As a university student in the American Midwestern, Derek Sandhaus had his eye set on filmmaking. When plans to enroll in graduate school in Berlin didn't pan out, he decided "on a complete whim" to move to Shanghai and teach English for a year.
Like many long-term foreign China residents, he soon realized that one year wasn't enough to experience China ("I don't know if 'falling in love' with it is the right word," Sandhaus explained. "Maybe, like how a fly gets stuck on fly paper, maybe that's more what happened"), but it was enough to convince him he needed to find another line of employment. Armed with encouragement from positive feedback to the occasional mass e-mails about his China adventures that he had sent out to friends and family, plus a degree in philosophy, a minor in German, and knowledge from "one introduction to Asian history class that covered China and Japan ... that was a requirement to graduate," Sandhaus set out looking for writing work. He found it in the form of writing historical tours of Shanghai. Eventually, Sandhaus landed a full-time position as chief editor at Earnshaw Books, where he edited Décadence Mandchoue and authored Tales of Old Hong Kong and Tales of Old Peking.
You had a relatively quick ascent to success in the China writing world. What's your secret?
I think a lot of people are trying to balance the idea of making more money with the idea of doing what they want to do, and I think those are two very different goals. So for me the concern has always been what will get me the next step on the ladder, not what will get more money in my pocket. I was at least a couple years into the process before I was making anything like I could have made being an English teacher. There's not a lot of money in it, but if you can stick with it, eventually the people who are just doing it because they want to be able to tell their friends they're a writer, those people drop out when they realize there's no money there, and then there's just the crazy assholes who are OK working for nothing. Like myself.
You're very prolific, publishing a book a year since 2009. Can you talk about your work process?
For the book that I'm currently working on, the average working day would involve outlining what I wanted to write, getting all my ducks in a row in terms of making sure I had all the research that I needed for that bit of writing at hand. And then maybe having lunch, I'd have a Chinese lesson somewhere in there, too, walk the dog, maybe. And then in the afternoon is when I'd do most of my writing. The general goal per day is one to two thousand words.
Obviously you can go on researching forever and always, so it's important to give yourself a date and say that's enough and if I miss something I miss something. I think if you're disciplined and if you don't have too many distractions, I think a book a year is not so crazy. If you can get the research down to half a year, and you can write a thousand words a day, which is not a small amount, but is not an unreasonable amount, say it's a 75,000 to 90,000-word book, you can do the writing in three or four months, and then a couple months to clean it up.
And I don't want to give the wrong impression—I've spent a lot of hours at my house, sitting around in my pajamas and looking at the 50th Internet article so that I don't have to write because I'm just not feeling it that particular day.
So what do you do on those days?
I generally read the articles on the Internet.
Do you think this book is going to seal your fate as "the baijiu guy?"
I just went up to Shanghai last week, and it seems like "the baijiu guy" was kind of how people were identifying me there. Which is great, because my last book is about gay sex—I love that book, Décadence Mandchoue—it's a really interesting book about the gay community in Beijing around the turn of the 20th century, but obviously alcohol is more accessible to people. But I think it gives people a bit of a mistaken impression about me that I'm really drunk all the time. I'm more interested in cultural/historical perspectives. I drink baijiu, but not all the time.
Do you think baijiu enhances the quality of life?
Depends on the day, doesn't it? I think it can. One thing about baijiu is that it's something that's not really frowned upon the way that maybe hard liquor is in the west. In a social setting, drinking baijiu and even getting completely shitfaced is totally OK. Drinking baijiu is a great way to get people to let their guard down and tell you about what they're actually thinking as opposed to what they think you want to hear about. It's a really great way to make friends.
But the act of drinking it itself?
I think there are a lot of aspects of it that are unusual to the foreign palate. The smell is a big hurdle that people need to get around because it just does not smell like things that we're used to putting in our body outside of China. However, one thing that I've found, drinking quite a bit of baijiu from all over the country, is that the taste is often not so bad. There are baijius in my liquor cabinet at home that I think are a fine drink to sip at out of a glass like you would any other hard liquor.
Most people outside of China are not used to drinking liquor that is as strong as baijiu—just the fiery sensation can be off-putting. It's also consumed in a very different way. I think most people like to drink their hard liquor in cocktails, and baijiu is not traditionally consumed in cocktails. [That said,] it does mix well, but you can't make the same cocktail that you would make with other spirits and just substitute baijiu because it has such a distinct flavor. A lot of these experimental cocktail bars in Beijing and Shanghai are starting to add cocktails that have baijiu to their menus.
Beyond that, alcohol plays such an essential role in Chinese life, and this is one aspect of Chinese culture that has been overlooked by just about everyone. Nobody talks about Chinese alcohol in the same way that they talk about tea or Chinese cuisine or dragon boats or pandas.
Do you think it's possible to be successful in business in China and not drink baijiu?
In terms of the business world, it really is quite essentially that you be able to drink quite a lot. However, I think this is changing a bit. [For instance,] I think a lot of people drive when they could have just as easily have taken a cab because the act of driving gets them out of this binge-drinking ritual. There's tremendous pressure to drink here, and that's pretty new in Chinese history. In the early Communist years baijiu was rationed so you wouldn't have been able to drink several bottles in one setting.
You relocated to Chengdu in fall 2011. Was that specifically for the baijiu?
No, I might mislead people a little bit on my blog in the idea that maybe I moved out to Chengdu because it's so important to the baijiu world, and Sichuan is the center of the baijiu world, so that was a lucky coincidence. The real reason I'm out here is because my wife is a diplomat and was posted to the consulate in Chengdu.
So you're here for a few more months. What's next?
Then we go back to [Washington,] D.C. for about nine months and then our next posting is in Buenos Aires. There's a few book ideas I'm looking at that are going back to Chinese history, but the book after that is definitely going to be about South America.
You've spoken at the Bookworm Literary Festivals in Beijing, Suzhou, and Chengdu. Any favorite talks?
I feel very honored to have had so many opportunities to bore audiences with my stories. I had a lot of fun last year because my topic was colonial decadence in old Beijing, and there's nothing more fun than just talking about vice for an hour. So I guess I'm going to be doing that again this year, with a different vice.
I like these events. It's good to know that your work connected with another human being, as sad as that sounds. It's good to know that another human being actually read the thing.
Does it bother you if people show up without having read your book?
I don't have that expectation of an audience. The one sentence that I hear writers say that puts me off more than anything is, "Well, you'll know this if you've read my book." I think it's kind of pompous to have an expectation that your words are so important that someone else should—must—have read them to have a complete knowledge of the world. A million books are published every year, so you have to be pretty selective with what you read. So I don't hold it against anyone who hasn't read my book. If I did, I would dislike most people I meet.
If they come to see my talk I'm going to do my best to entertain them for that hour. I'm not going to give a lot of long-winded self-indulgent references to my work and what they should know about it.
Derek Sandhaus speaks on China's drinking culture at the Bookworm International Literary Festival on Saturday, March 9, at 7:30 p.m. and as part of a panel on writing about China on Saturday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m. See calendar for more details. For more about his research and notes on baijiu culture, see 300 shots.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 62 ("year of the snake").
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