‘Always Goodbye’: Ups, Downs in China, US and Beyond in Graphic Novel by 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.

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.

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.

Staying at Home? Roundup of Books, Movies Featured Here For Your Quarantine

If you’re one of the millions of people around the world forced to stay at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, chances are you may have a lot more time on your hands than you bargained for this spring.

If you’re in need of something to entertain you or offer some much-needed relief from the overwhelming onslaught of often unwelcome news, books and movies do come in handy. And I’ve featured a ton of them right here on the blog.

Consider this your ultimate quarantine list of resources I’ve previously featured on the blog.

This post I put out in late 2018 contains the vast majority of the books already featured on my site.

Since then, I’ve also featured a few more books you can peruse: Hong Kong Noir, Recipes from the Garden of Contentment, Travel to China, Squeaky Wheels, Someday We Will Fly, Touching Home in China, and Spinster Kang.

Looking for movies? My list of critically acclaimed AMWF movies remains a perennial favorite on this site. But don’t miss my earlier list of movies with Chinese men/Western women in love as well as any posts I’ve tagged under movies. Some of my posts on movies over the past couple of years highlight Last Christmas, The Sun Is Also a Star, Tomb Raider and Crazy Rich Asians.

Enjoy! And wherever you are, wishing you good health and safety during this critical fight against the coronavirus.

(P.S.: Looking for more books, movies and other entertainment during a quarantine or stay-at-home order? The Boston Globe lists free streaming movies possibilities and USA Today offers links to free resources. NY Times has a weekly updated list of what to watch, listen to and read.)

‘Spinster Kang’: Interview with Author Zoe Roy

The life of a 30-something Chinese immigrant, haunted by her past and determined never to marry, creates a powerful portrait of courage in the new novel Spinster Kang by Zoe Roy.

Set in Toronto, Canada, the novel follows the titular character Kang, as she strives to build a new life for herself in her adopted country while grappling with her own past and, later, the past of another fellow immigrant she befriends in the story. The book explores women’s issues across cultures, from dating and marriage to sexual assault and divorce, as well as cross-cultural relationships (through two parallel love stories). Spinster Kang strikes a more positive note throughout its pages, despite some of the heavy topics, so readers will find it easy to settle into the story, even when it touches on the shadows of life.

It’s my pleasure to introduce Spinster Kang to you through this interview with the author Zoe S. Roy.

Here’s Zoe Roy’s bio from Goodreads:

Born in China, Zoë S. Roy, an avid reader even during the Cultural Revolution, writes literary fiction with a focus on women’s cross-cultural experiences. She holds an MEd in Adult Education and an MA in Atlantic Canada Studies from the University of New Brunswick and Saint Mary’s University. She currently lives in Toronto and taught for the Toronto Public School Board for years.

You can learn more about Zoe Roy at her website. The novel Spinster Kang is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.

Tell us about what inspired you to write this novel.

In 2011, I made a comment on the website entitled “What is Toronto?’ by the writer, Susan Screan, at http://www.whatistoronto.ca/susan-on-toronto/lets-all-fillintheblank-toronto#comments. Her website was the initial inspiration for the setting of Spinster Kang. Here’s a part of my comment: “Toronto is where I resumed my career and also a place that I call home now. As a non-Toronto-born Torontonian, I’m thinking about having my next novel set in Toronto as a contribution to this great city.”

How did you conceive of the main character in Spinster Kang?

There’s a long story behind my main character. In 1993, Gu Cheng, A Chinese poet who was exiled in New Zealand, killed his wife, Xie Ye, before he hung himself. The death of Xie Ye haunted me, and her acceptance of her husband’s lover in sharing their lives together perplexed me, too. I imagined that if Xie Ye had survived, she would’ve been terrified by men. Several years later, I wrote a short story of a confirmed spinster who distrusts and fears men because of her sister being a rape victim in China. After coming to Canada, she tells a gay friend about her sister’s story that not only releases her from dismay in the past, but also gradually helps build up her trust in men. The story was written in a series of dialogue without a good storyline since I was at the stage of learning how to create plots. Dissatisfied, I put the story on the back burner. However, that story didn’t die out but grew stronger in my head over the years. Then I continually made cross-cultural comparisons about the different social conditions for women and their love affairs or relationships; I also imagined how a woman who distrusted men would change in a different culture. Nearly two decades later after Xie Ye’s death, I wrote about Spinster Kang as a novel.  So to speak, Xie Ye’s tragedy has inspired me to write my protagonist, Kang.

