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Five Minutes with…Paul French

This month’s guest at M on the Bund’s Penguin literary lunch series is Shanghai’s own Paul French. The London-born, China-based author will discuss the Andre Malraux classic Man’s Fate. French had a busy summer with the publication of two books, most prominently Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation. TALK caught up with him to chat about forsaken literature and the future consequences of China’s growing obesity problem.

You’ll be giving a talk about one of your favourite classics, Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate. Why does this book resonate so personally with you?

Sadly Malraux’s great novel of Shanghai has become a forgotten classic. So few people these days seem to have read it, yet it is a swirling multi-layered tale of the city. It focused world attention on Shanghai in 1933 when it was published; Sergei Eisenstein nearly made a movie of the book. It deals with perhaps the most traumatic period in Shanghai’s inter-war history, the bloody revolution of 1927, from the perspectives of a range of characters both Chinese and foreign. The opening scene of the book, where an assassin waits patiently to kill his intended target, remains one of the most tensely gripping in literature. It’s time to remind people of Man’s Fate.

Your new book Fat China explores urban China’s growing problems with obesity and diabetes. Why did you choose to focus on this issue?

China’s steeply rising urban obesity rate is a very graphic example of what we might call a ‘wealth deficit’. Right now, after 30 years of rapid, and largely untrammelled, growth Chinese society has a host of ‘wealth deficits’ to deal with. More cars may be considered a good thing, but the ‘deficit’ will be more traffic fatalities; similarly, famine to gluttony in two generations is a major achievement but for a new generation obesity-related illnesses will be a major problem and a drain on the economy through required additional healthcare spending. How China deals with these new challenges, prompted by the last 30 years of development, will determine the success of the Chinese economic model over the next 30 years.

In the long-term, do you foresee China struggling with an obesity pandemic as many Western countries are now?

China will see growing rates of obesity and consequently of lifestyle diseases such as type-2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart disease, etc. As we have seen elsewhere, no amount of education, fat taxes, public awareness campaigns or anything else is making much difference, nor will they in China. People will have to make lifestyle choices for themselves. This happens, but it takes time. The more immediate question is, will those suffering from diseases related to obesity and other lifestyle issues, such as smoking and a poor environment, receive a decent level of treatment?

You write about everything from history and biographies to consumerism and geopolitics. How do you choose your subjects?

They choose me – your curiosity gets piqued, you go off on a little investigation, do a little research, make some notes and then (luckily!) a publisher calls and likes the idea. If you’re really lucky some money may even change hands in your favour!

You’ve stated the essential truth of the expatriate experience is you don’t change China, China changes you. How has this country, its people and its culture, helped shape you as a person?

Trying to change China will simply lead to frustration. It's much better to reverse the process. China makes me appreciate where I come from far more, the opportunities I've had and the fact that they have been fought for and won by previous generations, which means I get all the benefits without too much of the sacrificing.

Penguin Classics Lunch: Paul French on Man’s Fate by Andre Malraux. 19 November, 12pm. M on the Bund. Reservations: 6350 9988.



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