The road to Beijing, with a subversive heart
The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver By Chan Koonchung Doubleday, 192pp, $32.99 BANNED in China has become a badge of honour in recent years, worn proudly by recipients as diverse as The New York Times, Ai Weiwei, Bjork and The Big Bang Theory.
Making it on to this exclusive list, compiled inscrutably somewhere deep in Communist Party HQ, can also be a boon for any Chinese writer hoping to gain an audience abroad.
It certainly helped Chan Koonchung’s debut novel, The Fat Years. Published in Hong Kong in 2009 and translated into English two years later, it never received a release on the Chinese mainland. But reports that secret copies had become the must-have gift at high society gettogethers caught the imagination beyond Beijing. It was eventually translated into 20 languages and gained Chan a worldwide following.
In truth, The Fat Years wasn’t the revolutionary text some claimed it to be — it was a smart but gentle satire set in the not-so-distant future,
June 14-15, 2014 which examined China’s unwillingness to confront its past. Chan wrote with subtle absurdity, poking fun at different sections of Chinese society. It was a book which, on another day, may just have flown under the censor’s radar.
All of which makes his follow-up even more surprising. Chan has raised a middle finger to whomever banned his first novel by writing a rowdy, explicit and politically subversive book that will likely be received in Beijing as well as a Dalai Lama visit to the Yasukuni shrine.
Chan has almost guaranteed that The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver will never see an official Chinese release by setting it in Tibet.
It follows Champa, a carefree cabbie from Lhasa hired by wealthy businesswoman Plum to become her personal driver. Before long, the pair embarks on a voracious love affair, described in detail by Champa.
Plum showers Champa with gifts he could never have imagined — a car, an iPad, his own credit card — but it’s not enough for him. He dreams of living in Beijing, and begins to fall for Plum’s daughter, Shell, who is visiting from the capital. When Shell returns home, and with Plum abroad on business, Champa decides to drive across the country after her.
Chan occupies a similar space to filmmaker Jia Zhangke, a recipient of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award, in that both are interested in the mental and spiritual toll China’s economic miracle has had on the lives of ordinary people.
For Champa, like many in China, the idea of wealth is all too often distant from the reality. Eating at McDonald’s and driving a Range Rover soon become passé. Instead, he becomes obsessed by a Buddhist Tara statue Plum brought back from Nepal, a way of clinging on to the past as everything around him changes. Chan’s China is a place where material possessions fail to bring the fulfilment they promise.
Much the same can be said about the Chinese government. Chan uses Champa’s long drive from Lhasa to Beijing to outline the brutality with which Tibet was incorporated into China during the 1950s. Beijing’s influence is now more subtle but no less pervasive.
Champa’s friends lament the government’s meddling in local affairs. “We Tibetans, we’re herded,” complains one.
When Champa arrives in Beijing, the city is far from the mecca he’s imagined throughout his long journey. He feels out of place, and when a brief affair with Shell unravels and Plum con- fiscates his car, he’s left disconsolate, living in a shantytown on the edge of the city. It’s an experience that will be familiar to many of the tens of millions who have moved into China’s megacities over the past three decades.
Like any road trip story, this is a book ultimately about a search for freedom, but Chan’s Beijing is instead defined by restrictions and stark inequality. Champa encounters petitioners who have travelled from across China to air a grievance with the government. Many are locked away in “black jails”, unofficial detention centres used by the government to keep troublemakers out of sight without trial.
While Champa resolves to leave this “alien land” and return home, this isn’t an option for most of China’s urban poor. The Communist Party has remained unchallenged for so long because it has delivered on its promise of economic growth, but Champa, like many others on the sidelines of Chinese society, are beginning to realise money just isn’t enough.
“We’ve all got plenty to eat and drink, a place to live, and things to keep us happy,” says a hitchhiker Champa picks up along the way to Beijing. “But really we’re all cuffed up.”