Through Kang’s experiences, you explore a number of women’s issues, including rape and sexual assault as well as stigmatizing women at certain ages, and consider them through a cross-cultural lens. Why did you choose to look at these issues in Spinster Kang?

I’ve been interested in women’s issues since I was young through reading and observation in life. In addition, I’ve been making some comparisons between China and North America in my writing. For example, about rape, many families in China prefer hiding the fact from the public to protect the victim from feeling humiliated and protect themselves from feeling humiliated or being humiliated. The raped women would have trouble getting married as if being sexually assaulted is their own fault instead of being seen as victims. However, in North America victims and their families are more encouraged to report it. The issue is more open in public. The rape victims wouldn’t be discriminated against when they choose to have a relationship or get married.

Women’s preference for getting married or staying single in China is a main issue in Spinster Kang. According to Chinese tradition, grown-up women must get married; otherwise, people would treat you as an abnormal woman or even as if you were an alien. In contemporary China, many women receive higher education and have a career, but these women spend more years on education and career development so that they may not get married until around 25 or even 30. They are called “leftover women” — “剩女” in Chinese. According to a Chinese adage, “A man by the age of thirty should have accomplished his goals,” but this milestone age for unmarried women implies that “you’re at a doomed age and become undesirable.” “Leftover women” is a name tag for these women while “spinster” is a particular nickname for Kang. In this novel, I also touch a taboo subject in China since homosexual people are not accepted. Many Chinese are not aware of their existence. Kang is no exception so that there is an amusing story to go with her based on her misunderstanding the culture as a newcomer.

Your story features two cross-cultural, interracial relationships, one set in Canada and other in Soviet Russia. Why did you juxtapose these two relationships in your story?

These two relationships in the novel are juxtaposed to show that different cultural and social environments can make different impacts on women’s personal lives and their choices. It also shows a linear comparison about the personal life of Kang and her father. Tania and Kang both experience cross-cultural, interracial relationships, but the former ends sorrowfully; the latter has a happy ending, because of the different eras and places. In the early 1950s, China regarded the former Soviet Union as a fraternal country because of the Stalin-Mao Alliance; Students at high schools or at universities all over China were encouraged to learn Russian. Sending Chinese students to study at Soviet universities was put in practice. Kang’s father’s love story reflects this historic period, and his interracial relationship with a Soviet citizen without the Communist Party’s permission was not allowed. Not only was he forced to leave his lover in the Soviet Union, but he was also branded a rightist after returning to China because of his love affair with a foreigner. Kang’s interracial relationship with Brian happens in Canada where people have the freedom to choose what they want.

What do you hope people come away with after reading your novel?

I hope readers, especially those women readers who have cross-cultural experience or interracial relationships or both, would feel emotionally connected to one or more of these characters. I expect, after reading this novel, readers would recognize something or someone familiar or they can identify something new or something old related to their own experiences that could help them get rid of any unpleasant feelings in their past and appreciate more what they have in life or feel happier about their relationships.

Many thanks to Zoe Roy for this interview! You can learn more about Zoe Roy at her website. The novel Spinster Kang is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.

‘Touching Home in China’ Explores Nation, Lives of Girls in Insightful, Intimate Curriculum

China’s rise has continued to drive interest in learning about the country and its culture, as well as also a need for more insightful resources for the classroom. Touching Home in China, an open source multimedia curriculum created by Melissa Ludtke, Julie Mallozzi and Jocelyn Ford (which includes a textbook), offers a very compelling and intimate take on China by following Maya Ludtke and Jennie Lytel-Sternberg, two Chinese adoptees in America who journey back to their birthplaces in the country, two rural communities located in Jiangsu province.

Readers explore China vicariously though not only Maya and Jennie, who discover what their girlhoods might have been like in their birth villages, but also through the many rural girls they meet. Their own stories, along with photographs and videos (available online), become woven together with the academic, bringing to vivid life trends, statistics and scholarly insights.

For example, a section titled “Becoming a Wife”, which starts off with the idea that families in China typically expect girls to get married and have children, shows how Mengping always gets asked if she has a boyfriend every time she returns from Shanghai to visit family in her rural village. The same section concludes with a conversation between Maya, Mengping and another girl in the same village, where they discuss gender roles in marriage in China and the US.

The thread of self-discovery in Touching Home in China also extends to identity, something Maya and Jennie ponder while visiting these rural villages where they were born. For example, in one conversation the girls talk about feeling at times not entirely Chinese or American. It’s enlightening to read about how each of the girls grapples with their own evolving sense of self throughout the curriculum, helping readers to understand their perspectives and the experience of feeling tied to two different worlds, yet wondering where you belong.

