Wall Street Journal: Denying Historians: China’s Archives Increasingly Off-Bounds

Before I came to China to do research for the first time, I worried about how I would get access to the archives. I had heard plenty of war stories from historians who had done their dissertation research in the 1980s and early ’90s, when the archives had been opened to foreigners (unlike the Mao years), but getting permission to view documents could still be difficult and time-consuming. I dreaded the possibility of spending weeks or even months plying the archive staff with gifts of tea and cigarettes in an effort to build guanxi, or connections, with them, and I feared that even if I got through the door, I wouldn’t be allowed to see the files I needed to write my dissertation. (For a story of what it used to be like to do research in China, check out this interview with UC San Diego’s Paul Pickowicz at China Digital Times.)

But when I nervously ventured to the Shanghai Municipal Archives (SMA) in October 2012 and presented myself at the registration desk, I found that times had changed and my fears were unfounded. I filled out a short form with basic biographical data, handed over my passport for them to photocopy, and received an access card for the archives only a few minutes later—no cajoling or bribes necessary.

In the past year, however, the SMA and other archives across China have tightened access and imposed new restrictions on researchers, which is the topic of my latest post at the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog:

At the Dissertation Reviews website, which provides information about archival access in countries around the world, students of Chinese history have written in to warn fellow scholars about new regulations that make navigating the archives trickier than before. The SMA is now enforcing a long-ignored requirement that foreign researchers affiliate with and present a letter of introduction from a Chinese university or research institute when registering at the archives. While that may seem like a reasonable and minor bureaucratic requirement, securing such an affiliation can be both onerous and expensive (the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, where I’ve been a visiting scholar for nearly two years, charges me a hefty “administrative fee” every month for this affiliation).

This is an issue that worries me not only as a professional who needs access to archives, but also because it reflects the general air of tightening as the government moves to exert more control over all areas of society. Read the rest of the column here.

P.S. Still no regular blogging from me because I’ve finished my dissertation (woohoo!) and while I’m waiting for all four of my committee members to read it and decide whether or not to pass me, am hanging out in Kenting, Taiwan:

View of Kenting's Nanwan Beach from my hotel room balcony.

View of Kenting’s Nanwan Beach from my hotel room balcony.

It’s a pretty okay place to kill time. Back to real life next week. (Including, incidentally, the fact that I need to get a new letter of affiliation so I can renew my access card to the SMA—hopefully no one there reads the Wall Street Journal …)

Posted in China, Writing | Tagged | 1 Comment

Writing, New and Old

No blogging here recently because I am in full-on DISSERTATION MODE as I careen down the home stretch. Ten days to go before I have to deliver the finished product to my committee—I’ll make it (I hope!), but working full-bore on the final chapter and editing the ones I’ve already written hasn’t left me with the bandwith to do much of anything else these last few weeks.

However, I have carved out a little bit of time here and there this summer to write some other pieces, and two of them went online this morning. At the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog, my article about a new memoir by Chicago-based author Susan Blumberg-Kason is now up. Her book, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, tells the story of her whirlwind romance and difficult marriage to a Chinese man she met while a graduate student in Hong Kong back in the mid-1990s:

“I thought I knew what I was getting into,” is what author Susan Blumberg-Kason told me about her marriage at the age of 24 to a Chinese doctoral student she met while living in Hong Kong. And she had every reason to feel confident: Competent in Mandarin and with multiple trips to China under her belt, she had about as good a grasp of the country as any Westerner could back in 1995, when few had the opportunity to travel widely there.

Over the next five years, however, she came to realize the vast difference between visiting China and trying to become part of a Chinese family.

Second, my monthly contribution to the LA Review of Books China Blog, which is an essay about four short books concerning China in World War I that I read last weekend:

I began with The Siege of Tsingtao, in which journalist Jonathan Fenby recounts the story of the war’s only battle fought in East Asia, which took place in the fall of 1914. Tsingtao (now rendered as Qingdao, though the city’s famous beer retains the old spelling) was Germany’s main territorial holding in China and its base of naval operations in East Asia. Japan had long desired to expand its possessions in China, so it teamed up with Britain to attack the German port almost immediately after war was declared in Europe. Qingdao’s defenders never had a chance of keeping the settlement in German hands: they had few men and no supply lines. Though the Japanese and British forces were slowed down by heavy rains, they prevailed and took control of Qingdao by mid-November. Japan immediately moved to assert itself as the settlement’s new authority; its territorial ambitions in China would have long-reaching consequences.

