Category Archive: Chan Koonchung

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver by Chan Koonchung, Time Out

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver

Chan Koonchung (translated by Nicky Harman)


Chan Koonchung’s first novel, The Fat Years, a dystopian sci-fi thriller about a society enslaved by consumerism and suffering from wilful amnesia, was banned in China. In his latest novel, the author is once again testing boundaries.


The present-day tale follows the life of a young man from Lhasa. After taking a driving job for a Han businesswoman in Lhasa, Champa’s life begins to change. Cosmopolitan, car-loving and Mandarin-speaking, he embarks on an affair with his older, status- conscious employer. When he leaves for Beijing, the relationship unravels along with his boyish dreams, which crack under the weight of endemic racism. An illuminating window into society’s complex racial divides. Published by Transworld.



Peony Authors appearing at the Hong Kong Literary Festival and Singapore Writers Festival, kicking off this weekend!

Hong Kong Literary Festival

Chan Koonchung



Singapore Writers Festival

Jang Jin Sung, Shirley Lee, Duncan Jepson and Su Tong

Jin Jang-sung

Jang Jin-sung

Shirley Lee

Shirley Lee

Duncan Jepson

Duncan Jepson

Su Tong

Su Tong

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver by Chan Koonchung, Pen

What’s the story behind the romance and propaganda surrounding Tibet? Chinese author Chan Koonchung writes for PEN Atlas on how his new novel and its Tibetan protagonist are an attempt to humanise the conflict, using fiction to transcend ideology

The main protagonist of my new novel, Champa, is a young, modern, Chinese-speaking Tibetan man. He grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The novel in this sense is about Tibetan and Han relationships, but it will defy easy stereotyping. It is one of the intentions of the novel to be as uncompromisingly realistic and anti-romantic as possible. 

Aside from the Han Chinese, the only Chinese ethnic group that I have some familiarity with is the Tibetans. I knew very little about Tibet until 1989, when I was commissioned by an American company to produce a movie based on the life of the 13th Dalai Lama and an Englishman called Charles Bell. The movie never got to production stage, but during pre-production, I met my Buddhist teacher Dzongsar Rinpoche, and that led me to visit different diasporic Tibetan communities in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Europe and North America. Since 1992 I also started visiting Lhasa and other Tibetan areas in China and over the years developed friendships with Tibetans in Lhasa and Beijing. I always wanted to write about Tibet and the Tibetan-Han relationship – a poignant and sometimes difficult co-dependent relationship seldom reflected realistically in literature.

My last novel, The Fat Years, was a dystopian political novel about present-day China, a genre that allows discussion of big issues. But I didn’t touch the ethnic issue in China at all in The Fat Years, because I wanted to save it for another novel. Right after I finishedThe Fat Years, I started working on a saga entitled The Conformist. It was about an idealist-turned-cynic Han Chinese cadre stationed in Tibet for 30 years who witnessed all the vicissitudes of relationships there.

I dropped The Conformist and by 2012, I started to work on a new story, Luo Ming or ‘Naked Life’, renamed for its English edition as The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver. The year 2012 was difficult for Tibetans in China, and I wanted a raw and pungent way to express my feelings, and the main protagonist needed to be a Tibetan.

Champa, the main protagonist, has two very different but equally bumpy relationships with Han women (over 90% of Chinese are Hans; Tibetans belong to one of the 55 official minority groups in China). He was a tourist driver before he became the ‘kept man’ of an attractive, affluent middle-aged Han businesswoman in Lhasa. Life was good for Champa until he fell for an enigmatic young woman, an event which made him give up on his cushy Lhasa life and drive to Beijing, his dream city. Nothing in Beijing turned out as expected.

I intended to capture at least a fraction of the complicated relationships between the Han Chinese and Tibetans and cut across five kinds of stereotypes when it comes to Tibet and Tibetans:

The romantic stereotype –Tibet as Shangri La, an exotic, timeless touristy region of simple, peaceful folks.

