Do you start a book from the beginning or the middle?

My 8-year-old loves books and whenever we visit the library, she borrows a big pile of them, some thick as a brick. She’s quick at deciding what books to read. I asked her how she picks her reading list the other day and she replied, “I start with the middle of the book because that’s where action is. If I like what I’ve read, then I’ll get the book and read from the beginning.”

A lot of novels used to be written this way. First stage: you introduce your main character and his everyday life. Second stage: something happens to the main character and he has to do something about it. Last stage is about him overcoming challenges and achieving some kind of goal or solution.

These days, more and more novels seem to begin “in medias res,” a Latin phrase that means in the middle of the things. Something happens right away in the beginning, then you backtrack to offer explanation and background. I can see TV series and movies’ influence on such a trend, also that of social media consumption–people are so distracted and occupied that they have little patience these days. If something doesn’t grab their attention right away, then they move on to other things that are more appealing to them.

Some writers argue that the second approach is better because it hooks readers and makes them want to read more. There’s truth in it, but I think it’s more important to establish a strong voice in the beginning.

When you correspond with literary agents, if they’re interested in your pitch, they usually ask you to send the synopsis and a sample–often the beginning chapters. Sure, they want to see the promise of action and conflicts in these pages, but what they want to see the most is your ability to make them care about your main character and the story you’re about to unfold.

As a writer, you decide what beginning fits your story the best. There’s no right or wrong.

Different from my daughter, when I choose what books to read, I always start from the beginning pages. There’s so much you can discover about the writer and her style from even just the first page.

Featured image: street view in my hometown, Nanchang.

 

 

A Powerful Movie: Blind Mountain

A friend asked me to recommend some Chinese movies. I mentioned “In the Mood for Love,” “In the Heat of the Sun,” “Center Stage,” “Peacock,” and “Blind Mountain.” I once reviewed “Blind Mountain” for Ploughshares. Please see below the slightly revised version. It’s such a powerful movie that I still remember a lot of details.


Ploughshares magazine

When you tell people you are a writer, they often say that they’d love to read your books but just cannot find the time. “But,” they continue, “If they’re made into movies someday, I’ll check them out.”

Maybe it’s just a polite way to say, “I’m not interested in your books.” Or maybe busy people tend to watch movies rather than read books for entertainment or enlightenment. Once or twice I overheard people saying that movies and widely popular TV series might totally replace books. It doesn’t sound likely, in my opinion–at least not in our generation’s lifetime.

I like movies but if I must choose between a good movie and a good book, I usually pick the book (unless the director is a favorite). If I have already read a book and liked it, I usually don’t watch its movie adaptation: More often than not, the book is much better than the movie. Over the years I have re-read many books but I rarely watch the same movie twice. Blind Mountain, a Chinese movie directed by Li Yang, is an exception.

Blind Mountain is one of the saddest movies, also the best, I’ve seen in years. Bai Xuemei, a college graduate, is kidnapped and sold to a peasant in a remote village as a bride. Repeatedly beaten and raped, she tries to escape and refuses to give up even after she bears the man’s child. When hope finally arrives, she finds herself trapped in the idyllic mountain village and its corrupt social and legal system.

Though the cast’s only professional is the lead actress, Huang Lu, the overall acting is wonderful and entirely credible. The cinematographer, Lin Jong, also creates a stunning visual experience.

The story is disturbing. Being based on true events makes it even more so. It touches me profoundly not only because it is tragic but also because it reminds me of my roots, a country burdened with injustice and oppressive traditions, especially in the rural areas, despite its economic boom.

The movie’s ending is perfect, leaving a lot to imagine. When the movie was released in China in 2007, it had a different, more upbeat and ironic ending, in an attempt to satisfy the censors.

