China Beat Archive


Date of this Version


Document Type



April 5, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright April 5, 2009 Jeff Wasserstrom. Used by permission.


Preface to the Interview (by Jeff Wasserstrom): When I was working on Global Shanghai, 1850-2010, I thought I was keeping up with the fiction as well as non-fiction that was being published about the city—at least things coming out in English and Chinese. Somehow, though, Bo Caldwell’s excellent 2001 Shanghai novel, The Distant Land of My Father, passed me by initially. I didn’t learn of it until the Pasadena Public Library invited me to give a public lecture on Shanghai’s past to provide background for an upcoming author’s visit. This would be part of their “One City, One Story” program, they said, for which the selected title was a writer’s first novel, which included scenes set in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s and Pasadena during that same time period.

I agreed to do the lecture, though I was nervous immediately after accepting the invitation, since my talk was supposed to build up excitement for a visit by Caldwell that would come soon afterwards, and I was worried that the novel wouldn’t engage me or wouldn’t appropriately capture the feel of a time and place I’d spent a long time studying. This had been just what had happened the last time I’d read a recent work of fiction set in Old Shanghai, Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans. Though I’d liked his Remains of the Day a great deal, I’d found Orphans, especially its surreal ending, disappointing, somehow off. Fortunately, my response to Distant Land was totally different: I found it absorbing, liking the matter of fact, memoir-like narrative tone and feeling that it did an excellent job at evoking the setting.

I was unable to attend Caldwell’s talk in Pasadena, but if I’d been there, I’d have asked questions like the following—which she has now been good enough to answer via e-mail