The Dead Chip Syndicate (Author Interview)

Can you tell us a little about The Dead Chip Syndicate?

One of the first times I flew into Manila, I remembered thinking the airport we were landing at had a dark claim to fame – it was the only airport in the world named after someone who’d been murdered on its tarmac. In the 80s, during Ferdinand Marcos’s reign, Senator Ninoy Aquino had been in exile, but he decided to return home because he sensed a revolution was brewing. Marcos warned him not to return because he couldn’t guarantee Ninoy’s safety. Ninoy ignored the warning and was assassinated on the tarmac once he arrived. His death sparked the People’s Revolution, which toppled the Marcos regime and ushered democracy into the Philippines. As my flight descended towards that runway, the opening line of The Dead Chip Syndicate came to me. The book would start with the main character landing in Manila, reflecting on Ninoy Aquino’s death while getting news that several hitmen hired to kill him had just been arrested in Macau. It seemed like a great jumping-off point for a thriller, so I spent the next several years mapping out and writing the rest of the story.

The synopsis is as follows: Offered the chance to run his twin brother's A.I. company, Anthony Wilson ditches his failing screenwriting career to start anew in Macau. The job turns highly lucrative when Anthony's new client, Cash Cheang, a pompadour-topped and Johnny Cash-loving casino operator, hands him a bag full of cold hard Yuan to implement a facial recognition system in his casino. Hearing about Anthony's past life as a screenwriter, Cash offers him another job - ghostwriting a biography about the casino mogul's life rising from the mean streets of Macau to becoming one of the city's most notorious and successful businessmen. However, as Anthony learns more about Cash's life, he realizes the biography is filled with dangerous secrets about the Chinese elite, secrets these powerful people would rather see buried for good. “You always cheat the ones closest to you”, warns an old Chinese proverb. Words that ring true as Anthony enters a playground more surreal and depraved than decadent Hollywood. More deadly too as Anthony soon discovers he's the dupe in a huge Chinese money-laundering scheme that might be orchestrated by his treacherous twin.

Any plans to turn it into a series?

Yes, that’s on the horizon. I’m writing the sequel; Quid Pro Crypto is the working title. It’ll be the second in my Exotics series, which is not just set in the exotics, places such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Macau, and China, but also centered around exotics betting, i.e., high-risk/high-reward gambling, like trifectas, triple trios, multi-leg parlays, and accumulators. This type of betting can result in life-changing payoffs but can be extremely risky and hard to hit. The characters in my novels love to play these high-stakes games and murder is sometimes the result. Quid Pro Crypto also kicks off where Dead Chip ended, on the film set of Anthony’s movie, Cash is King, which is based on the book he wrote in Dead Chip. Very incestuous, I know, but it’s a milieu I know well and have a lot to say about. The first line of the novel is, “Nothing is more chaotic than a movie set devolving into a crime scene.” That’s at least the first line for now if I don’t come up with something better.    

What motivated you to write the book?

It was either write this book or go into therapy. I didn’t have enough money for therapy, so I took option number one. Sun Tzu has a great quote, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity,” and I took it that heart while writing this book. When I moved to Macau, a few years before that fateful flight over Manila, I got involved in a highly chaotic situation. I moved to Macau because I was offered the managing director position at a software consulting company. However, once I arrived and started working, I discovered the company was the most dysfunctional company I’d ever worked at. I was soon replacing useless consultants and pulling my hair out at the sheer insanity of the decision-making at the company. Many scenes in the book could have been modeled off of the those trying experiences. It was bad enough moving to a completely foreign company, but I was also working in a new industry, and partnered with people who were incredibly difficult to deal with.

Before moving to Macau, I knew about the city’s reputation as the biggest gambling hub in the world, but once I arrived, I also saw how incredibly unique and crazy the place was. I gave a dedication to Macau in the book; So extraordinary, wondrous, and bizarre was the place, “it was impossible not to write a book about you,” I said. I also called it, “A third-world country living a first-world life because it sat upon a never-ending pot of Chinese gambling gold,” which is very true. It’s a wonderful place to set a thriller because there is so much money sloshing about, so many odd characters doing sketchy and even downright illegal things, and so many junket room operators courting the rich and famous while also pushing the boundaries of legality.