The West’s reaction has been mixed. The movie received a standing ovation at Cannes but some critics gave lukewarm comments. “There’s little emotional underpinning to the rote story,” one said. Rote? How many movies about human trafficking are made each year? I don’t think it’s many. Also, a story can never be called “rote” if it provides new perspectives and cultural substances, as Blind Mountain does. (When I read that comment, I somehow thought of what an American once said to me: “I’m familiar with Asian literature.” Later, I found out that all the Asian literature he had read were several novels by an American-born Chinese writer.)

And “little emotional underpinning”? I could not disagree more. The emotion in the movie runs so thick and deep that I could barely breathe normally while watching it. The villagers’ matter-of-fact and unsympathetic attitude towards Bai’s suffering sends out a powerful message. Could this critic’s negative feedback result from his personal preference for being explicit as opposed to being implicit, and melodramatic as opposed to realistic? I don’t know. But to me, real life is implicit, subtle and nuanced much of the time, often not explicit when one might wish it to be.

Featured image: Inside Guitar Showcase, a guitar store in my neighborhood.  I’ve been teaching myself guitar, thanks to Youtube, but finding time to practice is a challenge.

The Hen and Her Eggs – About balance, also who you are.

In my recent conversations with other writers, the topic of self marketing and promotion frequently came up. I’m no expert in this area, but I’ve been published long enough to know how important it is for writers to be actively involved in marketing and selling their books even if they are signed by a Big 5 publisher.

There has been gazillions of articles about how writers and artists can embrace social media and establish an effective commutation channel with their followers or potential audience. I’ve read some and found them helpful. On the other hand, I think it’s a mistake for writers to put all their energy into marketing themselves. Your time and energy is limited, and your creativity needs to be nurtured. You’re respected because of your work, not because how well you can promote yourself.

It’s about balance. Also about who you are.

Here is something I wrote for Ploughshares years ago entitled “The Hen and Her Eggs.” Though the digital space is increasingly crowded in the past several years,  this piece is still very much relevant.


Ploughshares magazine

The Hen and Her Eggs 

An acquaintance recently e-mailed me to announce her upcoming book launch party, to be held in an expensive restaurant, with free food and drinks and a near-celebrity’s attendance. Each guest will pay a small entrance fee and receive a signed copy of the book. Other than the e-mail announcement, this acquaintance has promoted her book diligently through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, has blogged about the book, and distributed newsletters. For a while, her e-mails flooded my inbox. As far as I know, she’s contacted many media for possible interviews, features, or reviews.

Several writers I know have invested much time and effort in marketing their books. Other than social media presences, traditional bookstores and library readings, they arranged book signings in the homes of friends and relatives, mailed postcards and bookmarks featuring their books, and offered their books as prizes at parties.

When my first book came out, a colleague at the company I worked for, a former Hollywood PR consultant, said I should wear a funky hat or sunglasses at signings to give people a strong first impression. “It’s not about the book, but about getting the buzz going for you,” she said. (Luckily or unluckily, I didn’t follow her advice.) Her words reminded me of the late Chinese poet, Gu Cheng, who often wore a leg cut from a pair of jeans as a hat. I don’t think Gu wore the hat to get attention; it was probably just because he was eccentric (he later killed himself and his wife in New Zealand). I also thought of Dali’s flamboyant moustache and Truman Capote’s seductive photo on the dustjacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).

Writers today are expected to promote their own books whether working with a big or small publisher, but how much self-promotion is enough? After all, you’re a writer, not a salesperson. Of course, you’d be foolish to think you can sell your book without publicity. Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998), a recluse and a favorite writer of mine, once said that it is unnecessary for one to meet the hen if one loves the eggs she lays. It’s only half true: The hen must first tell people that the eggs are available.

Little- or lesser-known writers need publicity. So do well-known writers. It matters if your book sells or not and it’s certainly important for you to talk about it and to hear feedback–not to mention the satisfaction of contributing to world literature and inspiring others. In his 1992 interview with The Washington Post, novelist Don Delillo said, “I’ve been called ‘reclusive’ a hundred times and I’m not even remotely in that category. But people want to believe this because it satisfies some romantic conception of what a dedicated writer is and how he ought to live. ‘I know you never do interviews.’ They say that to me all the time. ‘But here I am’ is my stock reply.”

