Wednesday, 12 March 2014

World War 1 in Asia / Penguin China Specials

To mark the centenary of World War 1, the world’s first truly global war, Penguin China is publishing a series of short histories of the economic and social costs it brought to China. Each book has been written by a leading expert in the field, and each is to be published in both eBook and print formats.

The Books

The Siege of Tsingtao by Jonathan Fenby, author of The Penguin History of Modern China. The Siege of Tsingtao was the only battle of WWI fought in China. The victory of the Japanese, fighting on behalf of Britain and the Allied Powers, over the Germans bolstered Japan’s global position and status, emboldening the rising power to expand its presence in China, a course of action that would set the region on a path having consequences well into the twentieth century.  The Siege of Tsingtao is available now.

The Rush from Shanghai by Robert Bickers. This explores the extreme patriotism of Shanghai’s European expats as they rushed to enlist to help their countries’ war efforts. Robert Bickers’ previous books include Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, a wonderful account of a tragically wasted colonial life. The Rush from Shanghai will be published in April.

The Rush from Beijing by Frances Wood, a former curator of the British Library’s Chinese collections. As war rages in Europe, expats found themselves pitted against their neighbours. The Rush from Beijing will be published in May.

The Home Front by Anne Witchard. The home front here means the UK. This book explores how WW1 affected the ways China and the UK’s Chinese population were perceived and represented in the British press, popular fiction and on the stage. The Home Front will be published in August.

Bitter Labour by Mark O’Neil. The Chinese Labour Corps, often referred to as the coolie corps, cleared up the battlefields of the Western Front, and did other support work and manual labour for the British army. Members were mainly recruited by missionaries, many of whom also led the units. Bitter Labour will be published in September.

Betrayal in Paris: China’s Disappointments at the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 and the Long Revolution that Followed by Paul French, the award-winning author of Midnight in Peking. The betrayal of China at Versailles led to the rise of the student-led May Fourth Movement and impacted the course of modern China. Betrayal in Paris will be published in October.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Peter Gordon / Editor, Asian Review of Books

Peter Gordon is the editor of the Asian Review of Books (ARB), the only dedicated pan-Asian book review publication. The magazine is currently available electronically, and it is produced from Peter’s adopted hometown, Hong Kong. Peter arrived in the city in 1985, when he worked for an American computer company. Later, he founded Paddyfield, an on-line bookstore; he thus became involved with readers and writers in Hong Kong – now he is at the centre of the city’s book world.  He was a founder of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which was initially run out of Paddyfield’s office, he set up Chameleon Press, an independent publisher specialising in Asian fiction and topical non-fiction, and he ran the Man Asian Literary Prize for its first two years. In addition to his work at ARB, he now contributes regularly to other English-language publications in Asia, and he is setting up the international authors' programme for the Hong Kong Book Fair.

I interviewed him via e-mail. I asked him to give a quick overview of the history of ARB: “It started 2000 as an adjunct to the various other things I was doing: publishing, bookselling, etc. Several years later, Pankaj Mishra suggested it should be expanded and formalised. This was discussed and kicked around for about another year, and it was the advent of the tablet that convinced me that an electronic-only magazine with long-form articles could in fact be readable. So we re-launched it at the Asia Society in New York in 2011.”

This blog does not cover all of geographic Asia, it considers Asia to be east to west from the Indian Subcontinent to Australia, and north to south from Mongolia to roughly Bali – so excluding West Asia / The Middle East.  How does ARB define it? “More widely than that. For ARB Asia is the East Coast of the Mediterranean up to and including the Pacific.”
What about ARB’s editorial policy? “We focus on books that are Asian by author, subject or publisher.  Insofar as there is a policy, it is mostly one of raising awareness: it is not unusual that we are the only regular publication to review a given book. Our larger purpose is to address inequalities. Asia, compared with the West, has a relative lack of platforms - think tanks, journals - in and through which non-Western points-of-view, policies, models, etc. can be rigorously discussed. The ARB is meant to be just what it says - a resource on Asia-related books - but it is also intended to be a place where intellectual and cultural positions can be laid out and developed. Books provide a focus and an anchor for further discussion, so it's not inappropriate that a book review publication has this ambition.”

Peter refused to be drawn on how long it might take for Asia to catch up with the West in developing cultural testing beds for new ideas: “These things take time, and one must do the straightforward things first and well. Nevertheless, ARB provides a piece of infrastructure, just as Chameleon Press, and the Hong Kong Literary Festival are in their own ways also pieces of infrastructure: they help the development of writers, and a literary culture. Paddyfield likewise. When I started it books were expensive in Hong Kong, and only the most basic selection was on offer. A universal e-commerce bookstore made books far more accessible than they had been.”

