The front cover of Tess Johnston’s memoir, Permanently Temporary.
Glamour Bar is buzzing by the time I take my seat at 2:55 p.m. for Tess Johnston’s Saturday session. Around me, people are talking about how excited they are to see Tess, wondering how Tess is, asking friends and acquaintances whether they’ve bought Tess’s new book. People are referring to Tess in personal terms, like she is a dear old friend they are just meeting up with over afternoon tea. And it’s no wonder it feels like everyone knows her: Tess Johnston is a Shanghai institution, a long-time resident of the city who needs no introduction for the crowds of fans gathered to hear her talk.
But just in case: Tess is originally from Virginia, although the idea of Virginia as “home” has faded after 45 years abroad, 33 of them working for the American Foreign Service: it was a job which turned into a way of life, which brought her to places such as Berlin, Saigon, New Delhi, Tehran, and of course, Shanghai, where she’s spent 28 years. Over the last quarter of a century, Tess has become an expert on old Shanghai, producing 25 books, including 15 on Western architecture and expat life in old China. Her brain is often picked by those interested in the vanishing buildings of Shanghai; she’s been documenting Shanghai architecture for so long that much of it no longer exists.
However, her session at SILF 2010 is not focused on her architectural research, but on herself and the wild, crazy life she led – to an extent.
The event promotes her memoir, Permanently Temporary: From Berlin to Shanghai in Half a Century, which her friend and fellow writer Lynn Pan warns us is “not a confessional, but is self-revealing in other ways.” The only section of the book which is somewhat ‘confessional’ is Tess’s recollection of “what it was like to be a female in Vietnam during the war”; Lynn points us to this section on page 73, where the reader is hilariously forewarned: “Readers who dislike ‘Chick Lit’ may want to skip the next several paragraphs.”
So “confessional” the book is not, although it remains an intimate, sensitive and funny memoir of life in the Foreign Service. Memoir, I say, not autobiography – those, Tess tells the audience, “are for famous people – and I am not.” Her modesty is endearing.
She begins the tale of her culturally schizophrenic life by reading from the opening chapter “Berlin.” This was her first posting as a diplomat, and she describes how she felt like a “clueless small-town Southern girl amazed to find herself in a war-ravaged city.” As she finishes recounting her experiences, the audience remains in respectful silence for several moments – long enough for Tess to quip, “By the way, let’s hold the thunderous applause till the end. Wouldn’t want it to spoil the mood.” We all erupt into laughter, and I marvel at the confident 80-year-old in front of me, many years and experiences removed from that clueless small-town girl.
Tess signing her book at the Shanghai International Literary Festival 2010.
Contrast her first international posting with one of her last, Shanghai. By then an experienced diplomat, she arrived in the city in 1981 to serve in the US Consulate General. Despite having had nine months of Chinese language training in the States before her China posting, Tess laughs about being tone deaf and terrible in the language, an inadequacy that perhaps turned into a plus as it actually helped her develop friendships with locals – when they heard her incredibly bad Chinese, she says, they realized she couldn’t be a spy as no spy would have been that badly trained. Her perfectly bilingual friend, on the other hand, had problems with suspicious locals. “Never underestimate the power of bad Chinese!”
Tess makes no pretense that she experienced the “real Shanghai” of that time – after all, she was a diplomat and had benefits unimaginable by local Chinese. However, she had numerous friendships with locals that she still treasures, and says that Shanghai, especially areas like the French Concession, retains a certain mystique that has been lost in most American cities.
“Everyone who comes here gets all misty-eyed,” she sighs. She has made this mystique her life’s work for the last 25 years, when she realized that no one was writing about the city’s magnificent buildings post-1949. She doesn’t blame the Chinese for being uninterested – “For 100 years it wasn’t their city,” she says. She knew it was up to a foreigner to record Shanghai’s old architecture, and she was at the right place at the right time.
Tess muses over never knowing where you’ll end up. After all, who knew Shanghai would be the right place for her? “Maybe it’s because of my age,” she says, “but I’ve never had a terribly bad experience.” She’s of course felt rudeness, but never any hostility. Falling victim to pickpocketing is your own fault, she says – “Those who allow themselves to be stolen from deserve to be stolen from!” she quotes. As a “goofy American,” she’s felt her neighbors’ protectiveness over her, and she appreciates that.
With so many expats complaining about Shanghai’s urban development and the Shanghainese, Tess’s talk was a heartfelt reminder that, despite Shanghai’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it social and urban metamorphosis, there are many things in the city that are to be treasured.
Whet your thirst for more literary talks? Check out the constantly updated schedule on the Shanghai International Literary Festival here and our ongoing coverage here