Late last year, former China reporter Seth Faison, who had been in the country on and off since the early 1980s published South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China. Faison spoke with Bloomberg journalist and fellow Shanghai journalist, Alec McCabe about his time there and relationship with choreographer 金星 Jin Xing.
Author Seth Faison on (Trans) Sex and the Single China Reporter
Jan. 7 (Bloomberg) — I got to know Seth Faison in Shanghai in the late 1990s, when we were both among the first foreign correspondents based in China’s commercial capital in half a century. He was with the New York Times; I worked for Bloomberg News.
Faison was already an old China hand by then, having written for the Hong Kong Standard and South China Morning Post, starting in the mid-1980s. He came home in 2000 to write “South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China” (St. Martin’s Press, 278 pages, $24.95).
Hearing about the book didn’t surprise me. It seems almost impossible for reporters to return from the market-driven drama of the new China without a book in their luggage.
What makes this book different is the sex.
I thought I knew Seth, or Shep as he’s known, pretty well. But not that well, I see. For instance, I didn’t know about his visits to the “sauna massages” with which he brightened his reporting trips. Or his love affair with Jin Xing, China’s first openly acknowledged transsexual.
I recently called up my old friend, now a happily married 45- year-old father of two who lives in Santa Monica, California, to talk about China, sex and the book.
McCabe: I can relate to what you went through in China as being the tall guy who stands out in the crowd. But I must say as a married man I didn’t have the “interaction” that you ended up having. Why did you end up spending a good part of your book talking about your sex life?
Faison: Because it was part of my story. And I felt like it was an interesting, compelling part of the story. And I think it also tells something about what’s going on in China today.
McCabe: Your relationship with a girl in Xian when you first arrived as a student is very different from your relationships later on.
Faison: My ability to have relationships with women, like my interactions with Chinese people of all kinds, changed tremendously, which was partly because of the way China was changing and partly because I was becoming a more sophisticated purveyor of Chinese culture and was able to make deeper and more interesting friendships.
McCabe: Are you still in touch with Jin Xing?
Faison: Yes I am. She’s adopted three Chinese children. Last I heard she was engaged to a Frenchman. So it seemed to me that the great sense of ambition that I sensed in her she has sort of turned into parenthood, which makes me very glad, because I’m the parent of young children too.
McCabe: In reading the book, I was learning things about my friend Shep Faison that I didn’t know before.
Faison: I was learning things about myself that I didn’t know before.
McCabe: Talk a little bit about Tiananmen, which you covered as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post.
Faison: For most people whose hopes and aspirations rode along with that movement, it was really crushing. The other thing about Tiananmen which I tried to do was to tell the real story of Tiananmen, the intricate political drama that was going on behind the scenes in 1989. Once it was all over we could put together this titanic struggle that was going on in the leadership of the Communist party.
McCabe: Later, when you are asked to return to China from New York, this time as a Times reporter, it must have come with mixed emotions.
Faison: I was completely focused on my career. I suppressed my personal doubts and anxiety about heading back. It seemed like there had been a real shift from the post-Tiananmen darkness to the Shanghai-comes-alive boom that was China in the mid-90s.
McCabe: Among other things, it was being allowed to be a foreign correspondent in Shanghai. There was a fairly small group at the time.
Faison: I was the second American newspaper journalist who was allowed to go there. Joe Kahn was there for the Wall Street Journal and Andy Browne was there for Reuters. But that was essentially it. I take it back. Your predecessor, Dina Temple- Raston, arrived the same week that I arrived. She and I were accredited the same day.
McCabe: Being a reporter in Shanghai at that time was fascinating because of the explosion of business. Chinese companies weren’t just selling shares but selling hard-currency B Shares to foreigners.
Faison: I had a really good time writing a story about trying to buy B shares for myself. I spoke to stock analysts who told me how bad these companies were and how they were losing money hand over fist, and then I went to speak to some of the companies themselves.
And, of course their standards of openness were absurd and their professional conduct was geared toward pleasing party bosses. They were not concerned at all with investors, much less outside investors. Their concept of ownership and what shares meant — the shares they were trying to sell –was very foggy and in some cases quite hysterical.
McCabe: Did you buy some B shares?
Faison: I did buy some B shares.
McCabe: And what happened? Did you make any money?
Faison: I held onto to them for the time I was in Shanghai, which was four years. And I sold them the week before I left. I think my total return was maybe 30 to 35 percent — $500 or $1,000.
McCabe: So you profited off China’s economic boom?
Faison: In a small way.
McCabe: I did sense, and this comes through in the book, your disappointment with China, your feeling that it could have been more than it has been.
Faison: China goes in its own direction. China is not essentially welcoming to outsiders. And as someone who loves Chinese culture, and devoted a lot of my life to learning about it and trying to understand it, I never felt fully embraced or welcomed. And that left me with some bitterness, some disappointment.
McCabe: Was that one of the reasons you wrote the book then? To complete the circle?
Faison: China’s in my blood. I think I will go back there in some capacity. I don’t know what that is yet. Probably not as a reporter for the New York Times. I think I’m done with newspaper reporting. I’m feeling quite open at this point in my life.
It took me a while writing before I saw clearly that I was searching for this unfulfilled sense of what it is to be a man, and finding comfort in a place that I saw as more feminine. The writing process — and some good therapy –has gotten me through that.