I’ve been to lots of small literary festivals in my time, but I’ve never been to a small literary festival in China.
To get to Suzhou takes just over an hour by plane from Beijing to Shanghai, then 25 minutes by train or an hour and a half if your taxi is being directed by the English principal of a local school whose Mandarin (by his own admission) is slightly substandard. Luckily, he was very good company and we arrived late but cheerful.
Suzhou is one of China’s ‘second cities’ – with a mere six million people. Known as “the Venice of China”, it’s really nothing at all like Venice, though has lots of canals and the street food is delicious. It’s an ancient city, a silk trading town dating back two and a half thousand years with a picturesque city centre that (unusually for China) hasn’t been smashed to bits to make way for modernity. Which makes it almost possible to ignore the massive highrises surrounding the city.
After Beijing, it felt like a small town, but it’s only one million people short of London.
And then to the Suzhou Bookworm: a wi-fi café, restaurant, bar, music venue, lending library, ex-pat’s club and gathering place for locals. Oh. And a bookshop. It opens early in the morning and is buzzing with people till….early in the morning. I never actually saw it closed. It’s housed in an old wooden building on a canal, with pierced windows so the light inside is beautiful. It has wonderful feng shui, whatever feng shui is — a kind of aesthetic perfection, like the bookshop of your dreams.
The literary festival is run by a handsome young French Algerian/Moroccan expat named Alexis Lefranc. He grew up in Paris and London, speaks French, Mandarin, English, ‘good enough’ Russian and probably six or seven other languages he’s too modest to mention, seems to have lived in most of the world’s cities (including Moscow), and appears to know everything about Chinese history and economics. In his spare time he organises one hell of a book festival. Ben, the bookshop manager and chef, last lived in Lambeth and Bethnal Green in London. He looks about twenty-two, works 26 hours a day nine days a week and makes his owns cakes. Which are delicious.
While trying to get google-mail to function, I stumbled into some excellent lectures — one on early Chinese film, another on blogging and reporting from China. But a person could just sit with a beer or a coffee and listen to Alexis and Ben talk about China more or less forever.
Why doesn’t London have anything like this? Why aren’t our bookshops more fun?