Ideally, your publisher or publicist will arrange all the nice events for you. Ideally, Michiko Kakutani will eagerly write you a stellar review. And Ideally, Oprah’s Book Club will welcome you as their latest favorite. But in reality, you probably have to do a lot yourself to market your book. So is there a limit to self-promotion? I guess not. Do what you feel comfortable with. If you are like Capote, enjoy parties and talk shows (but don’t forget that he maintained a rigid writing schedule most of his life); if you are like William Trevor, you probably prefer gardening and afternoon tea to a reading at Shakespeare and Company. It’s your judgment. If your book sells because of your hard work in self-promotion, give yourself a big congratulation.

(Featured image: a noodle restaurant in a Beijing 胡同hutong.)

Pure and intense – an insightful review on FEBRUARY FLOWERS

A friend shared with me a review on FEBRUARY FLOWERS by an Amazon reader named “Pacific Wave.” I was impressed by it as it describes exactly what was going through my mind when I was writing the book.

Here is Pacific Wave’s review. I hope he or she doesn’t mind my including it here.

‘Set in a quiet university in the early 90s when China was in the midst of transitioning from communism to “capitalism” and reopening itself to the world, “February Flowers” is a poem about our youth, our innocence, our wonder to the world, our budding yearning to romance. Somewhere sometime in our lives, we all might have been drawn to something beautiful, pure, intense, romantic, just like the February flowers, nothing really to do with anything physical, beyond intimacy, gender, convention, social boundaries; and only have lost it in the reality forced on us, maybe alone in a raining February night, suddenly the memories rushing back, nostalgia, melancholy.’

Yes, my memories did rush back, with nostalgia, with melancholy, one evening after I’d had a long work day at Yahoo!. It was 2002, the year when I began to write.

FEBRUARY FLOWERS is my first attempt at fiction of any kind. It was supposedly to be a short story, a start for me to learn how to write fiction, and how to write creatively in English. I had no idea when I started that it would expand into a novel, and eventually found its way to publication.

Pure and intense, that’s what FEBRUARY FLOWERS is.

(Featured image: these brilliant flowers caught my attention when I was passing by an antique store on my way to beach in Santa Cruz.)

The murder of a Chinese student in the UK and “Parachute kids”

Several months ago, a 24-year-old Chinese female student named Xixi Bi was beaten to death by her British boyfriend, Jordan Matthews. The pathologist who did the postmortem examination found 41 injuries on her body. Before her death, Bi was studying for a master’s degree in international business management in the UK.

The court report said that while Bi was dating this boyfriend, she had been repeatedly beaten by him and he had been controlling and manipulative to her.

While mourning Bi’s tragic death, I cannot help but notice that she was merely 15 years old when she was sent to the UK to study. She was one of those “parachute kids,” a term used to describe underaged children who are sent to foreign countries to study without their parents being around.

In recent years, a growing number of Chinese youngsters have traveled far to the United States, the UK, Australia, and many other Western countries to study in college (undergraduate studies) and high schools.  About 1/3 of international students enrolled in the United States are now from China. A decade ago, fewer than 1000 Chinese students studied in secondary schools in the U.S., and now the number has surpassed 30,000.

As someone who traveled overseas to study, I feel for these young people. I was 23 when I left China for graduate studies at Stanford University. Though I had finished 4-year college in China and had even worked for three years after college, it was not an easy journey. I remember those days when I felt defeated because I didn’t understand what my professors were saying in the class. I remember those days when I stayed at the library until 3 or 4am to finish school projects and then biked back to my dorm to get several hours’ sleep. I remember those holidays when I was by myself, and the days when I was sick with no one to comfort me. One evening, I stayed at my dorm room and cried for quite a while because I missed home so much.

