East Asia

China has a number of concession cities along the coast: Shanghai, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Macao, Qingdao, Dalian. In simplified Western historiography, these cities were ‘built by Europeans’. And indeed, they often have a significant number of buildings in European style. Yet rather than ‘European enclaves’, these cities should rather be thought of as cosmopolitan hubs where, in a European decor, East Asians were trading among themselves. In any case, this is a true descriptions of today’s Tianjin, where ‘foreigners’ come from Japan and Korea much more so than Europe or America.

According to Francois Gipouloux’ extraordinary book on ‘the Asian Mediterranean’, at their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, Shanghai and Tianjin were cities where Chinese people exchanged goods with the rest of Asia. Europeans benefited from that inter-Asian trade, where they could act as middle-men. But mostly, the European presence and administration benefited Asian merchants (Chinese or Japanese), who settled in the concessions, and controlled their trade empire from there.

Throughout his book, Gipouloux explores the history of the China sea, which he paints as a complex interlacing of commercial trade routes, emporias and diasporas. From the middle of the 19th century, this maritime empire – or china sea system – started revolving around Shanghai. Beijing was the capital of China, Shanghai the capital of the China sea. Hong Kong and Singapore replaced it in this role during the second half of the 20th century, but Shanghai is coming back, and reasserting its position as the capital of that fluid commercial world. Before it, Malacca, Guangzhou or Nagasaki had similar functions. There is a long history of commercial cities cities developing along the coast of the China sea, at the periphery of the big empires, with multicultural Asian diasporas (and a few Europeans). Tianjin falls in that category today. I heard Aaron answering the phone saying ‘moshi moshi’. We often had sushi, Bimbimbap, or ramen.

Since I decided to move to Australia, and adapt to life on the Pacific rim, I’ve been particularly interested in these inter-Asian movements. One crucial ‘haha’ moment came as I watched a Chinese film where one of the character goes to Japan. Dumb as it retrospectively sounds, I remember how radical it was for me to think of a Chinese person moving, or even travelling to Japan. I had never before thought of such inter-Asian travel.

I started collecting a mental list of films set in that East Asian space – a group of Hong Kong men helping a Chinese man escape from Vietnam (A Better Tomorrow III), a couple of Chinese people getting fat in Japan (Love on a Diet), or a Hong Kong woman exploring the original Thai village of a girl she received a cornea graft from (the Eye). I also made a mental list of real life stories – my friend Ming going to Pu Khet with her parents, my host in Nanning talking about her trip to Malaysia, or the groups of Japanese tourists I saw in in Angkor Wat.

And I’m also wondering: is there a place for Australia, among that web of global East Pacific metropolises? Should we start making a mental list of films where Asian characters explore Australia – Main Aur Mrs Khanna, Permanent Residence, or Japanese Story? Should we, as writers, build fiction set in that East Asian sphere, and through the power of fiction, inscribe Australia as a full part of that imaginary space? Or at least, as cultural consumers, be alert to Asian productions where Australia features – and encourage them, as much as we can?


Ultimate East Asian entertainment experience.

KTV is the Chinese name for what the Japanese call karaoke. KTV p(a)laces are generally huge affairs on multiple flors, offering dozens – even hundreds – of individual rooms, of all sizes, lined up along shiny corridors.

The decoration is somewhere between a glitzy hotel and a casino, with random arbitrary features.

KTVs are private affairs. A groom leads your party to its own cosy room. You will strictly not have to interact with anyone you don’t know – except for staff, who will bring you food, drinks, or come in to fix the system for you.

The system is simple. People choose a song on a touch screen. There are all sorts of options you can search by artist, or title, or language. It is overbearing, and the first five or ten minutes are often spent in confusion, while people ask ‘what should we sing, what should we sing’, while one person hogs the screen, trying to figure out how to search. But eventually, songs are selected, and a rhythm develops.

The ritual goes like this. When a new songs comes up on the screen, everyone asks: ‘whose song is that, whose song is that?’ A suitale singer is identified (not always the one who chose the song) and, standing or sitting, sings it in one of two microphones provided. Other people can sing along, or just accompany the performance on percussions (provided).

KTV may be the most popular form of entertainment among young Chinese people. For some reason, it does not appeal to Western tastes as much. On my first trip to Tianjin in December 2010, I was travelling with 25 other Australians on an HSK scholarship. One evening, we gathered in our hotel lobby, discussing what we would do that night. Two options emerged: bar or KTV. I followed the KTV crowd, and realized after a few minutes that I was the only white person there. Everyone else was Asian There must be some specific KTV pleasure that particularly satisfies an East Asian education. Familiar faces only? Technology taking over? The reassuring presence of a script to follow?

Somehow, the experience is not unlike vocal calligraphy: following a given model as the ultimate form of personal expression. Imitation as a way to the self. I recommend. It’s actually fun. And if you can sing a Mandarin song, you get a chance to seriously impress your Chinese friends. Kudos, kudos!

Lao Wais

Everyone agrees, Tianjin is harder for a foreigner than Beijing and Shanghai, because you’re always the only lao wai (foreigner) around. Beijing has expat enclaves in San Li Tun and HouHai; Shanghai has the French concession – they won’t even answer in Chinese at the Gloria Jeans Coffee there. In Tianjin, staff at Starbucks often struggle to understand ‘expresso’. But I discovered a different form of multilingualism here, when I saw the restaurant menu was written in both Chinese and Japanese.

I actually had one of my most important Asian ‘haha’ moments at a Tianjin supermarket, around a similar discovery. I saw an ‘imported food section’, and went there looking for pesto, vine leaves and nutella. Instead of that, I found a bag of dry tuna flakes, wasabi and sake. It took me just that little moment to realise – that was imported food as well.

So, as a game, I started spotting traces of Japan and Korea. And I tried to experience them as multiculturally exotic (as much as Italians are in Australia). With my little eye, I spotted platters of sushi in a supermarket.

‘Japanese dinnering’ in Magnetic City

Some Korean beauty place inside a shopping mall.

And on NanLuoGuXiang, in Beijing, a Japanese everything cool shop.

I noticed an interesting phenomenon: many places with Japanese or Korean writing were not in traditional East Asian style, but superficially Euro-international, following a kind of cute-eurotic aesthetics, like that ‘Cafe Alice’.

The best example would be the ‘Austrian style’ shopping steet of Magnetic City, around the E-Mart Centre – a Korean development in faux Austrian style, with a bubble tea shop, a Lotte supermarket, and fake flowers hanging from hooks, along the faux-lattice wood facade.

Am I really the only lao wai around, I started wondering? Or are these “Asians” around me just as displaced as myself?

The place started bringing back me this quintessential Australian experience, on my first trip, at Box Hill central, when I saw two red-hair girls passing in school uniforms, sipping bubble tea from a plastic cup, smiling at an Asian family sitting there. Maybe, local Tianjiners who saw me queuing behind a Korean teenager at the bubble tea counter in the Austrian style city would experience a similar sense of eur-asianism and global citizenship?