Thursday, 3 April 2014

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.

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