Touching Home in China has such a fresh approach that it even captivated me, someone who has lived over a decade in the country and picked up countless books on the subject. When you read about these girls’ dreams, disappointments and hopes, you can’t help but care and root for them as you follow their paths through school to graduation and beyond. Not every story ends happily. Still, I found it heartening to observe the ways in which the girls in both countries gained something from these cross-cultural exchanges — from learning more about who they are to finding inspiration in new possibilities.

You can access Touching Home in China at its website or buy the companion textbook at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.

P.S.: To learn more about Touching Home in Chinaread my interview with Melissa Ludtke.

Two Rachel DeWoskin Interviews on ‘Someday We Will Fly’ – Pub’d in China Daily

The paper version of China Daily recently published my interview with Rachel DeWoskin about her new book “Someday We Will Fly“.

Here’s an excerpt from that piece, titled Creating hope in a wartime city:

A photo of three teenage Jewish boys on a table tennis team, wearing matching T-shirts with their school logo, are among some images of children at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum that American author Rachel DeWoskin saw one summer, inspiring her new historical novel set in the 1940s in Shanghai’s Hongkou Jewish settlement.

“There was so much evidence of how devoted these kids’ community was to creating a sense of normalcy, giving the children a childhood, even though the context of an occupied city at war was excruciating,” says DeWoskin.

“Many of the refugees had no idea where their family members were or whether they were OK. Many had fled Nazi-occupied Europe and landed in Shanghai, destitute and disoriented. Yet they created schools for their kids, ran camps, music lessons and table tennis teams. And shirts. I found those small insignia so moving, and the combination the photos evoked-of danger and resilience to be worthy of literary exploration.”

DeWoskin imagines this world through her character Lillia, a 15-year-old aerial acrobat from a circus family in Poland who flees in 1939 with her father and 1-year-old sister to Shanghai, where they struggle to survive as she wonders if her mother is still alive.

“Lillia is suddenly on her own for the first time in her life, and in a certain sense responsible for her sister, which is intense and complicated, especially given that she’s in an unfamiliar city. But she finds her way, as kids so often do-with grit, grace and practical application of her skills, with warmth and by way of friendship. She figures out how to keep her hope alive even though she’s also full of dread.”

The title Someday We Will Fly, which echoes Lillia’s circus performances, emerged in response to what DeWoskin says is Lillia’s “desperate desire to have a view of her own life that offers some possible future escape from the constraints of war. She wants, as I think we all do, to transcend her circumstances”.

You can read the full piece here.

But that’s not all — China Daily website also published another interview on Rachel DeWoskin’s book: ‘Someday We Will Fly’: Novel spotlights Shanghai Jewish settlement. Here’s an excerpt:

The dedication at the beginning of American author Rachel DeWoskin’s new historical novel, Someday We Will Fly, includes the following: “And for Shanghai, a haven for so many refugees in the 1930s and ’40s”.

She honors the city – and in particular, its Hongkou Jewish settlement that offered wartime refuge to some 20,000 Jews – through her fictional story of a 15-year-old girl named Lillia, an aerial acrobat who flees to Shanghai from Poland with her circus family in 1939.

DeWoskin recently appeared in China to promote her novel. She was in Beijing at The Bookworm on June 6, as well as in Shanghai at M on the Bund on June 8 and through an Historic Shanghai tour on June 9. But to write Someday We Will Fly, she spent seven summers in Shanghai, immersed in the Hongkou Jewish neighborhood, whose landmarks helped give rise to and shape the narrative.

Read the full piece here online.

And if you like these two articles, share them!

‘Foreign Babes’ in China: 3 Rachel DeWoskin Books with Cross-Cultural Love

Rachel DeWoskin recently returned to China to launch her new book “Someday We Will Fly“, with events in Beijing and Shanghai. I had the pleasure to see her at the Beijing Bookworm to learn about this fascinating new historical novel, which follows a teenage Jewish girl in the circus in Poland who flees to Shanghai with her family, where they struggle to survive amid a city under Japanese occupation during World War II.

If you’ve read a number of DeWoskin’s books, you know she loves to explore certain themes and topics.

First off, many of her books are set in China. She spent many of her formative years in the country and still considers it a second home, returning almost every summer.

Also, most of her books focus on the experiences of outsiders and how they seek to connect with others across potential points of division. That includes cultural differences — and even cross-cultural love among foreign women and Chinese men.

You’ll find that in “Someday We Will Fly“, the 15-year-old protagonist Lillia develops a crush on a Chinese boy in her neighborhood.

