Chan Koonchung

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Chan Koonchung tells Lisa Cam about his new book, life after The Fat Years and his visions for China and our city

 

There are Chinese authors who toe the line and there are Chinese authors who speak out – and get their works banned in the Mainland as a result. Chan Koonchung lives in the latter sphere. His epic science fiction novel, The Fat Years, hit Hong Kong bookshelves in 2009 after being banned in China. And, since then, it's been a huge international hit, in part due to the frighteningly bleak future it portrays for the Middle Kingdom, as well as Chan's superb visions and expressions. We must have seen his best, then. Or have we?

It's been two years since we last sat down with Chan. Since then, The Fat Years has been translated into 20 languages worldwide and given the former Hong Kong publisher – who has just visited the city to catch up with his sons – plenty of fans across the globe. And it's now 2013, the year The Fat Years is set in, and, according to the author, there are certain similarities between the world he created and the reality of the one we live in today. "I started writing The Fat Years in 2008," he says, "because I felt the mindset of the Chinese changed in that year and the perception of China from the outside world also changed. It was the beginning of a new 'normal' that is still continuing now. I remember myself as a youth in the 70s. Even though I knew Hong Kong had a lot of problems, I defended it against foreign criticism. The mood is like that now in China, where young people want to stand up and defend it. Even though they know there are things wrong with the country, they also want it to improve."

Chan has spent a lot of his life in Hong Kong. He was born in Shanghai, raised in our city, educated in the USA, based in Taipei in the 90s and has lived in Beijing since 2000. The intellectual, journalist, scriptwriter and, of course, author knows China and its place internationally. And he knows the fragrant harbour well too. "Hong Kong people are much more politically motivated," he says. "They want to talk about politics. There are pro-China factions and anti-China factions, and within the anti-China factions you have everything from the moderates to the radicals – and they can get very emotional. In Hong Kong, though, the real clincher will be whether or not universal suffrage will be achieved in 2017. With a liberty they can call their own, Hong Kong people might be calmed, and we can live in harmony with our neighbour."

'In China, problem books will not be published. For a Chinese writer, it's kind of a sacrifice'

China, as can pretty much be expected, is central to Chan's newest tome. Published in Chinese in January, ؛r‮)‬R – which literally means 'bare life' – is already getting plenty of attention. (It's being translated at the moment and is out in English as The Unbearable Dream World of Cham Pa the Driver early next year.) "The protagonist is a young Tibetan man called Cham Pa who grew up in Lhasa," explains Chan. "He's a kept man by a middle-aged, wealthy, Chinese businesswoman in Lhasa until he falls for her daughter. Eventually he ends up in Beijing trying to have a relationship with the daughter." With the book set in Tibet and containing some pretty steamy scenes by any standard, it's on the path to, yet again, being banned in the Mainland. But you don't need to tell Chan this. He just smiles and says: "I don't think it's going to be published in China."

Being an author of banned books in China is not something to be taken lightly. The Chinese market is huge and potentially lucrative, and giving it up is a bold move. Chan knows this only too well. "Problem books will not be published," he says, "because nobody will go through the laborious process of getting approval from the state authority for censorship and when that door is closed to you, you'll have to get it published elsewhere, like in Hong Kong and Taiwan. For a Chinese writer, it's kind of a sacrifice." However, with the French and Dutch rights already sold, distribution on an international scale shouldn't be a problem.

Chan is expected to be back in Hong Kong again soon. He's been nominated as the Author of the Year for the 2013 Hong Kong Book Fair, which is held between July 17 and 23. However, the mild-mannered author is humble in his response to the honour. "At the moment I'm worried about my summer talks in Hong Kong, three of which are talks for the Book Fair," he admits. "I'm just concerned with preparing for these at the moment."

As for what Chan's plans are for the near future, he tells Time Out: "I try not to think too far ahead. I treat every novel I write like my last work. If I'm lucky – and if I get the chance to – I hope I'll have the creative urge and energy to write another one." With a global following behind him and a Hong Kong which welcomes him with open arms, we're sure Chan Koonchung will get his literary creative juices flowing again pretty soon…

The Chinese version of The Unbearable Dream World of Cham Pa the Driver is published by Cosmos Books, priced $68. Look out for the English version early next year

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