For most travelers, Asia's backpacker towns are idyllic places to take in exotic cultures, explore scenic geography and finish the day with a cold beer and a nice meal. But beyond the tourist sites and Lonely Planet-toting hordes, these towns are like anywhere else, and just like anywhere else, they also have a dark side.
Since the 1980s, veteran Asia-based writer Chris Taylor has contributed to Lonely Planet guidebooks covering Seoul, Tokyo, China, Tibet, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. After recently spending more than a year living in Dali, Taylor is now based in Kunming, where he is a freelance writer and editor.
Taylor's first novel, Harvest Season, is due to hit bookstore shelves around Asia this month. The book is the first contemporary novel to be published by Shanghai-based Earnshaw Books, which is branching out from its usual territory of pre-1949 China material. GoKunming recently spoke with Taylor about Harvest Season and the themes it addresses:
GoKunming: You've spent plenty of time in Yunnan, is the town of Shuangshan where Harvest Season takes place modeled after somewhere nearby?
Chris Taylor: Actually, although a lot of the descriptions of places and the overall ambiance of the book is very much inspired by Yunnan, I never thought of it as a book about Yunnan. In fact, I never once mention Yunnan in Harvest Season. I think the only real China locations mentioned by name are Chengdu, Shanghai and Beijing.
People might label this as a China book – and to a certain extent it is – but mostly Harvest Season is about a scene. And that scene flourishes, or blights the landscape, depending on how you look at it, in off-the-beaten-track destinations all over the world.
GK: So it's a backpacker novel?
Taylor: Yes and no, there aren't any backpackers in Harvest Season, though they appear as supporting cast in certain scenes. It's like a next evolutionary step in the backpacker scenario – backpackers turned long-termers: people that aren't going home, basically. You find them everywhere here in Asia – Bangkok is full of them, China is full of them, certain parts of India is full of them – in fact, India, and Kathmandu, Nepal, is where Western travelers first started dropping out for extended periods of time in locations that had captured their imaginations, and either making lives for themselves or simply drifting from day to day on as little money as possible.
GK: Some people who remember the book might compare it to The Beach ...
Taylor: Well, now it's about to come out, I'm tending to think of it as more an antidote to Eat, Pray, Love, but, yeah, I was very aware of the shadow of The Beach when I was writing it.
In fact, one agent in London complained as he rejected a synopsis and the first three chapters, "The only precedent for this is The Beach, so you have to tick all the boxes." I don't think he was right about that. The Beach was first published in 1996, and a lot has changed since then.
I think in The Beach you have something like the nascent emergence of a sense of possibility – wouldn't it be amazing if we could just stay here and not have everything fucked up by the locals trying to make money and guidebook writers bringing in the banana-pancake brigade?
But 15 years on, there are places like Shuangshan, the imaginary setting for Harvest Season, where people do live in places like Thailand, India, southwest China, and so on, and are to a certain degree insulated from the backpacker armies – I mean, backpackers get up for breakfast and hike up mountains, for example.
The problems faced by long-term drop-out expats, for want of a better word - a friend of mine came up with the term glomads, or global nomads, which I rather like – are different from those of the inhabitants of Alex Garland's novel.
GK: What kinds of problems? How are they different?
Taylor: Well, if you look at The Beach – and I think it's actually profound beyond its intent, which might be the best way to be profound – you have a community under siege, deeply suspicious of all outsiders, and particularly the locals. The locals don't get it – they want to monetize paradise. So, in the case of The Beach, they only exist as the guys you steal your weed from.
But the reality, for those of us who drop out for a while in any of the places on the trail that have become long-term drop-in centers, is that we do have to deal with the locals. That's basically what Harvest Season is about. It notes that it can work, it usually does, but there are lines, and once they're crossed a balance is upset – and everything can go to hell.
GK: So is your book based on a scene that did just that? Go to hell?
Taylor: No. I saw something that came close to the tipping point and thought to myself, OK, what if this happened, or that happened – how might it all play out? That involved quite a bit of making things up, but – all the while – trying to do so with as much fidelity as possible to the authenticity of the scene itself.
GK: Did it make any difference at all that the book was set in China?
Taylor: Yes, definitely. The fascinating thing about China at this moment is it's as if you have the '50s, '60s, '70s and so on, all those decades with their defining values and mass trends, all merged into one and happening at the same time.
The drop-out Chinese in Harvest Season may be very marginal and represent a tiny percentage of Chinese youth, but I don't think that the book misrepresents them – they're swallowing up 50 years of counter-cultural arguments and lifestyles. And it's easy for them, because, like most of the Western drop-out diaspora, they think the system is bullshit.
GK: What's your next project?
Taylor: Nah, can't talk about that, it's too early... let's just say it will be set in Yunnan.
Chris Taylor image: Piero Vio© Copyright 2005-2020 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.