'Unsavory Elements': On Foreign Lives in Contemporary China

A new collection of stories, edited by the photographer and author Tom Carter, showcase the breadth and depth of the expatriate experience in the country. 

The editor of Unsavory Elements in Tibet. (Tom Carter)

35 years ago, when Deng Xiaoping first introduced the economic reforms that powered China’s emergence on the world stage, foreign-born residents were a rare sight in the country. In those days, and for years afterwards, expatriates had to deal with prohibitions on staying in certain hotels, using Chinese currency, and even visiting certain parts of the country.

Now, an estimated 600,000 foreign nationals call China home, and the country has become so friendly to outsiders that, in a recent study by HSBC, China was chosen as one of the two best countries in the world (alongside Thailand) to be an expatriate. Many of these foreign residents come on a one-year teaching contract, travel around, and leave; but many others stay in China for years, marrying locals, starting businesses, and even raising children. And many, in the tradition of expatriates throughout history, have decided to put their thoughts about China down.

Tom Carter, an American photographer and author who has lived in China for nine years, has compiled an anthology of 28 stories written about the country. Titled Unsavory Elements, from a Maoist-era phrase used to describe foreigners, the stories reveal an incredible range of experiences in the country, ranging from Shanghai nightlife to tales from the remote Yunnan jungle. (Full disclosure: one of the stories was written by Deborah Fallows, a frequent Atlantic contributor)

Recently, I interviewed Carter via email about Unsavory Elements, some controversy surrounding the book, and what it means to be a foreigner in China today. The conversation has been edited and condensed:

What provided you with the original inspiration for compiling these stories? How did you go about collecting them?

Having paid tribute to the good people of this republic with my photo book I felt it only appropriate to also celebrate China’s expatriate life, which I myself have experienced for near a decade, by showcasing all of my favorite authors in a definitive collection. None of them knew me personally but they knew of my photography, were thus likely convinced of my sincerity and agreed to write new, original essays for an equal share of the royalties (knowing full well that meant pocket change).

Unsavory Elements has been a true grassroots project since its inception: It was published by Shanghai’s own Earnshaw Books, a fixture in the local literary scene; the fantastic cover art was contributed by the creative fellows behind Plastered T-shirts and Koryo Studio in Beijing; and we debuted the book during a sold-out session at the Shanghai Literary Festival. I couldn’t be happier with how it all came together so, how shall we say in China-speak? “Gloriously Harmonious.”

I've noticed an incredible diversity in your stories, both in terms of the age and gender of the authors as well as the stories' setting within China. Was this a deliberate goal from the beginning, or simply how everything came together?

Having spent so many years backpacking across China, the geographical range of the stories in this anthology was deliberate on my part.  I was conscious that the book could easily have slipped into being entirely about Beijing and the bigger cities, but I was intent on seeing it span out into regions that are not commonly written about, from the Siberian wastes of the north (where Rudy Kong gets into an ice-hockey brawl against a team of local policemen) to the steamy jungles of the deep south-west (Jonathan Watts tracking down a lead in Xishuangbanna), stopping along the way at fourth-tier cities (Matt Muller teaching indifferent students in Chenzhou) and remote villages (Dan Washburn staying with a charming farming family in Guizhou). After all, China’s geographic and ethnic diversity is one of the best things about it!

That said, your writers appeared to hail almost exclusively from the West—the United States and the United Kingdom, for the most part. Was there any reason you didn't include stories from other, non-Western writers?

Balancing out the cast with established female writers was hard enough, so imagine how nearly impossible it was for me, the lone editor with no support staff, to track down ethnic expats who not only live in China but can write about it well. I’m lucky to have found two: Nury Vittachi, who is Sri Lankan but based in Hong Kong; I’ve been a fan of his Feng Shui Detective series since 2005 and was determined to include him. Audra Ang, a Singaporean Chinese (which, according to the Chinese, qualifies her as a foreigner), is a well-known Associated Press reporter and foodie author.  I even invited Mark Ndesandjo, President Obama’s half-brother from Kenya (who lives in Shenzhen and published a memoir about it), but was shunned. Nonetheless, a Kenyan character does feature prominently in my own Unsavory story, as Africans are indeed a prolific part of the expat populous here. There simply aren’t very many established non-Western writers in the Middle Kingdom.

A few of the stories—yours and Susie Gordon's in particular—touch upon a seedier side of the China experience. Did you worry that this would appear exploitative in any way?

I am a bit bemused by foreign correspondents who do their reporting about work conditions at factories such as Foxconn on the very iPhones being made by illegally-employed underage assembly line girls, but my contribution to Unsavory Elements—about a boy’s night out to a brothel staffed by teen prostitutes—has come under so much fire for being “exploitative.” And yet, despite all the online fallout from “fem-pats” calling for my arrest and deportation from China because of this single story, and certain China-based journalists “hate-reading” the book together on Twitter, the Chinese authorities couldn’t care less; in fact, they’re probably at their local KTV right now; only white people get their panties in a bunch about such matters.

Would you say that foreigners should, though, avoid prostitution and drugs while in China, even if they can take part in both without being punished?

With a resounding yes. I’m absolutely not advocating prostitution.  I’ve merely illustrated its rampant presence here, because despite being illegal on the books, the fact is that the Chinese government looks the other way so as to keep the hundreds of millions of single men at bay. I can see how foreigners might be confused by China’s “do as I say not as I do” system of governance. Yet, unlike an after-dinner stroll to your local pink-lit hair salon, which may just get you a warning and a wink from the authorities, drugs will get you a bullet to the back of the head. Dominic Stevenson’s essay in Unsavory Elements is about his two-year stint in prison for dealing hash and the brain-washing techniques he was subjected to; he got off lucky.

Moving along to the general experience of expats in China. Why do you think China attracts such an array of quirky characters? Is there some characteristic shared among people, like you and I, that chose to spend several years of their lives in this country?

Decadence plays a part in it.  This past decade in China has kind of been like what America was in the 1980s: an ultra-conservative government orchestrating a faux-booming economy, gaudy modernization, and a nouveau riche class of businessmen and corrupt officials obscenely flaunting their Ferraris in the face of a dangerous income disparity: the rich, and the rest.  Susie Gordon covers the kept women, karaoke and ketamine beat in her Unsavory essay, illustrating just how wealthy and wasteful the second generation (fu er dai) are, and I think a great many other Westerners also arrived in China hoping to get a taste of New China’s trickle down prosperity.

Has the golden age of being an expatriate in China passed?

I’m no historian, but I’d say the true golden age for expats and colonialists in China was the era leading up to the Opium Wars.  The past ten years saw historic change and progress for China, and was generally considered the new golden age for foreigners as doors and opportunities opened up for us, but even that’s history now.  These days we are leaving just as fast as we come, having realized that China’s “1 percent” are not sharing their success with anyone, especially foreigners. Now that China has made its money, we’ve become expendable and have degenerated back to Foreign Devil status, or rather “unsavory elements”, the Party’s latest pet name for us.  And for those of us expats remaining here under Xi Jinping’s strict anti-foreigner regime, it’s not the 1980s so much as it is the 1880s; call it a kinder, gentler Boxer Rebellion.