Yellow Fever and the sexpat literary review – by Robert Foyle Hunwick
Travel may not be fatal to prejudice, but it’s usually pretty effective against celibacy. It can also be a fast-acting bromide to modesty, especially among writers, and often with tragic consequences. Every few months, it seems, some guy comes down with a case of “yellow fever” and produces a book — called Yellow Fever.
That’s the title of the latest effort in a burgeoning canon of non-fiction, memoirs about sleeping with Chinese girls. These books don’t have many regular readers — I’m beginning to think I’m the only one — though they certainly have a lot of writers. Yellow Fever, subtitled a tale of “Love and Sex in China,” comes from Alex Coverdale, the cover name of a former teacher who says he’s now landed one of the “most sought-after jobs in journalism,” after a London editor was “impressed by some of my random Facebook comments and postings.”
It’s one of the more credible claims in Yellow Fever, which narrates a confused and angry series of bungled affairs and disastrous hookups, with bruised hearts and egos scattered in the protagonist’s horny wake. “I’m not that bad,” Coverdale repeats, usually when detailing some rare instance of moral rectitude, though as a writer, Coverdale really is that bad – he shouldn’t be writing YouTube comments, let alone a book.
Still, he falls into a long tradition of travel writing, in which the most interesting thing about a foreign country is what happens to the author. One that’s now in vogue is the “I biked across Asia with a fridge on my back” book, in which the author’s method of conveyance is something deliberately inconvenient and wacky — ensuring mishaps and awkward interactions with a rolling cast of cud-chewing villagers, baffled bureaucrats and bewildered policemen, all presumably frustrated at having to deal with a succession of foreigners riding through their security quadrant on a unicycle.
At the other end of this spectrum, eagerly enabled by e-platforms like Amazon and the odd independent imprint, is the sex memoirist, or sexpat. Rejected by mainstream publishers, the protagonist feels mildly aggrieved and marginalized; he can’t get recognized; he’s having a hard time (pun intended, by the way: pisspoor wordplay is a signature of the sexpat, epitomized by the magisterially badly titled Shanghai Cocktales).
Coverdale does at least deliver on the sex, or some of it, even if his recollections have a sense of accountancy more than eroticism; you can practically hear him totting up the totty. Most writers promise forbidden pleasures, full of Eastern promise, only to baulk at the bedroom. “There is very little cock, or pussy, in Shanghai Cocktales,” laments one — entirely accurate — Amazon reviewer. “The book is devoted to getting hammered with the dudes instead of getting laid…On the rare occasions [the author] manages to bring a woman home with him, he’s so wasted he’s not aware of it.”
Being permanently plastered is part of the sexpat deal, though, in homage to the long, lurching shadow cast by their literary heroes: such lions of the barstool as Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Malcolm Lowry, Ernest Hemingway, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and Henrys Bukowski and Miller, men whose tabs alone could generously fill a volume of collected works. (Fitzgerald: The Annotated Drinks Bills would surely satisfy the author’s observation that “Great books write themselves”.)
The alpha in today’s China pack is the serially underappreciated, determinedly prolific Isham Cook, pseudonymous author of The Exact Unknown and Massage and the Writer, casual user of phrases like “rococo vulvas,” and clever writer who always needs you to know it. You don’t simply go for a happy ending with Isham. He’s the guy in the next-door booth, eagerly explaining why the Chinese character for “happy” has Taoist sexual connotations.
The rest seem unaware of the other, darker tradition they belong to — the colonial one. In the late-19th century, Western imperialism provided copious avenues for erotic opportunity, encounters that had hitherto not existed for many. Sexual exploitation even helped sustain these financial enterprises: “The expansion of Europe was not only a matter of ‘Christianity and commerce,’” observes Ronald Hyam in Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience, “it was also a matter of copulation and concubinage.”
The colonies might be gone, but the interests and energies persist — just look at the rapid growth of the ESL (English as a Second Language) industry that gripped South and East Asia during the 1990s, sweeping across Japan and Korea to China. Teaching appeals to a similar mind as empire-building: the dispossessed, the disillusioned, the dipsomaniac. The ESL boom was probably fueled as much by erotic adventurism as by the desire, in some parties, to learn and teach English. Winking rumors percolated about “easy lays” for kawaii gajin (“cute foreigners”) in Japan; by 1998, the cliché of Japanese women lusting after American nerds had become so prevalent that it spawned a pitch-perfect comic strip.
