Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Why I Wrote "The Oregon Shanghaiers"

After I finished my first book on Portland, Portland’s Lost Waterfront, I had no intention of taking the story of the shanghaiers any further. I had touched on them briefly in the book, but still, it was a more extensive and factual treatment than any other book on Portland history. However, in the following months the subject would not go away. I was asked to do a lecture series at various Multnomah County Libraries. When the series was announced, it was named by someone at the library: “Shanghai Tunnels and Salty Dogs: Portland’s Lost Waterfront.”  

Not long after this series was over I was asked if I would like to be included in OPB’s Oregon Experience in and episode on the bad old days in Portland called, “Portland Noir.” I felt that the subject was never covered as it should be. It was still far too “mythological” in most people’s minds.

My research had brought these shanghaiers to life in my mind. After reading hundreds of newspaper accounts, and looking through countless old records and photographs they were more real to me than some of my living acquaintances. These were people whose deeds were of public record, and those deeds were many. They had been debated in the papers as far away as Honolulu. The information was not secret, yet their names had become so entwined in 20th century fables and fantasies they had become 2 dimensional comic book characters, caricatures.

I began to write, ending up after several months with what I considered to be “Part I” which I called: “The Funeral of Jim Turk”—a section devoted to this first shanghaier in Portland, working backwards from his funeral. I took this section, and an outline of the rest of the proposed book, and sent it to the commissioning editor at History Press. She liked it, pitched it to the other editors, and eventually came back to me with a green light. This green light carried some restrictions, the foremost being a size restraint. After soul searching and fiddling around with my outline it became apparent that the book I wanted to write was too big for the contract I was being offered. I then took out the digital scissors and hacked my part 1 down to size and readjusted the outline. The result is a much smaller book, but possibly a more readable and therefore more marketable volume.
The Oregon Shanghaiers is not what people expect. It is not in the least sensational, but presents its subjects as the real people, complicated, sinful, filled with passions, with love for their families, with greed—not unlike you or I. I have taken up much good book space by including vignettes that I felt cast a strong light on the essence of the subject. The book is also heavily notated for the benefit of those who will demand proof of my findings.

I felt I was drafted into the duty of writing this book by the fact that no one else had written it before me. The vacuum created by the nonexistence of a book such as this has allowed a rising tsunami of false history—some of it making its way into history books. This book will set the record straight, but only if it is read and discussed. Portland has the choice of continuing to swallow great buckets full of hogwash on these subjects, or read my book—the choice is Portland’s.