The spiritual stereotype – Tibet as the spiritual Buddhist holy land. Tibetan Buddhist gurus have many followers in other parts of China.

The patronising stereotype – Tibet is pre-modern, China is modern. The Communist Party liberated Tibet from medieval backwardness. Tibet depends on aid from the Chinese state. China’s affirmative action policies are beneficial to the Tibetans, maybe too generously so.

The statist stereotype – Tibet has always been a part of China from time immemorial. Foreign imperialists are always there trying to encourage Tibetan separatists to divide the Chinese motherland.

The victim stereotype – Tibetan culture is under threat, all because of the Chinese rule: non-Tibetan migrants, ‘Han-ification’, assimilation policies, bureaucratic nepotism and state violence. But traditional culture is also changing inside Tibet because many Tibetans want modernisation and welcome economic growth. Many Tibetan families urge their children to learn Chinese and young Tibetans love hybridised popular culture. (Though, of course, I am not unsympathetic to this victim stereotyping because Tibetans are now indeed a minority culture under stress.)

It was one of my wishes to write a novel that defies and examines stereotyping about Tibet, Tibetans and Tibetan-Han relationship and I hope that through Champa and his complicated adventures, I managed to shed some light on this difficult issue.

About the author

Chan Koonchung was born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong. He was a reporter at an English newspaper in Hong Kong before he founded the influential magazine ‘City’ in 1976, where he was the chief editor and then publisher for 23 years. He is also a screenwriter and film producer of both Chinese and English-language films. Chung is a co-founder of the Hong Kong environmental group Green Power and was a board member of Greenpeace International from 2008 to 2011. He recently founded the NGO, Minjian International, which connects Chinese public intellectuals with their counterparts in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. His google account is often blocked. He is fluent in English, and now lives in Beijing. Chan Koonchung’s novelThe Fat Years, set in a China of the near-future where a dark moment of history has been erased from public memory, has never been published on the mainland. The book released in 2009 presents a dystopian vision of 2013 in which China’s rise coincides with the economic weakening of the West.  The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver has just been published in the UK by Doubleday.

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa is translated by Nicky Harman.

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver, by Chan Koonchung, AFP

Hong Kong (AFP) – Chan Koonchung’s novel “The Fat Years”, set in a China of the near-future where a dark moment of history has been erased from public memory, has never been published on the mainland.

The book released in 2009 presents a dystopian vision of 2013 in which China’s rise coincides with the economic weakening of the West. Fiction chimed with reality when it was first released at the height of the financial crisis.

But its chances of being published in China were always going to be slim, given its allusions to the Communist Party’s censorship machine and the way events such as the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago this week have been virtually deleted from official history.

“My novels are unpublishable (in China),” said Chan in an interview in Hong Kong.

“When I wrote ‘The Fat Years’ in 2009, many mainland publishers came to me. But after they read the book they never came back.”

The English translation of Chan’s latest novel, “The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver”, was released in May.

It is an explicit and frequently coarse look at ethnic relations through the eyes of an urbanised, sex-obsessed Tibetan who makes his way from Lhasa to Beijing via complicated affairs with Han Chinese women.

It also has not found a mainland publisher.

“It’s very anti-romantic,” said Chan of the novel. “We all have a very romantic notion about Tibet but this novel is really anti-romantic. It’s very direct.”

Shanghai-born Chan nevertheless continues to live in Beijing, having moved there in 2000 to focus on writing about China after stints in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States. The 61-year-old says he has not faced interference and has had non-fiction works published in the mainland.

He says “enterprising” readers were able to access electronic copies of “The Fat Years” before they were removed from the Internet, while hard copies were briefly sold under-the-counter in some Beijing bookstores.

- ‘The new normal’ -

Both “Champa” and “The Fat Years” explore material obsessions in modern China, with Champa coveting his domineering Chinese boss’s Toyota while she brings him back designer goods from Beijing.

