Freedom beckons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am


Karl Taro Greenfeld still vividly recalls his worst day ever. On a return trip from Shenzhen, he went to top up his Octopus card at the Hung Hom train station. While doing that, someone stole his laptop computer, which contained 40,000 words of an expose that he was working on about severe acute respiratory syndrome.

'Only writers might understand this, but for about a month I was catatonic, and then I sat down and started writing again,' the Japanese-American author, 45, recalls while sitting in a Wan Chai hotel recently. 'To redo that book was one of the hardest things I ever did. It was an awful, awful experience.'

Fortunately, China Syndrome: The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic was completed and released to generally good reviews.

Greenfeld's take on the 2003 Sars virus, which marked a low point in Hong Kong's history, was also a cornerstone in his writing career, one that has seen him jet around the world from New York to Tokyo, Hong Kong and back to the US over the past 20 years.

Times were bad in the city, he says. 'There was Sars and the death of [singer] Leslie Cheung [Kwok-wing], and political freedoms really seemed at risk. Looking back at that was important. It was clear Hong Kong wasn't going to go quietly.'

While making the unlikely analogy that the Sars virus was like the shark in the movie Jaws and the central government was like the mayor on the beach, he demonstrates how he has parlayed his lifelong love of words into an unorthodox career. The son of New York-based writers Josh Greenfeld and Fumiko Kometani, the Kobe, Japan-born scribe started exploring stories in his teens before moving to Tokyo after university.

While there, he edited the Tokyo Journal, where he also met his model wife and turned his interest in Japan's subculture into his first acclaimed book, Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation. 'As a journalist, I think it's natural,' he says. 'You look for the subculture stuff because that's the sort of thing that's part of larger society.'

That subculture included his foray into Tokyo's pornographic industry and a look at the yakuza mafia. It was told with the thinly veiled gonzo style of someone who observed a lot, took part in more and seemed to have a thirst to find out how dark the underbelly of life could be. Standard Deviations: Growing Up and Coming Down in the New Asia was an even more personal look at Southeast Asia's subculture of drugs and sex, compiled by a writer who was not afraid to push the limits or bare his inner demons.

While recounting his past, Greenfeld, with his piercing dark eyes and longish black hair, seems almost bemused by the turns his career has taken since those two books. Demand for his brand of writing spread to in-flight magazines around the world and British publications, and once back in New York, he ended up at Time magazine.

'Time was important because I never really had a proper journalism job and this was the first time I was at a real place where you're supposed to show up knowing what you're doing,' he recounts.

Eventually, he was asked to become the editor of Time in Hong Kong, a stint he occupied between 2002 and 2004. It was during this period, he claims, that he learned how to put stories together with more authority. Interviews he had with Asian leaders stewed in his memory bank as the genesis for the major story he would write in his just-released collection of short stories, called Bright Boys.

'For a number of reasons, in the last five years, I started to write more fiction, and I think one of the reasons is that non-fiction had become too constraining,' he says earnestly. 'What I had written when I was younger was a little bit fast and loose with a sense of what the facts are. I was just trying to write cool stories.'

In the eight mostly first-person stories in Bright Boys, Greenfeld's own experiences never seem far away. In Silver, an expatriate boss in Hong Kong lays off employees in an obsessive attempt to create a football team that can win just one game. The Gymnast sees a magazine writer in modern China interview a starlet, with under-the-table payouts at stake. The title story, about a writer summoned to write an autobiography on an Asian dictator, only to learn more via an affair with his wife, is the longest showpiece of the collection.

'A lot of it was drawn from my experiences; if I wasn't the editor of Time, I wouldn't have seen all that stuff,' he admits. 'In the past, maybe I would have published some of it as non-fiction. But it's still the same - looking at these little groups and looking at these corners of society that the mainstream isn't always looking at.'

Now based in the Pacific Palisades, California, town that he grew up in, Greenfeld continues to contribute to publications including Sports Illustrated and Playboy, yet fiction is what he sees himself working on well into the future. Now Trends, another collection of short stories, will be released in the US in autumn, in addition to Triburbia, a novel slated for next year.

He has also recently entered the screenplay arena, with a pilot for the producers of US drama Mad Men.

But during his first visit to Hong Kong in two years, it is clear that the city - and the rest of Asia - are on his mind. 'Hong Kong has always been boom and bust and now it's really booming again,' he says. 'Nobody's really worried any more about losing political freedom or the degrading of the legal system. Things feel much more solid now. To me, the biggest difference between then and now is the confidence. It's got that boomtown mentality.'

And with that, you can almost feel the beginnings of a future story lurking in Greenfeld's mind.