This piece was written for inclusion in the book “Unsavory Elements” edited by Tom Carter and published by Earnshaw Books in 2013 under the title “Playing In The Gray”. It tells the story of an early publishing venture in 1998.
I claim to be the first person ever to have played the kazoo on the Great Wall of China. I was also lead singer in China’’s best rock ‘’n’ roll band in the late 1970s and early ‘1980s; (it was the best because we were the ONLY rock ‘n’ roll band in China). And, for several weeks, I was publisher of the first independent English-language newspaper to be published in Shanghai since the Ccommunist takeover of the city in 1949. China provides me, as an outsider, with the opportunity to do so many things that would be impossible in what might be called “the real world.” That’s one of the things I like about it.
It was the mid-1990s, a time of huge change in China, and particularly Shanghai. There was a monumental opening underway, a new linkage between the formerly separate worlds of foreigners and Chinese in that city. The degree to which in those days Shanghai, and indeed the whole of China, was segregated is hard to understand now, but it was a stark gulf; Chinese people could not even enter the apartment building I lived in then without enduring a grilling from the guards at the gate.
I dropped into Shanghai’s heady vortex in late 1995 and immediately set up a website called Shanghai-ed. S, s, surely the first city portal website in the country in any any language, .i. You can see various incarnations of it by visiting the wonderful Wayback Machine on the Internet. It became the model for a number of various other ventures, including a failed dotcom website venture I set up with a number of friends called ChinaNow, which in turn launched the careers of many people but ultimately died in the dotcom crash of early 2001..
An entrepreneur named Kathleen Lau was running an English-language magazine in the southern city of Guangzhou called Clueless in Guangzhou. , presumably an oblique reference to a movie of that era, Sleepless in Seattle (Guangzhou was still widely called Canton in English at that time). Or perhaps a linkage between the hit movie of the time Clueless and the city of her birth. Whatever. Kathleen and an associate, Mark Kitto, visited Shanghai sometime in 1997 to look at setting up a monthly publication there,, and my partner, Tony Zhang, and I lunched with them to discuss some kind of cooperation with the Shanghai-ed website, but the discussion came to nothing. They were looking to do a monthly format similar to the Time Out listings and reviews magazine model. In fact, An American journalistA guy named Scott Savitt had pioneered the idea of grey- market, foreigner-run publications in China in the early 1990s with Beijing Scene, which ended up being closed mostly under pressure , as I remember it, from the tax bureau. Death and taxes.
My partner Tony Zhang and I were running a company that published the Shanghai-ed website , did website construction plus a number of other advertising and marketing activities. Operating in the interstices of cCommunist China society, and it was at once exhilarating and naturally uncertain. There were no rules. Or rather, there was only one rule: that nothing is allowed. But the corollary, which reveals the true genius of China’s love of the grey – in contrast to the black and white of the West – , is that :
everything is possible. Nothing is allowed but everything is possible. It’s just a matter of finding the right way of to explain what you’re doing.
After that lunch with Mark and Kathleen, Tony and I headed back to the office in a taxi.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think we should not let these Johnny-come-lately, fly-by-night arrivistes set up in our town without any competition,” I replied through a broad smile. Yet another adventure was about to begin.
We planned out our own publication, and after much discussion fixed on a name for it: Shanghai Buzz. We chose a weekly format, largely because I felt more comfortable with that given my news agency background (although it turned out to be an error). The first issue came out in early July of 1998, a week or so before Kathleen and Mark’s magazine, which was called Ish. Buzz was to last for seven issues before it was closed down by the authorities.
Sure, it was illegal. It had no publication license, its content was not reviewed by the Propaganda Bureau ahead of publication, and we had no right to print or distribute. But we did it anyway.
There were no rules, or rather there was only one rule, that nothing was allowed without approval. And yet, all is possible in China’s love of the grey areas, a stark contrast to the black and white parameters of the West. It’s just a matter of finding the right way of explaining what you’re doing.
The editor was an American girl named Erica Lewis who originally joined our company to work on content for the Shanghai-ed website. We all threw ourselves into the process as if the world was about to end. Producing a weekly publication , as anybody who has tried it knows, is both exciting and exhausting: . nNo sooner have you finished one issue than the next is bearing down upon you. We raced around Shanghai gathering information for articles and selling ad spaces along the way. The city was experiencing an explosion of new restaurants, nightclubs, exhibition spaces … , everything. In those far-off pre-iIInternet days, Shanghai’s foreign community of a mere 10,000 people or so, latched on immediately to such alternative publications, and both the Buzz and Ish gained market traction surprisingly quickly (there was another monthly publication in the market called Shanghai Talk which had been in existence for a few years, licensed out of Hong Kong with some semi-official connections).
