Staff Picks

Christmas Staff Picks13 min read

Editor’s note: Dragging your feet on Christmas shopping? You still have two weeks to stuff those stockings with some of our eclectic, China-themed recommendations – food for thought to match any turkey feast.

Paul French: Coffee-table China photography books

Christmas – guests are coming, and it’s time to refresh that tired looking pile on the coffee table. What a vintage year for coffee table books with a Chinese angle. Top of the pile should be Paul Fonoroff’s beautiful Chinese Movie Magazines: From Charlie Chaplin to Chairman Mao 1921-1951 (Thames & Hudson). A gargantuan Technicolor feast of Shanghai starlets and stylish movie posters. Then, like the thick slice of juicy turkey in a Boxing Day sandwich, Sunset Survivors (Blacksmith Books) by Lindsay Varty and Gary Jones, documenting Hong Kong’s last traditional tradesmen and women. Long time Shanghailander Nick Almasy gives us all the trimmings from the city’s greatest art deco creator, the Hungarian Slovak László Hudec, in his photographic collection titled simply Hudec. The Park Hotel, Grand Theater and Moore Memorial Church have never looked so sumptuous. Magnum China (Thames & Hudson) is the photographic equivalent of a well-stocked bar – Capa, Cartier-Bresson and many other China super-snappers from the 1930s to now. And finally, like a delightful stocking filler, Peter Steinhauer’s Cocoons (Powerhouse Books) is a myriad of photos of bamboo scaffolding that, though you see it everyday, still mesmerize. Remember, when placing cocktails on books always use a tasteful coaster!

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Remembering Shanghai

I used to love listening to my maternal grandmother tell family stories, and I now wish I had written them down, as when she died all of those moments and memories were permanently lost. Isabel Sun Chao and her daughter, Claire Chao, have wisely averted this mistake by collaborating on Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels. Born in 1931, Isabel grew up in Shanghai’s International Settlement, the third daughter of a wealthy but often troubled family. In Remembering Shanghai, the Chaos share Isabel’s accounts of her childhood years during the city’s golden age, before the Japanese occupation and then Chinese Civil War transformed the country. They also piece together the exploits of previous generations, whose members – the “scoundrels” of the book’s subtitle – parlayed good connections, good timing, and a talent for schemes into wealth and status. In addition to the stories themselves, Remembering Shanghai is filled with vintage photos of the metropolis and the stylish Sun family in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as charming watercolors that reproduce details from Isabel’s memories. Although an electronic version is available, I recommend purchasing a physical copy: the vibrant illustrations and high-quality paper make this a volume that demands to be held and leafed through, and it will find a natural home on your coffee table alongside the photography books recommended by Paul French.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Patriot Number One

Of course, one book I’d like people to give as a present this year is the third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Knowwhich I co-wrote with Maura Cunningham and which Oxford published in March – just as I’m sure Jason Ng is hoping shoppers will pick up his lively new co-edited collection Hong Kong Noir. It’s important, though, for a staff picks section to look beyond books by members of the staff, so my choice is Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown by Lauren Hilgers. I was drawn to it because of its ties to an event that took place in China: the Wukan protests that the book’s central figure helped lead. What I ended up finding most compelling about the book, however, was its depiction of an American community, including tensions within it among different onetime Chinese activists who had left their homeland behind. In naming it one of her books of the year, Jennifer Szalai of the New York Times describes Patriot Number One in a way that captures perfectly why I liked it: “Hilgers offers a penetrating profile of a man and much more besides: an indelible portrait of his wife and their marriage; a canny depiction of Flushing, Queens; a lucid anatomy of Chinese politics and America’s immigration system… as evocative and engrossing as a novel.”

Alec Ash: The films of King Hu

If you’re looking for some entertaining watching over the Christmas holidays, instead of tuning into the Westerns on daytime TV, try the Chinese equivalent instead. Dragon Inn is a classic 1967 Taiwanese wuxia (“martial heroes”) movie. It may look like kung fu boy’s stuff, and there are certainly some cracking sword fights in it – not to mention arrows plucked from mid-air – but the film has more subtlety to it than that, in the codes of behavior by which the heroes and villains operate. The plot is simple: in the unspecified dynastic past, a loyal servant of an ousted general arrives at an inn on China’s western border, to protect the general’s children as they flee the country. Hostilities between the allies and assassins are wonderfully restrained throughout, indicated through subtle smiles, polite epithets and eyebrow waggles, while the fighting only breaks out sporadically. The tension is tangible, and it’s an insight into the popular Chinese culture that older generations grew up with. Director King Hu is a master of his art, and among his other films Come Drink With Me (a better translation would be ‘Drunken Warrior’) and the epic A Touch of Zen are also worth a watch.

Anne Henochowicz: StreetVoice Music App

I’ll be celebrating Christmas in the time-honored American-Jewish tradition: by going to a Chinese restaurant. On the drive over, I’ll open StreetVoice, my new favorite music app, and check out the latest in Sinophone indie music. Like a cross between BandCamp and Spotify, Taipei-based StreetVoice (街聲) features a song of the day, a hits chart, and playlists for every mood and activity, in addition to featured albums and highlights of musicians who sing in Taiwanese. There’s just enough English on the app to explore without any knowledge of Chinese (and who can ever understand what those rock stars are singing, anyway?). Some of my new jams that I’ve found in StreetVoice: screamo-punk band Accomplices, genre-bending Bacon Slap!, and the feminist hip-hop duo GTB out of Hong Kong (I’m a big fan of their trilingual rap ‘Gimme That Brunch’). Plus, StreetVoice’s cat mascot-helper has been waving the rainbow flag around the site of late, in support of marriage equality in Taiwan. I love that.

