Chan Koon-chung’s gray, shoulder-length hair is a throwback to the seventies, when Chan founded an influential cultural and alternative lifestyle magazine, City Magazine. Chan has since made a point of being where the action is: City Magazine saw Hong Kong navigate the anxiety-filled return to Chinese sovereignty, and in the early nineties, Chan moved to Taiwan, where he worked in television during the transition to full democracy that had the country choose its first popularly elected president. Chan has lived in Beijing since 2000.
Chan mentions that it took him a few years to crystallize his view of China in writing: when he finally did so in The Fat Years (2009), his unflattering diagnosis was that Chinese society had collectively made a Faustian bargain, swapping wealth and stability for personal liberty. In the novel, an entire month appears to have been erased from official Chinese history, and hardly anyone in 2013 Beijing seems to be aware of the gap: but now that China’s economic clout can guarantee its citizens a comfortable living, why should they care? Officially banned in mainland China, The Fat Years circulated widely on the Internet and was downloaded by many Chinese readers before being deleted by state censors. It was also published in Hong Kong.
Being from Hong Kong and having lived in Taiwan must have informed your experience of living in Beijing. How did that experience shape the writing of The Fat Years?
Yes, I grew up in Hong Kong and spent the first forty years of my life there. One reason why I wrote The Fat Years back in 2009 is that the Chinese people’s mentality had changed, but people in Hong Kong and Taiwan had not revised their view of China. I wanted to write a novel that would help to bridge this gap in perception.
How had the Chinese mentality changed?
A new mood emerged around 2004-2005, after the avian flu epidemic, when China began to run a trade surplus. 2008 was a very eventful year for China: there was unrest in Tibet, a major earthquake in Sichuan, and the Beijing Olympics, all in the middle of a global economic meltdown that left China wealthier and stronger while the West became weaker.
That was the year when many Chinese began to think: maybe our system has its merits. Some of them would now say there’s no place like China.
Are they right?
There is indeed no place like China—but that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
So what compels you to stay in China?
I’m here in Beijing for the people. Living here enabled me to surround myself with intellectuals, academics, people who discuss politics all the time. I didn’t use to be this political, but my perspective has changed over the last decade.
You’d think writers and artists would also be passionate about politics, but when Words Without Borders spoke to Yan Lianke, he described how he feels ostracized by other writers because of the political subtext in his novels.
I’ve heard other novelists talk about Yan Lianke, they’re just looking for a way to be dismissive. Everyone knows he’s a prolific and very creative writer, so instead they say he only writes for Westerners, which is completely untrue. If you don’t criticize the government too much, you can have a very good life in Beijing as a filmmaker or contemporary artist, if you don’t cross the line. That’s why most artists and novelists here avoid talking about politics.
What puzzles you most about China?
How the country is going to change its political system.
Does it have to?
I ask myself that question. Governance can still be improved within the current system: welfare and the medical system could be better. But it’s impossible for the current system to allow complete freedom of speech. China won’t relent in its persecution of dissidents. In my novel, China makes a lot of right moves and is actually a better place in 2013 than it is right now. It’s actually an optimistic view of China. But the crux of the novel is that even though China can be a good place, it will always leave some people very uncomfortable, like [protagonist] Xiao Xi.
In future, will people remember what’s happening in China today, or will today’s events succumb to the sort of voluntary forgetfulness you describe in The Fat Years?
We need visible icons to help us remember things. But Chinese cities are changing so much, forgetfulness will happen very quickly. I was surprised by how little the older generation is wedded to their old neighborhoods. I’m sure the younger generation will want to forget their childhood days, which must seem so distant now that the environment has completely changed. That kind of forgetfulness is serious.
Is there a voice inside the government resembling He Dongsheng, the reflective, ambitious government official in The Fat Years?
I’ve met many high officials who are constantly thinking about what’s good for China. But that doesn’t mean they’re not corrupt.
What about you: are you an idealist like the novel’s protagonist, Xiao Xi?
No, I don’t have a blueprint for how things should be. I may have fragments of ideals that I still want to pursue, but I don’t think I can provide all the solutions.