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Interview: Julie O'Yang

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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 (r) in Kunming, 1976
O'Yang (r) in Kunming, 1976
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.

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What a brilliant read! Julie O'Yang sounds terribly clever and inspiring.


'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 visit Kunming for the first time in early 2005, its only 5 years ago now but the changes are really drastically!!! I can fully understand Julie.
All the typical chinese lifestyle is nearly gone and in no time all will be like an american / european city... sad thing.


Wow, "the gold tinged light" Julie, it is not your imagination, I visited Kunming for the first time in 2010 and I was fascinated by the different "golden" light. I am from California, and it is different in the U.S. and Hawaii as well. The light is different in Kunming, I don't know why, but I thought it was more golden. I spent 3 weeks there travelling around, and everyday I would look around at some point and think "the light is different here". "It is kind of golden". I too and a visual artist, so maybe that has something to do with it. maybe our perceptiveness of light or noticing subtle things like that is different than most. I came back to the U.S. and told several people that the light is different there, it's more golden. But everyone just looked at me funny. Now I know I was right since you mention the gold tinged light. It must not be a false memory because it is still there, and probably always will be. I want to go back.


it is a sad thing to hear that kunming city changed so reapidly.
so many people can not reallize it origal

Why is everyone so sad and panic about the changes? I can understand it is a sad thing - something we are familiar with are disappearing... But, what makes the traditional chinese living way so attractive? The sqat-down toilet, 四合院, drinking water from the well... I don't want to go back to that living style. It had no privacy and it was so inconvenient.

It is more terrifying for me to see a place to look the same after 30 years.

We can't just keep everything the same just to keep some memory alive. We change because we want to. The new look we make now is going to become the memory of the new generation.

I hate the traffic in Kunming caused by the road works but generally I love the changes Kunming has made. It offers more convenience and comfort.

Thanks, everyone! It's great that you guys read the interview and left a comment. It's a warm feeling to share some memories, and I think there is always going to be a corner in our heart where we keep nostalgic moments which are not necessarily true, as truth here is beyond the point. It is beauty that matters. So to you, QQWEN, I don't think I'm against change - I would say I'm a bit of a chaser of changes - It is the merciless, the brainless, the ugliness that has turned all the cities in the world into a shadow without character. As an artist, I would like to cherish something that still belongs to be, even if it's a lie.
You could follow me on my freshly started blog:


Thanks again.

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