Chan Koonchung, author of the hottest novel to come out of China this year, suggests we meet at Starbucks in The Place. Grasping our branded coffees, we settle under the ubiquitous green umbrellas. Stretching above us is The Place’s gargantuan outdoor screen. I’m delighted. For what could be a more fitting location to discuss Chan’s disturbing, dystopian novel, The Fat Years, than this chain located in this moneyed, futuristic, CBD mall?
Let me explain the novel’s premise. It is 2013 and China has officially declared a ‘Golden Age of Prosperity and Satisfaction’. The announcement follows a second global economic meltdown. America and the West fester in debt and decline. But China – bolstered by a muscular State that controls all aspects of society – booms. The people are happy, poverty is annihilated, and Starbucks – that mainstay grasping American multinational – has been bought out by Wang Wang cafés. Forget Mocha Frappuccinos; 2013 is the era of the Lychee Black Dragon Latte. And China is taking over the world.
Yet trouble lurks under the surface. Memories of a ‘missing month’ of brutal crackdowns begin to surface; the government, it seems, has drugged the populace into forgetting. ‘A counterfeit paradise,’ muses Taiwanese-Hong Kong protagonist Old Chen in the book, ‘has got to be better than a good hell.’
It’s an explosive premise. Despite this, Chan is mild mannered and quiet when we meet. ‘I’ve always wanted to write something about China – I wanted to write about what’s really happening,’ the 59 year old explains. ‘[The Fat Years] is science fiction. But I was trying to portray the near future based on the existing system.’
Shanghai-born Chan was raised in Hong Kong, but moved to Beijing over a decade ago to pursue his own definitive China book. After a series of false starts, the author’s eureka moment finally came during the 2008 global financial crisis – and the idea for The Fat Years was born. Most readers recognise echoes of George Orwell’s 1984 in the text; and, like all the best political sci-fi, The Fat Years speaks more about now than the future. Depictions of the new wealthy Chinese chattering classes – willing to close their eyes to atrocities in return for ballooning economic growth – are eerily current.
As such, The Fat Years has hit a nerve both abroad (an English translation by Julia Lovell comes out this month) and at home. The novel is unpublished on the Mainland, but thousands of copies have been sold in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where it was first published in 2009. Crucially, Chan has also provided a free copy online – sparking furious debate. ‘The depictions of China’s future trends have never been thought and written about before!’ gushes one blogger on chinavalue.net. Not all are as charmed. Another comments dryly on simplecd.org: ‘[Chan] only talks about what he himself sees, regardless of the facts.’
Chan is acutely aware of his status as a returnee and the criticisms this might bring: ‘I can never be an insider, I can never be a local,’ he insists. Still, he forms part of a group of Beijing intellectuals – writers, academics, filmmakers and artists – who believe in speaking out. ‘If you set out to deceive, you are not really an intellectual or even a good writer. But, if you push on with the search for truth, it doesn’t need to be…’ He pauses, and corrects himself. ‘It could be scientific truth or anything. It doesn’t have to be social or political. But you should tell the public the truth. That’s your duty as a writer.’
Part of this truth is an uncannily realistic portrayal of Beijing’s shifting landscape. Old Chen slouches in The Village, wonders about having lunch at Maison Boulud, and searches out French impressionist paintings in 798. ‘You can’t find another art district on this scale anywhere else in the world,’ declares Old Chen. ‘When the foreigners see it… their impression of China suddenly changes, from China as a backward country to China as the most creative country in the world.’ The book backs up Chan’s belief that Beijing will soon become one of the ‘big three’ alongside London and Paris.
I am curious to hear what he thinks, then, about this city that he has made his home. ‘Beijing is not a lovely place to be,’ Chan says with honesty. ‘You could say it’s grand, it’s spectacular. But I never use the word “lovely”. That’s the thing: I don’t have a place I really like here.’
But he stays. And this sums up Chan, perhaps, more than anything else. He is a thinker – attracted to the pulsating, terrifying drive of 20 million Beijingers hurtling towards the future. ‘One reason I prefer to stay in Beijing is that people still talk about stuff,’ he says. ‘They update themselves on what is happening. You learn things. [Unlike in Hong Kong] you don’t talk about movie stars. So, if you want to talk about China, you have to be in Beijing.’
Ironically, The Fat Years is all about people not talking. Instead, they live in delirious delusion, content with a great deception. Looking around Starbucks at the young, trendy clientele, I wonder out loud if this is really where Chan sees China going. As always, he is cautious in his answer. ‘I don’t know. Maybe the old guys are stubborn.’ He smiles. ‘And maybe a brave new world is coming.’
Additional reporting by Wan Quan