Many people grow up in Kunming and spend the rest of their lives here. But some who spend time studying or working beyond the Spring City feel the irresistible call of adventure and end up living and traveling abroad, making their mark elsewhere.
Kunming native Julie O'Yang has spent the last few decades traveling around Japan and the West and now resides in Europe, where she works as an author, screenwriter and visual artist. Her first novel, China Noir, a historical thriller, was written in Dutch and published in 2008 by Antwerp-based Houtikiet. She has also translated popular Chinese writers including Wang Shuo into Dutch.
O'Yang's most recent manuscript, Butterfly, is her first novel written in English. She is currently looking for international representation for the book. We recently spoke with O'Yang about the path her life has taken since leaving Kunming:
GoKunming: When did you last live in Kunming?
Julie O'Yang: Oh boy, that feels like ages ago... Well, I left Kunming to study in Xiamen in 1986.
At that time I would return to Kunming to visit my parents during the summer. I remember the train took 72 hours to cover the distance of tunnels, mountains, and lots of boring agricultural areas and black industrial cities along the way. Every journey home felt like survival. It was then that I thought about heading another direction, across the ocean, maybe it would be more fun out there. That was when I first started thinking about studying abroad.
GoKunming: Where do you live now? How did you end up there?
O'Yang: I live now in The Hague, The Netherlands.
In 1990 I got a scholarship to study in London. After that I landed at the University of Leiden via an exchange program to study Japanese language and literature, for which I was granted a scholarship to study in Japan for two years. When I got back, I traveled extensively for any work I could find. This is the short version of my struggle in the West though. I pretty much lived everywhere.
GoKunming: What is Butterfly about? Where did you get the inspiration for Butterfly?
O'Yang: Butterfly is a love story about a married Chinese woman and a young Japanese soldier with intertwined destinies. It is a modern fairytale, with World War II as the backdrop. It deals with crossing forbidden boundaries, sex, darkness, and hope.
I drew inspiration for this book from Zhuangzi's story Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly. The story roughly goes: "Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then he awoke. Then he wondered: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?"
GoKunming: What do you miss most about Kunming? How often do you make it back?
O'Yang: I miss the foods and the smells of the city, and the gold-tinged light I remember from my childhood — the memory could be a false one but it's so beautiful I would like to keep the lie.
I still visit Kunming regularly to see my parents and friends. Unfortunately, I feel I'm losing the connection with Kunming due to the, unhappy — I have to say — city plan, which has turned Kunming into a stranger for me.
I miss those green, unpractical old houses, red chilli peppers hanging over the seasoned wood to dry... Bye bye to all that romance.
GoKunming: What did you learn by translating authors like Wang Shuo into Dutch?
O'Yang: I learned I could earn a living with my skills.
GoKunming: What are the biggest challenges you face as an ethnic Chinese writer with a primarily Western readership?
O'Yang: You need to write a great book. That's the responsibility every author should bear in mind no matter the color of his or her skin.
GoKunming: Is there any good Yunnan food where you live?
O'Yang: Nope. Too bad for me. A fat, whopping bowl of the across-the-bridge noodles would make my day!
GoKunming: What's the best thing about your life these days?
O'Yang: To do what I want to do everyday, which probably sounds tedious for most people. I'm desk-bound. I'm a writer. Sometimes I paint too, or I do illustration assignments. I enjoy working with colors and getting my hands dirty.© Copyright 2005-2020 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.