China exposed

Award-winning Chinese-American author Alex Kuo looks at the ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ in modern China

Time In
Time In

Award-winning Chinese-American author Alex Kuo looks at the ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ in modern China in his latest novel. Matt Fleming investigates.

When you sit down with Alex Kuo, you’re instantly put at ease. The acclaimed Chinese-American author has a calming influence, an elegantly mannered way of speaking and a carefully relaxed tone. And that, to us, is pretty surprising. Here’s a man who’s just launched his latest book, My Private China, a tome which, through the use of letters, essays, fiction and even poetry, attempts to show the world many aspects of the Middle Kingdom which it would probably prefer to remain hidden. It’s a bold move.

My Private China is ostensibly a good, hard look at contemporary China and its people as a memoir but also as a cultural dissection over a period of about 40 years. Each excerpt is written, as Kuo says, ‘without a theme or continuity in mind’. There’s a piece on American evangelicals in China who attempt to ‘plumb the Chinese soul while pirating its furniture and children’. And the opening gambit, which reveals the tank gun barrels in the 1989 Tiananmen incident were plugged – and the famous Tank Man was, in fact, not a student at all – is a poignant start. As the book’s jacket says: ‘This collection of sketches of contemporary China probe what the Chinese find important on a daily basis, how they resolve their personal experiences with their public charades and how they value their dreams, wishes and lies.’

Kuo, who has periodically lived in China since the middle of the Second World War, has an impressive backlog of successful books. In 2011, The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze sold well across the world and his epic collection of short tales, Lipstick and Other Short Stories, won him the American Book Award in 2002. But, he tells us: ‘This award, like other similar ones, are good for only about six months’. Born in Boston, USA, now living in Washington, and with a history in Hong Kong and China he’s been writing and teaching for more than half a century.

The 74-year-old launched My Private China in Hong Kong. ‘It should raise quite a few eyebrows in Hong Kong,’ says Kuo, ‘as I’ve taken a very unusual perspective on some sacred cows in HK, as well as the Tank Man who allegedly stopped the tanks on June 5, 1989. He was not a student but a secret service agent lining up the tanks for optimal crowd control.’

Kuo is now working on the third novel in his ‘Ge trilogy’, shanghai, shanghai, shanghai, says the mainland is all about modernisation and globalisation at the moment – ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’, as he calls it.

Expect a poetic yet often damning way of looking at China.
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