These parachute kids are not even 20, some as young as 13 or 14, and I doubt they’ve had any summer jobs or internship in China for them to gain worldly knowledge and experience. They’re alone, lonely, far from home, surrounded by people who speak a different language and value a different culture. How easy it must be for them to feel homesick and lost.

I don’t want to go deep into the analysis of this phenomenon of young Chinese students studying overseas here, though I intend to write more about it in my future posts, to answer questions such as 1) who are these students? Why do they study overseas? How do they deal with cultural clashes? What do they want to achieve in their new country? How do they influence local schools, culture, commerce, etc.? The list is long.

If Bi had her family close by she would most likely have turned to them for help before the tragedy happened. If she was older, more mature when she was first sent to the UK, she would most likely have handled things differently, being less tolerant to her boyfriend’s abusive behaviors, being more confident in seeking support. If she didn’t feel that she had to live up to her parents’ expectation and succeed in a foreign land, she might have chosen to return to China when her relationship with her boyfriend turned bitter. If her university provided more attention and counseling to international students…….

These are all speculations, of course. But I wonder if there isn’t truth in them.

A young, beautiful life has ended way too soon.

 

 

 

 

Slow down…and read a book

Heard about Slow Television in Norway? Basically it features hours and hours of train rides, knitting, fishing, etc. The first broadcast debuted in 2009 and was a 7.5-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo. The train just went on and on. In the knitting show, a group of people discussed knitting for hours then knitted for 7.5 hours. These slow shows are wildly popular in their home country, and some of them became available on Netflix last year.

I haven’t watched any of these shows yet, but I totally understand why people like them. In today’s fast-paced digital era, aren’t we all overwhelmed with information and our digital lives and we long for “slowing down” and returning to “real life”?

Though I like the concept of slow TV shows, I have to admit that I have no desire to watch one. But I would certainly want to read more books.  Before I became a mother, I used to read 2-3 books a week, but now it’s more like 2-3 a month.

Time is a key factor here, of course, but age may have played a role too. I find myself getting pickier and more impatient nowadays when I choose what to read. In the past several months, I abandoned several books, all with rave reviews, before I was even one third through them, deciding that I had given them a fair chance and enough time had been wasted.

Another change in my reading behavior is that if I love a book, I would reread it, at lease a good potion of it, over and again. Sometimes, I would reread a book two or three times within the same month, savoring my favorite pages as if an addict on drugs. ( It’s like I’m watching a variation of “slow TV.” )

Such books are rare. But in the past several months, I did score twice. John Williams “Stoner” and Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I’ve read Stoners three times, and am about to reread Remarque’s masterpiece as I cannot seem to let it go off my mind.

Here are two brief passages from the above mentioned books. The first one one of the most insightful interpretations of love I have read. The second one…it simply makes you want to cry. Sad yet grateful tears.

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”

– “Stoner” by John Williams

“We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.

We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room: flecked over with the lights and shadows of our feelings cast by a quiet fire. What does he know of me or I of him? Formerly we should not have had a single thought in common — now we sit with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak.”

– “All Quiet on The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque

If you don’t find the excerpts impressive, then you’ll have to get these two books and read them from cover to cover. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.

(Featured image: morning exercise in a park in my hometown, Nanchang. The second woman from left on the first row is my mother, who’s a better writer than I am, but has decided not to write.) 

 

 

 

Repetition – The Holy Grail of persuasive selling

I’ve been working on a nonfiction book (not a memoir) for a while. When it comes to submission, nonfiction works differently from fiction. For fiction, agents and publishers typically want to see the full manuscript before they make a decision about it. But for nonfiction, a proposal with a summary, chapter outlines and a sample chapter sometimes can land you a deal.

Usually I read more fiction than nonfiction, but because of this nonfiction project I’m working on, I read more nonfiction these days, if only to be inspired in my new endeavor. After reading several bestsellers, I’ve found a pattern, which is that they’re very repetitive in making a point. They say something on, say, page 11, then on page 13, they remind you of what they’ve said on page 11, and on page 15, the end of the chapter, they say something to the effect of “I hope you remember that on page 11 and page 13 I’ve said something similar.”