“Young Tibetans are urbanised, educated, they listen to the same music, wear the same designer jeans and have the same aspirations as their counterparts elsewhere in urban China,” said Chan.

“But they face subtle exclusions elsewhere. Landlords in Beijing for example will try to find a reason to turn them away — not because they want to discriminate but because of the trouble involved. If you rent a house to an ethnic person from Tibet, you have to apply with the security bureau first for approval.”

The self-congratulatory protagonist in “The Fat Years” meanwhile sips a Lychee Black Dragon Latte in Starbucks (which in the book has been bought out by a Chinese company) and is overcome by emotion when describing life in a placid Beijing — where there are seemingly no unhappy memories.

“Every day I congratulated myself on living in China,” says ‘Chen’ in the book. “Sometimes I was moved to tears I felt so blessed.”

- Self-satisfied amnesia -

One of Chen’s counterparts — among the few characters determined to challenge the self-satisfied amnesia — is searching for the entire month of February 2011, whose disappearance coincided with China’s economic and cultural rise in the story.

A third of China’s current population was born after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, and a huge swathe of those under 25 are ignorant of the event.

Online, hundreds of millions of Chinese now have unprecedented access to information but an army of censors deletes topics deemed sensitive, even the most oblique references to Tiananmen.

A Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia maintained by domestic Internet giant Baidu has no entry for the year 1989, let alone anything more specific.

In the book’s preface Chan is quoted as saying he sought to show a regime that has silenced or absorbed its opponents and “how the public have bought into China?s authoritarian model”.

“The mentality of many Chinese has changed to wonder if maybe our government is doing something right — it’s more confident of its own system,” said Chan, referring to China’s increasing assertiveness in international relations.

While he is willing to write “unpublishable” books that confront problems in modern China, Chan has nevertheless made Beijing his home and sees nothing changing there for the forseeable future.

“I would think this is the new normal for China now and it’s going to last at least 10, 15 years,” he added — shrugging off concerns over a slowing property market and rising debt levels.

“The economy will have hiccups, ups and downs, maybe a serious crisis. But even if it slows down, China will still be rising. This is something the world will have to accept — that China’s rise may be unstoppable.”

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver by Chan Koonchung, The New York Times

Q & A: Chan Koonchung on Tibet, Sex and Censorship
By JOYCE LAU MAY 25, 2014 6:00 PM Comment
Chan Koonchung checking the offerings at the People’s Recreation Community bookstore in Hong Kong.
Joyce Lau
Chan Koonchung checking the offerings at the People’s Recreation Community bookstore in Hong Kong.
The shopkeeper at the small Hong Kong bookstore recognized the author Chan Koonchung right away. The People’s Recreation Community — its initials are a play on People’s Republic of China — specializes in books that are banned on the Chinese mainland, but not in the relatively free territory of Hong Kong. Mr. Chan found his own volumes on the shelf across from the cashier, while the shopkeeper brought over mugs of milk tea.

Courtesy of Random House UK
Mr. Chan, 61, a Shanghai native who grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in Beijing, caught international attention with “The Fat Years,” his 2009 sci-fi novel in which a month disappears from the historical record — but citizens never notice because they have been brainwashed into being blindly happy. Predictably, given the book’s not-so-subtle allusion to the cover-up of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, it has never been published on the mainland.

His latest novel, “The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver,” about a young Tibetan trying to find his way in Beijing, was published in English this month. In an interview, Mr. Chan talked about sex, censorship, Tibet, stolen pets and people opening his mail. Excerpts follow:

Did you try getting “The Fat Years” published on the mainland?

Several mainland publishers came to me after the novel got published. I asked them to read it first before we talked. They didn’t come back.

But someone — I don’t know who — typed it up in simplified Chinese and passed it around the Internet, where it stayed for about six months. There were at least two versions — one typed and one scanned — that were widely circulated, mostly as PDFs, until they were deleted. The censors were not so fast back then.

