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The Jakarta Post
24-09-06, 23:16
Nury Vittachi: A man of many names

Cynthia Webb, Contributor, Byron Bay, NSW

An Asian literary personality worth watching, and worth reading, will again attend the third Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, held in Ubud, Bali, on the last weekend of September. He is Nury Vittachi, from Hong Kong. He can be recognized by his shiny bald head, containing endless stories and witty observations, by his darting movements which reflect his incisive mind. Also you will know him by his sartorial style -- an elegantly tailored long black and blue silk brocade jacket, and purple waistcoat worn over a white Nehru collared shirt with two black buttons at the neck.

Born in Sri Lanka in 1958, he has the same birthday as Mahatma Gandhi. Nury's grandfather was standing next to Gandhi when he was assassinated. International fame seems to be in Nury's destiny too, in the field of literature. He has recently received an advance from a major British publisher, Polygon, which will publish three of his novels in the UK. In Germany the editions have enjoyed multiple reprintings, and in France rival publishing houses fought over them. As well as the original English versions, the books have been translated into Spanish, Italian, German, French, Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesia. His U.S publisher is one of the biggest, St Martin's Press, a part of Pan Macmillan

At the time of writing Nury had just been invited to appear at the 2007 Sydney Writers Festival, and said he will accept.

Nury has written more than 20 books. These include the successful series about his Feng Shui Detective, C.F. Wong of Singapore, Geomancer and perceptive solver of puzzles. In these books the atmosphere of Asia is vividly described -- the cultural mix of East and West, people and beliefs, sights, tastes and smells. Nury cleverly recreates the various versions of accented English heard in Asia. The three novels to be published in the UK will all feature C.F. Wong, who has so captured the imagination of readers all over the world. One is yet to be written, and another is his most recent Wong title, The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics, which is already available in Australia. It will appear in Hong Kong and the wider Asia Pacific region at the end of this year and film rights are currently being negotiated. It is perhaps more obviously commercial than its predecessors, linking the plot to a number of current events. The story involves an attempt to assassinate George W. Bush, as he meets China's leader Hu Jintao at a summit in Shanghai. A major theme of the story is the use of the expression, "war on terror" to repress the Uyghur people of Xinjiang, China. This is a story of true events similar to the fate of Tibet, which Nury says that people don't know about. Nury has done a lot of research into the operations of the Chinese Secret Police, although he modestly says he's not in the Tom Clancy league as far as this goes. His book's primary purpose is to entertain, and he gives us characters who are not the usual stereotypes.

About the international popularity of his literary creation, C.F. Wong, Nury thinks that perhaps it's because Wong is so real. "Most fictional heroes are tall, handsome, strong, brave and motivated by goodness. Wong is short, plain, self-centered and worries about money all the time. He's like most of us," says the author.

"C.F. Wong is my attempt to pin down a certain sort of Asian persona: unreservedly masculine, money-grubbing, and fearlessly sexist and racist. As a writer, my challenge has been to make such an unheroic character into a sympathetic protagonist. Someone made an animated "short" of the Feng Shui Detective a few years ago. When I saw the first frames, Wong was fat and wore Western clothes. `No,' I said, `he's skeletal and bald and wears Asian clothes.' That's when I realized that much of Wong came from me!"

And what does CF stand for? "No one knows. He has never told anyone -- not even me," Nury confided. However it is to be noted that Wong represents "East", the other main character, the well-intentioned young British-Australian assistant, Joyce, represents "West." Only when they combine their talents and cooperate do they solve the mysteries -- a timely reminder to all of us.

Nury continued, "I get quite a lot of mail from readers who say `I don't like your writing, but I like the excerpts from Mr. Wong's book. Where can I buy it?' A couple of my publishers have suggested I complete Mr Wong's book and it be released under his name. I'm tempted to do this -- but I am worried that it may outsell my books, and then the publishers will transfer their loyalty to him!"

Asked whether he lives by the principles of Feng Shui, Nury answered, "I have studied both Chinese feng shui and Indian feng shui -- which is called Vaastu Shastra -- in detail. I live by the precepts in so much as taking great care to make my environment as conducive to living a harmonious life as I can. Of course, it's tough to keep things in order when you have three children thundering through the house!"

