‘Shanghai Cocktales’ and the Curse of the Expat Memoir

Ed’s note: Enjoy more (erudite) foreign witterings about China, accompanied by the laidback, smooth notes of a half-dozen whisky pairings – selected by BJC’s Anthony Tao, hosted by Alec Ash –  at Wednesday’s Scotch and Stories (150/50 yuan, drinking/not drinking) at the Bookworm – RFH

SHANGHAI COCKTALES (A Memoir)

51neD6ZqsAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ It’s one of the gifts of China that there’s something to write about on every street corner. It’s one of the curses of China that expats keep writing about themselves instead.

That’s not to say there isn’t rich material in it. Somewhere outside the Fourth Ring Road, a nondescript borderline-alcoholic English teacher might be polishing off the manuscript of the China equivalent to The Sun Also Rises. Escape, reinvention, exoticism, disillusionment – it’s all there for a novelist or memoirist, plus baijiu, smog and as many happy endings as you can afford. There’s definitely a way to do it right, make it funny, and say something meaningful about how us foreigners (with nowhere else in particular to go) engage with China, or don’t. There’s also a way to do it wrong, and come across as a goon who can’t write his way out of a paper bag.

By now you should be getting an idea of what kind of a review this is going to be.

As a writerly sort and interested party, I occasionally read books which are memoirs – sometimes thinly veiled as fiction – of the expat in question’s China years. Some are entertaining, others as interesting as a concrete overpass. Many have weird hang-ups about sex. Most feature heavy drinking as a centrepiece. Almost all can be summed up in a single sentence: “Look at this crazy wacky time I’m having in China!” But I’ve never seen one which combines all of the things I hate in China writing between two covers until I read the self-published Shanghai Cocktales: A Memoir by Tom Olden.

Can we dwell on that title for a moment? Shanghai Cocktales. It sounds like some “friend” of Olden’s dared him to write a book based around that single, shitty 2am pun. I’m sure it sounded funny after five rounds at his local, but Olden woke up the next morning and still went with it. The chapters are called “Cocktale One,” “Cocktale Two,” and so on until you wish you were dead or drinking that sixth cocktail. Tom Olden (a pseudonym) has all the subtlety and ear for language of a horny, deaf-blind goat. If he ran this blog, it would no doubt be called Beijing Spunk.

The plot is more or less a blow-by-blow dirge of Olden’s nights out, sexual conquests and job interviews in Shanghai from his arrival as a twenty something year-old in 1999 (“the year of the Rabbit”, thanks for that) until now. It’s billed as a memoir but reads like bad fiction. The second sentence begins “As the only white male on a half-full flight, I gratefully enjoyed the extra attention the nubile air hostesses gave me,” and goes downhill from there. I would happily write off that half-full flight as collateral damage if the plane had only crashed and spared us the rest.

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Promotional image for ‘Shanghai Cocktales’

At the airport, Olden meets his mate Alex, who wows him by giving an address in Chinese to their taxi driver. (“‘Whadde’fuck?’” … “‘You speak Chinese? Fuck me!’” … “‘Ching-chong, ching-chong, you’re the man.’”) There’s also some artful exposition when Alex quizzes Olden about why he left everything to come to China and asks about a girl called Marie. “‘She’s over and out. Bitch!’”, comes the reply. (“If it hadn’t been for her,” Olden delusionally muses later,“I could have spent my entire time on campus banging freshmen.”) It’s frequently revealed that Olden has “nightmares where I would wake up, bathed in cold sweat, panting from seeing Marie and Kurt in joyous copulation.” I’m on Team Kurt.

It’s not just snappy comebacks and scintillating interior monologue that Olden puts in italics. It’s every sentence he thinks is clever. On local eating habits: “How the fuck can they eat cold fish for breakfast?” On people he doesn’t like: “I’d party with anyone but her. Even French people.” On his soul-crushingly bland inner life: “You’re here now. In Shanghai. Ready for a new beginning.” His favourite refrain is “Whadde’fuck?” Sometimes he switches into italics for whole paragraphs, just for kicks. He also does that irritating thing where he writes the pinyin followed by the English (“‘Mei you wenti.’ No problem”) because ching-chong, ching-chong, he’s the man.

