It’s an overcast winter’s day at Hu’s Farm in Riverhead, Auckland. I’m here to hang with three other artists as they each create a work, to be showcased at an upcoming exhibition called AMUSE BOUCHE.

Yuan Keru, Shen Piji & David Ye have just arrived from Shanghai and are a part of the ‘2019 Chinese Young Artist Residence Programme.’ Their brief? To create a piece which revolves around ‘luscious intoxications of introductory experiences.’ But first, we need to find our rooms.

Clockwise – Piji plays guitar while David and Rubeta dream up ideas.  

Day One

As I’m introduced to the three artists the feeling I have is one of embarrassment. Why do so many Chinese feel they have to change their names so that Westerners can pronounce them? Are we really that useless? Yuan Keru is a wonderful young filmmaker from Shanghai.

Yuan, lovely name. She introduces herself as Rubeta.

I also meet David Ye, a smartly dressed fashion photographer from Shanghai whose works have featured in ‘Vogue Italy’ and the Asian edition of ‘Forbes’ magazine. He is joyous and cheeky.

Shen Piji is an ex-punk and mixed-media contemporary artist who I met the previous night at an informal launch for the project. Piji is dressed like a monk, all in black, and is dying for a cigarette. A friend of his translates. ‘Piji really misses those punk days. Did you know he locked himself in the forest for 10 years to learn the guqin, a plucked seven-string Chinese instrument of the zither family and the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments. It has a history of about 5,000 years.’

‘Oh, wow.’

‘He looks old, but he’s not.’

Hu’s Farm is scattered with laptops, power plugs, leads, camera equipment and tripods. For the next week we will live in each other’s pockets. Rubeta, Piji and David will each make something. I’m here to follow their creative journey and write about it. Who are these artists? What makes them tick? What are their creative processes? To make some sort of sense of this I download Google Translate and open the ’Hello Chinese’ app on my phone. Then I remember, much to the surprise of my new friends, I have a WeChat account, the most popular social media platform in China.

Technology, the wonderful enabler.

While Rubeta and David head to Auckland city to shop for props, I talk to Piji and soon discover his English is as bad as my Mandarin.

But we find common ground.

As we drink Lion Red, I punch in a few more words. I want to know about the decade he spent in the forest.

Piji has worked and lived in Shenzhen, China since 1993. Back then he was heavily involved in contemporary art and avant-garde music. He left his punk band ‘Sunflower’ when he fell in love with the guqin and 16 years later would conduct a ‘Ted Talk’ on how he used the instrument to talk to frogs.

In 2015 Piji placed five pottery jars into a shallow pool in his studio which soon attracted a group of frogs named Hylarana Daunchina. He used the difference sizes of the jars to change the volume and frogs’ tone, mixing those sounds with the sound of the Guqin playing. Piji did this every day and recorded numerous songs with his new friends.

‘So you played music to frogs and they talked back?’ I ask. Piji nods. ‘Did you pay them?’

‘I fed them,’ Piji replies.

‘Wow, that’s amazing. Ever thought of doing the same thing with sheep?’

(Shen Piji the frog whisperer at his home in Shenzhen.)

David’s wife Lulu and I concoct a meal made from leftover lamb, ginger, onions, rice and pumpkin. Piji has a controversial addition, chopped up cheerios from the fridge. While we cook dinner I learn the word for pumpkin, plate, and rice, and forget them immediately. I make instant friends by telling everyone I have a car should anyone need a ride anywhere. Piji is equally excited when he spies my guitar, which he plays in an instant and confirms I should never attempt a tune in this man’s company.

I want to know more about Rubeta’s and David’s works. Rubeta was born in Hangzhou, China, and currently lives in Shanghai. She graduated with a Masters in fine art from the School of Inter-Media Art at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou. Her artistic practice focuses on exploring the act of painting, spatial rhythm and narratives in video, combining the emotive experience with history, mythology and dreams. Her works are melancholic and violent and are often immersed with warmth and poetry. Her film Fleeting Strangers was selected for the Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival in 2017.

