John Walsh: Tales of the City

'My book will be translated, then I'll wait for the Hong Kong dollars to roll in. How difficult can that be?'
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The Independent Online

Turning Chinese: that's the key to success this year. I was in Soho on Saturday, caught up in the crowds milling around Chinatown to celebrate the Year of the Rat. I looked at the flushed faces and thought, "So this is the market everyone's trying to break in to." Just as Western manufacturers are braced for China to flood the market with a £5,000, six-gear convertible, trump the Japanese with a £25 iPod, and stiff the Finns by selling a £5 Nokia knock-off, British entrepreneurs are trying to find a way to the hearts of 1 billion Chinese consumers.

On the South Bank Show devoted to the 25-year-old pianist Lang Lang, we learnt that Chinese audiences regard Western classical music "like a gigantic toy box" to be plundered; music to the ears of the people at Deutsche Grammophon. Elsewhere, you learn that the Chinese are throwing state-subsidised money at the roads, railways, and construction works of Africa. How much? – $6bn, the last time I checked.

How can the humble media opportunist clamber aboard this fabulous sweet-and-sour gravy train? I think I've got the answer: write a Chinese best-seller. I discovered the other day that the biggest-selling living author wasn't JK Rowling. She's small potatoes compared with Jin Yong. Whereas JK has shifted a paltry 510 million books in 10 years, Mr Jong's flogged a cool 1 billion during a 17-year career (he's now 84).

Though he is awesomely famous in the Far East – they've named an asteroid after him – I've never read a word by Mr Jong, but on investigating his life I felt an instant affinity. He was a journalist for years, in Hong Kong and Shanghai, so we've a lot in common. He came to England in 2005 to study for a PhD in Oriental Studies at Cambridge. Why, we're practically brothers.

My cunning plan is to write a book along the lines of Mr Jong's mega-bestsellers, get it translated into Cantonese and wait for the Hong Kong dollars to come rolling in. How difficult can that be? Boy meets girl while flailing cotton together in Chongqing paddy field. Their happiness is threatened by agricultural supervisor Mr Bang, who wants girl for himself. Boy enlists help of wine-swilling madcap friends from extended family and, after misunderstandings and climactic chase to airport, the lovers are united. Is that the kind of thing?

I checked Mr Jong's œuvre. He has published 15 novels and novellas, in something called the Wuxia genre, which deals in martial arts. Oh dear. Not much boy-meets-girl action at all. The books have video-game titles like The Legend of the Condor Heroes, Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre, and The Smiling, Proud Wanderer. The heroes tend to be teenage martial-arts exponents in eras when China was threatened by ravening hordes of Mongols and Murchus, and the plots make a big Confucian deal of the proper relationship between father and son, and master and disciple. Mr Jong is praised in critical circles for his subtle questioning of Chinese values; for instance, in writing about a warrior who has a gay relationship with his master, a kind of Blokeback Mountain.

I'm by no means sure I can pull this off. Heavenly swords, proud wanderers, marauding barbarians, Buddhist discourse – I'm not certain I'm equipped yet to write the billion-seller that, in 2010, will be on every Chinese bedside table. Of course, I'll try – my first go will be entitled Legend of the Smiling Hack and His Trusty Sword on Albatross Mountain – but now I've supplied the blueprint, you can have a try yourselves.


"And now," said the BBC Radio 4 continuity announcer at 10.02am yesterday, "it's time for Woman's Hour, with Jane Garvey." A deadly silence was all that could be heard. "We're experiencing technical trouble in the Woman's Hour studio," said the voice, pleasantly, "so here's some music." The strains of Oscar Peterson's plinking jazz piano filled the airwaves for a while, then subsided. "I'm happy to tell you that the problem has been dealt with," said Mr Continuity, smoothly, "and we can now go over to Woman's Hour with Jane Garvey." A vast, oceanic silence supervened, like the aftermath of a battle. "Or then again not," said the voice, a bit rattled now, "so here's some more Oscar Peterson..." It went on for 13 minutes, the most enormous hiatus for a primetime Radio 4 show. Across the nation, listeners held their breath.

It was because of Jane, wasn't it? Jane, the new girl on Woman's Hour, who last week, with just one, slightly ill-judged remark (she said every Radio 4 show has "a massive middle-class bent") pitched the newspapers into a maelstrom of hand-wringing about whether a deadly virus of embourgeoisification had indeed infected both the Corporation's flagship station and the national psyche. Commentators denounced Ms Garvey for her treachery. Humorists exchanged middle-class jokes ("When I heard what she'd said," said Andy Hamilton on The News Quiz, "I nearly choked on my polenta") and this tiny row lasted all weekend. So what was happening on Monday morning's show? Behind the silence, were blows being exchanged? Had the BBC top brass suddenly realised that Ms Jane Bloody Garvey was still in her presenter's chair and ordered, at 10.01am, that she be ejected from the building? Had the production team been given notice? Had they barricaded themselves in the studio and refused to broadcast a word about hysterectomies or Valentine's Day until they were reinstated? No word of explanation was given when the show finally started at 10.14; but did I detect a tremor of recent chastisement in Jane G's normally bold and confident delivery?