My Private China
Award-winning author Alex Kuo tells Matt Fleming his new book looks at 'the good, the bad and the ugly' in modern China
When you sit down with Alex Kuo, you're instantly put at ease. The acclaimed Chinese American author has a calming influence, an elegantly mannered way of speaking and a carefully relaxed tone. And that, to us, is pretty surprising. Here's a man who's just launched his latest book, My Private China, in Hong Kong and it's basically a tome which, through the use of letters, essays, fiction and even poetry, attempts to show the world many aspects of the Middle Kingdom – and Hong Kong, in places – which it would probably prefer to remain hidden. It's a bold move.
My Private China is ostensibly a good, hard look at contemporary China and its people as a memoir but also as a cultural dissection over a period of about 40 years. Each excerpt is written, as Kuo says, 'without a theme or continuity in mind'. There's a piece on American evangelicals in China who attempt to 'plumb the Chinese soul while pirating its furniture and children'. And the opening gambit, which reveals the tank gun barrels in the 1989 Tiananmen incident were plugged – and the famous Tank Man was, in fact, not a student at all – is a poignant start. As the plug says: "This collection of sketches of contemporary China probe what the Chinese find important on a daily basis, how they resolve their personal experiences with their public charades, and how they value their dreams, wishes and lies."
Kuo, who has periodically lived in China since the middle of the Second World War, has an impressive backlog of successful books. In 2011, The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze sold well across the world and his epic collection of short tales, Lipstick and Other Short Stories, won him the American Book Award in 2002. (But he tells us: "This award, like other similar ones, are good for only about six months."). Born in Boston, USA, now living in Washington, and with a history in Hong Kong, China and across the world, he's been writing and teaching for more than half a century.
The 74-year-old launched his new book in Hong Kong on May 18 and his publisher, Blacksmith Books, is looking into other places across the globe to release the publication, including the Mainland. "It should raise quite a few eyebrows in Hong Kong," says Kuo, "as I've taken a very unusual perspective on some sacred cows in HK, as well as Tiananmen Square dissidents, and the Tank Man who allegedly stopped the tanks on June 5, 1989. He was not a student but a secret service agent lining up the tanks – their barrels plugged – for optimal crowd control."
The book, according to Kuo, was going to be printed in Shenzhen but the company behind it, he claims, pulled out due to 'the worst kind of censorship': self-censorship. He maintains it may yet be released in the Mainland.
Kuo, who's now concentrating on the third novel in his 'Ge trilogy', shanghai, shanghai, shanghai, says the Mainland is all about modernisation and globalisation at the moment – 'the good, the bad and the ugly', as he calls it. And, despite his highly relaxed demeanour, he also has a few words for our city. "I think Hong Kong is not in a very competitive position culturally and economically at this point," he says. "To be competitive, it'll have to do something about the education infrastructure first and foremost." To the author, who bought his first book in 1952 just around the corner from where we photograph him near The Peninsula (above), the Chinese government 'lies to its people' – but, in comparison, 'Hong Kong people lie to their government'. "The government in Hong Kong generally applies the rule of law fairly but there's a form of resistance from people, inherent since the British ruled. Some people lie to get what they want from the government."
So, despite his calm demeanour, expect strong words in Kuo's newest work. Expect a poetic yet often damning way of looking at China, its history, its modernity and its people. And expect to look at Hong Kong without the rose-tinted glasses. But, most of all, expect to be engaged.
My Private China is published by Blacksmith Books, priced $128.