But it’s not the only example. The classic of course — the one that often comes to mind when many of us think of Rachel DeWoskin — is her memoir “Foreign Babes in Beijing“.

It chronicles her years as a twenty-something in Beijing, a time when she starred as the foreign seductress Jiexi in a TV soap opera while she navigated life and love in the 1990s in Beijing, including having a relationship with a Chinese guy.

After “Foreign Babes in Beijing“, DeWoskin came out with her debut novel in 2009 titled “Repeat After Me“.

For those of you who have read “Foreign Babes in Beijing“, Rachel DeWoskin’s imprint is unmistakable in the main character of Aysha. Like DeWoskin, Aysha is Jewish, from New York City, loves Tang Poetry, teaches, attended Columbia, and ends up falling for a Chinese man. And, like “Foreign Babes in Beijing“, the China parts of the story take place in Beijing, DeWoskin’s old stomping grounds. Plus, “Repeat After Me” also delves deeply into the cultural divide and misunderstandings that inevitably occur when people from two distant cultures become involved.

If you’re looking for some great reads set in China that explore cultural differences with a helping of cross-cultural love in the mix, then consider reading “Foreign Babes in Beijing“, “Repeat After Me” or “Someday We Will Fly“, all by Rachel DeWoskin.

Have you ever read any of Rachel DeWoskin’s books, such as “Foreign Babes in Beijing“, “Repeat After Me” or “Someday We Will Fly“? 

Review: ‘Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair’ by Suzanne Kamata

Much like the Eiffel Tower’s dazzling light show, Paris glimmers in the eyes of many, with countless people dreaming of travel to this alluring French capital. Author Suzanne Kamata did, inspiring her to see Paris as a young woman, and now her teenage daughter Lilia wants her turn (“a girl after her mother’s heart” as Kamata writes).

But Kamata’s memoir Squeaky Wheels, built loosely around how the two eventually realize a once-in-a-lifetime mother-daughter trip to Paris, along with other travels, offers a very unique perspective. It’s one that goes beyond how Kamata is a white American woman married to a Japanese man, raising their bicultural and biracial children in Japan.

That’s because Lilia is deaf, so she communicates primarily through Japanese Sign Language, and also has cerebral palsy, which in her case has meant largely navigating the world in a wheelchair.

Like many mothers, Kamata has a fierce devotion to her daughter and she’s resolved to help Lilia realize her rosy-eyed dreams as much as possible, including travel. Getting there, however, means negotiating the less-than-ideal and even discriminatory accessibility issues that invariably arise when you have a wheelchair and sign language involved.

Kamata’s determination and sense of adventure, combined with honesty, vulnerability and a good dose of humor, make for an endearing narrator. And Lilia’s bright disposition (“She exclaims rapturously over butterflies, heart-shaped pancakes and the first cherry blossoms of spring”) shines throughout the pages. With the two together, Squeaky Wheels delivers a captivating journey that’s also eye-opening, inspiring and a delight to read.

In addition, Kamata effortlessly weaves into the narrative a fascinating look at Japan and Japanese culture, including as it relates to biracial/bicultural families as well as people with disabilities. Artsy readers will also enjoy the visits to museums, from Yayoi Kusama’s polka dot wonders to classic works by Van Gogh, Da Vinci and Rodin. And with France and Paris in starring roles, Squeaky Wheels serves up an irresistible story for anyone besotted with the City of Lights and its nation.

To learn more about Suzanne Kamata and Squeaky Wheels, you can visit Suzanne’s website. Squeaky Wheels is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.

‘Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go’: Interview With Josh Summers

Years ago before my first foray into China, I agonized over exactly what to pack for the year of work there that loomed ahead of me. I had studied every guidebook, primer and even memoir I could get my hands on about the country. Yet none of them seemed to answer certain nagging concerns about what I should make of my precious, and very limited, luggage space.

Could I purchase the feminine products I needed there? Would I still find contact lens solution if I needed it? Should I bring a year’s supply of vitamins, just in case? And what about deodorant?

As trivial as these questions might seem in retrospect, details matter when you’re planning for a trip or, in my case, a long-haul adventure of work overseas. And newcomers to China who sift through the usual titles on the country — such as the Lonely Planet China Guide (at the time, the most definitive and trusted guidebook) — may find themselves disappointed on small details that, nevertheless, make a big difference in travel.

That’s why “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go” by Josh Summers, which truly lives up to its title, offers a welcome addition to the world of guidebooks about China.

