Stanford graduate Matt Huang (not his real name) takes up a posting to Beijing with a high-profile US$880- million (S$1.1-billion) private equity fund, amid a China fever in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
He is put in charge of the fund's first big deal in China, an investment in a duck-farming business.
It goes swimmingly well at first, like Mandarin ducks take to water. But when the fund owners and the boss of the farm fight over control of the business, Huang is caught in the middle and ends up being betrayed and disgraced.
He decided to record his experiences in China in a book and roped in a friend, former Straits Times China correspondent Grace Hsu, 35, as the book's co-author.
What happened to me in China was so extraordinary, challenging and mind-boggling that I decided to compile the experiences into a journal to try to make sense of the trauma.
STANFORD GRADUATE MATT HUANG, who co-wrote Young China Hand, is using a pseudonym because of his current employer's confidentiality obligations
All the events and characters in Young China Hand, an insider's tale and thriller about doing business in China from a Singaporean perspective, are real, says Huang, now 38. The book came out in July this year.
The bachelor, based in Hong Kong where he serves Greater China clients of a major global financial institution, is using a pseudonym because of his current employer's confidentiality obligations.
"What happened to me between 2008 and 2013 in China was so extraordinary, challenging and mind-boggling that I decided to compile the experiences into a journal to try to make sense of the trauma," he says.
Given the book's sensitive information, he adds that it was decided "it might be best to position the book in the space between fact and fiction - a bit like movies such as A Beautiful Mind and Argo".
Huang's first draft was "a regurgitation of actual events"; Hsu interviewed him for more details to fill in the gaps.
Although the dialogue was livened up, Hsu tells The Sunday Times there was little need to embellish the story as "China's reality was already so out of this world that spinning fictional tales about it seemed rather duoyu (Chinese for unnecessary)".
In fact, she says that Chinese author Ning Ken has said a new genre - that of chao huan, or ultra-unreal in Chinese - is needed to reflect the incredible reality of life in China.
Young China Hand's title harks back to the times of pioneer Americans in China such as writers Pearl S. Buck. Specifically, the title refers to American diplomats and reporters who went into the heart of China to collect intelligence on the Kuomin- tang and communists to the United States government during World War II.
Hsu, now a full-time mother who splits her time among Beijing, Singapore and Texas in the United States, named each chapter after a Chinese idiom containing the word "hand" or shou, to dovetail with the book's title. The idioms ranged from common ones such as shou mang jiao luan (scrambling), to less known ones such as e shou cheng qing (jubilation).
The novel comes with footnotes, which Huang says reflect their desire "to offer a novel packaged both as a guide to China as well as a fun read, rather than yet another corporate thriller that prioritises entertainment over information".
Asked for tips they would give Singaporeans keen to work in China, the authors say they should discern who the real decision-makers are, earn the trust of the Chinese and cede some control over business ventures if necessary.
Hsu, who has been living in Beijing since 2009, says: "Having China street cred can come only from sticking it out here long enough and learning from the inevitable hard knocks.
"I daresay a smaller number of Singaporeans are willing or able to spend so many years cutting their teeth in China, compared with their Taiwanese and Hong Kong counterparts."
Singaporeans who do not stay in China very long usually have good reasons, such as their longing for home and family, their health or longer-term career goals, she adds.
"But for those who do stay longer, they are equally capable of becoming as China-savvy as their Taiwanese or Hong Kong counterparts."
Cautionary tale of novice’s trek rings true
FICTION YOUNG CHINA HAND
By Matt Huang and Grace Hsu
Archway Publishing/Paperback/ 338 pages/$35.20/ Books Kinokuniya/3.5/5 stars
It was only after I started living in Beijing as a China correspondent for The Straits Times that I began to enjoy novels set in Communist China, such as those by authors Liu Zhenyun or Yu Hua, which can require an understanding of China's socio-politics as well as a feel for what living in China is like.
But Young China Hand - by self-described "finance guy" Matt Huang and former ST China correspondent Grace Ng (Grace Hsu) - has lowered "the entry barrier" by providing footnotes and bilingual glossaries to help the reader follow this yarn about a Singaporean who gets schooled in all things Chinese.
The protagonist, a Stanford educated high-flier, is assigned to look after his firm's maiden investment in China: Dominant Duck Poultry Farming Co, a fowl empire with 34 million birds in China.
What follows is a lot of maotai drinking, visits to KTV bars, double dealing and "cameo appearances" by hired thugs and ruffled farmers.
Our hero is pitted against hen jiao se (ruthless types) in his quest to become an expert and learns the hard way that success is not guaranteed.
It is a gripping story based on the real-life experiences of Huang, who is using a pen name because of confidentiality considerations.
Huang and my former ST colleague Hsu are so thoughtful that they explain the Chinese way of counting by wan, or 10,000, and - I love this - even elucidate the link between an expression popular in Taiwan (jiche, or annoying) and a swear word that sounds similar.
But the explanations can mar the literary feel of the novel at times, such as when a character goes on about an academic title on golfing.
Overall, this tale of a novice's trek through China's business jungle has one important thing going for it - it rings true to life. The detailed descriptions of food and places such as popular food street Guijie took me back to my days in Beijing. It is rare to find a novel about 21st-century China written from the perspective of young Western-educated Singaporeans.
This cautionary tale of sorts may be a good primer for China debutants. One may pick up a few piquant Chinese phrases, such as tianshang diao xianbing (literally a pie falling from the sky, to mean a good deal from nowhere) or learn the difference between wo'men (we) and zha'men (all of us).
Like a juicy piece of Peking duck wrapped in a crunchy biscuit, the book is one to savour.
Ho Ai Li