South China Morning Blues book review by Nicki Chen

http://nickichenwrites.com/wordpress/china/south-china-morning-blues/

Book Review of South China Morning Blues

When I look back on my twenties, I’m amazed at how much I crammed into that decade—and also at how far-reaching the consequences of my decisions were. I shouldn’t be amazed. We’re meant to choose our path in life during those years. And even though we can reinvent ourselves to some extent later, there’s no getting around it, it’s usually during our twenties that we at least make a good start in figuring out who we are and where we’re going.

The characters in Ray Hecht’s new book, South China Morning Blues, are all in their twenties. And to make matters even more challenging, they live in what may be the fastest changing region of the fastest changing country in the world, the Pearl River Delta region in southeastern China, a megalopolis that the World Bank Group considers the largest urban area in the world in both size and population. Hecht, an American, has lived there, mostly in the city of Shenzhen, since 2008. He knows the area well.

The twelve young men and women who tell their stories in South China Morning Blues, live and work in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. They’re Chinese, American, Canadian, and African. None of them are quite clear on what they want or how to get it.

The first character we meet, Marco, is a sleazy American businessman who likes to show off and pick up girls. Since he can’t be bothered to learn Chinese, his Chinese protégé, Jackie, takes advantage of him and steals his clients. After losing his job, Marco starts a new business, a club that caters to expats. When he falls in love with and marries a Chinese woman, he’s challenged to become his better self.

Sheila’s parents are from another generation. They don’t understand a modern Chinese career woman like her. Eventually Sheila will realize that even though she’s modern in some ways, the Chinese duty to sacrifice for family obligations is still deep inside her.

Terry is an American-born Chinese, a writer, and an alcoholic. To impress his Chinese girlfriend, Ting Ting, he finally cleans up his disgusting apartment. We can only hope that Ting Ting will inspire him to clean up his act too.

These are only five of the twelve characters in South China Morning Blues. They speak in their own voices about their longing, loneliness, and confusion. They tell us about their hunger for adventure, money, love, and sex, and their desire for success and meaning.

Each of them represents an animal in the Chinese zodiac. Marco, for example, is the tiger; Jackie is the rat; Sheila is the hare; Terry is the monkey; and Ting Ting is the Dragon. The author uses the Chinese character for each animal to indicate a change in point of view. If you don’t read Chinese and you want to be sure who is speaking, you might want to make a cheat sheet.

Ray HechtHecht doesn’t sugar coat the seamier side of life, and some of his scenes are sexually explicit. As he said in an interview with Jocelyn Eikenburg, “I want to show all sides of real life. Using illegal substances, having irresponsible sex, pushing the boundaries, and making mistakes; these are all things that human beings actually do. And they are interesting things. I believe they are things worth writing about.”

Whether you’ve ever traveled to or lived in China, I think you’ll find something new and interesting in South China Morning Blues.

Available for pre-order on Amazon.

Interview with Ray Hecht on His New Novel “South China Morning Blues”

(Originally posted on: http://www.speakingofchina.com/bookreviews/interview-with-ray-hecht-on-his-new-novel-south-china-morning-blues/)

 

People have called China endlessly fascinating. But you could say the same about the expat scene here. In the seven-plus years that I’ve lived in this country, I’ve come across some real characters here – people I could have sworn were straight out of a novel.

I’m reminded of many of them after reading Ray Hecht’s new book South China Morning Blues, which features a motley cast of young expats and Chinese locals living across Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, including:

…Marco, a crooked businessman with a penchant for call girls; Danny, a culture-shocked young traveler; Sheila, a local club girl caught up in family politics; Amber, a drug-fueled aspiring model; Terry, an alcoholic journalist; and Ting Ting, a lovable artist with a chip on her shoulder.

 

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Through 12 distinct viewpoints, South China Morning Blues takes readers on a tour of the dark underside of the expat scene in China, culminating in a dramatic life-and-death situation that brings everyone together. It’s a fresh take on life in 21st century China and definitely worth a read.

