What happens when China’s richest man, the beloved CEO of the Bashful Goose Snack Company, sends his eager tuhao daughter Kelly Hui to the middle of nowhere to manage a fat camp? Or when the founder of a hair extension farm for top Chinese celebrities loses his best producer of luscious locks?
It’s these mind-boggling scenarios that take readers through the pages of Year of the Goose, author Carly J. Hallman’s first novel, set somewhere between today’s China and an almost-supernatural, chaotic world. The plot is more or less composed of flashes of recollections from several loosely connected Chinese characters, including one extremely pampered goose and a wistful turtle, whom all have one thing in common: they’ve encountered the wicked repercussions of the desire for money and power.
Sprinkled in the text are references to common narratives about China in the media, including parachute kids—young Chinese students sent to the United States to live without parents or guardians—extravagant banquets, official crackdowns, corruption, luxury cars, and overall lavish displays of wealth. The book carries a thread of dark humor that nods to the most absurd, yet very real societal issues in China, and while Hallman’s satirical mini-plots seem to take place in another realm, they strike all-too-familiar chords that at times lead to quick searches on the Shanghaiist to see whether they really did happen. Throughout, Hallman thrusts the reader into a rather uncomfortable semi-reality of a nation grappling with the ramifications of a “tycoon culture.”
Hallman studied in Austin, Texas before moving to China where she taught English for two years at an international school in Beijing, followed by a series of private tutoring gigs (“These were those insanely lucky, friend-of-a-friend-needs-an-English-teacher gigs you sometimes hear crazy stories about,” Hallman says). It was through these jobs that she encountered wealthy individuals in the city, mostly parents of students she taught and in some cases, the students themselves. Inspiration for her book was in part, driven by these encounters with riches alongside—sometimes juxtaposed with—societal and economic development. Jing Daily spoke with Hallman as she prepared to leave Beijing, to find out what motivated her to create her colorful characters and what wealth in China looks like to her now.
What inspired you to write this book?
From my first study abroad trip to Nanjing in 2006, I was determined to write a book about China. I grew up in small-town Texas, where not a lot happened, and so urban China was inherently fascinating and shocking and exciting to me.
When I returned to China in my mid-twenties to write said book, stories and characters kind of fell into my lap. I also found a great deal of inspiration in the fiction I was reading by Chinese writers—Yu Hua, Mo Yan, Mian Mian, Sheng Keyi, etc. The way they write about China is very different from the way most English-language fiction writers write about it. I wondered, could a foreigner write wild, daring fiction in a similar vein? I still don’t know the answer to that, but hey, I tried.
The book was a work of fiction, but how much of the characters’ lives did you find based in reality (i.e., inspired by something you read in the news, etc.)?
As insane as many of the characters and plot lines may be, a surprising amount of the book’s contents are rooted in reality, in mashups of my own experiences and stories I’ve read in the news. For instance, I got the idea for the hair extension tycoon character after reading about the kid in southern China who sold his kidney to buy an iPad—it got me thinking about selling literal parts of ourselves for financial profit. A short time later, an incredibly rich woman I knew regaled me with supernatural folk tales and firsthand accounts of her numerous UFO sightings. All of this came together in my head and sparked a story. That’s what fiction is, after all—a jumble of truth and lies, pieces that have been stolen and borrowed and recycled into something new.
How long have you lived in Beijing? What are some of your observations about the city that have affected your writing?
I lived in Beijing for four and a half years. I’ll be returning to live in the U.S. full-time by the end of this year. Beijing is the kind of place where things are constantly happening and changing. Like any city of its size, it provides endless fodder for the writers and creatives lucky enough to call it home for any amount of time. But it’s not just its size, its population. There’s something magical about Beijing, a quality that is difficult to pin down, that attracts all kinds of people and keeps them there. I don’t possess the words to describe this quality, but I know it has something to do with the temples and the high rises, the business people and the beggars, the unbreakable spirit and unbelievable resourcefulness of its people. It’s something to do with the ghosts and the street food and the horrible traffic and the often-bizarre regulations and…[etc.]
Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign is trying to cut down on the extravagance and conspicuous consumption mentioned in your book. When you started writing your book, had the anti-graft campaign started?
When I first started working on the book in 2011, Xi Jinping hadn’t yet come to power and the anti-graft campaign hadn’t yet begun. It’s a nice idea, this anti-corruption campaign, and on the surface, it has certainly resulted in some positive societal changes. However, people, especially people with financial resources, always find ways to get what they want. That’s all I’ll say about that. And I think if I were to rewrite the book today, I’d definitely figure out a way to work secret banquet halls and money laundering and overseas real estate purchases into the plot.
There is a point in the book where you describe Kelly’s experiences abroad where she appears very lonely. Recently, there were reports about Chinese teens convicted for assault in the United States—the media called them “parachute kids” because of how they had no connection or direction from their parents while living abroad. Did this have any relation to Kelly’s character?
Kelly could be described as a parachute kid, yes. I find the whole concept quite sad, and it’s definitely not limited to Chinese students. I’ve met and read about people from all different cultures who have had similar family situations. However, a conversation I had with a Chinese friend years ago has always stuck with me. He was upper middle-class, college-educated, etc., and he spoke with marked bitterness about his parents. He said, “They’re strangers to me. I don’t know them. They never made any effort to get to know me. I studied and they worked, and that was it. We just happened to exist in the same apartment.” I had a very different relationship with my own parents, so exploring this dynamic through my characters was fascinating to me.
Do you have any wealthy friends or colleagues in China who gave you insight for your work?
Yes, throughout my time in China I got to know a number of wealthy individuals and families. As I mentioned, I grew up in Texas, in a lower middle-class family. At 16, I got an after-school job and saved up $500 to pay for my first car (a total clunker). Ten years later, here I was, riding in the passenger seat of a half-million dollar Bentley. I used to scour the house for enough loose change to buy a Dr. Pepper from a soda machine at school, and then here I was, the very same person, sharing a $600 pot of tea with a steel tycoon. All very surreal. Ultimately the lesson I learned was an age-old one: people are people. Money is freedom in many senses, but it’s also trouble. And the cliche is true: money certainly does not buy happiness.
Tell us more about what the goose signifies for you.
To me, the goose signifies wealth, hope, greed, need. There’s something beautiful about geese flying in V-formation in the sky, in the distance, in a group. But alone, up close, on the ground? They’re nasty little devils!
What are some significant changes you’ve seen in your time in China in terms of wealthy people’s habits?
The biggest change I’ve seen is that more and more people are moving more and more of their wealth overseas. Many have left, or are in the process of leaving and resettling in the U.S., Australia, and Europe. I think this is a result of a number of factors: the crackdown on corruption, environmental issues, inadequate healthcare and education. This is just my own perception, but it seems to me like a lot of people have finally reached their breaking point, that they’ve let go of the belief that China will improve to their standards within their lifetimes. They’ve decided it’s time, in the paraphrased words of novelist Xiaolu Guo, “to take care of their lives.” Unfortunately, this freedom only really exists for the wealthy. Everyone else is stuck with the bad air and the overcrowded hospitals.
The upheaval in the economy has greatly affected the luxury industry in China. If you had started to write the book now, would this have changed anything?
Quite possibly, yes. There are so many potential stories living within this particular shift. Maybe I should write a sequel!