Tram lines

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Matt Fleming parleys with François Boucher, the Hong Kong-French author who has a penchant for Wan Chai and its trams

Wan Chai. It’s a beautiful place. Yeah, there’s Lockhart Road and the seedy associations which go with it. But there’s also architectural beauty, a melting pot of culture and plenty of history in this neighbourhood. And Hong Kong-French author François Boucher has attempted to bring all these aspects of the district into his latest local literary offering, Out of Time in Wan Chai.

Ostensibly, the novel, which was released in French last year but has just been published in English, is a detective story set in the HK riots of 1967 which follows three equally intriguing characters – Siu Fung, a young revolutionary college girl, Johnny Kwok, a slightly perverted detective, and Chambon, an old French soldier who’s now in the arms business. The girl is carrying a bomb, the detective is after her and the soldier aids her escape. Cue a ‘cat and mouse’ game and much mystery and intrigue.

The book, Boucher’s eighth under the pen-name ‘Fan Tong’, was a hit in his native tongue, being shortlisted for French school award the Segalen Prize (and it’s been climbing up the charts on Kindle this summer). And it’s now gained attention on an international scale in English. But it all started, says the 52-year-old freelance journalist, with Wan Chai’s most famous method of transportation. “My starting point was the tram,” he says. “I had written some articles about it before and was stunned by one point: when you look at old pictures of it, the tram, from its launch in 1904 up to now, almost hasn’t changed. On the contrary, though, its environment hasn’t stopped mutating – from almost wild sceneries to the glass and iron skyscrapers of today. In a way, the HK tram is an unchangeable witness of a constantly evolving history.”

Boucher says he wanted to put the iconic tram ‘in the limelight’ and even make it ‘the fourth character of my story’. “It actually plays an important role in the script,” he says. “And, of course, I naturally had to choose a place along the tram’s route. Wan Chai – and especially Stone Nullah Lane, Cross Street and Johnston Road – imposed themselves quite naturally for their picturesque and Romanesque qualities, their rich history, their mix of old and new, and the fact that the district is quickly changing, illustrating very well what I wanted to underline, and fitting perfectly to the sequences of my story. Thus, I had the basis of my story.”

Boucher, who has lived in China for 18 years, shares his time between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, where his wife works. All of his novels are detective stories which take place in the Middle Kingdom, with the first being in Guangzhou, and then moving on to Yunnan, with one popular setting a railway track which the French built at the end of the 19th century.

But why Fan Tong? “I use a Chinese nickname for my novels,” he says. “It designates somebody with a strong appetite. My Chinese friends gave it to me. They were impressed by the quantity of rice I could swallow compared to my rather modest corpulence. When I published my first book, the editor and I thought it would be fun to use a Chinese pseudonym. Fan Tong is easy to remember and the vast majority of my French readers don’t know what it means. Two reasons for adopting it.”

The novel’s launch at the Book Attic in Central was a busy affair a few weeks’ back but Boucher is keeping his feet on the ground when it comes to success in Hong Kong. “Most of my books have been released in China and France, so I’m actually a newcomer to the local market,” he says. “The distribution is not easy. But I have been lucky to be trusted by big bookstore chains and smaller independent ones too. And with the French version doing well – who knows?

“I am on the point of finishing writing a new book,” he adds, “where the action will take place in the former French colony of Fort Bayard, in the south of Guangdong. A kind of French Hong Kong but far less successful.” A bit like Boucher himself, in fact. Except he may be the French Hong Kong success story we’ve been looking for…

Out of Time in Wan Chai is published by Blue Lettuce Publishing, priced $78.

 

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