58 Hours in Singapore

I wanted to do something special for my birthday earlier this month, so I decided to spend the weekend in Singapore—my first trip to the city-state. Have you read the New York Times features on “36 Hours in …,” where they outline a (usually extravagant) jam-packed weekend of activities? My excursion to Singapore wasn’t quite that short, but I managed to get a lot in.

Friday, October 17
3pm: Landed at Singapore’s Changi Airport, routinely named the world’s best. From my limited exposure to it at this end of the trip, I could see why. The Immigration counters held dishes of hard candy for new arrivals to take (and small containers to collect the candy wrappers); there was a massive slide for kids (not free, but it looked like fun); and there wasn’t a scrum of unlicensed taxi drivers waiting to pounce on departing passengers. Heavenly.

5pm: Checked into hotel, where the super-enthusiastic desk clerk got even more enthusiastic when he saw in my passport that I was born in Pennsylvania. Turns out he used to live in Harrisburg. He was a lot more enthusiastic about Harrisburg than I would think was warranted, based on my fourth-grade class trip to the state capital.

Maxwell Road Hawker Centre

Maxwell Road Hawker Centre

5:30pm: Walked down to the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, a partially open-air food court in Chinatown. “Hawker centres” are Singapore’s place to find cheap food and drink; they contain a number of stalls that sell a range of Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian dishes. Many of the stalls seem to specialize in only one or two things. My target at Maxwell Road was Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, which Lonely Planet told me was the hawker centre’s most famous stall. Hainanese chicken rice is basically the national dish of Singapore (though Hainan is in China); it consists of boneless poached chicken with the skin on, sitting atop a bed of raw cucumber slices and topped with a thin gravy and some cilantro. The chicken is sliced into strips, and you dip them into a spicy chili sauce on the side and eat the chicken with the accompanying rice, which has been cooked in chicken stock.

I’ve only had Hainanese chicken rice once before, and I didn’t do the ordering that time. So when I walked up to the counter at Tian Tian, I picked what seemed to me the smallest amount of chicken—a half—and a serving of rice.

Half a Hainanese chicken

Half a Hainanese chicken

Discovery #1: Ordering half a Hainanese chicken when you’re by yourself (as indicated by the single serving of rice) will provoke a reaction like when Jake orders four fried chickens and a Coke in The Blues Brothers. The counterwoman’s skepticism made sense when I moved to the adjoining counter and collected my plate: half a chicken is a lot of chicken. It’s definitely delicious, and I was pretty hungry since I didn’t eat the plane meal, so I did a fair job with the chicken rice—but I still didn’t finish the entire plate.

Discovery #2: As I saw when I checked the menu board again on my way out of the hawker centre, you can order “Hainanese chicken rice,” which is an individual serving of the dish meant for one person to eat. The half and whole chickens are for people to share. Whoops.

6:30pm: I walked slowly back to the hotel and thought about whether or not I should try to do any sight-seeing, since it was still relatively early. Lonely Planet told me that the National Museum has free admission on Friday nights, and I contemplated going there. Then I remembered that I woke up at 5am and didn’t get much sleep on the plane. I really wasn’t in the right frame of mind to tour a museum, so I decided that calling it a day made sense.

mashed potato

Mashed potato dispenser in 7-Eleven

I stopped in at a 7-Eleven to check out what’s special in Singapore’s—7-Elevens in Asia are much better than those in the U.S., and often have crazy but awesome items. My favorite thing in Singapore was the mashed potato dispenser. A close second was the single-serving bags of wine; I picked up a bag of pinot grigio to take back to the hotel. Not the best wine, not the worst. But it came in a bag.

Saturday, October 18 (my birthday)
9am: I started out bright and early with a walking tour of Chinatown that I found in Lonely Planet, though I did it in reverse (and only turned the wrong way once!). Singapore’s ethnic enclaves are no longer especially well-defined—if they ever were; Chinatown contains a major Hindu temple and an important mosque, while I saw a Chinese Buddhist temple in Little India on Sunday.

Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, in the heart of Chinatown

Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, in the heart of Chinatown

10:30am: By doing the walking tour in reverse, I was able to start at my hotel and end up only steps from Ya Kun Kaya Toast, the perfect place for a mid-morning coffee break. Kaya toast is a national obsession in Singapore, it seems: slices of bread toasted and spread with a layer of coconut jam (kaya), then topped with pats of margarine and stuck together in a sweet sandwich. A full breakfast set at Ya Kun also includes two soft-boiled eggs and a cup of super-sweet milky coffee, though I managed to convince the waiter that I wanted my coffee black.

Vintage Ya Kun advertisement

Vintage Ya Kun advertisement

A vintage Ya Kun advertisement inside the restaurant asks, “How would you like your eggs: wet and runny or runny and wet?” This was not an exaggeration! They only serve eggs one way—no special requests, no substitutions. I love runny eggs, but was still taken aback when the ones at Ya Kun came served in a bowl with a spoon to eat them. I gamely topped them with a strong dash of black pepper and a bit of vinegar, as per local custom, but really could not get used to eating eggs that had barely been cooked. The kaya toast, however, was amazing.

I wandered around Chinatown a little bit longer and eventually wound up at a subway station, where I got on a train heading north to the heart of the old colonial district. Although the morning had started out sunny and hot, clouds were quickly rolling in and I could tell that a major rainstorm was on the way.

12pm: How much does it cost to drink an authentic Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel and feel vaguely uncomfortable while doing so? Um, I’d rather not say. Enough that I don’t think it’s remotely justifiable even as a Very Special Birthday Treat. But the Lonely Planet walking tour of the colonial district started at the hotel, and rain was starting to fall as I arrived there, so I decided to fulfill the ultimate touristy cliché and go to the Long Bar while waiting out the storm.

Seriously, you don’t want to know how much this thing cost

Seriously, you don’t want to know how much this thing cost

What I didn’t exactly realize ahead of time is that the Long Bar is something of a throwback to the heyday of British colonialism in Singapore, with its “plantation-style” decor and chairs filled almost entirely with older British tourists being served by Asian waiters. Nearly everyone had a glass of red-pink Singapore Sling, and most people were eating peanuts out of burlap sacks and throwing the shells on the floor. (Which made my eyelid twitch. There were containers on the tables for peanut shells. Don’t deliberately make a mess for someone else to clean up, even if it is in the “spirit” of the place.) Rudyard Kipling would have fit right in.

Maybe I’m being unnecessarily harsh. Maybe graduate school destroyed my ability to enjoy a tourist trap. I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be okay with a Gone With the Wind-themed restaurant in the United States, and I didn’t feel okay about being in the Long Bar.

