Category Archive: Peony Author Press

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, NBC

He reached the pinnacle of his charmed life in 1999 when he met the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, at the age of just 28.

Becoming one of Kim’s “Admitted” inner circle meant Jang was granted immunity from even the highest-ranking authorities and other privileges: a steady stream of food provisions (“spoils of war” as the North Koreans termed food aid packages from international aid agencies), special access to strictly censored publications, a travel pass within the country, even his own transport – a bicycle.

It all came to an end in 2004 when Jang was forced to flee his homeland.

Image: Jang Jin-sung SIMON & SCHUSTER
Jang Jin-sung was a member of Kim Jong Il’s inner circle. “The world today still thinks of North Korea as a military country,” he said. “But that is completely incorrect.”
“Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee — A Look Inside North Korea” is Jang’s story of transformation and his escape; it’s being published this month by Simon & Schuster. While almost everything Jang recounts about how the North Korean government works is unverifiable, it’s a remarkable account.

Below is the translation of an interview he gave NBC News’ Director of International News Adrienne Mong during a recent visit to London.

Q: What was your job?

In North Korea, I was a writer. But in North Korea there’s no such thing as a writer the way the outside world understands it. It’s not as an individual that you are a writer. It is as a bureaucrat, as a civil servant, as a revolutionary.

I was a part of the so-called United Front Department [the key division in the ruling Workers’ Party that was also responsible for inter-Korean espionage, policymaking and diplomacy]. My job title was counterintelligence officer with special oversight of psychological warfare against South Korea.

Q: So your position gave you a unique perspective on how the North Korean government functions?

When I was growing up, I didn’t even think to question what we read and were taught. It was only when I became part of the system, writing over and over the story that I’d been taught as a child, that I realized it wasn’t the truth. I realized it was policy that was forcing our history, our culture, and our identity to be written a certain way — not because it actually happened this way.

Image: Kim Jong Il in 2009 KCNA-KNS VIA AFP – GETTY IMAGES, FILE
The late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visits a coal mine in a photo released in 2009.
Q: How does the North Korean government work?

The world today still thinks of North Korea as a military country, that the military is the most important entity. But that is completely incorrect. The only entity that actually matters when it comes to decision-making or policy-making is the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), the executive branch of the Workers’ Party.

“Kim Jong Un doesn’t have that old boys’ network … In North Korea, he’s alone. He has no alliances or factions or any clout”

All roads in North Korea lead to the OGD. If you go anywhere in North Korea, even at the lowest level — a village, town, district, or residential neighborhood — there is a party committee. This committee reports to the OGD. The OGD answered to one person, Kim Jong Il. The OGD has five functions. First, it is responsible for running the country and there are no competing channels. Second, it has the right to vet and appoint personnel who have any power to command. Third, it has the right to purge, execute, or monitor anyone; the secret police is directly run by the OGD. Fourth, any policy anyone wants to propose has to go through the OGD; there is no legislative body and Kim Jong Il signed off on every policy. Finally, the OGD is responsible for safeguarding the Kim family.

Q: Is this power structure sustainable?

The OGD is designed to support the authority of one man alone at the top. There is no No. 2 or No. 3 person. There are no factions. That’s why the OGD reinforces the authority of the Kim dynasty, the Kim sanctity, the Kim legitimacy. The statues, the propaganda, all that is maintained by the OGD. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sustainable; they don’t know how to maintain power any other way.

Q: What if Kim Jong Un is a weak leader? How does the OGD work then?

It’s a structure that keeps it going no matter whether he has the power or not. That’s precisely why the OGD is so much more powerful now than before. When Kim Jong Il built up the OGD [to take power from his father Kim Il Sung], it was all Kim Jong Il’s friends, a network of his old friends. Kim Jong Un doesn’t have that old boys’ network. If he does, it’s in Switzerland. In North Korea, he’s alone. He has no alliances or factions or any clout, because he has no operational experience within the North Korean system the way his father had by the time he came to power.

Image: King Jong Un and Kim Jong Il in Oct. 2010 VINCENT YU / AP, FILE
Kim Jong Il, right, and his son Kim Jong Un attend a military parade to mark the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang,North Korea, on Oct. 10, 2010.
Q: If so, wouldn’t someone in the OGD just take over if they already wield the real power?

That’s an interesting question. North Korean people live in a society that has been engineered especially for a Kim to be in power. Only the Kim family is considered the legitimate heirs. If another family came to power, that would cause fissures within the OGD system. These people know this better than anyone else; it’s in their interest to keep the system going as it is, to keep Kim Jong Un in the spotlight but to wield the real power behind the scenes.

Q: What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding of North Korea today?

North Korea needs to be seen in its own specific context. People tend to view how it works within the Soviet system or as some relic of Stalin or the Cold War. It’s not. It’s more of a cult-totalitarian state, i.e., a totalitarian system with a cult-building foundation. We need to stop applying Cold War or Soviet logic to a country that has a totally different historical background.

