The best books about expats in China

The Books I Picked & Why

Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom

By Carl Crow

Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom

Why this book?

Arguably Chinese history’s most romanticized foreign resident, Carl Crow is a sort of Gatsby-esque expatriate hailing from glamorous 1920s Shanghai. The dapper ad agency magnate (who was behind those now-iconic “haipai” Chinese calendar girls), penned 16 books about China, most notably Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom. Rivaling The Great Gatsby in decadent cocktail parties, privileged bachelors on the prowl, and shameless colonialist classicism, Flowery focuses strictly on the ritzy lives of Shanghai’s Occidental aristocracy, with only a passing mention of the people whose world they inhabit. To contemporary readers, it may come across as offensively unwoke, but as a historical account of that era’s high society expatriates, it is fascinating.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Manchu Decadence: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, Abridged and Unexpurgated

By Edmund Trelawny Backhouse

Manchu Decadence: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, Abridged and Unexpurgated

Why this book?

Decades before Carl Crow helped transform Old Shanghai into a playground for the Waspy rich, a young Brit named Edmund Backhouse was reveling in the brothels of Beijing. Backhouse first arrived in China in 1899, where he served as a linguist and, he claimed, as a consultant for the Manchu court (where he also claims to have bedded Empress Dowager Cixi). By night, however, Backhouse was prowling the filthy backstreets for lascivious same-sex encounters with the Chinese, which he chronicled in a secret diary that remained unpublished until 2011. Egregious and borderline pornographic, no China expat (not even Isham Cook, cited below) has ever come close to matching Backhouse’s salaciousness. Should be read in concert with Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking, who hypothesizes that Backhouse was nothing more than a charlatan with a vivid imagination.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet

By Graham Earnshaw

The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet

Why this book?

Graham Earnshaw, who has resided in the Middle Kingdom for the past 40+ years (longer than any other living expat here today), has also been casually strolling from Shanghai due west toward Tibet over the past two decades. Fluent in Mandarin, his spontaneous conversations with local peasants he has encountered along the way make The Great Walk a delightfully pleasant and profoundly insightful read. Published in 2010 by a small Hong Kong indie press and tragically overlooked by most Sinophiles, I can’t recommend this enough to anyone seeking an upbeat, unpretentious narrative of a foreigner drifting among the Chinese.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

And The City Swallowed Them

By Mara Hvistendahl

And The City Swallowed Them

Why this book?

There are several true-crime books about foreigners who have been killed whilst residing in China, notably Paul French’s Midnight in Peking (which should be read together with its dismissive detractor, A Death in Peking by Graeme Sheppard). Despite its brevity (only 60 pages), Mara Hvistendahl’s And The City Swallowed Them holds its own in the true-crime genre as a well-researched work of investigative journalism covering the stabbing of a Western female model working in Shanghai in 2008. Hvistendahl’s shocking expose focuses in equal parts on the seedier aspects of modern expat life, China’s marginalized peasant working class, and the country’s opaque justice system.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

By Isham Cook

The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

Why this book?

Decidedly contemporary China’s most provocative foreign writer, Isham Cook has spent the past decade in Beijing penning books about taboo subject matter that heretofore few expat authors have been willing to publicly reveal about their lives here. Specifically, prurience and libertine excess. I liken him as a reincarnated Edmund Backhouse with a hint of Henry Miller and a dash of de Sade. In his putative memoir The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai, Cook reimagines himself as an Asian woman in order to psychoanalyze his past relationships with Chinese girlfriends whom he tormented with polyamory. If nothing else, read this for its sheer audacity.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Random Book Lists