Today I have a guest post from Douglas Jaffe, whose first book Chasing Dragons features a unique bookstore in Hong Kong.
I want to thank Sarah for giving me the opportunity to contribute this guest post to her wonderful site!
Although originally from New York, I left the US many years back and have spent the majority of the last two decades in various parts of Asia. I first came to the region as a graduate student studying Chinese and remained connected to the place ever since. My writing has been heavily influenced by my experiences in this part of the world and I’ve been fortunate to experience the region as a student, traveler, analyst, entrepreneur and most recently writer.
I’ve always been a fan of unconventional fiction that blends elements from reality and fantasy, and for someone living in this part of the world; this is perhaps not all that difficult to understand. Here in Hong Kong, for example, you see plenty of TV dramas, promotions, cartoons and manga featuring characters from the ancient stories and myths passed down through the generations. In that sense, fantasy and mythology are all around us and seemed a natural fit with my own writing.
Interestingly, as a student of Chinese culture and history, my ideas of fantasy and even mythology stem not just from these ancient myths but also from the language itself. One of the really wonderful things about the Chinese written language is that within the characters themselves, the history and culture of a people can be found. For me, I can’t look at a Chinese character without imagining a history reaching back generations. Perhaps as an American, anything that old and alien is by definition mythology.
I would certainly encourage everyone to spend a little time digging beneath the covers of an Asian culture. It could be Chinese or any of the other rich cultures on offer in Asia (Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, etc.). Like anything, it takes a bit of time to overcome the initial bewilderment associated with something so different, but baby steps are key. You can find a local restaurant and start with the cuisine before tackling some fiction or non-fiction about your chosen destination. From there, language lessons might be a good next step, or you could be especially bold and plan a trip to check out the place for yourself.
As the Chinese say… 讀萬卷書，不如行萬里路. It roughly translates, as ‘Reading ten thousand books cannot compare with travelling ten thousand miles’. It is meant to remind people of the limitations of book learning and that sometimes, you need to get out there and experience new places for yourself.
I’ve included a short excerpt from my book, Chasing Dragons. In its own limited way, my novel is an attempt to bring together the various experiences from my own life, which has been influenced both by book learning and extensive travels across this fascinating part of the world.
“That evening, he conducted an elaborate ceremony in our ancestral hall and only myself and a few of my inner circle were permitted to attend. I can’t recall much from the evening, but I will always remember the gentle coils of blue-grey incense smoke that spiraled upwards during the ceremony. It is strange what you remember, but those coils remain as fresh in my head as any memory, while I couldn’t for the life of me remember the details of the ceremony.”
Mrs. Liu paused to take another sip of tea. I noticed that she was wearing her hair in the same style as the last time I saw her and wore the same fusion of clothing that spoke of an elegant familiarity with the elite strata of both Chinese and Western societies.
“After several hours of praying and chanting, something happened.” At this, Mrs. Liu looked uncharacteristically troubled and looked behind her, as if to check that the room was still empty.
“I cannot tell you exactly what transpired but something changed in the air around us. The texture of the air itself changed and I know this because the coils of incense smoke that I had been watching so intently began to drift upwards in a new pattern. Where they encountered this agitated air, they broke apart and mapped the contours in smoke.
“As we watched, the smoke began to trace the outline of what appeared to be a face of some sort. I cannot describe the face to you because it drifted in and out of focus depending on the flow of smoke that fed its image. It was not human though and I distinctly remember the eyes. They were cold, ancient eyes that appeared to be watching us intently.
“The Daoist priest explained that his prayers had been received and an audience granted. He then proceeded to recount the series of events that I had revealed to him and would occasionally look to me to provide some additional details or clarification. Whenever I spoke, I noticed those smoke eyes turn in my direction. I felt as though I was pleading my case before some imperial magistrate and I recall using very formal language.
“When we finished, the face continued to watch us impassively, with those eyes moving slowly across each of us. When they fixed on the priest, he lowered his head in supplication and began chanting. Eventually, they reached me and paused. I am no priest and while I felt respect for this adjudicator, I am not in the habit of cowering before anyone. When our eyes met, I did not blink and matched its stare with my own. After the briefest of pauses, I saw one of the eyes wink.”
Douglas Jaffe has been in Asia for most of the last two decades and originally came to the region from New York as a graduate student, studying in China and Taiwan. He has a dual Masters in Chinese Studies and International Affairs and speaks passable Chinese on a good day.
In recent years, Douglas has pursued his interest in writing fiction and has published his first novel, Chasing Dragons. A second book is currently in the works.
Sebastian is the owner of a bookstore café in Hong Kong who provides informal counseling services to an array of offbeat characters. His quiet life is suddenly upended when he meets Chloe, and their relationship takes a startling turn, as it begins to parallel the relationship of a pair of mythical dragons from Chinese history. The lovers struggle with questions of mortality and immortality, before a choice is made that pulls them apart.
From the safety of his bookstore, Sebastian observes the world around him through his books and his counseling clients, whose problems range from infidelity to the challenges of dealing with an overbearing mother. Living within the frenzied metropolis that is Hong Kong, Sebastian tries his best to live a quiet, predictable life.
Unbeknownst to him, there is a parallel story unfolding about Chi Wen and Zhao Chen, two dragons from Chinese mythology. While initially distinct from Sebastian’s modern life, this alternative reality begins to filter through and he finds himself increasingly subjected to visions and memories of a life he does not remember.
Sebastian has a chance meeting with Chloe one afternoon and they share an immediate attraction and familiarity that quickly draws them together. As the relationship deepens, Sebastian’s visions and dreams of Chi Wen and Zhao Chen intensify, and he begins to lose his grip on his sanity.
Reality and mythology blur and Sebastian is forced to question his own life and his relationship with Chloe. As the modern and mythical worlds start to intersect, Sebastian is drawn back into an ancient battle of wills. Solving the mystery of his frightening visions leads him to a choice that will throw his life into turmoil and potentially destroy his humanity.