The first time I set foot in the war zone, a Ukrainian soldier chastely kissed my cheek before confiding he was excited to tell his mother that he had kissed a Frenchwoman. A few minutes later, just beside me, his fellow soldiers were perched on a tank, firing shots in the air to disperse residents who were opposed to their presence. The ringing from the shots caused me to lose hearing in one ear for a full 24 hours.
To imagine the Shanghai of the 1930s is to frame art-deco frontages on chiaroscuro streets, behind which noirish figures from a polyglot demi-monde sip whiskies and soda. The city in this era has an imaginative power in the Western mind beyond that of any other place in China, fuelled by an intoxicating cocktail of equal measures myth and reality. Paul French, a long-time resident of the city, now returned to London, offers two complimentary portraits of the place and those westerners pulled inexorably toward it in his new books, City of Devils and Destination Shanghai.
When a work of non-fiction opens with “On the last day of his old life, the dinosaur hunter went to the beach,” it’s a strong hint that tragedy is in store.
“I saw my first dead body on November 9, 2013. He was five. He was lying in the rubble of a demolished church that had entombed eight of its faithful in Tacloban City, the ville-martyr of this impoverished region in the Philippines where a violent typhoon had hit only a day before.”
If you live in a foreign country for any length of time, it’s inevitable that some of its customs and culture will rub off, whatever you do to try and avoid it. On the other hand, however well you “adjust” to the new culture, you will never be part of it.
“Once the Master asked, ‘What is the question that lays it all out?’ In place of the asked monk, Yunmen answered, ‘Whack the monk next to me.’”
One of Asia’s foremost historians on the Chinese diaspora, Wang Gungwu now tells his own history in Home is not Here, an account of Wang’s younger days up until his university studies, spanning three countries across Asia.