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.