Sir Stamford Raffles surveying his domain

Sir Stamford Raffles surveying his domain

12:30pm: The rainstorm concluded, I escaped from my moral quandary into Singapore’s old colonial district and began following the walking tour set out in Lonely Planet. Many of the beautiful Palladian-style buildings are undergoing renovation right now, but it was still very pleasant to walk along the river and enjoy the intermittent sunshine. Singapore reminded me a lot of Hong Kong—clean, efficient, a jumble of old and new buildings, a babel of languages spoken—but on that weekend, at least, it didn’t feel nearly as crowded, and it was nice to be in a city but with some room to breathe.

2pm: I detoured from the walking tour’s itinerary to head over to Clarke Quay, location of the Brewerkz microbrewery, where I wanted to eat lunch. Even putting aside the extraordinarily overpriced Singapore Sling at the Raffles, Singapore is an expensive place to eat and drink, especially if you go to a true restaurant rather than hawker centre. Brewerkz has a lunch special that’s pricey but not completely outrageous: S$19 (US$15.20) for a pint of beer (I picked the black raspberry ale) and half a sandwich (I got the pulled pork) with a side of sweet potato fries.

Marina Bay Sands resort

Marina Bay Sands resort

3pm: Back to exploring! The remainder of the walking tour took me on a long hike along the river, across the Esplanade, and into the Marina Bay Sands shopping mall/casino complex, which I’d been staring at all day because its three towers are topped by a boat, and you really can’t help but stare. I momentarily thought about checking out the casino (maybe I could recoup the money spent on that Singapore Sling?), but noticed the sign at the door said that foreigners had to show their passports to enter, and mine was locked in the hotel safe. Probably for the best, since I know nothing about gambling.

5pm: Hot, sweaty, and not eager to retrace my steps along the long, sun-drenched Esplanade, I took a water taxi from the casino complex back to Clarke Quay and wandered down to my hotel, stopping at 7-Eleven along the way to pick up dinner (diet Coke and instant noodles). I spent much of the remainder of my birthday delighting in Singapore’s fast and unblocked internet, which enabled me to download all the podcast episodes that my connection in China has been balking at lately. I am, clearly, so cool.

Sunday, October 19
10am: After dawdling around the hotel and delaying checkout as long as possible, I left my suitcase at the front desk and made my way to the subway station, then rode the train a few stops north to Killiney Kopitiam, another landmark source of kaya toast. I skipped the eggs this time and just had toast and coffee. Killiney had a much more generous hand with the kaya than Ya Kun did.

Kaya toast and coffee

Kaya toast and coffee

11am: Thus fortified, I took the metro over to Little India for my final Lonely Planet walking tour (if you haven’t noticed, I love walking tours). Since it was a Sunday morning, all the temples in Little India were filled with people going to services, so I couldn’t go inside any of them, but there was plenty to look at on the streets. As I said, the neighborhood designations of “Chinatown” and “Little India” are pretty vague ones; apparently, they had some meaning back in the 19th century, but people have created fairly mixed communities since then. There are Chinese- and Indian-specific markets in their respective neighborhoods, but otherwise I might not have realized that the areas are supposed to have defined ethnic identities.

Intriguing restaurant in Little India, but closed on Sunday

Intriguing restaurant in Little India, but closed on Sunday

12:45pm: I wasn’t exactly hungry yet, but I also wasn’t going to pass by the biryani restaurant that Lonely Planet recommended in the heart of Little India. It turned out to be a good thing I didn’t wait any longer, as they had already sold out of the house special mutton biryani and only had a bit of the chicken left. Diners at the table next to mine complained that the mutton was already gone, and the owner told them that on Sundays, when most people have the day off, they need to arrive when the restaurant opens at 11am to be reasonably sure of getting it. The chicken biryani was pretty darn good, so the mutton must be something special.

1:30pm: I had the rest of the afternoon left and a choice of three things to do. I could go to the Singapore Zoo, which is supposed to be an excellent and un-zoo-like experience. I could wander among the flowers in the Botanical Gardens. Or I could check out a couple of museums.

After spending almost all of Saturday outside, the idea of more time in the sun didn’t really appeal to me. I decided on the museums.

I chose wrong.

To be clear: the primary reason this was the wrong choice is that Singapore seems to be renovating museums en masse right now. I started out at the National Museum, where I found that the “living history” galleries have been closed (and the main exhibit will be very soon, reopening in fall 2015). The woman at the ticket desk assured me that there was still plenty to see in the main exhibit, which traces Singapore’s history from the 14th century to the present, and since admission was a very reasonable S$6 anyway, I went ahead with it. But once I got inside, I discovered that the museum is largely done via audio tour—there are very few placards in the exhibits, and they don’t say much—and as much as I love a good walking tour, I dislike audio tours. I thought this one was not very well done; there were too many occasions where a single object or picture got a three-minute discussion as I stood there thinking that it would be so much faster if I could just read about it. When the battery on my audio unit died three-quarters of the way through the exhibit, I decided I’d had enough.

3:30pm: I took the metro back down to Chinatown with a plan in mind: I’d go to the Chinatown Heritage Centre to see the exhibit there, then eat dinner at a restaurant in the area before going back to my hotel to pick up my bag and head to the airport. Exiting the metro stop, I walked a few feet to the museum and found … that it’s closed for renovation.

Time for a new plan.

Approaching the high point of the Singapore Flyer

Approaching the high point of the Singapore Flyer

Time for Very Special Birthday Treat #2: the Singapore Flyer observation wheel, located near the Marina Bay Sands complex. Sunday was a rather smoggy day, but I was still able to see quite a bit of the city as the wheel made its 30-minute rotation with all of us passengers sealed in glass-walled pods. I’m not overly fond of heights, or Ferris wheels, but the Singapore Flyer moves so slowly, you barely even notice it. Also, I’ve learned that they key is to look out, not down.

6pm: I walked back along the Esplanade and stopped at a tourist-focused hawker centre, “Gluttons Bay” (great name!) for a quick dinner of “carrot cake.” Not the kind with cream cheese frosting; Singaporean carrot cake is actually stir-fried cubes of glutinous radish cake and scrambled eggs, tossed with a sweet dark sauce. It was probably my favorite dish of the weekend, with kaya toast coming in a close second.

Night walk along the river

Night walk along the river

7pm: A long, meandering walk back along the river to my hotel, with a stop at Starbucks along the way to pick up a Singapore coffee mug to add to my collection. I got my suitcase and headed for the subway to make my way back to the airport; although my flight wasn’t leaving until nearly 1am, I was ready to call it a trip. Plus, I was running low on cash and couldn’t do much else besides walk around at that point, anyway.

9pm: I checked in for my flight and began exploring the wonders of Changi Airport. I saw the koi ponds. I walked through the butterfly garden (they were asleep). I sat in a free massage chair and let the motorized boots knead my aching feet. I very badly wanted to claim a chaise lounge in the “Snooze Lounge,” but worried that I would actually fall asleep and miss my flight.

