A grave new world?
Former Hongkonger Chan Koonchung tells Matt Fleming The Fat Years is science fiction but mirrors today’s political climate in China
There’s a science fiction novel that hit the Hong Kong bookshelves two years ago after being banned in China. That novel is now making waves on the other side of the world due to the frighteningly bleak future it portrays for the Asian giant.
The Fat Years, which has just been published in the UK, is already being celebrated across the world. Its author Chan Koonchung says he was keen to base it around the ‘truth’ of what’s happening now, politically speaking, in China. “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.”
The novel clearly has echoes of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (but then any doomsday vision of the near future, which portrays a tightened authoritarian grip on a particular society, will always be compared to Orwell’s classic). However Fat’s premise is set literally just around the corner, in 2013.
In Fat, China has declared a Golden Age of Prosperity and Satisfaction after a second global economic meltdown, with Western nations in decline. The Chinese state controls all aspects of society and it booms compared to the West. There’s no poverty, everyone is happy and even Starbucks has been bought out by Wang Wang cafés. China is taking over the globe.
However it isn’t all plain sailing. There’s a collective amnesia in Chinese society over a month which has gone missing from official records and popular memory. Something bad took place – and the novel’s Taiwanese-Hong Kong protagonist Old Chen wants to find out what it was. “A counterfeit paradise,” the author muses, “has got to be better than a good hell.”
Chan was born in Shanghai in 1952 but moved to Hong Kong when he was just four-years-old. He lived and worked in the city until 1992, before moving to Beijing, then Taipei, and back to Beijing in 2000. He reckons he prefers the Chinese capital to Hong Kong. “I prefer Beijing to all other Chinese cities for only one reason: I want to write about China and I find Beijing suits my purpose best,” he says. “I have no plan to move away from Beijing as my main residence. Some of the books I wrote in Beijing were only published in Hong Kong and Taipei.”
Chan isn’t scared to speak his mind. He admits he can ‘never be an insider’ and ‘never be a local’ in Beijing. He says: “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, 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.”
The ‘truth’ is a central theme in The Fat Years. Despite the ‘missing month’, people are content to live with a deception by the government. But could this happen? Does Chan see it as a possibility in China? 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.”
He is asked what he would say to a Hong Kong resident who is debating reading The Fat Years. He answers: “Many Hongkongers believe they need to find ways to understand China better. I hope they find this novel helpful.” And Chan’s next novel? “It will be about contemporary China,” he says. “If it is hard-hitting, it will be a different kind of hard-hitting.”
The Fat Years is published by Transworld, priced $192.