Category Archive: Duncan Jepson

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Kitaab literary Journal

Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director of five feature films. He also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine West East and a founder and managing editor of Asia Literary Review. Along with his wife, Charmaine Li, he runs the TV production company, Tiberius. He is a social commentator on Asia and regularly writes for The New York Times, Publishing Perspectives and South China Morning Post. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.

His first novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai was a bestseller. He also co-storied the graphic novel,Darkness Outside the Night with Xie Peng and is currently writing a crime series due to be published by Quercus. The first title, Emperors Once More, is coming out in March this year.

In this interview with Kitaab, Jepson talks about his love for writing and the two novels that he has authored so far.

A lawyer, a novelist, an award-winning film director, and the managing editor of a reputed journal–these are some of your identities. Of course, you do much more than that. How do you manage to wear so many hats and what’s your first love?

My first love is storytelling. I’ve always loved stories whether as part of the audience or when I’ve been lucky enough to get the opportunity to be the storyteller. Different media allow different ways of telling stories and it’s exciting to explore them. However, in all the adventure and passion one has to constantly remember that technical skills in each media are crucial and it’s a lifetime pursuit.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Since I was about twenty. I kept it quiet until All The Flowers in Shanghai was published, and I didn’t think it would happen until I saw the book. I suspect most people who knew me then are surprised. Again it is a love of story whether it is when you’re at work where you’re one of the characters, being in the audience experiencing the work of another storyteller or telling one’s own.

How do you approach writing for film or TV versus writing fiction?

My experience is that in fiction the reader ultimately visually creates their own story from yours. They picture the characters and locations. The reader sees everything themselves. Film and television are more direct, a great deal of the work is to create a story that absorbs the audience, suspends their disbelief so they forget they are in a cinema or at home on the sofa.

Your first novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai, was a bestseller. Tell us about it. What inspired you to write your first novel?

I wanted to write a story that explored Chinese mother daughter relationships, their power and their weaknesses. I also wanted the main character, Feng, to look back at her life and relate her mistakes to her children. The book is set in Shanghai in 1937 and follows the changes in China until the Great Leap Forward, during that time some of those mistakes cost her children dearly. The book is written in the first person so it’s subjective and it is only later in Feng’s life, and therefore also in the book, that she reflects and is finally able to explain herself.

EMPERORS hcYour new novel, Emperors Once More, is the first in a Hong Kong-based crime trilogy featuring Detective Alex Soong. How did you get attracted to this genre?

I wanted to try to write to a broader audience and I felt a crime story might give me that opportunity. It also seemed a more entertaining way to discuss a subject, which for this story is about how different generations of Chinese see their place in the 21st century and their relationship with the world. The challenge was to find the pace and voice.

How was Alex Soong born? Did anyone inspire you to conceive that character?

Not really, but there were a few aspects of the character I wanted to explore – to be educated in the west, be mainland Chinese, to try to be incorruptible and be a loyal friend. He is a part of a new generation of well-travelled, globally experienced Chinese, almost seeing themselves beyond nationality, and he comes up against an adversary who is Chinese but with an almost opposite perspective and from an older generation.

Who are the authors who have inspired you over the years?

Italo Calvino, Jack Kerouac, Herman Hesse, Joseph Conrad, Cormac McCarthy, Ken Kesey, and many more.

What is your advice to writers struggling to get a break?

Write as much as you can and be honest about your efforts.


Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Asian Book Blog

500 Words From…is a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books.  Here Duncan Jepson explains the background behindEmperors Once More, which is published today.  The novel is the first in a Hong Kong-based crime trilogy featuring Detective Alex Soong.
Duncan Jepson lives in Hong Kong. His first novel was  All The Flowers In Shanghai.  A founder and former managing editor of theAsia Literary Review, he writes regularly for the New York TimesPublishing Perspectives and the South China Morning Post.
Emperors Once More is set in the near future. It’s Hong Kong, 2017. China has bailed out the West, but the West has defaulted on its debt. On the eve of a crisis summit for world economic leaders, two Chinese Methodist ministers are killed in an apparently motiveless execution in Hong Kong’s financial district.
It appears that luck alone makes Detective Alex Soong one of the first officers at the scene.  But is his involvement more than incidental? Is the crime itself more than a senseless assassination? It seems so: Soong is contacted by a mysterious figure, and more massacres follow.
With the eyes of the world’s media fixed on Hong Kong, Soong must race to intercept his tormentor, and thwart a conspiracy born from one of the bloodiest confrontations of China’s past, which now threatens destruction in the present.
So: 500 words from Duncan Jepson…
It is known as the century of humiliation, a term that arose in China in the early 1900s to describe a number of events that started with the First Opium War in 1839 and was thought to have ended with the Communist Revolution in 1949. Those years included painful suffering at the hands of imperial powers and unequal treaties signed requiring China to pay what would now be billions of Renminbi. But it also involved some self-inflicted injuries such as the Taiping Rebellion and a general failure to modernise as needed to defend against foreign powers.
Yet, it had not ended, following a few productive years, China fell headlong into another twenty years of madness through the 100 Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, Chinese people emerged from isolation to find that after 5000 years of civilisation, the last one hundred plus years had left them decades behind people in the West, who barely claim half the history. It seemed an unbelievable situation and the reaction was what some psychologists call the superiority inferiority complex – bitterness at a lost rightful place in the world but also doubt in the belief that perhaps it was deserved at all. For several generations there was a feeling of inferiority, a terribly heavy burden, to some it became a belief and way of life.
Emperors Once More is a story about an angry and bitter person from the generation which feels it has been betrayed by history and a young man from the new generation of modern global Chinese who are as comfortable in Europe or the US as they are in China. I wanted these generations to clash in an open forum but I also wanted to create a story that was entertaining and that pushed me as a writer. One particular story point was the demand by the older generation to return to better days regardless of the high cost and confused reasoning.
Longing for the familiar and fear and resistance to change can push people to try to stem whatever is next and spend vast resources on avoiding confronting the inevitable. Most wasteful is expense on war and revolution just to force a return to the past. Chinese history and culture is full of examples of attempts to maintain the past and a belief in the unquestioned respect for that which once was. To be declared a great classical artist was to have copied perfectly the masters before, to honour one’s parents was to follow their instruction, perhaps even forgo one’s own life for them, and at work one would be commanded without question. So much of the future given up, but not in humble deference to wisdom, often only in blind eagerness to nothing more than age.
The main character is hurt deeply by his own and his parents’ past and he transfers all his anger to reinstating the values and beliefs of something largely best left to fade into history. But he cannot, and instead must recreate it from jagged pieces of confused understanding and mistaken belief. Only a person who wants even more a new and unfamiliar future to succeed can defeat him and the two figures repeatedly clash as the story develops, each teasing the other that they are delusional and set to fail.


Another important element was to try to write a story with a faster pace than my first novel, and to meet the conventions of a crime novel. The level of difficulty was much more demanding and complex than I had imagined. A crime novel must meet the reader at pace and then maintain that momentum. I can only hope that I have succeeded in some way and that there is interest in a sequel as there are other relationships that I would like to explore in this narrative structure which might not be so successful shaped into another form.
Emperors Once More is published by Quercus. The hardback should be widely available in Asia, priced in local currencies, and the eBook  can be purchased from on-line bookstores, or else here direct from Quercus.

Emperors Once More is eligible for the ABB Book of the Lunar Year in the Year of the Horse – see the post of Jan 30, 2014 for details. If you want to vote for it, please do so by posting a comment, or by e-mailing

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Time Out, Hong Kong

Author Duncan Jepson speaks with Ying Lo about merging Eastern and Western ideologies in his new crime-thriller

By day, he may look like any other normal (by normal we mean highly professional) corporate lawyer, but come nightfall – metaphorically speaking – Duncan Jepson is an entirely different beast altogether. He’s a film producer, two-time documentary director, humanitarian, and founder and former managing editor of the Asia Literary Review. He is also writer of graphic novelDarkness Outside the Night with Beijing-based illustrator Xie Peng, and author of the critically acclaimed 1930s social novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai. On March 6, the 44-year-old Bruce Wayne-esque author releases his latest work,Emperors Once More, a crime novel which is already attracting TV-attention from the States and the UK.