Did a similar thing happen to “Champa”?

This time, the controls are tighter. They are getting better at blocking things. And maybe readers are less keen. There are so many titles in China now. Why would people want to spend their energy looking for the censored ones?

Where do you get your own reading materials?

There are one or two really good bookstores in Beijing, plus Amazon China. For English books, I can go to the U.S. and they get through most of the time.

But banned books are a problem. I tried to get my own books — meaning books I had written — sent to me, and they were not allowed in. They are opening my boxes.

What are you reading?

I’m trying to finish these thick novels by Jonathan Franzen — “The Corrections” and “Freedom.” I’ve also read “2666” by Roberto Bolaño. I’m not courageous enough to write such thick novels for Chinese audiences. And I read “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith. I liked that.

“Champa” begins with an affair between a handsome young Tibetan and an older, richer businesswoman. She is the sugar mommy and he is the arm candy. Why did you turn this gender stereotype on its head?

This is something I noticed in real life. Many Chinese women in middle age, when they go to Tibet their behavior changes. They become very flirty with their tour guide or driver — and they’d never do that in Beijing. And these guys are quite handsome.

The protagonist is a Tibetan young man. He is intelligent, but not highly literate. He likes his women, his wine and his cars. I tried to write it as directly as possible. He isn’t deep. He’s deeply flawed.

How does the Tibet you depict differ from the usual stereotypes?

My ambition was to write an antiromantic novel about Tibet. I didn’t want to write about this Shangri-La-type place that was spiritual and exotic.

I’ve been to Tibet many times. Lhasa is very modern. Half the population is not Tibetan, and many Tibetans work for the state — for example, as police. These young people behave just like other Chinese, with their fake designer jeans and obsession with cars. These guys — they do love their vehicles. So I wanted someone who was not a herder or a farmer.

How much has Tibet changed in one generation?

I started researching Tibet because I was supposed to be producing a movie for Francis Ford Coppola’s studio. I started visiting Tibet in 1992, and it has changed a lot. There are more Chinese than ever from the mainland. The number of Chinese tourists has broken all records, but there are fewer international tourists because it is hard for them to get visas. Sometimes they will let elderly Westerners in in small groups, but the young backpackers are largely gone. The same with foreign NGOs. There are very few left in Tibet.

There are two graphic scenes in which Champa seems to force himself on women, including both this businesswoman and her daughter. Would you call this rape?

In one case, you have a young girl who is quite unsure of her sexuality, and a young man who did not enjoy doing it. It is really a gray area. While both women did not like it, they did not resist much, either.

I wanted to create sexual relationships that were as complex as possible. It’s a metaphor for Chinese and Tibetan relationships. Tibet and China are engaged in a very complex co-dependency. You should feel uncomfortable reading these passages.

With his Tibetan looks and Tibetan papers, Champa has a hard time finding a place to stay. Would you say that the Chinese were being racist to him?

They’re pragmatic. The hotels want to avoid trouble, and so they overreact. Landlords, too. And the result is not so subtle.

The only job Champa can get in Beijing is “security work in a hotel,” which is a euphemism for “thug in a black jail” — an extralegal detention center. How common is this practice?

The one thing a Tibetan guy can do in Beijing is be a security guard. In fact, Beijing has held recruiting campaigns for young Lhasa men to do this work in the capital. So Champa goes to work for one of these “hotels.”

When the government rounds up petitioners, they are kept in these “hotels” until they can be sent back to their home provinces. There are also “hotels” that the local security officials use for people when they don’t want to press official charges. It’s a non-place.

Champa gets involved with activists trying to save a truckload of dogs headed for the slaughterhouse. Does this really happen?

Eating dog is legal in China, and the dog meat restaurants need supplies. But nobody actually rears meat dogs — it’s too expensive — so they just steal them.

