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theNanfang.com: SCMB a Glimpse Into Expat Life in a Fast-Changing PRD

South China Morning Blues a Glimpse Into Expat Life in a Fast-Changing Pearl River Delta


Luigi Mondino , December 21, 2015

Luigi Mondino


Ray Hecht’s debut novel is a detailed and sincere depiction of what life is like in the Pearl River area. Divided into three main sections (one for each major city: Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong), the book follows the life of several characters, both foreigners and locals, as they try (or struggle) to find their way without losing touch with reality. Rather than being a simple collection of short stories (very loosely entwined), Hecht chooses to shape his book into a canvas where the expat lifestyle is the effective trait d’union.


Hecht obviously knows what he’s talking about as, being himself a long-term expat in the area, he has drawn from his own personal experience (as it can be inferred from his own personal blog) ideas and stories that lay the foundations of his book, and it shows well: characters look real and relatable, grounded in reality, vivid and rich in their motivations and background. Characters are teachers, journalists, young artists, businessmen, all people that populate bars and clubs in the downtown of each city. Ray Hecht has collected and transformed some of the stories he heard (who knows how much autobiography might be in the book?) into a constellation of small existences that, although bordering on the stereotypical sometimes, often emerge as true in their own need of self affirmation.

Whoever experienced life in the Pearl River Delta can understand or relate to the urgency to be heard or to stand out that everyone in the book seems to display: life is too fast-paced and often people focus on their careers, while everything else slips into the background. If the 12 main characters all have something in common, it is a sense of isolation that compels them to question their own choices and fast-forward life to the next, hopefully safer, stage.

The three sections the book consist of several mini-chapters, each following a different character (some of them recurring from section to section, thus closing the circle and giving the idea of a mini universe where people can’t stop running into the same faces again and again). All stories are narrated in the first person and they read as confessions that break the fourth wall and ask the reader to participate in something private and meaningful that otherwise would be lost.

Each section of the book has its own different nuance that reflects the three different cities in which everything takes place:  Shenzhen is a new and fast city, Guangzhou is the old capital, Hong Kong is a hybrid city looking for a balance in its own internal differences. “Shenzhen” opens the book and throws us in the middle of the action: two foreigners, newcomers to Shenzhen, try and mostly fail to integrate in a city with no identity and history. Looking forward with no regrets is the key, even if something gets lost along the way. Marco, the businessman, and Danny, the English teacher, whether they are looking for instant gratification or for some meaningful experience, are constantly semi-detached from reality as they can’t help to feel their presence in the city is temporary, a sensation shared by all the characters in this first section. Life is so fast and opportunities so rich, there is no need or time to look back or to make detailed plans about the future.

“Guangzhou” offers a new take on the expat life in China. Guangzhou, the city, is the old Guangdong capital, an established city with its very own rhythm and style. Whereas Shenzhen’s no identity is reflected in its individualism and fast pace, Guangzhou’s somewhat quieter pace is mirrored by a sense of isolation that is sometimes difficult, or almost impossible, to break. Amber, the Canadian English teacher, Ting Ting, the aspiring artist, and Terry, the Asian American journalist, represent the struggle to find themselves in a vast and disperse city: whether you are looking for a professional achievement or to find people to hang out with, Guangzhou is a giant maze that needs to be crossed.

“Hong Kong” is the last section, the shorter and the most crowded: most of action occurs at a rave party on Lamma island, where we re-encounter many of the characters from “Guangzhou”. The party is where individual stories come to an apex and some of the loose ends are tied up (but not completely, we just manage to say goodbye to the characters we have been following so far). Chapters are shorter and there is more interaction than before between characters, so rather than focusing on individual stories, Hecht chooses to let all the tension explode at a party that can be read as a turning point in everybody’s life.

Hecht writes his characters in need of sexual gratification and infuses them with a need for drugs of any type. I admit this sounds like a stretch sometimes, since the high recurrence of such behaviors flattens out diversities rather than creates an invisible bond between characters. This detail represents one of the flaws of the book, flaws that don’t hinder its effectiveness, but reveal Hecht’s somewhat beginner’s naivete: characters seem to all convey the same emotional range, as well as same ambitions and doubts. That is a forgivable since their backgrounds and environments help in giving each character his or her own flavor, but Hecht doesn’t seem totally in control of his own voice (but 12 different characters, one for each sign of the Chinese Zodiac, is a huge challenge for a novice).

As one of the first attempts to describe the expat life of common people, both foreigners and locals, SCMB succeeds in capturing a particular moment in time and space in which we are allowed to peek in. Hecht’s prose flows smoothly (style is simple, but not bland) and although the reading experience is always rich in details and facts, less characters and more plot would have given the book a more solid texture. Looking forward to Hecht’s sophomore effort is from now on something worth doing.

South China Morning Blues is published by Blacksmith Books. It can be purchased from Amazon or at select bookstores.