To some readers, maybe it’s nice to be reminded again and again, but to me, I just want to skip pages and even put down the book.

After talking to a writer friend I realized that this repetitive style has its roots in rhetoric and is considered the Holy Grail of presentation training and persuasive selling.

When it comes to winning an audience, supposedly, Aristotle, or Dale Carnegie, or Winston Churchill has said, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

Considering that our attention span, thanks to all the portable devices, is now less than that of a goldfish, considering that the average person spends five hours/day surfing the web and using apps, I guess what I deem as unnecessary repetition is not all that annoying to some people after all.

I have to admit that I even welcomed such “memory reinforcement” from time to time. Life is busy, work, kids, house chores, friends, endless errands…..and all the worries and anxieties caused by President Trump. The last time I had the luxury of finishing a book at one setting (or maybe two settings) was probably before I had become a mother.

So, dear authors, please do remind me in Chapter 2 what you’ve said in Chapter 1.

(Featured image: I took the photo several years ago when I visited the Beijing 798 Art Zone, a landmark of urban art and culture in Beijing. It reminds me of when I was little, slurping the soup noodles my grandma made for me.) 

‘Know’ or ‘Don’t Know’

Here is another blog post I wrote for Ploughshares years ago, which is still a hot topic that writers debate about. I’m currently working on a new novel set in the present-day San Francisco Bay Area, about three women at crossroads in life. There’s a lot I don’t know about these women, yet I feel I’m growing with them and learning about them every day. One of them just made a decision that surprised me. This morning I found myself awake around 5am thinking about it.
——————————————————
Ploughshares magazine I once overheard a discussion between two MFA students. I was at a café in Palo Alto–near Stanford–and they were sitting at a nearby table.
One said the best writing advice he’d gotten was to “write what you know.” He said that having lived through the events and known the people and locations would allow one to write with authority and credibility. He used the examples of writing by Hemingway and V.S. Naipaul to back his claim.
The other disagreed, embracing “write what you don’t know” as the ultimate writing rule, because, he said, “That’s how you can let your imagination fly, let your subconscious and unconscious take charge.” The examples he gave were the more imaginative works of Haruki Murakami and Cormac McCarthy.
I don’t have an MFA, but I assume this kind of debate happens frequently in those classrooms.
I don’t see these two rules as contradictory. The difference between ‘what you know’ or ‘what you don’t know’ shouldn’t be about specific plot, setting or characters; it should be about understanding life and the human condition. In that sense, if you write ‘what you don’t know,’ your writing will likely be false and evasive.


I recently read two books: The Things We Carried by Tim O’Brien and Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Storiesby Steven Millhauser. They could not be more different in theme, style, setting, or characterization–but they are equally powerful and thought-provoking.

The power of The Things We Carried has a lot to do with the author’s first-hand experience and knowledge of the Vietnam War, but has even more to do with his profound grasp of the human heart and emotions: love, longing, fear, grief, terror, sympathy, compassion, etc.
Dangerous Laughter is allegorical, surreal, and labyrinthine–like a strange dream where you cannot see anyone’s face clearly. But the book’s fantastic element is firmly rooted in reality, in Millhauser’s acute observation of history and human civilization.
When Raymond Carver talked about his own writing with the French journalist Claude Grimal, he said, “Yes, there’s a little autobiography and, I hope, a lot of imagination.” I believe his ‘imagination’ doesn’t equate to ‘what you don’t know,’ but to mean to transcend the constraints of the writer’s own life, helped by deep comprehension of human emotions and behaviors.
(Feature image: I saw this flower outside Prison Street Pizza, Lahaina, HI.)

New Year’s Resolution – Establish a writing routine and stick to it

I met a good friend from my Yahoo! days for lunch yesterday. As always, we ate at a ramen restaurant on Castro Street in Mountain View. She’s made big plans for 2017: quitting her job, moving back to Asia with family, buying a house…when asked what my New Year’s big plan was, I said, half-jokingly, that I would like to go to bed before 11:30pm.

