The Shanghai-Taipei connection

Life in China: Back-alley soy sauce factories and brand-new hospitals.

Published August 8, 2006 4:10PM (EDT)

Just now, going through my morning blog-roll, I read a "Letter From China" by New York Times correspondent Howard French and a blog posting from Taiwan by expat Michael Turton. Suddenly, I am reeling with cross-cultural homesickness.

French, back in Shanghai after a three-week vacation, is blown away by the new construction that has occurred in just that short time, but uses the emergence of brand-new buildings to launch a pithy recapitulation of the Big Question about China: Will a free, civil society emerge at the same speed as the new skyscrapers and hospitals? Millions of words have been written about this topic in the last decade. But like a master calligrapher who can suggest worlds of meaning and nuance with just a handful of slashing strokes of the brush, French cuts to the quick in a few hundred words.

I haven't been to Shanghai since 1991, but I have an odd feeling that when I finally do get back, I won't be surprised at the tremendous change in the city. My four years in Taiwan in the mid-'80s gave me a visceral understanding for how quickly and dynamically a Chinese society can move when firing on all cylinders. Reading missives from Shanghai always makes me nostalgic for the energy of mid-'80s Taipei, but that nostalgia was detonated into full-throat longing by Turton's essay, a republished version of a story previously featured on a now-defunct Web site.

"The Soy Sauce Factory" reeks with an authenticity expressive of life in Taiwan that rarely comes across in journalistic accounts or academic appraisals of the Taiwanese economic "miracle." It captures both the chaotic feel of street life and back alleys on la isla Formosa and the sense of constant, bewilderingly fast change. It's reporting as literature and/or anthropology: a take on life by someone who understands in the marrow of his bones what it means to be Taiwanese, even if he originally hails from a different land.

For me, it was a remarkable juxtaposition, this essay by a journalist at the top of his profession tackling one of the biggest questions in modern geopolitics, along with an amateur look by an English teacher in Taiwan that captures the smallest of details of daily life. Coming at you both high and low, Turton and French deliver the goods. Thanks to the blogosphere for bringing them to me.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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