“Hello Shanghai,” stated our launch editorial. “Welcome to the first issue of the Shanghai Buzz. It is central to this newspaper that we see Shanghai as being one of the world’s great cities. It was once the fifth largest and most powerful metropolis on the face of the Earth, and we believe it is destined to recover its position at the top of the table of urban rankings — sooner rather than later. The rate of change here has rarely ever been matched anywhere. If there’s any place which has a buzz to it. It’s Shanghai. Hence the name. Regardless of our place of birth, we at the Buzz all feel a great sense of belonging in Shanghai. We see this newspaper as being produced in Shanghai by people in Shanghai for people in Shanghai. This is the city of dreams. It always has been. This newspaper is one of our dreams.”
That sense of continuity with Shanghai’s past was important for us,. We were aware that we were not the first bunch of foreigners to publish a newspaper on the edges of Shanghai society. It had been done in the 19thth century, and also in during the city’s “golden age” of the 1930s, when Shanghai had also been a magnet for raffish foreigners such as us.
Every element of the process of producing Buzz was new and difficult, and of course, exciting. Erica and I made up the content as we went along. On top of the standard fare of restaurant reviews, fashion news and hotel information, we emphasized wherever possible the connections to Shanghai’s colorful past.
At the time, I used to channeled the musings of a woman of questionable repute named May-May, who considered herself to be the queen of Shanghai’s nightlife. Starting in 1996, she revealed excerpts from her diary on the Shanghai-ed website, commenting several times a week on the characters and developments in Shanghai’s demimonde.
Boys and girls!” she squealed in one typical report. “This is May-May with a special edition of my diary entitled for the occasion — the May-May Annual Shanghai Nightlife Work Report. Doesn’t that sound grand??!! It’s almost as if I have a job. Well, of course, I do my pets, although not in the sense that the word is usually used by all those poor people who get up somewhere between 7am and 8am every morning. My job is more of a mission. A calling, if you will. To sum it up in just a few words: I am the night nurse feeling the pulse of the city of Shanghai. Isn’t that a fabulous concept??!!! My uniform is somewhat briefer and more revealing than that of most night nurses, but the city doesn’t seem to mind.”
It was in effect a blog, before the word “blog” had been invented, and as soon as blogs WERE invented, May-May quite rightly stopped doing one. She was given a column in the Buzz, and I will take the opportunity of quoting from her statement in the first issue as it very accurately conveys the madness of the moment:
“May-May Comes Out!!!” shouted the headline on page 3 (May-May was much given to exclamation marks). “Boys and girls!!! This is so exciting!!!! Here I am, outside cyberspace for the first time, writing a weekly report on the developments in the ever-changing nightlife world of Shanghai for this new newspaper!! The Shanghai Buzz – what a cute name — it suggests a sting in the tale, which I am assured by the editors will be there. As you probably know, I have been writing a report on the nightlife of Shanghai for the lovely people at the Shanghai-ed website now for something close to two years, and I take my responsibilities very seriously. It’s not easy keeping up with the many changes to the World of the Night here in Shanghai, but I do my best. It feels like a mission, but someone has to document the extraordinary developments in the glittering underbelly of the city. And it might as well be me, my loves!!!
“Shanghai’s nightlife has changed so much in the past few years. Many people say the city is returning to its decadent past, but my Aunt Daisy, who was once arrested in an illegal gambling den in the International Settlement, says it’s nothing like it. But forget the tired old comparisons with the 1930s. And also the comparisons with the more recent past too. Shanghai 10 years ago had nothing that you could call “”nightlife”.” All I remember is gloomy, dusty tree-lined streets lit by dim lights, empty except for a lonely cyclist heading home. And that was 9pm!!! Is this the same city? It seems hard to believe. Bars and restaurants now open and close with dizzying speed. The size and sophistication of the nightspots we have on offer in Shanghai beats anything they have in Beijing. Maybe we don’’t have as many nightlife places here as in Hong Kong, but we make up for that with atmosphere and depth.” Just about every night, I am out making the rounds of the bars and restaurants, keeping up to date on the changes, and starting next issue, I’ll be giving you all the latest gossip. At least, all the gossip I dare to reveal!! I try to pass on as much juicy information as possible –a lot of what I hear is best left unsaid. But if you see me in a bar, do come over and say hello, and I’ll whisper a few scandalous tales into your ear!! Byeee!!!”
The name Buzz was in fact Tony’s idea and came basically from Shanghainese – the words for newspaper in the local language is pronounced “Baw-zi”, which is pretty close. Aunt Daisy was a wonderful old lady named Daisy Kwok, who was born in Australia in 1908 and moved to Shanghai in 1912 with her father who was setting up the Wing On Department Store. She stayed on in the city through all the intervening years, lived long enough to see the return of the foreigners and died in 1999.