Finally, I’m going to mention an older book review of mine (in the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I guess?). I was looking for something to read the other night before I went to bed and grabbed Midnight in Peking by Paul French off my bookshelf. It’s a true-crime story about the murder of a young Englishwoman in Beijing back in the winter of 1937, and French has a marvelously evocative (though perhaps a tad too creative for strict historian types, which I am not) writing style. I reviewed Midnight in Peking for China Beat back when the book was first published in 2012 and decided to mention it here again because I still enjoyed it the second time around and will continue to recommend it to anyone who likes mysteries, regardless of how much China knowledge you have.

I expect to remain in DISSERTATION MODE for the next ten days and am then heading off to Taiwan for a conference. (The paper for which was due … yesterday. Ack.) After the conference, I’ll be at a beach in southern Taiwan for a week to recover from the combination of DISSERTATION MODE and Conference Mode (still stressful, but not all-caps stressful). Regular blogging will resume August 24, though if anything else I’ve written gets published before then, I’ll drop in here to post the link.

Okay, that’s enough out of me. Back to work.

Posted in Books, China, Writing | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Billfold: The Cost of Living in Shanghai

Billfold logo

I’m a loyal reader of The Billfold, which describes itself as simply “a site about money.” There’s some personal finance stuff—how to save for retirement, why you should know your credit score, what goes in to buying a house, etc.—but most of the articles are less predictable, and some are downright quirky (last week they did a series on “How Muppets Do Money”). The Billfold pays a lot of attention to money issues that freelance workers/independent contractors face (like unpredictable cash flow and the scourge of estimated quarterly taxes), and it also runs a number of articles that have an international focus—such as, for example, “The Cost of Living in Shanghai,” which just happens to have been written by me:

I’ve spent about four of the past nine years in China, and have watched the exchange rate fall and prices rise—I now get about 6.2RMB for every dollar that comes out of my American bank account. Since moving semi-permanently to Shanghai in October 2012 (initially to do research for my dissertation, now to write and teach there), I’ve had multiple conversations with other long-term expats about how pricey China has become, and Shanghai is now, by at least one measurement, more expensive than New York. But although I wouldn’t call living in Shanghai a bargain, my money goes a lot further there than if I had stayed in Southern California (where I went to graduate school) or the East Coast (where I’m from).

China is definitely not as cheap as it used to be, and some sectors—most notably real estate, if you’re buying rather than renting—are completely out of control. But on a day-to-day basis, I find it comparable to, and often cheaper than, New York and other big cities in the U.S. As I discuss in the article, there are some real bargains here, like bus fare (2RMB, or $.32) and the vegetable baozi (steamed buns) I had for breakfast this morning (also 2RMB, and delicious).

Posted in China, Shanghai, Writing | Tagged | 2 Comments

LA Review of Books: City of Reinvention

Tan coverI took a short break from the LA Review of Books China Blog this spring, as I had conferences to attend and a dissertation to write, but I’m back now and returning to my schedule of posting there once every month or so. My latest post, a review of Amy Tan’s recent novel The Valley of Amazement, just went live:

The protagonist and primary narrator is Violet Minturn, a precocious young girl born to an American woman, Lucia (or Lulu, or Lucretia) and her Chinese lover, the young painter Lu Shing, at the close of the nineteenth century. Violet grows up in a house with two names: to Chinese visitors, it is the House of Lulu Mimi, her mother’s luxurious courtesan house offering the best of Shanghai’s carnal delights, while Western businessmen know it as Hidden Jade Path, a high-end men’s club where they negotiate deals over cards and whiskey. Though Violet is fluent in the languages of both of those names, she is unaware of her half-Chinese parentage until one of the courtesans mocks her and reveals the secret. Once she finds out, Violet immediately turns away from that side of her being, determined to be fully American — even though she has never stepped foot on the shores of the United States.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in Books, China, Shanghai | Tagged | Leave a comment

Bookshelf: And the City Swallowed Them

andthecityLate one night in July 2008, a 22-year-old Canadian model named Diana O’Brien died in the stairwell of her Shanghai apartment building after being stabbed more than 20 times. O’Brien’s assailant was Chen Jun, an 18-year-old migrant worker from impoverished Anhui Province. Like O’Brien, Chen had traveled to Shanghai without proper papers, hoping to wedge himself into the city’s vibrant economy, make some money, and establish himself.

