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.

Dear Leader By Jang Jin Sung, Publishers Weekly

A North Korean defector finds fleeing the Kim dictatorship as nightmarish as living under it in this harrowing memoir. Jang, now a journalist in South Korea, worked in the North Korean government’s United Front Department for espionage and psy-war penning propaganda; he won fame, riches (“individual rations on a weekly basis, instead of household rations”), and a Kafkaesque audience with Kim Jong-Il for a fulsome poem praising the Dear Leader (“Lord of the Gun/ Lord of Justice/ Lord of Peace/ Lord of Unification”). Jang’s rare high-level insider’s perspective on the North Korean system is especially eye-opening; drawing from secret archives, he relates how devious bureaucrat Kim Jong-il usurped the power of his father Kim Il-sung, but he hits hardest in scenes juxtaposing the frenzied glorification of the Kim cult with the starvation and brutalization he witnessed among ordinary people. Much of the book is a thriller-like narrative of Jang’s 2004 escape into the netherworld of illegal North Korean refugees in China, where he drifts, penniless and hunted by the police, through the glittering wealth and hard-edged anomie of modern Chinese cities, dependent on the kindness of random strangers. Jang’s almost impossibly dramatic story is one of the best depictions yet of North Korea’s nightmare. (May)

Dear Leader By Jang Jin Sung, CNN

Dear Leader By Jang Jin Sung, The Economist

WHEN Jang Jin-sung fled North Korea across the frozen Tumen river into China in 2004, he carried with him a small bundle of poems. These harrowing vignettes of North Korean hunger and suffering were later published in South Korea under a pseudonym.

Mr Jang had once composed paeans to Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s former ruler. In a new memoir, Mr Jang retraces his conversion from patriotic court poet to the Kim regime to one of its fiercest critics; from a privileged life within Pyongyang’s elite as one of Kim’s “Admitted” to being a destitute fugitive, on the run from North Korean agents in China, where he sought asylum in the South Korean embassy in Beijing. If his personal poems laid bare how the Kims gained power through cruelty and repression, Mr Jang’s latest account exposes the reach of their cultural dictatorship, which put literature and history at the service of an extraordinary and lasting personality cult.

Mr Jang was employed in North Korea as a poet in the United Front Department, an important party unit involved in organising psychological warfare against Koreans of all stripes. This made him familiar with its propaganda machinery. In the 1980s its literary output was directed at South Korean democracy movements, then resisting their own military dictator, in the hope of kindling pro-North sympathies in the South. By the 1990s the unit had turned inward, but still used many of the same South Korean tropes and idioms. Its authors pretended to be Southerners praising Kim Jong Il. To help him prepare, Mr Jang was given access to prohibited South Korean newspapers, television and books.

A paper shortage after the economy collapsed in the early 1990s led novels, a form that had been popular under Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung, to be replaced by epic poems. One of these, “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”, composed in 1999, earned Mr Jang a rare meeting with Kim. He was admitted to an inner circle of six court poets and given immunity from prosecution.

North Korea’s leading propaganda poets were rewarded with imported cars and large flats. Officials, desperate to prove their loyalty to the Kim cult, vied for honours. But a chance encounter with Byron’s poetry (among works that were limited to a secret print run of 100 copies in North Korea) proved a delicious deviation from the strictures of Kim’s “Juche Art Theory”, a set of linguistic expressions to which all North Korean works must adhere.

As a state historian, Mr Jang was allowed to read banned portions of the country’s unvarnished history, the better to distort it. The more he read, the more he recognised how Kim had wrested power from his father. The swelling of the Kim Il Sung cult, which his son set in motion, legitimised Kim’s rule while justifying a shift of power away from his father. Under the pretext of lightening the Supreme Leader’s load, all proposals were routed through the party’s revamped Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), headed by Kim. Eventually, only those that were deemed important were passed up to his father. Kim transferred the power to appoint and dismiss personnel to the OGD. Political enemies were watched and then purged.

Kim’s hereditary succession was not guaranteed at the start. Mr Jang offers considerable detail about how he set out to usurp his father, revealing the factional infighting and what he calls the “subterfuge and machinations” that pitted son against father; even Kim Il Sung’s own bodyguards came under OGD control. The dual structure of the Kim Il Sung cult, with the young Kim the real power behind the throne, allowed the son to confound outsiders. Foreigners scrutinised the seven pallbearers at Kim Jong Il’s funeral in 2011, but none held real power, Mr Jang says.

“Dear Leader”, which includes three personal poems, is a testament to Mr Jang’s literary flair. He chooses poetry to express painful episodes, whether the hunger of a young girl or the public execution of a farmer in his home town. He paints a bleak portrait of his village, to which he briefly returns to discover a swarm of wasted bodies “waiting for death”, a childhood friend eating rice by the grain and tap water for sale. Desolation creeps even into better-off Pyongyang: a mother, close to death, and her daughter stand in a marketplace; a sign hangs from the girl’s neck: “I sell my daughter for 100 won ($0.11)”.

The contrast with China’s bright cities, to which Mr Jang first escapes, could not be starker. He marvels at the “boldness of mankind in defying nature’s darkness”; at advertising hoardings more impressive than the Kim iconography. Yet, there too, he is hounded by North Korean and Chinese officials. He meets North Korean women who have fled both their country and their Chinese captors. Theirs are chilling tales of human trafficking. Graded and priced like pigs, many spend their lives “rotting”, shackled at night so they cannot escape. They also show great courage.

Mr Jang makes no claim to speak from within Kim Jong Il’s closest circle. But as a poet laureate, on the inside of the Kims’ mythmaking machine, he sheds new light both on the dynasty’s ideological underpinnings and on what he calls “the tantrums of a defeated man”.