Nury Vittachi tells Chitra Ramaswamy about the 'wotcha' moment in his childhood that lives on in his sleuth's multicultural misadventures
NURY VITTACHI was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in London and lives in Hong Kong. His wife is English and they have three adopted Chinese children.
Oh, and he sets his popular detective fiction in Singapore. Confused? "Yes, the multicultural message in my books is lived out in my life," he says. "I'm a citizen of the world, especially with my odd little family. It just worked out like that: I'm not meant to belong anywhere. When I go out with my children without my wife, everyone assumes I'm the servant."
Now, the 49-year-old's quirky, cultish detective fiction is following in his globetrotting footsteps. Already a big name in Hong Kong thanks to his journalism, children's books and founding of a major Asian literary festival, Vittachi's five books so far in his detective series – about a Chinese feng shui master who inadvertently solves murders while restoring the harmony of crime scenes – have been published in eight languages. They are not available, however, in his fictional sleuth's home country. "When China clamped down on the religious group Falun Gong they made all esoteric practices, including feng shui, illegal," says Vittachi. "So, they're not available in Chinese, which is absurd seeing as it's about a Chinese man doing Chinese things."
It was when Vittachi discovered that crime scenes in east Asia are visited not just by police and forensics experts but by feng shui masters that he got the idea for his own private eye, CF Wong, a hapless geomancer more interested in wheedling money out of people than righting the world's wrongs. Wong's sidekick is no Watson, either, but a hip, young British-Australian woman who at best tolerates him. Vittachi describes Wong as "an accidental hero, a sexist and racist who likes to eat small animals, alive if possible". Hardly your average hard-boiled, trench-coated gumshoe.
"When someone is murdered, robbed or raped in east Asia, the family call the police but they also call the feng shui master to check the vibrations and harmony of the building and occupants," says Vittachi. "I thought, what if the feng shui master was smarter than the cops? The detective fiction genre has been murdered by forensic crime writers and this concept brought back some of its humanity."
Vittachi started writing the first in the CF Wong series during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. He had been a daily columnist in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post for 11 years, but rising censorship levels meant that one by one the columnists and cartoonists were fired. Eventually, he was the only one left. "They couldn't sack me because everyone was watching, so my job was changed. Basically I couldn't write, and I became an office ornament. I hated it, then thought 'this is brilliant – I'll write a novel.'" Vittachi finished the first draft of The Feng Shui Detective in three months, and then resigned.
In the latest adventure, Mr Wong Goes West, the eponymous detective gets an assignment to 'cleanse' Buckingham Palace. "I wanted a conversation between my detective and the ultimate English speaker," says Vittachi. En route, Wong gets caught up in a row between eco-warriors and oil tycoons when he is called upon to apply feng shui to a revolutionary aircraft.
The comedy is all in the cultural misunderstanding, and Vittachi is a consummate post-colonial satirist, riffing on the many variations of English spoken by his multicultural cast. Suffice to say that when Wong meets the Queen he gets her 'Regina' title confused, addressing her as "Queen Vagina".
Vittachi's closely studied dialogue is gleaned from travelling the world and recording strangers' conversations – it once led China's secret police to arrest him. Wong was inspired by Vittachi's own sense of bafflement as a five-year-old Sri Lankan boy arriving in London. "I went to school and said 'how do you do?' to everybody, because that's how we'd been taught English," he says. "They all said 'wotcha' back to me, a word I couldn't find in any English textbook. That total non-communication between two people ostensibly speaking the same language inspired me. I thought, I just have to capture that."
• Vittachi will appear at Edinburgh Book Festival, August 10. Mr Wong Goes West is published by Polygon www.jam100.com, www.mrjam.typepad.com