I had said the same thing last year, and probably the year before that. But so far this simple resolution is still a mirage. Motherhood is certainly demanding, but I have myself to blame too. After putting my two kids to bed every night, I do have some time for myself. But there’s always a lot to take care of, if not doing housework, paying bills, replying to emails, then it’s something else. Sometimes I like to watch a bit TV while cycling on my stationary bike, usually documentaries, some of my favorites shows including Anthony Boundain’s series and other travel/cooking programs (Last night I watched an episode of CNN’s “The Eighties.”)

Before I know it, it’s midnight. Then 1 am after I get myself ready for bed and read a book for ten or fifteen minutes.

I cannot seem to break this pattern. It would be fine if I could sleep in a bit in the morning, but, of course, I need to rise early to get my kids ready for school (I’ve yet mastered the skills to make them listen). Sometimes my writing suffers due to my sleep deprivation.

Although my 2017 New Year’s resolution is about getting more sleep, it’s ultimately about establishing a writing routine and sticking to it.

I wrote a piece for Ploughshares, a literary magazine, several years ago about such a topic and I’d like to share it here as it’s still very much relevant. My current writing projects include a new novel, a nonfiction book and several short stories, so  discipline is definitely vital for me.


I was awakened at 3:36 a.m. by my daughter’s crying. I went to her room and lay down beside her, as I always do when she wakes up in the middle of the night. Half an hour later she fell sleep, while I was wide awake. I thought about Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which I just finished reading and liked, and about the book that had been percolating in my mind for months yet hadn’t been started because I hadn’t figured out a satisfactory opening. I also thought about my agent’s email concerning the difficulty of translation, my best friend’s upcoming wedding and my aunt’s declining health. When I finally drifted off, dawn was breaking. At 7 a.m. my daughter got up. So did I, from a fragmented and nonsense dream, feeling as though I had a terrible hangover. The whole next day, I felt miserable because I hadn’t written a word.

Such a day has been typical since I became a parent. Some nights, after I put my daughter back to sleep, I went to my study to write, but most of the time I was too tired–or should I say too lazy?–to get up. My story probably sounds familiar to writers with small children. More than once, I heard sighs and complaints from writer friends who, like me, are new parents.

But I mustn’t blabber about interrupted sleep and reduced productivity. This post is about the importance of establishing a writing routine. We always have millions of excuses for not having the time or energy to write–writing undeniably requires physical and mental strength–but, in truth, as soon as we sit at our desk at a familiar time we always feel better. A writing routine is comforting. It makes us more efficient and helps us stick to our task.

I used to have a routine. Wake at 6 a.m., have a cup of green tea, write until 8:30 a.m., shower, dress, have a quick breakfast, then leave for work (the job that paid my bills) at 9 a.m. In the evening, if I didn’t have to work late, I wrote for an hour or two then read before going to bed. I didn’t realize how crucial such a routine was for my writing until my daughter arrived. Suddenly, my well-planned schedule was messed up. I lost my discipline. After all, lying in bed and letting the mind wander take less effort than getting up to write.

Many writers have routines. Hemingway got up at dawn and worked until he had exhausted all he had to say for that day. Toni Morrison is also an early riser, a habit first formed when she had small children, and writes best in early mornings. An insurance agent during the day, Kafka wrote from 11 p.m. until the small hours. When Steinbeck was writing his “To a God Unknown,” he habitually wrote 3,000 words each morning.

Consider Haruki Murakami’s typical working day: “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1,500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation.”

When it comes to discipline, I must mention my friend John Joss. For many years, as a devoted father of three children, he wrote daily from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., before heading to his day job. I asked him if it was hard to do and he replied, “If you take writing seriously, you must do it.” He also admitted that once the routine was formed, he looked forward to rising early to write. The routine helped him avoid writer’s block, of which he said, “Start writing on your project now. Put down the first thought or idea that comes to mind, however seemingly simplistic or inappropriate. Nothing is crueler to a writer than the tyranny of the blank page or screen. Once you have set something down, anything, you have broken the block and can proceed.”

