Nicole Mones [Photograph by Owen Carey]
Nicole Mones is a fiction writer and food journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon. She owned and ran a textile business in China for 17 years before the publication of her first novel, the bestseller Lost in Translation (which has no relation to the Bill Murray-Scarlett Johannson movie). Her new book is The Last Chinese Chef.
- What’s the new book about, what happens in it?
- Each of my novels picks some area of Chinese civilization and sends a valentine to it. My first novel had a backdrop of archaeology, and also interracial love. And my second novel [A Cup of Light] was about Chinese art history, especially the history of porcelain and the world today around high-end porcelain – smugglers and appraisers and dealers and collectors and stuff like that. And this novel is about Chinese food. So through the meeting of an American food writer and a half-Jewish, half-Chinese grandson of the last imperial chef, it tries to encapsulate the philosophy, the whole culture of Chinese gastronomy, which is something quite elegant and quite aesthetically highly valued in Chinese civilization.
- I know food is hot right now – we have the Food Network – but believe me, in Western civilization we have never elevated cuisine historically to the level of art, to which it’s been elevated in China. But through learning about Chinese food, and through her encounters with this man and his family, and his effort to compete in an Olympics of cuisine, in the 2008 games, she learns about life.
- What was the toughest challenge you faced in writing it?
- The toughest thing to make it work was bringing the story up to the level of the erudite knowledge I had amassed on Chinese gastronomy and cuisine. And honestly, did I a thousand percent accomplish that? No, I still think that the tapestry of Chinese cuisine and gastronomy exceeds the level of the story. That’s the flaw of this book: the story isn’t quite up to the level of the knowledge base. I know I’m not supposed to say that; I’m supposed to say it’s all brilliant, but honestly that’s what I think. The level of the story is good, but the world of Chinese cuisine that’s portrayed is great
- How did you end up in China?
- I ended up in China by moving to the West Coast after university, and with the perspective that a general degree in history gives you. Looking across the Pacific and realizing in 1976 that there was a giant sleeping country which was soon going to stumble to its feet. And it seemed very clear to me that because Mao Tse-Tung had just died, Chou En-Lai had died a few months previously, the Cultural Revolution was coming to an end, it seemed like China was now going to change. And so, as a young woman who had no money, no corporate connections, no knowledge of business, no knowledge of China, Chinese language, culture, anything, I thought, well, I have one thing. I have this insight that that’s the place where things are going to happen. I’m not saying that I was the only one to see it, but I did bet my career on it.
- How did you find the courage to say, I’m going to China and I’m gonna be a businesswoman. That seems—
- I can’t say it wasn’t scary. There were times when I was in my mid twenties when I would lie awake sweating in the middle of the night because I had goods at sea, and I was out $10,000 or $15,000 – which to me, that was a million dollars back then! The money was owed to a bank, and I would lie awake in the middle of the nights: “What if the ship sinks? What if the goods are pilfered?” You know, what if this happens, what if – and yes, those things are scary, especially for a young woman doing it essentially alone.
- But remember, China wasn’t the wild wild East then, that it is now. Now it’s like a cross between, oh, Dodge City and Dickensian London. Anything and everything goes. And you’ve really got to have good relationships and keep your eye on your back all the time, to do business there. But when I started working there, I arrived just six weeks after the Cultural Revolution ended, and I was essentially doing business with a bureaucracy. Which was in some ways easier. If you learn the rules and the proclivities of that bureaucracy, you can deal with them. And what made me able to succeed is not that I’m a good businesswoman – ’cause I was only a mediocre businesswoman – but that I was willing to step out a little bit of my American self and look at how they did business, how the bureaucracy in China did business, and this was something I observed not many Western business people (who at that time were almost all men) were willing to do.
- The key element in learning to do that was learning the language. Which required going back to school at night, for eight years. Only then, when I could overhear them, not only hear what they said to me in their own way of ordering their thoughts and their conceptual approach to all cognitive knowledge, but also being able to hear how people spoke with each other. How they interacted with each other. That was what gave me the ability to make a deal and make it stick. And to forge relationships that lasted almost two decades with people that, no matter what happened – and there was once when the goods were pilfered, and an entire shipment was lost; it was after I had been in business for about ten years, but because I had such a well established, mutually respectful relationship with the textile mill in question, we were able to work it out so that neither I nor my client lost a penny.
- How did you get to start writing for Gourmet magazine?
- I started doing that in 1999. It came to me like a bolt out of the blue. There was a bookstore in San Francisco called A Clean, Well Lighted Place for Books, and the owner, Neal Sofman, had this tradition that if you were an author and you gave a reading in his store, he would invite you to choose as a gift any book in his store. A week or two before I came to his store, he told me, Ruth Reichl was on a book tour for Tender at the Bone, and when he offered her her choice of any book in the store, she took Lost in Translation. Maybe six months later, an editor at Gourmet contacted my publisher, saying “Ruth Reichl read Lost in Translation and would like Nicole Mones to write restaurant reviews in China.” I was like, are you kidding? I contacted the editor at Gourmet and said, “I’m not sure if you know, and it’s very nice of you to ask me this, but I’m not a food critic and I’ve never written restaurant reviews.” And Ruth Reichl’s response was, no, I’ve read your book—you can do this. One of the things she wanted to do with the magazine was to take it away from being so Euro-centric in its food coverage and do more pieces that were stronger in the travel element.
