Barry Kalb is the author of the new novel Chop Suey: A Tale of Hong Kong, China and the Chinese People. He also has written the novel Cleaning House. He has worked for a variety of news organizations, including Time and the Washington Evening Star, and taught for 10 years at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. He is based in Hong Kong.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new novel, and for your characters?
A: It’s an old story: you know a place and a people, you encounter the myths and misconceptions that people have about the place, and you say to yourself, I’d like to set that straight.
My years as a journalist taught me that people tend to skim the news, and even those who read carefully don’t often retain much beyond the headlines.
China is a hugely important player today, in the news constantly, yet people in much of the world know little about it beyond some Hollywood clichés, and they understand even less. (To this day, when I tell some people I live in Hong Kong, they’ll reply, “Oh, how interesting. And do you speak Japanese?”)
My wife and I have spent 34 of the last 41 years in Asia, mostly in Hong Kong. We’ve come to know the region – including mainland China – and the people on both sides of the border.
It occurred to me that I could write a compelling international mystery that along the way explains what the country and the people are all about. That, combined with the compulsion to write that motivates any author, led me to this book.
When you travel the world, you meet a fascinating array of characters. The characters in my book are a pastiche of people I’ve met during the journey, especially in Hong Kong.
Journalists who write novels tend to write novels about journalists, and I wanted to avoid the book becoming a cliché, but in this case the story line called for the murder victim to be a journalist, and one of the lead characters to be one as well.
The other main characters are a Scottish policeman and a Chinese-American lawyer (the victim’s widow), but as the story unfolds there are also a Hong Kong Chinese antiques dealer, a Shanghai-born Chinese businessman-cum-art-collector, a Hong Kong homicide cop from the colorful Chiu Chow region who loves American detective shows, and a German expat who specializes in Chinese antiques.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I really had nothing more than the most general idea what the story was when I began writing. I wasn’t even sure for a long time what the murder victim’s motivation would be for going to China, where the crime took place.
But when you have a rich palette like Asia to draw from, the possibilities just keep pouring out. I made a lot of false starts and changes along the way, until I ended up with what I think is an entertaining, plausible and informative yarn.
Q. The novel takes place in Hong Kong, and deals in part with the relationship between China and Hong Kong. As someone who's lived in Hong Kong for many years, are there other novels you would recommend that focus on that dynamic?
A: I can’t think of any novels off the top of my head that stand out, but there are been non-fiction books that tell the story of Hong Kong and China extremely well.
One of my favorites is a short, highly entertaining book called Foreign Mud, written in 1946 by Maurice Collis. It tells the story of the early western traders in southern China, and of the first Opium War, which led to the British taking Hong Kong Island to start the colony. (James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan, about the early days of Hong Kong, borrowed a lot from the book.)
Foreign Mud was one of the first books I read when my wife and I moved to Hong Kong in 1975, and I still recommend it highly.
Another, more contemporary look at the Hong Kong-China relationship is The Last Governor, about Chris Patton, the last British colonial governor of Hong Kong. From the time he took the post in 1992, Patton battled incessantly with Beijing – ultimately unsuccessfully – to be allowed introduce democratic reforms in the colony before the 1997 handover.
The book was written by Jonathan Dimbleby, who was given liberal access to Patton and his staff with the understanding that the book would not be released until the handover had taken place.
Q: How was your book's title chosen?
A: As the dictionary definition on the title page says, chop suey (a dish invented by Chinese immigrants in the U.S.) is comprised of “mixed bits,” a mishmash of various meats and vegetables: whatever’s on hand, whatever works. That happens to be a perfect description of today’s China. The book describes the country as
“a ladleful of Chinese tradition, a generous portion of American robber-baron-style capitalism, with a clenched fistful of Leninist control orchestrating it all from behind the scenes. This New China was a chop suey of mixed bits, neither fish nor fowl, neither communist nor democratic. It teetered on the edge of chaos, it heaved and bellowed, it grew and changed shape in front of one's eyes like an alien life form. But grow it did…”
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My first novel, Cleaning House, was published in 2003. The small Hong Kong publishing house that issued it had no money to market it, and has since gone out of business, so the book died a very quiet death.
But the main theme – the overpopulation of the earth – is still very relevant today, and I plan to reissue the book myself soon.
The book is whimsy, satire, an often-very-funny look at a very serious subject. The story line is that while the Catholic Church and the Chinese government – whose people together comprise a major part of the population problem – wrestle with the question of birth control, God concludes that humankind has once again run off the rails.
He decides to make drastic cuts again, but not by wiping out almost the entire human race as he did with the Flood. This time He chooses a more modern technique: a celestial computer that will select mainly the worst of the human race for elimination.
To operate the program, he chooses a young international risk analyst named Noah Archer, and appoints a shape-changing archangel to assist him.
While Noah and the angel play their deadly fugue, Pope John Paul II dies; a young African cardinal who secretly believes in contraception is elected by accident to replace him; and an ultra-radical feminist group called Women Against Men plots to kill the pope and alter the world’s gender balance dramatically.
It’s a whimsical look at overpopulation, mass death and divine displeasure.
I’m also putting the finishing touches on a third novel, another international mystery, which I describe as a gripping tale of wine and international terrorism.
It’s set in the year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It delves into the glories and mysteries of wine, a subject dear to my heart. The story roams from the San Francisco Bay area to Poland and Czechoslovakia during the communist era, to Nepal, modern-day Berlin, and Soviet Tajikistan.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m hardly the first to say it, but it’s relevant since my book is self-published on Amazon.com: getting a book published is very difficult unless you’re already a well-known author.
I peddled Cleaning House to major publishers, and received a lot of favorable comments along the way, but I eventually had to go with that small Hong Kong house.
Chop Suey received ecstatic reviews from friends who read the early drafts – just as the final version is receiving now that it’s been published – and it was actually taken on by a couple of agents, but they failed to place it.
I finally decided that life is too short, and if I was going to get the book published I’d have to do it myself. It’s not the way I would have chosen to go, but I’m grateful that this option is now available to writers.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. As far as we know, we are not related!