There are many reasons I first moved to Beijing seven years ago. I have an ancestral connection to China (my grandfather left Guangdong for Malaysia pre-World War II), and a long fascination with Chinese history and culture. There were creative reasons too, as I wanted to research and write a novel set in modern and imperial-era Beijing. When I arrived in the summer of 2007, I had only inchoate ideas of what I was going to write, and no plan other than to explore the city and let inspiration shape the book.
Back in 2007/08 I lived in a compound of Soviet-style apartment blocks in Maizidian, east Beijing, about a five minute walk from the Third Ring Road, which was then lined with posters of the Olympic rings and the gold medallist Liu Xiang holding up cans of coke as he leapt over hurdles. Everywhere the pollution-dirty facades of buildings were being re-painted by men abseiling from ropes, and when I walked down the road to the gym or supermarket, I would have to sidestep the blowtorch sparks of workers replacing Chinese store front signs with bilingual signs for the Olympic tourists.
The atmosphere of that time – one of anticipation, superficial renovation, paranoia and heightened surveillance, seeped into the fiction I had started to write. The local neighbourhood committee members (mostly retired old men and women), put on armbands that said ‘Olympic Security Volunteer’, and patrolled our apartment compound, vigilantly monitoring the comings and goings throughout the day. The Olympic Security Volunteers knocked on my door to check my passport every week (peering suspiciously over my shoulder into my living room each time). And there was news of more disturbing pre-Olympics clampdowns too. News of the police harassment of dissidents and ethnic minorities, the homeless and mentally ill being rounded up in pre-Olympics ‘street cleaning campaigns’, and the demolition of the petitioners’ village near Beijing South Railway Station. Though I witnessed none of this firsthand, it still infiltrated my work.
When living in Beijing I researched the urban landscape passively, by walking around and observing. I was interested in the emotional impact of the urban environment – the high-rises, construction, pollution, gridlocked traffic and the vast ring roads that dissect the city, on Beijing’s inhabitants. I sometimes rode the Special 8 bus which circuited the 48 kilometre Third Ring Road in 90 minutes or so, and watched the scenery of Beijing change as the bus moved from north to south, east to west. Beijing’s layout seems hostile to pedestrians navigating the city; the exhaust fumes and twelve lane ring roads to exacerbate the stress and fatigue of everyday life. Like most cities, there are social tensions arising from wealth inequality, but in Beijing the division is intensified by the household registration system, that limits migrant workers’ (approximately 35% of the urban population) access to education and government services. This has created a caste system as visible as the smoggy air, and despite their contribution to Beijing’s economy, migrants are still looked down upon and blamed for much of society’s ills.
The middle classes feel at a disadvantage too. During my time in Beijing I taught conversational English to civil servants at the Ministry of Health on Saturday afternoons. In their 30s and 40s, the class participants had medical degrees from China’s top universities and relative job security, but it soon became clear they did not believe they were in a privileged position. Every Saturday I set a different conversation topic; childhood, old age, religion, traditional Chinese medicine and so on, and during our discussions grievances would arise. The civil servants spoke of unaffordable housing, toxic air and contaminated food, and their dislike that their children had to enter such a highly pressured education system. They were of the opinion that morality doesn’t pay, and those who bribe and cheat prosper (aided by a biased legal system and lack of transparency). Though the classes were generally laidback and good-humoured, these frustrated themes of disempowerment and lack of agency kept recurring. If China’s middle classes have a collective psyche, then perhaps it would sound like the voices I heard on those Saturday afternoons.
My novel The Incarnations took six years to write – years longer than I expected. This was probably because I was simultaneously learning about China as I was writing about it, and had to redraft my work over and over as my perceptions of China changed. When writing fiction there is no requirement to be out in the world, interacting with real life situations and people. Fiction can be one hundred percent invention if you choose, and the reason I went to live in China, lodged with local families, and taught English as a volunteer, was to redress this insularity and seek out ideas from as many sources as I could. Though the upheaval slowed the progress of my work, it made the creative process much more rewarding than sitting on my own in a room.
Half of The Incarnations was written in China, and half in the UK and US. Whenever and wherever I sat down to write, I found that I had a vast mental archive of sights and sounds accumulated while living in Beijing, to call upon in order to resurrect the city in my mind (and subsequently on the page). A fiction writer does not need to have visited a place in order to legitimately write about it. The validity of fiction should be determined by a writer’s talent, imaginative powers, and depth of research, and not by the visas and immigration stamps in their passport. But in my own case, I doubt I could have written The Incarnations had I not lived in Beijing. The experience of daily life in the city was vital inspiration for my work. As Yu Hua says in his collection of essays China in Ten Words: ‘Daily life may seem trivial and routine, but in fact it contains a multitude of incidents, at once rich, expansive and touching. Politics, history, society and cultures, one’s memories and emotions, desires and secrets – all reverberate there.’ The Beijing neighbourhoods I lived in between 2007 and 2010, the everyday street scenes I witnessed, the people I met and the insights I gained into their lives, and the thousands of sensory impressions that passed through me day after day, all resonate throughout my writing, on every page of my book. In a sense, Beijing is the co-author of my novel, and had I never spent time in Beijing then my book would not exist at all.