For venues and marketing companies, the Buzz and Ish represented an entirely new channel for contacting the market, and it worked well. So well, in fact, that one state publication in Shanghai, the Shanghai Star, started to feel threatened. They presumably called their friendstapped into their guanxi within the Shanghai government’’s news and publications department, but, for a time, nothing happened for some time. This was , partly due to sheer puzzlement on the part of the Ccommunist officials, and partly due to a contretemps in progress at the time between the Shanghai propaganda authorities and the Beijing-controlled China Daily (, which was the publisher of the Star), both eager to control the only official English-language newspaper in the city. The city eventually solved the problem by founding the Shanghai Daily and getting all the Shanghai Shanghai staff from the Star staff to defect. A few years later the Shanghai Star faded away.
Design and printing of the Buzz was a real challenge. At the time, Macintosh computers and the software needed for page design and layout were much harder to find, and harder to use, than today. It was technically illegal for anybody in China to design a publication, let alone print it, without official Communist Party approval, but we managed to find a flexible Chinese individual named Vincent who ran a design studio in an old industrial building in the south of the city who was willing to take on the task in spite of the risks. In the end, after the newspaper was closed down, I understand he was ‘reprimanded’ by authorities for having worked with us.
Printing was another problem for the same reasons, but Tony, as he did with many problems, found a solution in the grey. We printed approximately 5,000 copies of the first issue, then 10,000 of all subsequent issues. The distribution was done largely by the staff, with bales of newspapers being dropped by taxi outside various bars and restaurants around town. At the time, there were no clear regulations with regard to such a publication and venues were generally eager to take them in for display, and customers were eager to read them. The entire print run of all issues disappeared almost instantly.
Tony arranged for us to run all our little businesses from an office nominally owned by a businessman from a village in Guangdong who had suddenly hit it very big making television sets (using a brand name that led consumers to mistakenly believe they were imported Japanese products). I had dinner with this man one night at the Portman Hotel and, to celebrate our newfound partnership, he ordered the very best champagne, poured glasses for myself and himself, toasted raucously, drained the champagne in one draught, then turned the delicate champagne glass upside down on top of his head.
Then one morning, the Shanghai Publications Bureau, which controls the licensing and distribution of all magazines and newspapers in the city, paid a visit to our office. I was not there, nor was Erica. But Tony was, as well as our advertising director, an American named Ron Glotzer, who hid in Tony’’s office.. No good could come from the officials seeing a foreigner in the office that day. Tony met with them in the conference room. The conversation went basically like this:
Publication Bureau: “You don’’t have license, you must stop publication.”
Tony: “Shanghai Talk and Ish don’t have licenses either.”
PB: “That may be true and we are checking into the situation of all publications.”
Tony: “If they continue to publish, why can’’t we?”
PB: “Anyway, you don’t have a license, so you must stop.”
Tony: “But the publication is aimed at the foreign community, contains nothing sensitive or political, and is purely a community service publication.”
PB: “We have no problems with the content of Buzz at all, it is simply a matter of the license. And another thing. We understand you have foreigners working on the publication. Is this true?”
Tony: “Well, we have a couple of foreigners who act as consultants, and we also have a couple of interns.”
. Push an issue into the Chinese gray, and it just meanders off course like a dud torpedo. The two key words there were “consultant” and “intern”. The potentially-explosive issue of employing foreigners was dropped and the officials left. Tony phoned me to pass on the news. His take was that this was negotiable, and that we would find a way round the problem.
And in a way, we did, but not using the name “Buzz.”
Due in large part to the non-confrontational way in which Tony dealt with the Publication Bureau, and the way in which the Buzz content never overstepped any sensitive lines, we were never fined for having published an illegal publication in China, although we had of course broken every relevant law. Being weekly, we had no time to figure out an alternative. Mark and Kathleen at Ish, with the extra flexibility of a monthly cycle, put out their next issue as an advertising supplement and finally figured out a way to find an official sponsor.
The Buzz was in many ways a mess, but it had a vibrancy that was undeniable. We had a ball producing it, and that sense of fun found its way into the newspaper. Plus, of course, it before: was . It was the first independent weekly English-language newspaper to be produced in Shanghai since the Communist takeover in 1949. What a blast.
While the venture failed spectacularly and suddenly, it led on to another venture which was a cooperation with an official publishing house in Beijing for the publication of a weekly news and weekly travel magazine in Shanghai. That project lasted almost a year, and again we ended up so profitable that it was in effect eased out of our grasp by our so-called partners who thought they could maintain revenues on the basis of awful content, and of course that did not work. It ended in a court case that both I and they won and lost in different ways. But that’s another story.