Foreign writers enamored by city of Shanghai

Shanghai Writers’ Association plays host to authors from abroad who spend quality time in the city and head back home, inspired and enchanted. 

The Shanghai Writing Program is in its 10th year, and its organizer, Shanghai Writers’ Association, has played host to 69 writers from over 30 countries. Most of them were first-time visitors to China and stayed in touch with the association and local writers even after the program ended.

“We hope to bring in more writers from countries and regions that are relatively unknown so that we can introduce Shanghai to more writers who live in very different cultures,” says the association’s chairwoman Wang Anyi and one of the program’s founders.

The program has helped to dispel myths and stereotypes and in many cases turned out to be the opposite of what the writers had imagined it to be. 

This year, Swiss novelist and essayist Annette Hug, Spanish novelist, scriptwriter and journalist Vanessa Montfort and Bulgarian writer Vladimir Poleganov have been exploring the city for over a month and half and shared their experiences and thoughts with Shanghai Daily.

Foreign writers enamored by city of Shanghai
Ti Gong
Foreign writers enamored by city of Shanghai
Ti Gong

Annette Hug

Long before she got onto the plane, Hug enrolled for a class to learn Chinese — something she enjoys doing before visiting other countries.

“I much prefer having some work to do in a place rather than be a tourist,” she says. “With Chinese, I’m really just beginning, but it’s likely that I’ll come back again and again.”

The language skills, as well as tai chi that she learned in Switzerland, helped her considerably in her Shanghai adventure.

“The interaction with people in everyday life changes completely,” says Hug, who has published three novels.

“With Chinese, I have to re-train my ear in order to distinguish sounds," she adds. “And starting to learn the language forces me to reconsider my assumptions about how spoken language and writing are connected.”

Hug enjoys the philosophical adventure, and her favorite activity is to learn new characters, because “there is so much in them — like diving into a new way of getting some order into the world.”

It has also helped her communicate with locals, among whom she met many intriguing characters, including a retired elevator assistant who used to open elevator door for guests. The old man told her that he would cut out words and sentences from English newspapers and ask guests what they meant. He turned the elevator into a class room.

In Shanghai, she spends a lot of time in the elevators — living on the 18th floor and taking Chinese classes on the 20th. The experience has changed her impression and understanding of elevators as an instrument.

“The elevator is like a vertical train, a means of transport with people coming in and out, where I get to see different worlds on different floors,” she said.

It was also in Shanghai that she discovered a different form of Taichi from what she was used to back home.

“It is not just groups that are different,” she said. “Some people create their own personal routines according to their health needs. And I seem to see different personalities coming through in their movements. People seem to have fewer dogmas than I expected.”

Foreign writers enamored by city of Shanghai
Ti Gong
Foreign writers enamored by city of Shanghai
Ti Gong

"The Legend of the Voiceless Island"

Vanessa Montfort

Montfort came to Shanghai with a specific research subject in mind – the temples. She visited the Taoist and Buddhist temples in the city and in the suburbs.

“The research is for my next novel and it is about our beliefs about the new generation who will be living in big cities,” she explained. “It’s about whether we have a belief, if we care about our spiritual life and what is left in our way of life, if any, from the philosophies and religions that built our culture.”

She carried out the same research in other cities including New York, London and Madrid. In the novel, all characters come from different cultures with distinct ways of believing and understanding the world.

“In that sense, when I say believe, it even includes atheism,” she added. “I’m not only interested in religion but also in other kind of activities linked to culture and philosophies of life, for example.”

The Shanghai Writers' Association helped her to locate well-established Taoist masters to fulfill her curiosity, which turned out to be intriguing because it was so different from other religions or beliefs.

“I come from a continent, Europe, where for many years it was not ‘fashionable’ to believe,” she said. “We have become very practical and materialists. Now I feel there is a new wave of spirituality that has not to be with the long-established religions, but rather, trying to build something inside of us in a more individual way.”

She finds people craving to fill the emptiness, sometimes with a mix of other cultures, such as the popularity of Buddhism in the West.

Foreign writers enamored by city of Shanghai
Ti Gong
Foreign writers enamored by city of Shanghai
Ti Gong

"The Other Dream"

Vladimir Poleganov

A fantasy writer, Poleganov has never written about his physical adventures in any cities. Instead, he enclosed the emotional explorations and senses to be turned into literature. The city of Shanghai, somehow, has inspired him to try capture the physical explorations with words for the first time.

“It was the sheer vastness of the city — huge, and for someone staying for only two months like me, unknowable,” he said.

He explored the city by walking around, a total of over 300 kilometers since he arrived on September 1, according to the app on his phone.

“It was a new experience in new surroundings and I wanted to capture that, not as a travelogue or diary,” he added.

Inspired by his walking around the city, Poleganov got the idea for a new novel, for which every walk has been recorded in the outline.

“In a way, this city is the flesh of the story — events follow in streets and park alleys, circling lakes and going up skyscrapers,” he said.

Having attended a few writing programs before, he found the Shanghai program similar but also different — to have the unique experience to be on his own in a big city, to be exposed to an onslaught of stimuli and information at every step, which inevitably stirs and shakes his writing life in a new way.

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