People have called China endlessly fascinating. But you could say the same about the expat scene here. In the seven-plus years that I’ve lived in this country, I’ve come across some real characters here – people I could have sworn were straight out of a novel.
I’m reminded of many of them after reading Ray Hecht’s new book South China Morning Blues, which features a motley cast of young expats and Chinese locals living across Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, including:
…Marco, a crooked businessman with a penchant for call girls; Danny, a culture-shocked young traveler; Sheila, a local club girl caught up in family politics; Amber, a drug-fueled aspiring model; Terry, an alcoholic journalist; and Ting Ting, a lovable artist with a chip on her shoulder.
Through 12 distinct viewpoints, South China Morning Blues takes readers on a tour of the dark underside of the expat scene in China, culminating in a dramatic life-and-death situation that brings everyone together. It’s a fresh take on life in 21st century China and definitely worth a read.
Here’s Ray’s bio from his website:
Long story short, raised in America from the Midwest to the West Coast on a starchy diet of movies and comics and science fiction paperbacks. There’s a Mid-East connection in there too. I like to write fiction about such states as California and Ohio, and such provinces as Guangdong. Japan being an interesting topic as well. Lived in Shenzhen, China since 2008 (has it really been that long?), a lovely Special Economic Zone Hong Kong-bordering chaotic city that has given me so much. I occasionally partake of some freelance journalism for various local publications.
What inspired you to write this novel?
Good question to start out with. A few things come to mind: After living in China in those earlier years, I found the country to be absolutely fascinating, and I wanted to share the experience of the land by telling stories.
Also, I’d long been a fan of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and had a lot of respect for his system of multiple narrators that all have distinctive versions of experiences,and being more interlocking short stories than one big narrative. I think one of the philosophies that fiction can teach us is the subjective nature of reality. The way some people, say, move to Guangzhou and complain how they hate it while other people see it totally differently and love it.
Another inspiration, I must say at the risk of sounding pretentious, was James Joyce’s Ulysses. Not that I’m smart enough to write something like that — or even smart enough to truly understand the famously-dense book. But the way the novel utilized mythological metaphors, as per the Odyssey resonating in early 20th Century Dublin. I wanted to try something like that. The ancient mythologies of the world will forever be able to inspire modern stories.
Well, for me, characters are most important. A character needs unique personality traits, archetypes that make them stand out, something interesting about their histories and personas. After that’s established, a plot begins to form… And so the idea evolved to use the Chinese Zodiac to structure the characters of a novel…
Your novel is told through the perspective of 12 main characters as they live in or visit three major cities in South China — Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. How did you decide to structure your novel like this?
As said, I had the idea to base characters off the Chinese Zodiac in order to tell stories about modern China. Seemed to make sense at the time.
I’d already ended up living in Shenzhen, which is a major city most people around the world have never heard of. The city is next to Hong Kong, and I spend a lot of time there. For the sake of literary research (also because I wanted to research a historical novel about Canton circa revolutionary 1911) I moved to Guangzhou for an off year in 2011. I find all these cities fascinating in their own unique ways. I mean, Beijing and Shanghai are great, but I ended up in the southern Pearl River Delta region and I am glad I did. No place on Earth has more stories.
It seemed obvious that my novel about the soul of present China would have to incorporate those three cities.
Like your memoir, South China Morning Blues features quite a bit of sex and recreational drug use. How much did your personal experiences influence your writing in this book?
Ah, an embarrassing question. Hmm, how can I put this…?
First of all, my biographical writings may have some sex but I don’t think there’s much to brag about. Outside of a handful of tell-all dramatic episodes, by far it mostly concerned online dating and several serious relationships. Not too crazy, right?
The sex scenes in SCMB are, shall we say, meant to be more literary. At least more literary in the sense of literature I like to read. Being more extreme than real life in most cases. Many of those scenes were inspired by way of hearsay of other people I know, my own imagination, and a bit of research online. Not really based off my own personal experiences very much.
(Hey, I did say that Trainspotting was an inspiration.)
As for recreational drugs, I experimented a bit in my youth — and by youth I mean my mid-to-late twenties, I was very boring as a teen — and I think I was always responsible about it. To be honest, I’m often shocked when I observe how extreme drugs and alcohol are in the China party scene. It is something that needs to be depicted, whether glamorized or not. No outright spoilers here, but if you read to the end there are consequences for the characters who abuse themselves and I think it’s important to showcase that side.
All in all though, I want to show all sides of real life. Using illegal substances, having irresponsible sex, pushing the boundaries, and making mistakes; these are all things that human beings actually do. And they are interesting things. I believe they are things worth writing about. Worth portraying, without too much judgment. More or less, presented as is. That’s writing.
Tell us about one of your favorite characters from the novel and why you like him or her.
It’s totally cliche, but I quite enjoyed writing the writer character Terry. He’s the one who is a journalist struggling to make ends meet, and it’s obvious how that inspires. The language really flowed out so strongly when I was showcasing his angle. A flawed character indeed, with vices admittedly not my own, it was fun to explore the point of view of such a man. And being a Chinese-American, perhaps it’s reaching for me to write a character who is not my race but I did want to show diversity and explore points of view. I like that point of view. I like his general attitude as well, and I like the way he reacts to struggling through obstacles in life, especially when those obstacles are his own fault. And, I like how his arch evolved in the end.
What do you hope people gain from reading your novel?
Different people seem to be getting different things out of the book, and I suppose it depends on the audience.
I hope expats find something they relate to, and enjoy it and laugh and tell their friends back home to read.
I hope readers outside of China/Asia can learn about what life is really like these days in the rising economies of the east, and not be so naive.
I mainly hope that all readers learn about humanity of all stripes. In fact, this is what I believe is the purpose of astrology. It’s not about separating us into labels and superstitious fortune-telling; rather it’s about empathy because we are all signs. We have all archetypes of humans within every single one of us. Western, Eastern, it doesn’t matter. Some traits stand out, some less so in other people, but all the blocks that make us human are contained within each individual. It all makes up the whole. Playing around with the Zodiac can teach us to understand other perspectives in this world. Every type of human being out there can be just like me and just like you.
I guess, best case scenario, that’s what I’d hope someone could gain from reading my novel.
Just enjoying an entertaining read is certainly find too.
Thanks so much to Ray Hecht for this interview! You can learn more about Ray Hecht and South China Morning Blues at his website and buy a copy at Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this blog.