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Our ‘writer in Shanghai’ sends her first report

Alison Wong_3Award-winning novelist and poet Alison Wong was chosen as our writer to travel to Shanghai as a guest of the Shanghai Writers Association to join the Shanghai International Writing Programme.   In return NZCFS have agreed to host a writer from Shanghai at the Michael King Writer’s Centre in 2015.   She currently lives in Australia, although her writing is centred on New Zealand and she plans to return.  

Alison is a third-generation Chinese New Zealander and she will work on a family memoir while she is in Shanghai.

We are very pleased to receive her first report:

“I am having a wonderful time in Shanghai. Being in such a different environment is very stimulating and there is more time and space to write.

“I am living in a small bedsit apartment that has its own ensuite, a small fridge/freezer, microwave,  2 cooking elements, kitchen sink and small bench, double bed, 2 seater sofa,  small table, student desk, 3 chairs & air con (very important with the heat and humidity we had in September!). There is not much in terms of crockery/cutlery/cooking utensils, etc. and it is not worth buying much given I am only here 2 months.  I did buy myself a mug, as we were only provided with glasses, but I haven’t even bothered getting a teaspoon and use one of the 2 Chinese ceramic spoons instead.  My Swiss army knife comes in handy every day for cutting & peeling, etc. But it has to stay in the kitchen drawer because  Shanghai’s Metro has similar restrictions/scanning as at airports.

Alison Wong  © Nitch Photography
Alison Wong © Nitch Photography

“The standard of the apartment is not really up to what we would normally expect back home and all of us international writers have different problems with our individual rooms:  they have just fixed my leaking toilet which means I can’t use it for 6 hours and they have fixed the hinge that had come away on the wardrobe door; one of the other writers had the kitchen tap come away in his hand.  But it is so much better than I was expecting and I am very happy with it.  I am so grateful for the air con. and for the wifi in the room which means I can skype from my laptop. Unless I am away, I normally skype several times a day!  My apartment is very conveniently located, close to 3 Metro lines and lots of shops, food outlets, a supermarket and to Zhongshan Park, where I can go walking among the trees and by the ponds.

“There were 9 of us international writers but the US writer was only here for a month, so now we are down to 8: besides myself, 2 are from Argentina, 2 from Hungary, 1 Dane, 1 Mexican & 1 who grew up in Colombia and who has lived a long time in Mexico.  I am the only native English speaker – so I get spoken to in Spanish a lot, as well as Hungarian sometimes – one of the few times in my life when, in terms of comprehension, it is preferable to be spoken to in Mandarin! The Hungarian poets are translating some of my poems into Hungarian and these have been accepted for a Hungarian literary journal and the Argentinian poet has translated some of my poems into Spanish and they have been published with interview in a online Spanish-language Peruvian poetry journal:


“I’m the only one who has been to China before and who knew any Mandarin at all before coming.  So I often have the job of communicating any problems, trying to order at restaurants, etc. Although I still struggle along, my Chinese has improved a lot since I arrived.

“The Shanghai Writers Association has looked after us very well.  We have quite a lot of scheduled events: readings, outings, etc., as well as a lot of free time to explore on our own and write.  We have been interviewed by various Chinese newspapers and journals and asked to write for them. Representatives from the Shanghai Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries [Youxie](who have partnered with the Shanghai Writers’ Association, Michael King Writers’ Centre and  NZ China Friendship Society for this residency I am on) came along to the Welcoming Ceremony last month (as did reps. from the NZ Consulate-General).  SAFFFC took me for lunch and the NZ Consulate-General invited me for morning tea.  Everyone has been incredibly kind and welcoming.  We have been meeting Shanghainese writers at various events, been given lots of books in English by Shanghainese writers, and 8-10 Oct. we will be going to the nearby city of Hangzhou, famous for its beautiful West Lake, and meeting with the Zhejiang Writers’ Association.

