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Archive for the ‘Bookworms’ Category

Neocha: Finding Room for Debate

From Neocha

Not just a bookstore, not quite a library, more than a restaurant or bar: what exactly is the Beijing Bookworm? Its motto, “Eat, Drink, Read,” offers a straightforward set of principles, but even a quick stop by this legendary institution makes clear that it’s more than just a place to — in either sense — get lit. The Bookworm buzzes with intellectual energy, attracting novelists, academics, foreign correspondents, and book lovers of all stripes who come by to meet friends or hear a talk by a scholar passing through. It’s the center, or one of the centers, of English-language cultural life in China’s capital, and throughout the year, its lectures, concerts, and children’s story hours draw expats and locals alike.

Without a doubt, the highlight of all this activity is the annual Bookworm Literary Festival, which this March wrapped up its twelfth year. Every spring, speakers come from around the world to talk about literature, politics, current affairs, technology, business, art, and anything else people write books about. Highlights from this edition included Kai-Fu Lee on AI, Leta Hong-Fincher on gender equality, and Helen Zia on Shanghai on the eve of the Communist revolution. Spittoon, a literary collective, organized a series of sessions on Chinese literature, featuring poets and fiction writers reading excerpts of their work while their translators discussed the challenges of bringing the texts into English.

    

The Bookworm first opened its doors in 2005, but its origins go back a few years further, to a sort of informal lending library that Alexandra Pearson, a British woman living in Beijing, slowly amassed as departing friends from abroad gave her the books they couldn’t ship home. Pearson also organized talks by experts on various topics at Le Petit Gourmand, the French restaurant she helped run in Sanlitun, Beijing’s embassy and nightlife district. But when her library outgrew her apartment, and the restaurant had to close to make way for the Taikoo Li mall, some of her friends suggested she give her titles a permanent home — a place for eating, drinking, reading, and above all for talking about anything and everything related to China.

    

That home, in a second-story space amid a clutch of international bars and restaurants in Sanlitun, consists of a café area with a full menu and eight beers on tap, an event space off to the side, and a small bookstore in the back, with a rooftop terrace up above overlooking the neighboring buildings. The walls are lined in books, but most of them aren’t for sale: the Bookworm still runs a library, with over 20,000 titles for a few hundred members. “A lot of storytellers, a lot of intellectuals, a lot of people who have a relationship to books, and to Beijing, come here looking for a place to call home,” says Karen Tong, who manages the Bookworm’s events. “It’s fun, it’s chill, and it’s a bit retro.” Pearson moved away several years ago, and now two of the other original investors, Peter Goff and David Cantalupo, run the space and the festival.

    
Karen Tong, David Cantalupo

Peter Goff

Since 2007, the Bookworm has put on a festival every year except one: in 2017 the sponsorship fell through, and the organizers decided to take a much-needed break. It fluctuates in size, and they chose to keep the 2019 edition manageable — and even so, it spanned two weeks. “The festival remains extremely influential and popular,” says Cantalupo. “We’ve never had a big corporate sponsor, so we’ve always run it on a shoestring.”

What’s surprising is how fearlessly the organizers take on sensitive topics, from state-sponsored sexism to telecom troubles to the trade war with the US. The speakers come from China and around the world, and they don’t pull any punches. All this makes the Bookworm and its festival something fragile and unique — a space for a vigorous exchange of ideas in a city (and a country) where open debate is regarded with suspicion.

At the kickoff party, beer and wine flow freely while speakers, organizers, and volunteers meet and mingle. Someone hammers out Beatles songs on an old piano in the corner. After a few plates of appetizers have made the rounds, Goff, the festival director, quiets the music to say a few words to the people gathered around. He thanks everyone for their work, and takes time to remember the two panelists from last year who are now in detention. It’s an unsettling reminder of the political atmosphere outside. Maybe it’s the two boozy beers on a mostly empty stomach, but I feel a flush of admiration welling up for the people that put this on, at no small risk to themselves.