Nick Stember: Bohan Phoenix; ‘Dukkha’; and Pu Shu’s Orion

Taking a cue from Anne, I also want to recommend some music. My first recommendation is a bit of a cheat, since the very talented Yi-Ling Liu has already written about his work for the China Channel, but I really appreciate the way that Bohan Phoenix (博涵凤凰) writes  – in English and Chinese – not only about the frustrating parts of finding home and family as a third-culture kid, but also the fun parts, too. My second recommendation (cribbed from Josh Feola over at Radii) is to check out W.Y. Huang’s mash-up of cheesy 80s Hong Kong movies, Star Wars, and Street Fighter (among other things): ‘Dukkha.’ Finally, for those who are looking for something a little more downbeat, I can’t recommend Pu Shu’s late-2017 album Orion (猎户星座) enough. All in all, some welcome distractions from the more serious things we undoubtedly have on our minds at the moment.

Lev Nachman: On Happiness Road

Not since I first watched some of Miyazaki’s classics have I laughed and cried at an animated film. Reconciling the trauma of Taiwan’s contemporary history, On Happiness Road takes you on a partially autobiographical journey from the 1980s to the 2000s. Following the life of Lin Shu-chi, who is based off the film’s director Sung Hsin-yin, the film tells of a troubled upbringing during the Martial Law era, where disappearances were still common and kids were forced to speak Mandarin in school. As she enters college, Shu-chi joins the democratization movement, becoming an activist herself in the 1990s student movement. She eventually moves to the US where she marries an American, and despite her initial happiness, she struggles to keep her marriage alive. The narrative of the film is centered on Shu-chi returning to Taiwan for her grandmother’s funeral after living in America for years – her reverse-culture shock at how much Taiwan has changed, and coming to terms with the harsh realities of being an adult in modern day Taiwan. This is no run-of-the-mill cartoon movie. On Happiness Road won the grand prize at the 5th Tokyo Anime Award Festival in March, the AniMovie Award at the 25th Stuttgart Festival of Animated Film in Germany, and is likely to be a contender for an Academy Award. I cannot recommend it enough.

Olivia Humphrey: Newly released photographs of the Russo-Japanese War

(Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Every now and then, I like to check into my favorite historical online archives and see if there are any new materials. I’m in the middle of my PhD dissertation, and this isn’t normally what I do for fun – but I find old images universally fascinating. Recently, to my great joy, London’s Wellcome collection added a bunch of images from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. While this war was nominally fought between these two belligerents, a good portion of the fighting took place on Chinese soil. Of particular interest to me were this series of collotypes, taken inside Red Cross establishments in China. The image I’ve included here is probably my favorite, of three Siberian sharpshooters lodging in Kaiping. I love the way this picture stands at multiple crossroads. One is linguistic: the photo was taken in China, but has captions in Japanese and English. It falls between documentary and art – a testimony to the conditions of military hospitals, beautifully and arrestingly staged. The tear in the wall behind the heads of the two men in bed is particularly evocative, and a disconcerting reminder of the skin that early 20th century weapons tore through with such devastating ease.

Eileen Cheng-yin Chow: The Gifts of Reading

If on a winter’s night a traveler should find themself in Shanghai and overwhelmed by the city’s glamorous plenitude, I would recommend taking an afternoon’s respite in Sinan Books. Housed in an exquisitely restored four-story historic mansion once owned by the Republican-era warlord Feng Yuxiang and located on the former Rue (Jules) Massenet, the building is similarly layered in its identities: it is at once a bookshop with a great selection of humanities works in both English and Chinese, amidst ample cozy reading nooks, as well as a cultural salon, art gallery, and café. Stop in and visit with friends made of ink and typographical spacing. And on the subjects of friendship, books and travel (in China and elsewhere) in the season of giving: “This story, like so many stories, begins with a gift. The gift, like so many gifts, was a book” – so begins Robert MacFarlane’s The Gifts of Reading, a short lyrical meditation that would be a perfect gem to give or to receive. In the classical Chinese tradition, poems were always gifts; here, MacFarlane also exchanges lines of Li Bai with his friend. Moreover, as all proceeds from the sale of The Gifts of Reading are donated to Migrant Offshore Aid Station, any gifting of this book is yet another gift.

Jason Ng: Return of the Condor Heroes

For Chinese readers out there, I recommend Return of the Condor Heroes (神鵰俠侶), one of Louis Cha’s fifteen fictional works. (There’s also a new English translation of one of the volumes, which you can read the China Channel’s review of as well as an excerpt.) Martial arts novels are the cultural equivalent of superhero comics in America. Cha, who wrote under the pen name Jin Yong, was revered both as a literary giant and a cultural icon – a cross between J.R.R. Tolkien and Stan Lee. At nearly a million words, the four-volume epic tells the story of two star-crossed lovers who fought not only enemies in the treacherous wulin (martial arts world) but also rigid social norms in Song China – not least because the female protagonist Little Dragon Girl was once her lover Yang Guo’s teacher and guardian. Their struggle for acceptance and Yang’s rise to wulin stardom makes Condor Heroes a favourite among Cha’s enormous fan base in the Chinese-speaking world. Since its release as a newspaper serial in 1959, the novel has inspired no less than ten television series in Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan. Cha died two months ago at the age of 94 and left a gaping void in the Chinese language literary world. ∎