’I use friends, but I can’t pay them a lot.’

‘But how do you make such elaborate films on such a small budget?’

Res, a character from Rubeta’s film ‘Fleeting Strangers.’

Fashion photographer David thinks of ideas by watching the news and talking to friends. ‘Coming to New Zealand,’ he says, ‘is going to make my heart strong. Shanghai is so fast everyone is trying to make money.’ He says that back home in the commercial sector he struggles with not being allowed to use his own ideas, yet his works, I think anyway, are racy and unique.

(David’s Levraimoi brand shoot, 2017)

Day 5

Fried prawns for breakfast, again. David loves his prawns! Afterwards, he and Rubeta return to the city to shop for clothes, shoes and earrings for their shoot later in the week. When they return and unload their haul I ask Rubeta if she has a story in mind. She shakes her head. ‘But you’ve bought the clothes?’

‘This is how I work,’ she replies. ‘I buy the clothes and create a character and a story around that.’

I sense it’s been a frustrating day. Working away from home is tough. It looks like everyone is just sitting around yakking, drinking tea, but I have no doubt there are ideas aplenty beneath the bonnet.

Shoot Day

Someone poked the bear. Everyone is up before 8am. The energy in the lounge is manic. Rubeta’s fashion model broke her finger last night. I make some calls to try to find a replacement when the injured girl calls to say she’ll make the shoot after all. I feel for these guys. If they were at home in Shanghai they could make a quick call and fix the problem.

It’s a race against the clock. We wait for the weather to clear. I watch David work. He smiles a lot and has the rare ability to make his talent feel relaxed and ready. Rubeta dresses her models for her film, one of whom is Piji. Ha! Glad that’s not me!

‘Justin, please wear this,’ David says, handing me a garment which looks like a cross between a ridiculously huge sleeping bag and something a giant Jawa from ‘Star Wars’ might wear.

‘Um, okay?’ I reply. ‘But what do I do?’

‘We go to beach. Murawai!’

‘David, mate, it’s raining. It’s pouring and windy, you’ll get black sand all through your equipment.’

‘We try!’ he says, smiling.

Above – The author, thankful his mates are nowhere near.

10 days later

It’s the night of AMUSE BOUCHE, the exhibition at Hu’s Farm in Riverhead. A crowd gathers. There is beautiful wine and food. Piji plays an original piece on the guqin, along with supremo Kiwi musicians Richard Adams and Nigel Gavin, and presents his artwork. A bleary-eyed Rubeta, up half the night editing, walks us through her short video pieces ‘Before the Storm,’ ‘Clone and Mirror,’ and ‘Reality Park.’ Shot in Murawai, K Road in Auckland, and Taupo, these stories both challenge and charm the viewer.

As for David, his genius behind the lens confirms that you really can put lipstick on a pig.

Above – ‘Strangers’ by David Ye.

They say creativity is the new oil, so how do we maximise this wonderful, yet often elusive tool?

In the past, I’ve written about how Bruce Springsteen does it, and John Cleese, even Salvador Dali, which lead to a fascinating hour with The University of Auckland’s Professor Peter O’Connor.


Surround yourself with people who say yes rather than no.
Ask questions, when you have the answers, question those answers.
Don’t be afraid to screw up and don’t be fixated on the end result.

With thanks to Ingenio magazine.

Q – I’m rewriting my first novel and would like to know how to grab an agent’s attention when submitting.

Justin – There is no right or wrong way, just make sure you’ve done the obvious things right – spelling, grammar, etc. You know the drill. Just be polite. Be aware they read thousands of submissions and seem to enjoy the process about as much as filling in a tax form. Therefore make it easy for them. Good tone to the letter, sizzling teasers, and then be patient.

And start writing something new right away.