Two days later, at the end of a session on Huawei, the audience files out of the event room, continuing the debate over drinks. Are criticisms of the company justifiable? Is its defense convincing? The Bookworm isn’t just a place to hear about current affairs, it’s a place to take part and weigh in. A half hour later the next panel begins, and once again it’s standing-room only. This time the topic is whether gender equality in China is deteriorating, and the speakers include some of the country’s most prominent feminist activists. Foreigners living in China quickly learn to avoid discussing anything controversial, and hearing people take on such sensitive topics before such a large audience comes as a shock.

    

How do they manage to tackle such ticklish subjects? Partly it’s because, after so many years, the festival has become a fixture on the city’s cultural landscape. “We’ve been an important part of the international cultural scene here, so that gives us a little protection,” says Cantalupo. Sponsorship from several embassies helps — Ireland, Australia, and France supported this year’s event (though financial backing came mainly from a handful of international schools). Another reason is the tenacity of the owners, Goff in particular, who, in the face of subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, has continued to invite speakers on even the most controversial subjects.

Most of all, though, the festival talks are held in English. That’s both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it insulates the event from censorship, since the authorities care more about what’s said in Chinese, yet on the other it insulates it from local interlocutors. In the audience and on the speaker’s dais, China watchers outnumber the Chinese. As a result, the festival’s reach is limited: foreigners and the Beijingers comfortable enough with English to listen to a debate. The price of open discussion is keeping it confined to a niche public.

In the decade and a half since the Bookworm opened its doors, the surrounding Sanlitun area has been torn down and rebuilt. Shops and apartment blocks have given way to sprawling retail complexes, and the whole area feels less like a neighborhood than a collection of international malls. Just a few yards away from the Bookworm, the Intercontinental Hotel towers above, a purple light show dancing across its honeycomb façade like a screensaver.

China has changed, too: as the economy has quintupled in size over the past 15 years, and along the way the country has become far more closely linked to the rest of the world, even as its political atmosphere has grown more tightly controlled — or more “harmonious,” to use a local euphemism. The Bookworm’s survival feels almost miraculous. How much longer can it continue to put on this festival? Cantalupo speculates that for now, at least, city officials see it in their interest to tolerate the event. “On the one hand, there’s some trepidation that some topics are sensitive. On the other, they want Beijing to be seen as an open and international destination.” As a space for discussion and exchange, the Bookworm occupies an ever more vital, but ever more precarious space. It’s one of the places where China meets the world — to eat, drink, read, and talk. That’s something to raise a glass to.

WeChat: BeijingBookworm
Websitebeijingbookworm.com

Contributor: Allen Young
Photographer: David Yen

New Membership Rewards

Now there are even more reasons to become a members of The Bookworm. Members will now receive 10% off all food and drink orders. You will need to present your membership card to take advantage of this deal. The discount is non-transferable and can not be used with another discount. For information on becoming a member of The Bookworm, email us or stop by The Bookworm to apply.

Summer Reading Recommendations

For our second round of summer reading recommendations, Kristen Lum of lumdimsum.com.
Kristen is:
Currently reading-
The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformedby Michael MeyerNext Up-
  • Born to Run, A Hidden Tribe – Superathletes & the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (as inspiration for my half marathon run in Inner Mongolia)
  • Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart (2nd of 4 books)
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
  • Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Danny Penman
A little ambitious and quite a lot to keep me a busy bookworm this summer.

Ian Johnson on Yu Hua and Chinese Literaure

Yu Hua at BLF 2012

In the October issue of the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson (Wild Grass, Chinese Characters) profiles fellow Bookworm Literary Festival participant Yu Hua (Brothers, To Live, China in Ten Words). After spending some time with the author in Yu’s hometown Hangzhou, Johnson muses that “[Yu’s] bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too.”

During a “boozy lunch where the head of the local writer’s association ogled the legs of the deputy head of propaganda, while a paunchy singer for the People’s Liberation Army showed off a ‘talented young lady’ he had taken under his wing,” Yu Hua “treated the local notables to jokes, innuendos about corruption, and the failings of the Communist Party” and reduces one official whimpering: “We’re neighbors, we’re neighbors. Ha-ha. He’s joking.”

