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Q & A With Authors of "Shenzhen: The Book"

Author Interview Shenzhen: The Book

ShenzhenParty.com just published a new guidebook about Shenzhen titled, Shezhen: The Book.

The project was a colossal effort by longtime Shenzhen residents Ted and Karen Rule. The book covers everything you'd want to know about traveling and living in Shenzhen.

To find out more about how the book was created we sat down with Karen and Ted to discover more about their writing process and their passion for Shenzhen.

When did you start travelling?

Karen: I sort of had an international upbringing. When I was ten years old, my father was posted to the Australian High Commission in London. Of course we went by ship, a six week trip through the islands of Indonesia, Ceylon, the Suez Canal, Italy and finally Southampton. From then on it was all downhill. My mother liked to travel. We drove through France to Spain and Portugal and then crossed America by train. This was the early sixties when all travel was luxury travel. In my early twenties I studied in Paris and Eurailed through all of Europe. In those days just before English became the international language, that meant speaking French. My first job was with the Australian Department of Trade where I specialised in the United Nations.

Ted: It was all a bit accidental. After graduation I didn’t really have any firm ideas about what to do so I joined the Australian Department of Trade. It happened that I was one of the first graduates that they had ever recruited who spoke Chinese, so, three weeks later, with a borrowed suitcase, I took the Boeing 707 to Hong Kong and then the Thai International Caravelle (does anybody know what a Caravelle is?) to Taipei where I started work in the Australian Embassy to China. After that there didn’t seem to be much choice. My life became one of travel.

When did you first visit Shenzhen other than just passing through on your way north?

You don’t understand. You didn’t just “pass through” Shenzhen on the way north. The seventies were the days of heavily guided travel to China. You were accompanied everywhere you went by a China Travel “guide”. There were no through connections from Hong Kong to anywhere in China. You caught the KCR to Lowu where you were one of never more than half a dozen people who were greeted by the pointy end of a PLA bayonet as you crossed the Lowu Bridge. And you stayed. You ate lunch. You “rested”. You wandered around looking at not very much. And then, eventually, a couple of hours later, you got on the train north.

After Shenzhen really started, I guess we really got into things in 1987. Ted was the director of Standard Chartered Asia, the Hong Kong merchant bank of the Standard Chartered group, and he was charged with getting market business in China. The problem was that there was no financial market, so he decided to make one. So three or four times a week he’d drive up to Sheung Shui, park, take the expensive last train leg to Lowu, and line up with the thousands.

What stands out most in your memory from that time?

Oh, the excitement, the constant movement, the buzz. Everybody was from somewhere else, everybody had an angle, everybody was prepared to discuss any possibility for making money. The whole city is still a building site, but you have to multiply that by multiples to get the feeling. Every time you crossed the border you got lost because in the two days before, everything had changed. The big building in town was the International Trade Centre, once you went past the City Government (now the Party HQ), there wasn’t a lot, there was nothing but factories in Huaqiang Bei and the China Merchants Bank Building stuck out like a lonely phallic symbol in the middle of paddy fields. The rest was mud. East Pacific Gardens where we lived was at that time a chicken farm.

What writers inspire you?

Karen: I’m a history buff. I love Andrew Roberts who writes histories of modern Britain. Anybody who writes for the UK Spectator is great too. There is a discipline of writing there. It’s witty, entertaining and readable. Readable is top of mind.

Ted: Orwell for utter clarity of expression. When I was younger I could deal with the obscure stuff at a certain level. Now I don’t bother. So I imagine you won’t be surprised that my favourite fiction writer is Raymond Chandler

How many countries have you visited?

Does Tasmania count as a separate country? Between us, seventy-six, mainly on business. Of course we include places like the Vatican City, Liechtenstein, Andorra and Monaco that you can miss if you sneeze while passing through. The real issue is that some of those countries no longer exist. Where is the Soviet Union nowadays. Or Czechoslovakia or West Germany?

shenzhen guidebook by Ted and Karen Rule

What got you started writing this book about Shenzhen?

We were living in Shenzhen and there was nothing written about it. No. there was half a page in Lonely Planet telling you about how terrible and dangerous it was and how you should avoid it. It took Lonely Planet decades to expand its treatment of China’s third largest city beyond a page. Twenty miles south, hundreds of travel books on Hong Kong, in Shenzhen nothing. We felt that this anomaly should be remedied. The other thing – it was sort of what China was becoming, a place where people lived what most people in the west would consider normal lives, driving cars, going to work, walking the dog. We thought this was worthy of recording.

What was it like to collaborate on the book? How did you divide the work?

Mars and Venus divided the labor. Venus does like to shop. She applied her not inconsiderable commercial skills to bringing this aspect of Shenzhen life to work. Mars may have issues with shopping – he recognises the necessity of keeping the bottle full but he fails to see it as an end in itself. So he stuck to history and politics. The real collaborative parts were when we both visited an event where something interesting was happening, and being Shenzhen this was a substantial part of our visits. We both did art galleries, beaches and day trips.

