“ Dreams are so good. Why do we have to make them a reality? ”
What’s a young Tibetan stud to do for a living nowadays in a tourist hotspot like Lhasa? And what happens when his childhood dream—to hang out in the capital of a country called China—comes true?
In the just-published The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver, author Chan Koonchung takes us on a rocky road from Lhasa to Beijing. Along the way he paints disturbing vignettes. An apartheid-in-the-making. The eerie death wish of a would-be self-immolator. The Kafkaesque “black jails” where provincial petitioners who dare air their grievances to the Beijing Mandarins are brutalized, then sent home.
If they’re lucky, that is.
I read both the Chinese original and Nicky Harman’s translation, and her rendition convincingly captures Champa’s conflicted mindset and odd lingo; after all, like any young PRC citizen he is the product of 21st-century China’s booming economy and rampant materialism. But he is also not a native speaker of Chinese, and deep down, he is more Tibetan and Buddhist than he realizes. Even as Chan evokes the gap between image and reality, between the tourist’s Lhasa and Tibet under the heel of the dragon, and Beijing as it is dreamt vs. lived, the novel remains a quick and compelling read.
At the outset, Champa is sitting pretty. He’s got a cushy job in Lhasa as a chauffeur for Plum, a savvy Han businesswoman with a robust appetite for the occasional “spurt of the moment” (as Champa puts it), and before he knows it, he’s her lover-on-demand. However the simple days of cock-and-cunt—there’s a hefty dose of raw sex as the novel opens—are soon overshadowed by the troubling loss of his Tibetan virility. After an-all-too-short trip to Beijing, he realizes that she doesn’t want to be seen parading her “Tibetan Mastiff puppy” in the capital.
This is a body blow to his self-image, and impacts their relations back home in Lhasa. “Plum just didn’t get my tantric juices flowing” any more, he admits. To do his night gig with the boss now, he has to spend his daytime headhunting a fresh new sex object—in a whorehouse, online, among tourists, whatever—that he can visualize while servicing Plum.
Dreams of a “Beijing-fixated” Tibetan
Like many youths throughout the PRC, teenage Champa has a romantic image of Beijing and yearns to emulate it:
I always wanted a girlfriend from Beijing. Every year, lots of Beijingers came on holiday to Lhasa and I learned plenty of Beijing slang off them. I used to walk like a Beijinger, talk like a Beijinger and dress like one too.
Older generations of Tibetans don’t get this fascination with things Chinese. When a relative returns from Switzerland, she lectures Champa on the glories of Tibet’s past, and how “Beijing was built by the Mongols and the Manchus, and our high lamas were their emperors’ teachers.”
To which he replied back then—or so recount his neighbors—“That’s fuck-all to do with me!”
Now an adult and working for a Han who spends much of her time in the capital, a world where she does not welcome him, the attraction of the Chinese metropolis is even more intense. “If I could get to Beijing, the world was my oyster,” he tells himself.
Ironically, it’s indirectly Plum who gives him the impetus to hit the road and turn his dream into reality. Champa has already realized they can’t stay together because their sexual relations have become an empty ritual for him, but doesn’t want to hurt her by admitting he no longer desires her. Instead, he’ll tell Plum that he has left her for another, something he believes she can more easily accept. But there’s a twist: the new woman in his life lives in Beijing . . . and happens to be Plum’s daughter, Shell.
Tibetan History 101
Champa wraps his aphrodisiac White Tārā Boddisattva figurine in a silk khata, places it in his (oops—Plum’s) Range Rover, and he’s off to the capital. On his way Champa picks up a hitchhiker, an enigmatic fellow Tibetan named Nyima. But unlike our protagonist, he doesn’t work for a living, which puzzles our driver:
‘You don’t do anything? Have you always done nothing?’
‘How shall I put this? OK. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s only been the last few years that I’ve done nothing, since 2008 to be precise. 2008, you remember, right? It was after that, I started to do nothing.’
This is a reference to the “3 •14 Riots” that began in Lhasa as an annual observance of Tibetan Uprising Day, and quickly spread to other ethnic Tibetan areas and monasteries. It later descended into rioting, looting and killing, most victims being Han or Hui civilians.
Champa is also struck by his guest’s choice of words:
I realized that Nyima was very particular about the language he used. He used the Mongolian name, Kokonor, instead of the Chinese, Qinghai. And he didn’t talk, like the government did, about the ‘Tibetan ethnic minority’ or, worse still, ‘Tubo barbarians’. He pronounced all the names the Tibetan way. When it came to places, he said ‘Amdo’ or ‘Kham’ or ‘Dbus-Gtsang’ and he was precise about people: they were from Shigatse, or from Lhasa or wherever. He talked about King Songtsen Gampo, the great emperor of the Bodpa dynasty. We were not ‘Tibetans’, the word the Chinese used, Nyima said. We were Bodpa, the ancient people of Bod.
As they proceed northeasterly to the capital, Champa—and the reader—get a mini history lesson about 20th-century Han-Tibetan relations, but definitely not the one you’ll find in The People’s Daily. It’s delivered in short, conversational format by Nyima as we pass through various regions; and it’s not just about events like resistance to the collectivization of Kokonor in 1958, which was enforced by Chinese and Mongolian PLA soldiers who “massacred so many Tibetans that the population of some areas dropped by thirty or forty percent.” Nyima also details the horrors of famine that caused many Han starve to death, and the infighting and horrific tortures employed among Tibetans competing for power in the 1930s.
