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The Lecture Guy, Frank Tsai

Jan 12, 2018

I’m Frank Tsai, a Chinese-American and lecture organizer who’s been in Shanghai for the last nine years. I came to Shanghai because I wanted to work here. I’d been finishing a PhD focused on China back in the U.S., coming to China for research, and then took a teaching post at People’s University about 10 years ago. I was dirt poor, hated my job, and wanted to be a bigger part of the China story. So, I took the first chance I could to move to Shanghai and work in consulting. I now work full-time at the global political risk consultancy, Control Risks. As a side hobby of sorts, I also like to run lectures, and this has metastasized into the four events I run today.


I never woke up and thought to myself: I love crowds and speakers and TED videos (which I hate and never watch). Trying to stay in touch with my scholarly interests, I’d started a book club about nine years ago. We’d talk about books and be very, very serious. One time though, while reading a book by Daniel Bell, we thought, we’d really like to hear what he has to say and it would be super easy to put on a lecture because he’s in Shanghai. That was the genesis of my first event eight years ago. For the first few years, I didn’t put on a whole lot of lectures but I noticed that the crowds were getting bigger and bigger, at times for the most unlikely niche topics. Something was happening. People were coming because this form of intellectual exchange was filling a void. My typical attendee is a foreigner or returnee (about half and half), young professionals with busy jobs who miss the atmosphere of free exchange from their college days. So, I started doing more and more, and have now organized over 200 talks, adding another distinct lecture series every few years. Last year, I put together 50 lectures over four events.

[Ed’s Note: Frank runs Hopkins China Forum (founded in 2010) organized with the John Hopkins alumni club and the School of Advanced International Relations. Thinkery (2013) is the most informal, an annual "lecture slam." M Talks China (2016) was created as one of several partnerships with M on the Bund, and China Crossroads (2017) is Frank’s own, bringing talks mostly focused on the intersection between China and the West. Read more here.]


I like Shanghai because it’s a mix of people from all over the world along with the most internationalized Chinese. They are my core audience for the lectures and make them much better. I like that Shanghai’s a fast city. We meet, mix, and make connections. This is the advantage of a business town, unlike Beijing. The drawback, the Beijinger might say, is that it’s all temporary and adds up to very little in the end. That might be right. Diverse groups meet and mix, but are transient and dissolve, and one wonders how much is just surface glitter.

I’m like a plant. I stay rooted in one place and that place for me is the Wooden Box. I hate walking very far, and the Wooden Box happens to be right where I live and work (... to make up for my lack of walking, I take a cab to a gym) and is also the best live jazz venue in Shanghai, hosting all the best players from the JZ Club, in a very small, intimate setting. I’m a big jazz fan so along with Wooden Box and JZ, I also go to Heyday. Aside from music, I like to go to a myriad of other events hosted by other great organizations, like the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS), M on the Bund, etc. I go to their events, not just to get great ideas, but to better know this lecture community I’m helping to build.


I’m really proud I got a lot of people interested in talks. Lectures can be boring, especially after a busy day—but if you put them in bar, with nice lighting and audio, people can use the space to drink and mix. They come out of curiosity, and by the third or fourth time, they find they’re actually learning something. And I feel incredibly gratified that over the last eight years many people have made connections and friends through my events—rumor has it some romances too.

My real passion is for community-building. The lectures are the means and the community is the end. People can get so focused on their careers and jobs and that stuff’s important but there’s a lot more to life, especially in Shanghai... that’s me, trying to be inspiring... did it work?


Keep up with all four lecture series on Frank's Shanghai Review.



[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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