She has been consistently receptive to any idea I had, even if it was completely unlike what a food magazine had ever published. For instance, after a basic survey of restaurants in Shanghai, I said, you know, if you want me to do something about Beijing, what would be really interesting and nobody’s ever written about it before, would be to explore the sub-culture of nostalgia in restaurants. Here’s a city that’s modernizing so fast, that it’s leaving many people quite discombobulated: alienation, adjusting to such rapid changes of infrastructure, neighborhoods torn down overnight, new buildings tossed up. It gave rise to this environment in the late ’90s when all these restaurants in Beijing were catering to people’s nostalgia for vanished times. One was actually a Neolithic restaurant with cave art, and there were several Imperial restaurants.
- The most shocking thing to the Western mind were a raft of Cultural Revolution restaurants, where people who made good money and had cars and cell phones and top jobs would come in to eat on rough benches, at plank tables, and they would dine on dishes like insects and tree leaves – food of privation. I think it was brilliant marketing because there was a generation that was growing older and was somewhat fundamentalist: when you got into a conversation they’d say, “Yeah, it was bad, but it was a different kind of bad to us than the way you see it.” And if you press them on it, they say, “Maybe it was misguided, but we were living for something. It’s the only time in my life when I felt that I was striving for something greater than myself. And I’ve never had that satisfaction since, even though I make money.” These people whose idealism has been dispossessed by where modern society has gone want to spend good money to go to these places and relive a time when their character was forged by adversity. That’s not the kind of thing that food magazines usually run.
- Now, you do music, so I assume it’s occurred to you to do a love letter to Chinese music and opera.
- Ooh, David, the next novel is about the Chinese jazz age. I’ve never written an historical novel about China. It is really difficult to write about modern China, because it is changing so fast, and I have felt this . . . almost an intellectual commitment, almost a commitment of public education – that may sound weird, but I really mean it – to write about contemporary China, because just about no one in the West writes fiction based in contemporary China. China is changing so fast right now, when I’m writing a novel about modern China, I have to get over there at least twice a year, or it’ll get away from me. It is much easier to write about an historical period. It’s set in the past. I’m not saying that wasn’t just as multi-faceted a world, but here, in our time period, we have accepted a narrower vision about it.
- We think we understand it—
- —and there isn’t immediate evidence to contradict it.
- Yes. And so you can more easily capture it. One of the reasons Americans like to read fictions set in Asia is that we romanticize it. It’s similar to the romanticization of Native American cultures’ spiritual aspects. People ascribe a certain wisdom to the longevity of civilization there, and there’s a romantic attraction to it. The weird thing is, the films about China and the novels about China which are popular in China, and the films and novels about China which are popular in the West, are always a mutually exclusive group. Even if you take different works by the same artist. To name a few famous directors, we could go through the work of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, from the older school, and their movies which concerned gritty realities of the contemporary world, typically, were the ones that were big successes in China. Their movies which were romantic, gorgeous, historical epics like “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Farewell, My Concubine” – major hits in the West, flops in China. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” didn’t do well in China. Ha Jin and Amy Tan get translated into Chinese; they don’t do that well in China.
- The people that are doing really well in terms of writing narrative in China – people like Wang Shuo and Wei Hui – they write kind of alienated, louche, urban characters who are disaffected, they’re gambling, they’re up all night, they take drugs, they have a lot of casual sex, there’s violence. It’s the kind of thing that fascinated America in the 1950s when we were waking up from a long period of repression. And those novels get translated into English, and they don’t sell here. Nobody’s particularly interested in reading them.
- Do you think it’s more “we know that stuff, it’s old hat,” or we don’t want to hear it about China?
- I think it’s a little bit of both. If I had to place my bet, I’d put a greater emphasis on the first one. It’s old; we’ve been there and done that. We’ve read about people bein’ bad. You know? Henry Miller took us there already. And it’s nothing exciting to us. I think that part of the reason it’s exciting to them is because it’s the first time — well, in a long time, since the 1940s — that anyone has said it. That people had been living this life and that people were coming out and saying it. It’s tremendously exciting. We’re just learning about things like the Cultural Revolution through the works of Ha Jin and people like Anchee Min, that we should have known about, but we didn’t. If you ask people in China, “Why don’t you want to read the works of Ha Jin and Anchee Min?” they say, “Oh, that’s Wound Literature, that’s so Eighties! We’ve been there, I don’t know why you people are so interested in that!” Because in the 1980s, Chinese culture was awash in this psychological bloodletting, through culture. The Wound Arts, they called them – all these movies, operas, plays—
- Kind of their version of Holocaust literature.
- Exactly. And it was almost like, you know when you first go to therapy? The first thing you do is barf out all the bad stuff that happened. And then, once you’ve gotten it all out, you start sorting out what did I do wrong, what did they do wrong, how can I be better, how I live a better life, blah blah. And they did their bloodletting in the era of the Wound Arts. People were obsessed with the traumas they had been through, and because the leaders of the Cultural Revolution had been demonized instantly, and made into the Gang of Four and imprisoned etc., right after Mao died, it was okay, for the government. The government wanted these Wound Arts, they wanted it to be revised. Interestingly, they did not permit the same thing to happen with Tienanmen, and so that has festered.