For someone who lived in China for sixteen years, it’s hard to believe how little of interest happened to Olden. He tries valiantly to keep things topical – the Belgrade embassy bombing, the Internet boom – but inevitably gets sucked back into the dull minutia of his sexpatscapades. In one meat market, he picks up a girl with the sparkling line “Hey – can I buy you a drink?” Her reply is “OK. First, toilet”, and I know how she feels. There are exactly two entertaining moments in the book – one where he is fleeced by the notorious teahouse scam into paying a huge dinner bill, the second where he is scammed by conmen posing as police when he’s with a prostitute. Finally, something worth cheering for.

Every woman Olden meets is immediately judged on her appearance. The idea persists among some foreigners – dare I say, especially in Shanghai? – that China is populated by porcelain dolls just waiting to jump into bed with them. Most of the time, it’s just run-of-the-mill Asian sexpot sophomoric dross, which isn’t worth quoting, although I kid you not that the first Chinese girl he runs into tells him he’s handsome and gives him an “exotic giggle.” Often it’s nastier, such as a bargirl who is “probably in her early thirties and had certainly been a pretty girl at some point in life, but now she looked pale and pinched, her slanted eyes rimmed by darkened circles.” I would give anything for a jacket shot of Olden so I could treat him the same.

Besides his alleged close encounters with Shanghai’s beauties, the rest of the book is Olden’s job interviews and miscellaneous score settling, which is all about as fun to read as drinking melamine from the can. He does the rounds of early city magazine websites and paints thinly veiled portraits of various friends and foes using false names. The climactic moment of the memoir is Olden landing a job that pays twelve thousand yuan a month, presumably vindicating him to all his enemies. There’s a whole paragraph about how boring a meeting was. To quote the master: Whadde’fuck?

If you’re a masochist, you can buy the book on Amazon, where there are thirteen customer reviews, all five stars, many of which overuse his full name in the same way. Something tells me the IP log would be revealing. I can’t imagine it sold like hot cakes, as half a year later he started giving it away for free on Twitter.

@Bueller @Anyone @Anyone?

@Bueller @Bueller @Anyone… @Anyone?

I had an email exchange with Olden – he knows this review is coming – who wrote “I am aware that many people will not appreciate the story, but I wanted to tell it as it was.” He changed the names of people and companies, but everything else is accurate “as I remember it” (unspecified after how many drinks). The motivation to write the thing, he argued, was so that “when someone picks up the book 20-40 years from now, they’ll get a true picture of Shanghai in 1999.”

Curious about this mysterious auteur (Olden’s author bio says he “grew up in a small fishing village outside of Malmo, Sweden”), I asked some friends in Shanghai and we did a half-hearted human flesh search. Eventually, with the help of RFH, I tracked down someone who knows him and was in Shanghai over the same period. “It’s representative of the mindset of foreigners in China in that era,” he told me. “It’s reprehensible drivel, but unfortunately it’s the best record we’ve got.”

You might wonder – I certainly am – why I’m bothering to do a hatchet job on a self-published book with a fundamentally unlikeable narrator that no one except a few of Olden’s remaining mates will read. It’s not the first piece of grot to be written by an LBH (Loser Back Home) who got shanghai’ed into China and thinks his story is unique, and it won’t be the last. Worse books and blogs have been written. As to the offensive sexist stuff, he’s just a minnow in the slipstream of trouts like China Bounder, Robert Black and Isham Cook.

Part of it, I’ll confess, is that writing this is one way to claw some enjoyment back from the hours lost reading the bloody thing. But more than that, it’s because with every tone-deaf sentence I’m reminded of what we might be missing. Again, The Sun Also Rises was also narcissistic foreigners drinking all day. Here’s Hemingway: “You know what’s the trouble with you? You’re an expatriate. … You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You’re an expatriate. You hang around cafés.” And here’s Olden, via one of his dolls: “‘Many, many fun in Shanghaijj,’ she lashed on, shaking her head sideways. ‘Yo come anytime and we take care o’yo. Good time. Ayi-yaah. Many fun. Many, many fun…’”

Mostly, I’m reviewing this book because Olden told me that, after sixteen years, he is leaving China in a few months. I want to leave him a memento to remember us by. To borrow his own italicised phrase about a girl he doesn’t take a shine to: “You cannot let bitches like that go without a slap.