11pm: I began wondering why in the world I decided to book a ticket for a flight scheduled to take off more than two hours after I’m normally asleep. Cranky, I looked for another massage chair, but they were all occupied by people who didn’t seem inclined to relinquish their spots. Even more cranky, I walked up and down the length of the terminal in an attempt to stay awake until they began boarding my flight.

12:55am: My plane mercifully took off on time. I fell asleep almost the minute I sat down in my seat and have no memory of leaving Singapore. I spent the next three days feeling groggy, and swore (not for the first time) that I’d never again book tickets on a red-eye.

What the New York Times doesn’t tell you about those 36-hour weekend trips: they are both very rewarding and completely exhausting. Next time, Singapore, I’ll try to stay for more than 58 hours.

Singapore souvenir holding my coffee this morning

Singapore souvenir holding my coffee this morning

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Why I’m Leaving China

Flight info

Sorry, that title is probably the ultimate China expat in-joke. The backstory: almost exactly two years ago—right as I arrived in China, in fact—there was a sudden little flurry (“flurry” meaning three, by my count) of longtime expatriates returning home and penning public declarations of their reasons for doing so. The press quickly turned this into “foreigners are leaving China en masse!” and the China expat community smelled a story ripe for ridicule. As Will Moss pointed out in his own pre-departure essay (and that is the one worth reading, plus it has links to the others that I’m not going to bother hunting down), the nature of expats is that they come to a country … stay for a while … and then move on, either to their next post or back home. Very few of us plan to stay in China permanently, and we don’t have to explain our decisions to leave.

So the fact that I am preparing to depart China in twenty-six days isn’t really notable. Nor is there anything in my reason for departure that you could use as the basis for an article about foreigners fleeing the PRC. I had a completely predictable, but very exciting, reason for buying a Shanghai-to-Newark plane ticket:

I got a job.

Starting November 12, you can find me at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in New York, where I’ll be a program officer. My primary focus will be the incredibly awesome Public Intellectuals Program (which I will endeavor to keep incredibly awesome), and I’ll also be involved in other NCUSCR projects as well.

This move has come about very suddenly—remember all the stuff I planned to do this year?—but I am one hundred percent thrilled about it. I’ve admired the National Committee and its work for years and look forward to being a part of the organization. And although it’s just a geographic coincidence, I’m really happy that I’ll once again be close to my family and friends in Philadelphia and New Jersey.

So, as Will Moss titled his post, I’m leaving China and it doesn’t mean a thing, except that I am very, very lucky to have had this opportunity open up at just the right time in my life and career. On to new things in New York.

P.S. There’s a major National Committee event taking place tonight! And you can check it out wherever you are, because the CHINA Town Hall starts with a webcast of an address by former president Jimmy Carter. I, unfortunately, will miss it because I should be on a flight to Singapore when the address is happening, but you should watch. All of you.

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Dongtai Road Antique Market Update

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Most shops open, a few shops closed. Either way, the mahjong games continue.

As I wrote the other day, Shanghai’s antique market on Dongtai Road is slated for closure and demolition in the coming months, with the street’s shops scheduled to shut their doors today, October 15 (the freestanding stalls are supposed to close by the end of the year). When I visited the market on Sunday afternoon, it didn’t seem like anyone was moving very fast to meet that deadline, and the one shopkeeper I talked to said that she was waiting to see whether or not it was enforced. After lunch today, I made a quick return trip to Dongtai Road to check out the situation.

At first, it seemed like business as usual: I entered the market area from the east end of Liuhekou Road, walked to the intersection with Dongtai Road and turned north. The market was more or less as it had been on Sunday—stalls crammed with a mixture of junk and cool stuff, vendors playing mahjong in the alley while they waited for customers, a few intense ones calling me over  and going for the hard sell. A couple of the stores had their security grills down, but most were still open for business.

Business as usual for Dongtai Road’s stalls.

Business as usual for Dongtai Road’s stalls.

I retraced my steps, crossed Liuhekou Road, and continued south on Dongtai Road, where I saw slightly more closure-related activity. Shanghai Art Deco—the store owned by Pan Zhizong, whose interview I linked to in my earlier post—was completely empty, with a couple of workmen pulling down wires from the walls and a scrap collector waiting outside to get at the good stuff. (Shanghai Art Deco, the website, was there earlier in the day to see Mr. Pan empty his shop.) Another store nearby (at number 57) was also devoid of wares, and a few other shops had their security grills down, as on the northern end of the street. If I hadn’t known about the planned demolition of the market, I would have just chalked these closures up to the normal cycle of shop life in Shanghai, where stores both open and go out of business with regularity.

Pan Zhizong's Shanghai Art Deco store is among those gone.

Pan Zhizong’s Shanghai Art Deco store is among those gone.

So it seems that not ALL of the shops had to close today—I’d say only about ten to fifteen percent have shut their doors—and I don’t know why those that did were selected (or volunteered? not likely) to go first. To a casual visitor or tourist, I don’t think it would be immediately apparent that Dongtai Road is heading toward a date with the wrecking ball (no one’s hanging a “Going out of business—everything must go!” sign in their window or offering extra discounts). It would probably just seem like a few shopkeepers took a day off in the middle of the week, while others were closing, moving, or renovating their stores. But it became clear to me today that the Dongtai Road market isn’t going to be magically rescued from its planned extinction, much as I and many others hoped that might happen.

I’ll try to go back once or twice more in future weeks to check in on the market—and maybe get my Christmas shopping out of the way early this year … (ObaMao t-shirts for everyone!)

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Disappearing Soonish: Shanghai’s Dongtai Road Antique Market

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I don’t venture over to the antique market on Dongtai Road all that often. I have plenty of Mao pins and propaganda posters, porcelain and jade really aren’t my style, and the stuff that I like the most—Art Deco furniture and light fixtures—is both out of my price range and a hassle to get back to the States. But on Sunday afternoon, I made a special trip to Dongtai Road because I wanted to see it one last time before the city shuts it down.

The market was established in 1985, a time when people were breaking away from jobs at state-owned enterprises and starting their own businesses. Within a few years, lots of older buildings in Shanghai were being torn down to make way for new construction, which created a supply of antique fixtures for the market as vendors scavenged or purchased them from demolition sites. (For more, Shanghai Art Deco has a video interview with Pan Zhizong, a vendor on Dongtai Road since 1998, about how the city’s antique industry has grown and changed since he entered it in the late 1980s.) Most of the true antiques, as Paul French notes, are long gone; the jumble of objects crowded into Dongtai Road’s shops and stalls these days are “antiques” with a patina of dust for authenticity, plus plenty of generic Chinese tourist junk. Still, if you’re okay with buying reproductions and don’t mind bargaining hard, Dongtai Road is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon and come away with a few interesting knick-knacks or Christmas gifts. In terms of atmosphere, the old French Concession alleyways are far preferable to the florescent-lit multi-story buildings that Chinese cities have moved other street vendors into over the past decade (such as Shanghai’s Pearl Market and Beijing’s Silk Market).

