Chang Man-chuan

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Author-turned-Cultural Director

Chang Man-chuan is no stranger to Hong Kong. Since 1987, the Taiwanese author has visited here countless times, on both long and short trips, as a tourist, as a writer promoting her books, and even as a visiting professor. “Sometimes I feel Hong Kong was my home in my past life,” says the elegant 51-year-old. “I always have a sense of déjà vu about many places here.”

This time, however, she’s here in a totally different role – a politician. In October 2011, Chang became the new director of K wang Hwa Information and Culture Center, Taiwan’s government-directed cultural office in Hong Kong. For a bestselling author known for her flowery, artistic essays about love and life, it seems unlikely she would sit in an office all day dealing with endless red tape and political drudgery. “I always thought I was a woman longing to be settled, but after I turned 40 I suddenly realised I like changes and different experiences,” she says. Wearing a short clean hairstyle, Chang, who vows to never marry, then confides to Time Out: “Actually, it’s a huge crossover from a writer to a politician but I believe that as a mature, experienced woman I can do this well!”

She uses the political analogy of ballot box voting to describe her new career path. “Middle-aged people have their ideals; maybe I’ll feel my vote is meaningless after voting, but at this moment I feel my life is full of energy, and I believe I can actually do something.”

Such an ideal was visibly present when she returned to Taiwan early last month to vote in the presidential election. “The voting was on Saturday. The day before, I took a night fight back. That night, the airport [in Taiwan] was a bit strange, yet marvellous. Instead of being occupied by foreigners and Mainland tourists as it usually is, it was filled with Taiwanese people returning from across the world. With all those people it was still very quiet in the airport. They just walked out with their luggage without a word. In the midst of them I was deeply touched. You are never sure if your vote can change anything, but you know you must do it. It’s not a political fever but an ideal.”

Chang is especially proud of the recent election. “Both candidates and voters were unprecedentedly graceful and civilised,” she says. “There were no bullets, no fighting or smearing; there was no loser, and the voters were the biggest winner.”

Compared to Taiwan’s presidential election, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive will be elected by a select few, but Chang is hopeful about the SAR’s democratic future. “Hong Kong is a city that cannot be ignored,” she says. “Hong Kong people are also respectable. China can’t completely ignore the people’s requests, and it needs a place to practice democracy. Where do you think that will be? Of course Hong Kong is a great platform. Maybe the next referendum in the Greater China region will happen in Hong Kong.”

During President Ma Ying-jeou’s first term, the cross-strait relationship has grown far stronger, as has political communication with Beijing. Now, in the next four years of Ma’s second term, Chang hopes Taiwan can influence mainland China on matters of fairness, democracy and self-cultivation. “I believe it’s easiest to influence people through culture, which is why I’m sitting here today. I want to communicate with the Mainland via Hong Kong. When I see more and more Mainland youths coming to Hong Kong to join our cultural month and music festivals, I feel what I do is meaningful.”

Chang won’t say which candidate she voted for because ‘it’s a voter’s privacy’; “But you should know whom I favour,” she says smiling. Indeed, she mentions on several occasions that she likes Ma’s political ideology in terms of preserving traditional Chinese culture and literature. “Chen Shui-bian promoted ‘Sinophobia’ during his term. At that time few kids were reading the Chinese literary classics. I felt responsible to nurture Chinese literature readers.” That is why she started ‘Chang Man Chuan Chinese Literature Classes’ for Taiwan’s teenagers. “Many people say this is a silly thing to do, but this is what I want to do. I can’t let it go.”

Even though being a government official means less writing, Chang doesn’t mind. “The ‘writer’ title has been a part of my life. Even when I’m not writing, people still call me a writer. But when I leave this position as a cultural director, I can no longer do what I’ve been doing. So far, I still enjoy the work here.”

But that doesn’t mean she no longer has a passion for writing. “I always meet my deadlines, against all odds!” she says. “It’s not like writing is a task to me, but I’m almost obsessive about writing. For me it is redemption. It lifts me away from the pain and difficulties of reality into a beautiful world.”

She plans to publish at least one book while in Hong Kong. “All my preliminary work has been done,” she says. “It wasn’t in time for Valentine’s Day, but hopefully it can be published on Qi Xi, the Chinese Valentine’s Day [August 23], because it’s about love.” Interview: Shirley Zhao

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