“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Lit Hub’s Crime and the City #2 – Melbourne

Posted: April 13th, 2017 | No Comments »

A quick aside – i am now writing a fortnightly column for The Literary Hub entitled Crime and the City – every fortnight a different city around the world and a look at its crime writing – old and new; novels, true crime and TV; noir, policiers, cosies, oddities….

The first city I visited was Amsterdam; this week it was Melbourne – coming up are Havana, Atlanta, Shanghai and Manila among others….


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Formosa Calling: An Eyewitness Account of the February 28th, 1947 Incident

Posted: April 12th, 2017 | No Comments »

The excellent Camphor Press in Taiwan has just published Formosa Calling in both e-book and paperback…..an account of the horrific events that lay undisturbed in a trunk in New Zealand for fifty years before being published in 1998…

Recently occupied by the Nationalist Chinese regime, Taiwan in early 1947 was a powder keg. Anger at the corrupt misrule of the new government erupted into protests and riots, which quickly became an island-wide uprising. The response from the Nationalists was brutal and overwhelming – a weeks-long massacre in which local leaders and intellectuals were systematically slaughtered. Estimates of the dead range from ten thousand to thirty thousand. The killings became known as the “228 Massacre”, the “228 Incident”, or simply “228”, after the date of the first riots (February 28).

Allan J. Shackleton was a New Zealand officer with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration assigned to in Taiwan at the time. His eyewitness account of the massacre is an important piece in understanding modern Taiwan’s founding tragedy. Shackleton tried for years to get Formosa Calling published, but it was deemed too politically sensitive during the Cold War when “Free China” was an ally of the Western world. Finally, after Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election, a Taiwanese-American publisher approached Shackleton’s son to publish the book, and it first appeared in 1998, forty years after it was written.

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Margaret Mackprang Mackay’s Lady With Jade, 1939

Posted: April 11th, 2017 | No Comments »

Margaret Mackprang Mackay published her novel Lady with Jade in 1939. Mackay had written a previous novel set in China, but I think Lady with Jade is more interesting to those with an interest in the foreign colony in China between the wars. However, it is hard to get hold off and often quite expensive….

Chinese-American flapper, journalist and author Flora Belle Jan described Mackay as taller than average, svelte, with narrow blue-grey eyes, a wide thin mouth, fair skin which freckles in summer and auburn hair. Helen Foster Snow disliked the novel (the main character is loosely based on Helen Burton who ran the Camel Bell store in the Grand Hotel de Pekin, and for who Helen acted as a mannequin in the 1930s) as too ‘pretty-pretty’…but she wrote this when in her most communistic phase so maybe she mellowed towards the book later (after ditching the awful Edgar)….

from Kirkus, October 1939

Again a background of China, in which the author loses herself a little too completely for eye-comfort, but nevertheless a well-developed piece of characterization and an unusually colorful, exotic backdrop. The story is that of an American, Moira Chisholm, who separates from her husband and stays on in Peking to which she has become rooted. Sybaritic, cold, but vital, she has an excessive passion for beauty per se, for which she finds an outlet in opening a curio shop, working with old brocades and metals, collecting and creating. She withdraws gradually from people, refuses marriage twice over, and finally falls in love profoundly but at the last minute renigues on marriage, realizing that no human relationship will ever be a satisfactory substitute for the immaculate, classic perfection of the jades and objects d’art to which she has given her life, and which, by the close she resembles. Capable portraiture, fascinating material, but overlong.

Kate O’Brien, The Spectator, 18 July 1940

Lady With Jade could almost be described, in theatrical jargon, as a presentation. It is an enormously laborious parade of Peking, of its art curios and its curio trade. A woman called Moira Chisholm is taken with a passion for the surface beauties of Chinese life, and starts a curio shop about eight years before the outbreak of the current Sino-Japanese war. She becomes successful, and a local celebrity ; she collects a set of jewel jade for herself ; she collects and discards a preposterous lover ; she decides to stay in Peking when all other foreigners forsake it. It might be a marvellous story—it is a boring one. The heroine is deadly and, spreads her cold, vulgar deadliness over the whole book, almost even, for the weary reader, over the ancient art of China. In any case, it will be a long time before I want to hear any more about Chinese jewel jade.


