Nury Vittachi (1958, Sri Lanka) is a journalist and author based in Hong Kong. He is best known for the comedy-crime novel series The Feng Shui Detective, published in many languages around the world, but he has also written non-fiction works and novels for children.
This interview was conducted by Holger Ehling at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAQ: What brought you to Hong Kong?

NV: I went to Hong Kong as part of a honeymoon world tour. I married an English woman, and we came to Hong Kong and we stopped there temporarily, and that was 20 years ago. So we are on our 20th year of honeymoon, our wedding presents are still untouched, still in there boxes where we left them 20 years ago. One day we will return to them. I suppose I ought to send for them. But who wants a 20 year old, out-of-date toaster know. In 20 more years, it would be an interesting retro object, but at the moment not.

Q: It might become cool again, but then, with all that old stuff it might seriously hurt the Feng Shui of your apartment, wouldn’t it?

NV: Yes. You know, Feng shui is a strange thing, because once you become aware of your environment, everything affects it. Btu, having said that, I have three children and to keep an apartment in feng shui order when you have three children is almost impossible.

Q: So then, you have created the feng shui detective, Mr. Wong. What has you made come up with such an idea?

NV: You know it is all from real life. When someone is robbed or raped or murdered, in East Asia, in Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore to some extent, the family will call the police to check the finger prints and DNA and normal stuff, but they will also call the feng shui master to come and find out what went wrong, check the harmony of the house and clear it, so that the house is clear of the bad energy. And it just occurred to me – what if the feng shui master was smarter than the cop? And then I realised this was the solution to a major problem that crime writers have been suffering. Basically, in the early 90s, the crime genre was murdered itself, by forensics, by Scarpetta, by CSI. These focussed on science, but it took out the story because if the answer is in the science lab, there is no human element anymore. And Mr. Wong is interested not in the DNA but in the harmony between the people, so it returns the crime genre to humans and human relationships, which is after all what we’re interested in.

Q: But of course it brings it back to where crime really happens, especially violent crimes – about 90 per cent of violent crimes are committed within the family, of course owing to a serious deterioration of harmony, doesn’t it?

NV: Right. Indeed. We are interested in crime because it is about people and passion. That’s what the feng shui detective is about. It’s about harmony not just between different people, but different cultures, whereas the traditional crime novel has gone off in the direction of science and forensics, which is hard for the average – maybe more accurate – but it is hard for the average person to get excited about it.

Q: When one looks at the genesis of the crime novel, looking back at the old adventure novels, Edgar Allen Poe and the mid-19th-century French crime writers, then coming along with Sherlock Holmes there was the first “detective” as such, because he uses his intellectual capacities for detection, I mean in some respects, without the Watson-sidekick and the pipe and the cocaine, Mr. Wong is a little bit of a small-time Sherlock Holmes for the Asian world, isn’t he?

NV: Yes, definitely, and the first Sherlock-Holmes-story ever published was called “A Study in Scarlet”, and the first Mr. Wong story was called “Scarlet in a Study”. And not many people spotted that connection. But then, scarlet is what you may paint your study if you are a feng shui master, and I wanted to put that in there. Sherlock Holmes is not only a smart guy, but he was very eccentric, he was a drug addict, and he had no females in his life, suspiciously, although they did appear in bits later. And so, you are right, Mr. Wong is a Asian, futurist Sherlock Holmes in that he has no women, he is an eccentric, very damaged character. Like most Asians, he is obsessed with earning a dollar and he is not in it for the morality at all.

Q: Holmes wasn’t in it for the morality; he was in there for the honing of his skills and for the testing of his skills, which is rather amoral if you talk about crime, in the end. You said your Mr. Wong is very interested in making a quick buck … how does that translate to the concept of feng shui which is basically about harmony and life, and making a quick buck is the opposite of preserving harmony and life?

Readers are such confused people

NV: There is this wonderful dichotomy between real Asia, which is working day and night making cheap products to make money and the image of Asia with the philosophy and the feng shui and reiki and the shiatsu and these spiritual things. And I have tried to capture that in the book by Mr Wong, during his day, is doing cases and overcharging people by as much as he can, and in his spare time he is writing a book on philosophy, and this is ancient Chinese and Indian parables, really. So this creates the two sides in the book. It is slightly risky though. I regularly get letters from readers saying “I don’t like your book, but I like Mr. Wong’s book. Where can I buy it?” Readers are such confused people. They think his book is real and they would rather buy his book than mine. And one day, for one publisher, I’ll eventually publish Mr.Wong’s book, and I am kind of worried: I am sure he will outsell me, and then, bye-bye me!

Q: You wouldn’t be the first writer to do a spin-off franchise of what you’ve done. When one looks at the way you narrate your stories, it is quite the opposite of the fast-paced, hard-boiled kind of thing. There is violence in there, but Mr. Wong hardly ever experiences it himself; he plods along solving things. In how far has that really anything to do with the way that people interact in the various Chinese-Asian communities that you set Mr. Wong up in?

NV: You are right. There are several reasons for the lack of violence there. It is certainly not hard-boiled crime. Mr. Wong is weak and cowardly when it comes to fighting with gangs, and he rather lets his young female assistant get beaten up while he makes a quick exit. So he is very much the anti-hero. But it is, as you suggested, part of the community. They are selling kids books series in Hong Kong: There is one about an Asian superhero action kid who is very polite, he calls the supervillains “Sir”, even if they are destroying the world – “Please Sir, do not destroy the world!” – he does not hit anybody, unlike Superman, Power Puff Girls, Spiderman. They all just hit people to solve their problems. This Asian superhero, he uses his maths textbook largely. He finds some scientific or mathematical solution to stop the supervillain. So there is this huge difference in personality between East and West. The feng shui detective’s books are really just tools to highlight that dichotomy and to give people bridges to cross it, I hope.