Thankfully, Nyima’s occasional commentary doesn’t drag on or descend into diatribe. It never reads like parts of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, where an old Mongol dispenses lupine wisdom to a naïve, sent-down Han student in tiresome monologues dressed up as conversation.
Nyima is not a one-track Tibetan history buff with an anti-Han axe to grind. When he mentions the cannibalism that occurred during one of the great famines, Champa comments that he seems really “interested in death.” Not so, counters Nyima. “I’m not interested in death per se. People lack imagination when it comes to evil. They never imagine that evil is really that evil . . .’
“Outlander” in the Capital
Things in Beijing don’t go quite the way Champa had envisioned, however. Partly because his expectations were sky-high from the word go; partly because his fling with sexually ambivalent Shell fizzles as she discovers her father was gay; and partly because being Tibetan in racist Beijing makes getting a decent job or renting a flat a major hassle.
But his introduction to the city is one of the high points of the novel. Just arrived, he’s busy washing his beloved Range Rover when Shell calls and convinces him—he does have a useful 4 x 4, after all—to join in her NGO’s effort to save a truckload of dogs bound for the slaughterhouse. The truck is prevented from leaving as the police, media and bevies of animal activists converge, and a deal is struck whereby the driver releases the dogs in return for a whopping 110,000 yuan.
Chan’s description—quoting the SMS texts and tweets of the participants one-by-one—makes you feel like you’re right there at the scene of what was actually one of China’s first high-profile, social-media-driven “mass incidents”:
We drove past and took a look. God, it’s terrible, it’s stuffed full of dogs! We counted, twelve cages stacked four high, 12 times 4 makes 48, times six is nearly three hundred dogs. Yang says it’s more than three hundred. It’s 48 cages times 10.
Yang says we’ve got to cut the lorry off, but I’m scared.
Good god! There are all kinds of dogs . . . big tan farm guard dogs, golden retrievers, huskies, Labradors, Samoyeds, greyhounds, chows, Alsatians, hunting hounds, golden mastiffs, Pyrenean mountain dogs.
Oh god! Lots of them have collars on. They must be stolen. Of course they’re stolen. Stolen.
They must be taking them for slaughter. To be turned into dog meat.
Shoveling dog-shit at the Animal Sanctuary isn’t Champa’s idea of life in Beijing, however, and when he and Shell break-up, she does him a parting favor by calling on an “uncle” to arrange a job as a “hotel security guard.”
In what is another of Chan’s more masterful treatments of a very real and frightening phenomenon in today’s China, we gradually realize that he is working at a “black jail,” or an extra-legal detention center, in legalese.
Black jails are a particularly Beijing phenomenon, because they are designed to temporarily “house”—detain without trial, in fact—petitioners who come from all over China to petition the central government for redress of grievances unresolved by local governments, a practice with roots in imperial China. Provincial and local governments pay for security firms and their “black guards” to intercept these petitioners before they can formally present their documents to the Central Office of Letters and Calls, detain them and send them back where they came from.
The authorities long denied the existence of such a network of jails, but investigative pieces by the New York Times and China media such as Caijing and Caixin and have made a mockery of those denials. Ironically, the latter’s reportage, referred to as an exposé by “a weekly magazine in Guangzhou” in the novel, actually heats up competition among local security firms for a piece of the “Domestic Security cake” and annoys Champa’s boss, but hardly seems to have resulted in shutting down the jails.
Singular Novel, Multiple Taboos
Chan’s Chinese-language original wasn’t published in the PRC, and it’s hard to imagine the English translation showing up at your favorite family bookstore in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou any time soon.
One particularly sensitive aspect is the way in which actual events and fictional vignettes combine seamlessly to convey a picture of China’s Tibet under lock-down. In an example of the former that occurred in 2012, we learn that thousands of Tibetans are detained when they return from the Buddhist Kalachakra Tantra festival in India, and “made to study their ‘errors’,” (presumably because the Dalai Lama presided over the ceremony, though Champa doesn’t mention this).
As Champa drives back to Lhasa from Beijing and enters Tibet, this passage recalls the mundane but effective mechanics of South African apartheid:
From Yanshiping, the first town in Tibet, to Lhasa, there were six checkpoints on route 109, everyone of them manned by rookie Tibetan cops or armed police who went through our documents and bags with a fine-tooth comb, making damn sure that no Tibetan who wasn’t a resident got into Lhasa.
Why weren’t Tibetans from outside Lhasa allowed into the city? After all, they were Tibetans, weren’t they?
The carnal relationship between Plum, the Han “master” and her indigenous pet, Champa the “Tibetan Mastiff puppy,” is also something that would alarm China’s phallocratic censors, not just because it symbolizes the exploitation of China’s minorities by the dominant Han, but because this is a Han woman who is perfectly willing to pay a Tibetan to pleasure her in a way that men of her own race cannot.
To its credit, The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver artfully accomplishes two things that informative Tibet-related web sites like High Peaks, Pure Earth or the Chinese-language diary of Tibetan activist Woeser (看不见的西藏) probably don’t: sensitize the casual reader, i.e., who may have no previous knowledge of the Tibetan “question,” to how China is micromanaging and marginalizing Tibetans in their own homeland, and suggest that the Chinese Police State is no less active—and no less evil—in Beijing then it is in Lhasa.
Welcome to the Chinese Century.
Original Chinese novel: 《裸命》
English title: The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver
Author: Chan Koonchung (陈冠中)
Translator: Nicky Harman
Reviewer: Bruce Humes