Thursday, 3 April 2014

Hong Kong Finale, March 17 - 20

At Least We Lived on display at Bookazine
Landing at HKIA on Monday afternoon after a flight from Shanghai, and arriving at the JW Marriott on Pacific Place is a homecoming of sorts - and a relief after nine days of touring mainland cities. I have three days to see old friends (and make some new ones), but also have to hunker down at the hotel to write a lecture. The weather is just right - warm enough to sit out at the bar by the pool, and (unusually for March) free of rain.

On Wednesday evening, Bookazine, a leading Hong Kong bookseller, hosts a book signing at their Prince's Building branch. Over a glass of wine I welcome friends and book purchasers - it's particularly nice to see Mason Chan, daughter-in-law of Admiral Chan Chak, Samuel Tse, who staffed the Christmas Day Escape exhibition at the Museum of Coastal Defence, and Philip and Amanda Snow (who take me for wonderful Chinese food afterwards).

View of freshly-painted St John's Cathedral from the China Club
Thursday is a very full day. After a quick breakfast, I print out the talk I've been working on for tonight, and take a cab to a meeting of the Friends of the Art Museum of CUHK, a group I still belong to. It's a small gathering at a private home to meet Irene Lee, who recently became chairman of Hysan Development, the real estate company founded by her grandfather, Lee Hysan. I am especially interested in meeting her because Max and Audrey knew her parents, Harold and Christine, and uncle, Dick Lee, and I give her a copy of my book which has several references to their friendship. Irene talks movingly about the Lee family history and her plans to commemorate it further.

Vicki Firth, a friend from 'the Friends', has invited me to talk about At Least We Lived at a lunch meeting of her book group. This is actually her last meeting before she and her husband return to England after many years in HK, and the group has arranged a special lunch at the American Club on Exchange Square. It is an extraordinary gathering of fifteen women with deep roots in Hong Kong. It turns out that several have close connections to Max and Audrey's story - knowing people who knew them (such as Stanley and May Smith, Berkeley Gage, Joy and Eddie Teesdale), and knowing Max's old house on Kadoorie Avenue. We have a fascinating discussion over a lovely lunch.

Lunch with Hong Kong book group
The Hong Kong branch of the Royal Asiatic Society hosts the final event of my trip: an evening talk in the Helena May Club on Garden Road. I learn from Michael Broom, the RAS president, that we will have a completely full house with ninety plus expected. I have thirty copies of At Least We Lived with me - but could have sold more! People gather from 6pm for drinks, and it's great to see some familiar faces, including friends who have helped me with the book. But it's even more encouraging that many people who don't know me are in the audience.

My talk is on the theme of Audrey's journeys - both physical and emotional - I include more material on her postwar life in Hong Kong than I've used in other talks, and show a Powerpoint of maps and photos. The audience is highly appreciative, and this is a terrific finale to a very good trip.

Friends Lucy Reed and Michael Glennon give me and other friends supper afterwards at their great apartment (one that they're about to give up on moving to Singapore) - a welcome chance to relax before packing and leaving for the long return trip to DC early tomorrow.

Shanghai International Literary Festival, March 14 - 16

Flags fly above M on the Bund's historic home
Leaving Chongqing, the city in the clouds, I reach sea level at Shanghai on Friday afternoon and, finally, spring is in the air. Here I'm a guest of M on the Bund's international literary festival, and staying at the fabulous Hotel Indigo. This is a twenty minute walk along the promenade on the west bank of Shanghai's Huangpu River to the famed Bund. The grand old waterfront buildings are often compared to those of another port, Liverpool, and several more have been restored since my last visit to Shanghai.

The festival is held at M's Restaurant and Glamour Bar. On Friday evening, I absorb the ambience by going along to a packed session with Chris Doyle, the cinematographer who has In the Mood for Love and many other great movies among his credits. The venues are a bit more sophisticated than the Bookworm's, as the Glamour Bar name suggests - but the audiences are equally engaged and well-informed.

View from my room at Hotel Indigo
I wake up to the sight of a fleet of barges making their stately way upriver - this is still a working waterway. After an excellent breakfast at Indigo, I walk along to M for coffee with Jeff Wasserstrom, UC-Irvine history professor and writer on China, who's generously agreed to moderate my session.