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Unfortunately, something like the Silk Market might be the future iteration of Dongtai Road, as the local government announced last month that the antique market would soon be shut down and demolished so the area can be redeveloped. As is often the case with such moves in China, it’s both understandable and frustrating: the homes in the Dongtai Road area (which date to the 1920s-30s) are small, in poor condition, and lack amenities like bathrooms. Doing full-scale historic renovations would be costly. But Shanghai’s old alleyway neighborhoods are disappearing quickly, and with them the old fabric of city life.

IMG_6736I got a sense of the community that will be lost when Dongtai Road goes away as I wandered around the 150 or so stalls and shops yesterday afternoon. Business was light: I saw a few other foreign tourists and some Chinese families out for a stroll, but most of the shops were empty of customers. Vendors hung out in groups scattered along the lane, drinking tea and chatting or playing mahjong, pausing the conversations and games to dash over to their shops whenever a tourist who looked like she had money to spend ventured close to the entrance. Many of the Dongtai Road shopkeepers are elderly and double as babysitters, minding their stores with one eye and their grandchildren with the other. In terms of work/life balance, it’s hard to beat the setup over there.

I had gone to the market with the goal of buying one specific thing—a figurine of a revolutionary ballet dancer—and somewhat randomly picked a shop in which to make that purchase based on how nice the vendor was. (She didn’t force a sale on me, AND she complimented my Chinese! I’m a soft target.) As she wrapped up the dancer, I asked about the impending move. I had heard that the shops would all be closing on October 15 and the stalls remaining another two months, but no one on Dongtai Road seemed to be packing up their stuff in preparation for departure. The woman told me she wasn’t certain that they would really have to vacate the shops by Wednesday, and that the vendors haven’t been told yet where they’ll be moving after the market is closed. They’re watching and waiting to see if that October 15 date is real. I got the sense that no one is going to box up a single object until the local police are standing in their shops holding eviction notices.

The younger shop owners will, I expect, relocate their businesses to wherever the Shanghai government deems the new antique market will be. Older vendors will likely retire and be forced to move elsewhere; even if new apartments are built on Dongtai Road, the neighborhood will become too expensive for current residents to live in.

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I’m not really much of a shopper, and I certainly have plenty of stuff cluttering up my life already, but I walked into every single store and examined every single stall, wanting to see all of Dongtai Road before it goes away. I didn’t buy anything else. I don’t need an “ObaMao” t-shirt or deck of Chinese emperor playing cards; I don’t know anyone who would want an abacus or oversized writing brush. I was just trying to see it all, in the hope that I’ll have a few memories of Dongtai Road after it’s gone and the old shops have been replaced with an H&M and yet another Starbucks.*

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As I meandered through the lane, a tour guide who was escorting a foreign man around the stalls stopped to speak with one vendor and commiserate over the market’s planned demolition. “How can they close it? This is Shanghai’s most well-known market!” the guide exclaimed. The vendor nodded and shrugged at the same time, a move that somehow communicated an entire thought: I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but what can I do? The vendors on Dongtai Road might bargain hard with the tourists who frequent their shops, but the realists among them know they can’t negotiate with the city government to prevent the demolition of their homes and businesses—whenever that happens.

* Not that I have anything against Starbucks—that’s where I’m writing this. But good lord, I think we can all agree that Shanghai has more than enough of them already.

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Posted in China, Shanghai | 5 Comments

Books, Books, and More Books: Taking the #HistoriannChallenge

Earlier this month, the New York Times interviewed retired Princeton historian of the Civil War James McPherson for the newspaper’s “By the Book” feature. The Times asked McPherson to name the best historians writing today, the books that have most influenced him, the best treatments of particular subjects, and so forth. When I and a lot of other historians read the interview, we raised a collective eyebrow: McPherson’s lists showed a surprising lack of breadth and depth. As LA Tech professor (and fellow St. Joe’s alum) Drew McKevitt noted on Twitter,

McKevitt tweet

But of course, those aren’t the only people writing good history today. (Sometimes a woman [other than Doris Kearns Goodwin] even writes a halfway decent book!) On Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, historians decried the narrowness of McPherson’s responses. What’s the problem with his list? I’ll let “Historista” (Megan Kate Nelson) explain:

It suggests that white men are still the dominant voices in the field of American history, both as authors and as subjects. And in doing so this list ignores and implicitly condones the marginalization of the very important work being produced by women, people of color, and scholars of different (younger) generations. By all accounts, McPherson is a generous colleague and a devoted advisor to a diverse group of graduate students. But as Jim Downs pointed out in a Facebook thread, McPherson’s list represents “how patriarchy reproduces itself.”

Blogger Historiann (Ann M. Little) also took issue with McPherson’s choices, then went a step further: rather than just complain about the books and authors he named, she interviewed herself, offering her own opinions on the same questions that the Times asked McPherson. Historiann’s list is more diverse and a better reflection of the work historians have been producing over the past thirty years. (I’ve read at least a few of the books on her list; I haven’t read a single one on McPherson’s.) She also issued the “#HistoriannChallenge” to readers, asking us to post our own self-interviews, which I decided seemed like a fun exercise. I’ve deleted a few questions, in recognition of the fact that I’m not an American historian (though it seems I read more U.S. history than I thought!). So, for what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on some of publications that historians today should be sure to have on their bookshelves.

What books are currently on your night stand?
I spent pretty much the entire day yesterday reading the third Outlander book. I started reading the series when I was in Myanmar last week and am totally hooked, though it’s made me realize how little I remember about 18th-century British/Scottish history. I know I learned this stuff in my Western Civ class, but that was 14 years ago! I’ve spent a lot of time on Wikipedia reading about Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Battle of Culloden to refresh my memory.

What was the last truly great book you read?
I’m not crazy about the formulation of this question, but here are three recent books that I would wholeheartedly recommend reading, whether you’re a professional historian or not. (1) Jill Lepore, Book of Ages, which is a wonderful reconstruction of the life of Benjamin Franklin’s sister; (2) Coolie Woman by Gaiutra Bahadur, which uses her own great-grandmother’s story as a launching point for a history of Indian women who traveled to Guiana as indentured servants; and (3) Charity and Sylvia by Rachel Hope Cleves, which I reviewed in this blog post.

Who are the best historians writing today?
Jill Lepore, Natalie Zemon Davis, Gail Hershatter, and Jonathan Spence are four people who are always on my must-read list; I automatically pick up whatever they publish. I’m hoping Dorothy Ko has a new book in the next few years because I like her work. Timothy Brook wrote several important books on a range of China topics and now seems to have moved to examining China in a world-history framework, which I find even more interesting. And Ruth Rogaski and Janet Chen both published fantastic dissertation-based books that I’ve read multiple times and drawn inspiration from in my own research.