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Nadia Georges-Picot in Shanghai

Posted: April 10th, 2017 | No Comments »

Here’s one for the French to see what they can find – Nadia Georges-Picot. Nadia, a White Russian in France later, was born around 1903 as Nadia (or Nadya) Biske. She married Guillaume  Georges-Picot (sometimes just George-Picot and sometimes with the hyphen) in 1932. Guillaume, from a public service oriented family in France, was a diplomat was served between 1937 and 1940 as First Secretary at the French Embassy in China (which, at the time of his appointment, was mostly located at Shanghai due to the Japanese invasion). In 1940 Guillaume and Nadia had a baby in Shanghai, called Olga (below), who went on to become a well-known actress in France before committing suicide in 1997. Guillaume joined the Free French in 1942, serving as a liaison with the USA, and died in 1981 after a long and distinguished di0lomatic career post war at the UN. I’m afraid I do not know when Nadia died.

My interest in her was peaked because no lesser a personage than Elsa Schiaparelli (in her autobiography Shocking Life) refers to Nadia as very stylish and recalls visiting her, after the war, in Washington DC she writes that their home, ‘might have been in Peking or Saigon, so filled was it with all the captivating things she had brought back from China.’

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Growing up in a Changing China – Xiaolu Guo at Asia House, London 26/4/17

Posted: April 8th, 2017 | No Comments »

Growing up in a Changing China

“In 1970s China we lived an uneducated, rural life with no television, no books or magazines, and no access to information that wasn’t state-controlled. With Communist ideology running from top to bottom, there was barely any room for personal discussion about love or intimacy. I don’t ever remember having heard the word ‘love’ before I had turned twelve or thirteen. No one ever mentioned it. Or if I did hear it, it would have been used in propaganda about Mao, and the Communist Party. But they would use the word re ai, literally ‘hot love,’ or passionate devotion. You were supposed to devote yourself entirely to the Communist Part and Chairman Mao. Personal love was the last thing one should be concerned with. I wondered, years later, whether that was why my grandmother took to crying alone in her kitchen corner so often. There was so little love in her life. And she didn’t ‘love’ or understand Communism and the ideology of Chairman Mao either. She probably loved her son, my father. But he barely ever came home. Were we abandoned by him and by my mother, or by the idea that you should ‘devote your life passionately?”

An excerpt from Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up by Xiaolu Guo, published by Chatto & Windus, p. 27.

On Wednesday 26th April we will be welcoming novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo  who was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013 to talk about her recently published memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up.

Xiaolu Guo met her parents for the first time when she was six. They were strangers to her. When she was born her parents handed her over to a childless peasant couple in the mountains. Aged two, and suffering from malnutrition on a diet of yam’s leaves, the couple found out where her grandparents lived and entrusted her to her grandmother; a woman who had suffered greatly in her marriage and from whom Guo would learn the meaning of love. In her candid memoir, Xiaolu Guo takes us through these early beginnings in a run-down shack through to film school in a rapidly changing Beijing, navigating the everyday peculiarity of modern China: censorship, underground art and Western boyfriends.

By the time Guo left Beijing in 2002 on a scholarship to study in a picturesque British village she had already published six books. Now after over a decade in Europe, her tale of East to West resonates with the insight that can only come from someone who is both an outsider and an insider. Extending from childhood to womanhood and artistry to motherhood, Guo’s memoir is a handbook of life lessons for people from all walks of life.

Xiaolu Guo will be in conversation with Pamela Kember, Head of Arts & Learning at Asia House, about her memories of growing up in a changing China. The talk will be followed by a book signing and drinks reception sponsored by event partner PAWA (Pan Asian Women’s Association).