Johnson notes that “Yu’s career shows how these political and literary issues are linked. While in Hangzhou, Yu and I had a chance to talk about literature and politics, and what struck me most was a comment he made on criticism. What China most lacked, he said, was publications that would help create great literature: the journals, reviews, and magazines where young writers can get a start and receive honest criticism. In China, literary journals are either politicized or open to bidding, with favorable reviews bought by authors or their publishers. This isn’t to say that all criticism in China is corrupted, but much of it is, stifling the honest give-and-take that might encourage the creation of genuinely superior work.”

Read the rest of the piece here.

Between the Stacks: Vicky Mohieddeen from Electric Shadows

Electric Shadows Film Club presents: I ain’t afraid of no ghost!
Saturday, October 29 8pm 

Just in time for Halloween, Electric Shadows brings a special film club screening of Ghostbusters and Michael Jackson’s epic Thriller. Drinks specials for all those in costume.

We’ve paired up with Electric Shadows for some of our most memorable events – including our open air screenings last summer. We caught up Electric Shadows’ founder Vicky Mohieddeen to find out what to expect from her latest adventure in film and sound.

What is the Electric Shadows? What do you do? Who are the members? What kind of crowd does it usually attract?

Electric Shadows is a non profit organization helping to shape the evolution of public cinema inChinaby programming beautiful film events and expanding the cinema into galleries, rooftops, deserts and discos。We host a variety of events inBeijingand beyond, including a short film showcase on the first Sunday of every month, practical experimental film workshops and an amorphous film club. Our audience varies with the different events we run which have ranged from avant-garde films for toddlers to open air bike-in screenings of classic films to a very debauched Rocky Horror night at The Bookworm!

Who are you? How long have you been living inBeijing? What’s your impression of the city, people and life here?

I am a Scottish filmmaker and programmer, I’ve been living inBeijingsince Sep 2008, and Electric Shadows was born very early on as a reaction to the lack of conceptual, interactive experimental film screenings around town. Beijing is a fairly fickle mistress, one day the sun will be shining, my neighbours will help me cart cameras and tripods up 6 flights of stairs, the place will be teeming with potential, adventure and possibility – the next the smog will descend, I’ll be almost run over in the street and have ‘laowai’ spat at me by locals, I won’t understand a damned word people are saying and fail to grasp how things work in this town. Like the girl, with the curl, in the middle of her forehead – whenBeijingis good, she’s very very good, and when she’s bad, she’s wicked.

Talk about the film you are about to play at The Bookworm. Why did you pick it? Are you going to come with a special costume? How do you usually celebrate Halloween?

Our Halloween event this year is I AIN’T AFRAID OF NO GHOST! an 80s film celebration – we’ll be showing Ghostbusters and the full version of the Thriller music video – we wanted to go for something fun this year, and lets face it Ghostbusters is a great film. We’re having an MJ-OFF where budding Michael Jackson impersonators can strut their stuff for the chance to win some MJ-goodies, there will also be a costume comp and if anyone can dance their way through the Thriller vid they’ll be rewarded 🙂 I’m pretty sure I’m going to be coming as one of the characters from Ghostbusters – there’s a pretty obvious one but who knows I may have a flash of inspiration and go for the ‘most creative interpretation’ prize by coming as the two streams crossing 😉 Before moving to Beijing I never used to really get into Halloween but this will be my third at The Bookworm – I was a part of the now infamous murder mystery (which almost ended in a real murder – mine) and then last year’s, shall we say unforgettable, Rocky Horror Picture Show. I don’t know what it is about those Bookworm types, but I’m yet to experience a Halloween event that didn’t end in complete and utter chaos… it’s always the quiet ones…

The Bookworm Download Map

Building 4, Nan Sanlitun Road,

Chaoyang District, Beijing

100027, P.R China

Telephone Bar: (010) 6586 9507

Telephone Bookstore: (010) 6503 2050

Web: http://beijingbookworm.com

WeChat @BeijingBookworm

Weibo @北京老书虫Bookworm