Alec Ash is a writer and journalist in Beijing, and editor of the Anthill. Information and purchasing details of Shanghai Cocktales are on Facebook or Amazon (includes video). For a much more charitable take on this memoir, the Kirkus Review says it “gives readers plenty to think about.”

UPDATE, 6/4, 12:30 am: here’s our response to Tom Olden’s official response to Alec Ash’s review.

43 Responses to “‘Shanghai Cocktales’ and the Curse of the Expat Memoir”

  1. Cameron Wilson

    I’m surprised there’s not more reviews like this one, trashing this book. When I first saw the title, I thought “Chinabounder 2″. I cringed, thinking of how offended our Chinese hosts would likely be if they ever read it. However, as someone who spent quite a bit of time in Shanghai around the same time (2000), I was very curious to read it.

    After reading the book, I think the author did himself a disservice with the title. It doesn’t actually revolve around sex, and there’s not really anything in it much sordid apart from one encounter in Hangzhou which is described in barely one sentence.

    I get the critcism in this review and understand the writer’s view point. But… this book is a very refreshing and honest take on a young man’s foreign adventure in a far-off city. The things he says, does, and thinks are representative of a lot of 20-something guys on a foreign adventure anywhere in the world. The difference is that Shanghai is in a period of social change which makes personal adventures of all kinds more readily available. Which of course provides more interesting writing material.

    The book is politically correct and panders to laddish humour. But there is nothing wrong with that in itself. Talk to any guy under 35 or so who has spent a few years in Shanghai since the turn of the millenium, you’ll find Olden’s account is representative of many young men’s experiences in this city. Olden has simply written about it in a colourful and amusing manner, to this end, despite the reasonable critcisms in this review, the book itself is honest and a realistic picture of one aspect of Shanghai and well worth reading for those curious to get an insight into expat lives in Asia, for good or for bad.

    Reply
  2. Chinese Netizen

    Already stopped reading, a quarter into your review. It’s not the review…it’s the fact that even reading a scathing review about such utter crap is ever so tiring.
    Lived in China “back in the day” (as if MY ‘Olde China’ experiences are supposed to be better or more interesting than anyone else’s…just because…they’re old.) and though it really was a lot of fun and one could, I suspect, get away with a LOT more than today, everyone’s mileage may vary and NOT everyone should write a book about it.
    I certainly won’t have delusions about it.
    Good thing I stopped caring about China-centric books six years ago. Last decent one I touched was Phillip Pan’s.

    Reply
  3. Monkey King

    Bravo for outing this guy. There are way, way too many horrible “books” like this, especially in the last few years, written by talentless hacks who have nothing interesting to say. And the worst thing isn’t that someone ends up wasting time and money on them. It’s that it is likely that potentially gifted writers, who actually have a good story that they can skillfully tell, are going to be too afraid to even try out of fear they’ll be lumped in with these LBHs.

    Reply
  4. Brendan

    Thanks for the review. If they were at home, expatriate memoirists would have (a) a sense of perspective and (b) a support group of concerned family and friends to tell them that they’re not interesting and they can’t write, but the expat bubble seems to encourage this sort of boozy autocolonoscopy. During the mid-aughts, back when people actually blogged, online journaling probably absorbed some of the worst of this, but now that blogs are dead and self-publishing is easy, I suspect that we’ve got a lot more of this to look forward to.

    The “Should You Write A Popular Non-Fiction Book About China?” flow-chart is cute, and its heart is in the right place, but it’s a lot more complicated than it needs to be. The last question bubble is the problem, I think: everyone thinks they have “something unique and interesting to say which hasn’t been said before,” and by definition it’s the people who have the worst taste and the shallowest understanding who will be most likely to answer that question in the affirmative.

