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Notes from ‘Molly Goes to Shanghai’

This is not something I’ve done before. Consider it the “special features” section on a DVD. I wanted to record some of my thoughts (and/or the shared thoughts between Amy and I) and learning experiences while working on the books. These posts include things we learned that are not shared in the books, as well as the thoughts behind the content we did share.

Shanghai Vibe

The city is busy, fast, modern, and perhaps a bit more worldly than the capital in Beijing. This mirrors the differences between New York City and Washington, D. C. here. One travel article I encountered said that taking the high-speed maglev train from the airport into the city was a perfect introduction to Shanghai because of the high speed. The words “fast” and “fashion” were the first used to describe the city when I interviewed our contributor.

The skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.
The skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.

She said that Shanghai men are immaculately dressed. Not in terms of social events, but for business. Tailored suits, precisely-manipulated hair, expensive imported shoes, a Shanghainese businessman spares no expense in terms of appearance. Well, there is likely a lot of competition in the world’s most populous city, so I can understand looking for an edge. Li, our contributor, did not talk about the fashion habits of Shanghai businesswomen.

There is a sense in the city that it is elite. It has long been a trading center. When Deng Xiaopeng instituted economic reforms in China (1978), many coastal cities were given some economic leeway. He left out Shanghai. This was in spite of the city’s status as a driver of the economy. In this, perhaps the city’s elitism worked against it. I recently read Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng and it gives the impression that the city was never quite tamed, at least in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party.

No matter, the reforms extended to Shanghai in 1992. Since then, the famous new skyline of the Pudong area of the city arose. More than a little of it was the result of investment from firms in Hong Kong and overseas. As the buildings grew, so did the population.


Another important piece of the “elite” self-image is language. In China there are, in the main, two languages: Mandarin and Cantonese. There are also a number of other forms of the language and Molly Goes to Shanghai Calligraphy Smallthey share aspects of one of these. Wu Chinese shares the same characters (spelling) as Mandarin, but the pronunciation is different. Shanghai has its own dialect of Wu that is called Shanghainese.

I have contradictory information about Shanghainese. The thoughts shared, at the same time, is that a Mandarin speaker cannot understand a Shanghainese speaker, but they speak the same language. This is true, from what I’ve learned, with many phrases. The differences are in pronunciation. However, Shanghainese is more expressive than Mandarin. That is, it has a larger vocabulary so the language is more descriptive. This means a Mandarin speaker would not recognize at least some words, possibly many. A Shanghai native could write down something the Mandarin speaker understood, but then say it aloud and be incomprehensible.


Shanghai is open to the ocean via the Yangtze River. It is the longest river in Asia and third longest in the world. As such, Shanghai is not only open to the ocean, but also to the interior. It’s important to note, for geography quiz purposes, that the city is not actually located on the banks of the Yangtze, but on its last major tributary (the Huangpu) before it empties into the East China Sea.

It is also roughly located in the middle of the two dominant cultures of China. We’re painting with a broad brush here, but there are, essentially, two major cultures within China, the North and the South. Some commentators say Shanghai is its own culture somewhere between and I am inclined to agree. Anyway, because of all these factors, geographical and cultural, Shanghai is at the center of things. This is also true politically as Shanghai politicians often have significant influence on national politics.


These are a few of the things I learned while researching Molly Goes to Shanghai. It is a privilege to learn so much while working. It makes it fun. Thanks for reading!

Molly Goes to Shanghai!

Cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. This is Yuyuan Garden.
Cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. This is Yuyuan Garden.

It’s a bit turned around, but this time out the Kindle edition of Molly and the Magic Suitcase: Molly Goes to Shanghai is available!

This is the skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.
This is the skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.

We’re thrilled with this one. It took a lot of research and we had our main contributor proofread it. It’s fun and there is much to learn.

The print edition will likely be available tomorrow, but we won’t make a formal announcement until Monday. We reach more people that way. Here are a few images.

Molly wonders what awaits in Shanghai, China!
Molly wonders what awaits in Shanghai, China!

Current Work and Writing Traps

Molly Goes to Shanghai

We have a prospective cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. In the next couple of days I’ll have the first draft of the story.

Possible cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. It depicts Yuyuan Garden.
Possible cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. It depicts Yuyuan Garden.

It’s an interesting process. It takes good research to get to this point because we already have the outline for the story. Writing the draft isn’t about structure, but about finding the voice of the characters, particularly the friend Molly and Michael meet in Shanghai. Her name, by the way, will likely be Li, named after one of our contributors.

We compiled a good amount of research, as I said, to get this far. Even with that, I know much more is ahead. It is not enough to know the locations we show in the book. A local makes references to other places, uses local nicknames, and his or her speech is sometimes influenced by a local dialect. In the case of Shanghai, “dialect” doesn’t cover it. Shanghainese, the local language, is unintelligible to speakers of Mandarin Chinese.

This brings up one of the questions we face: do we use Shanghainese in the story or Mandarin when we introduce bits of language? This is where our interviews are important. What we learned is that Shanghainese is mostly used by older residents and used in an exclusive way, meaning it is used to exclude others. Younger people in Shanghai speak some Shanghainese, at least enough to converse with their elders, but mainly use Mandarin in work and school situations.

Our decision was easy. The story will introduce bits of Mandarin Chinese and this is another area where more research is required.

Luckily, I love research.

The Personal in the Formal

A formal essay should contain no personal references to author or the reader. This is mainly for our younger readers, though it’s a tendency some carry for some time. This is the sixth rule in my Five Six Rules of Writing on the About page.

The rules aren’t anything new, but nothing was referenced when the list was created. For serious writers, similar suggestions or warnings are given in The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and (originally) E. B. White. The list also borrows inspiration from George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” where he elaborates on the dangerous principles behind Big Brother’s “newspeak” from the book 1984. The essay is more than 60 years old and more important today than ever.

When school writing assignments get longer and longer, five-paragraph essays and more, there still isn’t much distinction between formal and informal writing. That’s absolutely fine. As a teacher, I wanted to see the quality of ideas more than the quality of writing, but I also wanted to see progression on the writing side.

Many English teachers do not approach their craft from the writing perspective. They concern the students more with analytical tools for understanding literature. If one has to judge, I would probably agree that is the more fun side of teaching English. I enjoyed it, but gave my students a heap of writing instruction, including diagramming sentences. I’ll explain the importance of some of these things in later posts, but for now, let’s talk about formal writing.

An essay is an effort to persuade the reader to agree with you. Let’s first understand that. Because you want to be persuasive, it is important to leave yourself out. The main reason for this I mention in an example with the rule:

“I think,” “I believe,” or “in my opinion” diminish your points. I think the Governess was insane (Turn of the Screw reference). Be assertive. The Governess was insane.

Well, the author, Henry James, did not write the story with the belief the Governess was insane, though it really doesn’t matter for this example. Besides, the essay is about your ideas. Even so, unless you’re quoting something, the pronouns “I” and “me” should never appear. Don’t remind the reader (teacher) that this is the work of an 8th or 12th grader, or college sophomore, strengthen your viewpoint by making your voice as formal as you can.

“But,” you say, “you don’t write with formal language here!” Yes, you are right. I want to connect in a different way here, and I don’t want to bore the heck out of you. Here I constantly reach out to “you” and talk about me. If this were formal writing, I would do neither.

That is because the star of the essay must be ideas, not writing. Writing at its best isn’t even noticed. The ideas (or the story) take over the reader’s thoughts. That is when a real connection is made.