IT’S MID-MORNING at Kee Club in Hong Kong and, over a cup of black coffee and a glass of cold water, Chan Koonchung is talking about ecstasy. The context is the denouement of his cult novel The Fat Years, which was published in 2009. In the book, which is set in 2013, the Hong Kong-born, Shanghai-raised author depicts a gently dystopian China. It’s not violent, exactly, but creepy in the way that clowns are creepy, and alarmingly prescient.
“I was trying to write the ‘new normal’ in China,” says Chan, who moved from Hong Kong to Beijing in 2000. “That is, China as a very strong state, with a big affluent class and a powerful government that has relented relatively in crushing dissent. I think that became the new perception of China after 2008, both by the Chinese themselves and outsiders.”
The story is that a whole month has gone missing from the Chinese public’s awareness and everyone in Beijing is inexplicably happy. They live, as Chan puts it, in the “fake paradise” of a rising nation, where Starbucks belongs to a Chinese conglomerate and Old Chen, the protagonist, resides in an area of the capital known as Happiness Village Number Two. China’s “Golden Age of Ascendancy” has begun.
“Every day I read the papers, surfed the net, and watched the TV news,” narrates Old Chen, “and every day I congratulated myself on living in China; sometimes I was moved to tears I felt so blessed.” It turns out (spoiler!) that the whole population is high on E, which the state has put into the water and all domestic drinks to control the mood of the nation.
The idea, says Chan, was inspired by the real-life tainted milk scandal of 2008, when all major suppliers of baby formula on the mainland were using heavy chemicals to disguise inadequate protein levels in the drink. Babies suffered and died while the Chinese government, knowing how widespread it was, delayed announcing the threat so as not to dilute the success of the Beijing Olympics. After that, Chan thought, “What else could [the state] do? What wouldn’t they do? They can do anything.”
The Fat Years is banned on the mainland, and there’s little chance his new novel will make it past the censors. “I know before I write my books that they may not be publishable,” says Chan. “If I wanted them to be, I would have to practice self-censorship or ignore certain topics, and I don’t want to do that.”
His latest book, whose title translates as Naked Lives, was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan in January. It addresses the troubled Tibetan-Han Chinese relationship through the character of Champa, a driver from Lhasa who becomes the kept man of a successful and mature businesswoman in Beijing.
He ends up falling in love with her rebellious daughter, an animal activist intent on saving pet dogs from becoming blackmarket meat. Random House will publish the novel in English translation next year, as The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver.
“I’ve always wanted to write about the Tibetan-Han Chinese relationship,” says Chan, “It’s very complicated, almost like a love-hate affair between two people. The relationship involves all kinds of dependency, manipulation and expectation.”
The author’s job is not to offer a solution to the problem of Tibet, but to satirise it. To hold up a mirror, laugh loudly and say, “Look! You’re ridiculous.” If The Fat Years is anything to go by, Chan is good at that. He maintains an ambivalence that seems rare among his peers, which allows him to deliver a clear-minded and measured critique of his homeland.
Chan says the government has “done bad things” regarding the ethnic conflicts in Tibet and Xinjiang: “Their policies are not good, and I can’t see an end to it. In a sense, they’re getting stricter and stricter. Before, China tried to at least seem like an egalitarian and respectful nation. Now it’s almost as though they’ve given up trying to appear as the good guy.”
In many ways China is “like an oversized teenager”, he adds, prone to awkwardness and desperate for the world’s praise, even as it frightens and frustrates its own people as well as other nations near and far. “If you think about China 10 years ago, it was a different country,” says Chan, “Now it has become so powerful, almost out of nowhere.”
Still, this makes it a thrilling place to live, and Chan has no plans to move back to Hong Kong from the mainland. “I’m in Beijing for the culture and the people,” he says, “not because it’s a lovely city. There’s an enormous circle of intellectuals, cultural and creative people…probably 100 times the size of similar groups in Hong Kong. Not every writer needs to be in Beijing to write about China, but I do.”
Chan founded the influential City magazine in Hong Kong in 1976, and was editor-in-chief there for 23 years. But he thinks that Hong Kong’s time has passed, and many on the mainland would deny the territory’s instrumental role in China’s modernisation. While Hong Kong remains one of China’s great cities, it’s no longer a centre.
I wonder if the people in China are happy, despite – one assumes – the absence of recreational drugs in the water. “In the urban areas, the older generations are quite happy. The state really takes care of them, so they depend on [it] and don’t cause trouble,” says Chan.
“The younger generations are less happy, but not because of the state. It’s more about the difficulty of making money in the big city. They don’t blame [the government], because they know that’s the game: You grow up and make money, so you can have a comfortable life…It’s like that everywhere in the world now.”
I wonder if they’re concerned about their liberty. There’s almost a sigh. “In my book I make the point that China has 90 percent freedom. What more could we want?
“The state is holding back on political freedom, but there’s a lot of personal freedom in China now. Thirty years ago, you couldn’t make your own career and move around to different cities; you couldn’t even choose your spouse…Surveys may not show that the Chinese are the happiest people in the world, but they trust their government.”
He says that most people in China are not, after all, pining for democracy. They simply hope for better governance under the present system. “Nobody can see what the next step should be,” says Chan. “Of course, those in power are using this uncertainty to convince the people to stay loyal [to the Chinese Communist Party] or there will be chaos; to say to the public, ‘Nobody can handle China better than us.’ A lot of people buy into this idea.”
Finally, I wonder if the world’s new goliath might reveal itself, in time, to be less awkward and more humane. “I think we’ll see more of the same for the time being,” says Chan, “Whether this giant turns out to be good or bad – that remains to be seen. Regardless, China’s rise will be unstoppable.”