    Reply
    • jixiang

      If they were at home, expatriate memoirists would have a sense of perspective?

      Surely living in China gives you more of a sense of perspective, if nothing else.

      Reply
    • jixiang

      ” If they were at home, expatriate memoirists would have (a) a sense of perspective”

      Surely living in China provides you with a sense of perspective, if nothing else.

      Reply
  5. Isham Cook

    Hi there, Alec. Rumor has it you’re coming out with a book about China one of these days. Given your penchant for taking potshots at people and resorting to low blows, I’m curious to see if you have any interesting ideas of your own to relate and sustain over the length of a book. If you do, I hope it’s impeccably well written, because if it’s not, I am practised at writing effective and devastating reviews. I take great pleasure in it, in fact, and am already sharpening my pencil. Don’t worry, I won’t forget to keep an eye out for your book; I hope to be the first to review it. Good luck!

    Reply
    • It's Pat

      I’d really like to know what the beef is between Alec Ash and Isham Cook. It seems that Alec has long had it out for the guy (along with any other expat who dares write about having sex with Chinese girls), first by calling Isham “a disgusting white man” in an Anthill article spotlighting “the worst” China writers, and now here “a minnow in the slipstream of trouts”.

      Which is odd because Alec’s Anthill blog once published one of Isham’s icky stories about prostitution, which seems a bit hypocritical on Alec’s part.

      So either these two guys have some sort of weird homoerotic feud going on between them, or maybe Isham had sex with one of Alec’s Chinese girlfriends, and now Alec is taking his written revenge any opportunity he gets.

      Beijing Cream mods: how about giving some of the authors that Alec unfairly tore to shreds here an equal opportunity to write about Alec? I’d like to know if he is as highbrow in real life as he comes across in his literary hatchet jobs of others.

      Reply
      • Ricardo

        I think the real question is what’s going on between Isham and Tom. Alec attacks the Tom’s book and Isham swears by his “pencil” to avenge him.

        Reply
    • Alec Ash

      Hi Isham, I’ll of course welcome a review from you, though I hope it won’t be ad hominem.

      For public record, I think you’re a good writer and your stuff has plenty of literary merit, I just don’t like the subject matter when Asian women are only or predominantly presented in relation to sex. Obviously I know that criticising writing I don’t like lays me open to “come back” when I publish my own writing. As I said to Olden when I sent him the link for this review, and as I’ll say to you, I have no personal beef whatsoever – I enjoyed our beer – but any published writing is fair game for criticism, including mine.

      Reply
      • R

        i’ve read your stuff, alex. sorry to say it’s as vanilla, wannabe hessler as china writing gets. i’ve also read isham’s self-indulgent, overly long, wannabe faulkner work. i honestly think both of you need to spend more time improving your own craft and less time writing negative reviews of other authors, because neither of you are one to talk. as someone else said above, this hostility you guys have towards each other comes across less a literary critique and more a quasi-homosexual swordfight.

        Reply
  6. RhZ

    “You might wonder – I certainly am – why I’m bothering to do a hatchet job on a self-published book with a fundamentally unlikeable narrator that no one except a few of Olden’s remaining mates will read.”

    Hilarious, honestly. A bit harsh but funny as hell.

    Not defending this buffoon, but you will write when you leave, and some newbie without a clue (i.e. 3-5 years in) will say, ‘don’t let the door hit you on the way out’. Such is the nature of things.

    Reply
  7. Allan Ho

    Another expat for Beijing Cream to slag off. It is becoming a habit. Apparently Anthony Tao doesn’t like anyone who writes about their experiences in China and who might prove more popular than him. Wanker.

    Reply
  8. Anthony Tao

    Who arbitrates taste? Not a single person of course, but a community, one which reveals its health and maturity through the intelligence of its discussions and honesty of opinions. The critic’s job is to inspire those discussions, and hopefully say something true along the way. Similarly, the curator’s job is to place a work onto a platform from which it can be critiqued. If you have anything to say, by all means, do it — you know where you can get in touch: http://beijingcream.com/about

    Any of us who has ever set our name to a piece of writing knows we’re opening ourselves to criticism, whether fair or not. As Alec said, we’re all fair game. It’s why this blog has had, for the vast majority of its existence, an open comment section. Far beyond me trusting this community to say worthwhile things, I’ve always thought writers should be held accountable. If I write crap, I expect to hear about it. And have I written crap? Of course. Every writer does at some point. But why should any of us wish to continue producing crap in an echo chamber of niceties and retweets?

