Johan Nylander arrived in Hong Kong in 2011 with his wife Hanna and small son Allan. Ten years later he is a successful, highly travelled author and public speaker as well as being the Asia correspondent for Sweden’s leading business daily newspaper Dagens Industri.
The Hong Kong tourist industry is currently in the doldrums, but previous visitors may well have taken the ferry from Central to the pleasant little outlying island of Lamma. It can be clearly viewed from the south of Hong Kong island and it takes just 25 minutes on sturdy if aging vessels, to hop across to Yung Shue Wan. This village is noted for its seafood restaurants and as the starting point for the famous ‘Lamma Hike’ – a pleasant and picturesque 7 km coastal stroll. There are no cars or high rises on Lamma, and although it is home to an unsightly power station, it also boasts HK’s only wind turbine. With a mixture of traditional fishermen, restaurant workers, commuting locals and those looking for an alternative lifestyle, Lamma has a population of some 7000 – rather fewer than many of the individual housing estates just across the channel.
Lamma Island provides a quiet environment which attracts artists, musicians and writers and I was fortunate to interview one of the latter recently – the Swedish author and journalist Johan Nylander.
A Resolute Traveller
Johan is nothing if not intrepid. He and his wife Hanna and small son Allan arrived in Hong Kong in 2011, having never set foot the territory and knowing no-one. Ten years later he is a successful, highly travelled author and public speaker as well as being the Asia correspondent for Sweden’s leading business daily newspaper Dagens Industri. Up until late 2019, Johan had clocked many air-miles travelling throughout China and South East Asia to follow up on news stories. But in these restrictive times he relies a lot upon an extensive network of friends and colleagues established over the past decade in various Asian cities. He also makes good use of the communicative hub that is Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) – just a quick ferry ride from home.
But let us go back in time a little. Johan is a Gothenburg native and grew up in Sweden’s second city with his mother. His father and three siblings lived in another household. After completing a Masters’ Degree in Business Administration at The University of Gothenburg, Johan moved to Stockholm where he met his future wife, Gotland native Hanna.
Hanna worked at various jobs – from running a café to being a deep-water gymnastic instructor – whilst Johan embarked upon his writing career. He initially freelanced on topics ranging from movie and music reviews to travel stories and articles about human rights and politics. He was soon noticed by Dagens Industi and in 2005, he began his association with the newspaper.
A Secondment to London
While living in Stockholm, the couple’s son Allan was born and soon after, the newspaper sent Johan and his family on a temporary assignment to London to report on the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. This was an exciting period and Johan recalls press conferences at 10 Downing Street with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and, on one occasion, George W Bush was in attendance. He also interviewed Sweden’s Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and former PM Göran Persson. He enjoyed London life and enjoyed drinking in the same local pub as Noel Gallagher of Oasis fame.
Return to Tranquillity
After his London experience, Johan continued to work as a freelance writer, but the peace and tranquility of the East Gotland countryside beckoned, and Johan spent the next three years writing contentedly in those serene surroundings.
Of course, a restlessness for city life soon reappeared and the young couple studied the map for potential destinations. New York, Bangkok, Seville, and Tokyo were all considered before settling upon ‘Asia’s World City’. This was in 2011 when Allan was just 4 years old. There are no regrets for making the decision to come to Hong Kong.
Dagen’s Industri clearly valued their young freelancer and Johan was able to take up the position of Asia Correspondent for the newspaper and his extensive travels around the region soon began. In addition to filing stories back in Sweden, Johan has also had his work published by CNN, Forbes, The South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. He once interviewed the Chinese business magnate Jack Ma at the Alibaba headquarters in Hangzhou. Johan’s own words convey the excitement and variety of his pre-Covid activities, in his quests for interesting stories.
“I’ve travelled through the provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet, drinking wine with high level politicians in North Korea and spent time in the slum areas of Kathmandu and Jakarta. I’ve even hung out with triad members and money smugglers in Hong Kong.”
Johan’s inquisitiveness makes writing an ideal career and his long-term interest in business journalism has been an outlet for his considerable erudition. So, during times when he was less busy with the newspaper’s requirements, Johan began to work on his first Asia-based book “Shenzhen Superstars”, which was published in 2017. (He had previously written a book in Swedish which was published in 2007 and entitled “Förenkla!”) The research for Shenzhen Superstars involved frequent trips to the modern Chinese mega-city of twenty million inhabitants which abuts Hong Kong. Shenzhen is a leader in technology development and China’s dynamic answer to Silicon Valley. In the book Johan describes the “can-do” mentality of the inhabitants.
“Shenzhen people are stereotypically young, hungry and highly educated …….No other city challenges Silicon valley as the global hub for innovation and technology start-ups.”
Shenzhen Superstars was well received, given excellent reviews and became an Amazon best-seller.
The Epic Split
In 2020 Johan completed his second book “The Epic Split”. This is a report from the front line of the trade war between China and the West, and as he articulates, this confrontation is about more than just trade:
“As I see it, the conflict is a fierce and escalating battle between two ideologies, with China’s authoritarian model on one side and Western democracy on the other. If the past decades were characterized by globalization, the next may well be about decoupling and the disintegration of the relationship between the US and China.”
In the book Johan illustrates the fact that multi-national companies have started to run down their operations in China, and consumers are beginning to look elsewhere for their products. The ‘Made in China’ label has become less attractive in the years since the publication of “Shenzhen Superstars”.
Both of Johan’s books have been very successful, and at the time of writing he is mulling over two or three ideas for the next. It is also likely to be Asia-based with a business theme.
Hong Kong views
I asked Johan about the current political situation in Hong Kong and how it had affected his life as a journalist. Not surprisingly he was wary of giving me details but he does feel that life has become considerably more difficult in recent years. It is now less safe to be an independent reporter and Johan and his colleagues need to be very careful about recent restrictions caused by the 2020 National Security Laws. Press freedom has clearly suffered, and many writers and other professionals are wondering whether to remain in the city.
“It is obvious that the Hong Kong government doesn’t have what’s best for the city’s people at heart but are merely following orders from Beijing. I don’t know how many times I’ve had coffee or drinks with local friends who start crying about the future of the city.”
Johan is not very positive about the Hong Kong government’s actions against Covid, and he says decisions to close beaches, leisure facilities and certain open spaces is nothing but counter-productive. However, hard lessons learned during SARS in 2003 have educated the local population to be cautious, and they immediately embraced facemasks and hand sanitisers. He accepts that there is little alternative to the travel restrictions and the school closures but, is hopeful that things will improve soon.
Johan is appreciative of the opportunities that Hong Kong has provided for him and his family, but he worries about the City’s future. Certainly, the political situation, the pandemic, and unaffordable house prices have all had an effect upon Hong Kong’s demographics. For the moment the Nylanders are planning to stay, but they have not ruled out a possible move elsewhere in Asia – Tokyo and Taipei are high on the list. Whether he goes or stays, the written output of this intrepid and friendly Swede is sure to continue to make its mark.
When he is not working, Johan enjoys playing chess with his son, catching up with Netflix movies with Hanna, and having at beer or two at the FCC. In normal times Johan returns to Sweden annually to visit family and friends. He appreciates the untouched wildernesses of his homeland and counts as one of his life’s highlights a ten-day hike with Allan on the Kungsleden.
Perhaps it might pale in comparison but when looking for inspiration for his next book, at least the Lamma Hike is on his doorstep!
For synopses of Johan’s books please visit www.amazon.com