Before my 1pm session, we listen to an interesting discussion with Anna Greenspan, a philosopher, on the future of Shanghai: she calls it a ‘mellow’ city, which I kind of appreciate when I walk around the old French Concession later.

Tina Kanagaratnam, festival co-director, introduces Jeff and Emma

Jeff moderates beautifully, working in pertinent questions about Emily Hahn and Max, (and he bails me out a couple of times by reading passages from the book when my voice dries up!). We have perhaps seventy people in a great audience at the Glamour Bar, including luminaries of the Shanghai branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, and lots of questions.

People watching in a French quarter park

Later on, I enjoy hearing Pamela Williams talk about her book, Killing Fairfax: Packer, Murdoch and the Ultimate Revenge - she has traveled from Australia and has her leg in a cast after tripping and breaking her foot on arrival in Shanghai. Some writers are coping with much more than a bad cold to appear at the festival! But with my cold, I'm happy to have a restful evening back at the hotel before another full day.

On Sunday I make a side trip to Suzhou, known for its canals and gardens, to talk at a small branch of the Bookworm there. This takes up most of the day – high speed trains there and back, but long taxi rides to and from stations. Toby Flett, a Californian who teaches English in Suzhou and is also an animator, is my volunteer and moderator. 

Emma at the Master of the Nets garden
After a stop at the Bookworm for coffee, we take a walk around one of Suzhou’s exquisite classical gardens: blossom is just out on the magnolia and a red-flowered tree.

The Bookworm Suzhou
Our session back at the Bookworm has a small but lively audience, including local expats and Chinese, and it's good to see another friendly gathering place for English-speakers.

Back in Shanghai, I'm part of a big and entertaining authors' dinner at M. It's great to meet Emma Larkin, the author of the wonderful Finding George Orwell in Burma, and see familiar faces including Hannah Beech, Evan Osnos, Jeff Wasserstrom and Maura Cunningham.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Chongqing revisited, March 12 - 13

View from train between Chengdu and Chongqing
On Wednesday morning, a two hour train ride from Chengdu to Chongqing is a reminder of the stark contrast everywhere in China between modernity and tradition, between ugliness and beauty. The high-speed train departs from a vast, gleaming station and the ride is smoother and faster than Amtrak's Acela. The rural landscapes are in some ways timeless, but the urban sprawl at either end of the journey has few redeeming features.

Luxury brands have proliferated in Chongqing

It's great to be back in the city where Max and Audrey's story began - though the weather hasn't improved! Courtesy of the British Council, I'm staying at the Intercontinental (new since my last visit five years ago) in the downtown area near the Liberation Monument. I'm reminded that the 1940s monument was the tallest structure in the city twenty years ago - now it is dwarfed by buildings like my 40-storey hotel.

Fame at Chongqing's Rare Garden!

The British Council (working here as a section of the Consulate-General) introduced me to my invaluable Chongqing guide nine years ago, and they've turned up trumps again, organizing two events for At Least We Lived. The first is a literary evening at the Rare Garden, kind of a Chinese version of the Bookworm venues - a casual literary cafe for young Chinese, run by the deputy director of the local writers' association. It is in an edgy neighborhood on the south bank - an area built up beyond all recognition from the days when Audrey and her roommates found it 'more airy' than the north bank of the Yangtze.

I meet Paula Middleton, the Council Director for Southwest China, and Mark Woodham, the deputy Consul-General, to drive over to the Rare Garden. We begin the evening with dinner with the owner and some interesting guests, including an architect and the manager of the British Chamber of Commerce for the region. Paula moderates our discussion of At Least We Lived very skillfully - she really understands the book's themes and, though we move slowly because of the need for translation, it's a great session. The audience are intrigued by the idea of a wartime love story set in a time and place that many of their grandparents experienced, and I sign and sell the few copies of the book that I have with me.