Part of a two-book deal made last March with British publishing house Quercus (known for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), Emperors Once Moreis a crime-thriller set in the not-so-distant future year of 2017. Based in a Hong Kong rife with heavy economic and historical issues derived from China’s recent development, two Methodist ministers are murdered on the eve of a G8 meeting. The tale follows Alex Soong and his pursuit of both a mysterious serial killer and a conspiracy that has risen from China’s tainted past.

Jepson’s careful equanimity and his graceful and thoughtful presentation of both Western and Eastern history and culture are some of the main elements that make the novel so compelling. Bypassing the erroneous ethnocentrism which is a common flaw of books in the same genre, the Eurasian author strikes between the two ideologies, a near-perfect balance.

This relationship between East and West is something that Jepson is very interested in, and in an article he wrote in January 2013, Why the West Fails to Understand Chinese Literature, he theorises that Chinese literature will not contain the same richness of characterisation as Western literature does for many years to come because of cultural differences. “A prime example of this can of course be seen in the much-vaunted freedom of the individual, so widely advocated throughout much of Western literature whereas in Asia generally it is considered to be of far less significance. I think this is probably the greatest sticking point for Westerners confronted with stories written about Asians for Asians.”

We’ve come a long way from our Big Trouble in Little China days, or at least the portrayal of China in Western media, but Jepson’s stories continue to strive for an even closer mutual understanding of Eastern and Western ideologies. With Emperors Once More, it appears he has pulled this off. The title has already gained film and TV interest from UK and US production companies looking for Asian content to produce. And recently, Jepson has begun working with a US production company and discussing the. potential of developing the story into a TV series.

“My story ultimately is about wanting to accomplish things I am passionate about and those things being difficult because they require time and experience,” Jepson explains. “I don’t see myself as being busy, I just see it as my life.”

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, The Star

Duncan Jepson delves into a dark well of existential discontent to great effect in his latest book.


With last month’s release of Emperors Once More, Hong Kong-based Duncan Jepson has consolidated his reputation as one of the region’s most exciting writing talents. Of mixed Chinese-British parentage, Jepson has delivered three books to critical acclaim.

His 2011 debut, the literary historical work, All the Flowers in Shanghai, whose action took place during the middle decades of the last century, heralded his arrival as a writer of distinction. A year later, the noirish Darkness Outside the Night, a graphic novel by Xie Peng for which Jepson provided the text, earned plaudits for its emotional heft and insights into contemporary Chinese society.

Some background on the 44-year-old lawyer and writer illuminates recurring themes in his work: alienation and assimilation, and what one might call “cultural schizophrenia”.

“My mother arrived in the United Kingdom from Singapore in the 1950s and eventually settled in the city of Sheffield,” he says. This is where she met Jepson’s father, at the city’s university. “She would recall her life as a Chinese in the north of England as largely welcoming, and often exciting. And where an oriental woman – as she was generally described – was considered exotic and interesting.”

Fast-forward to a suburb of another northern city, to where the Jepson family moved to in the 1970s, and Jepson says: “As a Eurasian kid growing up near Leeds, I had experiences in the city centre and on various streets that were more hostile than perhaps the gentler times my mother had experienced. The difficult moments I faced left their impression and as I got older, and after spending a lot of time in South-east Asia, particularly Malaysia and Singapore, I began to wonder what it must feel like to be a foreigner in your own country. To be governed and controlled by others – to some, perhaps many – is often a source of bitterness and anger.”


Jepson descends into this deep well of existential discontent in his new book.

