Raw Inspiration: Postcard From Shanghai

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

If the promise of a writing adventure in one of the fastest-growing cities in the world outweighs your fear of amoebas and a rather powerful Big Brother, Shanghai may be the place for you, too. While you pack, allow me to offer a few tips to help get you started on your own creative journey.

In a town where fake Gucci bags are more plentiful than books in English, it’s easy to get a wee bit frustrated, especially if you’re a writer.

Where to Write
If you like to write in public places, rest easy. Shanghai is full of cafés where you can settle with your laptop and get in a few hours of uninterrupted work. The clerks are usually quite friendly and anxious to try out a few words in English, but once you’re settled, they leave you alone. The most harassment I’ve ever experienced was a clerk trying desperately to get me to taste the newest Columbian blend and a Buddhist monk who wanted to say a few prayers for me (for a small fee, of course).

I prefer the local cafés where I can taste-test a new Chinese tea and practice my Mandarin, but when I need a “just like home” fix, I head to Starbucks. There are close to fifty of them in Shanghai. I’ve been in at least five, and yes, believe it or not, they look exactly as they do in the U.S., except for the fact that the menu is in both Chinese and English. Same furniture. Same color schemes. Same mugs. Same coffee. Even the same low-fat, dry-as-a-bone, orange-blueberry muffins.

When I moved here in 2006, not many cafés offered a wireless connection to the Internet, but that’s changed. I now have two cafés within a block of my apartment where I can hook up to the Internet for free.

A Writing Community
During my first year in Shanghai, my writing partner and I met at a coffee shop three times a week. We’d hello to one another, park ourselves on opposite sides of the space, set up our laptops and notebooks, and silently write for the next two to three hours. Together, we write alone. Afterwards, we’d chat, and once a week or so, we’d have lunch. We didn't share our writing or discuss our work beyond how many words we got on the page or how amazing (or frustrating, depending on the day) the process of writing a novel was.

Now that we’re both into the latter stages of our novels, we hunker down at our respective homes, alone, to work and instead meet once a week for coffee and writer talk.

Every other Friday I meet with my writing group, an amazing collection of women in various stages of writing life who have all tumbled into Shanghai in one way or another. All are moms. One is a lawyer trying not to be lawyer. Another bravely rides a shiny blue moped around the city and writes about her adventures. One is a freelance journalist. One is sorting through family memories. And the youngest is writing a memoir about her travels in Asia. Over big cups of jasmine tea, we critique one another’s work, do writing exercises, share literary news, and encourage each other’s writing lives.

I fought like a hungry tiger to create this little community. The challenge was threefold: Writers don’t spill from the bookshelves like they do back home—the pool is small; the usual stint here is two to three years—people come and go like migratory birds; and I don’t like every writer I meet—I have to connect with them on that deep, inexplicable level.

As a result, finding my tribe in Shanghai was much tougher than it ever was back in the U.S., no matter where I was living. But I was tenacious. I talked to anyone who looked like a writer, followed leads from magazine articles, and did extensive Internet searches. Now, after two years in Shanghai, I’ve got a writing community that is supportive, nurturing, and loads of fun. And just this year, I created Out Loud! The Shanghai Writers Literary Salon, a reading series for Shanghai writers.

In a town where fake Gucci bags are more plentiful than books in English, it’s easy to get a wee bit frustrated, especially if you’re a writer. It’s not that you can’t buy books in English in Shanghai; it’s just that you have to settle for whatever is on the shelves. Most often, that’s a limited collection of contemporary authors, a number of classics like The Great Gatsby and Crime and Punishment, way too many copies of The Da Vinci Code, and for reasons I can’t explain, lots of Kafka.

Chaterhouse Books on Huaihai Road offers the best selection. Garden Books in the French Concession area is a cozy spot on a tree-lined street with a small reading garden in the back and a delicious offering of homemade ice cream. The Foreign Language Bookstore in the stationery district is great for any language-learning needs. In a pinch, I mine the shelves of the mud-room-sized bookstall in the back hallway at the Hong Qiao Pearl Market. And the dusty used-book corner at Hu & Hu, one of the most expensive antique dealers in the city, was a good distraction when my husband and I were trying to talk ourselves out of buying an eighty-year-old Chinese cabinet that threatened to drain our savings account. (We bought it anyway. Who needs savings?)

