Unsavory Elements

'Stories of foreigners on the loose in China'
Unsavory Elements
Published on 10 May 2013

Time Out says... 2

Unsavory Elements is a celebration of the outsider’s experience in China, in all of its juiciness and fetid rancour. In it, 28 foreign writers share their memoirs of their time living in China. According to the editor Tom Carter, they contain ‘the candidness of Old China Hands after several drinks at an expat bar.’ And like a stomach-churning shot of tequila, it’s a book best taken with a pinch of salt.

Whether the dubious genre of ‘expat lit’ is to your taste or not, there are some great vignettes from world class writers, most notably Jonathan Watts, Simon Winchester, Deborah Fallows and Michael Meyer. There are also some first-class contributions from up-and-coming talents, such as Derek Sandhaus’ gut-busting tale of a baijiu-soaked dinner in Chengdu and Suzie Gordon’s rollicking ketamine fuelled night in Shanghai.

But it’s not enough to save the book, which is let down by some callous writing. The worst culprit is Carter himself. His story is about his visit to a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ brothel on the outskirts of an unnamed third tier city. The establishment is located on ‘Teen Street’ – so-called because of the mass availability of underage girls, who have cigarette burns on their arms and babies in tow, and who sell their flesh to drunk laowai for 100RMB a time.

What’s offensive is not that Carter is talking about prostitution, but rather the lads' mag tone employed to articulate a real experience that is implicitly exploitative to the girls involved. It comes through most in observations such as ‘in several years or less they would look as haggard as their matron, and rightly relegated across town to that neon pink hen house.’ Or, ‘no wonder prostitution is so rampant in this country, I mused as I watched the four girls watch us: why stand on your feet all day for slave wages when you can get rich on your back.’ 

The story is so insensitive, we felt moved to ask Carter about his motives for writing it. His defence is that he wanted to tell a story that’s taboo and that others are afraid to tell. We only wish he’d done it in a different way. 

Unsavory Elements is available now from Garden Books for 150RMB. 

A panel of Unsavoury Elements contributors will appear at Garden Books on Friday 10 May.


Posted by : jixiang on 2015-2-6 14:42:21
I'm not sure I agree with your take on prostitution. Yes, I can see why prostitutes might choose their jobs. At the same time, the fact is that their jobs are dangerous. They can get diseases, or face violence if they insist their client wear a condom. Dangerous jobs should be banned for the safety of those involved, and for public health.
Posted by : tristeau on 2013-9-15 11:42:31
I'm a red-blooded American male and I find his essay and the dismissive ease with which he talks about teenaged girls like cattle to be repulsive. Totally shameful... it's this sort of crap that makes other western men who are capable of behaving with a modicum of decency received with contempt and mistrust when we're abroad for entirely decent and respectable reasons.
Posted by : E. Burtman on 2013-8-5 16:19:40
Where are all you people from, England? Since when have sex comedies become so hated? Laughing at men being men is a time-honored staple of American pop culture. Just because Tom moved the setting to China, does that mean nobody is allowed to laugh? I don't know much about China, but it sounds like you all have taken your authoritarian surroundings way too literally.
Posted by : Lara F. on 2013-6-27 22:41:29
The vile testes-bile coming from blowhard commentators like David "Isham Cook" Cahill and Matthew "American Shaolin" Polly is not doing the authors of this book any favors. The fact that you have distorted this debate into a peacock-like display of your own male chauvinism while so casually dismissing a serious issue like human trafficking really says a lot about your characters. Morals aside, prostitution is illegal in China, period. These poor women are publicly paraded and shamed in the streets by the police on a routine basis, and the men who patronize them are arrested and duly punished. Tom Carter has not only admitted in his "story" to breaking at least two major laws (the Selling and Buying of Sex & Prostitutional Sex with a Teenager) but has flaunted it by publishing and publically advertising his actions. I encourage Charlotte Middlehurst and her women's club to go one step further and petition the relevant organs to investigate Carter's confessed misdeeds and take necessary action, lest any other "waiguoren" begin to think that it's acceptable, or legal, to pay for sex with trafficked teenagers.
Posted by : James Wilkinson on 2013-6-27 17:24:00
@David Cahill: "the sanctimony of these female commenters"? Yeah, those women, with their double-X chromosomes. Who do they think they are? Men?



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