I’m happy to once again feature Ray Hecht on the blog and introduce South China Morning Blues to you through this interview.

 

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Here’s Ray’s bio from his website:

Long story short, raised in America from the Midwest to the West Coast on a starchy diet of movies and comics and science fiction paperbacks. There’s a Mid-East connection in there too. I like to write fiction about such states as California and Ohio, and such provinces as Guangdong. Japan being an interesting topic as well. Lived in Shenzhen, China since 2008 (has it really been that long?), a lovely Special Economic Zone Hong Kong-bordering chaotic city that has given me so much. I occasionally partake of some freelance journalism for various local publications.

You can learn more about Ray Hecht and South China Morning Blues at his websiteand buy a copy at Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this blog.

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What inspired you to write this novel?

Good question to start out with. A few things come to mind: After living in China in those earlier years, I found the country to be absolutely fascinating, and I wanted to share the experience of the land by telling stories.

Also, I’d long been a fan of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and had a lot of respect for his system of multiple narrators that all have distinctive versions of experiences,and being more interlocking short stories than one big narrative. I think one of the philosophies that fiction can teach us is the subjective nature of reality. The way some people, say, move to Guangzhou and complain how they hate it while other people see it totally differently and love it.

Another inspiration, I must say at the risk of sounding pretentious, was James Joyce’s Ulysses. Not that I’m smart enough to write something like that — or even smart enough to truly understand the famously-dense book. But the way the novel utilized mythological metaphors, as per the Odyssey resonating in early 20th Century Dublin. I wanted to try something like that. The ancient mythologies of the world will forever be able to inspire modern stories.

Well, for me, characters are most important. A character needs unique personality traits, archetypes that make them stand out, something interesting about their histories and personas. After that’s established, a plot begins to form… And so the idea evolved to use the Chinese Zodiac to structure the characters of a novel…

 

Your novel is told through the perspective of 12 main characters as they live in or visit three major cities in South China — Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. How did you decide to structure your novel like this?

As said, I had the idea to base characters off the Chinese Zodiac in order to tell stories about modern China. Seemed to make sense at the time.

I’d already ended up living in Shenzhen, which is a major city most people around the world have never heard of. The city is next to Hong Kong, and I spend a lot of time there. For the sake of literary research (also because I wanted to research a historical novel about Canton circa revolutionary 1911) I moved to Guangzhou for an off year in 2011. I find all these cities fascinating in their own unique ways. I mean, Beijing and Shanghai are great, but I ended up in the southern Pearl River Delta region and I am glad I did. No place on Earth has more stories.

It seemed obvious that my novel about the soul of present China would have to incorporate those three cities.

 

Like your memoir, South China Morning Blues features quite a bit of sex and recreational drug use. How much did your personal experiences influence your writing in this book?

Ah, an embarrassing question. Hmm, how can I put this…?

First of all, my biographical writings may have some sex but I don’t think there’s much to brag about. Outside of a handful of tell-all dramatic episodes, by far it mostly concerned online dating and several serious relationships. Not too crazy, right?

The sex scenes in SCMB are, shall we say, meant to be more literary. At least more literary in the sense of literature I like to read. Being more extreme than real life in most cases. Many of those scenes were inspired by way of hearsay of other people I know, my own imagination, and a bit of research online. Not really based off my own personal experiences very much.

(Hey, I did say that Trainspotting was an inspiration.)

As for recreational drugs, I experimented a bit in my youth — and by youth I mean my mid-to-late twenties, I was very boring as a teen — and I think I was always responsible about it. To be honest, I’m often shocked when I observe how extreme drugs and alcohol are in the China party scene. It is something that needs to be depicted, whether glamorized or not. No outright spoilers here, but if you read to the end there are consequences for the characters who abuse themselves and I think it’s important to showcase that side.

All in all though, I want to show all sides of real life. Using illegal substances, having irresponsible sex, pushing the boundaries, and making mistakes; these are all things that human beings actually do. And they are interesting things. I believe they are things worth writing about. Worth portraying, without too much judgment. More or less, presented as is. That’s writing.