The Rare Garden Literary Evening

View today from north to south bank
My second Chongqing event is a half-day workshop on 'the changes of British Consulate and Embassy in Chongqing and China-UK relationship during WWII'. It takes place at the Foreign Affairs Office, with a top table of 15 researchers and officials including the British, and a larger audience of 35 graduate students. The Council has funded a study of the history of British diplomacy in Chongqing that is being conducted by the Sichuan International Studies University (SISU). Researchers are to present their progress report, and I've been invited to chip in on my parents' experience of daily life in the foreign community.

My 30-minute presentation is of course much more personal than the historical overviews presented by four SISU researchers, but a nice contrast, I'm told! I show the best photos from Max's only roll of film of the city, and talk about some of the other characters of their day who wrote memoirs, like Berkeley Gage. I hope that the Council and SISU will keep me in touch on this interesting project.

Hot pot dinner with Sun Ying
I've come down with a heavy cold (blaming the polluted air everywhere), and am pleased to have a warming hot pot for dinner with Sun Ying. It's wonderful to see Sun Ying, who was my indefatigable interpreter and guide on previous trips to the region. She's added another string to her bow - building on her fluency in French and English, she is now training to be a wine expert. She's judging wine tastings, and may lead tours of Bordeaux - so enterprising.

Chengdu Bookworm, March 11

Author banners at Chengdu Bookworm

After an early morning flight to Chengdu, China's fourth largest city and capital of Sichuan province, I'm met by a Chinese volunteer who teaches English at a local university. Making the most of my brief stay here, she and a friend take me by metro (first time I've had to go through a metal detector to enter a subway system) to see a renovated old quarter and its Buddhist temple.

Burning incense at Wenshu Monastery
At my early evening session at the Bookworm, I'm lucky that the moderator, Paddy Booz, is a history teacher with a passion for WWII who can fill in background to my story. I put up some maps and photos, and find this works well wherever I'm speaking. We have a lively discussion with an audience that is a good mix of Chinese and expats. I stay on to hear a panel with David Vann, Musharraf Ali-Farooqi and Danny Laferriere on ‘Why We Write’, and sit in the cafĂ© to have a welcome chicken pie. This is a great local gathering place, enlivened tonight by a singer/piano duo as well as the festival events.

Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival, March 8 - 10

March is international literary festival season in China, and I'm thrilled to be touring five major cities as a guest of the Bookworm Festival and M on the Bund's Shanghai Festival - with extra hospitality from the British Council.

The Beijing Bookworm
I arrive in Beijing on March 8 just a few hours after Malaysian Airlines flight 370 was due to land there, and the plane's disappearance turns into the grim theme tune of my two weeks in Asia. My father, Max Oxford, investigated many a crash when he ran civil aviation in Hong Kong and Malaysia half a century ago - but nothing like this baffling loss.
The Opposite House Atrium

My first festival session is held on Sunday evening in the stylish atrium of the Opposite House - the hotel where I'm also staying. Fergus Naughton (from Jonathan Fenby's company, Trusted Sources) moderates a great discussion of At Least We Lived. I read a few passages and talk about the book, with several Beijing-based journalist friends asking apt questions. Some British diplomats are also in the largely expat audience. Friends take me out for an excellent Yunnanese dinner afterwards. Many plan to relocate from Beijing because of the noxious pollution - you shouldn't be able to smell the air, says one.

Opposite House Atrium from above

The Red Gate
On Monday other friends take me for a splendid lunch at Lost Heaven (also Yunnanese!), a smart restaurant in the historic complex that once housed the American Embassy. Then we stop by the Red Gate Gallery to see up close the watchtower made famous by Paul French's Midnight in Peking

At Least We Lived on display at the Beijing Bookworm
               That evening I take part in a panel at the Bookworm on 'Ways of Telling the Past'. Fellow panelists Paul Ham, an Australian historian, Janette Jenkins, an English historical novelist, and moderator Christopher New have refreshingly contrasting views on the topic. Most thought-provoking question posed to me from a crowded room: 'What did I leave out of my parents' story?'

Paul Ham, a volunteer, Emma, Christopher New & Janette Jenkins
We stay on afterwards for pizza and a drink in the busy Bookworm bar - also a chance to chat to the Festival director, Peter Goff.