From basics such as visas, documents, money, packing and accommodations down to transportation of all kinds, staying connected, the Chinese language and keeping healthy, the book covers almost every issue a traveler might have and steers you toward the best choices for a smooth journey in China. It even includes a sample packing list to simplify your decisions on what to put in that suitcase (if only I had possessed that years ago!).

Essentially, it’s chock full of all the practical tips you’d need to know from a travel insider, and will easily pay for itself by saving you time and money. I recommend this guide to anyone either planning or considering travel to China (there’s even a chapter actually addressed to travelers on the fence about visiting the country).

It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go”  through this interview with Josh Summers.

Here’s Josh’s bio from Amazon:

Josh Summers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas and never considered the idea of writing until he started traveling the world. In 2006, he and his wife set off for an adventure around Asia that aroused a passion for photography, filmography and, of course…writing. Over time, Josh has become known for a unique style of travel writing that is extremely personal, empathetic to the reader and very easy to follow. His blogs and videos reach millions of travelers each year and have inspired countless travelers to venture out beyond their comfort zone.

You can learn more about Josh and his book at his website Travel China Cheaper. “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go” is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.

What sparked the publication of this book?

I get over a thousand emails every month from travelers that run across TravelChinaCheaper while planning for their trip. As much as I try to respond to these emails, it has just become too much for me to handle. What I wanted to do was create a concise, low-cost resource that I could point people to not as a way to make tons of money, but rather as a way to provide help to as many of these people as possible.

Unlike most guidebooks, which usually assume you’re planning to head to China because you purchased them, yours has a chapter titled, “Should I travel to China?” Why did you decide to include this in the book?

You’re right: a number of the questions that I hear from travelers center around their fear of the unknown. They have a desire to travel to China and they’re making the necessary steps to get there, but they’re not 100% convinced. Will they be able to get around using only English? Will they have to use a squatty potty? I wanted to be realistic about the challenges of China but also erase any unnecessary fears from the equation.

Tell us something from your book that you’ve found travelers are surprised to learn about China.

People are generally surprised to learn that China has surpassed most of the world when it comes to the adoption of mobile payment systems. As most expats in China know, we rarely walk around with cash anymore! What’s equally frustrating for tourists to learn, though, is that these mobile payment systems (WeChat, Alipay, etc.) are not geared toward short-term travelers and are pretty much impossible to set up without a Chinese bank account. So, like it or not, cash is still king if you’re walking around China as a traveler. This is the type of information that most travel guides don’t/can’t cover.

Could you share with us a few of the great tips from your book that travelers might not glean from a typical guidebook?

Sure! There’s an entire chapter dedicated to staying connected while in China. For many of us, that means finding a way to connect our mobile devices to the internet while we’re traveling. Most guidebooks will tell you that the internet in China is censored and that WiFi is ubiquitous around most major Chinese cities. It’s very generic and obvious information. What they don’t tell you is that often times these WiFi hotspots are locked behind a text-verification wall, which means that if you don’t have a Chinese phone number, you can’t use the WiFi. This is the case for most airports, shopping areas and even some coffee shops. My guidebook gives simple tips on how to prepare your phone to connect to the Chinese network or how to access global WiFi easily without the need for text verification.

How have readers responded to your guidebook?

So far the reception has been great! I’m so encouraged when I receive emails from people telling me that reading the book was like sitting down with me to chat about my experiences in China. Whereas most emails I used to receive ended with a travel question requiring an answer, nowadays I’m getting more and more emails that are simply a “thank you for your help”. It’s genuinely satisfying.

What do you hope readers gain from your book?

In the end, my desire is that readers will walk away with a confidence that even as a first-time traveler with no Chinese language skills, they could enter China and easily travel around. The world – not just China – is a much friendlier place if you know what to expect before you arrive.

Many thanks to Josh Summers for this interview! You can learn more about Josh and his book at his website Travel China Cheaper. “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go” is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.

‘Recipes From the Garden of Contentment’ (随园食单): 1st English Translation of Seminal Guide to Chinese Gastronomy

Chinese cuisine has endured for thousands of years — a rich, diverse gastronomic cultural heritage that offers much to explore for foodies, chefs, scholars and anyone else eager to trace the flavors behind every meal.

Anyone passionate about Chinese food has reason to celebrate — thanks to the fact that one of the seminal classics of Chinese gastronomy has now been translated into English for the first time: Recipes From the Garden of Contentment (or Suiyuan Shidan, 随园食单), translated by Sean Chen, and published by Berkshire Publishing.

This monumental work first published in the late 18th century by the Qing Dynasty poet Yuan Mei, considered one of the greatest Chinese food writers, has long been hailed as one of the most important guides to Chinese culinary philosophy. You could arguably call it the Bible of Chinese gastronomy, as well as a window into China’s culinary past.

