Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Female First

Emperors Once More is the story of a serial killer motivated by what he believes has been the humiliation of China by the west during the last 100 years and he wants China to reclaim its rightful place in the world order. An incident occurs in the near future that leaves China humiliated again and that triggers the first killings, two Anglican priests. He is hunted down by a mainland detective Alex Soong who is young man educated abroad and who believes that the grim history of China’s past should be left there.


Please tell us about the character of Detective Alex Soong.


Alex Soong is a mainland detective working in anti-corruption and is brought to Hong Kong to investigate white collar crime. He believes in what’s right rather than what is necessarily legal but he also carries the burden of being born into well-known political family with a legacy he has rejected, which some see as a rejection of China itself. He finds it difficult to assimilate to Hong Kong and is suspicious of the compromise between Hong Kong law enforcement and organised crime which he cannot reconcile.



How much does your background in film help you to carve the imagery into your books?


One of the most important things I learned is the attention to detail of locations and atmosphere. To be able to build a world that is convincing. When you sit in a cinema watching a film you’ve made and follow the audience, you learn the importance of working hard to keep an audience engrossed.



Please tell us about the inspiration behind the story.


During the years of traveling and living in Asia, I often experienced and saw older Chinese people bitter and angry from lives under colonial rule and in disbelief that their culture of 5000 years was so far behind in the second half of the twentieth century. I was interested to explore this rage but in a crime narrative. Having written my first novel in the first person as a woman, I also wanted to write a story of strong male and female characters in the third person, a crime story gave me the opportunity to do this and hopefully create something entertaining.



Please tell us a bit about the Asia Literary Review.


I started the Asia Literary Review with Ilyas Khan and Nury Vittachi with the aim of creating a magazine to focus on Asian writers and Asian stories. The Review lasted in hard copy for nearly seven years during which time we published some great new writers, some well-established Asian authors, for example Su Tong, Han Han and Yan Geling, who were largely read by people searching for works in translation and also some key poetry by dissidents Liu Xiaobo and Liao Yiwu. It is now run by Martin Alexander who has taken it solely digital but continues the tradition of Asian stories and Asian writers.



Can you give us some insight into your columns with the likes of the New York Times.


I have been lucky to write columns on personal experiences such as SARS, losing my job in the economic downturn, observations on Asian readership and experiences in Nepal making my last film.



What is next for you?


I am completing the sequel currently titled Us and Them then hope to work on another story of a banking anti-hero.


Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Crime Fiction Lover

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson
Set a few years hence in Hong Kongthe latest offering from director, producer and lawyer Duncan Jepson again features his home turf – the bustling city where East meets West, and where European ideas of freedom and transparency sometimes clash with the cautious and controlling bureaucracy of communist China. While the international media focuses on a vital summit of world leaders, Detective Alex Soong starts investigating what appears to be a random murder. However, events threaten to get out of hand when more deaths follow. Even more troubling for Soong is that he seems to be the only person able to thwart a deadly conspiracy involving China’s future, and a dark episode from its past. Out today.



Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Myanmar Times

While not all of these visitors had direct experience with Myanmar, many were well-versed in the challenges of pitching Asian stories to British and American publishers, and they were under no illusions that the situation here would be any different.

Hong Kong-based literary agent Kelly Falconer – who describes herself as representing “Asian authors, experts on Asia, and writers living in Asia, be they Asian or not” – said she looks for works that will sell in the English-language market and have appeal to Western readers.

“I’m looking for fine writing, something that really captures my heart and takes my breath away, and that I hope will have a similar effect on anyone who reads it in the UK or the USA,” she said.

Falconer – whose clients include poet Ko Ko Thett, co-editor and translator of the 2012 anthology of Myanmar poetry Bones Will Crow – said that while she thinks the appeal of Asian literature is growing in the West, there are many challenges to overcome, including the tendency for agents, editors and readers to “reach out for the familiar”.

