Mo Zhi Hong

by Guy Somerset / 16 May, 2009
The Commonwealth Writers' Prize awards ceremony is being held in New Zealand for the first time since 1999, and Singaporean-born Chinese Auckland writer Mo Zhi Hong,36, is shortlisted for the Best First Book Award, having won the South East Asia and Pacific stage of the competition for The Year of the Shanghai Shark. The novel is a portraitof a diverse group of characters in the north-eastern Chinese city of Dalian, focusing on the ultra-westernised lives of a teenager and his friends.

It's a stroke of luck the prize is on home turf this year. I count myself unlucky in that respect. It was in South Africa last year, Jamaica the year before.

I suppose Auckland's Aotea Centre isn't that much of a thrill by comparison. They showed me a great DVD of them sitting around with all these Jamaicans ... oh,

anyway!

It was an illustrious South East Asia and

Pacific shortlist you won against. It's

quite an accolade. I was quite happy just to make the shortlist. There were some good books up - obviously, the Man Booker Prize winner [Aravind Adiga's The

White Tiger] and that. Which I thought would probably win.

You taught English in Dalian in 2003. How long was it before you realised what a rich setting it was? It didn't really strike me like that, except I suppose there was quite a lot going on there in that particular year - Sars, the Iraq War, China launching people into space and things like that - so there were a lot of background events I could use. I think anywhere is a rich setting as long as there

are people living there and you have means of communicating and interacting with them. I'm now working on a novel set in Auckland - seeing as I'm here.

As a reader, I was astonished at the level of westernisation in the novel - the malls, the McDonald's, the KFC. You've got a Chinese mother and Malaysian-Chinese father and spent time in the country as a teenager, but were you surprised by that when you went to work there? Initially, I was, because I hadn't been back for quite a long time and I had fairly vivid memories

of the first time I was there. The level to which it had opened up and changed was quite shocking. I had memories of Beijing where there were few cars and it was just seas and seas of bicycles. And then I went back there and it was packed full of cars and overpasses and whatnot,

as well as all the Western restaurants.

As a teacher, were you seeing kids like those in the novel and the extent to which they have not only American culture in their own country but are following it from afar with the NBA basketball, for instance? The basic answer is yes. There was a lot of that going on. Sport has an international appeal - stuff like the NBA and the English Premiership would be the two main ones there. David Beckham is like a hero. And so was Michael Jordan during

the 1990s.

The novel's title comes from Yao Ming of the Shanghai Sharks club getting to play in the NBA - though his year proved a bit disappointing, didn't it? He didn't quite measure up to expectations. He's still over there and doing quite well. It's just that the expectations of a sportsmad

nationalistic country are probably beyond the range of mortal men.

When you took The Year of the Shanghai Shark to a literary agent, you certainly chose the right one - Michael Gifkins, who is Lloyd Jones' agent. It was just luck. There's a list of New Zealand agents that I googled and I think his name was second on the list. The first one rejected it. I was just doing it systematically. If you look on the internet, it will basically say, "First, get an agent, and then that will make it easier to get published." I was following these steps very systematically and ended up getting lucky.

THE YEAR OF THE SHANGHAI SHARK,

by Mo Zhi Hong (Penguin, $28). The Best Book Award and Best First Book Award will be announced on May 16 at the Aotea Centre, Auckland, as part of the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, May 13-17. The finalists will be involved in free events there and also in Hastings (May 11), Wellington

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