This first-ever translation finally makes this literary classic accessible to an English-speaking audience. Additionally, anyone with an interest both in Chinese food and the language will treasure the fact that the book provides the original Chinese beside the English translation, with copious footnotes that offer delicious tidbits about Chinese culture and cuisine.

Even the book’s recipes, which are mainly rough sketches, will surely inspire seasoned chefs to push their cooking skills further. Sean, the translator, recommends a number of these classic recipes that readers could replicate with good results in the kitchen. The more ambitious might even turn those recipes into a Yuan Mei-themed dinner party for friends, sharing at the table flavors first recorded over 200 years ago.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a deep and abiding love for Chinese cuisine.

It’s my great pleasure and honor to introduce you to Recipes From the Garden of Contentment through this interview with translator Sean Chen.

Here’s Sean Chen’s bio from the publisher’s website:

Translator and annotator Sean Jy-Shyang Chen is a scientific developer for computer assisted minimally invasive neurosurgery. This is his first publication outside the fields of science and engineering.

You can learn more about Recipes From the Garden of Contentment at the website for Berkshire Publishing and also at Sean’s blog The Way of the EatingRecipes From the Garden of Contentment is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.

(Note: In this interview, I refer to the book as Suiyuan Shidan, the pinyin of its original Chinese title.)

When you began this project, were you surprised that no English translation previously existed for this seminal work?

I found it very surprising considering how often it was mentioned in both English and Chinese culinary and academic works. To be honest, I’m still a bit baffled that no one decided to translate it before me, though if I were to venture a guess, it may be because many in the past saw topics on food culture as frivolous and less worthwhile for serious study. Thankfully this has changed over the last 10 or 20 years.

How long did it take you to complete the entire translation? What was the most challenging aspect of the process?

The translation and research done for the annotation took the more than 4 years with another year spent on re-transcribing from the original 1792 text.

At the beginning of the project the most challenging aspect was learning and understanding the classical Chinese text, then finding the right tone and methodology to translate it. However, as I became more proficient in classical Chinese, what ended up taking much of the time is decoding the recipes, figuring out obscure terms for noting things such as anatomy or time units. There was this “white tendon”, that had to be cleaned from fish that took a lot of research. A lot of time was also spent in figuring out the the scientific names of the animals and plants referred in the book.

Of course, tracking down two copies of the 1792 edition of the book was also a large challenge. One of them had many printing defects and damage which made a second copy essential to correct the errors. Then, there was the actual process of transcribing the text in the images to computer UNICODE characters of the same form as that seen in the original text. This was more tedious than difficult, but doing it was arguably the least fun part of the project. Still it made the book and work significantly better as a result.

Could you share some of the more fascinating things you’ve learned about Chinese gastronomy through the process of translating Suiyuan Shidan?

A huge amount actually on the preferences of Yuan Mei, how he likes his food prepared. But more, one also notices that what what was eaten and cooked in the past is very similar to what is eaten now and that there is something of an unbroken lineage between the two.

Furthermore, that there are large influences of other cultures on Chinese cuisine, Central Asia and the Middle East all the way to Europe. One sees that fusion cuisine is not some new and modern thing, but has been continuously synthesizing and growing organically for centuries.

The first two chapters for the do’s and don’ts of Chinese gastronomy and cuisine actually shine a lot of light on what makes Chinese cuisine unique when you compare it with the gastronomical works of other cultures. It is the “must read” of this book. Still one also notices how applicable some of the ideas in these chapters are to modern cuisines of the West.

I also noticed how sugar was used as topping in many chicken dishes in that time period, several of them also being seasoned with sugar. Perhaps there is something in the Chinese gastronomic psyche for sweet-tasting chicken dishes, which we see manifested in dishes like sanbeiji or the pan-American honey-garlic chicken.

In the introduction, you referenced “Yuan Mei’s literary style and humor” and the importance of capturing that in the translation. Could you tell us some of your favorite examples of his style and/or humor that you particularly enjoyed?

Yuan Mei’s humor comes in two forms in the book: 1) as funny anecdotes and stories or 2) sharp stinging jabs at people he doesn’t like, which are both found throughout the book. My favorite, which combines these two, is a story Yuan Mei recounts of a pompous banquet thrown by prefecture head where they served huge quantities of expensive bird’s nests, no doubt for the head to make a statement and to impress the guests. The problem was the bird’s nests were only cooked in water. Considering that preparing bird’s nest is a laborious process, involving meticulous cleaning and a multiple infusion of flavors to make it enjoyable, bird’s nest in water is basically a raw ingredient for a dish. In fact, eating it would have been unappetizing, if not a bit disgusting. But while all the guests were lauding and praising the host for the bird’s nest, Yuan Mei was not impressed. In his usual “take no prisoners” fashion, he told the host out loud: “Hey, I came here to eat bird’s nest, not to collect and stock it for resale.”

While this is primarily a book of gastronomy and the vast majority of recipes are rough sketches, you do recommend a number of recipes that people could follow with good results. Could you share one you particularly like?

My favorite, which I have made several times is Chicken “congee”. It is essentially a chicken soup thickened with starch, with chicken shredded so finely that the meat looks like the cooked rice grains in congee. This dish typifies haut-de-gamme Chinese cuisine, where taste and texture is refined and delectable, but it is concealed under the guise of a simple bowl of rice congee, at least on a first glance. It’s very Chinese literati chic.

What do you hope people come away with after reading your translation of Suiyuan Shidan?

I want people to use it not just as a cookbook or a gastronomic guide, but as a window to the past, showing us the foods eaten by people of that time, from the imperial officials to commoners, and how truly cosmopolitan many of the foods were. By looking at the dishes, we also see the Chinese dishes eaten today have deep roots going back centuries and are in someways timeless. As well, in setting out the principles of Chinese gastronomy and culinary theory in the first two chapters, we can also begin to see what makes Chinese food culture and gastronomy unique. Like all great works I think, one could read the Suiyuan Shidan under different context and learn different things from it; a chef reading it will learn as will a scholar studying food-ways or history. Hopefully the reader will see from it the heritage, elegance, and art of Chinese cuisine from the translated work and be inspired and spurred on to learn more about it.

Many thanks to Sean Chen and Berkshire Publishing for this interview! Once again, you can learn more about Recipes From the Garden of Contentment at the website for Berkshire Publishing and also at Sean’s blogRecipes From the Garden of Contentment is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.

‘Hong Kong Noir’: Fictional Anthology Explores City’s Dark Side

Hong Kong is a city with a sordid past of its own. After all, it has seen pirates, the Opium Wars, Japanese occupation in World War II and many other dark chapters, which also make for great stories.

So naturally, this side of the city deserves a literary nod – which is why it’s fitting that Akashic Books recently released the anthology Hong Kong Noir, edited by Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason.

Of course, it has 14 stories – a requirement of the publisher, but also rather apropos since the number 14 sounds like “certain death” in Cantonese. And these tales — everything from ghost stories to family issues to death and beyond – are gripping and occasionally grim, but overall make for a great read. The stories in the collection even feature a few cross-cultural relationships between foreigners and Chinese (including foreign women and Chinese men).

Even better, because the anthology covers so much territory of Hong Kong, it becomes a kind of nontraditional “travel guide” to the city, introducing you to many of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods. You could even take it a step further and try visiting that temple known for ghosts, or those steps drenched in blood, to add a noir twist to your travels.

I recommend this anthology for anyone interested in Hong Kong who also enjoys dark stories.

Photo by Annette Patko

It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Hong Kong Noir through this interview with one of its editors, Susan Blumberg-Kason (who many of you already know through her compelling memoir Good Chinese Wife).

Here’s Susan’s bio from her website:

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, 2014) and co-editor of Hong Kong Noir (Akashic Books, 2018). She is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Asian Review of Books. Her work has also appeared in The FriskyCha: An Asian Literary Journal, and the South China Morning Post. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she researched emerging women’s rights over 100 years ago. Born, raised, and now based in the Chicago suburbs, Susan is an elected trustee of her public library.

You can learn more about Hong Kong Noir at the publisher’s website. Hong Kong Noir is available at Amazon.com, where your purchases help support this blog.

Could you share with us how you came to be involved in this anthology?

I’d been wanting to read this book ever since I learned about the Akashic Noir series back in 2008 or 2009. Every six months to a year, I’d check Amazon and Akashic’s website to see if it had come out yet or if one was in the works. And for all those years nothing seemed to materialize. In late 2016, I was talking to my agent, Carrie Pestritto, about the year to come and had thought about trying to edit this book, but wasn’t sure if I would bring it up just then or wait another year or so. But at the end of that conversation I brought it up anyway without making a conscious decision to do it. It just came out. And she loved the idea. So I put the proposal together in a month or two and voila. We had a contract by the middle of 2017.

How did you select the contributors?