It didn’t work: neither O’Brien nor Chen found what they had hoped for in Shanghai. In the 12 days since she had landed in China, O’Brien had discovered that her fly-by-night local modeling agency wasn’t getting her modeling jobs, but instead hiring her out as a “whiskey girl,” sent to second-tier cities where she dressed up in a cheap gown and circulated among bar-goers while displaying a bottle of Ballantine’s. Chen had arrived in Shanghai only a month before O’Brien and obtained a job at the Huazhilin Teahouse next door to her apartment building, but he was soon fired. Alone in the city, broke, and searching for money to buy a bus ticket home to Anhui, Chen Jun slipped into the adjacent building and found an open door, offering him a glimpse of an Apple laptop sitting in the living room of the apartment O’Brien shared with another model. When he entered the home to steal the computer, however, O’Brien heard him from her bedroom and tried to stop the robbery. In a panic, Chen stabbed her to death.


Who were Diana O’Brien and Chen Jun, and did he really murder her on that hot July night? We’ll likely never know the answer to the latter question—Chinese police procedures are too opaque—but the former lies at the core of Shanghai-based journalist Mara Hvistendahl’s compelling new short e-book, And the City Swallowed Them. Hvistendahl traveled to O’Brien’s idyllic hometown in Canada’s remote Gulf Islands and explains how a free-spirited bohemian island girl wound up an aspiring international model in Shanghai. She also visited Chen Jun’s village, exploring the lonely, alienated life of a “left-behind child” whose parents had gone to the city to find work. Hvistendahl skillfully and subtly suggests the parallels between O’Brien and Chen; though in many ways they could not have been more different, they both occupied semi-legal perches on the fringes of Shanghai society.

Did the Shanghai police, eager to solve a case making international headlines only a month before the Beijing Olympics, frame Chen Jun for Diana O’Brien’s murder? Stories of misconduct in the Chinese justice system—where the courts have a 99.9 percent conviction rate—make it easy to assume that. But I came away from Hvistendahl’s book genuinely unsure. As she says in this interview with Shanghaiist, “If the police did create a story around what happened, it was an extremely elaborate story.”

And the City Swallowed Them is the first e-book released by Deca, a new cooperative of nine international journalists who have come together to produce long-form nonfiction stories (more than a magazine article, less than a full-blown book). Launched only a week ago, Deca has already raised over $21,000 on Kickstarter to support its future publications—the latest proof that people will indeed pay for quality journalism, dire predictions to the contrary notwithstanding. (For an extensive explanation of what Deca is, how it came about, and what its members plan to do, see this group interview with Nieman Storyboard.)

Hvistendahl takes a fair and balanced look at Diana O’Brien’s tragic death, presenting the facts as best they can be determined and allowing the reader to make his/her own judgment about whether or not justice has been served. It’s an impressive debut for Deca, and sets a high bar for the cooperative’s other writers to meet.

Posted in Books, China, Shanghai | Leave a comment

Never Apologize for Reading What You Like: Or, the Lesson I’ve Learned from Jennifer Weiner’s Books

I have never been ahead of trends. I always hear about good television shows when they’re well into their second or third seasons; I mainly buy clothes when they’re on the clearance rack, meaning that they’re already out of style; I did not start eating kale, quinoa, or polenta until they showed up a Trader Joe’s and were, therefore, passé in the eyes of real foodies.

But I can say this: I was reading Jennifer Weiner long before she was “New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner.”

