Yan Chi-ming 甄子明BEng 1976; DipManStud 1983; MBA 1985
By Yan Chi-ming
When I was a little boy, I was surrounded by bookshelves and books. My father was a professional writer and he wrote Kung Fu novels, which were very hot in the 60s. He loved Kung Fu novels himself, so he had a stock of them written by other famous writers, especially Jin Yong 金庸. My first books were Kung Fu novels by Jin Yong and my father. I was 8.
Since then, I have never stopped reading.
At around 12, I began to try my hand at writing short stories and very “simple but naïve” poems for newspapers.
Reading was fun. When I was in primary school, my books were all Chinese. There were all kinds of different books, from scientific books for children, to Kung Fu novels, to novels by Qiong Yao, which were meant to be for girls. I loved adventure books translated into Chinese. I knew the names of Sherlock Holmes, Mark Twain, Jack London, and Jules Verne at around 11 or 12. I also read Chinese classics systematically, including “the Three Kingdoms”, “The Water Margin”, and works by modern Chinese writers, such as Mao Dun 矛盾、 Lao She 老舍、 Ba Jin 巴金、 Lu Xun 魯迅、 Bingxin 冰心.
My interest in history was inspired at the age of 8 by Kung Fu novels. Most of my knowledge in Chinese history was learned this way, not from school. Together with the history I learned, these novels helped me to develop my sense of being Chinese.
One of the issues Kung Fu novel writers had was the treatment of the Qing dynasty. Should it be treated as a Chinese dynasty or a foreign power ruling over Han China? This conflict was never satisfactorily resolved, whether in real life, or in the interpretation of history, or by novel writers. I was, of course, confused at that time. This interesting dilemma inspired me to include an element of nationalism in my novel “1849 Sun Rise and Sunset”.
When I went to University, I wanted to have fun. I sought the best fun life at university, and found myself living in University Hall, which was to become the core of my life for the next three years. The experience of staying there is lifelong. Fun was a double-edged sword. While those three years were really fun and became part of me, I rarely read or wrote. If student life was so much fun, my hobbies had to wait.
Surprisingly, university life did not give me inspiration to write. Fellow students discussed Jin Yong’s novels, but that was more a social pursuit than an intellectual one. Politics was the order of the day in the 70s. While it inspired a lot of students, many of whom became leaders later on, it failed to inspire me or expand on my understanding of history.
The first few years after graduation were another golden period for my passion in literature and writing. I wrote a lot, but it was not planned or organised. I tried to do translation, and started by trying my hand on one of Jack London’s novels. I also turned to writing a high school science book on water. Both projects failed.
I went to the LSE in London to study economics at the age of 32.
This decision led to an unintended consequence. During my two years in London, I had all the time to read all the books I wanted. Although my degree was in economics, I also attended classes in social science and history, and I loved them. I finished reading about the basic history of all non-Chinese civilisations, from the Greeks and the Romans, to the Mayas and the Incas, to the history of the English-speaking peoples (by Winston Churchill) and European history. I attended most of the classes in sociology and history of social science for undergraduates, and followed the reading lists on classics by authors such as Socrates, Plato, David Hume, Tocqueville, and Saint-Simon. With my economics courses and reading, I thought I had completed a basic grasp of Western civilisation: philosophy, history and economics, comparable to the PPE course offered by Oxford. Now that is what I consider a real education.
Unfortunately I did not write in those two years, just absorbed knowledge like a sponge. With a baby to look after as well, I did not have the energy to do any literary work apart from reading.
For the next 25 years, after I returned to Hong Kong in 1989, I was busy with full-time work, both in Hong Kong and China.
I have learned a lot about business and China in those years, since a major portion of my work concerns China business. Coupled with my exposure to Chinese literature and history when I was younger, the new experience allowed me to understand China in greater depth and detail. China is no longer something in the past, or in a book, but it is real life, real people. I have spent years living in different cities in China, and have travelled to others. My approach is to combine both the literary and historical knowledge with present real-life activities in order to get the whole picture. That is to say, when I see and feel present day China, I always try to ask myself the reasons why these things happen, and go back to my knowledge base in history or somewhere else to find answers.
On the other hand, firsthand knowledge in the present helps us understand the past. I believe in my eyes, ears and brain. If I can figure out why things are like they are, based on present observations, it is likely that people in the past would have behaved similarly. Human nature would not have changed much in China’s 4,000 years of history. This is a very interesting interaction, and becomes the basic philosophy for my first novel “1849”.
A Chinese writer in historical novels gave me opportunities to test this hypothesis, and greatly inspired me. He is Eryue He 二月河 , the author of a famous trio: Kangxi Emperor 《康熙大帝》, Yongzheng Emperor 《雍正皇帝》and Qianlong Emperor《乾隆皇帝》. Stories and characters in his novels are so vivid and real. How can that be? No one knows what really happened in the past! When I applied my philosophy, I realised the gambit. He knows and understands present-day China. He just applies this understanding to the past, assuming that people in the past would act in similar ways. That is the way to write historical novels.
In the new millennium, I thought about pursuing an advanced research degree in history, but then the modern approach to research is to specialise in a narrow area, That is completely opposite to my philosophy, which is to draw meaningful conclusions using facts and logic based on inter-disciplinary references. I decided to drop this idea, and concentrate my efforts in my own way, which will be more efficient.
The idea of writing historical novels began to take shape.
There is another important issue: Hong Kong. When I was a little boy, Hong Kong and China seemed to be located on two different planets. China relied on Hong Kong for a lot of things, both materialistic and as a window to the world. Even as a teenager I understood some of the importance of Hong Kong to China. I often pondered why.
Hong Kong was unique, complicated, impossible to understand, but fascinating.
My interest in Hong Kong has never died.
These passions and interests drove me to write my novel “1849”. I wanted to paint a different (and possibly untold) picture of China and Britain after the Opium War, the story of which has seldom been revealed. I also wanted to tell the true story of Hong Kong, and its interaction with Britain and China. I believe Hong Kong’s unique influence on China has been underestimated by politicians, and somewhat neglected by historians. I have tried my best to retell stories of those few years from my own perspective.
After finishing the novel “1849”, I discovered I opened a whole can of worms for myself. I cannot stop. There are still so many stories to be told. I am writing my second novel now, a sequel of "1849".
Copyright@ 2016.8.2 明報副刊 (網頁版)
再談到張愛玲，他說到炎櫻，那膚色黝黑的印度女子。又說到張愛玲的散文，文中如何描述了戰時香港的情况，大學裏的洋教授走的走，留下來當兵，最後有了怎樣的結果……說到戰爭，他從書櫃底找出了一本像年報一樣的相集，那是義勇軍（The Hong Kong Volunteers，HKV）的紀念冊。原來，他曾經在那「當」過兵。
I wanted to paint a different (and possibly untold) picture of China and Britain after the Opium War, the story of which has seldom been revealed.