Diaspora

Follow the Signs

In Search of Chinatown in Panama City – Susan Blumberg-Kason

My mother is one of the most worldly travelers I know. Mention any city or country around the world, and she’s either been there or is game for going. “What about Panama City?” I asked. She agreed immediately.

Panama City had been on my mind since reading Cristina Henriquez’s The World in Half and Come Together, Fall Apart. Both books are set in the city. Panama City also boasts one of only six or seven Chinatowns in Latin America. I’d been to the Chinatown in Havana 14 years earlier, had spent most of the 1990s in Hong Kong, and am interested in the Chinese diaspora. Plus, my oldest son from my first marriage is Chinese, so I’m raising all of my kids with Chinese culture and working out what that means along the way. Cristina Henriquez had told me the Chinese community in Panama arrived long before the construction of the canal (both the French and United States’ iterations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

Q&A

Life and Love on the Factory Floor

Susan Blumberg-Kason talks to Spencer Wise about his debut novel, The Emperor of Shoes

Spencer Wise’s debut novel, The Emperor of Shoes, came out on June 5 from Hanover Square Press, an imprint of the romance publisher Harlequin. His story centers around Alex Cohen, a Jewish-American man who travels to his father’s shoe factory in Foshan, a city of seven million in the southern province of Guangdong. Alex’s father would like him to take over the family business, but instead Alex falls in love with Ivy, a factory worker and pro-democracy activist. According to his biography, Wise “comes from a long line of shoemakers dating back many generations to the shtetls in Poland.” He also spent time living in a shoe factory dormitory in southern China in preparation for writing his book.

Surprisingly, there haven’t been many books published in the US set in Guangdong. Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls is the only one that comes to mind. I recently asked Wise about that lacuna, as well as cultural appropriation in literature and why American men writing about China tend to shy away from romance in their books.

Review

Pioneering Women

Susan Blumberg-Kason reviews Creating Across Cultures

Sometime during my early years of learning Mandarin, I heard the name Michelle Vosper. If memory serves me right, my Mandarin tutor back in 1990 mentioned a friend or acquaintance in Hong Kong, where I was headed at the end of that summer for a study abroad year. I never met Ms. Vosper that year or the other four I lived in Hong Kong, but it seemed serendipitous when I was introduced to her book late last year in Chicago by the English translators of Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong’s Wild Boar.

Vosper’s edited volume, Creating Across Cultures: Women in the Arts from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, features 16 women artists from Greater China, including Chong, one of Hong Kong’s most sought-after playwrights.

Review

Heroism in Wartime Hong Kong

Susan Blumberg-Kason reviews Our Time Will Come, a film by Ann Hui

Chan Sui-jeung was one of the first adults I got to know in Hong Kong, back in 1990 when I moved there for a junior year abroad. The university assigned me to a host family that would take me in for Chinese holidays and perhaps a weekend or two during the school year. Chan and his wife May lived an hour from my dorm, but it was always a pleasure to trek out to Hong Kong Island to visit them.

At the time, I knew SJ Chan was a career civil servant and had a special interest in the Kaifeng and Hong Kong Jewish communities. But it wasn’t until several years ago that I learned Chan was also instrumental in resurrecting the story of the East River Column from World War II. His book East River Column: Hong Kong Guerillas in the Second World War and After narrates the heroics of Hong Kong residents who successfully evacuated hundreds of intellectuals from Japanese-occupied Hong Kong into parts of southern China that were not under Japanese rule. I’ve read about Chinese citizens and foreigners fleeing the mainland during WWII for the safety of British-run Hong Kong before the Japanese occupied it in 1941. But in this case, it was the other way around. Intellectuals in Hong Kong worried about persecution under the brutal Kempeitai, the Japanese military police, so a heroic group of guerillas in Hong Kong and southern China worked clandestinely to bring these writers and scholars up to “Free China.”

Review

Swallowed by the State

Susan Blumberg-Kason reviews The People’s Republic of the Disappeared

When five Hong Kong booksellers disappeared in 2015, the world looked on in shock. Two of the booksellers were abducted outside the borders of mainland China. Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, was taken from his apartment in Thailand that October, only to reappear in a televised confession months later. In January of 2018, after he had ostensibly been released from state custody, was seized on a train, the Swedish diplomats accompanying him no deterrent to his abductors. He still remains in China today, unable to leave. Lee Bo, a British citizen, was picked up off the streets of Hong Kong. He made a brief reappearance in the city, asking the Hong Kong police to drop the case of his disappearance and announcing that he would never sell banned books again. He was then whisked away back over the border to mainland China. How could this happen? A new book about enforced disappearance in China, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances, explains exactly how common practice state-sponsored abduction is against anyone who is deemed to be a threat to China’s national security.