Sexual misadventures in the Wild East wonderland that is the Mainland run rampant in Tom Olden’s Shanghai Cocktales and Isham Cook’s The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China. While the subject matter may run risqué, both writers say their new books’ motivation isn’t to shock but to document the reality that the long-term expats have lived.
“There’s a lot written about China, from its history to its culture, but I wanted to create something different,” Olden explains. “I wanted to tell a true story about what it’s like to jump in a country and see what happens. It’s better that I could make a fool out of myself and tell the truth. It’s okay if people think he’s a dick, as long as they get a feel of the city.”
“I’m trying to avoid the stereotype that a lot of people have by presenting the country at its most confusing with unexpected people and occurrences,” adds Cook. “Some may think the stories are implausible but sometimes reality is much more impossible than fiction. People who have spent a lot of time in China will recognize a lot of the things that happen as Chinese.”
Both books share a breezy and a heavily male point-of-view. Shanghai Cocktales is the first of a planned three-part autobiographical series, capturing Olden as he arrives in Shanghai in 1999 – freshly graduated with a thirst for misadventures to bury the raw memory of a fresh break-up.
The book is composed of vignettes chronicling wild nights on the legendary but long-gone Tongren Lu strip and fleshpots like Manhattan, Judy’s and Wall Street. While there are hook-ups galore, there’s plenty of embarrassing accounts of being swindled.
Describing the title as ironic, Shanghai Cocktales is Olden’s love letter to the wild first years that most spend in Shanghai, hoping to canonize the era in the same way people think of the city’s Jazz age.
“Every day was a total adventure,” he recalls. “For people that come here now at that age, they will experience the same emotions and feelings. They’ll have the same mindset of going out to the bars and I’m sure they’re just as nuts as we were back then – just as people were before.”
While Shanghai Cocktales is a chronological journey, The Exact Unknown is a sprawling collection of short tales that end after a few pages – introductions to bizarre scenarios and characters, like a foreign teacher struggling to find the proper whipping technique on his student and one man traveling through time to different unpleasant dining experiences.
“They leave you hanging deliberately to suggest several different conclusions that your head can work out,” Cook explains. “The most interesting stories function best like a Rorschach test, with people seeing completely different things.”
Described as a “libertine” and “startlingly honest,” Cook honed his provocative style in his debut novel Lust & Philosophy, and continues it in a forthcoming project focusing on both kinds of massage in Asia.
The Exact Unknown developed after his story ‘The Persistence’ was rejected from a Tom Carter-curated anthology for being too extreme. Spurred on, Cook decided to collect the many stories he’s accumulated from living in Beijing for 15 years – some true, some altered and some complete fabrications.
“A unifying factor of the book is an emphasis on sexuality and sex,” he says. “There’s a kind of taboo now about foreign white men writing about sex in China. Therefore, I’m doing it. More people need to capture the variety of life here.”
With a popular blog and two books available in Chinese translations, Cook is a leading figure in the Mainland expat literary canon. Alongside fellow members of the Shanghai-based Fanbian Men writing group, Olden has added to that. However, the first-time writer admits there are two reactions he’s dreading.
“My parents have already ordered two copies,” he groans. “I can imagine my mom opening it and reading Cocktales and my dad going, ‘Oh no.’ They can’t exactly go to the neighbors and brag that their son wrote a book.”
// Both books are available on Amazon. For more information about Shanghai Cocktales, visit www.facebook.com/ShanghaiCocktales and more information about The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China, visit www.ishamcook.com.
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