Q: You are of South Asian origin, you grew up in England and now you have ended up in Hong Kong. The best of three worlds?

NV: I just like people. When I was in England I always thought “what a cool place” – everybody is so polite and they drink tea and it’s a delight driving in England, isn’t it, because everybody stops and lets the other person go first. As I am from South Asia, this is just mind-boggling. And then I moved to Hong Kong, and it is wonderful in a different way. They are completely different to the British, but also wonderful. I think it is partly my attitude in being married to a European, I am from South Asia, and my kids are all Chinese. So we are forced every day to see the good side of other races rather than the bad, and it is wonderful. That is what I have tried to capture in the books. The richness of diversity rather than the problems of diversity.

Q: Your kids are all Chinese?

NV: Yes, we have adopted three Chinese kids, and an English wife. It was quite funny, when we started adopting them. We were asked the question by the welfare service – and I am not kidding “Are you going to tell them they are adopted?” And I said: “Look, I am brown, I am from South Asia, my wife is white, from England, they are Chinese. What do you think?” I said we would break it to them gently.

Q: In many council areas in England you would not have been allowed to adopt a child of Chinese origin. The melting-pot qualities of a place such as Hong Kong, with your very divers family – is that something that makes it easier to sustain the balance of such a family in a place such as Hong Kong or does it add to the stress?

NV: It is good, melting-pot societies such as Hong Kong. But there are better ones. Just look at Frankfurt itself. I have been delighted at the accents and the restaurants I have seen here. London, of course it is amazing the mix there. There are many wonderful cities where people mix up. One thing that’s great in Asia, I find, though, there is a new language, which is going to be a world language. I call it globalese. It is not English. It is English vocab, with simple, largely Chinese style syntax. So for example “Long time no see” is a Chinese phrase that translates all around the world into other languages. “No problem” is a typical Chinese answer. …
Asia is 62 per cent of the world’s population, so I believe in 10, 15 years time it will become clear that the world language is actually not English, as people might expect, but it will be this Chinese syntax with vocabulary from English, from other languages, from French, German, Spanish, from Chinese itself, from Bhahasa Indonesia, and it will be that melting-pot language. And it will be exciting. Already this language is being spoken everywhere in all the main cities in Asia. You know you go out and you sit down in a restaurant. And they say “Set?” and that means “Do you want the set menu?” And “set” probably is a French word, I should imagine,. And I say “Donwan”, which is “Don’t want” in Chinese form. And they will say “kari-la”. It is a clipped language. To give an example: “To Be or Not To Be / That is the Question” would translate into Asian English: “To be okay-la? Or not? No need-la!” So simple and clear. And it is not really English, it is not really Chinese, but somewhere in the middle. I often get complimented by critics for inventing this language, but of course I haven’t invented it, I have just written it down.

Q: That is something that the translator does with the German versions of your books: She is able to transport the feeling without breaking into a kind of not-existing German argot. It comes across as something simplified and quick and utilitarian, without being non-German. She is very good at that.
Within Asian societies, the concept of crime is of course a major issue when it comes to preserving harmony. I am most familiar with Korea, and when I travelled there and was looking for something to read I always asked whether they didn’t have any crime fiction. They told me “No we don’t”, which is only half true, because there are a couple of novels, but not very many. Crime fiction has become one of the dominant genres here in the West, especially when it comes to the mass market. How so in the Asian markets?

NV: Crime fiction is illegal in much of Asia. You cannot write it, you cannot publish it. I am working at the moment in a team on a screen play in China, and there is no crime allowed and it is a murder mystery story. So, that makes it difficult. Recently, I had a friend working on a screen play series in Singapore – a very modern society, and it started off as a cop-show series. And then they realised that as they couldn’t put any crime in it, they couldn’t call it a cop show. So they turned it into a firefighter show. So, they had the hunky guys in uniforms, having adventures, should be the same. But then they were told they weren’t allowed arson, so it had to be accidental fires they were putting out. And the whole thing went baaaa. Because there is no story without a bad guy; without arson, there is no story. Cops solving murders is not interesting. Only ex-cops or mavericks solving murders is interesting for the reader. So this is a huge difficulty that we have to get across, get over in Asia, and people do not realise this. As I say, crime writing itself is more or less legal. One of the best-selling books in China last year, or the year before, was called “The Ghost blew out the candle”, and it was first published as an ebook and many millions of people read it as an ebook. And then they decided to publish it as a physical book, and it went fine until the last minute when the Chinese government said “Ah – among the list of things that aren’t legal are ghosts. No crime, no ghosts.” So they had to take the ghost out of the book. This still sold a few hundred thousand copies, but this is a huge thing… I mean we see China being celebrated all around us, and it is nice to see the pretty books, and the authors file in, but people here have no idea of the creative pressures. You try writing a crime book without crime, or a ghost story without a ghost.

Q: We see a certain development in the relationship between Mr Wong and Joyce. Joyce is getting a bit older, if not wiser. How will Joyce continue? What are your plans for the lady?

NV: To some extent, Joyce really is the Western world. So how will the Western world continue? Judging from Germany, I would say well. I found the Germans delightfully outward-looking and aware of the rest of the world. The French also are quite outward-looking, the UK-people less so, and the Americans not at all. So, it depends on what part of the Western world I base her on. At the moment she has half-Australian blood and I tend to base her on how Australia feels towards Asia, and that is a positive. It has a good relationship with Asia, and an intelligent one. They understand that they don’t understand each other. Which is the first step.