Diaspora diaries

Shirley Lau

When the mainland authorities cancelled a Norwegian musical that was scheduled to be performed in Beijing and Wuhan, recently - apparently in response to the award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, which is given by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, to dissident Liu Xiaobo - Joe Chung's friends were baffled. They wondered why China couldn't separate politics from art. With a shrug, Chung replied: 'It's just a way of saving face.'

In his neck of the woods, Chung is somewhat of an authority on Chinese affairs - and not only because he is the author of best-sellers I Don't Want to be Chinese Again and China is Stranger than Fiction. It is also because he is one of only 400 Chinese people living in Stavanger, in southern Norway. Most locals in the coastal city don't know much about the mainland, says Chung, 'but they generally see China as having a great culture. I only have to write a simple Chinese character and people are in awe. But they haven't seen the dark sides of Chinese culture'.

Criticism of his homeland informs every chapter of his books, released to much acclaim in 2007 in Hong Kong and Taiwan but, perhaps inevitably, banned in the mainland. Hong Kong writer Ni Kuang considers I Don't Want to be Chinese Again 'one of the few good books in life', although some critics argue the author's views are too radical.

Chung is largely oblivious to the debate, however, enjoying a quiet Scandinavian life with his wife and one-year-old twins.

Before moving to Norway, Chung had been involved with pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong. His idealism, he suggests, stems from an unhappy childhood dominated by an authoritarian and abusive father, a farmer in Yuen Long.

'He was a little Mao Zedong. He deprived me of my freedom, dignity and privacy. So I grew up feeling particularly indignant when seeing other people's freedom taken away. In hindsight, my father was just unwittingly continuing a bad Chinese tradition of over-controlling children.'

Chung's first job was as a social worker. Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, he became a political activist, frequently taking to the streets and often landing in trouble. In 2000, he penned a newspaper article headlined 'Taiwan is entitled to go independent', which incurred the wrath of his pro-Beijing boss at an online education company. He was sacked three months later.

In 1996, Chung joined a protest in Macau against Beijing's decision to jail prominent dissident Wang Dan. As he protested, a number of curious Scandinavian tourists, who were visiting from a church in Sha Tin founded by a Norwegian missionary, approached him and asked Chung what was going on. They subsequently became friends and, one day, Chung made a Chinese meal for the church workers. One of the dishes was whole steamed fish, with the head and bones intact. Only one of the Norwegians was brave enough to dig in with her chopsticks and Chung was smitten. She would become his wife.

In 2003, four years after the couple had married, she was homesick and he was fed up with Hong Kong as he 'couldn't see a future for the city's democratic development'. So they relocated to Norway.

Chung currently works as a freelance China-affairs consultant for the Norwegian government and has found a home he can relax in.

'People here are more honest and genuine and a humanitarian spirit runs through society. The tax may be high but people understand the need to redistribute some wealth to disadvantaged groups,' he says. 'Compared with Hong Kong, where property prices go crazy and a million people live in poverty, Norway is at the other extreme - and it's a much fairer society.'