Emperors Once More is a story exploring these residual emotions by following a killer both tormented by his past and his family’s history as well as those of China and Chinese people,” Jepson explains. “For this I set it in Hong Kong, where there is the social turbulence to mix locals, expatriates and those new residents coming down from the mainland.”

But why the move to the crime genre from the literary historical form of his first novel, and which so enraptured reviewers? “A crime story seemed an intriguing frame and narrative within which to tell the tale, pushing me as a writer to find a faster pace and rhythm to keep readers turning the pages.”

Jepson’s day job, and also another creative outlet, have had a considerable influence on Emperors Once More.

“I’m a corporate lawyer, and also have the opportunity to write and make films. Often, experiences in one area of my life become relevant to another. Having been engaged in some areas of white-collar crime investigation inspired certain elements of Emperors Once More, though actual criminal investigations are generally a lot slower than presented in any crime novel.

“A second important influence has been the difference between storytelling in film and in books. I learned from sitting in the cinema watching films I had made that the audience simply sees what you put in front of them. Whereas with a book, the reader sees his or her own story.”

Having lived in Hong Kong for a number of years, Jepson noticed some bitterness in the older Chinese generation about the past and foreigners. “A kind of ‘why are all these white people still here’ sentiment that is palpable in some Hong Kong communities,” he says.

A major influence on the book came from the famous Chinese writer and cultural observer Bo Yang, author of The Ugly Chinaman, and who Jepson says “had a lot to say about the Chinese inferiority/superiority complex caused by history”.

“Although ‘China’s Century of [colonial] Humiliation’ has long passed, it wasn’t really until the 1990s that the worst was behind us. And that real racial parity started to emerge,” Jepson says.“I wanted to explore the concept of historical humiliation. For some, it’s an itch that can’t really be scratched.”

Set in the near future, the “bad guy” in Emperors Once More draws on Chinese history for his killing spree. The detective in hot pursuit is one Senior Inspector Alex Soong, who will reappear in a sequel to this page-turner. “With crime books, publishers generally want a series,” Jepson explains. “And I, for one, would like to know what Alex Soong comes up against next,” the author says with a twinkle in his Eurasian eyes.

Emperors Once More is part one of a two-book deal inked last year with British publishing house Quercus – best-known for unleashing the mega-selling Swedish chiller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on the English-speaking world. As for the business of writing, Jepson has two pieces of overarching advice for aspiring authors.

“Ensure that you get the whole story out, first of all; it can be reworked as much as one likes afterwards. Secondly, be critical of your efforts and accept criticism of your efforts – for inevitably there will be a big difference between your final draft and the editor’s final draft.”

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, The South China Morning Post

In Emperors Once More, Hong Kong author Duncan Jepson has merged the city’s past and present to create a hypothetical future in which a murky underworld threatens to rise to the surface.

It’s a little surprising that thriller writers have not mined Hong Kong for more material in the past: in many ways, it’s the perfect backdrop for a high-octane mystery. There’s glitz and glamour, but also windy streets, dark corners and a history of organised crime.

Whether Jepson’s 2017 vision of Hong Kong – where a brutal murder never seems far away – is a dystopian nightmare or a worrying prediction is for debate.

[Duncan] has set up an intriguing backdrop in which China has bailed out a debt-ridden Europe, only for Europe to default on the loan

The recent brutal attack on former Ming Paoeditor Kevin Lau Chun-to might suggest the latter; it’s certainly the type of incident that wouldn’t look out of place in Emperors Once More.

As is traditional with modern-day thrillers, it’s not enough for a hero to tackle mere murderers. Any killing must be part of a global conspiracy, and Jepson does not disappoint. He has set up an intriguing backdrop in which China has bailed out a debt-ridden Europe, only for Europe to default on the loan. It’s a clever set-up because it taps into the genuine fears of the West over China’s rise during the previous decade.