Building a writing routine is easier said than done. If you have a regular job and small children, the challenge is even more daunting. What if you have nothing to say when facing your computer or a blank page at 4 a.m.? Should you go back to sleep or wait for the Muse? You have probably heard Jack London’s advice: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” As encouraged as you may be by those famous writers’ dedication, it makes no sense to impose their schedules on yourself. The best way is to find a routine that suits you best. Try different hours of the day until you find a feasible, though not necessarily most convenient, time. Of course, if you can write any time you have available, you’re fortunate.


P.S. The featured photo is that of my two cats, Leo and Kasper, twin brothers, who love to snuggle and purr, and who are serious about their sleeping.

Letters an American traveler wrote from occupied Peking in 1937-38

By Jules Nadeau

Peking in 1930s
Peking in 1930s

Harold Medill Sarkisian was a 28 years old native of Colorado who could not get rid of the Oriental bugs in his system. In 1937 he decided to leave for total immersion in a ryokan in Kyoto and subsequently in a hutong in Peking. The scholar in progress was keen on acquiring both languages. Boots-on-the-ground. The American lad was concurrently shopping for exquisite silks, rugs and antiques. His letters to his family (and his sweetheart) were informative and entertaining. Good narrative with great style.

Yet this was a most brutal period of history in Japan and China–at the time of the rape of Nanjing. He was exploring the exotic continent for the first time when World War II was brewing. Harold Medill’s typewritten missives had to detour by way of Siberia instead of across the Pacific to avoid censorship and speed up delivery.

Sinologist Jules Nadeau extracted and edited some passages displaying personal views, wit and descriptions. A time capsule based on a true story when the Republic of China was in a dire situation during the Japanese occupation. No matter what, the Colorado traveler admired China and was proud to be photographed in the costume of a Chinese philosopher.

By train from Tianjin to Peking

“My dearest family. So this is China!” wrote Harold Medill Sarkisian at the end of 1937 after a rough and unpleasant voyage aboard a small ship called Choju Maru. Mal de mer, hunger and cold made him feel elated to see glimpses of the Shandong peninsula from a distance. Then custom inspection made him feel even more chilly and tired. “It was so cold that the stint in the air made one forget his sea-sickness. Next a boat-load of coolies, swooping down almost like vultures, seized all bagages visible. It was dark in Tanggu [harbor] where Chinese strived to get us to get at their hotel. I selected at random the Court Hotel [on Elgin avenue, one of the best in the British concession].”

In the rail station of Tianjin, Harold Medill “found rich and poor–the smell of a thousand coolies, the garlic of a thousand meals, no heat, no seats, nothing but to pace endlessly up and down trying to keep warm–then came the train.” He bought a first class ticket (because the third class was filled to the roof) to insure comfort but in vain in compartments filled with a type of nauseating tobacco smoke.

“This is Peking! later continued Harold Medill, I am only sorry you all can not be here to feel what I am feeling. Not far from where I live are four colourful pai lou [the Dongxi gates] through which must pass all traffic. Yesterday the air was filled with the sounds of horns, the commands of the Japanese soldiery, ever eager to show the populace that they are in charge, shouting for room to pass, and what was holding them up? Four lovely, stately camels. The soldiers fumed and cursed. A cow in the same situation gives the impression of stupidity; not the camels. I am certain I saw them all wink to me and wink at each other. They were unmoved by the sight of Japanese bayonets” chuckled Harold Medill who liked to call himself Sarky. Yet the ubiquity of Japanese uniforms was not funny for the local populace.