Nury has written thousands of stories for magazines and newspapers under the pseudonym "The Spice Trader". For a total of seven years, he had a daily gossip column under another pseudonym, Lai See. He is the co-founder, (in 2000 along with Jane Camens of Australia) of the Hong Kong Literary Festival, and is its managing director. He is editor of The Asian Literary Review. He also gives classes in writing, and screenwriting and has maintained a column, Travelers' Tales", for 11 years in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Nury's real name Nuryana was given to him by the spiritual guru from Yogyakarta, Bapak Muhammad Subuh, founder of the now international SUBUD spiritual movement, who was a close friend of his father, who had converted to Islam. The family were followers of the guru and contacted him about naming the new baby boy. Perhaps from these unusual beginnings, Nury's life was bound to be far from ordinary. But Nury's birth coincided with an escalation of political tensions in Sri Lanka, into civil war. Two years later the family had to flee their home, hurrying to the airport at midnight without luggage, because they were in danger from Sri Lanka's government of the time. They went to Malaysia, then later on to London, where mother and the children settled. From there the family split up when Nury's father Varindra Vittachi traveled the world for many years, serving as one of the directors of SUBUD. He was an author too, and wrote several books including two about SUBUD, and one about the political emergency which occurred in the first two years of Nury's life, titled Emergency, '58: the story of the Ceylon race riots. Varindra Vittachi died in 1993.

Nury grew up and was educated in England, and married an English woman in 1967, and they went to Hong Kong on their honeymoon. They loved it and decided to move there to live in 1986.

Although known by several different names to different readerships, his real name is rather grand -- Nuryana Perera DaSilva Vittachi, and to add to this his Chinese nickname is Sam Jam.

Nuryana is Arabic, meaning "child of light" as most people in Indonesia well know. Perera is the Portuguese name of his paternal family, and DaSilva, (also Portuguese) is the name of his maternal family. "My long and tortuous name, half of it given by conquerors of my country, contains a sort of potted history of Sri Lanka," said Nury. The family decided to adopt the Sinhalese name of Vittachi, an ancestor in Sri Lanka, since they felt it strange to be living in their own country having a European surname.

In spite of having all these resonant names, Nury now says he would like to change his name to Sam Jam. He very much enjoys his work as a children's story-teller, under his Chinese nickname of Sam Jam which means "third bus stop".

"In Hong Kong's buses you have to shout out the name of the place you want the driver to stop, and I lived at the third bus-stop," Nury explained. Here is demonstrated the humor and mischief that pervades Nury's personality.

The future for literature in Asia is on the edge of great possibilities according to Nury. At the Byron Bay Writers Festival in Australia, held in August, he explained that the world balance is shifting. Population growth in the Western world is declining, whereas the world's Asian population is growing rapidly. Yet most of the visual media influence, movies and television, which in turn influences ideas and fashion, comes from the West, mainly from the U.S.

To demonstrate his point Nury told the audience that one of his adopted Chinese daughters believed that Cinderella is an American Disney creation, whereas actually the story is an old story from her own culture about Princess Yen Shan, from 800 A.D. This was "the first case of literacy piracy," said Nury. This tale of a Chinese princess was taken to Europe by a Frenchman, Charles Perrault, adapted to a European setting and first published in 1697. It eventually found its way to the Disney studios in the U.S., then back to Asia in animated form. When you consider the theme of the tiny slipper, and the old Chinese belief that small feet were attractive, (leading to the practice of foot binding), you can see the connection.

"I think Australia is more aware of these changes to the world cultural balance than most other Western countries", he recently told the Byron Bay Writers Festival audience. "A lot of countries are not aware of it at all. However Hollywood producers have sat up and taken notice after the international successes of several high quality films from China, Korea and Hong Kong. They have been sending talent scouts to Asia looking for writers, and are trying to stay ahead of developments. Asians are already 63 percent of the world's population and there is a high growth rate, whereas in Western countries the growth rate is falling. This represents a huge market opening up. India and China, the two biggest countries, are rapidly modernizing. Also, people are moving about the planet in unprecedented numbers."

Nury said, "Until the turn of the millennium the whole literary 'food chain' was missing from Asia -- no literary agents, no literary festivals and not many readers either. Australia was the only country in the region that had it all. The Asian writers have to make the changes to claim their place in world literature". It is beginning to develop over the last few years. Nury is certainly a strong contributor, with his own varied activities in the Asian literary world. "The way to international success is still to write a fantastic book", said Nury, referring to the example of Arundhati Roy's success with The God of Small Things.

Nury works hard to foster a love of reading, among the young in particular. "Asian parents think of books as educational items," he says. "But I want kids to think of books as fun things. So I wrote The Land of NoWhen to do two things at once". It has a plot based on Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

Nury is dedicated to breaking down cultural barriers. His own family is multicultural, with his English wife Mary, and their adopted Chinese daughters. He says on his website, "The only country is Earth. You and I are all the same race -- earthlings."

Nury Vittachi's books are

The Feng Shui Detective (2001)
The Feng Shui Detective Goes South (2002)
The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics (2006)
The Amazing Life of Dead Eric (2004)
Twilight in the Land of Nowhen, (2006).
(The last two are books for readers aged 9-14)

Nury's website: www.jam100.com

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