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.”

People have been using old categories to describe China, but these days people are getting a renewed picture of what China is like


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.”