“North Korea needs to find blame for its own domestic power failures so the U.S. has been designated as a state enemy for that purpose”

Q: We tend to think that China is North Korea’s closest ally and has influence over North Korea. But when I was working in Beijing, that didn’t seem to be the view within the Chinese capital. How would you describe the relationship?

The Chinese have been so annoyed by North Korea and by Kim Jong Il personally … China wants reform and opening. It has expectations for Kim Jong Un. But it’s going to be more pragmatic in its approach in how to deal with Pyongyang. Because to the Chinese, it’s, “we don’t want to go through what happened with Kim Jong Il, he was a pain.” As for the North Korean leadership, it despises China. They believe, “The Chinese think they’re so great. They think they can determine Korea’s fate. We are not Chinese. We are Korean.” So these guys don’t want to be holding hands with Beijing. They are more interested in developing their nuclear weapons to keep their status quo going. The last thing they would want is Chinese-style reform.

S. Korean official on North: ‘It must disappear’TODAY

Q: What is the North Korean view of America then?

The so-called hatred towards America comes out of a pragmatic need. North Korea needs to find blame for its own domestic power failures so the U.S. has been designated as a state enemy for that purpose. But it’s not really anti-U.S. Think about it this way, every leader’s house is supposed to hang a portrait of Kim Il Sung, but in the end every leader’s household wants cash. And the U.S. dollar is what keeps the North Korean economy going. In order to justify a power system that does not reflect reality, you need an unrealistic enemy. And that’s the role the U.S. plays, the bogeyman.

Q: What has been the biggest adjustment living in the outside world, in South Korea?

The most difficult thing was to realize that while I had left that world of North Korea, I could not settle in the new world of South Korea, because I had left all my family and friends north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). How could I live in a world empty of everyone I loved? The DMZ is a fence not just across land but also across the heart of every North Korean exile. We’re neither of this world or that world. If your heart is still in one place and you are in another, it’s hard to make a new life in a new place. So that was the most difficult decision I had to make: to accept that I am here, in South Korea, and begin anew.

Childhood Snaps of North Korea’s Kim RevealedNBC NEWS

Q: Describe to us your day-to-day now in South Korea. How do you go about life amidst possible threats from North Korea to stop you from talking?

My life is no different from that of normal people. I get up in the morning, go to work [at New Focus International, a website reporting on North Korea], come home for dinner with my family, etc. Of course, I have bodyguards and am always aware of the threat from North Korea …. I’m just so grateful to even be alive and to live another day. So I can’t waste it, because why did I escape, why did all of this happen so that I could have a happy life, if I don’t keep speaking the truth about North Korea?

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.

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver by Chan Koonchung, South China Morning Post

Chan Koon-chung denies he courts official disapproval on the mainland but he knows his new novel, about Tibet’s plight, will attract censorious eyes, writes Richard Lord
“It’s not deliberate, being controversial,” says Chan Koon-chung. However, the Hong Kong-raised, Beijing-based novelist has a funny way of showing it.

First, in his novel The Fat Years – written in 2009, translated into English in 2011, and the cause of a minor literary sensation on both occasions – he presented a full-blast, thinly veiled satire of the way contemporary China is run. Now, with the follow-up, The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver, he has chosen to tell a tale of ethnic exclusion focusing on a Tibetan man’s intimate relationships with two Han Chinese women.

The new novel, published in January in Hong Kong and Taiwan in Chinese, is a bildungsroman focusing on Champa, a Putonghua-speaking Tibetan who grew up in Lhasa and whose family works for the party.

“Champa is one of the Tibetans who are urbanised, and who have been in contact with Chinese for the longest time,” says Chan. “He has a lifestyle similar to other young people in China. You could call him a law-abiding, ‘good’ Tibetan. He’s not really against Chinese rule, he just wants a good living and to avoid politics, and even then he gets into trouble. His family have helped the Chinese, but still they’re treated as second-class citizens. He can’t get a passport, for example.”

A driver for a rich Chinese businesswoman in Lhasa, Champa also becomes her lover. After three years, however, he starts to suffer from erectile dysfunction – and doesn’t want to go back to being just her driver. When his employer’s daughter visits Lhasa, Champa refocuses his desires on her; she regards him with contempt, as her mother’s kept man.

When the daughter leaves for Beijing and her mother is away on a business trip, Champa decides to steal his employer’s SUV and head for the capital.

When he meets the daughter in Beijing, however, their cultural differences are insurmountable: it transpires that she is a bohemian, possibly bisexual, animal rights activist on a mission to stop dogs being butchered. Finding himself alone in Beijing, Champa tries to make a living in the city he has long regarded as paradise.

“Champa is very optimistic, and going to Beijing is his dream,” says Chan. “But there are very few things a Tibetan can do there – no one will hire one. [Becoming a] security guard is one of the options. He thinks it might be something glamorous like minding a celebrity, but it turns out to be working as a security guard at a black jail, guarding inconvenient petitioners who are illegally detained there by provincial governments – so he becomes the guard of equally unfortunate Chinese.”Tibet has been an interest of Chan’s since the late 1980s, when he was working for Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope studios and went there to research a film about the 13th Dalai Lama, the predecessor of the incumbent. “The movie was never made, but I learnt a lot about Tibet, and I met a Buddhist teacher I’ve been studying with since.” He has returned many times, including several visits while writing the book last year.

