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From 'Fat Years' to reality for Chinese author Chan Koonchung

  • Chan Koonchung in the Sanlitun district of Beijing.

HONG KONG: Chan Koonchung's novel "The Fat Years", set in a China of the near-future where a dark moment of history has been erased from public memory, has never been published on the mainland.

The book released in 2009 presents a dystopian vision of 2013 in which China's rise coincides with the economic weakening of the West. Fiction chimed with reality when it was first released at the height of the financial crisis.

But its chances of being published in China were always going to be slim, given its allusions to the Communist Party's censorship machine and the way events such as the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago this week have been virtually deleted from official history.

"My novels are unpublishable (in China)," said Chan in an interview in Hong Kong.

"When I wrote 'The Fat Years' in 2009, many mainland publishers came to me. But after they read the book they never came back."

The English translation of Chan's latest novel, "The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver", was released in May.

It is an explicit and frequently coarse look at ethnic relations through the eyes of an urbanised, sex-obsessed Tibetan who makes his way from Lhasa to Beijing via complicated affairs with Han Chinese women.

It also has not found a mainland publisher.

"It's very anti-romantic," said Chan of the novel. "We all have a very romantic notion about Tibet but this novel is really anti-romantic. It's very direct."

Shanghai-born Chan nevertheless continues to live in Beijing, having moved there in 2000 to focus on writing about China after stints in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States. The 61-year-old says he has not faced interference and has had non-fiction works published in the mainland.

He says "enterprising" readers were able to access electronic copies of "The Fat Years" before they were removed from the Internet, while hard copies were briefly sold under-the-counter in some Beijing bookstores.

- 'The new normal' -

Both "Champa" and "The Fat Years" explore material obsessions in modern China, with Champa coveting his domineering Chinese boss's Toyota while she brings him back designer goods from Beijing.

"Young Tibetans are urbanised, educated, they listen to the same music, wear the same designer jeans and have the same aspirations as their counterparts elsewhere in urban China," said Chan.

"But they face subtle exclusions elsewhere. Landlords in Beijing for example will try to find a reason to turn them away -- not because they want to discriminate but because of the trouble involved. If you rent a house to an ethnic person from Tibet, you have to apply with the security bureau first for approval."

The self-congratulatory protagonist in "The Fat Years" meanwhile sips a Lychee Black Dragon Latte in Starbucks (which in the book has been bought out by a Chinese company) and is overcome by emotion when describing life in a placid Beijing -- where there are seemingly no unhappy memories.

"Every day I congratulated myself on living in China," says 'Chen' in the book. "Sometimes I was moved to tears I felt so blessed."

- Self-satisfied amnesia - One of Chen's counterparts -- among the few characters determined to challenge the self-satisfied amnesia -- is searching for the entire month of February 2011, whose disappearance coincided with China's economic and cultural rise in the story.

A third of China's current population was born after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, and a huge swathe of those under 25 are ignorant of the event.

Online, hundreds of millions of Chinese now have unprecedented access to information but an army of censors deletes topics deemed sensitive, even the most oblique references to Tiananmen.

A Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia maintained by domestic Internet giant Baidu has no entry for the year 1989, let alone anything more specific.

In the book's preface Chan is quoted as saying he sought to show a regime that has silenced or absorbed its opponents and "how the public have bought into China's authoritarian model".

"The mentality of many Chinese has changed to wonder if maybe our government is doing something right -- it's more confident of its own system," said Chan, referring to China's increasing assertiveness in international relations.

While he is willing to write "unpublishable" books that confront problems in modern China, Chan has nevertheless made Beijing his home and sees nothing changing there for the forseeable future.

"I would think this is the new normal for China now and it's going to last at least 10, 15 years," he added -- shrugging off concerns over a slowing property market and rising debt levels.

"The economy will have hiccups, ups and downs, maybe a serious crisis. But even if it slows down, China will still be rising. This is something the world will have to accept -- that China's rise may be unstoppable."

 
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Summary

Chan Koonchung's novel "The Fat Years", set in a China of the near-future where a dark moment of history has been erased from public memory, has never been published on the mainland.

The book released in 2009 presents a dystopian vision of 2013 in which China's rise coincides with the economic weakening of the West.

But its chances of being published in China were always going to be slim, given its allusions to the Communist Party's censorship machine and the way events such as the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago this week have been virtually deleted from official history.

"The mentality of many Chinese has changed to wonder if maybe our government is doing something right -- it's more confident of its own system," said Chan, referring to China's increasing assertiveness in international relations.

While he is willing to write "unpublishable" books that confront problems in modern China, Chan has nevertheless made Beijing his home and sees nothing changing there for the forseeable future.


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