Weiner was my favorite columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer when I was a teenager, and I ate breakfast many mornings before high school laughing over her quirky articles in the paper’s Style section. She had a wry, sarcastic voice that I enjoyed, even though I couldn’t imagine feeling the same freedom to write in such a natural tone. (It has, in fact, taken me the better part of 15 years to grow comfortable with adding some humor to my writing, even though I make [bad] jokes in conversation all the time.)

Good in Bed coverI can’t exactly remember when or how I learned that she was publishing a novel, but I distinctly remember buying it shortly after the book’s publication in 2001: standing in the Plymouth Meeting Barnes & Noble, trying to shield the cover from my then-boyfriend’s eyes, because it was pink and bore the title Good in Bed. I was a Serious History Major, and he was a Serious English Major, and I didn’t want him to know that I was so excited to read something that was clearly not a Serious Book.

But I went home and devoured Good in Bed, and have read it again and again and again in the years since. It’s one of my favorite books—sharp and funny and sad in places, with a heroine who, I imagined, would have been my friend in real life.

Good in Bed went on to become a bestseller, and then Weiner wrote another excellent book (In Her Shoes) that became a movie featuring Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine, and more bestsellers followed. Weiner started tweeting about feminism and her drive for getting respect for “chick lit” from the literary establishment—and also live-tweeting The Bachelor—and now The New Yorker has profiled her, and I am far from her only fan.

I’ve read every one of Weiner’s books and enjoyed the majority of them; some resonate with me more than others, but they’re all enjoyable and well-written—as the Inquirer says, “Weiner is a far better writer than she’s given credit for.” Most of the time, reviewers write about how her characters learn to accept their physical differences (obesity, disfiguring scars, etc.) in a world that prizes beauty and perfection. But what I’ve learned from reading Weiner’s books, and hiding it for many years, is to be honest. Be honest about the fact that I often enjoy women’s commercial fiction as much—or more than—Serious Literary Classics. That when I sit down on a flight to Shanghai, I’m most likely to pick Clueless or Pitch Perfect from the movie menu for the umpteenth time to entertain me. That my Feedly reader features Go Fug Yourself and Suri’s Burn Book alongside China Real Time and Inside Higher Ed. Weiner, who holds a degree in English from Princeton*, writes characters who are likely to toss off an Edith Wharton reference in one breath and invoke Say Yes to the Dress in the next—and that’s pretty much how I’d describe myself, too (though I prefer Property Brothers).

Women in Serious Professions, like academia and government, often feel the need to cover up or diminish their affection for things like romance novels and The Real Housewives of Wherever. Hillary Clinton recently told the NYT that her “guilty pleasures” include cooking and gardening books; I nearly cheered out loud when I read The Hairpin’s clip about this:

In an alternate universe she answered, “Listen, I don’t feel guilty about shit, but as a person with an incredibly high-stress job I often find it nice to read books about how to have a prettier life, in which there’s no theory or narrative, and the take-aways are always neat—and although people sometimes try to make me feel guilty about reading these books because they’re in a feminized sphere, I refuse because I’m Hillary Fucking Clinton.”

Exactly. I’m pretty sure Jennifer Weiner would agree.


As would, I think, the two hundred or so other women who filed into the Free Library of Philadelphia’s auditorium with me last night to hear Weiner speak about her new book, All Fall Down (which I haven’t read yet; I’m saving it for Shanghai jet lag when I fly back at the end of the month). We were all clutching napkins filled with cannoli and brownies—Weiner always hands out baked goods at her book talks, which increases the feeling that she’s a good friend chatting with you over calorie-filled desserts and a bottle of wine (which, unfortunately, wasn’t being served). Weiner told dirty jokes and embarrassing stories about her daughters, but also turned serious when she explained that it was her father’s death that led her to write a novel about addiction. Her speech was peppered with “likes” (a habit that I’m told I share as well) and she played with her hair a lot, generally exuding an air of being very smart but also not someone who takes herself too seriously.

I’ll never call Jennifer Weiner’s books “guilty pleasures” or argue that I have to eat my broccoli (Jane Austen, Charles Dickens), before I can indulge in a cannoli for dessert (Weiner, Emily Giffin [though I think her work is much more uneven]). It’s not a trade-off, and one type of book isn’t better than the other.

