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)
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.
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.
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.