The road to Bei­jing, with a sub­ver­sive heart

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Bar­tram

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.”

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