually.
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?
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.
Ray Hecht is an American author based in Shenzhen, and blogs at rayhecht.com. Raised in the American Midwest, he studied film in Long Beach, California before moving to China in 2008 where he divides his time between fiction writing and freelance journalism. South China Morning Blues (Blacksmith Books, 2015), a story of depraved expats within the hypermodern southern Chinese sprawl, is his debut novel.
Why I write
That is the ultimate question, isn’t it? I don’t truly know the answer. Perhaps because I am a lonely person and I got into certain habits and now after years of this I am compelled. I want to express myself, I have enough ego to believe that others should read what I write, and it’s just a part of what I do and who I am. I have these things in my head and this compulsion to write it down and I hope beyond hope that people would like to read.
How do you go about writing?
I try to write every day. When a long-term project is going, I write about four days a week on a decent week. Good weeks more, bad weeks less. To me, it’s not about hours so much as word count. Five hundred works at least, or a thousand words on a very productive night. That may take hours or it may take 30 minutes.
I like to stay up late, because that’s the time when everyone leaves me alone. That magic time from midnight to about 2 a.m. I used to write later, but it’s getting harder and harder to keep up with a night owl lifestyle these days. That’s when all the original words come to me, and the next afternoon I tend to do rewrites.
Where do you write?
I like to lay down in my bed in my underwear with the laptop. I remember the old days when I had a big PC, it was much harder to motivate myself. The laptop is the most perfect invention ever…
…excepting, of course, that the Internet is the absolute worst distraction ever. If left to my own devices I tend to constantly check my email, Facebook, news sites etc. Porn isn’t even as bad as social media. Sometimes though you just have to unplug and force yourself to finish a deadline. Unless there’s research to be done.
I suppose I’m inspired by various things. A good song can inspire. A book, a show. A crazy life experience can especially inspire. Most of all, combing through my own memories of complex life issues and mix and match it into new combinations; somehow that give me ideas about what to write.
How often do you get writers’ block? Do you ever doubt your own ability?
I don’t really believe in writer’s block. However, I doubt my own ability all the time. When I compare myself to the major authors whom I respect, I am not in the same league at all. But I’ve chosen to write and even if it’s shit I have vowed to finish what I started.
The thing about writer’s block is that I always have more ideas than I have time to write them down. It should always be that way. Instead of being choked by the blank page, I suffer more from sheer laziness. Writing can be mentally exhaustive, and although endless ideas are swirling around in my mind, sometimes I don’t have enough energy to record and tinker with those ideas.
Contemporary writer you always read?
I always read new Haruki Murakami and Neal Stephenson. Murakami isn’t as good as he used to be, frankly, in my humble opinion. Stephenson is such an insanely prolific writer that it takes me longer to catch up with his latest thousand-plus tome then it does for him to write, yet I always do try to catch up.
Favorite book on China?
Speaking of which, Reamde by Neal Stephenson is a great book that takes place in China, full of hackers and gold-farming. He really gets it right.
Favorite Chinese author?
My favorite may be Su Tong, and especially his novel My Life as Emperor. Written very matter-of-factly and full of cruelty, it rather haunted me.
There are several books that have supremely influenced me. I’m going to keep it in the realm of fiction: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is the ultimate irreverent yet smart novel, with so much energy. I know I’m not smart enough to write science fiction, and cyberpunk in particular, I am purely a fan with no desire to emulate.
I have to mention The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea which sent me on a lifelong journey to figure out what the hell is going on in the world.
As for literary inspiration, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama are works that have directly influenced how I string words together…
As for other mediums, I would like to say that comic book writer Grant Morrison is one of my absolute favorites. Able to write mindfuck profound postmodern comics, as well as fun superheroes, and I am very envious of his abilities.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
I am currently trying to find the time to start Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I have a feeling it’s going to be a tough one.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Wow I was lucky!
How did you get started writing?
I scribbled on occasion when I was a kid, more interested in drawing than writing. When I was in school I decided to study film on a lark, and I didn’t really finish, but I decided I like prose more than screenplays because you can be alone. I decided to write novels when I was twenty-three years old, wrote several, and then almost 10 years later it worked out.
Does writing change anything?
I suppose it changes your social life, because friends and loved ones can’t understand why you are always avoiding the outside world. It’s worth it though, I hope.
What are you working on now and when is it out?
Well, I’m still working on promoting South China Morning Blues which is currently out in Hong Kong and beyond.
I have another novel in the works, a full draft is finished, and it’s not about China. It’s about how technology effects relationships and I got the idea from last time I visited America and observed as an outsider the whole Tinder dating thing. If I’m incredibly lucky it will be published in less than a year. A lot has to fall into place. I believe it will be published eventually. Wish me luck!
Last Friday, I was honored to be invited to Phil Whelan’s Morning Brew show on Radio 3 in Hong Kong.
I was a bit nervous, but after doing a half-dozen odd promotional events for my novel South China Morning Blues I have indeed been getting better at this public speaking thing.
It was only less than a half-hour, and we talked fast. That’s how radio goes. Just hope I could keep up! Phil was nice, and spurred on a very interesting conversation. The topics were varied, as we delved into people-watching then censorship then about what can be gotten away with on television. Finally we went back to the topic of my book and I read a short excerpt.
I think it actually went well! I would love to do more shows like this in the future, if anyone will have me…
But I’m still not ready for a podcast.
Please check out the link below and click on the listening portion that says Ray Hecht – South China Morning Blues: