Unsavory Elements in Chengdu

Editor’s note: “Unsavory Elements: True Stories of Foreigners Loose in China” is a collection of  tales from some of the best China writers in the game. The editors will hold a panel discussion at The Bookworm on Sunday, June 2nd at 7pm.

My first thoughts when I heard that Tom Carter et al were producing a collection of “laowai in China” stories were I can’t take anymore laowai in China stories. I have enough of my own, I read them every damn day, and most of our stories are just re-hashed observations that have changed little in a century.

The streets haven’t changed, only the names. That, as we can all admit, is a depressing perspective and it’s a good thing I took Unsavory Elements and read all 300 pages, because it changed my perspective on my perspective. It took me one night. I got caught up in great stories and forgot about how my boys wake me up at 7am with small feet to my head.

Unsavory Elements ChengduI’m saying I got caught up. There are a couple stories that will have everyone nodding along and flipping through a paragraph to get to the end and there is one creepy story – and that’s amazing, cause you’d think a collection of China tales by predominately foreign males would have a lot more lust – but no, not much softcore in this collection because the writers are all pros.

Some Stand Outs

Watts on Jozef, a tale of enchantment that hit home with me, as an observer. Jozef Margraf was a German polymath who built a beautiful home in Xishuangbanna and spent the last years of his life raising amazing children and finding new ways to save the tropical forests of China’s southern borders. Watts spends a night at his house just days after Margraf’s death, and leaves a changed man.

A 16 year old American girl in Beijing, finding a new mom and a new family, also brought a tear to me eye. Stories like this one, by Kaitlin Solimine, remind me of the pure light of those first days in China. When everything was fresh and beautiful and shatteringly real.

And the story of an idea that became a bust. Literally. Mark Kitto’s proves to be a witty bastard with a sharp eye for human behavior in this essay about his head being taken.

All great stories with tight writing.

But I think the best thing about this collection is the embracing nature of the stories told. You would expect the audience for this type of book to be … folks like the authors themselves and the people who know them. Not the case. Last week two Midwestern women showed up in Chengdu for 10 days and asked me in all seriousness when China would take over the US. I said never. They looked at me with pity in their eyes and basically tossed away any notion they may have had that I know China better than they do.

Point being: lots of people with what I would say “zero clue about China” are interested in China and they will pick up a collection like Unsavory Elements just to live vicariously. And the good thing is, every one of these stories is accessible to the clueless. Sure, long time China Watchers will read between a few lines and see themselves there, and nod accordingly, but every single one of these tales contains enough humanity to do exactly what it is all of us who live in, work with, and write about this place want to do:

Bridge the Gap.

It is all any observer can actually do to make a difference and this book does make a difference.

But don’t take my word for it.

Show up at The Bookworm in Chengdu on Sunday, June 2nd, at 7pm and listen to Tom Carter, Derek Sandhaus and Matt Muller talk about their unsavory selves and the elements thereof in the collection they have edited. And then buy the book and learn something.

14 thoughts on “Unsavory Elements in Chengdu”

  1. This looks really good – it’s surprising to hear you say that the content isn’t too controversial because the title appears to indicate otherwise.

    What I’m wondering is, where can people get this? Is it available for purchase as a book in the Bookworm or on Kindle, anything like that?

    • @Sascha, thank you for the review. Much obliged!

      @Charlie, the book will be listed on Amazon in July. Alternatively, you can support local independent bookshops by purchasing it at The Bookworm or directly from our publisher, Earnshaw Books in Shanghai.

      Thanks in advance to everyone in Chengdu for supporting our grassroots project; looking forward to meeting you all at our Bookworm event.

      • I would love to support you guys and the Bookworm but I have stopped collecting physical books out of a desire to reduce physical clutter. I will look out for the book on Amazon.

        Sascha, the link you post is to a list on Amazon – do you have a URL for the actual book, or is that pending release from Amazon?

        Tom, I noticed that you authored China: Portrait of a People. Looks really good, but paperback only – drat!

  2. I didn’t read anything to overtly political really. There is one tale about writing a confession, but the stories all harbor a love for China that shines through. I am not sure how to buy this book really, I am sure there are Amazon links, however, and I will post them as soon as I know.

    Also, the event tomorrow, June 2, at the Bookworm will undoubtedly have that info.

  3. I was a bit surprised/ saddened to see this published, as I started a (Nanowrimo) novel-a-month back in November which I finished on a very similar theme. Though my topic is more of an ethnography on laowai counterculture I haven’t harnessed the heavy hitters of this volume.

    Will be curious to see how it’s received but I’m still planning on putting forth my story idea as I’ve invested 70,000k+ words in it.

    Chengdudes, how was the event?

  4. Chengdudes, How was the book received?

    I wrote a novel on a very similar topic in November as part of the novel-a-month NanoWrimo contest. Well I succeeded with over 70,000k words but look like this niche just got nailed with a compendium of the who’s who of China laowais.

    Sucks seeing something published when you think you have a ‘novel’ (pun) idea but perhaps this will spark interest in a relatively narrow target audience.

  5. “You’d think a collection of China tales by predominately foreign males would have a lot more lust – but no, not much softcore in this collection because the writers are all pros.”

    No. Because they are all either gay or lying or just don’t want to ‘advertise” that China perk. “Cheap China Girls Done Cheaply” Now that’s a good title for an expat bio.

    This book is not the true expat book.

    • @KaiNiNaiNai, ignoring the cheap shot about Unsavory Elements not being a “true” expat book, whatever that is, I do vociferously agree with you that certain established western authors in China have conveniently, and not a little disingenuously, evaded sexual subject matter throughout their writing careers here.

      Beijing-based blogger Isham Cook addresses this very topic more eloquently and extensively than I ever could in the following post, so I suggest we migrate this discussion in his direction. Check it.


      • Guess there is still room for my up-and-coming ‘LaoWhy?” as it is more truthful to the washed up Jellyfish high on ketamine and one-night stands– the white monkey performing “Country Roads” for the umpteenth time while the bulldozer pushes the peasant further into poverty.


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