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