Johnny Yip Yee-tat used to be one of Hong Kong's most prolific romance novelists. The fictional daily newspaper columns he began writing in serial form as a teenager have been combined to form more than 300 potboilers, and his name is familiar to most Hong Kong women of his generation (Yip reluctantly admits to being 'near 60'). Two years ago, however, Yip's Sing Pao column took a sinister turn when he quit romance and started churning out ghost stories instead. Yip, it seems, was bored with tales of love. In fact, he appears positively embarrassed by them. He now regards his extensive oeuvre with disdain and cringes at the juvenile sentimentality of his bodice-rippers. So the newspaper's publishers suggested he switch to spooky stories, which he pulls from sources as diverse as well-known Ching dynasty legends and hoary urban myths. Each has a mysterious, Twilight Zone-style ending, a stark contrast to the tidy, uplifting climaxes of his romantic fiction. What caused such a late-life shift? 'As I've got older I've switched to more realistic things, more serious stuff,' he said airily. 'All the romance isn't real to me anymore. When you get older love isn't always so beautiful.' Did he have a broken heart? No, said the unmarried Yip, who remained tightlipped about his love life. If realism was what he wanted, perhaps writing ghost stories wasn't the most logical place to start. But Yip said it was the detached third-person style of these tales he found realistic and refreshing. And, yes, he does believe in ghosts. His earlier fiction, by contrast, usually came from the heart: Yip put something of himself into his romantic leads, most of whom were female. The most popular of his grandes dames was Monita, the central figure in Yip's best-selling Monita's Diary. Published when Yip was 20, it went on to sell more than 250,000 copies, not only in Hong Kong, but in Chinatowns around the world. Monita was a rich and superficial Hong Kong schoolgirl who wore Chanel suits and dined at Gaddi's, until her father's bankruptcy forced her onto an introspective roller-coaster. 'She is very naive and innocent. She has been spoiled,' Yip said. 'Then her life completely changes. It has a happy ending, but she experiences a lot. At the end she is very humble and mature.' Was she beautiful? 'Oh, yes!' Yip exclaimed. 'She had long hair, very big eyes, tall ...' The character was based on a Hong Kong school-friend he once admired from afar. Yip moved with his family to Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1949. His father, who had been a banker in China, owned a series of construction-related businesses, but the family never lived in Monita-style luxury. Yip's mother didn't consider writing a suitable profession for her only son (Yip has two sisters, one older, one younger), but his prolific output and impressive earnings soon undermined her opposition. He was paid less than $600 for his first book, published when he was 17. But this made him 'rich among the students'. Later, his income would be boosted by film adaptations of more than 30 of his books. He doesn't regard himself as rich, although he will be able to retire comfortably in a few years. I had thought Yip would enjoy revisiting the heady success of his youth, but his clipped answers suggested a strong desire to bring the conversation back to the present. He avoided any attempts to pinpoint the reason for his apparent antipathy to much of his life's work. It seemed as if an inexpressible frustration was simmering under his amiable surface, but he steadfastly refused to explore it. When he made the surprising admission that he doesn't have a single copy of any of his books in his apartment, it was clear he was mysteriously haunted by his past as a romantic novelist. 'At that time, for an author less than 20 years old, Monita's Diary wasn't a bad novel,' he said, sweeping long strands of hair across his balding pate. 'But now I hardly want to mention it. I never read my old books because I find them very silly.' Ghost stories could easily be written off as silly too, but Yip doesn't think they're as important as his other assignments anyway. Nowadays he primarily regards himself as a travel and food writer, and tackles both tasks with enthusiasm. In addition to his daily dispatches from the spiritual world, Yip writes a thrice-weekly travel column, regular restaurant reviews and food articles for Sing Pao, and a monthly food column for B International magazine. His propensity for writing favourably about the destinations he visits has made him popular with organisers of junkets: in the two weeks following our interview, he was going to Hamburg for a week, then to Sendai for two days to write travel stories. Next month he's off to visit a Campbell's Soup factory in California. His newspaper articles no longer feature the name Yee-tat, but a variety of other pseudonyms. He always introduces himself as Johnny to avoid being recognised, although when he presents his business card, people sometimes recognise his Chinese name on the back, and express their love for his books. 'I don't like people to know who I am,' he said emphatically. This wasn't entirely convincing: when I faxed him to request this interview, he called straight back to give his enthusiastic consent. Yip was unable to give a satisfactory explanation to this contradictory behaviour, perhaps it was his gentlemanly eagerness to please. 'I always like to be an ordinary person - I don't like to show off,' he said. When we met, Yip had just signed a deal to write a pair of travel guides about South Korea. He seemed excited, but it was difficult to escape the feeling that piecemeal assignments like this were a little undignified for the man a Post writer once dubbed 'Hong Kong's Barbara Cartland'. I had pictured him living a life of glamorous leisure, sipping gin on the orchid-filled terrace of a sunny mansion on the Peak. Instead, he toils at his computer during normal office hours in the rather dim confines of his comfortable, but not lavish, Quarry Bay apartment, which has the dark, leathery feel of a well-furnished men's club. His assignments allow him little time for more substantial projects, but one currently looming large in his mind is retirement. Although he isn't sure when he will retire, he eventually plans to move to Hangzhou, where his mother was born, and relax by wandering the banks of the city's picturesque West Lake. Regrets? He denied having any, as if the path his love for writing had sent him on was pre-destined. When he finally stops working, he wants to do so in a way that will finally lay his apparent dissatisfaction to rest. He has so far resisted offers to bring his ghost stories together in a book. The next time he's published in book form, he said determinedly, he wants complete control over the process. 'I have had so many people publish my books,' he said. 'Now I've become numb. This time I want to do everything. I never liked the design and the way they packaged the books. I'm never satisfied. This time I want to do something I'm really proud of.'