 

Tell us about one of your favorite characters from the novel and why you like him or her. Continue reading

Jocelyn Eikenburg of Speaking of China

This week’s author interview is with Jocelyn Eikenburg, of SpeakingofChina.com fame, her successful blog focusing on relationship dynamics across the world. As an American woman married to a Chinese man and living in Hangzhou, she has experienced a lot and writes well about the expat perspectives.

She also submitted to the anthology book How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? which I happened to review. Do give it a read.

Without further ado…

 

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First question, of course: What brought you to China?

I was about to graduate from Marshall University and, like a lot of young people, had no clue about what I wanted to do with my future apart from one thing – travel. I couldn’t get enough of international travel after a semester studying abroad in Spain. I figured I would snag a job in a Spanish-speaking country somewhere in the world, and continue my international adventures like that.

Except, I couldn’t find a job that really appealed to me.

So one day I walked into the International Affairs office at my university for guidance. That’s when the director asked me, “How about teaching in China?” As it turned out, Marshall University had run a successful teach in China program for years (Appalachians Abroad).

I remember thinking at the time, China? He’s got to be kidding. Nothing about my life suggested all roads lead to China.

But later on, as I pondered his suggestion, I realized that, deep down, I was quietly fascinated by a number of things connected to China – from Taoism and green tea to tofu and traditional Chinese medicine.

Of course, spending an entire year in a country where you can’t speak the language and know little about the culture is a scary proposition. But I was even more frightened of having nothing to do after graduation and the opportunity to travel ultimately won out over all my fears. So I signed on to teach English in Zhengzhou, China.

Who’d have thought that one chance decision would end up setting the course for my future?

 

What was your biggest challenge?

Initially, not knowing Chinese at all created some stressful and even embarrassing situations for me when I first arrived in China. I hated going out to run even the simplest errands, like mailing a letter, because I’d have to spend an hour trying to memorize a few phrases and then still end up understanding almost nothing they would say to me. Or I’d have these moments in small stores where I would turn as red as the little Chinese dictionary in my hands, paging through it in an often futile effort to express myself. I’m confident I entertained quite a few shopkeepers during my first few months in China.

 

How did you get involved in the anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?

Through Susan Blumberg-Kason, I learned of Shannon Young’s call for submissions for a new expat women’s anthology focused on Asia. I thought it might be fun to write about the time my husband and I used our honeymoon vacation in China to take his dad to visit Huangshan, so I sent Shannon an essay about that. Then, of course, I crossed my fingers and hoped I might actually make the cut!

I feel really fortunate to have been chosen for the anthology, as I share the pages with some incredibly talented writers.

 

Any China-centric authors you enjoy?

Pearl Buck definitely stands out as one of my favorites. I read The House of Earth (The Good Earth, Sons, A House Divided) many years ago when I was in Shanghai, and just fell completely in love with her style, not to mention how she wrote so compassionately about the Chinese and their culture. Not surprisingly, I ended up checking out every single Pearl Buck book in the local library after my husband and I moved back to the US for some time.

There’s this one quote from her book Kinfolk that has stayed with me over the years:

“It takes a certain kind of person to live in China now….Someone who can see true meanings, someone who does not only want the world better but believes it can be made better, and gets angry because it is not done, someone who is not willing to hide himself in one of the few good places left in the world–someone who is tough!”

China has changed much since the 1930s and 1940s, when Buck was writing most of her books, and yet there’s truth in this quote even today.

 

Is it difficult to find new subject matter for Speaking of China?

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My Interview on Speaking of China:

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Please read my interview concerning my eBook Pearl River Drama for the website Speaking of China.

Many thanks to fellow Ohioan-expat Jocelyn Eikenburg for the interviewing me, and for appreciating my meager writings.

 

Interview with Ray Hecht on “Pearl River Drama: Dating in China”

Continue reading