It was the perfect place to set a unique thriller that buttressed two cultures, Western and Chinese. Macau became a central character in the book the way L.A. became a character in Raymond Chandler’s Sam Spade books, or the way Florida provides a whacky locale for so many Florida mystery writers. While Chandler’s L.A. centers around oil and water, my Macau is about gambling and the greed that follows the billions of dollars flowing through Macau’s massive casino resorts. These monolithic structures are some of the biggest buildings in the world, massive monuments dedicated to the destruction of the Chinese baccarat player’s wallet. A compulsion driven by what Cash describes as the Chinese people’s gambling ironic conundrum, “How do you tell if you’re lucky if you don’t gamble?”

A dead chip is a real thing; it’s a casino chip that only has value in one specific casino high-roller room. Gamblers play with these chips and ‘roll’ them over, i.e., gamble with them; when they win a hand, they get their dead chip back along with a normal casino chip that can be deposited at the casino cage, then wired to any bank in the world. It’s a great way to get money out of China, to circumvent some of the financial barriers the Chinese government has erected to slow the flow of money out of China. It sounds complex, but when greed gets involved, complexity is simplified and this aspect of the story is secondary to the motivations of Anthony Wilson, who has come to Macau to try to make his fortune because, as his twin brother trenchantly warns him, “The starving artist persona loses its appeal to the opposite sex once a person turns forty.” Anthony quickly realizes that fortunes can be made, but souls are often extracted in return, if not lives.

A few decades ago, there was a gangster living in Macau who made a movie about his life. He supposedly tried to blow up Macau’s undersecretary of security at the time. It didn’t work and he got arrested, but witnesses refused to testify. This was during the final days of Portuguese control, before the handover to China, and a panel of Portuguese judges went behind closed doors, watched the gangster’s movie, which was called Casino and can still be found on YouTube, and came back with a guilty verdict. They said the film accurately portrayed the gangster’s life. As I have Anthony say in the book, “It was the first and only time a fictional movie put someone away for a real crime.” The gangster was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

When I read that story, I thought Macau was the perfect setting for my book because it was such a strange, irreverent, and quirky place. I kept my eyes and ears open for other interesting stories. Even though there’s a great disinformation wall between China and the West, every now and then a fascinating story or an interesting tidbit of criminality pops through. I tried to catch as many of those stories as I could and then fit them into a tale about an ex-pat working with a junket operator seduced into a deadly criminal enterprise that he feared he might survive.

After living in Macau for a few years, I had a plot about an expat moving to Asia and getting caught up in a money-laundering scheme that tested his loyalty, his morals, and his ethics. Then COVID hit, and the last piece of the plot fell into place. I came up with the idea of giving the doctor who blames Cash for the death of her son (a problem gambler who got beaten to dead by some loan sharks working out of Cash’s VIP room). She has the power of life and death over Cash when he gets afflicted with COVID and is wheeled into her hospital emergency room in China. Will she choose to murder Cash during the height of COVID, a time when a murder would so easily go unnoticed, or would the Hippocratic Oath she took win out? It was a great moral dilemma. I had read about the life-saving value of ventilators – if you got one, your chances of surviving the latter stages of COVID weren’t great, but your chances of surviving without one were basically zero. I thought, why not give a character that moral choice? In a way, ask the reader what they would do in such a similar situation.

So, in the end, it’s a story about a writer who comes to Macau and gets involved with a Macau junket operator who is trying to escape his life because the authorities won’t leave him alone. The writer breaks through his creative block, trusts himself to write a novel, and learns to be less trusting of those he loves while more trusting of himself and his talent.   

How did you decide on your book’s title and cover design?

