Bookshelf: The Secret History of Wonder Woman

lepore_wonder_woman_cover“Why would a distinguished Harvard professor write about a comic book character?”

Heaven forbid a distinguished Harvard professor write about something so common as a comic book character!

But as I heard the distinguished Free Library of Philadelphia donor who introduced Harvard historian Jill Lepore at the library last night voice the question he had before reading her latest book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, I thought to myself that I had a similar query of my own. It wasn’t about fame or institutional affiliation, but rather: “Why would Jill Lepore write a book about a comic book character?”

Lepore, I hasten to say, is one of my favorite historians. She has a wonderful knack for storytelling, bolstered by a commitment to intensive archival research. Somewhere in the depths of my Twitter archive is a tweet reading, “I want to be Jill Lepore when I grow up.” I am unquestionably geeky when it comes to my admiration for her.

But Lepore’s speciality has always been early America—she’s written books about slavery in New York, King Philip’s War, and Ben Franklin’s sister. How in the world did she wander into the twentieth century and write a book about Wonder Woman?

IMG_1735The answer, she revealed in a lively and hilarious talk (Lepore turned out to have excellent comic timing and mile-a-minute energy, despite suffering from a bad cold), is that she stumbled onto the Wonder Woman story while researching an article on Planned Parenthood for the New Yorker, where she’s a staff writer. William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, had a somewhat unconventional domestic arrangement that involved both his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his mistress, Olive Byrne, living together with him and their combined four children (Marston had two with each woman). Byrne’s aunt was Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, and, Lepore argues, one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman.

Lepore suggests that Marston found other inspirations for Wonder Woman—who fought for “peace, justice, and equal rights for women”—in the suffragist and feminist movements of the 1910s. Using an impressive array of visual evidence in her presentation, she demonstrated how the images of those political and social movements later appeared in the pages of Wonder Woman comics. Suffragists chained to the railings at 10 Downing Street; Wonder Woman in chains. Margaret Sanger with a gag tied over her mouth as she protested her inability to speak publicly about birth control; Wonder Woman silenced in similar fashion. Marston was strident in his desire to push equal rights for women and infused these messages into his comic works. A Harvard-trained psychologist (he also invented the lie-detector test), Marston explicitly referred to Wonder Woman as “psychological propaganda” meant to promote feminism.

That feminist message is the source of Lepore’s interest in Wonder Woman; she admitted that as a writer on comics, she suffers from a “lack of cred,” having never read Wonder Woman as a child nor watched the 1970s TV show when she was growing up. Her goal in this book is to demonstrate that Wonder Woman serves as a link between First Wave feminism in the early twentieth century and Second Wave feminism in the 1970s, when Wonder Woman was taken up by activists as one of the symbols of the movement (the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine featured Wonder Woman on the cover). I’m not sure I buy Lepore’s argument that we shouldn’t be talking about “waves” of feminism, but rather “a continuous history of women fighting for their rights” (is Wonder Woman [created by a man, albeit a feminist] enough to hang that thesis on?), but I’m only about 50 pages into her book, so I have plenty of time to be convinced (or not).

And whether I ultimately find that particular thesis solid, Lepore has picked up on a fascinating story, one that might seem miles away from her previous work but does share some connections with it. During the Q&A portion of her talk, I asked Lepore to discuss how she got from Ben Franklin’s sister to Wonder Woman. She replied that both projects involved taking a familiar figure and burrowing in to find an unknown angle on their stories. That sense of discovery and delight in the unexpected is, I think, what drives her work, and the joy she takes in storytelling is what makes her books so compelling to me. Whenever people ask me how I got interested in history, my answer is that I’ve always loved reading good historical writing that brings huge events down to a human scale. Jill Lepore is a master at that, whether she’s discussing a war in the seventeenth century or a comic book character in the twentieth.

IMG_1740(Side note: I stood in line at the library after Lepore’s talk to get my book signed and was so worried that I would come off as a geeky historian-stalker by gushing about how much I like her work that I went 180 degrees in the other direction and merely stuttered out a fractured thanks for giving such a great talk in spite of being sick. Sigh. Maybe I’ll get another chance to not be awkward someday.)

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Postcard from Washington, D.C.


