In a Taipei, Taiwan, radio studio, the host, who I’ve been told is a serious interviewer when it comes to books, begins: “Meyer. A Jewish name!”
“Sometimes,” I reply. “Not in my case.”
“And you’re from Minnesota!”
“The Bible Belt!”
In Beijing, where I sit for seven hours each day, meeting journalists one by one, a reporter asks, “What difficulties does a foreign writer face in China?” Answering this question again, I want to respond. “What can China learn from America’s destruction of historic neighborhoods?” Due process, I think. “Is there any time you want to leave China?” Happy to be here, I smile for the camera.
I’m nearing the end of a three-week promotional tour for the Chinese edition of my book The Last Days of Old Beijing, which details the three years I lived just south of Tiananmen Square in Dazhalan, the capital’s oldest neighborhood of hutong, the narrow lanes that lattice Beijing like canals do in Venice. With several locals, I had shared a dilapidated courtyard home—sans toilet and heat—recording both quotidian community doings and the largest, looming in the near future: the neighborhood’s destruction as the capital remade itself.
The English edition came out five years ago, but in China it was rumored to be banned not for its depiction of the sensitive subject matter of heritage preservation and relocation of residents, but because the introductory map of China shaded the island of Taiwan a different color than the mainland. I’ll never know for sure; writers don’t receive an explanatory letter on General of Administration of Press and Publication letterhead. In 2008, in Berkeley, Calif., at my first-ever radio interview for the English edition, I found myself seated next to the affable Salman Rushdie. After hearing I lived in China, he replied that all of his books were banned there. “Mine, too!” I boasted, with brash bonhomie. Banned brothers!
Not anymore. Last year, the book went to auction in China, resulting in both Taiwan and mainland editions. The differences between them are slight but telling: The cover of Taiwan’s is a warning-bright red with the image of a courtyard about to bite the dust, under the headline moniker The Disappearance of Old Beijing. The mainland’s cover is a warm blue image of a three-wheel bicycle against the backdrop of a construction site and the more wistful See You Again, Old Beijing. Place the books side-by-side: pessimism and optimism.
This simultaneous release and tour on both sides of the strait is unprecedented. One of the first questions Taiwanese and Hong Konger journalists and audiences ask is: “What was cut from the mainland edition?” Surprisingly, that’s also one of the first questions mainland journalists and audiences ask. Also surprisingly: Very little was cut. Of the book’s 400 pages, less than one page was excised: the artist Ai Weiwei cursing Beijing’s leaders (though not a paragraph noting how he distanced himself from the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium as a piece of propaganda). An entry from the neighborhood’s official gazetteer noting the local government office’s actions at the climax of 1989’s demonstrations centered at Tiananmen Square. Funniest was a pair of text messages sent by an American architect at a municipal planning meeting, noting the presence of a teenage mistress noisily sucking a lollipop on the arm of a middle-aged man. The follow-up text read: “Update: man is the mayor.” Gone.
Of course, an author being published in China does not know why something is cut or by whom. Your manuscript comes back with the changes, take it or leave it—and some authors have opted out, notably Peter Hessler with Oracle Bones, though his other books have been translated into Chinese with cuts similar to mine. Even these minor cuts felt major at the time—since mollified by readers’ responses to the content that remained. Better 400 pages of book than no book at all. In China, you take what you can get.