I currently have the beginning and end of my book and am having trouble stringing events and character motivations together to make the entire thing complete. Of course, this still means I’m in my outline phase. Do you think I should scrap my idea because I can’t put the beginning and end together, or any other advice?

All I can offer is my experience. I have one unpublished book for 8-12-year-olds. I’m on draft number 10. It has taken me that long to discover what the actual story is. There are two options – you can either struggle away or (gasp) put the book aside. That way you can start on something else, and often when you start on something else, ideas arrive for your first story. Re outlines, some people use them, some don’t. It’s whatever works for you. Joanna Rowling did alright by using one.

How do you get started, especially when it’s a passion and you have a career-oriented day job that pays the bills.

You write. Write when you’re tired, when you’re hungover, when you don’t want to write. If you love the craft enough you’d do it at 2 in the morning if someone asked you. I write when I cook, no jokes, I have the laptop open and add any lines that come to me. Which can be damn annoying. And dangerous.

Working and writing at the same time can be tough. Maybe try to write for an hour a night instead of watching TV. This can become two hours. Soon enough you’ll be more into your own story than any lame show on telly. 100 words becomes 1000, becomes a manuscript. The first draft will be shit, it always is, but keep going.

Do you have your characters fully planned out in your head before you start, or do you let them develop as you write the story?

This is rare – my latest manuscript arrived fully formed, names, setting, title. It was bizarre. Again, some writers like to see what happens, others plan meticulously. You’ve got to know how your main characters will react in any given situation. Once they start doing things by themselves, now that’s creepy.

How do you know a manuscript is ready and it’s time to stop editing/revising?

Make it as perfect as you can and as easy to read (and follow) as possible. Endings can change, so can character, but a lot of these issues and challenges might arise once you’ve actually scored a contract when you’ll have time to rewrite with an editor. That’s the best part. Make it sparkly, be proud of it before you hit send.

How do you introduce things like currency when there’s no direct way to correlate it to our universe. I’m writing a fantasy book in a different universe that while some things are the same, things like the currency are entirely different and I have no idea how to incorporate the value of this currency without stating it outright.

Make it up! It’s your story. 3 spigglets = 1 grosnipod. As long as you’re consistent, and more importantly that the reader understands, you’ll be okay. Please don’t complicate the reader. It’s a right ol turn off.

Does every idea, even the good ones, feel hopeless or not-worth-it at some point? I’ve never finished a single first draft. I wrote for years, recently switched over to comic scripts and screenplays and stuff because I was having ideas that fit that format and they’re so much easier to finish. Is every idea going to try to beat me up at some point?

Finish the damn book. Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel talks about The Shitty Committee who jump into your head and tell you how bad your piece of work is. Finish the damn book. Because if you do, you have a completed work, and if it’s not perfect, something similarly amazing could come out of the process: a character, a title, an idea. Go for it.

Having seen some scary stuff about fake publishers and stealing people’s writing, how do you find a real (and good) publisher and/or agent?

You gotta kiss a lot of frogs. Re fake publishers, ask around or google, you’ll know if it sounds too good to be true. ‘PAY US TO READ YOUR MANUSCRIPT!’ Really, now come on. This is, however, a long game so take your time finding the right team. It’s not easy, but what is? It’s the 10,000 hours thing. It’s no different. Good luck!

How many of your 31 published books do you hate?

Good question. No writer is ever 100% happy with their work, there’s always something that niggles years later. I don’t hate any of them, it’s a cliche but the whole thing has been a journey, so there are some works I like less than others.

I was recently interviewed by Danny McCrum on his podcast ‘Don’t Give Up Your Day Job.’

It’s strange talking about your creative journey and the decisions you made along the way. In the chat, we cover Thomas Magnum, JK Rowling, turkey plucking, lost bets, sharing a green room with Graham Norton, and I discovered that back in the day I wanted to be pilot. Who knew?