Thailand, reigning home of the sexpat since its RnR status during the Vietnam War, has long hosted a mini-economy for these fellows, with Pattayan bookshops filled with volumes called Mister Butterfly (a Thai term for sluttish males), Bangkok Babylon and Bangkok Baby, alongside insider ripostes such as Miss Bangkok: Memoirs of a Thai Prostitute, not to mention Dean Barrett, a Vietnam vet who stayed behind to write such works as the volume of poetry The Go Go Dancer Who Stole my Viagra. Even today, China has nowhere near this level of industry. But as with pretty much everything else, it’s fast catching up.
Back when Beijing was preparing its grand opening for the 2008 Olympics, a British teacher created a category-F shitstorm writing about his shenanigans in Shanghai under the sobriquet Chinabounder. It was the Bounder’s critique of Chinese culture and masculinity, though, that apparently prompted an outraged Shanghai social sciences professor, who’d read the blog (in detail), to demand that this “hooligan” be hunted, identified and “kicked out of China.” He was later outed as David Marriott, allegedly a graduate of Cambridge University.
Marriot escaped the online mob, later publishing a serious book — titled Fault Lines on the Face of China: 50 Reasons Why China May Never Be Great and doubtless dismaying his editors at Random House — while the saga codified a template that’s remained largely unchanged for the last decade (Korea responded to a similar nationalist outcry by introducing an AIDS test specifically for teacher visas).
Of course, none of this is new. In 1939, an ageing British baronet bon vivant, who’d lapsed into a life of virtual reclusion, set down his recollections about the court and courtyards of Qing Peking in meticulous, anonymous sexual detail: Decadence Mandchoue opens with an elaborately enumerated, 19-page visit to a bordello called the Hall of Chaste Joys — then carries on like that for a further 256 pages. The book’s writer, Edmund Backhouse, has since been called a genius, fraud, liar, spy, envoy, and, perhaps most hurtfully, a “repressed homosexual.”
He was all of these, though certainly not repressed. Backhouse was scholarly, shrewd, duplicitous, wealthy, a product of Oxonian privilege who disdained the company of aristocracy (unless they were Chinese), and multi-lingual to the point of annoyance. The modern edition of Decadence Mandchoue, handwritten in Backhouse’s deathbed scrawl and meticulously edited by a heroic Derek Sandhaus, has multiple footnotes on nearly every page, catering for its author’s irrepressible need to show off (“pathics… are absolutely forbidden to lancer un pet; unless of course the client desires to be possessed a tergo by them. If they ejaculate during the coitus per baccum, the client will usually add a moderate solatium in recognition of their virility. Their fondements are all very elastic…”).
Rich, cruel even, to compare this literary banquet with the junk prose of Coverdale’s Yellow Fever (“She was holding my joint in Hooligan’s toilet cubicle. She had a shaved pussy which was nice.” Jesus. Her pussy was nice because it was shaved? Or she had a nice pussy, which happened to be shaved? He can’t even get that right.) The modern sex writers are a job lot. Rather than the requisite mix of filth and fun, they offer swagger and bathos; one manuscript I was sent some years ago, about teaching at a mill in Hefei, was called My Year of Living Dangerously. The biggest chuckle in Yellow Fever is the blurb, which boldly states “On a quest for enlightenment … Alex Coverdale spent almost six years as an English teacher in China.”
It’s not simply a masculine delusion. Nicole Mones’ fictionalized memoir Lost in Translation is neck-deep in Orientalism: the narrator is “birdlike, freckled,” and calls herself Yulian, “Fragrant Lotus,” a reference to the erotic classic Jing Ping Mei. She roams Qianmen for local hookups, leaving them next morning without so much as a phone number. She’s mixed up, you see: as attracted to Chinese masculinity as she is coolly dismissive of it.
It’s not that anyone has grown tired of sex, so much as wary of bringing it up. One New York Times Shanghai journalist, Seth Faison, devoted several pages of his 2004 memoir, South of the Clouds, to developing a serious massage addiction, having been inducted via phone on “a chilly afternoon in November.” Being a Times man, Faison duly wrestles with an existential conflict about paying for hand-jobs (“I told myself lies…”), although the decision seems more a choice between being bored in provincial China, or not being bored in provincial China.
Criticizing these writers is like shooting fish in a barrel, or standing next to a barrel. Why bother? Partly because any memoir’s value is in capturing an era or milieu that heavier observers haven’t bothered with. There may even come a time when historians of the Xi Dynasty wish to better understand the experiences of dissolute Europeans, laboring as educational flacks in third-tier Chinese cities during the early 21st century. If so, there will be a small well of materials to draw on. For the rest of us, these books are an amusement: something to be read, preferably slightly drunk and aloud, to friends visiting from afar. ∎