Needless to say, their girth proves that both Mars and Venus share an interest in food.

Besides, the intangible years of experience and "living" your research, how long did it take to finish the book once you both actually decided to author it and actually write?

We were like Noah’s flood. Once we had everything together, we sat down and worked for forty days and forty nights

Have you ever written a book previous to this one? If so what was it about, and did it help prepare you to complete your book about Shenzhen?

Not really. Karen has done lengthy academic theses and journalism, and Ted’s writing has been confined to magazine articles.

What was the hardest part about writing the book?

The hardest part about writing about Shenzhen is the widespread ignorance and prejudice in Hong Kong about anything that happens over the border. What? You’re writing about Shenzhen? Why? So dangerous! It was very, very difficult getting anybody interested in the idea. Hong Kong taxi drivers would drop you on the border, all the while expressing vehement opinions about Shenzhen, and then reveal that they had never been there. (Mind you Karen recalls that it wasn’t long ago that Hong Kong Island taxi drivers expressed similarly vehement opinions about Kowloon). Also just gathering information. There wasn’t any so you had to just wear out shoe leather. Official stuff in Chinese was basically useless, aimed at the Chinese market and ignorant of what foreigners might want or like.

Would either one of you be considered fluent in Mandarin? If so, how long did it take you to master the language and would it, isn't it, more challenging to travel in China if one doesn't speak the language?

Karen: It’s a brave person who claims fluency in Mandarin. However. Ted is more comfortable in Mandarin than in English. He started studying Chinese in 1966, has an honors degree and a Masters from the Australian National University. He has been speaking Chinese for longer than most people in the world. He has extensive experience in speaking to tradesmen about air conditioning and bar girls about whatever.

Ted: Karen learnt Mandarin in Beijing in 1975 because she had to. We had a household staff whose English was confined to “Giwe me more mohny” and Feeneesha go home”. This meant that when she returned to China, her vocabulary was entirely Stalinist and entirely out of date. She found that calling people “comrade” wasn’t necessarily the thing to do.

We suspect that you’re better off speaking the language travelling round China but actually in our youth we never had the option of not speaking it.

What books are you reading now?

Ted: Reading a biography of Sir Isaac Newton during his period as Master of the Mint. I suspect that his brilliant management of the currency is one of the reasons for the South Sea Bubble and that there may be a journal article in this. Just finished Paul Theroux’s Zona Verde, PT having turned into a sad bitter old man, but still readable. During 2014, I got addicted to Lawrence Sanders’s detective novels: he has several series but the one I like best is the McNally series about a feckless, horny private eye based in Palm Beach Florida.

Karen: Cables from Kabul by Sherard Cowper-Coles, a book on Afghanistan by a fromer British ambassador, The Menzies Era by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a history of AuStralian politics in the fifties and sixties, and Georges Simenon’s  Maigret series which has been re-released.

Outside of travel related books, what is the most memorable book you have ever read about China?

Ted: Hungry Ghosts Jasper Becker’s masterful study of the famine and Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones which we think was the book that first brought the realities of new China to a general public.

Karen: Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls. It’s kind of personal. She follows the daily lives of two factory girls in Dongguan and describes their ambitions and ideas and how the migrant worker actually sees the world. The book also details the massive social changes which China’s growth has caused and how people adapt.

What do you hope readers/travelers take away most from using your book as a launchpad to a deeper understand/relationship to Shenzhen in particular, and for many, to China in general?

We hope in a modest way that our book will give Shenzheners a human face. We hope to convey at least a little of the excitement that we have felt as part of Shenzhen for many years.

Anything specific you'd say about the book to a potential reader that would nudge them to from unsure I have time to read this, to I have to read this because....?

You can dip in and out and you’ll always find something new.

And we think and hope that there are at least ten full belly laughs in the book.

Are there any secret places you left out of the book to keep for yourselves because you don't want the places to be overrun with tourist?

We were very torn about telling people about the Shuibei Jewellery Street and a couple of the beaches would best be kept exclusively for us. However our favourite activity, walking in Lianhua Shan Gardens in the early mornings, is for all to experience.

Since you recently relocated to Australia, what do you miss most about Shenzhen when you are not here?

Karen: Angel’s handbag shop on the third floor of Luohu Commercial, Mr Cheng the tailor on the third floor, soft beef noodle soup and walking up Lianhua Shan in the early morning.

Ted: Not needing a car, being able to walk anywhere, tradesmen who you don’t need a mortgage to pay, the Topway call centre, Dafen and restaurants that deliver good noodles to your door for not very much.

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Get Shenzhen: The Book free sample chapters available here.

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The authors, Karen and Ted Rule, are true authorities on Shenzhen—they've known Shenzhen since before it was a city.

Ted and Karen first laid eyes on Shenzhen in 1971 when they took a taxi to the Lok Ma Chau police station in Hong Kong’s New Territories. Not much was here.

Karen was originally a historian by training and she immersed herself in the fascinating but little known history of the area. Ted expanded his already considerable waistline by sampling the culinary delights and sneakily recording them. And thus this book was born.

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