How good joss and fireworks helped Clavell book a date with destiny

FOR a novelist whose wordy bestsellers run to about 1,000 pages, James Clavell was being distinctly taciturn in replying to the photographer's questions.

''Why are you here in Hongkong?'' ''To make money.'' ''Those are helicopters on your tie; do you fly them?'' ''Yes.'' Not having been told beforehand he was to be photographed, and clearly irritated by a request to pose with his legs dangling in the Mandarin Oriental's swimming pool, the author of King Rat, Whirlwind, Taipan, Noble House and Gai-Jin, remarked sourly: ''I don't like to be thrown.'' ''Bad joss taipan,'' I mumbled to myself as the 70-year-old author grumpily swivelled in a chair in his suite to face the camera lens and remarked: ''I take the Chinese line that taking my picture steals part of my soul.'' Clavell visibly relaxed once the portrait session had finished.

Given his self-confessed enthusiasm and love for Hongkong, a city he has visited regularly since 1963 when he lived in the territory for a year, it was unlikely he could have kept up his sense of pique for long.

''I would like to lead four concurrent lifetimes, and if I could I would like to spend one of them here . . . there is no other place like it [Hongkong] in the world, although I am not sure that it exists while I am not here.

''Within two or three days I am bitten by the Hongkong bug, which is the business of making things, doing things, trying to get stories, interviewing people; it is a great place.'' His visit last week was part of a stopover on his way home after a tour of Australia promoting his latest epic, Gai-Jin. At the same time he was having a series of meetings with the American producer and script writer Eric Bercovici, who had also worked on the television versions of Shogun and Noble House with him.

Gai-Jin, published in the spring, is the latest in his series of novels about the intermingling of the West and East and is to be made into an eight-hour mini-series to be shown on the US NBC network in 1995.

It is likely that by the time viewers tune into Gai-Jin Clavell will be about to finish the seventh of what he hopes will be 13 historical novels about Asia.

While he has already begun work on the novel he is not about to give any clues to the storyline.

''The reason is that I do not know myself. Until I have done the last page it is all wind. It's bad joss to talk about something like that.

''It is part of the Asian saga that started with the arrival of John Blackthorne [the main character in Shogun ] in Japan. It is a continual story up to the present day and may be into the future.'' Did that mean Clavell could write a post-1997 Hongkong novel even before the handover in four years time? ''Yes I could; maybe I could write the 2097 novel,'' he answered.' In an interview published earlier this year Clavell quoted the Chinese Emperor Kung from the first century BC, who warned against squeezing and ripening boils because it was best to lance them and gently coax the skin into healing itself.

It was a metaphor for dealing with the Chinese, Clavell suggested. In effect, the sensible man did not allow his discussions with the Chinese to fester and putrefy; it was inadvisable to offend ''their sensibilities and manner'' and not to ''back yourself into a position''.

Given the current habit for reading between the lines of any statement concerning the mainland and Hongkong, was this a piece of advice for the Governor, Chris Patten, in his dealings with Beijing? ''You have to make up your own mind on that. Do you think it is? ''No one likes being backed into a corner, whether you are Japanese, Australian or Chinese. There is no doubt that the Hongkong and China union has to work - it is beneficial to both sides,'' he added.

Clavell then steered his comments away from the potentially rocky waters of Sino-British diplomacy, saying: ''I am a story-teller, not a pontificator. I am not a politician; I have no information other than what you have personally,'' he insisted, although he later said he had friends in government ministries who passed him titbits, even though much of it was ''misinformation''.

Later, though, Clavell commented: ''If the fire and brimstone, as you call it, continues to fall on his [Patten's] head, I hope that calmness will prevail. I hope that someone will say: 'Hey fellows - let's stop all this and make some money'.'' He was bullish about supporting Beijing's bid for the 2000 Olympics, as a boon both for China and the Special Administrative Region. ''I would go out of my way to encourage anybody in any way I can to support Beijing's bid - I really do think it is important.'' Even as China daily supplants the British colonial regime in the run-up to 1997, Clavell remains convinced the legacy of empire will be a benign one.

''I think that people will appreciate what the British have done here. In India they left behind an uncorrupt civil service and it has almost been the same here. In every 100 people one will be a saint and the other will be a sinner and the rest of us will be something in the middle.

''The British-trained police will be another legacy. I spoke to someone here in Hongkong who told me that he very much hoped the officers that are serving in the force now will be the same ones after 1997.'' Clavell said he had made several room bookings in Hongkong hotels for the night of June 30, 1997, when sovereignty is officially transferred to China.

''I really do not know what sort of situation it will be - it could run from alpha to omega - there could be the godamnest firework display - it could go any way.

''Whatever happens I will be celebrating a beginning and not an end. I think this idea 'one country, two systems for 50 years' will work, although there will be hiccoughs. Like with any family, there will be hiccoughs.''