Duncan Jepson tells Ysabelle Cheung why he explores the role of the Chinese woman in his debut

Duncan Time Out


He’s the man who revived literature in Hong Kong with the creation of the Asia Literary Review – but that’s not all. A lawyer by day, Duncan Jepson also writes and directs film documentaries. His debut novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai, told from a first person female perspective, paints a microscopic social picture of 1930s Shanghai, when women were expected to sacrifice their lives, bodies and souls to anyone but themselves. Jepson is also due to be honoured for his humanitarian documentary work by FilmAid Asia in a Hong Kong ceremony alongside Keanu Reeves this month. 

Hi Duncan. You certainly have a very colourful background…
Being of mixed descent has been very helpful as it has provided different perspectives. There is an overly romantic view of China which involves days of concubines and palaces, when in reality the vast majority of people lived in hard rural conditions. Once I had embraced the idea of the multiplicity of perspectives, I was led to many different creative possibilities. It has also given me a narrative of my own – East and West. But I’d have to say that I am Yorkshireman (England) at heart.

Tell us about the theme of ‘choices’ in All the Flowers in Shanghai.
Feng’s own ability to be objective, because of her upbringing, is initially rather limited. As her life continues, she starts to reflect on (her decisions) and draw conclusions. She begins to understand the damage which has been done and decides to bring her old life to a halt and help her children, even after all that has happened. My thought was that a mother’s instinct might ultimately be more powerful than tradition and political propaganda. Chinese women can be fiercely committed mothers.

Why do you think some women have a hard time identifying with Feng, the protaganist?
I think some Western readers have found it difficult to understand that self-determination and individuality are not universals. Personally, I do find the reaction to Feng’s decisions a bit curious as there are people making self-destructive decisions every day, East and West, because they are under terrible relentless pressure and don’t have any answers. A woman’s role in China’s society has always seemed to hinge on the issue of equality, whether that is between the sexes or among women themselves. I wanted to explore the latter.

What do you think a woman’s role is now, in 2012?
In contemporary society, many Chinese women have moved from a rural life to an urban one. However, some women are seeking to live by the old rules for the sake of safety and security. There is the tale of the girl on a Chinese dating show who explained that she would rather be crying in the front seat of a BMW with a man she did not love than be happy on the back of a bicycle.

Why is All the Flowers a novel and not a documentary?
With film, the audience is taken on the filmmaker’s journey and with a novel the writer provides a path for the reader to make a journey of their own. The characters in the novel are pure fiction but the attitudes, settings and historical events are drawn from my research, experience and time spent in Shanghai during the early 90s. I feel very strongly that women should be able to make decisions of their own but that they must also have the ability with which to make those decisions such as empowerment, education and articulation. I simply wanted to explore this in the form of a novel rather than in the form of a documentary or a drama.