What’s the best book ever written about the Civil War?
I think when it comes to American history, my tastes favor the 18th and 20th centuries; I haven’t read very much on the 19th. But the best book I’ve read about the Taiping Civil War is Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, by Steve Platt, which situates the war in China in a global context—including its relationship to the American Civil War.

What are the best military histories?
I’m honestly trying to remember the last military history I read and coming up short. I guess Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom counts, though I kind of sped through the military stuff. Rana Mitter’s Forgotten Ally is a great overview of World War II in China. But frankly, I hate war and don’t enjoy reading about it.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
Incessant! I flopped at sports, was a mediocre artist, and had no musical ability, so reading became my hobby. I loved serials—Nancy Drew, the Babysitter’s Club, Sweet Valley High, and loads of others—and read a lot of biographies and historical fiction, too. I can’t even remember all the books that were my favorites, but a short list would include A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the Betsy-Tacy books, the All-of-a-Kind Family books, and Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself (I don’t know why I liked that particular Judy Blume book so much, but I read it multiple times.) I seem to be the only female historian who wasn’t into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books; I guess I’ve always had a preference for East Coast urban life.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
Hmmm. I definitely can’t pick just one. As a young reader, Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars had a tremendous impact on me for its depiction of daily life under Nazism; I think that was the book that made me want to study history. In college, reading The Question of Hu and The Death of Woman Wang, along with other Spence books, introduced me to the idea of experimenting with historical narrative—the notion that a historian could borrow some of a novelist’s techniques without completely crossing over into writing historical fiction. A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg are two other books that showed me what a great historian could do despite having only a limited source base.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Dorothy Parker, Jennifer Weiner, and Jill Lepore. Though I don’t think the evening would be “dinner party” so much as “Champagne, desserts, and watching/mocking House-Hunters International in my living room.” At least, that’s my idea of a good time.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I don’t often put books down once I start them; I tend to be a completist when it comes to reading. If I don’t think I’ll like something, I simply won’t pick it up. But at one point I tried to get through Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao biography because I felt like I should read it myself rather than just listen to the criticisms of others. I can’t remember how far I got, but it wasn’t more than 75 or 100 pages.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
I’m not sure I’d say I’m embarrassed not to have read these books, since they’re not in my field, but two books that I bought and have been planning to read for ages are Roger Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre and John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive. People frequently talked about them in grad school whenever we discussed historical writing, but I never had specific cause to read either one (well, I read Darnton’s Cat Massacre essay, but not the entire book).

In terms of Chinese history, there are several acclaimed books that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. Recent entries on that list are Tonio Andrade’s Lost Colony, Mao’s Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, and Barbara Mittler’s A Continuous Revolution. I’ll get to them. Soon. I hope.

What do you plan to read next?
Well, I have five more Outlander books after finishing this one! There’s a book that I’ve agreed to review that I really need to read this week. I read this blog post about Catherine McNeur’s forthcoming Taming Manhattan and plan to pick that up as soon as it’s out; same goes for Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I still have a number of titles on my 14 Books for 2014 list that I need to get through. And after reading this story on Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, I really want to crack that open as well. If I could make reading into a full-time job, maybe I’d have a chance of covering everything in this lifetime.

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Ten Thoughts about Myanmar

I’m back in Shanghai and trying to work through an epic to-do list while the back of my mind is still mulling all the things I saw and did in Myanmar. In no particular order, here are ten thoughts that struck me during my six days in the country:

IMG_64381. I was so much more connected than I expected. Myanmar has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world: 99.5 percent of its population isn’t online. So before I left China, I did all the things I used to do when traveling: told people I would likely be offline, set up an away message on my email, made sure I had plenty of material on hand to read. But the small number of internet connections that are available must be clustered in Yangon, because I could get online with my phone almost anywhere—at my hotel, in cafes and restaurants, even at the Shwedagon Pagoda (I posted an Instagram picture and emailed my mother from there, just because I could). I spent a lot of time offline, too, but it really helped not to be completely disconnected for a week.

2. That internet was fast and unblocked. Much of what I read about Myanmar before my trip mentioned the heavy-handed censorship system that used to be in place; while I knew things have relaxed in the past couple of years, I wasn’t expecting the almost completely unblocked internet I encountered in the country. Coming from China, where doing almost anything online has become a major frustration, this was amazing. I only used my VPN twice during the trip—because my bank wouldn’t allow me to sign in to my account from a Myanmar IP address. Returning to China and finding the internet even slower and balkier than it had been before I left was a crash back to reality.

IMG_63173. The variety and presence of religion. I knew that Myanmar had a large Buddhist population and a smaller Muslim one, and that the two groups have clashed. But I didn’t expect to see so many Christian churches (I spotted Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Roman Catholic ones), or a Chinese temple across the street from my hotel, or a Hindu temple a few blocks down, or a synagogue around the corner. All of the houses of worship I passed or ventured into had significant numbers of people praying in them. And on Sunday, I woke up at 3:45am to the sound of temple bells ringing outside. I have no idea which congregation was gathering that early, but they’re dedicated (and loud).

IMG_65034. Fried chicken? Donuts? “In-N-Out” burgers? Myanmar doesn’t yet have international fast-food chains or Starbucks, but there are a number of local versions available in Yangon these days. I spotted Clucky’s Fried Chicken and Harley’s American Favorites; I stopped in at I Am Donut and tried one with chopped hazelnuts sprinkled on top (it was good). I’m sure McDonald’s, KFC, et al. will swoop in one of these days and start building their business in Yangon, but Western fast food is already more than present in the city. It joins a diverse restaurant lineup: like its multitude of religious institutions, Yangon has a variety of cuisines on offer. I didn’t eat any fried chicken or hamburgers, but I had Chinese, Burmese, Indian (several types), and gourmet locavore (at Sharky’s) meals during my time there.

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5. So many cars. So much traffic. By the end of my first taxi ride, from the airport to my hotel in Chinatown, I had learned that traffic in Yangon is awful and that nearly everyone drives Japanese cars. I spotted a stray Mercedes and one BMW, but otherwise the roads were clogged with Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans, Mazdas, Suzukis, and Isuzus (but no Subarus, my own car of choice). And though traffic moves on the right side of the road, almost all the cars were right-hand drive. I was puzzled enough about this to investigate and learned that they’re used cars brought over from Japan, preferred because it’s easy to get spare parts for them. Most remarkable is that those cars have all been imported since restrictions were eased in September 2011—more than 100,000 cars entered Myanmar in the first 18 months after that change. In contrast to China, however, I thought the traffic was pretty well behaved … probably because no one could go too fast.