I was in Washington, D.C. for work two weeks ago and snapped this photo of the Washington Monument while waiting in a security line. When I saw the shot appear on my phone, I suddenly remembered another photo I took of the Washington Monument, back in the summer of 1998. I spent a week in D.C. that June as part of a program that introduced high-school students to how the government works and tried to interest them in government careers. At one point, we were walking around the Tidal Basin right after a rainstorm, and I looked up and saw that the monument was still partially encircled by rainclouds, but other parts of the sky had cleared to a soft pink. I grabbed my camera and took one shot.

It was days, not seconds, before I saw how that photo turned out—I had to wait for the film to be developed!—but I knew as soon as I hit the shutter button that it was a good photo, maybe the first truly good photo I’d ever taken. When I got the prints, I shuffled through them until I found that one and saw that it had come out just as I’d imagined it would. I brought the negative back to the ShopRite photo lab and ordered an 8”x10” enlargement. That enlargement, in a plastic box frame, sits somewhere in one of the boxes scattered across my living room floor, waiting to be unpacked. I think there’s a spot on the wall next to my front door where it will just fit.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Welcome to New York

Sunset in New York, as seen from my office window last Tuesday.

Sunset in New York, as seen from my office window last Tuesday.

“Which do you like better, the United States or China?” I grew accustomed to answering this question when I met new people while traveling in China; it came right after the inquiry into my monthly salary (and expression of horror at the figure named) and shortly before the alarm over my unmarried state past the age of 30.

I would generally tell people that I liked China more, because this was often the way to get them talking about China, and I wanted to hear them recite the country’s current list of pros and cons. But privately, my true response was much more mixed: there are things that I like about China, and things that I like about the U.S. I can’t really say that I prefer living in one versus the other. This hasn’t stopped me, however, from making almost constant comparisons—both in my mind and out loud to those around me—between the two countries in the nearly three weeks since the wheels of my plane touched down at Newark airport.

First, and perhaps most obviously, the U.S. gets many points for being the home of my family and many of my friends. I have lots of great friends in Shanghai, too, but my oldest friends are all in the States. I consider myself ridiculously fortunate not only to have found a great job in the U.S., but one within a short distance of my loved ones.

Covering the distance between New York and Philadelphia, however, emphasizes the sorry state of American infrastructure versus Chinese. I’ve traveled between the two cities several times in the past few weeks, and tried all three ways to do it:

New Jersey Transit waiting room in Penn Station on the afternoon before Thanksgiving.

New Jersey Transit waiting room in Penn Station on the afternoon before Thanksgiving.

1. Amtrak: The fastest (about one hour twenty minutes), most comfortable, and best wifi, but the cheapest ticket price I’ve been able to get has been $54. I can’t always justify the time savings to myself, so Amtrak is reserved for those days when I’m really in a hurry.

2. Bolt Bus: Wins on price ($10 to $20, depending on travel time and demand for tickets), but I haven’t managed to get the wifi working once. And a trip from Philadelphia to New York during the morning rush takes about two and a half hours.

3. New Jersey Transit and SEPTA: The best option when I’m not sure when I’ll be able to leave, since tickets can’t be reserved in advance. But this combination (which involves riding NJ Transit between New York and Trenton, then switching to a SEPTA train for the trip to Philadelphia) is the slowest—two and a half hours minimum, often longer. Total price: $24.50.

All in all, I miss Chinese high-speed rail terribly.

I also miss the amazing wonton soup at the place near the Shanghai Municipal Archives and freshly roasted sweet potatoes from the oil-drum oven wheeled around by my favorite sweet potato vendor on Yan’an Xi Lu. The loss of those is slightly alleviated by the easy availability of bagels with cream cheese, as well as any salad I could dream of, in New York. Also, pastrami.

Pastrami Reuben at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, a short walk from my office.

Pastrami Reuben at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, a short walk from my office.

I expected finding an apartment to be one area in which Shanghai would easily beat New York, since I had shockingly good luck finding homes both times I went apartment-hunting in Shanghai. I’d heard horror stories of trying to secure affordable housing in the New York area and worried that I’d have to live in a hotel, or on someone’s couch, for months on end. But the Saturday after I arrived here, my parents and brother drove up to North Jersey and we set out to see three apartments in Jersey City I’d found online. I completely fell for the second one and signed the lease that afternoon. It’s not as large (or as cheap) as my most recent Shanghai apartment, but it has far more charm … and both a washing machine and dryer in the unit itself. My understanding is that this represents the holy grail of New York-area apartment hunting.

