Chan Koonchung, by Joanna Chiu (dpa)

Novelist Chan Koonchung on rifts and desire for belonging in China

A renowned Chinese author has published a novel exploring the tension between Han Chinese and Tibetans. He tells dpa in a Beijing interview how he copes with censorship and what government officials warned him about when they knocked on his door.

Beijing (dpa) – Chan Koonchung is best known as the author of The Fat Years, an internationally acclaimed dystopian portrait of China set in the near future, where a month has disappeared from popular memory.

The book was read widely online by Chinese readers before being deleted and banned by state censors.

He spoke recently to dpa in an interview.

Born in 1952 in Shanghai, Chan was raised in Hong Kong where he worked as a journalist, actor, screenwriter and film producer. He founded the influential magazine City in 1976, where he was chief editor and then publisher for 23 years.

He moved to Beijing when he was 40 years old to focus on writing novels. Chan’s latest book, The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver, explores the tense relationship between Tibet and China.

dpa: Do you worry about living in China when some of your novels are banned in the country?

Chan: Chinese officials are sophisticated. They grade their critics. I probably belong in the middle range: not the harshest critic. I am not an activist and I don’t share my opinions on any social media. I just hope my novels can contribute to debates about the kind of society we are living in.

On June 4 this year I received a lot of text messages saying to wear black. I stayed home by myself working all day, but I wore a black T-shirt.

dpa: Why did you choose to move to Beijing? Surveys show many Hong Kong people do not identify themselves as Chinese. What do you think about that?

Chan: June 4, 1989 was a defining event that really affected my generation – 1.5 million people on the streets protesting the massacre, can you imagine? So people weren’t going to give up on remembering June 4.

But Hong Kong students now weren’t influenced by June 4. So a lot don’t care about China. From their perspective they probably think they can do nothing about China. They’re very practical in that sense.

But you can argue that if China is not democratic, there will never be democracy in Hong Kong either.

I feel I don’t have to choose between identifying with China or Hong Kong, but as a writer I felt I had to be here. I don’t feel it’s good enough to write books about the mainland from Hong Kong.

dpa: What did you think about the strong reception to your novel, The Fat Years, in China? Did you get any response from authorities?

Chan: Some people told me they liked the idea of collective amnesia to describe what is happening. Others were angry and asked, “How could you say we forgot?” Some government officials came to talk with me in private, and it was clear they didn’t understand it was satire.

In the book, there was a lot of overblown praise about how great China is. The officials told me that this is right and it is exactly what they want to see.

It is amusing that the target of satire thinks you are supporting them. I think it reflects how confident Chinese officials are now compared to before. They really believe in their hearts that they are doing the right thing.

dpa: Why does your latest novel focus on the life of Champa, a young Tibetan driver from Lhasa?

Chan: A lot of young Tibetans are like Champa, they’ve grown up in the cities and they want to be the same as Han young people. They listen to the same music, wear the same jeans, but there are issues they can’t run away from-such as not being able to get passports.

So Champa wants to have a good life. He speaks Mandarin and functions alongside Hans very well, his parents even worked in the government. I chose that character as my protagonist to show even someone like him can get into trouble simply because of his ethnicity.

His aspirations definitely contributed to his troubles. It’s hard for ethnic minorities to find jobs in Beijing.

Many are not even able find rooms to rent because there is a policy that landlords have to report Tibetan and Uighur tenants to police stations, so many don’t want to rent to minorities.

dpa: What do Champa’s relationships, first with a Han Chinese businesswoman and then with her animal-rights activist daughter, suggest about Tibetan-Chinese relations?

Chan: I think romantic relationships are very complicated. Because I didn’t want to simplify Han-Tibetan relations I chose to include two different women as Champa’s love interests. The first woman gave him a lot of material comfort but didn’t respect him as an equal and used him as a kept man.

The younger woman saw him as an equal but they ended up not being compatible as lovers. I think that would be the better situation for Tibetans and Han Chinese. They are friends who are able to live together under one roof. She won’t use him or harm him and she sometimes helps him. What more can be expected?

dpa: What do you think will happen with tensions between different groups in China in the future?

Chan: I don’t think it is easy to understand each other. Hong Kong people don’t understand Taiwanese, Taiwanese people don’t understand Mainlanders, Mainlanders don’t understand Hongkongers and vice versa. It is so hard to do, but the gesture of trying to understand is important.

Photo credit: Joanna Chiu, dpa

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