Talking of Paddyfield, I wondered whether books were ever chosen for review in ARB simply to help drive sales through the store? “No. ARB and Paddyfield are not linked much at all. ARB is entirely non-commercial.”

What about Chameleon: are books published by Chameleon guaranteed a review in ARB? “No. It’s actually very complicated to combine ARB, which is entirely non-commercial, with the commercial operations of retail bookselling or book publishing. For example, The Asian Review of Books is global, while Paddyfield mostly serves Hong Kong - most readers of ARB would not be buy their books from Paddyfield. Similarly, ARB's success derives in no small part from its family of reviewers and contributors; what they want to review or write may not overlap with books published by Chameleon, or any given local or regional publisher."

Was Peter actively looking for reviewers?  If so, could anybody apply? How?I'm always looking for reviewers - but not actively! Anyone can apply: just email I'm looking for people who can write from experience, who are either writers themselves or who have particular areas of expertise. I should say it's probably just as important - maybe more important - that publishers know how to send review copies, especially Asian publishers.  Publishers who want to request a review should look under the i button on the website.”
I wondered how Peter chose which essays and excerpts to include? “Essays are commissioned. They must be interesting, well-argued, well-written, intellectually rigorous and novel. They have, alas, proved harder to source than I had originally hoped. In selecting excerpts, I use the same criteria. As a result, they tend not to be from bestsellers, and they tend to be relatively long.”

Finally, I asked Peter if he believed in an Asian Literary Scene?  If so, what part is played in it by ARB? “There isn't an Asian Literary Scene but many different ones. Each country has its own literary scene and perhaps more than one. But these scenes should communicate with one another and interact, and the ARB is one way they can do so.”

In Other Words: a discussion about translation and translators

ARB has just published In Other Words, a fascinating discussion of translation and translators.  Much Asian literature comes to readers via translation. So ARB invited five experts covering different languages, countries and parts of the process to discuss translations, translators and the role they play in bringing Asian literature to English-speaking readers. Read it here – it certainly meets Peter’s criteria of being well-argued, well-written, intellectually rigorous and novel!

Saturday, 8 March 2014

International Women's Day / The Bookworm Literary Festival

Today is International Women's Day. See here for the Asia Foundation's summary of discussions of some of the challenges now facing women in Asia.

Is it necessary to say Asia is a region where the message that women are not subhuman still needs to be shouted from the rooftops? Against the general backdrop of a widespread inequality now unthinkable in the West, what are Asia's readers and writers doing to mark the day?   

As noted in the post on Wednesday, the Shanghai International Literary Festival yesterday hosted an event on women's writing: what is it, and does the question matter? 

Shanghai is not the only Chinese city currently hosting a literary festival: yesterday the Bookworm Literary Festival (BLF) began in Beijing. 

The Bookworm offers a combined bookshop, lending library, bar, restaurant and events space in each of three cities: Beijing, Suzhou and Chengdu.

Every March, BLF transforms the Bookworm in Beijing into a hub of literary, intellectual and creative activity in a giant celebration of literature and ideas, that brings together diverse voices from China and beyond – later, the Festival transfers to other cities.   This year the programme has more than 300 events across 8 cities, connecting more than 100 Chinese and international writers and thinkers. BLF is today offering a variety of events for International Women's Day.Feminism in the 21st Century World features three prominent feminist writers and commentators. Hong Ying, known for her gritty portrayals of women's lives in contemporary China, Bidisha, one of Britain's most outspoken feminists and human rights thinkers, and the award-winning French novelist Carole Martinez will discuss the importance of feminism in the 21st century. What does contemporary feminism stand for? What does feminism mean in China, Europe and elsewhere, and what does it mean on an international level? Zhang Lijia, the Chinese author and journalist, will moderate.  Sexual health and sexuality are issues generally swept under the carpet in China. But attitudes towards sexuality and sexual habits are changing. Young people are more sexually active, and with more freedom over their sexuality, than in the past. At the same time prostitution and a culture, amongst men, of infidelity are on the rise. All of which poses risks, both physical and psychological, for women in China.  In Women’s Health and Sexuality in China Joan Kaufman, who has worked on reproductive and sexual health in China since the 1980s, Huang Yingying of the Renmin University Institute for Research on Sexuality and Gender, and Dr. Setsuko Hosoda, Family Medicine Physician at Beijing United Family Hospitals and Clinics discuss these important issues in contemporary Chinese society. 
In May Leta Hong Fincher, an award-winning former journalist who is now completing her Ph.D. in Sociology at Tsinghua University will publish Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, as part of the Asian Arguments series from Zed Books. Leftover Women will argue that urban professional women have been disproportionately disadvantaged during China's breakneck economic development. Hong Fincher will today discuss China’s gender inequality at BLF.
In Female Voices in China, writer and editor Ma Xiaotao, acclaimed novelist Xu Xiaobin, and the radical voice of China's 1980s youth, Chun Sue, will discuss with editor Alice Xin Liu how the female voice is being heard in the Chinese literary world and to what extent it is making an impact beyond the confines of literature. Have a thoughtful day!