6. Luckily, Yangon is a very walkable city. Why sit in traffic when you can walk? (I didn’t even attempt to figure out the buses, which don’t have posted routes.) Yangon is pretty flat, and the British created a grid system that’s reasonably simple to navigate. So I walked everywhere. Sure, I got some surprised looks—I gather that most foreigners take a taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda, which is a solid 45-minute walk from the city center—but it gave me a chance to see the city up close. The biggest hazard was trying to look at my surroundings while also being mindful of the often broken sidewalks. I also had to remind myself to drink bottle after bottle of water, because …

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7. Holy moly, was it hot there. When it wasn’t raining, that is. My travel dates were dictated by the Chinese National Day holiday, since I wanted to spend a full week in Myanmar rather than just a long weekend. But that meant going at the tail end of the summer and rainy season, and that’s a pretty brutal combination. If I’d had a choice, I would have waited until November, I think. Like everyone else in Yangon, I carried an umbrella all the time, to ward off both the intense sun and the relentless rain, and I did my best to stay hydrated. But I still had a tough time dealing with the heat and was glad that my hotel had both air conditioning and a good generator, since the power went out more than once.

8. No hard sell. Being an obvious tourist can make you a magnet for touts, guides, and other people whose incomes depend on selling goods or services to visitors. Understandably, they’re generally pretty persistent. But I didn’t find this to be the case in Myanmar: a simple “no thank you” was enough to end the interaction, with no apparent hard feelings. Even the massive Bogyoke Aung San Market, which sells loads of tourist tchotchkes, was a pretty low-key and no-pressure experience.

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9. I’m glad I went now. One of the things that prompted me to consider traveling to Myanmar was reading this LA Times story from January that discussed the uphill battle historic preservationists in Yangon are fighting to restore the city’s colonial-era buildings. Based on my knowledge of China, I expected that some might be restored and turned into upscale hotels or restaurants, but that most others would be torn down. I wanted to see the city before that happened. I’m so glad I did: while many of the old buildings are not in good condition, they’re still standing—and often quite beautiful, even with mildew and vegetation covering them. And I had a drink at the Strand Hotel bar, too, which is a gorgeous example of high-quality historic restoration (though, of course, a single cocktail there cost more than any dinner I ate).

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10. I’d like to go back in a few years. Even if some of those beautiful old buildings have been torn down to make way for glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Yangon is changing: there was construction happening nearly everywhere I went, and I expect that the city will be transformed quickly. With my geeky historian’s heart, I hope that transformation will be done carefully and with an eye toward balancing the past and the future. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. In any event, I’d like to go back and check it out.

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All Aboard the Yangon Circle Line

The Yangon Circle Line train is the exact opposite of Chinese high-speed rail. Over the course of three hours, the Circle Line traces a route only 28.5 miles long; there are points when the train moves so slowly that it seems like it would be faster to get out and walk. During the short stretches that the train picks up some speed, the carriages bounce and rattle with such force that it’s a wonder they don’t leap off the tracks. The women who walk back and forth through the cars balancing baskets of snacks for sale on their heads don’t seem to notice the rough ride, though: even during the bumpiest patches, they keep moving, only occasionally raising a hand to ensure the stability of their baskets.

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Yangon Railway Station

Following the advice of guidebooks and travel blogs that told me riding the Circle Line was the best way to get a quick glimpse of Myanmar’s countryside, I show up at the central Yangon railway station at 8am on Saturday to hop on board. Signs throughout the station vow to “Warmly Welcome & Take Care of Tourists,” and I soon find that this is not an empty promise. While there’s almost no English-language signage anywhere, and I don’t speak a word of Burmese, railway employees and security guards point me toward platform 7 as soon as they catch sight of me. They clearly know that most foreigners who venture into the station are there to take the Circle Line.

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Circle Line ticket

I buy a ticket at the booth on the platform, handing over 200 kyats ($.20) and receiving a thin rectangle of paper in return.* The ticket seller directs me to wait farther down the platform for the next train, which will be departing at 8:20, and I hang out for a few minutes watching people prepare for the journey. The platform isn’t terribly crowded, but the food vendors are doing a brisk business, ladling out bowls of freshly cooked noodles to customers seated on low plastic stools arranged in semicircles around each pot. Suddenly, the mood shifts to one of busy anticipation, as diners slurp down the last of their noodles and people waiting on benches gather up their bags and baskets. Far down the track, the train is slowly coming into sight.

Waiting for the train to arrive

Waiting for the train to arrive

Verrrrry slowwwwly, it moves into the station, many of the passengers currently on board jumping down from the open doorways rather than wait for the train to come to a complete stop. The other embarking passengers and I wait in line to climb aboard, which is a calmer process than I’m used to in China. Maybe it’s because the train clearly won’t be crowded and everyone can expect seats, but there’s no rush to get on the train and claim the best spots. I find a mostly empty bench and settle down next to the window, rearranging myself a few times in an effort to figure out the most comfortable position that will enable me to look outside. (I still wind up with a crick in my neck in no time flat.)

Inside the Circle Line train

Inside the Circle Line train

Right on time, according to my phone’s clock, the train pulls out of Yangon and begins its long clockwise circuit around the city. The Circle Line is a route for locals: the conductor never calls out the upcoming station stops, and the maps of the line posted inside the train are only in Burmese script. I resign myself to not knowing where I am. The heat inside the train is a little harder to accept, as I look up at the small fans in the ceiling and wonder how hot it has to get before the conductor will turn them on. A slight breeze comes into the car whenever the train picks up speed, but such moments are few and far between, and I realize that I should have worn a skirt and sandals rather than jeans and sneakers. I sit and sweat.

As we leave central Yangon behind, the city’s cement-block apartment towers disappear and small houses topped with thatch or corrugated metal roofs begin sprinkling the countryside. A couple of the towns we pass through have proper train stations, while most of the others have nothing more than a ticket window and an overhang to protect waiting passengers from the sun. Almost all of the stations have food vendors set up on the sidewalk next to the tracks, and occasionally a passenger inside the carriage will quickly call one over to buy a packet of chips or bottle of water before the train moves on. Others get their snacks from the vendors inside the train, who sell peanuts, fruit, and cups of sweet milk tea. A man walks through the cars selling newspapers, too, but doesn’t have any English-language ones, so I continue watching the scenery through the window.

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In the countryside surrounding Yangon

The countryside keeps getting greener and greener as we move farther away from the city, and I begin seeing people working in fields next to the train tracks. But there are small construction sites scattered along the route, too, workers laboring away at unidentifiable projects. There’s a lot more construction going on in Myanmar than I had expected, and I wonder what I would find if I came back to ride the Circle Line again in three or five years.

I finally decide that I need a change of seat—my neck is aching, and the sun is beating down intensely on my side of the train—so I walk back a car and wind up sitting at the end of the last carriage, next to the conductor and his wife (girlfriend?). The fifty-something conductor sticks his head out the window at every stop, waving a green flag when the platform is clear and the engineer can start the train again. In between stations, the conductor and his companion make out like teenagers. I wonder with amusement if this is why he seems happier with his job than any Amtrak conductor I’ve ever met.