Bookish.Asia Review: South China Morning Blues

South China Morning Blues • Ray Hecht


The Pearl River Delta is home to Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, and cities of millions – such as gritty workshops to the world Dongguan and Zhongshan – that you’ve never heard of. Despite being the powerhouse of the country’s decades-long economic boom, China’s southern cities have been largely ignored by English-language novelists for the more glamorous settings of Shanghai and Beijing. When stories are set in the south, they are usually period pieces taking advantage of the region’s rich historical backdrops of war, revolution, and the treaty port clash of cultures. It was a welcome change to come across a novel set in modern-day Guangdong.

South China Morning Blues is divided into three sections, each named after a city in the region. The multiple storylines begin in Shenzhen, move to Guangzhou, and end on Lamma Island in Hong Kong. The novel provides a kaleidoscopic view of urban China as seen through the eyes of a dozen mostly twenty-something Chinese and foreign characters. There’s Marco, a macho American businessman looking to get laid at every opportunity; Danny, an English teacher finding his feet; intellectual stoner Eric; artist Ting Ting; American-Chinese journalist Terry; and… I’ll stop there. Twelve is too many to run through, which raises the question of whether that number of characters makes for an overcrowded cast.

Although there’s no consensus on the maximum number of main characters a novel should contain, it’s generally thought that eight or nine is the upper limit for a medium-length work. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, for example — which, with its multiple narrator structure, was one of Hecht’s inspirations — has perhaps seven main characters. When I opened SCMB, and realized that Hecht had chosen twelve because he wanted one character for each animal sign of the Chinese zodiac, the approach seemed like a recipe for disaster.

Surprisingly the big cast works. Credit goes to the author for how he does this by adding a couple of characters at a time, building up layers, and coming back to earlier people as some of storylines are threaded together. The effect is an unusual but engrossing reading experience, an immersive feel of varying waves of engagement. The number and range of characters, subplots, and places gives the novel an epic flavour; it’s a big canvas which contrasts with the mundane considerations of daily life that the characters describe.

South China Morning Blues is written in a stream-of-consciousness, first-person narration. Unavoidably, this is sometimes inane and slow moving; but it’s also often funny and, above all, honest. The novel is painfully true to life: how we actually were when young and finding our way, rather than how we would like to remember ourselves. I laughed aloud in numerous places, perhaps most often for Danny, the non-descript English teacher andlaowai newbie who is soon playing the veteran. In one such scene, a fellow English teacher – young, fresh off the boat, and completely clueless – asks Danny how long he has been in China.

“Well,” I say. “I’ve been in Shenzhen for a year now, but in China almost two years. Before here I lived in a town you’ve never heard of up north.”

“Wow,” he says, easily impressed. I feel cool, sophisticated.

One of the pleasures of SCMB is seeing how characters grow up (or don’t) over the two-year period of the novel. Eager to know how things worked out for them, I raced through the book in three days, pleased with the ending and yet sad the story had come to a close.

SCMB contains a lot of drinking, drug-taking, and sex, but not unrealistically so. Alcohol and drugs are a social lubricant and stress-relief for people in a new place. Likewise, business entertaining in China involves heavy drinking and frequently a side-dish of whoring, so it’s not unnatural that when Marco, the self-styled Casanova, is on a business trip to Dongguan, he should partake of the city’s infamous delights. Marco takes two hookers back to his hotel and is working his magic while the women watch television:

In front of me, I have two bare asses. They cost me only a grand each. That’s in RMB.

Enthusiastically, I slap the one on the left and pound away against the other one. She insisted that I wear a rubber. That part never gets lost in translation. This experience would have felt better without, but whatever….

I wish that I could persuade these girls to perform some lesbian shit. I push their heads together. They kind of kiss for a second, but then smirk and turn away. Don’t these bitches watch porn, or what?

My cock feels ready to explode out from under me, almost like I should call in a bomb threat to the hotel or something.

At times SCMB can be a bit depressing in portraying the shallowness of many Chinese–foreign interactions, but once again it rings true. In fact, I’ve met people like all twelve of the story’s characters. Much of the realism comes from author Ray Hecht writing about what he has himself experienced or seen, having lived in the novel’s two main locations, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Hecht, who was born in Israel but grew up in the American Midwest, arrived in China in 2008 at the age of twenty-six. He works in Shenzhen as a writer and teacher, and has written two previous novels: The Ghost of Lotus Mountain Brothel and Loser Parade.

South China Morning Blues deserves to sell well. It’s easy to see the novel becoming a big hit among the expat population in China, but it should also appeal to general readers. Hecht’s Pearl River Delta tapestry is at heart a racy drama exploring universal themes, so no knowledge of China is required to enjoy it.

* * *

South China Morning Blues is published by Blacksmith Books. It’s available from the publisher’s website, Amazon, and bookstores in Hong Kong.

Author Ray Hecht has a website chronicling aspects of his writing and life in Shenzhen.


By  December 11th, 2015

South China Morning Blues book review by Nicki Chen


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.

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