David Harris Lang is the author of Witch of Wanchai, a triller set in Asia. Published by Merrimack Media earlier this year.
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Architect and author David Harris Lang is refining a skill for Asian crime thrillers – two fingers at a time. He opens up to Elizabeth Kerr about witches, rabbis, private dicks… and working for Walmart.
It’s been argued that the best writers stick to the credo of writing what they know, but if that were a hard and fast rule, DB resident David Harris Lang would have penned a manual about architecture by now. In fact, the better-than-budding novelist did start his secondary career in non-fiction with a book about the ins and outs of doing business – chiefly building – in China. He dropped it when he found non-fiction too negative for his tastes.
By 2013, David had reached the stage of his life where he needed to express himself and he settled on fiction – writing a crime thriller to be exact. “Writing is less messy than painting,” he quips. That’s typical of David, who sprinkles snappy rejoinders or deadpan jokes amid casual or more serious conversation. It’s not surprising he chose to express himself with words.
Portrait of the architect
David has just finished his second novel and is hard at work on the third, when he’s not doing his so-called real job as vice president design and construction for Walmart. Now 64, the native New Yorker lives in Discovery Bay but travels all over China weekly, and has been doing that since he left his previous position with Simon Property Group.
David admits it can be gruelling (“I’m really only 20 years old,” he quips) and he knows Shenzhen, where he once lived for seven years, would be the smarter choice of address. Asked why he puts up with the punishing commute, he drops a poker-faced: “Have you been to Shenzhen?” Yes. “Yeah.”
David may work for the world’s biggest corporation but that doesn’t mean he lacks the hipster cred to be creative. A graduate of the University of Southern California (USC), David later studied at the Pratt Institute in New York – Brooklyn to be exact – back in the 1960s, when his preferred look was the requisite long hair, accessorised with a pipe. “Women loved the pipe,” he jokes. Top that off with growing up in Japan (age six to 16) and David is the kind of quietly cool dude you want at a party; he’s got a great story for everything.
Recalling his angsty teenaged years in Japan, David recognises: “It was great. It helped parlay my international career and the fact I’m familiar and comfortable in many cultures… I am home wherever I am. I hated it [at the time] but I think wherever I grew up I’d have hated it. I was a teenager.”
David has been living in China on his current stint for nearly 11 years, four of those in DB, but for now he’s on his own. His “very tolerant” wife Christine, also an architect he met at USC, has moved back to the US to be with her elderly mother. And his adult daughters – Samantha, Alexis, also his editor, and Michelle – are scattered around the globe.
On the plus side, this gives David time to indulge his authorial aspirations. If he has it his way, writing full time is in the cards for his retirement years. That could be years from now, so he puts his two-digit typing skills to work whenever he gets the chance.
“Right now, because I have a real job, I’m finding time [to write]: commuting, at lunch time, after dinner, at weekends,” he says. “I wake up in the morning wondering what my characters are going to do today.”
And his characters are just that: characters. David’s first book, The Journal of Rabbi Levy Wang, features a hero loosely based on his grandfather, a fur trader in pre-Second World War Tianjin. The titular rabbi is a Chinese Jew from Kaifeng, a community that arrived in the area around 960. Though David takes dramatic licence, he enjoys the research that adds to the story. “I want my readers to taste and smell and feel the places in my books,” he says.
Hands-on research came easy for his second book, The Witch of Wanchai, which starts with a murder in the Queen Victoria [pub] on Lockhart Road. David laments the loss of some of Wanchai’s seedier spots. “I like classy but I also enjoy some sleaze,” he says. “It’s interesting to write about and I wrote some of the chapters in the Queen Victoria.”
But beyond the charming ‘skeeviness’ we all know and love are headier issues. The book’s serial killer preys on Indonesian lesbian domestic helpers, “Because nobody cares about them,” he says, all kidding aside. “Police won’t investigate, and employers just get a new helper. I’m highlighting the plight of domestic helpers.”
David’s third book is the still untitled sequel to Witch, which somehow brings together a missing imperial Jade burial suit, Burmese drug dealers, British treasure hunters, a murderous elephant and two intrepid Hong Kong detectives. So is this the start of a crime fiction franchise? He shrugs. “I started out to write a sequel but all of a sudden I was writing about teenaged computer gamers in southern California. Then I jumped to the Han Dynasty but I’ve tied it all together.”
Interestingly, David doesn’t plan out his narratives before he starts writing. For Rabbi, his muses came naturally. “When I wrote the first book I felt my father and grandfather were ‘guiding’ the story,” he explains. “They evidently like to write.”
Perhaps that explains his proficiency: two books in two years is a positively Kingian pace. Speaking of which: “My favourite author of all time is Stephen King, because from page one you’re caught. He’s been a big influence on me,” says David. “In terms of writing you have to be able to pare down. Most people, myself included, will write ‘He sat down in the chair’. Of course he sat in the chair,” he baffles. “[King’s] On Writing has been very helpful.”
Self-published to date, David is toying ever so lightly with trying the more traditional publishing route, even though he refers to it as a “beauty contest”. Either way, he’s going to do it from DB. “If I’d chosen on my own, I’d probably live in Causeway Bay or Sheung Wan,” he says of home. But Christine had never lived outside the US before, and DB is like a resort. Coming across on the ferry and chilling out… Now I just love it here.”