One of the small stations along the Circle Line route

One of the small stations along the Circle Line route

Sometime around 10:45, I begin to wonder how much longer the ride will last; I have no idea where we are on the route or if the train is running on time or not. Even on the shady side of the carriage, I’m still sweating, and the increasing sameness of the scenery is making me antsy to get off the train and see something new. I don’t seem to be the only one who has had enough: a Chinese tourist who has spent the journey taking countless photos with a massive camera finally sits down across the aisle from me and begins checking his watch every couple of minutes. I try to relax my brain and wind up dozing off—the heat, the sun, the jolting rhythm of the train lulling me into a brief nap, somewhere between consciousness and sleep.

Big market at one of the longer station stops; many passengers hopped off the train and quickly bought some produce before we left again.

Big market at one of the longer station stops; many passengers hopped off the train and quickly bought some produce before we left again.

I open my eyes again and see church spires coming into view, immediately recognizing them as belonging to a church a few blocks away from the Yangon train station, and in another minute I spot the station’s gold towers. The conductor turns to me and says, “Yangon station,” and I nod in response. My ticket is valid all day and the train will keep running in its slow circle around the city, but for me this is the end of the line.

I step off the train and check the clock on my phone. 11:19. It might not be Chinese high-speed rail, but we still arrived one minute early.

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* Lonely Planet and every website I read said that the ticket price for foreigners is 1000 kyats ($1). I don’t know if the ticket seller gave me a break by charging the local price, or if the fare has recently been adjusted so that everyone pays the same amount.

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Myanmar So Far, In Five Pictures

Pretty much the whole Yangon airport appears sponsored by Samsung.

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Quick Wednesday morning stop at one of the many tea shops lining Yangon’s streets. The tea is thick, milky, and super-sweet; it’s never going to replace black coffee in my daily routine.

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Spire of the Sule Pagoda, a stupa that occupies a traffic circle not far from my hotel, at the heart of British colonial Yangon.

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One of the many colonial-era buildings in Yangon that could use some TLC. A few are in the process of being restored.

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Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important Buddhist site in Myanmar. It also features free wifi.

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One Night in Kunming and Scattered Thoughts on Travel

Greetings from Yangon, Myanmar (or Rangoon, Burma, depending on your politics), where I’m spending the Chinese National Day break. To get to Yangon, I first had to fly to Kunming, a city in southwest China that serves as a sort of gateway to Southeast Asia. Due to a combination of flight schedules and my own frugality, I wound up with a very reasonably priced ticket that required overnight layovers at each end of my Myanmar trip—there was such a huge price difference between the flight that I booked and the next cheapest that even with two nights of hotels in Kunming, I was still making the thrifty choice. (Well, for about a minute I thought about just hanging out in the Kunming airport all night. That moment passed.)

So on Monday morning, I hiked out to Pudong airport on the Shanghai subway and flew to Kunming, a city I’ve been to once before under almost exactly the same circumstances—a 12-hour layover en route to somewhere else. By the time I got from the airport to my hotel, though, it was already after 4pm and I knew I wasn’t going to have much time to explore on this trip, either. I really only had one goal for my brief time in Kunming: to eat dinner at Heavenly Manna, a restaurant that author Lisa Brackmann had raved about when I saw her as she passed through Shanghai on Sunday.

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Getting to Heavenly Manna turned out to be an adventure in itself—I couldn’t find a cab driver willing or able to take me (some said it was shift change time, others refused to deal with the traffic heading into the city)—and wound up taking the advice of a taxi driver to ride the new subway north and then transfer to a bus over to Wenlin Jie, the expat-touristy strip where the restaurant is located. By the time I got there, my early dinner had turned into a height of rush-hour meal, and I wound up waiting about 20 minutes for a table. But wow, was it worth it: Lisa had instructed me to order the cumin beef (which was completely amazing), and I picked out fried goat cheese with broccoli (really good, if oilier than I’d prefer—but that’s what makes it delicious) and glass noodles with carrot and ginger strips in a spicy-vinegary sauce (initially not that spicy and then it hits you in a “hurts so good” kind of way). I’ve had many very good meals in China, but only few that I would rate as truly excellent. Dinner at Heavenly Manna is on that short list.

So this morning I got up, ate a breakfast of Heavenly Manna leftovers, made my way back to the Kunming airport, and flew to Yangon. Various things struck me over the past two days of travel:

  • One of the things that people complain about when taking domestic flights in the US is that airlines don’t give you food anymore, and yes, that is annoying. But I think the other extreme can be seen in China, where a tremendous amount of food and packaging must get wasted because every flight includes some sort of meal. In general, you get a hot dish (almost always a choice of noodles or rice), plus a box containing fruit, a packaged snack or two, and maybe a bit of salad or a roll. At best, the food is mediocre (at worst …). Sometimes I take the meal, sometimes I don’t; even when I do, I almost never finish it. And looking around the tray tables of my fellow passengers, I think that’s true of most people. How much trash do these airline meals generate? I’m curious.
  • I really like that passengers on domestic flights in the US can now use electronic devices during the entire flight, a change from the old “turn everything off for takeoff and landing” policy. Especially when I’m traveling, I mostly read on my Kindle rather than carry multiple books with me. But in China, the policy actually seems to have gotten stricter, or at least more strictly enforced, over the past two years: all electronic devices have to be shut down 30 minutes before landing. Thirty minutes is a long time when you’re deep in the plot of The Interestings and don’t finish the chapter before the flight attendant forces you to put your Kindle away. Fingers crossed that China, like the US, considers changing that policy sometime soon. Think of the readers!
  • Three cheers for Myanmar’s brand-new online visa application system: I was nervous about using it, but everything went perfectly. The check-in agent in Kunming seemed a little wary of letting me go without a visa in my passport, but another foreigner happened to be checking in at the desk next to me and he had the same visa approval letter that I did, so I think seeing two of us reassured both of our agents that this really is a thing. When I arrived in Yangon, the Immigration officer stamped a visa in my passport and away I went. So simple.
  • Myanmar is ten and a half hours ahead of US East Coast time. Thank you, iPhone, for having the World Clock feature, because that half hour is throwing me off way more than it should.
  • Really, thank you to technology in general and all the people who create it. I certainly don’t plan to spend my vacation online, but I really appreciate not going into a black hole anymore when traveling. I like being able to have email conversations with my mother over my morning coffee, and I enjoyed turning on my Kindle tonight and seeing the copy of Anne Helen Petersen’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood that I’d pre-ordered download. I remember my first trip out of the country (Italy, 1999, Latin class trip), when I didn’t call my parents for two weeks because I couldn’t figure out which calling card I would need, and I also remember going to Paris in 2001 and racking up something like $60 in calling-card charges on my credit card when I phoned home to say hi and wound up chatting with my mother for half an hour. I’m glad those days are mostly over.