But the focus here is on the bubbling discontent on the mainland, which evokes familiar Chinese themes such as the century of humiliation and the need for the country to reassert itself on the world stage. It’s not a million miles from what one might read on a nationalist blog, or the pages of state-run newspapers such as The Global Times.

When two priests are killed by a sniper in Hong Kong, and then a container full of dead bodies is discovered, it falls upon Senior Inspector Alex Soong to investigate. Kicking off with the priests’ murder is a clever touch from Jepson: it’s a subtle nod to the Boxer Rebellion, the violent anti-Christian and anti-Western movement in China at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th, which was crushed by an alliance of Western powers.

Soong is an intriguing hero who is also well versed in his country’s history. Being the intuitive type, he soon suspects there may be more to the murders.

At times, Soong drifts dangerously close to the clichéd detective who must battle his own demons as well as the bad guys. But his background – an American-educated Hongkonger with mainland heritage – adds dimension to the character. Soong drives a Mustang and listens to Miles Davis; he also practises traditional martial arts. It may be a little crude, but it is an effective way of embodying the clash between East and West which lies at the centre of the book.

Fortunately, Soong is an earnest character who becomes genuinely likable as the book progresses, particularly when dealing with a distant wife who only appears interested in buying expensive furniture. By the time the book reaches a climax – at a G8 meeting in Hong Kong, at which Soong is convinced that something terrible will happen – it’s hard not to root for the police officer.

Jepson, a lawyer by day who has also worked as a writer, producer and director on films, certainly has an eye for the cinematic. The book is urgent and at times restless, much like its hero. Short chapters will keep the pages flicking, and the plot is thick enough to give the reader a working knowledge of modern Chinese history as they progress.

This is often done thrillingly, not least in a tense encounter between the detective and a mysterious villain, during which the villain seethes: “First opium, then religion, then political ideology, and now debt … must we consume every Western poison?”

It displays real confidence to take on such a voice, boiling down 200-odd years of resentment into one well-versed putdown. But Jepson has the verve to pull it off. It’s also a brave move to create baddies not too unlike the ultra-nationalists on the mainland. But he handles the characters with sensitivity, ensuring that the lines between good and evil are suitably blurred.

Emperors Once More is a dramatic change of pace from Jepson’s debut novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai, a sweeping story set in 1930s Shanghai which was well received when it was released in 2011. Jepson has also co-written a graphic novel, Darkness Outside the Night, with Xie Peng, which won praise from Nobel laureate Mo Yan.

But in turning to the thriller genre, Jepson focuses on Hong Kong, where he lives and works. He has been clever to name-check many of the city’s prominent streets and districts as Soong moves around trying to solve the case.

It may be an old trick, but anyone familiar with the city will nod in recognition. In one particularly evocative scene, he describes the Jockey Club in Happy Valley, which has fallen into a state of disrepair by 2017 as illegal gambling rings become more prevalent.

Jepson has also made sure to populate the city with a cast of minor characters which anyone who has lived here is bound to recognise. A particular favourite is Jenni Plum, a fashion blogger who manages to get Soong in trouble with both his boss and his wife.

Emperors Once More tackles some universal themes that should attract a following, even among those who have never visited our city. It is an ambitious and high-minded thriller that challenges the reader to consider the impact of the past on the West’s future relationship with China.

As for Alex Soong, he’ll be back on the case soon; Jepson is already working on a second instalment.

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, The Wall Street Journal

Away from his day job in the legal department of an asset-management company in Hong Kong, Duncan Jepson is an author and filmmaker. He has directed and produced two documentaries, and his written work includes a historical novel called “All the Flowers in Shanghai.”

Now, Mr. Jepson has turned his hand to crime writing. Released in March, “Emperors Once More” is set in the underbelly of Hong Kong in 2017, and follows inspector Alex Soong as he tries to unravel the seemingly random murder of two Chinese Methodist ministers. They are killed on the eve of a crisis summit for world economic leaders, called after Europe defaults on a loan from China.

