Taylor’s debut novel Harvest Season was published last year by Earnshaw Books and has created a buzz with its description of what happens when an idyllic mountain town called Shuangshan strains to adapt to a backpacker invasion.
WildChina is proud to sponsor this year’s Bookworm International Literary Festival, which will take place March 4-18 at Bookworm locations in Beijing, Chengdu and Suzhou. Taylor will be one of dozens of authors participating in the festival. He will be the featured author in Chengdu at 7:30pm on March 5 and in Beijing at 3pm on March 10.
We sat down with Taylor to learn more about the changes he’s seen in China over the years and what he sees happening in the future.
WildChina: How did you first end up coming to China?
Chris Taylor: In 1982 when I was in Kashmir I met a Canadian guy who had just come out of China, which was incredible for me because China had been closed for so long. He told me that I could get an individual travel visa in Hong Kong. I was young at the time and it took three years, one of them teaching English in Tokyo before I made it to China.
WildChina: What was different about traveling in China back then compared to today?
Chris Taylor: (Laughs.) It was almost impossible. You could do it – but it was tough.
Few hotels accepted foreigners, so the hardest thing was often just trying to find a place to stay. There was no infrastructure for foreign tourists… in those days there was just CITS, but their only function was to try to get people to join their tours. They didn’t understand that individual travelers coming into China either were opposed to this kind of tourism or couldn’t afford it.
There was no coffee. It was hard to get where you wanted to go or to find a restaurant open after seven or eight at night. And bear in mind there was no internet and it was very difficult to call home. It was a totally different China from what we know now. Once you entered, there was no news of the outside world.
WildChina: So what was it that hooked you on China?
Chris Taylor: The one thing that was clear back then was that everyone had been enough of political movements and mass collectivization. There was a saying back then: “wang qian kan” (往前看, “look forward), but the word for money is also qian, so people made the joke “look to money”.
China was going to change unlike anywhere else on the planet had, and that was what struck me. Japan was the big Asian country at the time and everyone was studying Japanese but it was obvious that China wanted to catch up. I thought it was a fascinating story and decided to start studying Chinese. That’s how I ended up staying. It’s one of the biggest stories of human history and I’m still enthralled by it.
WildChina: As a Lonely Planet writer did you “discover” a new place that nobody knew about?
Chris Taylor: I almost never went anywhere that I didn’t have to visit, so I didn’t discover much that wasn’t already on the radar.But there was one time in 1991.
I was in parts of southeast Guizhou and boarded the wrong bus purely by accident. I traveled through areas around Kaili and Longsheng in Guangxi before they appeared in any guidebooks, places that hadn’t seen foreigners since before the founding of the People’s Republic.
I didn’t write about it extensively because none of those places were on the trail at the time and they would have been near impossible to travel through without Chinese, which very few backpackers spoke in those days.
WildChina: What was it that made you decide to write a novel?
Chris Taylor: I was writing fiction when I first came to Asia twentysomething years ago but I didn’t think it was any good. I did my time at Lonely Planet and then got caught up in journalism and making money. But fiction was already the plan.
I took a sabbatical in Dali in 2005 and became increasingly annoyed with myself for not writing a novel. I took a two-year break and out of that came Harvest Season. The whole point for me with fiction is that you can write about things that you can’t touch upon in day-to-day journalism. You can address issues on a scale that you can’t even in magazines. It’s a very liberating format, if somewhat intimidating.
WildChina: Why did you pick a small mountain town as the setting for Harvest Season?
Chris Taylor: Even though I didn’t mention specifically where Harvest Season is set, it is set in Yunnan.
A couple of years ago, Yunnan was in a specific development stage. It had been “discovered” but not in the ways that other places in the backpacker trail like Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, even Cambodia had been discovered. The numbers of people who came here tended to be smaller and they were more adventurous – that kind of reminded me of my early days of traveling in China.
I first came to Yunnan in 1991 when I was a Lonely Planet researcher. I didn’t return until 2005. The reason for that was that a lot of the places that I had gone back to had changed so much that I became afraid of returning to places that had had an impact on me. It surprised me that a place as beautiful as Yunnan had survived the years.
WildChina: What lies at the core of the conflict in Harvest Season?
Chris Taylor: One of the themes is that you can be an agent of destruction of something that you covet when you travel. This isn’t about Yunnan, it could have been set anywhere. It is about what happens when a place reaches a critical mass in terms of tourism and commercial interests change things.
I imagined a place like Dali or Shaxi being invaded by the same people who invaded the beaches of southern Thailand in The Beach. But it is a work of fiction, and that is not about to happen to Yunnan. That is what makes Yunnan a special place.
WildChina: What is the current state of English-language writing about China?
Chris Taylor: One of things you hear is: China is hot! I don’t think it is. Generally stuff written about China is confirming the preconceptions of people back home. If you don’t do that, you run the risk of putting yourself in very niche territory in which the only readers you’ll have are China insiders.
There are two prevailing themes now: “the coming China century” and “the coming collapse of China”. It’s rather difficult to write about China as it is lived, which is a far more complex story. I wish that more foreigners based in China were writing fiction, because when you look back on last century, much of the best fiction was written by nomads in voluntary exile, Greene, Evelyn Waugh, W. Somerset Maugham, Paul Bowles, Hemingway, the list goes on.
We’re living in very interesting times in which more people than ever are living in voluntary exile… I’d like to see more fiction that takes this on.
WildChina: How do you see travel in China changing in the coming five years?
Chris Taylor: I see a combination of two things. A lot of people haven’t been to China yet, and they will want to come see the Terracotta Warriors, Great Wall, etcetera. But there will also be a proliferation of niche markets… more trekking, kayaking, adventure travel. What happens in most undeveloped travel destinations is that backpackers find places, locals set things up, tour companies come in and develop and eventually: Club Med.
China won’t follow that path because of the explosion in Chinese tourism. Yangshuo was discovered by backpackers but the Chinese tourism boom has transformed the place to the point that it has little appeal as a backpacker destination. Given the size of domestic tourism in China, foreign travelers will be marginal. I think southwest China is primed to become a destination for niche travel and adventure travel.
Chris Taylor image: Yereth Jansen