To book tickets for this event, please click here

General: £10, Concessions: £8, Members: £5

More details here

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More on Chaonei No.81

Posted: April 7th, 2017 | No Comments »

I’ve blogged repeatedly on the origins and state of Chaonei No.81, a once lovely house that has managed to avoid destruction and is considered by many to be haunted (though given it is architecturally interesting in Beijing and hasn’t been bulldozed I feel it is more ‘blessed’ than haunted!). For background on the house and more details of its possible past, potential futures and its ghosts just put ‘chaonei’ in the search engine on this site and it will all appear.

The origins of the house are not clear and a number of theories have been posited. My thanks then to Philippe Fourneraut who has been researching the life of  Georges Bouillard, the head of Kin-Han railway between Peking and Hankow). M. Fourneraut tells me that, according to Beijing historian Wang Leshun,  Bouillard designed and had the house constructed in 1922. He died in Peking in 1930. Apparently M. Bouillard’s wife, Zhu Derong, rented part of it to nuns, and sold it to an Irish priest in 1946.

This version of the story of Chaonei No.81 is detailed in French on the web site of La Chine au Present here


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Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination

Posted: April 6th, 2017 | No Comments »

In my local bookstore the other day I note that the new Robert Bickers is in stock and awaiting your contactless payment card…..it is a seriously heavy book both intellectually and in sheer weight!!

Even at the high noon of Europe’s empires China managed to be one of the handful of countries not to succumb. Invaded, humiliated and looted, China nonetheless kept its sovereignty. Robert Bickers’ major new book is the first to describe fully what has proved to be one of the modern era’s most important stories: the long, often agonising process by which the Chinese had by the end of the 20th century regained control of their own country.

Out of China uses a brilliant array of unusual, strange and vivid sources to recreate a now fantastically remote world: the corrupt, lurid modernity of pre-War Shanghai, the often tiny patches of ‘extra-territorial’ land controlled by European powers (one of which, unnoticed, had mostly toppled into a river), the entrepôts of Hong Kong and Macao, and the myriad means, through armed threats, technology and legal chicanery, by which China was kept subservient.

Today Chinese nationalism stays firmly rooted in memories of its degraded past – the quest for self-sufficiency, a determination both to assert China’s standing in the world and its outstanding territorial claims, and never to be vulnerable to renewed attack. History matters deeply to Beijing’s current rulers – and Out of China explains why.


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Historical Fiction, Bibliographies and Debts Owed

Posted: April 5th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

I thought I’d just to take a minute to very briefly weigh in on the debate kicked off by Hilary Mantel at the Oxford Literary Festival on historical fiction. Strictly I don’t think of myself as a writer of historical fiction but more in the realms of literary non-fiction, but still – real folk, real places, real times presented in the form of a novel still applies to me I think….

Mantel was talking about historical fiction (where bibliogaphies of texts consulted are often, but far from always, included at the end of the book) –

According to The Guardian Mantel, ’rounded on her “cringing” contemporaries in historical fiction who “try to burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography”. “You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complementary,” she said.’

Now, I have been known to add a list of non-fiction, academic works at the end of my own work and to note books consulted for information in footnotes (along with newspapers, verbal interviews, exchanges of emails etc). I am not sure what other historical fiction writers would say but for me it is about acknowledging the debt to academic scholars whose work has been inspiring and/or informative. It is not a case of ‘burnishing credentials’ or lack of belief in my own writing but accepting that it comes from a number of sources – reading old newspapers, magazines and documents, my imagination sometimes and academic studies.

In fact I would consider it rude not to acknowledge this sort of inspiration – my new book City of Devils (details to follow soon) is set in Shanghai in the 1930s. It is literary non-fiction; the story of men and women in Shanghai and their lives. I discovered those stories by reading newspapers from the time, official documents and police records. But I wouldn’t have raised an authorial eyebrow in interest when reading those documents had it not been for the academic work of the great Sinologist Frederic Wakeman on Shanghai. Simple as that and should be acknowledged…

without Wakeman there would be no City of Devils coming out this September – and I’m going to acknowledge that!

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