Sarky in Beijing 1937-1938
Sarky in Beijing 1937-1938

Budget of $100 a month

“Peking seems like it could never grow old because it seems never to have had a beginning. One walks or rides rickshahs thru winding, serpentine streets–long narrow, grey walled affairs reminescent of what I would expect to see were I carried to ancient Babylon—beggars, dirty children worn and haggard women—not even women just females, scattered about beneath the walls selling whatever they have. In some places children pour over the ash heaps sifting what little coal there is and mixing this in water they make coal balls and sell these.”

Initially the American visitor settled down for more than a month in the “nest” of Southern Baptist missionaries. “I am living on my intended $100 a month [the equivalent of US$1,640 now]. This enables me to pay tuition, board, room and incidentals. I do not think it will cost me much more after I move.”

The life he always wanted to live

The second domicile was a fabulous house of no less than fifteen rooms. One of the best houses in Peking. Not able any more to occupy the fushang, the owner wanted to rent it at all costs in order to prevent some sort of military confiscation. “A beautiful mansion all furnished with the obligation to pay only taxes, water and light.” Most of the palace remained shut off because it required too much coal to heat up. Too much red tape also to rent to a local family. “I am living the life I always wanted to live–Chinese style. I have a lovely Victrola and dozens of records–when lonely I sit down and listen to music, Kreisler, Liszt et cetera, but for how long?”

The proprietor was a brilliant teacher and a past advisor to Chiang Kai-shek who had left for the south after becoming impoverished. “His collection of art was worth a fortune and it has gone up in flames. Today his son just presented me with a painting and a few other pieces of art. Moving that to Shanghai would have cost him a lot in taxes. What about me when I leave China?”

“I gave a party the other night and had as guests the head of Standard Oil here, a doctor from the Peking Union Medical College (Rockefeller Hospital), the Reischauer’s, the paymaster of the Marines. To pay back dinners given to which I was invited [specifically at the Peking hotel, still the Grande Dame of the capital]. Now I hope I will be paid back. It cost me a lot of money”, added the Colorado young man.

Harold Medill Sarkisian in Beijing 1937-1938
Harold Medill Sarkisian in Beijing 1937-1938

The College of Chinese Studies

Moral code and good conduct? “Papa [a practicing doctor] has one great fear–he has not to worry about venereal disease now–I am absolutely living a life of complete continence. That might sound funny, but I have no reason to lie to you.” On an other level: “Let me assure you that to date I have learned more than I could possibly have learned in ten years of University.” However he kept asking his family to get him recommendation letters so he could return to Columbia University or better enter Harvard (which he did later where he built a decisive Asian network).

Sarky was eager to cram hundreds of Chinese characters and he enrolled in the one and only College of Chinese Studies (where scores of Western sinophiles transited). One of his professors continually told him how much more he could learn by rather being with a tutor. He formed his own opinion: “Both are fine grafts. The College tries to go as slow as possible so as to keep you longer, the tutor tries to hold on to you as his own particular feed ticket, and so I have to be careful.” This was the beginning of a life-long devotion with the difficult language. Over the years he accumulated a collection of more than 50 Chinese dictionaries dictionaries, plus textbooks and his own flash cards.

“I enclose several photos. Some are of the starving refugees in the Peking region. Others are of the starving Colorado boy in the same sector. See if you can tell them apart. The people with me are the Lin’s when we were in the Imperial palace (“declared to be forbidden to the photographer”).” To Margie, his girl friend back in the States, he pointed out : “My dear. The lady next to me is Mrs. Lin. I have not yet taken with a woman.” But the most interesting pix is the one showing him in the long mandarin gown. With oversize sleeves. In the style of Confucian literati. What the Jesuit fathers used to wear in their genuine effort to adapt to local tradition.

“You are the finest family in the world. Goodbye love! Send mail via Siberia, care of American Express, Peking.” Signed: Sarky.


The long-time barefoot Sinophile Jules Nadeau is a freelance writer living in Montreal who spent 10 years in Greater China. He is the author of 20 Million Chinese Made in Taiwan and also 1997: In the Mouth of the Red Dragon. In 1979, Jules Nadeau was a full-time journalist at La Presse, a French language daily in the province of Québec.