but they rarely go much further than a re-write and patching-together of their collected articles. Seth Faison's book, South of the Clouds, is an exception.
Faison, from New York City, was a correspondent in Beijing for the South China Morning Post in the late 1980s, and in Shanghai for the New York Times in the mid-1990s. His book relates the best of his stories and scoops from those times, including the student unrest leading up to the Tiananmen tragedy in 1989, and the explosion of video piracy and the Falungong phenomenon of a few years later. But he goes further, and makes the book at least as much about himself as about China and its changes.
He relates his sexual voyage through the Chinese world, from student fumblings in Xi'an, through to masseuse handjobs in provincial cities and finally a full-blown affair with a transsexual dancer in Shanghai. His motives for this self-exposure appear more novelistic than reportorial, and his writing abilities are more than sufficient to support fiction ambitions.
He excels in bringing to life two moments: the grimness of Chinese urban life in the early 1980s and that fantastic cross-cultural explosion that occurred in Shanghai in the mid-1990s. Having experienced both myself, I am in a position to take a view, and I am grateful to him for taking the time to document each moment.
The title of the book is puzzling. It refers to the name of Yunnan province, in China's southwest, but Yunnan plays a small role in the book compared to Xi'an, Shanghai and Tibet. Perhaps Faison sees the name as a metaphor for his explorations beyond the obvious places at the center of China.
While his observations on Chinese life and people and his explanations of political changes are as good as any in print, this book is best read to find out how one foreign guy reacted to China and its changes over the past 20 years.
South of the Clouds, by Seth Faison. St Martin's Press, US$16.47 (hardcover) at amazon.com
Another China book by a journalist currently in the bookshops is a reprint of One's Company by Peter Fleming, originally published by Jonathan Cape in 1934.
Fleming spoke no Chinese and was only in China for a few months when the situation was fraught by a worsening civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists and a growing threat from the Japanese. The political details have no significance today, but Fleming's book is worth reading for its delightful writing style, the vignettes of people and places and his mock-modest self-effacing asides.
He gives the impression of being a man who had the right to exhibit a modicum of intellectual arrogance.
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