I do miss the excitement of discovering new things in China—though I’ve had several moments over the past three weeks when I’ve felt as much a foreigner in New York as I ever did in Shanghai. (The guy at the deli had to ask me three times if I wanted my salad “chopped” before I understood what he meant. Having your salad minced into tiny pieces is apparently the latest thing.)

So yes, I miss Shanghai in some ways, but am happier in New York in others. I’m never going to be able to choose between the two—so don’t even bother asking.

Posted in China, New York | 4 Comments

The Appendix: Thinking Outside the Archival Box

Lepore Bahadur coversThe Appendix is one of my favorite history publications. It’s a digital journal started by a group of UT Austin students several years ago, when they decided to create a venue for historians and journalists to share the quirky “extras” of their work—stories that didn’t quite fit in to a traditional academic publication but were too good to let pass untold. As the About page at the site says, “though at times outlandish, everything in its pages is as true as the sources allow.” The Appendix also encourages authors to get creative in how they tell their stories. So, for example, my friend Maggie Greene has written the history of a Chinese ghost story in reverse, beginning in 1981 and concluding in 1381; and a former tour guide has related the complex history of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, which I’ve been intending to visit for years but still haven’t.

The piece that I wrote for The Appendix earlier this year, which just went online yesterday, isn’t quite so unusual, but I’m not sure another publication would have accepted it. “Thinking Outside the Archival Box” is a review essay, which pairs two books that might seem to have little in common: Book of Ages, Harvard professor Jill Lepore’s biography of Jane Franklin (Ben’s sister), and Coolie Woman, in which journalist Gaiutra Bahadur uses her great-grandmother’s story to relate the history of Indian women who traveled to Guyana as indentured servants. Most academic journals wouldn’t let a specialist in Chinese history write about two books so far outside her field, or permit her to bring together two seemingly so different books in the same review. But that’s the kind of thing The Appendix encourages—luckily for me, since I think we can learn something by looking at Book of Ages and Coolie Woman side-by-side.

Check out my essay here.

Posted in Books, Writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

LA Review of Books: The Beautiful and Damned

I have a new post up at the LA Review of Books China Blog, about a new(ish) book of translated short stories by 1930s Shanghai author Mu Shiying. Mu was a dashing young man who frequented the city’s nightclubs and wrote dazzling works about the excesses of the age, much like F. Scott Fitzgerald did in the United States:

Both [Mu and Fitzgerald] served as chroniclers for their class and their generation, but neither wrote uncomplicated celebrations of nights spent foxtrotting and days spent recovering. In fact, there’s a sense of world-weariness and dutifulness to those nightclub visits, which comes through most clearly in Mu’s story “Black Peony”: evenings at cabarets were once novel and exciting, but have settled into a social obligation for the narrator, who feels “weighed down by life.” And the complex negotiations involved in romancing Shanghai’s “modern girls” vexes all of the male characters, who frequently find themselves treated as playthings by duplicitous women.

Read the whole thing here.

In other news, I flew from Shanghai to New York on Tuesday night and worked my first day at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations on Wednesday. I share an office and am lucky enough to have the desk with the view:


But I have my computer facing away from the window so I won’t get too distracted by the loveliness of New York!

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

What to Keep? What to Toss?

Do they stay or do they go?

Do they stay or do they go?

I’m now into the one-week countdown before leaving Shanghai, and it’s going to be a busy week. I’ve sorted through all my clothes and packed one suitcase, made arrangements with my (somewhat annoyed) landlady to end my lease early, and taught my class at warp speed so we’ll finish next Monday afternoon, 24 hours before my journey to New York begins. But I still have a lot of packing, and discarding, to do.

The books are, as always, the biggest problem—too many to fit into my luggage, not enough to warrant the expense of an international moving service (I checked). A couple of weeks ago, I decided that the most expedient solution was to send a few boxes to my parents’ house via slow and cheap sea-shipping, and so I started putting together a stack of books to lug down to the post office. As I pulled volumes from the shelves in my office, my eyes fell on a pile of papers sitting on top of the bookcase, then swept over to another pile on my desk: printouts of archival materials that I used in my dissertation.

What about those? a voice inside my head asked. Mail them or trash them?