I enjoyed this interview, hope you do too. Here’s the link.

Once upon a time I toured the US and played golf with whoever was on the front page of the newspaper in each town I visited. Amazingly, I was never arrested. I met clowns, Stevie Wonder impersonators, crocodile wranglers and drunken beauty queens. In El Paso, I hung out with a young Beto O’Rourke, who is now a superstar politician about to ‘trump’ Trump by running for President. (google him – he’s massive, interviewed by Oprah yesterday.) There were so many stories I decided to put them into a book – In Search of Swingers – hope you enjoy it.

Here’s the first chapter.

Intro – In Search of Swingers

SO IT GOES LIKE THIS. I like golf, but mostly I like meeting people. My previous travel books (‘One Man, 23 Beers and a Crazy Bet’ and ‘Bowling Through India’) are proof of that. The former involved street singing around the UK in the middle of winter (door-to-door I might add) and trying to make enough money to fly home. The latter was a case of five grown men gallivanting around the most populous nation on earth and losing cricket matches against nine-year-olds.

The book you are reading has a similar theme, only this time my idea was to tour the U.S. and play golf with whoever happened to feature on the front page of the newspaper in whatever town I happened to be visiting.

As you’ll see, it was a scary, brilliant, eye-opening look at a wonderful country.

Since this trip, new towers have been built in Manhattan and New Orleans is still recovering from the effects of Katrina. But friendships live on and many of the Americans you’ll meet in the following pages are still my friends today. Thank you to anyone who took this crazy adventure seriously.

Justin Brown

Bowling Through India by Justin Brown – Kindle ebook link 

What’s it all about?

Joined by a high-country farmer, a businessman, a photographer and a shoestring traveller named Blanket Boy, the amateur sportsmen take to the streets of India to face off against kids who can bat and bowl like demons. Amidst the sledging and inappropriate jokes, the Black Craps, as they name their team, learn about life, love, death, compassion and the fascination of India.

A book about travel, humour, mateship and the love of cricket that unites people whatever their age, race and station, Bowling Through India is an endearing and affecting read.

What do readers say?

Kit Packer (Amazon review)

If you’ve ever fancied going on a road trip with your best friends, this story will only make you want it more! Though the road trip has cricket as its central theme, the real story here is what happens when friends escape their ‘normal’ lives and get the chance to go crazy, lots of laughs.

Sasha Naryshkine (Amazon review

Great fun, well written, loved it. In fact loved it so much that I wanted to organise my own team to head off to India to do the same!

raveburbleblog (Amazon review)

Justin Brown describes India in words I never would have thought of and had me cracking up all the way through. I’m only giving him four stars though, ‘cos he went and made me homesick for the place, the rotten sod.

And here is the book – for free.



I was invited to write a story concept for what was to become a live musical comedy about Auckland. The story would encompass love, travel, Auckland city itself, and most importantly, showcase New Zealand to the rest of the world. The City of 100 Lovers was born, an 80-minute show, with more than 150 costumes, 16 musical numbers, including 11 original songs.

I’ll admit I may have been rocking on the back of my heels pre-show but there was no need. City of 100 Lovers kicked off with a thunderous bang. Brilliant and funny with a tuneful crew, this is a show for Kiwis from all backgrounds, with a few un-pc and inappropriate moments biffed in for good measure. I may have had a tear in my eye during the final song.

Creative Crew: Justin Brown, Vincent Ward, Tony Stimac, Tom McLeod, Taiaroa Royal, Ian Aitken. 

Above: An early draft of City of 100 Lovers.

I was approached to write an original story concept for what was to become a live musical comedy about Auckland. Where to start! Exactly. In my opinion, the story needed to encompass love, travel, the city itself, and most importantly, to showcase NZ to the rest of the world. The City of 100 Lovers was born. Since then I’ve been closely associated with the show and rehearsals are looking all G. And just today, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote to me and said how much he loves it.*

*citation needed.