“It is currently Golden Week – a week of holiday because 1 October is National Day.  Tomorrow I am going away for a few days with Li Tao – Shanghainese film-maker who lived in Wellington for 7 years.  She made Waves, a documentary about Chinese students in Wellington, and has set up a company to do Shanghai-NZ film co-productions.  We are going to her hometown where her grandmother lives, which will give me a completely different experience, and also to Nanjing.  I did a day trip to Suzhou which is famous for its Chinese gardens and canals but didn’t really have enough time there.

“Shanghai is incredibly diverse.  There are aspects that are like any mega-city in the world, full of huge malls, Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hutt, Versace, Calvin Klein, Porsche, Volkswagen, Siemens, iPhones, Samsung, etc. Golf courses, sports centres, exhibitions, galleries, performers from around the world, standup comedy, salsa.  Lots of skyscrapers – my apartment building, which is not high by Shanghai standards, is 30 floors plus 2 basement levels & the huge mall 300 meters away is 9 levels above ground plus 2 basement levels.  And then there are aspects that are very Chinese – historical buildings, customs that are very Chinese.

Went to NZ Central here, which is set up by NZ Trade & Enterprise, to watch the NZ Elections (TVNZ coverage) and this month there’s a NZ Music Festival organised by a Kiwi.  Acts at the Festival this year are the Wellington International Ukelele Orchestra, Musical Island Boys , Maisey Rika & Toni Huata – though on the stipend I’m on a lot of the prices are a bit steep.  I manage Kiwi drinks once a month and a Kiwi Ball is coming up this month too, but at RMB1000 a ticket I won’t be going!

There is huge wealth and poverty here.  It helps if you have plenty of money in Shanghai. Although some things can be cheap compared to Australia and New Zealand, other things are incredibly expensive.  Shanghai is, after all, a World City of Design with a lot of very beautiful and expensive things: I saw a pair of glasses in a shop around the corner from where I live – the price was RMB14,500, that’s more than AU$ 2,700!

Coffee and certain other western things are expensive here (RMB30-35 for a latte) – well they are very expensive when your daily stipend is RMB150/day (less than NZ$30/day).  So, if you’re big on coffee and coming for a couple of months on a low budget and don’t want to drink instant, which is also relatively expensive, you might want to consider bringing a plunger and even a packet of your own favourite ground coffee!

Shanghai is full of migrants whether from other parts of China or from overseas.  In Shanghai 20 million are Shanghainese and then there are about 10 million from elsewhere. You see obvious foreigners (i.e. ones who do not look like me) everywhere.  I get asked for directions here, ha ha. It is certainly much easier to live here now than it was 20 and 30 years ago when I was last here.  It seems less polluted – Shanghai is not as bad as Beijing for air pollution.  There are so many migrant workers constantly cleaning, sweeping, looking after the gardens & riversides that everywhere is much much cleaner than it used to be.  Goods and services are much more easily available so there is less desperation.  And there is more English. But the migrant workers work very hard for little pay and their lives are hard.

If you’re coming to China, I recommend you get VPN for your smartphone & laptop before you come – which I didn’t do because I didn’t know you could do this – then you can by-pass the internet censorship here.  Without it you cannot access Facebook, Google and therefore gmail (I only get my gmail emails because they load directly onto my laptop – I cannot access gmail.com, which also means I am not receiving emails which gmail has identified as spam.) Hotmail and yahoo email addresses work fine. There are many websites which are blocked.  For example, I cannot ever access Beattie’s Book Blog.  Sometimes I can access stuff.co.nz and theage.com,  but often I can’t.

My name ‘Wong’ has been confused with ‘Wang’ (= king, in English).  Result – we end up with English language reports in the Chinese press where I am suddenly called Alison King! :


or here:  http://software.dianlake.com/20140907306323.html [Editor: You need to cancel out an advert on this one]

Shanghai Writing Programme website: http://www.shzuojia.com/zhuanti/2014writing/index.html

Anyway I need to pack and get to bed – it’s now after 1:30am my time – so will have to stop here for now. Hopefully I will write again with some pics before I leave here on 31 Oct and get back to Australia on 1 Nov.

Alison Wong

Editor’s note:  The above report is Alison’s personal take on her experiences in China.  These do not necessarily reflect the views of the NZCFS.