Turning trash into literary gold

Chinese science-fiction writer Stanley Chen Qiufan hopes his book can educate people about where their waste ends up.
Chinese science-fiction writer Stanley Chen Qiufan hopes his book can educate people about where their waste ends up.PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHEN QIUFAN

Author Stanley Chen Qiufan's cyberpunk novel, Waste Tide, draws on a Chinese town known as an e-waste dumping ground

When Chinese science-fiction writer Stanley Chen Qiufan was growing up in Guangdong province, there was a town near where he lived that existed solely on trash.

The town of Guiyu was the world's dumping ground for electronic waste. An army of workers, mostly poor migrants from other parts of China, stripped computers, circuit boards and cables for recycling, often with their bare hands.

In the process, they slowly poisoned themselves. The air, soil and water were toxic from acid baths and the ash of burning e-waste. The river ran black. Lead poisoning was rampant, especially among the children.

Even though Chen's home town was near Guiyu, he did not know about the situation there until 2011, when he had dinner with a friend who works in e-waste recycling.

"Everyone was enjoying the benefits of this kind of waste management and recycling industry," says the 37-year-old over the telephone, "but nobody really cares about it or who is suffering because of it."

Chen, who will be in town next month for the Singapore Writers Festival, fictionalised Guiyu as "Silicon Isle" in his cyberpunk novel Waste Tide, in which science fiction and reality are hard to distinguish.

In this gritty world ruled by clans, people modify their bodies and take drugs to escape their bleak reality. The lives of the thousands of "waste people" toiling there are worth nothing to those who control the recycling. When a powerful electronic virus infects a "waste girl", it sparks a class war.

Waste Tide was published in Chinese in 2013 and translated into English earlier this year by award-winning author Ken Liu.

  • BOOK IT / AN HOUR WITH: STANLEY CHEN

  • WHAT: A meet-the-author session with Chen

    WHERE: Blue Room, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Nov 10, 2.30pm

    ADMISSION: Festival pass, $25 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: In Mandarin, with questions and answers in English and Mandarin


    IS SCIENCE THE NEW RELIGION?

    WHAT: Chen and Singapore-based writers J.Y. Yang and Tony Estrella debate the relationship between science and faith

    WHERE: Ngee Ann Auditorium, Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place

    WHEN: Nov 9, 11am

    ADMISSION: Festival pass


    WRITING IN DIALECT

    WHAT: Chen discusses writing in dialect with Singapore playwright Thomas Lim and Cultural Medallion recipient Yeng Pway Ngon

    WHERE: Blue Room , The Arts House

    WHEN: Nov 9, 4pm

    ADMISSION: Festival pass

    INFO: In Mandarin

    • For more information, go to www.singaporewritersfestival.com

Things changed for Guiyu in the interim, with the Chinese government taking steps to ban waste imports from abroad and move the recycling process to an industrial park on the town's outskirts - albeit at the cost of lowering local incomes.

Chen hopes translations of his book will make people in developed countries think twice about where their waste ends up. Though things have improved in Guiyu, other places in Africa and Asia continue to be dumping grounds for waste from wealthier countries.

"Now that more people are starting to recognise this problem, we should get the attention of the big electronic-device companies," says Chen.

"They need to take responsibility as well because they try to make more money out of products that quickly replace older devices, resulting in a huge amount of electronic waste produced every year."

Chen, who is single, published his first short story, Bait, about humans enslaved by alien technology, in Chinese magazine Science Fiction World when he was 16.

Formerly an employee of Google and Baidu, he later worked for a tech start-up, but gave this up when forced to choose between it and writing full time.

He was encouraged by the recent surge of global interest in Chinese science fiction, following Hugo Award wins by Chinese writers Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang.

He is busy with multiple projects, including co-authoring a bilingual book with Kai-Fu Lee, the computer scientist behind the best-selling, non-fiction title, AI Superpowers (2018), which will look at China's future in artificial intelligence through fictional and non-fictional lenses.

"Technology will be the key factor in winning in the future," he says. "A lot of scientists and tech start-up founders have been hugely influenced by science fiction since they were kids and I think the Chinese government would love to see it play an important role in popularising science and technology.

"It is a good chance to inspire in children a curiosity towards science, nature and the cosmos."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2019, with the headline 'Turning trash into literary gold'. Print Edition | Subscribe