These incidents really take place. A group of activists will stop a delivery truck with their cars — they have cars because they are generally middle-class. Then they buy up the stock of stolen dogs. I find it encouraging that people are organizing things not related to their immediate interests.

You’ve worked with Greenpeace and local environmental groups. You also predict a dark ecological future in your novels. How bad is the situation in China? Is the damage reversible?

Some rivers could still be cleaned up — some, maybe not all. The air quality could be improved if they made an effort to phase out coal. Forestry is almost gone. That’s too late. You can’t replant biodiversity. But the main problem is the underground water — it’s so polluted. This is the most serious crisis: the water supply.

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver by Chan Koonchung, Bruce Humes blog

What’s a young Tibetan stud to do for a living nowadays in a tourist hotspot like Lhasa? And what happens when his childhood dream—to hang out in the capital of a country called China—comes true?
In the just-published Champa the Driver, author Chan Koonchung takes us on a rocky road from Lhasa to Beijing. The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the DriverAlong the way he paints disturbing vignettes. An apartheid-in-the-making. The eerie death wish of a would-be self-immolator. The Kafkaesque “black jails” where provincial petitioners who dare air their grievances to the Beijing Mandarins are brutalized, then sent home.
If they’re lucky, that is.
I read both the Chinese original and Nicky Harman’s translation, and her rendition convincingly captures Champa’s conflicted mindset and odd lingo; after all, like any young PRC citizen he is the product of 21st-century China’s booming economy and rampant materialism. But he is also not a native speaker of Chinese, and deep down, he is more Tibetan and Buddhist than he realizes. Even as Chan evokes the gap between image and reality, between the tourist’s Lhasa and Tibet under the heel of the dragon, and Beijing as it is dreamt vs. lived, the novel remains a quick and compelling read.
At the outset, Champa is sitting pretty. He’s got a cushy job in Lhasa as a chauffeur for Plum, a savvy Han businesswoman with a robust appetite for the occasional “spurt of the moment” (as Champa puts it), and before he knows it, he’s her lover-on-demand. However the simple days of cock-and-cunt—there’s a hefty dose of raw sex as the novel opens—are soon overshadowed by the troubling loss of his Tibetan virility. After an-all-too-short trip to Beijing, he realizes that she doesn’t want to be seen parading her “Tibetan Mastiff puppy” in the capital.
This is a body blow to his self-image, and impacts their relations back home in Lhasa. “Plum just didn’t get my tantric juices flowing” any more, he admits. To do his night gig with the boss now, he has to spend his daytime headhunting a fresh new sex object—in a whorehouse, online, among tourists, whatever—that he can visualize while servicing Plum.
Dreams of a “Beijing-fixated” Tibetan
Like many youths throughout the PRC, teenage Champa has a romantic image of Beijing and yearns to emulate it:
I always wanted a girlfriend from Beijing. Every year, lots of Beijingers came on holiday to Lhasa and I learned plenty of Beijing slang off them. I used to walk like a Beijinger, talk like a Beijinger and dress like one too.
Older generations of Tibetans don’t get this fascination with things Chinese. When a relative returns from Switzerland, she lectures Champa on the glories of Tibet’s past, and how “Beijing was built by the Mongols and the Manchus, and our high lamas were their emperors’ teachers.”
To which he replied back then—or so recount his neighbors—“That’s fuck-all to do with me!”
Now an adult and working for a Han who spends much of her time in the capital, a world where she does not welcome him, the attraction of the Chinese metropolis is even more intense. “If I could get to Beijing, the world was my oyster,” he tells himself.
Ironically, it’s indirectly Plum who gives him the impetus to hit the road and turn his dream into reality. Champa has already realized they can’t stay together because their sexual relations have become an empty ritual for him, but doesn’t want to hurt her by admitting he no longer desires her. Instead, he’ll tell Plum that he has left her for another, something he believes she can more easily accept. But there’s a twist: the new woman in his life lives in Beijing . . . and happens to be Plum’s daughter, Shell.