I read what I like and I’ve learned not to hide or apologize for my choices. Jennifer Weiner taught me that.

* In a funny coincidence, I just realized that she was studying in the English department at Princeton at almost the exact same time as one of my other favorite writers, Peter Hessler.

Posted in Books | 1 Comment

From Sea to Shining Sea—By Train

For a cross-country trip, taking the train doesn’t make much sense. It’s far slower than flying, and more expensive to boot. But my mother and I both love riding trains and have been talking about doing a big trip for years, so we finally decided that last week’s graduation in Southern California provided the perfect opportunity. On Tuesday afternoon, we set out from the beach town of Encinitas, CA (where we’d spent the previous night with friends of mine), and four days and four trains later, we pulled into Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

I’ve traveled a lot in China, but have visited relatively little of the United States—most of my time here has been spent in the Northeast and California. My desire to take the train was less about the ride itself (Amtrak is certainly nice, and way better than any airline I know, but it’s still not a four-star experience) and more about seeing a large swath of the U.S. Mom and I spent pretty much all our waking hours sitting in our sleeper compartment and looking out the window, drinking coffee, cross-stitching (her) and knitting (me), and commenting on the landscape and towns we were passing through.

America, to state the obvious, is BIG. So, how do you get from Encinitas, CA to Philadelphia, PA via Amtrak, and what do you see along the way?


Train #1, the Pacific Surfliner: We began on Tuesday afternoon with a train that I know very well, the Pacific Surfliner, which travels between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. I used to take the Surfliner from Irvine to San Diego and back pretty regularly, and I never get tired of looking out the window and seeing the beaches of Southern California. We saw a lot of impressive scenery over the course of our cross-country trip, but I still consider the Surfliner to have the prettiest views. We boarded in Solana Beach and de-trained in Los Angeles, a journey of just over two hours—an easy and comfortable start to the journey.


Train #2, the Southwest Chief: This train was more or less the reason for our trip; its route is from Los Angeles to Chicago, and left to my own devices, I might have ridden that far and then flown to Philadelphia from Chicago (but I’m glad I didn’t!). Because the Chief leaves Union Station in Los Angeles at 6:15pm, we only got to see a little bit of California before night fell—by the time we woke up early the next morning, we were in Winslow, Arizona (and I had “Take It Easy” running through my head for the rest of the day). We had started out looking at subdivisions and shopping malls in Southern California on Tuesday night, but Wednesday was full of spectacular mesas and red-clay soil in Arizona and New Mexico. Mom and I couldn’t get over the distance between houses in many of the areas we passed through: we’d frequently see a house on top of a hill, with nothing around it for 20 or 30 miles. I like my alone time, but I think that’s a little too isolated for my taste.


A quick side note about our accommodations, because people have asked: We had regular seats on Trains #1 and 4, but reserved a “roomette” on Trains #2 and 3, the two overnight journeys. A roomette contains two berths, with the bottom one converting into two easy chairs during the day. Bathrooms and a shower room are elsewhere in the train carriage. All our meals were included in the price of the ticket, and we ate breakfasts and dinners in the dining car but elected to have lunches delivered to our cabin. Amtrak food is pretty decent—much better than anything I’ve ever had on an airplane—but the dining car does run out of most things by the end of the trip, and if I were still a vegetarian, I wouldn’t have had many options. There’s also a little bar at the end of each sleeper car with coffee and juice available 24 hours a day, and Mom and I drank many cups of Amtrak coffee (which is generally good) during our travels. In sum: yes, the tickets are expensive when compared to flying, but the accommodations are far more comfortable and Amtrak does the best it can to make you feel you’ve gotten something for your money.


When we woke up on Thursday, we had ridden through Colorado and were in Kansas, and the surroundings had gone from dry and desolate to wet and green. Very wet, actually, as a thunderstorm surrounded the train for several hours. Towns and station stops got closer and closer together, and we started seeing one neatly cared-for farm after another. We rode through Iowa, crossed the Mississippi River, and finally arrived in Chicago at 4:15pm on Thursday—44 hours after leaving Los Angeles, and about an hour behind schedule. Our slight delay didn’t matter to us much, though, as Mom and I had decided to stay overnight in Chicago, a city neither of us had ever visited before.


