Duncan Jepson delves into a dark well of existential discontent to great effect in his latest book.
With last month’s release of Emperors Once More, Hong Kong-based Duncan Jepson has consolidated his reputation as one of the region’s most exciting writing talents. Of mixed Chinese-British parentage, Jepson has delivered three books to critical acclaim.
His 2011 debut, the literary historical work, All the Flowers in Shanghai, whose action took place during the middle decades of the last century, heralded his arrival as a writer of distinction. A year later, the noirish Darkness Outside the Night, a graphic novel by Xie Peng for which Jepson provided the text, earned plaudits for its emotional heft and insights into contemporary Chinese society.
Some background on the 44-year-old lawyer and writer illuminates recurring themes in his work: alienation and assimilation, and what one might call “cultural schizophrenia”.
“My mother arrived in the United Kingdom from Singapore in the 1950s and eventually settled in the city of Sheffield,” he says. This is where she met Jepson’s father, at the city’s university. “She would recall her life as a Chinese in the north of England as largely welcoming, and often exciting. And where an oriental woman – as she was generally described – was considered exotic and interesting.”
Fast-forward to a suburb of another northern city, to where the Jepson family moved to in the 1970s, and Jepson says: “As a Eurasian kid growing up near Leeds, I had experiences in the city centre and on various streets that were more hostile than perhaps the gentler times my mother had experienced. The difficult moments I faced left their impression and as I got older, and after spending a lot of time in South-east Asia, particularly Malaysia and Singapore, I began to wonder what it must feel like to be a foreigner in your own country. To be governed and controlled by others – to some, perhaps many – is often a source of bitterness and anger.”
Jepson descends into this deep well of existential discontent in his new book.
“Emperors Once More is a story exploring these residual emotions by following a killer both tormented by his past and his family’s history as well as those of China and Chinese people,” Jepson explains. “For this I set it in Hong Kong, where there is the social turbulence to mix locals, expatriates and those new residents coming down from the mainland.”
But why the move to the crime genre from the literary historical form of his first novel, and which so enraptured reviewers? “A crime story seemed an intriguing frame and narrative within which to tell the tale, pushing me as a writer to find a faster pace and rhythm to keep readers turning the pages.”
Jepson’s day job, and also another creative outlet, have had a considerable influence on Emperors Once More.
“I'm a corporate lawyer, and also have the opportunity to write and make films. Often, experiences in one area of my life become relevant to another. Having been engaged in some areas of white-collar crime investigation inspired certain elements of Emperors Once More, though actual criminal investigations are generally a lot slower than presented in any crime novel.
“A second important influence has been the difference between storytelling in film and in books. I learned from sitting in the cinema watching films I had made that the audience simply sees what you put in front of them. Whereas with a book, the reader sees his or her own story.”
Having lived in Hong Kong for a number of years, Jepson noticed some bitterness in the older Chinese generation about the past and foreigners. “A kind of ‘why are all these white people still here’ sentiment that is palpable in some Hong Kong communities,” he says.
A major influence on the book came from the famous Chinese writer and cultural observer Bo Yang, author of The Ugly Chinaman, and who Jepson says “had a lot to say about the Chinese inferiority/superiority complex caused by history”.
“Although ‘China’s Century of [colonial] Humiliation’ has long passed, it wasn’t really until the 1990s that the worst was behind us. And that real racial parity started to emerge,” Jepson says.“I wanted to explore the concept of historical humiliation. For some, it’s an itch that can’t really be scratched.”
Set in the near future, the “bad guy” in Emperors Once More draws on Chinese history for his killing spree. The detective in hot pursuit is one Senior Inspector Alex Soong, who will reappear in a sequel to this page-turner. “With crime books, publishers generally want a series,” Jepson explains. “And I, for one, would like to know what Alex Soong comes up against next,” the author says with a twinkle in his Eurasian eyes.
Emperors Once More is part one of a two-book deal inked last year with British publishing house Quercus – best-known for unleashing the mega-selling Swedish chiller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on the English-speaking world. As for the business of writing, Jepson has two pieces of overarching advice for aspiring authors.
“Ensure that you get the whole story out, first of all; it can be reworked as much as one likes afterwards. Secondly, be critical of your efforts and accept criticism of your efforts – for inevitably there will be a big difference between your final draft and the editor’s final draft.”