    I’ll give Tom Olden credit here: he actively sought critique, and so far he’s not resorted to the tact of the lazy and dimwitted: ad hominem attacks or anonymous drive-by comment vomit usually including the word “slag.”

    Listen up, Beijing expats: if you, like Jonathan Alpart, whose comment is above, want to strive in solitude in the good name of “doing something” and wish for nothing more than a compliment and star, may I suggest you keep your work to the friendly confines of Facebook. Otherwise, buck up and say something befitting an intelligent adult. (p.s. Thank you for those who have on this thread.)

    Reply
    • Jonathan Alpart

      Whoa, looks like I hit a nerve here? The confines of Facebook? I’ve put myself out there in the smelly pits of your comments section many, many times, only to get shit on. I’ve had my videos called boring, meaningless, and received downright mean personal attacks here, back when you yourself posted my videos, remember? Not to mention my work is publicly available online on multiple platforms that also allow open commenting.

      Personally, I would love a critical write-up devoted to my show (always have), but you seem to think books about half-awake sex and screeds about jackass expats outweigh the local music scene in importance.

      I don’t know why you’re singling me out here. Sure, it’s a nice review and all that, but it’s low-hanging fruit, man. A picture of the cover of this awful book and a few lines would’ve been enough for a laugh, but all the seriously-written words devoted to it just brings Alec down to Olden’s level.

      How are you talking all this high-minded stuff about curation and critiques, when this review was obviously a “hatchet job” written about “piece of grot to be written by an LBH (Loser Back Home) who got shanghai’ed into China and thinks his story is unique?” If you want comments befitting intelligent adults, then choose good books.

      My first thought upon seeing this post was, of course, that the book is offensively bad, but after reading Cameron Wilson’s comment, I realized the truly embarrassing thing here is the time and space wasted talking about it. You can’t deny that foreigners like to get together and snipe at others. It’s our favorite activity after drinking and eating chuanr!

      Reply
      • RhZ

        While I admire what you do, Jonathan, and agree that many China-centric websites are cesspools of shitty comments and insults, I would ask that you not present yourself as some poor sucker, treated rudely in this comment section. I have gotten into it with you, and as I remember you seem to hold some odd beliefs and can be somewhat obtuse when you want to be.

        The point is just that you were not an innocent victim. But I never attacked any of your videos, the ones that I have watched were pretty interesting.

        Reply
      • Chinese Netizen

        BTW, J.A., nice self promo on the comments section of the NY Times today. But I think Xinjiang is losing it’s edginess…

        Reply
    • Name Withheld

      Actually, Anthony, Olden DID respond to Alec’s review, just not in Beijing Cream’s wasteland comments section that nobody reads, but over on Reddit. His response in part was:

      “(Alec) gets particularly white-knighty and must have some kind of shame regarding judging the appearance of women who could be potential lovers. He labels me a LBH (loser back home). I label him typical western beta male with misdirected sexual shame issues.”

      Olden comes across as a phenomenal douche in his other comments on Reddit, and like most people I have no desire to read his self-published drivel. But he does make a particular apt point about Alec, who certainly has a white-knight complex, and seems to be on some self-appointed, self-righteous campaign to repress any mention of sexuality in China expat writing.

      As another Redditor noted, as did Isham (the worst kind of pervert, but that’s for another thread) above, this in all likelihood is because Alec is trying to set himself up a mass-market book deal and ingratiate himself with “the right people” in literary circles through his blatantly obsequious behaviour. I’ve also heard (but don’t care enough to confirm) that Alec comes from a family of UK authors, so maybe that also has something to do with his sniveling snobbery and pandering pomposity.

