Old Shanghai

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Chinese Pirates and Shanghai Stories

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Last night I went to the evening organized by Earnshaw to launch their two latest books: “I sailed with Chinese Pirates” and “Shanghai Story Walks”. I have been a fan of Earnshaw Books since they published the first of their series of reprints, Carl Crow’s “Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom“, my favourite China read of ‘08. Since then they have continued to publish new originals and reprints faster than I could read them, so I jumped on this opportunity to try to catch up.

The event was announced - and recommended - on the Shanghaiist calendar, so I thought I’d get there a bit earlier to catch a seat before the masses arrived. Actually, apart from the collection of smiling ladies with cups of tea that populate all these literary events, the attendance was pretty moderate. It came as a shock to me, but I suppose not everyone is interested in fascinating expat stories that happened 100 years ago.

Too bad for them. The evening went really smooth, with a bit of blues by the big man Earnshaw, great atmosphere and free drinks just for showing up. But what I enjoyed most were the two presentation speeches. If you have been to literary festivals you know how boring these things can get: people who can write are not necessarily good speakers, more often than not they are timid individuals who find themselves forced to deliver hour-long speeches, and they take ample revenge by boring the public to the marrow.

This time it was different. The presentations were brief, well prepared and yet spontaneous, and with their repertoire of pirates and big-eared gangsters they managed to catch our ear. Suffice to say that I ended up buying both, in spite of my firm resolution to not bring any more new books to my home on the verge of collapse. But let’s have a look at the babies:

The author of this book, Yvette Ho Madany, is originally from Shanghai, and she draws from her family connections and from her own research to guide us in a series of story-walks around the city. She told us the tragic life of Mrs. Dong and the spicy beginnings of the JinJiang hotel. A must-read and must-walk.

Expat intelligentsia hero Paul French spoke for the original author Mr.Lilius, who was unable to attend, presumably due to his demise in 1977. Mr. French gave us a well-rounded speech with some good pirate jokes and enough teasers to make me run to the stalls and get the product. Then, like usual, he scolded us for being XX century citizens and paying attention to the GDP instead of to Pirate Queens, and if you ask me he was damn right on that one, arr!

The reading List

Now, I know what you are thinking and you are right: I am brazenly posting a Book Review post when I haven’t read a page of the books in question. I sold my soul for a free glass of Chinese red wine and some good vibes, I admit it. But frankly speaking, the efforts of Earnshaw to bring us of those old gems, first on his website and then on fine quality paper editions, deserve already all my praise. And let’s not forget that I owe them the discovery of the inimitable Carl Crow.

As for these 2 new books, I will read them and I will walk them, and I promise I will get back to this post and update it with my frightful reviews.

On a side note: These last 3 months I have dedicated an absurd proportion of my free time to reading in Chinese. I have just finished my third novel, and I am very proud of that, but in the meantime normal reading has been on hold, and the List has got completely out of control. I am afraid I will not catch up with myself before the Summer holidays. More about my experiments on Chinese reading in coming chapters.

Crisis and Old Shanghai

Friday, November 21st, 2008

I was writing just yesterday my latest Crisis article when I realized that in Shanghai we have our own economic weak link, with quite a lot of companies that are suffering as much as the Pearl River Delta workshops. I am speaking of foreign startups in Shanghai.

One of the things that makes Shanghai such an interesting place to live is her magnetic properties that attract all sorts of enrepreneurial metal from around the world. One can read a lot about succesful startups in well informed China blogs dealing with business, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Unless you live here, you can not even start to imagine the thousands of starting business ventures swarming the city. Even in the most modest of social events you will meet a good handful of CEOs in their 20s, always rich with ideas, and typically trying to figure out how to monetize them.

Most of these adventuruos foreigners struggle for a long time before eventually giving up and moving to new horizons. Others manage to run a sustainable business. Very few ever become rich.

But an unusually large number of them are actually going bust right now as a consequence of the Crisis. In the last few months since the summer, already three acquaintances have said farewell to me and to Shanghai, with their dreams broken and their companies bankrupt.

Now, it is probable that for Chinese economy, these bankrupcies won’t have the same impact as the ones on the Pearl River, but they do provide some colourful and very typically Shanghainese tales:

For example. I think of my friend who went to work one Monday to find out that there was no computer, and no chair and table, and no company at all, because the struggling Dutch owner and founder of the startup had been busy over the weekend trying to get the best value off the remaining assets before he disappeared out of the country. Fortunately, this girl was only doing an internship in Shanghai and, as last survivor of the company, she had the difficult task of assessing her own performance and grading herself before taking 2 extra free months to travel in China.

Some recent developments of this new trend can be seen also in this article by CER, which warns us against company-sponsored trips and team builidng events. Does your boss sound suddenly generous in the midst of financial turmoil?  Does it seem a bit odd that you have been invited to this expensive Team Building week up on the pastures of Heilongjiang? Don’t go. Chances are when you are back to Shanghai there is no accounting department left to submit your expenses claims. Or to pay your 2 months due of salary for that matter.

And all this makes me wonder: are we coming back to the good old times of the concessions? The times when only in Shanghai there were dozens of different national jurisdictions where crooks and adventurers of all sorts found the folds where they could flourish; when thousands of foreigners flowed into Shanghai with the most diverse schemes to get rich, usually involving, as Carl Crow would put it: “mixing other peoples money with their own”. Perhaps we never really left that period.

And this leads me straight to the Big Question, which foreigners in Shanghai have been asking themselves for the last hundred years, and which is still a recurrent subject of conversation here: Is it possible to get rich in China?

This is definitely a subject I will be blogging about soon. In the meantime, I strongly recommend that you read this book: “Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom”, by Carl Crow. Among many other things, you will see how little has changed, and how expats in Old Sahnghai answered to exactly the same questions as we ask ourselves today.

One last quote from the book that might help shed some light on the Question above:

Every foreigner went to China with a consciousness of his own [...] mental superiority and a smug satisfaction in the belief that there were many things he could teach the chinese.

To be fair, there are more and more foreigners, especially of the younger generations, coming in today with a serious disposition to learn what the chinese have to teach before they add their own grain of sand. But there are still too many left with the Old China Hand attitude who feel the need to enlighen the locals with their wisdom.

So, here is the first big clue to answer the Big Question: in 2008, just like in 1908, the (few) foreigners who get rich have taken the time first to learn from the country. See the Standard Oil back in the time, or Tudou’s Marc van Der Chijs today.

PS. If you are even slightly interested in China - and if you are reading this blog you probably are - do yourself a favour and get this book immediately from the Shanghai Foreign Language Library or from here.

PPS. If you are my personal friend or relative - and if you are reading this blog you probably are - then just give me a call and come over to my place, I will lend you the book.