2008 Wuhan backstreet vs 2017 Wuhan highrises

This is my third trip to China since leaving ESL in December 2010. I’m trying not to less of one of those people who takes pictures of everything because in the States a street sign is a street sign but in Wuhan it’s something exotic.

What isn’t exotic, and what makes me melancholy is the constant urban renewal erasing places I cherished. The backstreet was the place I first visited on my own in China. It’s also the place where my wife and I had our first dinner together. I remember everything about the restaurant.

It’s jarring to see the changes when your memories remain so strong. Here’s the backstreet in 2008:


And here it is today, new apartments charing an arm and a leg and probably a kidney per square meter:



Where has the time gone? Wrecking balls and clouds of construction dust.

Two Little Red King Sample Chapters

Two sample chapters from the novel Little Red King are now available. The first deals with John’s introduction to expat nightlife. It’s found here.

The second is LRK’s first real chapter, following The Seven Year Laowai 1. It’s found here.

Set in 2008 Wuhan, Little Red King is more or less about the doomed romance between a new foreign teacher and a Chinese graduate student. The never-sent query is here (or the post right below this one), and the structure of the book goes 7YL1, Ch 1, 7YL2, Ch 2…and so on, with the 7YL departing midway through while the main story takes over and returning at the end to help tie everything together.

More sample chapters are coming. The next one will be about a bad baijiu hangover, based on a true story of a certain former expat who had the bright idea of mixing Sprite with ricewine, to mute the taste. Unfortunately, it worked.

I said it in a Facebook message and I’ll say it here and I’ll say it again and again: I want Little Red King to be a fucking gut punch. So, while things will start out innocent enough, keep in mind this is a doomed romance. I want the sense of doom to set in, and I want it to set in quickly. I want this story to linger in people’s heads for years.

I want a lot of things. Right now, what I want most is for people to read the damn thing.

So feel free to have a look, and yes, I am open to feedback. Some four to five years on, the book remains a work in progress, though less of a work in progress than last time. So what do we call that?


John meets a Squat Toilet (Little Red King, deleted scene)

John is a recent college graduate who has taken his humanities degree and fled the bad American economy for the great adventure of teaching ESL in China. His stomach gets in an argument with some backstreet food, and loses.


He’s fishing with a local boy, when his stomach goes down for the count.


John had just taken the pole back when he got his first inkling that something was wrong. That gear was turning again, dragging burps with it, burps that rose and soared to the end of his mouth. He jittered. The fishing pole lowered like a longneck beast at drink.

“Zenme le?”

John’s hand fell to his stomach.

“Ni yao la duzi ma?”

The fishing pole fell. John farted.

“Ah! Ni yao la duzi ba!”

John turned, waved and shouted ‘bye-bye’ and the boy called out something else, something that chased but could not catch John as he rushed across campus.

As he raced against time.


He started out walking fast, his eyes darting everywhere. What was the word for restroom? Did it matter? Even if he knew the word, he’d have to know the characters too; none of the signs here were exclusively pinyin, let alone in English.

People were coming. He tried to make eye contact with one guy who averted his own and slung his backpack up tight on his shoulder.

“Excuse me, do”

“Sorry sorry.” He waved his hand and kicked up his pace.

“No,” John called at his heels with a burp. “I need to know where the restroom is.”

The man kept on going.

The gear did another turn. Heavier this time.

“Oh fuck.” John looked around. There were dormitories, tall structures with clothes hanging out of every window. Sheets and all manners of lines hung down in the courtyard, and the wind cupped a sheet and it flapped up to reveal a sign. A picture of a Coke bottle.

John ran to the counter. A woman was sitting there with a baby in her lap. The baby turned and smiled. Then the woman turned and smiled too.

“Ni zhao shenme?”

The gear did two revolutions. A burp contained entirely in his stomach tookt he whole of it and popped. He choked down its remainder.

The woman repeated her question.

“I don’t understand I’m sorry,” John said. “Bathroom?”

She didn’t understand either.

“Restroom? Toilet?” He added in some pantomiming, meant to mimick aiming his penis at a urinal, but…

She still didn’t understand.

“Shit,” he whispered, and noticed that he had drawn a small crowd. A guy pushed past, laid down a small yellow coin and left. He thought back to France. He had no trouble finding the bathroom there. Ou est la salle de bain? La salle de bain. In the middle of another great turn, he perekd up. La Salle de bain.


“WC!” He was almost hunched over the counter. The woman spoke. She pointed.
John took off in that direction.


John found a short building cupped in a hill. The gear was up to three revolutions now, turning and turning and he headed towards the building with its two entrances, a different red-chalk character marking each. But he didn’t know for sure until the smell.

The smell.

“Oh God,” he said, and ducked into one.

For urination, there was a single traugh that took up most of the restroom. A pipe matched it inch for inch, water trickling down from it. Both ran from a wash basin to three stalls, none of which had doors. The stalls faced out the window, up the hill. John checked the first one. It was a squat toilet, a little porcelain groove laid over a pipehole, full of paper and shit. A microcosm of greater foulness.

The second toilet was the same.

The third was empty. As if sensing a free toilet, the gear kicked up its revolutions and as he unbuckled his pants, he could feel a squishy mess poking out.

“Holy fuck,” he said, and got his pants down. He squatted, balancing on his toes. “Here it comes.”

It came. The shit was painful and loud, exploding out in bubbly, liquid bursts. At the end, the gear did a turn, he burped, and then it fell still.

John took a couple steps forward. Some shit lie on the sides of the toilet, but most of it had gotten in. A solid light brown pile lay in the middle and the smell reached up for him and he turned and looked for it.

He was looking for toilet paper.


John spent a minute or two listening carefully. Then he emerged, waddling over to the wash basin. There was a bucket. A mop. He turned the faucet and ran his hand under the cold water.

Then he wiped.

When he felt clean enough, he scrubbed his hand off and went back to the toilet. He looked again, this time for a handle to flush it. He pulled his pants back up and spent some time thinking. A mosquito lifted off from the sink and buzzed past him.

Okay then.

He took the bucket and filled it up and then carried it over to the toilet. He poured all the water in. Some shit did disappear down the hole, but not all. Most of the clump stuck there.

“Oh God,” he said, and flung the bucket aside.


Read The Seven Year Laowai, which sets the foundation for Little Red King, here.

Read exerpts from Little Red King here.

Read more of LRK’s deleted scenes here.

First Impressions are Everything

Here’s something I wrote up the day after my arrival in China:

– Driving here is insane. On the way from the airport, our driver nearly hit a several people, pedestrians included.

– Drivers here are not hesitant to honk their horns at you. Even if you’re a pedestrian crossing at a designated crosswalk. But I have the right away! No, you do not.

– The dollar is worth more than the yuan (RMB). It will carry you far.

– My apartment is brand-new, furnishings included.

– The internet is of course filtered, so I cannot officially access wordpress. Right now, I’m using a web-based anonymous proxy.

– At our welcome dinner last night, the food packed quite a punch. The Wuhan delicacies tend to be on the VERY spicy side.

– There is a street close by, I don’t know the name, full of street vendors selling an assortment of items.

– Try to learn some Chinese before coming here. That way, when you order noodles from a street vendor, you know the price they are quoting and are not stuck with handing them a 10 and hoping for the best.

– However, now that I have internet access, that should change. There are lots of online tools that assist language learning.

That’s it for now. I’ll be back later with clearer, more in-depth posts.

August 29, 2008

Coming to China for the first time is an experience I’ll never be able to relive. The best I can hope for is stumbling across old writings like this. :)