Chan Koonchung: the migrant Sino-phone novelist

By Du Yijie

Chan Koonchung, the Sino-phone writer who once pirated his own novel, now writes everything about China in Chinese, his third dialect.

Chan is tall and thin, wearing a pair of chic rectangular glasses. He talks gently, with a quiet and unassuming demeanor. His grey shoulder-length hair is the bohemian legacy of the beat generation when the 12-year-old dashed into the cinema and saw A Hard Day’s Night well over ten times.

An author with multiple identities, Chan is a cultural hybrid. Born in Shanghai in 1952, he moved to Hong Kong when he was just 4 years old. Educated in the US and based in Taipei in the 90s, he has lived in Beijing since 2000. The mild-mannered man in his sixties identifies his roots in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Having been raised in the baby boom age of the fragrant harbor, he is characteristic of the first generation of well-educated Hong Kongers: astute, efficient and pragmatic, as he concludes in his essays of the Hong Kong series.

Writing has always been Chan’s forte. He published short essays in the student publication at the University of Hong Kong and began his career as a reporter for the now defunct Hong Kong tabloid, The Star. In 1976, he co-founded City Magazine, a lifestyle barometer of the emerging middle class in the city in the economic boom of the 80s. In the 1990s he worked as an overseas publisher for the mainland literary journal Dushu.

The intellectual, journalist and scriptwriter was never completely satisfied with non-fiction writing—a hobby rather than a career. At the age of 50, he was struck by an incredible urge to be in Beijing and write a novel about the Middle Kingdom.

For Chan, a novel provides an unfettered and unfiltered tool to disclose the reality in a nation known for harsh censorship. With its rich ambiguity and magical realism, it is up to the reader to take his own political standing by reading between lines.

“When I write about China, I need to be in China and engaged in the Chinese culture,” said Chan.

His first stay in Beijing in the go-go years of the 1990s whetted his appetite for the emerging nation. Most of Chan’s prior knowledge of China had been acquired as part of the anti-Maoist left-wing camp during the Cultural Revolution. Chan struggled hard to be an insider, only feeling more and more alienated from his subject matter.

For him, the crux of writing well necessitates total immersion in the culture and ethos of the country he wants to write about. As the millennium dawned, Chan headed for and settled in the country’s political and cultural hub, Beijing, a melting pot of freaks, intellectuals and creative geniuses.

Unlike other secluded writers, Chan is gregarious. He found dinners in Beijing were the entry point for informing his voracious appetite to learn about China. What he learnt, informed his later works.

In 2008, considered the beginning of China’s ‘new normal’, Chan observed a mentality shift in China: hard-line loyalists became more assertive, trumpeting the achievements of the Communist Party, while liberal intellectuals saw no alternative but to become reluctant conformists.

Six years after his relocation, in 2009, his epic science fiction novel, The Fat Years, hit Hong Kong and Taiwan bookshelves after being banned in China. Mainland publishers flocked to Chan, only to pull out after reading through, presumably put off by the political content.

However, someone retyped the entire novel into simplified Chinese and put it on the Internet within the Great Firewall as free content. Chan noticed the errors in those copies, fixed the glitches and made his version available online, pirating his own book in a way. The writer’s version as well as the copycat versions got spread widely around China for six months before the official wipe-out. Since then, the 58-year-old writer has remained determined to be a genuine novelist.

The work is a dystopian novel about China and its Orwellian future. It spans two years and looks at the dynamic of living in an authoritarian state. Set in 2013, after the world’s second financial crisis, the government clings to power by it sending troops into the streets for a month— a week of anarchy and three weeks of reign of terror through emergency martial rule. But, this excruciating misery has disappeared from the collective memory of all Chinese except for a few recalcitrant individuals. The twist lies when we discover the collective amnesia is a voluntary act rather than the effect of unwanted drugs.

Chan says amnesia is a fact of life in China, where the legitimacy of the regime is self-evident but disagreement and public unrest are squashed. The nation of one party rule has become all the more defensive and irony or satire is not accommodated.

In Chan’s philosophy, one justification for the current Chinese state is the Panglossian argument in Voltaire’s Candide. The logic that China as it is, despite all its defects, is already the best scenario deters people from being socially engaged or reforming.

In his recent novel, The Unbearable Dream World of Champa the Driver published in 2014, the Tibetan driver and lover of a Chinese businesswoman falls in love with her daughter. It is a satirical metaphor of the unbalanced relations between China and Tibet.

Chan is always political in his works. “In China you will seem obsessive if you only talk about politics,” he said. “But it will be hypocritical or self-censoring if you avoid politics.”

Despite being a prolific author, Chan cannot enjoy the benefits of the huge Chinese market as his books are banned, but he doesn’t mind. Mainland bestsellers have to play by the rules and tow the party line. At Chan’s age, though, he feels there is no need to self-censor and would prefer to be a bona fide writer.

After 15 years’ residence in Beijing, the Hong Kong-grown writer still remains an expat. As a multi-cultural chameleon, Chan considers cross-cultural communication a conundrum. Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China rarely put oneself into the shoes of each other.

A Sino-phone writer, he hopes to fill the gap by his in depth field research and truthful writing.