Champa has received plenty of press coverage in Hong Kong and Taiwan, while comment on the mainland has mostly been confined to microblogging site Weibo; he was particularly pleased by Twitter praise from dissident Tibetan writer Woeser, Chan says.

Although the novel doesn’t cover particularly sensitive territory, the fact that it’s about Tibet means he has no plans to try to publish it on the mainland. The Fat Years, similarly, has never been published there although that hasn’t stopped it being read there. After it was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Chan took copies to his friends in Beijing; copies were passed around, the text was transcribed and uploaded onto the internet, and it spread virally before the authorities took it down. Two years later, the English translation was published; it’s now available in more than 15 languages, with a total of 100,000 copies printed – 20,000 of them in the original Chinese.

To understand the book’s impact, imagine all your darkest, most paranoid fantasies about the way China is run, multiply them by a factor of several, then imagine them projected four years into the future as a satirical prophecy – but a prophecy that sounds like it’s mostly true now. The Fat Years takes place in a 2013 ravaged by even sharper economic misfortune than is the case now, in which the mainland is the single success story; its people are all happy – preternaturally so, as the protagonist, Old Chen, a Taiwanese novelist and journalist who shares the author’s family name, starts to understand. He is guided to this knowledge by a collection of dissenters from the official line, one of whom, Little Xi, is an old friend with whom he develops a romance.

What the dissenters have in common is a realisation that something is missing from the official record of China’s ascendancy – a month, in fact, which everyone appears to have forgotten, during which something bad happened. Uncovering the secret forms the core of the book; along the way, Chen and his friends deal with a motley cast of characters including underground Christians, fascistic young party devotees, former child slaves and various officials, functionaries and hangers-on.

“I’m trying to write about the new normal in China,” says Chan. “It probably started around 2005-6, and then it really took off in 2008. When I was writing the book in 2009, I wasn’t sure everyone would agree with what I was depicting, so I set it in the future. But the new normal still holds, and it is in the process of becoming known to the world.

“People have been using old categories to describe China, but these days people are getting a renewed picture of what China is like.” The main misconceptions, he says, are “that China is far behind other countries, that it’s going to collapse, and that people there are very unhappy”.

The Fat Years has been described as dystopian, but if so it’s far more in the tradition of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where most people are happy and life is superficially good, than the bleak Stalinist nightmare world of George Orwell’s 1984 – with just a dash of The Stepford Wives added. Chan’s point is not that the Chinese Communist Party is right or wrong – although he isn’t at all positive about its attitude towards human rights and freedom of speech – but that, for the time being at least, it’s inevitable: it will continue to rule for a good while yet, partly because so many of its people are pragmatically happy for it to do so.

Chan puts his explanation of how China has achieved its success in the mouth of a senior government official – and does it in a single expository speech, styled as an epilogue, that lasts the entire final third of the novel. “I wanted to put everything in one text,” he says. “Anti-utopian novels such as 1984 or Brave New World always have a big exposition like this – the genre is used to it. I just couldn’t resist the temptation of having a high official tell the truth to us, because it would never happen in real life. People outside China tend to read the book as fiction; in China, most people focus on the politics.”

The literary eruptions sparked by The Fat Years came as a bit of a shock to Chan; a prolific author and screenwriter, none of his other works had attracted anything like the same level of attention. Born in Shanghai, he moved to Hong Kong as a child and worked here for many years as a journalist, founding and running City Magazine, a cultural periodical, for more than two decades from 1976. After a period in Taipei, he moved to Beijing in 2000.

“In a tangential, personal, micro way, Champa touches on the same issues as The Fat Years,” he says. And, as if writing about politics and Tibet isn’t sensitive enough, for his next novel he might just ratchet it up a notch further. “I don’t want to censor out certain sensitive words, so it’ll be controversial whatever I write. I’m working on several ideas; it might be about 1989; not directly, just people who are passing through, but it will still be controversial.”

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.

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver by Chan Koonchung, Publishing Perspectives

Chinese novelist Chan Koonchung writes first and foremost for his Beijing friends, never mind the fact they can’t buy his books in China. Best known for The Fat Years, which was banned on the mainland, the English translation of his most recent novel is out this month. Is that banned, too? Chan doesn’t know because no publisher in China would touch it.

The Unberaable Dreamworld of Champa the DriverThe Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa The Driver is a fast-paced read, packed with sex and danger. An exploration of the relationship between China and Tibet, it has the makings of a cult novel. The Chinese version was published in Taiwan and Hong Kong last year and the English translation – by Nicky Harman – is out now.

“In 2008 I could see China going through a new stage, it was the beginning of a new normal, but my Beijing friends didn’t believe me, so I wroteThe Fat Years to try to convince them. It’s always my Beijing friends that I write for,” says Chan.