My knee-jerk, packrat historian’s reaction was, “OF COURSE I’ll keep them!” How could I even think of getting rid of research materials? But the practical side of my personality came to the surface seconds later. It will probably cost about $50 to mail those papers to the US, even by sea-shipping; they’ll take up space wherever I move; and there’s very little chance I’ll ever look at them again.

My dissertation is officially finished and filed. Most people at my stage—those who either have academic jobs or are searching for one—would take a bit of time away from the dissertation, then return to it six or twelve months later and begin revising it for publication as a book to be put out by a university press. That book is essentially a requirement for tenure, if the scholar has been lucky enough to land a tenure-track job, and maybe-perhaps-potentially increases the possibility of finding such a job if the scholar is adjuncting and hoping to move over to the tenure track.

I don’t know many academics who are 100 percent pleased with their dissertation books. A large part of this, I think, is simple exhaustion: by the time the book comes out, the scholar has been working on the project for at least five years, and probably closer to ten. They’re eager to move on to something else. Dissertation books tend to be excessively formal and scholarly in tone; their content—and their mere existence—is more important than the style in which they’re written. Even if you’re an academic who wants to write in a more relaxed and accessible style, there’s still an understanding that your dissertation book has to look like a traditional academic monograph. After you publish that and get tenure, THEN you can have fun.

But in my new job, no one will care whether or not I ever publish my dissertation. Although I’ve been thinking of this job as “academic-adjacent,” the measures of my success and productivity at work will not be the ones by which academics are judged. I’m absolutely thrilled to have gotten this job. At the same time, this is the final, definitive move in my turn away from traditional academia, and although that’s what I want, it’s still a little hard.

It’s hard even though this day has been coming for a long, long time—since before I started my PhD, in fact. I wanted the training and intensive study of graduate school, but I knew even when I applied that the tenure track didn’t appeal to me. My ideal job was one in which I would take what I had learned and share it with a larger community, not just students and fellow academics. I chose to attend UC Irvine in large part because the history department there had a track record of encouraging students who sought out (or fell into) alternative-academic (“alt-ac”) careers, and because my advisor was enthusiastic about mentoring a student who wanted to do something different. For me, in other words, “Plan B” has always been Plan A.

Over the past six years, the professional choices I’ve made have largely been about positioning myself to find a job off the tenure track. I got used to faculty members (not so much at my own school, but plenty of others) expressing concern that my alt-ac activities and writing were a “distraction” from the Real Scholarship I was supposed to be doing. I also grew accustomed to people asking me, “If you don’t want to be a professor, why are you bothering to get a PhD?” Even with all the recent discussion in higher education circles of alt-ac careers and “the malleable PhD,” I spent a lot of time explaining (most often to people in the academy) that one can do any number of jobs after earning a doctorate.

That’s not to say that I didn’t try to be a Regular Academic. Who doesn’t want to fit in to a group? I’ve presented at both major conferences in my field; I’ve published a book chapter; I’ve won grants for my research. But now that I’m done graduate school and firmly set on a non-academic career path, would I take the time and effort to revise my dissertation and go through the publishing process when there’s no clear impetus to do so? My answer, at the moment, is no.

I know myself. I won’t want to come home from work and spend the evening slogging through manuscript revisions; I’ll want to write a blog post or knit or finally watch The Wire. And I probably won’t want to take all my vacation time and spend it in Chinese archives doing the additional research that revising my dissertation would require. For those things to happen, my motivation would have to be either entirely external (the somewhat abstract “to make a contribution to scholarly knowledge about China,” which I think I can still do in other ways) or entirely internal (the much more selfish “to prove that I could be a Regular Academic and am not leaving the field because I couldn’t hack it”). And if I do decide to spend my evenings and weekends writing a book, I’d rather it be one that I enjoy writing and a wide audience enjoys reading. At the moment, my dissertation doesn’t fulfill either of those criteria, and I’m not sure I have the mental bandwith, or the motivation, to rip it apart and start over from scratch.

So, what do I do with all these papers? I have less than a week left to decide. Do they go to a recycling plant in Shanghai, or get mailed to New York?

Posted in Dissertation, Higher Education | 3 Comments

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

Posted in Travel | Tagged | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in China | Tagged | 2 Comments

Dongtai Road Antique Market Update


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!)

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

Disappearing Soonish: Shanghai’s Dongtai Road Antique Market


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).


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.


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.*


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.


Posted in China, Shanghai | 5 Comments