I contacted the biggest names in Hong Kong I knew. Akashic wants their Noir contributors to fit a certain formula: a number of best sellers in the city where the book takes place; some crime writers; a couple of up-and-coming or new voices; and writers who haven’t written noir or crime stories before. The contributors all needed to have a strong connection to Hong Kong. Akashic also wants a mix of backgrounds and gender. My co-editor, Jason Y. Ng, brought on a few contributors as did a couple of the other big names I had first contacted. Akashic’s other requirement is that we limit our number of contributors to fourteen. We had more than that, so to be fair I cut myself out first.

You have a deep relationship with Hong Kong, which you’ve detailed in your compelling memoir Good Chinese Wife. How did that impact your experience as you worked on this noir anthology?

I feel like I know Hong Kong better than any other city, including my hometown of Chicago. Maybe it’s because I came of age in Hong Kong and have never driven there, thereby learning the neighborhoods on foot and through public transportation. I think that allows one to pay more attention one’s surroundings than if traveling everywhere by car and just focusing on other cars and the street signs and traffic lights. My story in Good Chinese Wife is pretty dark and isn’t unlike some of the stories in the book, but without the bleak ending! I’ve also had some other noir experiences apart from that marriage, so could relate to the feelings the contributors conveyed in their stories. Fiction writers obviously can’t always write about their own experiences, as shown in most of the noir stories, but many of the feelings they convey are genuine. I connected with these feelings, even though I certainly don’t have any experience castrating a boyfriend who’s done me wrong!

This anthology brings together a collection of stories — from ghostly to grim — that transports the reader to some of the darkest corners of Hong Kong, including many places you know. Could you share with us any places or settings in Hong Kong that you’ve visited that you happen to consider shadowy or noirish?

I have a bittersweet anecdote about Diamond Hill, the setting of Feng Chi-shun’s jaw-dropping story, Expensive Tissue Paper. Diamond Hill is located on the Kowloon peninsula, the latter of which is also known as the Dark Side. In November, Bleak House Books, a lovely bookstore up near Diamond Hill, so generously hosted a preview event for Hong Kong Noir. The bookstore was actually in an industrial area called San Po Kong, not far from the Diamond Hill subway station. So I took the subway alone while my family was out sight-seeing and shopping with my college roommates. I’d gone all over Hong Kong alone in my twenties, so how hard could it be in my forties? But after I got to Diamond Hill and followed the signs for San Po Kong, I couldn’t for the life of me find the right street to reach the industrial block that houses Bleak House Books. My phone’s GPS wasn’t working and I couldn’t tell east from west. Just as I started to give up and look for a cab (which I would never do in my twenties), my co-editor Jason found me completely disoriented! Of course he was heading to the bookstore, too, so I gave up trying to figure out where we were and enjoyed catching up with him, all the while feeling a huge sigh of relief. And just like everything else that has seemed daunting and a little scary, things always turn out fine in the end. After the event, I left with Jason, our Hong Kong publisher, Pete Spurrier, contributor Ysabelle Cheung, and writer and translator Martin Merz. We found the subway station just fine (well, I just followed the group!) and took the train together. I was the first to exit the subway to meet my family and friends, and as I ran across Nathan Road, it took me a second to remember I didn’t live there anymore.

A number of the stories touch on relationships and marriages — including interracial and international, LGBTQ and even those between Western women and Asian men — but all with a bleak twist. Without giving too much away, could you share with us a few of these couples or relationships that you found fascinating?

Tiffany Hawk’s and Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s stories appear in the second section, Obedience and Respect, and resonated with me for two reasons. One, they are both Handover stories, although Tiffany’s flashes back to the Handover, and mainly takes place this decade. And they both involve relationships between caucasian women and mainland Chinese men, which of course is my background, too. In the 1990s, before the latest wave of mainland immigrants, there wasn’t a large newly-arrived mainland community in Hong Kong. It was a special time because no one really knew what would happen after the Handover, which gave the era a sense of romanticism. I think many people in Hong Kong now reminisce about the 90s and these two stories epitomize the hope and endless possibilities back then.

What do you hope readers come away with from this anthology?

The desire to book a trip to Hong Kong! Seriously, I hope they’ll learn more about Hong Kong and be able to visualize the many different places that make up this amazing city. I’ve joked with Jason that I hope people use it as a guidebook. And that’s kind of rung true. My uncle came away from the book wishing he’d read it before he first visited Hong Kong so as to better understand the different areas there. His first trip to Hong Kong was in 1965. I can’t think of a nicer compliment

A huge thanks to Susan Blumberg-Kason for this interview! You can learn more about Hong Kong Noir at the publisher’s website. Hong Kong Noir is available at Amazon.com, where your purchases help support this blog.