In 1956, a Shanghai boy moved to Hong Kong. He quickly mastered Cantonese and took Hong Kong as his city. Sixty years later, He is still proud of his perfect Cantonese. “I love to be one of those local boys. I will never be discriminated against, because I have spoken perfect Cantonese since I was four.”
But fate has made the little Shanghai boy an outsider all his life. Instead of shying away from this, he has used it as a gift.
It is not easy to define the identity of Chan Koonchung. Born in Shanghai，a Zhejiang descent, Chan has also lived in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States. In 2000, he moved to Beijing and decided to become a novelist writing about China. He sees his own identity as someone who writes broadly in Chinese, “I prefer to call myself a sinophone.”
After fifteen years, he is still considered an outsider and gets asked, “Are you from Singapore? Taiwan? Hong Kong?” People never think Chan is a Beijing native, and probably never will.
Long grey hair, a fitted dark suit, striped socks in black and grey. In all ways, Chan is too refined and elegant to be one of those Beijingers. But there is one thing Chan and Beijingers have in common—they talk about politics, a lot. “I need to be in Beijing. It’s a concentration of people,” Chan says. “Beijing talked about China, about politics more than any place. They are my sources.”
Tired of second-hand information about mainland China, Chan took the chance to go in person for a three-year business trip to Beijing in 1992. This allowed him to unveil China on his own; he ended up realizing how little he knew about this huge country. “Sometimes, it’s out of focus; sometimes, it’s in the focus. China is very interesting to me.”
“Interesting” is not the word. China’s magnetism to Chan is not a want but a need.
Though born in mainland China, Chan found his identity in Hong Kong. For his generation, people born in Hong Kong’s baby boom years after 1949, mainland China is often an isolated strange place, scary and too “red”. In the early 1970s, the Cultural Revolution swept China. Its stated goal was to preserve ‘true’ Communist ideology in the country by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society, and to re-impose Maoist thought as the dominant ideology within the Party. The red wind blew to Hong Kong. A group of left-leaning students interpreted Maoism and justified what was happening in China.
Chan and his fellow Anti-Mao students at the University of Hong Kong chose their battle. “We knew and cared little about china. We want to go west, not north. Even though we wanted to go, we were not allowed anyway, “ he recalls. “To fight with Maoists, we had to learn about China.”
In 1976, the Cultural Revolution was over and the Maoist students were lost. It gave Chan and his fellows an illusion that they knew about China but his first trip to Beijing woke him up. “We’ve been talking about China all the time, until I really came to China, then I realized there was so much I don’t know about China,” he said. To make sense for himself what was happening, Chan began to write.
A political science fiction, The Fat Years, published in 2009, was the first book that made Chan the target of public controversy. In this book, set in the year 2013, a month has gone missing from official records. No one has any memory of it, and no one could care less—except for a small circle of friends, who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the sinister cheerfulness and amnesia that has possessed the Chinese nation.
Some critics regard The Far Years as a complex novel of ideas that reveals all too chillingly the machinations of the postmodern totalitarian state, and sets in sharp relief the importance of remembering the past to protect the future. Some do not.
“I had intellectuals in Beijing in mind when I wrote The Fat Years. As long as they read it, I don’t care about others.” Chan says. But the irony is that they were not able to find a copy of it, because the book angered conservatives. It was banned in the mainland. Though, the book was translated into simplified Chinese and published on line, so some of Chan’s intellectual friends did get to read it.
For the first two years, Chan received positive feedback, but some negative views came up later. “They thought I was too negative. I ignored the activists in Weibo, but I am right,” Chan says. From 2009, Weibo has played an increasingly important role in public affairs, yet since 2011 the Chinese government has put more pressure on social networks and has arrested some well-known Weibo activists. Now Weibo has lost its once energetic role in public opinion.
This time, the old Shanghai boy cannot fit in just by speaking fluent Mandarin. Actually, “fitting in” does not seem to be what he wants anymore. He wrote The Fat Years to intellectuals in Beijing for a reason.
It is a generally accepted fact that there are misunderstandings, prejudice, and a level of estrangement between people from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, largely due to historical and ideological reasons. Chan does not seem to have the ambition to change that, but he does try to contribute his perspective of China, a more passive and less appreciated one, and is not tempted by a seemingly prosperous economy, increasingly powerful international prestige or a ‘fat year’.
The book is all about the new normal after 2008, when Beijing held a successful Olympics and rest of the world got bogged down in the economic crisis. “Many Chinese shifted their mentality in that year. They would argue China is doing well and its repressive system might have merits, while the West was definitely not as attractive as it used to be,” Chan said.
Almost forty years later, Chan still picks the same battles, but this time he is in Beijing, not a student, and alone. Seeing loyalists becoming more assertive, trumpeting the achievements of the Communist Party, and watching others becoming reluctant conformists. Chan told himself he had to write about this new reality.
In The Fat Years, Chan used a classic metaphor originated from Lu Xun, a highly recognized left-wing writer in modern Chinese literature, “a good hell” and “a fake paradise”. When the social activist Xiao Xi asked the Taiwan writer Lao Chan which one he would choose. To win Xiao Xi’s heart, Lao Chen carefully and vaguely said, “If necessary, I may be willing to consider a good hell.”
In reality, Chan has no one to flatter. “I would probably choose the fake paradise. You may not find it’s fake. In good hell, it’s still hell.”