More on Myanmar in due time. I’m off to read about some classic Hollywood scandals.

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Bookshelf: Charity and Sylvia by Rachel Hope Cleves

Cleves coverAs a historian and a reader, my favorite “relaxation” books are the ones that spotlight unknown or unusual personal stories that complicate what we think we know about the past. Sure, I’ll read an analysis of the origins of the Boxer Uprising or a monograph on everyday life in twentieth-century Shanghai—and both of those books are great, by the way—but if I’m really going to kick back with a book, it will probably be some sort of biography. The more obscure the subject, the better. Like, say, two early nineteenth-century New England women who spent more than forty years together in a partnership that, while never legally recognized, was acknowledged by their family, friends, and community as a marriage.

That sounds impossible, right? After all, same-sex marriage feels like an issue very much of the present day; it’s not even legal in a majority of states yet. So the idea of such a union taking place nearly two hundred years ago might seem like the stuff of historical fiction. But as University of Victoria historian Rachel Hope Cleves demonstrates in her wonderful and beautifully written new book, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, such stories are there—we just need to look for them.

Charity Bryant was born in 1777 to a doctor and his wife living in North Bridgewater, Massachusetts, a community south of Boston. Charity’s mother died of tuberculosis only a month after the girl’s birth, and Charity grew up in a contentious household dominated by her stepmother, who had little patience for Charity’s preference for books and writing over household chores. To escape the stifling atmosphere at home, twenty-year-old Charity embarked on a series of teaching jobs that took her around Massachusetts.

But Charity didn’t move from place to place in search of a better job: rumors and scandal spread wherever she settled, due to her intense friendships (at least some of which seemed to have involved a physical relationship) with young women, who quickly grew enamored with her and sent Charity letters detailing their affection. Such passionate friendships in and of themselves were not scandalous; this was an age of “sensibility” and romantic friendships between people of the same sex. But Charity—independent-minded and somehow un-feminine in her bearing and demeanor—drew women to her with such intensity that it sent tongues wagging wherever she went. By 1807, she felt the need to escape Massachusetts and traveled to Vermont to visit a friend, intending to stay only a few months. It was during that trip, however, that Charity met Sylvia Drake, and a few months turned into forty-four years.

Sylvia came from the same general area of Massachusetts as Charity, but completely different family circumstances. Her father had gone bankrupt during the Revolution, then died in 1798, when Sylvia was fourteen. She and her mother moved to the wilderness of Weybridge, Vermont the following year, joining her older brother Asaph, who had run away to the new state and done well for himself. Sylvia lived a much more sheltered life than the well-traveled Charity, and it seems that at least one of Charity’s attractions in twenty-two-year-old Sylvia’s eyes was her comparative sophistication and maturity. What drew Charity to Sylvia is less clear, as Charity did not leave a diary and directed that much of her correspondence be destroyed. After so many apparent romances with other women, why did Charity decide to settle down and build a life with Sylvia? Did the remoteness of the Vermont frontier enable her to envision such a union in a way that the tight-knit Massachusetts communities she had lived in did not?

Whatever the reason, the two joined their lives almost immediately after meeting, moving in together on July 3, 1807, a date that they celebrated as their anniversary for the rest of their life together. Charity opened a tailoring business, and initially Sylvia served as her “assistant.” But they soon discarded this pretense and began to live more openly, to the extent that a man from a neighboring town recorded in his memoir that everyone in the community spoke “as if Miss Bryant and Miss Drake were married to each other.” The two rented land from a local widow and built a small house for themselves; they were counted individually but as a single household unit in local tax records and censuses. Charity and Sylvia could not, of course, legally wed, but they merged their lives, work, and property as completely as possible.

The residents of Weybridge appear to have accepted this union. Cleves argues that Charity and Sylvia gained public acceptance of their marriage by living lives above reproach and becoming pillars of their community: they were active in their church, trained local girls in tailoring skills, and gave money so their nieces and nephews could be educated. In return, the people of Weybridge treated their relationship as an open secret. If anything, the women faced more opposition from their families, especially the Drakes; Sylvia’s mother refused to visit their house for many years, and Asaph Drake also expressed discomfort at calling on them. But over time, the lingering antagonism dissipated.

Cleves uses poems that the women wrote, as well as their business accounts, Sylvia’s diaries, and surviving correspondence, to tease out the details of their lives. Though Charity and Sylvia were apparently happy with each other—aside from a short separation soon after they met, they never spent a night apart—their life together was not easy. Both, especially Charity, suffered from health problems that the medicine of the day couldn’t treat, and their tailoring business required almost constant work, much of it by candlelight. Sylvia, generally viewed as the “wife” in their relationship, pulled double-duty, working in the tailoring shop whenever she wasn’t cooking, cleaning, or otherwise running their household. In addition to telling the story of a remarkable partnership, Cleves offers readers an understanding of what early nineteenth-century life was like for women. It was, in a word, hard.

At various points, I got the sense that Cleves was responding to the criticism—either already heard or anticipated—that she is exaggerating the relationship of Charity and Sylvia. In other words, maybe they were just good friends. This would fit with our conventional understanding of early America as a place governed by strict religious and moral codes; as Cleves writes, “The self-congratulatory certitude that modern times represented an apogee of tolerance compared to the benighted wasteland of the past has made it impossible to fit women like Charity and Sylvia into the historical memory.” But Cleves uses the women’s poetry and their religious writings, which detailed their struggle with feelings of sin, as evidence that Charity and Sylvia shared a sexual relationship. And after all, if an unmarried man and woman lived together, worked together, and slept in the same bed for forty-four years, no one would try to argue that they were “just friends.”

In a January 2013 Perspectives on History article that I happened to pick up around the same time I read Charity and Sylvia (I’m, ah, a little behind on my Perspectives), historian Ben Lowe proposes that scholars need to do more to include sexuality as a “useful category of analysis” in history courses (echoing Joan Scott’s path-breaking 1986 article on gender as a useful category of analysis). Charity and Sylvia is a perfect example of how “incorporating sexuality into our interpretive frameworks fundamentally changes how we view the past.” It’s certainly not easy, from the historian’s perspective: Cleves admits that “the historical record of Charity and Sylvia’s relationship is also notable for its silences,” particularly when it comes to the women’s sexuality. And Lowe acknowledges that not all professors feel comfortable bringing a discussion of sexuality into their classes, for fear of inciting controversy or jeopardizing their own job security (and this could definitely happen, depending on the school). But as Cleves demonstrates in Charity and Sylvia, we can completely upend what we think we know about the past if we start paying more attention to questions of sexuality, and finding one story like this one can lead to discovering another and another and another. “The most remarkable element of Charity and Sylvia’s life together,” Cleves writes, “… may be how unremarkable it was.” But we’ll never know if we don’t look.

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