Lisa Ip meets a storyteller whose own story is as dramatic as those he tells
He strides onto the stage and the audience of 1,000 teenagers cheers, claps and waves. He raises both hands and the crowd yells louder. A rock star at a concert? Actually, no. This is a guest speaker at a school assembly in the middle of a weekday afternoon in Hong Kong. Curiouser still, the visitor is a puny, bald, Sri Lankan author in his mid-40s and the entire audience is made up of Chinese youngsters. He's no Britney Spears, but Master Vee has definitely got pop star quality, and can get youngsters excited. Nury Vittachi has made himself famous in Hong Kong using every medium available to him, and that includes recording a handful of eminently forgettable pop videos which aired on a TV show he hosted in the early 1990s. In that decade, it was easy to dismiss Vittachi as a local talent who built up a rapport with a constituency of loyal fans in his home city by tireless self-promotion. But categorizing him as a minor artistic anomaly has become impossible. He has achieved the summit of the intellectually ambitious, in that he has not only written several well-received novels, but has had them published around the world by well-reputed publishers, including America's St Martin's Press (part of the Pan Macmillan empire), France's Philippe Picquier, and Australia's Duffy and Snellgrove. The books appear to be selling, too. In Germany, the first volume of Vittachi's comedy crime series The Feng Shui Detective went into its third edition with major imprint Unionsverslag in just five months. The works are being translated into other languages too, with a Portuguese edition available, and a Bahasa version on the way. Mini-mysteries based on the books are appearing in magazines in China. He also writes books for children, the most notable being Dead Eric Gets a Virus, an extraordinary book about a child on the edge of death, written for youngsters aged 10 to 14. Vittachi spent much of his early career in newspapers and magazines, where he was said to be aloof and unmanageable as a journalist but was clearly popular with the public. His book of collected columns, published under the title Only in Hong Kong, went through six editions, a major achievement in a busy city with no patience for books in any language, let alone a minority one. These days, he has virtually abandoned journalism except for his Travellers' Tales column, which has run every week for 11 years in the Far Eastern Economic Review, a weekly news magazine published from Hong Kong. He is now a full-time author. This reporter caught up with him on a morning where he was flitting between schools at opposite ends of Hong Kong, doing storytelling performances which were more like stand-up comedy routines. Our interview was delayed for half an hour because he was mobbed by children who wanted his autograph. What possessed him to write a novel about death for youngsters, especially in a city with a worryingly high suicide rate among school children? Death and life are two sides of the same coin, he explains. And the coin balances on its edge in that particular book. The threat of death has the function of highlighting just how marvellous life is, and to make Eric realize how desperately he wants to cling to it. Vittachi introduced himself to the students under his nickname as Master Vee and the nickname suits his look better than his real name. Small, thin, dark-skinned, completely bald, and trained in various schools of feng shui, he has the air of a pop culture guru about him. This impression is heightened when you talk to him and find he has a tendency to wander off into his own philosophies (I don't believe in concepts of race, nationhood or ethnicity; the only country is Earth: you and I are the same race, because we are both earthlings.) He is known as Sam Jam the story man with younger audiences. He always dresses in Asian clothes, with Mandarin-collar shirts and Nehru jackets, and is occasionally mistaken for a priest.I'm an Asian militant. Ties are a Western imperialist trick to cut blood circulation to the brain, he says. Does the name Master Vee imply some sort of religious pretensions?Nah, I use nicknames like Master Vee or The Spice Trader because the kids can't pronounce Nury Vittachi, he says. I don't blame them. Sometimes I can't pronounce it myself. On Saturday mornings, for example. The glibness of his answers is initially off-putting, but after a few minutes, he drops the one-liners and starts to relax. Sorry, I'm a bit hyper after communing with 1,000 kids. Their intrinsic kidishness infects me. Is there such a word as kidishness? There should be. I'll write to the Oxford Dictionary people at once. People who meet Vittachi can see why he is the only person who could have written The Feng Shui Detective novels. The marvellous multi-ethnic cast, each member of which individually re-invents the English language, has to be a product of someone with huge ears and a detailed knowledge of street culture in many places. The Sri Lanka-born author has an English wife and three adopted Chinese children: clearly destiny has raised him to be one of the spokesmen for a new Asia. The books tell the story of feng shui master C.F. Wong, who specializes in feeling the vibrations at scenes of crime. Wong is a refreshing hero, because he is so patently un-heroic. He is puny and cowardly, a misogynist, he has antediluvian views on race and culture, and he doesn't have an altruistic bone in his body: his only motivation is money. And, surprisingly for a crime-fighting hero, he is not even honest, inflating his fees and overcharging his clients. But the key to each story is that the feng shui master can usually only solve each mystery when he works together with people of other cultures, particularly the pestilent Western female assistant who has been foisted on him by the businessman who pays his retainer. The moral is simple, and laid on thickly with a trowel: only when people of different backgrounds work together, do we all win. Who is Wong based on? Vittachi smiles. I thought I had invented him until an animator did a cartoon film which showed him as a fat Chinese man in Western clothes. No, no, no, I said. He's a puny, grumpy, bald man in an Asian suit. That's when I realized that I had based him on myself. One has to wonder how a Sri Lankan ended up being an author touring schools in a Chinese city. We had to escape from Sri Lanka one dark night because of something my father wrote in a newspaper, Vittachi explains. That experience shaped my life and I decided to become a writer too. After their exile from Sri Lanka in the early 1960s, the family wandered around the world for a while, with Vittachi's mother eventually settling in London with the children. His father continued a nomadic existence until his death in 1993. Vittachi Junior came to Hong Kong in 1987 on honeymoon, fell in love with the place, and has stayed ever since. I am Chinese now, he says, showing me a wallet photo of his three adopted children. Three-fifths of my family is Chinese, so I reckon that makes us a Chinese family. Our favourite vegetable is dau miu and we even drink that disgusting glutinous soup. Literary success in Hong Kong was relatively easy to achieve, since there are so few authors in the city, either in English or Chinese. Picking up contracts with publishers around the world took longer, and his have spread across the globe over the past five years or so. But unlike Wong, Vittachi has a streak of altruism. He has long had an active mission to encourage the development of competition for himself. He launched Dimsum, an anthology of local prose and poetry, in 1999 with author Xu Xi; it's now in its eighth volume. With writing teacher Jane Camens, he founded the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in 2000 and remains its managing director. He also gives classes in writing, urging people to create novels and screenplays. It's a busy life, especially since he is making an increasing number of international appearances. But now that he has enjoyed a measure of success around the world, and filmmakers are hammering on his door, can he drop the frenetic pace and enjoy the fruits of his labour? Isn't he rich enough? This question makes his jaw drop to the floor. Books cost very little. Ten per cent of very little is very, very little. Authors work for adoration, not money. Right on cue, an adoring child interrupts us to ask for the author's autograph. Vittachi signs a scrap of paper and makes small talk. As the child leaves, the author whispers: You've just watched an author get paid. Mr. Wong, the feng shui detective, may be based on his author, but the two of them don't have the same motivations.