Of course, in 99 percent of the bookstores and bookstalls in Shanghai, no one speaks a word of English. If you’ve got a question about that author whose name is right on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t remember, forget it. If you want to chat about Dave Eggers’s latest book (which is not in any bookstore in Shanghai), you’re on your own.

In the end, if you’re desperate and not in a big hurry, you can order from Amazon.com or beg your best friend back home to send a care package.

Shanghai International Literary Festival
I like author readings. I’ve liked them ever since I first saw Thomas Lux read at Indiana University in the late 1980s when I laughed so hard at one of his poems I had to leave the room. Readings rev me up, inspire me, and reconnect me to my best writerly self.

Here in Shanghai, such events are pretty limited throughout the year, but every March, Michelle Garnaut (owner and proprietor of the très chic restaurant M on the Bund and its sister establishment, the Glamour Bar) hosts the Shanghai International Literary Festival. For almost an entire month, the literary world cracks open and heads to Shanghai.

This year the festival took place over three weekends and featured fifty-five writers from more than a dozen countries, including 2007 Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright; Arundhati Roy in conversation with Pankaj Mishra; and Howard Goldblatt, translator of the novel Wolf Totem, China’s current publishing sensation. I also attended readings by Italian poet Valerio Magrelli, Australian novelist Patrick Gale, Chinese writer Zhang Lijia, French architect Paul Andreu, Pakistani journalist Fatima Bhutto, and many others.

The festival readings take place each year at the Glamour Bar, a shimmering space on the sixth floor of a gorgeous stone building overlooking the Huang Pu River on Shanghai’s famous Bund. It’s a delightful escape and a marvelous immersion into contemporary literature from all over the world. You drink wine, curl up on comfy chairs, watch brilliantly lit boats slip by on the river outside, meet lots of other writers, renew your spirit, and take in some great readings and dynamic conversations.

As Shanghai trips over itself trying to catch up to the western world, inspiration oozes from every antique market, illegal tobacco shop, bicycle delivery cart stacked twenty-feet high with recyclables, peach hawker, and old woman sweeping the sidewalk with a bamboo broom. In the traditional nantong districts, old men sleep in folding chairs, street vendors cook and sell Shanghai’s famous and most delicious xiao long bao, young women breastfeed their babies, foursomes play mah jong, and seamstresses work on their foot-pedal sewing machines right on the sidewalks. Newly washed underwear is draped from every post and hook to dry, and in the summertime swelter, men roll their shirts up over their bellies and from time to time, give those bellies a good rub. In Shanghai, life still happens loudly and robustly on the streets; it is not hidden behind closed curtains like it is back home.

Most of the time, I’m wildly inspired by the lively, chaotic street life, but when my husband notices a slight, uncontrollable twitch in my right eye or I actually growl at a bicyclist who nearly runs me down on Hongqiao Road, I know it’s time for a retreat. I head to the zoo or one of the parks where, as early as 6 AM, couples waltz to piped-in music, old folks fly kites, and hundreds of people do tai chi silently and simultaneously. This is the peaceful yang to the chaotic yin—or maybe it’s the peaceful yin to the chaotic yang. I don’t know for sure, but either way, as a writer in Shanghai, you have to be willing and excited to experience both.

Right now, I feel lucky to live and write in a country that for so many years was closed to the world and that is just now peeling back its protective skin to let us all get a peek at its innards. That’s enough for me.

Of course, there is still the issue of finding a good pen.


Awesome writing!

Thanks for sharing this overview of your Shanghai experience, Kristin. I've been hearing about your Shanghai adventures for a long time, but I really enjoyed this every-writer point of view. Thanks for a great read!

Great News

Fantastic article and great to hear that there is literary life in Shanghai. I lived there from 1998 until 2003 and will be moving back in the New Year. I would very much like to join a writers group and you have given me hope!