Cover Stories: The Book Gets a Look

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When it comes to the PRC, even the most innocuous choices—say, a book cover for a city guide—can turn into frustration. The audience for this Shanghai guidebook is primarily made up of expats. But anything that goes into China, even briefly, even if it will leave China once again, must adhere to Chinese rules. Expats living in China understand Chinese censorship—so why was I feeling just a little hurt when the book’s first cover was rejected by a Chinese distributor? It turned out just fine in the end—I like the glitzy combination of old and new buildings in this final cover photo. Perhaps it was because the first photo was taken by someone I know: Iman Syah shot the original cover photo from a spot inside the Shanghai Tower—he captured a group of people (who, no doubt, paid for this honor) sitting on the outside ledge of the Jin Ma Tower, feet dangling over the edge as if they were casually sitting on a dock at a lake. The iconic Pearl Tower looks on from the rear, like a giant robot head (or a manga puppy). The photo will still get a place inside the book, but as a cover shot, it captured the spirit of contemporary Shanghai beautifully. Quirky. Adventurous. Boundary pushing. It was not quite the spirit of Shanghai that official China likes to project: More bling, they say. Less sting.

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Photo by Iman Syah. This one shows the group walking along the edge.

This is a Shanghai guidebook with a smattering of personal memoir—part of the larger Culture Shock family of travel guides written by expats who have lived in the cities and countries they write about. The best of the good news is that it appears the publisher is willing to do what so many publishers must these days: produce an edition that can be sold inside China—no mention of the Cultural Revolution or life for gay expats—and a global edition for the rest of the free world. I felt more affection for Shanghai—call it passion, even—than I expected to feel during the writing process—a good thing, that. But three solid cheers for publisher Marshall Cavendish—allowing China to control what the Chinese read is one thing. Allowing them to control what the rest of the world reads is quite another.
Pudong at Night

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