Thursday, 6 March 2014

500 Words From Duncan Jepson

500 Words a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books.  Here Duncan Jepson explains the background behind Emperors Once More, which is published today.  The novel is the first in a Hong Kong-based crime trilogy featuring Detective Alex Soong.

Duncan Jepson lives in Hong Kong. His first novel was  All The Flowers In Shanghai.  A founder and former managing editor of the Asia Literary Review, he writes regularly for the New York Times, Publishing Perspectives and the South China Morning Post.

Emperors Once More is set in the near future. It’s Hong Kong, 2017.  China has bailed out the West, but the West has defaulted on its debt.  On the eve of a crisis summit for world economic leaders, two Chinese Methodist ministers are killed in an apparently motiveless execution in Hong Kong’s financial district.

It appears that luck alone makes Detective Alex Soong one of the first officers at the scene.  But is his involvement more than incidental? Is the crime itself more than a senseless assassination? It seems so: Soong is contacted by a mysterious figure, and more massacres follow.

With the eyes of the world’s media fixed on Hong Kong, Soong must race to intercept his tormentor, and thwart a conspiracy born from one of the bloodiest confrontations of China’s past, which now threatens destruction in the present.

So: 500 words from Duncan Jepson…

It is known as the century of humiliation, a term that arose in China in the early 1900s to describe a number of events that started with the First Opium War in 1839 and was thought to have ended with the Communist Revolution in 1949. Those years included painful suffering at the hands of imperial powers and unequal treaties signed requiring China to pay what would now be billions of Renminbi. But it also involved some self-inflicted injuries such as the Taiping Rebellion and a general failure to modernise as needed to defend against foreign powers.

Yet, it had not ended, following a few productive years, China fell headlong into another twenty years of madness through the 100 Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, Chinese people emerged from isolation to find that after 5000 years of civilisation, the last one hundred plus years had left them decades behind people in the West, who barely claim half the history. It seemed an unbelievable situation and the reaction was what some psychologists call the superiority inferiority complex – bitterness at a lost rightful place in the world but also doubt in the belief that perhaps it was deserved at all. For several generations there was a feeling of inferiority, a terribly heavy burden, to some it became a belief and way of life.

Emperors Once More is a story about an angry and bitter person from the generation which feels it has been betrayed by history and a young man from the new generation of modern global Chinese who are as comfortable in Europe or the US as they are in China. I wanted these generations to clash in an open forum but I also wanted to create a story that was entertaining and that pushed me as a writer. One particular story point was the demand by the older generation to return to better days regardless of the high cost and confused reasoning.

Longing for the familiar and fear and resistance to change can push people to try to stem whatever is next and spend vast resources on avoiding confronting the inevitable. Most wasteful is expense on war and revolution just to force a return to the past. Chinese history and culture is full of examples of attempts to maintain the past and a belief in the unquestioned respect for that which once was. To be declared a great classical artist was to have copied perfectly the masters before, to honour one’s parents was to follow their instruction, perhaps even forgo one’s own life for them, and at work one would be commanded without question. So much of the future given up, but not in humble deference to wisdom, often only in blind eagerness to nothing more than age.

The main character is hurt deeply by his own and his parents’ past and he transfers all his anger to reinstating the values and beliefs of something largely best left to fade into history. But he cannot, and instead must recreate it from jagged pieces of confused understanding and mistaken belief. Only a person who wants even more a new and unfamiliar future to succeed can defeat him and the two figures repeatedly clash as the story develops, each teasing the other that they are delusional and set to fail.

Another important element was to try to write a story with a faster pace than my first novel, and to meet the conventions of a crime novel. The level of difficulty was much more demanding and complex than I had imagined. A crime novel must meet the reader at pace and then maintain that momentum. I can only hope that I have succeeded in some way and that there is interest in a sequel as there are other relationships that I would like to explore in this narrative structure which might not be so successful shaped into another form.

Emperors Once More is published by Quercus. The hardback should be widely available in Asia, priced in local currencies, and the eBook  can be purchased from on-line bookstores, or else here direct from Quercus. 

Emperors Once More is eligible for the ABB Book of the Lunar Year in the Year of the Horse - see the post of Jan 30, 2014 for details. If you want to vote for it, please do so by posting a comment, or by e-mailing