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“I think there are editors and agents who are looking for something to confirm their prejudices … Readers in the West often want something that’s very familiar. They’re reading about the Cultural Revolution in China and are still trying to understand how China has reached the point it has today,” she said.

“But my fiction writers are writing about what’s going on now, and I’m finding it challenging to convince the West that these are the fresh voices of Asia.”

Michael Vatikiotis, a writer and journalist who has published several fiction and nonfiction works on Southeast Asia, agreed that the world of publishing often relies on perpetuating stereotypes.

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“A publisher will fixate on something that’s worked – the Harry Potter of India – and everything else just falls off a cliff,” he said.

He cited Indonesia – the subject of much of his writing – as an example of a country that can be a hard sell to Western readers.

“Indonesia is probably one of the most colourful and interesting countries in the world … [but] there’s a rather bleak view of Indonesia – that it’s a dark, forbidding place that people do not really enjoy reading about.”

Writer Dipika Mukherjee, whose 2011 novel Thunder Demons is set in Malaysia, said she constantly struggles with the issue of how to connect with readers in the West.

“Malaysia is not a country that is very big in the American imagination. I think places like Thailand are a lot larger in terms of what people know about it,” she said. “So although there is interest, I think I have a much larger following in Malaysia, where they really get what I was trying to do with this book.”

Kerry Glencorse, a literary agent based in London who represents Golden Parasol (2013) author Wendy Law-Yone, said many readers prefer being “spoon-fed” stories that are easy to digest, making it difficult for books about unfamiliar cultures to break out of a small niche.

“But there are books like [Chinese author Jung Chang’s] Wild Swans from other cultures that have gone on to be huge successes. They can be really big. It’s just trying to find the right one,” she said.

“If you happen to hit upon a story that really works for whatever reason, then I think there’s great opportunity because there is a hunger and appetite for literature from these places and for a different point of view – especially one like Myanmar that has been closed for so long.”

Marysia Juszczakiewicz, who founded the Peony Literary Agency in Hong Kong, said she tries to find stories that “speak to an international audience” and that “are not so steeped in that culture that people outside have no comprehension of it”.

One of the writers she represents is Duncan Jepson, the Hong Kong-based author of the novels All the Flowers in Shanghai (2012) and Emperors Once More (2014) and former managing editor of Asia Literary Review.

“You do end up thinking, ‘We can’t publish this because it’s too esoteric.’ It’s a story about Laos or some aspect of Cambodia that people think is too arcane,” Jepson said of his work at the literary review.

“But I was interested in communicating to a broad audience about things that are happening, so that there is greater awareness and understanding. It’s a slow process.”

For many Asian authors, regional idiosyncrasies manifest themselves not only in subject matter but also in writing style, which only adds to the challenge of cross-cultural publishing.

Myanmar author Ma Thanegi – who has written several English-language nonfiction works, including the travelogue The Native Tourist (2005) and the prison memoir Nor Iron Bars a Cage (2013) – said the format and characteristics of English and Myanmar literature are very different.

“I can be irreverent in English, but the written word is taken very seriously by the Burmese – especially for a woman who is no longer young and ‘should be dignified’ – unless it is an all-out complete satire, which is also rather rare. Burmese satirical books often have the subtitle ‘satire’ just in case a reader misunderstands and gets angry,” she said.

Juszczakiewicz, who represents Chinese writers such as Su Tong, author of Raise the Red Lantern (1990), and 2012 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, said Chinese novels are often constructed differently from Western works.


Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Asia Literary Review

Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director and producer of five feature films. He has also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine WestEast and one of the founders and managing editors of the Asia Literary Review. He is a social commentator on Asia and regularly writes for The New York Times, Publishing Perspectives, South China Morning Post andHong Kong Tatler. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.

His first novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai, was published by HarperCollins. He also co-storied the graphic novel, Darkness outside the Night with Xie Peng. His first book in the crime series,Emperors Once More, published by Quercus in March 2014.



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 asianbooksblog@gmail.com.