The author, who was born in the northern English city of Sheffield, first traveled to China in 1981 as a 12-year-old. He was with his parents and grandparents on a search for long-lost relatives—his Singaporean mother’s ancestors were originally from Xiamen, in southeast China.

Mr. Jepson has spent the past 14 years living in Hong Kong, but he misses the open space of northern England’s Yorkshire Dales. He spoke to the Journal about how practicing law has informed his crime writing, the difference between Chinese and Western literature, and what it means to be Eurasian. Edited excerpts:

You have lots of different roles: author, lawyer, editor, filmmaker. How do you juggle them?

The key thing is to know what you can do and get on with that. Know what you can’t do and work with somebody who can do it, and don’t get in their way. How do you write a book? I don’t know. I write these stories and send them to publishers and they turn them into a book. Up until that point I’m just a crazy person writing words onto a computer.

Last year, you wrote an article for Publishing Perspectives titled “Why the West Fails to Understand Chinese Literature.” Why do they?

You look at a scroll and it’s often without a vanishing point, it’s without a particular perspective. Western painting has been modeled on an idea of a vanishing point. That is relevant because Western stories tend to want to have a point: There is a definite, distinct journey, whereas Asian literature can be much more ethereal. The trouble is the Western story structure is much easier to access and appreciate universally. The Asian one, and Chinese in particular, is much harder.

What do we miss in translation?

When you read Chinese literature in Chinese, the characters themselves speak. For example, when you see the character for wood, you can see a forest in the actual word. That level of aesthetic in the West is not present.

How has your career informed your crime writing?

I did quite a few investigations into white-collar crime: cases of market manipulation, fraud. You get to understand what it is to be criminal. It’s about people who succumb to an opportunity, people who start out thinking that a small thing isn’t really a big issue and then it slides slowly into something much larger until they haven’t just put one foot over the line but are well into a different territory. It is willful blindness, ego and fragility. Greed and sympathy and intent all become very interesting to look at as a writer.

Your Eurasian heritage also feeds into your work. What were your experiences like growing up with a Chinese Singaporean mother and a British father in northern England?

In my generation you got called “chink” and had stones thrown at you. There was nothing positive about being Eurasian at all until I was in my mid-20s. When I went to [live] in Singapore they said: “You’re not full blood.” Even in the mid-80s they would say you’re not really Chinese. Now when I see kids and they are Eurasian it is a massively positive experience.

What is “Emperors Once More” about?

The book is about humiliation. The antagonist is an older man and he lives in a [Chinese] generation that feels humiliated. Alex Soong is from a younger generation that is no longer bound by these national identities. It is about these two generations battling it out.

Why set it in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is small, it’s tight, there are a lot of people all rubbing up against each other. Plus it’s a society that believes in making opportunities for yourself, and in that environment some good stuff, but also some bad stuff, is going to happen. People are in each other’s faces all the time. As a place for a crime story, it allows you to move from one environment to the next very quickly because it is so small. It gives you some dark and lonely places.

Tell us about your hero, chief inspector Alex Soong, who is American-educated, has family in mainland China, but lives in Hong Kong.

There is a point where he thinks he is losing control. He is stressed, alone and beginning to doubt everything [he] knows. He believes in the world that exists now, not the China-centric world that many older Chinese like to believe. He respects the law, but he sees it as an element of culture. What he prizes more than anything are human relationships. At the same time he is not afraid of a fight.

You are writing the sequel, which is about human trafficking and takes place partly in northern England. Why move it there?

Liverpool was a center of the slave trade throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. One reason [for looking at human trafficking] is that I started a charity called Liberty Asia in Hong Kong in 2012. [Trafficking] is an activity that is gruesome but at the same time has been going for 5,000 years.

You have a large tattoo, one of three, on your back. What does it mean?

The tattoo reminds me to do what is right. It is of one of the four Buddhist guardians called Komokuten, the guardian of awareness and knowledge. And he traditionally stands with one foot on this demon called the Amanojaku. He is the demon of distraction. It was to remind me to just be aware and seek knowledge.