Great expat-ations

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Sung Bale quizzes writer John Cairns and publisher Paul E Watt on their new tome which is making a big splash in Hong Kong

Two expats walk into a Wan Chai bar. Sounds like the start of a terrible (and potentially xenophobic) joke, right? But publisher Paul E Watt and author John Cairns claim their new book All Aboard! Planet Expat started out just that way, with expats walking into a bar, just like the duo do at Wan Chai watering hole Tai Lung Fung when we meet for a drink.

Taking a swig of his beer, Watt tells us that as well as being the publisher and founder of Power Publishing Club, he’s also the proprietor of The Junk Pub in Wan Chai. Being a well seasoned ‘ex-Australian’ with at least 30 years of travelling under his belt, he claims he knows how to instantly spot a nomad with a tale to tell. And he says he put that skill to good use when he came up with the idea for Planet Expat. “There were a lot of unusual characters coming in and out of my pub,” says Watt. “Pretty soon, I had an idea for a book. Collecting stories from people was just that easy.” Canadian-born writer Cairns, who’s lived in Hong Kong for 21 years, was introduced to Watt early this year through a friend who was interested in the project – South China Morning Post illustrator Sara Seneviratne. And the rest is Hong Kong literary history.

This is believed to be the first non-fiction expatriate tome of its kind to hit Hong Kong’s bookshelves and it plunders through overseas adventures – and mishaps – with nary a girly bar or political rant in sight. There are 18 stories from people who come from an array of countries. The book, however, isn’t just about Hong Kong life. “We didn’t want Hong Kong to dominate the book,” admits Cairns. “But the 18 people all have ties to it. When people travel and find themselves in unfamiliar situations, it’s a very healthy thing. The book is about life. The most beautiful thing that all the expats I’d spoken to had learned is that there are mostly good people everywhere you go around the world.”

The stories in the book are told both in first and third person. Topics include exotic reptiles, Bruce Lee, ghosts, the Taj Mahal, cockfights and jazz. All of the stories bring their own unique voice to the book and are written up and edited by Cairns. “Wine consists of water, flavour, alcohol and the seldom-mentioned fourth component – bullshit,” writes Garry Benny, owner of Bellavita Fujian Winery, delightfully commenting on the ‘bullshit factor’ of the HK wine industry in Planet Expat.

“I tried wearing a penis gourd once but my wife freaked out,” writes IT instructor Darren Turnbull in another chapter, referring to the cover-ups used by tribal men in Papua New Guinea. “She thought that it was meant to be some kind of strange sexual aid.”

Rather than focus on crude stereotypes, the tome explores the meaning of expatriation, aiming to open up a world of different cultural interactions to readers. “An example of what the book is about is the exploration of the different ways people go into a lift,” explains Watt. “Chinese people tend to be in a hurry, so they all get in, the doors close and off they go. Westerners will most likely allow the ladies in first. In Africa, the man goes in first to check for evil spirits.”

A slew of radio interviews, reviews and articles has followed the successful November launch of the book – and it has been selling well in Hong Kong ever since. Watt says he plans to expand Planet Expat into a series over the course of the next year in a bid to tackle the global market. One of the projects he and Cairns are already making headway on is a Planet Expat female version after some critics commented on the absence of ladies in the new read. “I knew reviewers wouldn’t approve of the fact there are no women in the book!” says Cairns. “But, you know, a pub in Wan Chai... you don’t get many women going in there.”

Cairns tells us the expats he interviewed for the book all plan to keep travelling in the future. “Almost 95 percent have said they wouldn’t stop to settle,” he says. “Why would you?” concludes Watt. “You get hooked. Once you start moving around, meeting new people, experiencing new things... life gets exciting.”

All Aboard! Planet Expat is published by Power Publishing Club, priced $150.

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