Douglas Jaffe: Chasing Dragons

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Douglas Jaffe’s new novel on Hong Kong and Chinese mythology is definitely not about drugs, he tells Matt Fleming

We may have just left the Year of the Dragon behind and slithered into the Year of the Snake but the mythical beast is still very much alive and kicking when it comes to Douglas Jaffe and his debut novel. The 39-year-old former New Yorker, who has lived in Hong Kong for the past six years, has just released Chasing Dragons, which focuses on modern life in Hong Kong and juxtaposes it with Chinese folklore. It’s a gamble, considering it’s been written by an expat – but Jaffe is an expat who has studied the Middle Kingdom and its culture for many years.

Many would expect the book to be about heroin. Chasing the dragon is often used as a term describing addicts who go after that ‘ultimate high’. “To the dismay of many people who ask me whether it’s about drugs,” says Jaffe, “I have to say it’s not. It has nothing to do with drugs, drug culture or opium.” Instead, Chasing Dragons tells the story of Sebastian, owner of a Hong Kong bookstore café, who provides informal counselling services to an array of offbeat characters. His life is suddenly upended, though, when he meets Chloe and their relationship begins to parallel that of a pair of Chinese mythical dragons. “With a plot description like that, maybe it isn’t a stretch for people to assume that the author was smoking something when he wrote the novel,” jokes the author.

Jaffe has lived all over Asia, including Tokyo, Taipei, Beijing and Singapore but he’s settled in Hong Kong. He’s a former technology industry analyst and regional boss of a macroeconomics advisory firm – but now he co-runs a small technology venture capital and advisory company while focusing on his writing career. “This is my first novel,” he says. “It’s my ‘great American novel’ but with Chinese characteristics. Prior to this, I’d spent years writing graduate school papers, analyst reports and the occasional whiny letter to the Economist or other publications who usually preferred to ignore me.”

The author says he came up with the idea for the book years ago while studying Chinese culture in Beijing. “I spent hours reading ancient parables and trying to decipher their meaning,” says Jaffe. “Once I left school, I never had much cause to use this hard-won knowledge. I was seriously burnt out of all things Chinese. Only years later did I start to miss it and felt these things should be incorporated into any book I write.”

Jaffe fondly calls Chasing Dragons an ‘Asian urban fantasy novel written by a white boy’. He says he tries to weave together modern Hong Kong with mythical China. “I’d like to think the book is accessible to anyone with a vague curiosity about the region and an overactive imagination,” he says. “If you look around, you see plenty of TV dramas, promotions, cartoons and manga featuring mythical characters, so, in that sense, mythology is all around us. But, for me, I find mythology in the Chinese language, whose characters carry within them the history and culture of a people. Perhaps, as an American, anything which is old and alien is, by definition, mythology.”

The novel is already turning heads in Hong Kong, however Jaffe admits he’s mostly targeting the West. “Hong Kong is a tiny market,” he says, “and my book promotion efforts have been directed at trying to drive sales in North America, the UK and other English-reading markets. I’d love to see the book do well in Hong Kong since this is my home but the reality of book sales economics means overseas markets will be critical.”

Jaffe has a new novel on the horizon however he admits he’s not yet gotten into the nitty gritty of revising it. “An unrevised book is like a friendly but hopelessly disobedient puppy,” he says, “that you suspect may never learn to sit on command, so it’s easier just to pat him on the head and go do something else.” Um, yes. Weren’t we saying something earlier about drugs? 

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