Chicago: We spent less than a day in Chicago, but both of us almost immediately took a liking to the Windy City. It seemed so much cleaner than Philadelphia (and Shanghai), and we’re both suckers for Art Deco architecture, which Chicago has in spades. We spent several hours on Friday walking around the Chicago History Museum, which is fantastic and fascinating. The museum is extremely well done (well, maybe a little text-heavy) and gives a wonderful overview of Chicago’s growth over the centuries. It also offers an amazing number of programs, like themed bike tours (yes!), pub crawls (double yes!), and the “History Hustle” 5K run (um, no). The history geek in me was in heaven. After the museum, we grabbed Chicago-style hot dogs, picked up our bags at the hotel, and walked back to Union Station to catch our train to Pittsburgh.


Train #3, the Capitol Limited: This was something of a short ride for us, as we departed from Chicago at 6:40pm on Friday and arrived in Pittsburgh at 5:30am on Saturday, giving us just enough time to look out the window before it got dark, eat dinner in the dining car, drink a little too much coffee afterward, and not get a whole lot of sleep. We traveled through Indiana and Ohio before crossing into Pennsylvania, but unfortunately didn’t get to see much.

Before we knew it, Mom and I were blearily sitting in the waiting room of the Pittsburgh train station, which turned out to be smaller and less busy than either of us had imagined. Given Pittsburgh’s industrial history, we had expected to find a huge early-20th-century train station (as in LA and Chicago) with a number of rail lines radiating out from it—maybe not as many as in the past, but at least a few. To our surprise, the Pittsburgh Amtrak station is a single room, and there are only four trains per day servicing the city, two eastbound and two westbound. (After getting home, I learned that the city’s historic Union Station still stands, and we were actually underneath and to the side of the original structure, which is now condos and office space.) Seeing the tiny station and reduced service was an instant lesson in the decline of American industry and how that has affected cities.


Train #4, the Pennsylvanian: It takes seven and a half hours to cross Pennsylvania?!? I have to admit, by the time we reached the midway point at Harrisburg, I was wishing for some China-style high-speed rail. I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before and couldn’t focus on the book I was reading (though it’s excellent! Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos), and the seats were too close together for me to knit comfortably. I spent a lot of the trip listening to my iPod and alternately dozing and looking out the window. Again, we saw a lot of small towns that seem to have fallen on hard times, but we also noticed many more attempts to capitalize on history and nostalgia, like antique stores next to train stations and what looked to be a whole collection of old rail cars in Altoona. (That’s because there’s a railroad museum there, I now know.)


And suddenly, once we left Lancaster, I started recognizing things after four days of feeling like a wide-eyed tourist. We sped down the Main Line, passing the areas where I went to high school and college, and the first house my parents lived in. Finally, we curved toward 30th Street Station and I could see the familiar Philadelphia skyline come into view. Somewhat bedraggled and very much exhausted, Mom and I lugged our suitcases through the station and met my father outside for a ride home. (We actually could have taken a SEPTA Regional Rail train from 30th Street to East Falls, but they were on strike.)

Was the trip worth the time and money? Absolutely. I wish I had the chance to get off the trains and really explore the places along the routes, but seeing them through the window was sufficient for now. I would have definitely liked to spend more than 26 hours in Chicago, and I’m now really looking forward to going to the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies there next March. Mom and I had fun hanging out together and sharing our thoughts on what we were seeing; in fact, we’ve already talked about making a major train trip an annual vacation together. Amtrak, after all, offers over two dozen routes, and we have a whole big country to explore.

One final note: T-Mobile’s claims to nationwide coverage are lies. Lies, I tell you. I basically had no phone service between leaving California and entering western Illinois. Meanwhile, all the passengers with Verizon were merrily chatting away on the phone. I’ve gotten better coverage on a sand dune in Inner Mongolia (literally).

More photos from our trip are on my Instagram feed.

Bonus: When I wasn’t trying to drive “Take It Easy” out of my head, I was mentally singing my favorite train-related Springsteen song, “Land of Hope and Dreams.”

Posted in Travel | Tagged | Leave a comment