      Now that you and Alec have become BFFs through your new little scotch-and-stories nights, Anthony, I can just picture the circlejerk of pretentious expat writers shitting on other writers who don’t fall in with your “white-knighty” parameters. It’s really quite pathetic…and even more pathetic that you and Alec don’t realize it.

      Reply
    • Allan Ho

      I think the problem is YOU at BEIJING SPUNK have written shit about people who actually had good China nous about them. You’ve roasted some good even well known people. I don’t care for this book either but your justifying your criticism en masse and saying “if you don’t like write on Facebook” is full of self important shite. What community you talking about? Only the people you like, that’s for sure what you really stand for.

      Reply
  9. Allan Ho

    “Anthony, I can just picture the circlejerk of pretentious expat writers shitting on other writers who don’t fall in with your “white-knighty” parameters. It’s really quite pathetic”
    VERY well said.

    Reply
  10. World Cup Willie

    Oh No! Is Beijing Cream finally losing its own readers after slagging off absolutely everyone including writers of its own level?

    Reply
  11. Kun Tong Tung

    Note to Tao: Using the word “erudite” doesn’t mean you are.
    Your double standards of how you treat people is catching up with you.

    Reply
  12. jixiang

    The book in question sounds dreadful, but at least the guy tried.

    I don’t really see the point of writing such a negative review of a book which almost no one’s going to read anyway.

    But that’s just me.

    Reply
  13. Lee

    @Jixiang: Beijing Cream always puts a huge amount of time into writing negative reviews of expats in China. Even those that aren’t even here anymore. And especially if they have the temerity to write why they are leaving or produce a book. They’re the lowest scum. According to Beijing Cream anyway.

    Reply
  14. Wank Malarky

    Well so far it’s Beijing Spunk 0 Shanghai Cocktales 1

    At least “Tom Olden” is funny. Beijing Cream is just nasty to people.
    Cool YouTube vid never seen anything like that before…
    So: WHAT is the Beijing Spunk response?

    Reply
  15. Gus

    I slogged through Olden’s entire book. The writing is passable, but the narrative is almost entirely self-indulgent, and reveals very little about Shanghai at the time, and rather simple descriptions of the tepid hedonistic endeavors of a handful of expats, all of which could have happened almost anywhere else. Ash’s review in spot on.

    Reply
  16. Hungry_Joe

    Right or wrong, fair or otherwise, the last line of this review just fills me with joy.

    It’s almost a shame that this review makes me want to read the book. Actually no, I think I’ll just read the review again. It’s probably better anyway.

    Reply
  17. Dylan

    I have sympathy for people that want to write about fucking. But if all I’ve got is Shanghai Cocktales and Chinabounder, no thanks.

    I do have the same feeling sometimes as Isham re: the relative lameness of writing on China. Even if you’re not a weirdo Swedish sexpat– I mean, I’m not and my experience of China wasn’t of a chaste and sexually conservative country. I don’t think that was the experience for most of my peers, whether Chinese or expatriate, so I do wish there was more engagement with the dirt. But I have no interest in self-published sexpat memoirs, either. I’ll settle for things the way they are.

    Reply
  18. Soo-doe-nim

    Late to the party here, but I want to say I also REALLY don’t enjoy these expat diaries, and if there was a club where all we did was pan them, I would join. Of late I’ve actually been subjected to more than a few stories like this, and I’ve met people who IRL say stuff like “20% of the guys get 80% of the girls” and separate men into alphas and betas without even trying to be ironic about it. I’ve also started to really really like Thailand, where these sorts of memoirs are waaaaay more common. Indonesia, it’s happening too. Uh oh.

    I may be late in pointing this out, but I think the Chinabounders and Robert Blacks are morphing into a more dangerous scourge taking the Western expat communities across Asia and the world. I see the professional online poker players, pickup artists, redditors, cultural exchange people, “authors” like this one, liquor importers working on commission, direct-retail importers who do wechat and taobao marketing, and a few outlying elements all bleeding together in a perfect storm of ugliness fueled by booze, male entitlement, and get-rich-quick schemes.

    Cirrhosis and bankruptcy take them all.

    Reply

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