The Dead Chip Syndicate was the first title I came up with. I like alliteration in titles, I like the words to roll off the tongue, and titles should add an air of mystery that intrigues a potential reader enough to have them reach for the book, I think. This title did just that, it intrigued enough to make someone want to learn more about the story. Another title I thought about was ‘What Happens in Macau, Never Happened’ but, even though I liked it, I thought it was too cutesy for the book, not malevolent enough for this thriller.

As for the cover design, first off, I want to say, I loved the work the book cover designer, Alexios Saskalidis, did. I worked closely with him, giving him ideas that captured the essence of Macau, if that’s possible to do in one picture. For the cover, I thought a casino chip with the outline of a dead body would capture the spirit of the novel and make the book really stand out on a bookshelf. The color red worked in so many ways – it’s symbolically the color of China, it’s a head-turning color, and the color of danger in nature (you see a red-and-black striped snake in the bush, you best run). I found the image of Macau that I wanted. The tallest building on the cover is Grand Lisboa, the biggest casino in main Macau. I thought a symbol of the casino business should be the most prominent building on the cover as that would reflect the importance of the casino business to both Macau and the story. I went back and forth with the quote as I liked “What happens in Macau never happened” as it had a nice Goodfellas ring to it, but the Chinese proverb, “You always cheat the ones closest to you”, worked better. It captures the essence of the novel because the protagonist is stabbed in the back by his twin brother.

What trends do you see in your genre and where do you think the industry is heading?

Recently, there has been a flood of books set in Asia or focused on Asian characters, to say nothing of the explosion of Asian stories at the box office and on streaming channels. I think that’s great. Although I have Western parents, I was born in Pakistan and spent the majority of my youth in Singapore, so I have a soft spot for Asian places and Asian stories. When I first got Netflix, in the early streaming days, I watched mostly Hong Kong, Korean, and Japanese action and drama flicks. Now, it’s nice to see the rest of the world embracing these interesting stories and exotic settings. These stories can be quite sophisticated so it’s great to see. It’s also refreshing to read novels about normally underrepresented people. Bloomberg said the 21st century might be the Asian century so it’s time to focus on it more.

I think the book publishing industry is as healthy as it’s ever been. However, writers might be in a precarious position going forward. I work in the AI field and write a lot about generative AI, text-to-image AI, text-to-video AI, and how AI is being used in digital marketing. It’s a fascinating field. Yes, AI can replace writers in certain circumstances, i.e., writing stock reports or providing blurbs on sporting events, but I still think humans will always be needed to write stories that readers connect with on deeply emotional levels. If you want to move a human heart, you still need a human writer. I still think it’ll be a long time before AI can write a novel good enough to move that most fickle and mysterious thing in the universe, the human heart.    

Were their experiences in your personal life or career that came in handy when writing this book?

In my book, Anthony runs an AI/software consulting company working with the Macau casinos, which is a similar job to the one I had. It’s a fascinating world and, although I don’t betray any client confidences, I detail some things that go on behind the scenes at a casino that few people know about. I think I skillfully captured that world. The Booklife reviewer seemed to agree, saying, “Pearson’s knowledge of the milieu and the over-the-top characters who run it gives the material a bustling verisimilitude.”

I also spent about 15 years working in Hollywood, optioning and adapting books, working on productions, and attending the film festivals and film markets, which was a great experience for this book because the main character lives a similar life and shares a lot of similar frustrations I experienced. Anthony becomes a proxy for me and there is a lot of reflection about the situations in Macau, Hong Kong, China, the Philippines, and even the US that echo my own beliefs. The last five years have been a pretty tumultuous time in this region, starting with the Hong Kong protests, Duterte’s extra-judicial killings in the Philippines, and the COVID outbreak in China. And it’s not getting any better with the political turmoil now simmering between China, Taiwan, and the US. Even as a Westerner, one sees – and can’t help but be affected – by it and I explored it in my writing.

The secondary character, Cash Cheang, asks Anthony if he’ll ghostwrite his biography. Anthony quips the irreverent line, “Everyone has a book in them, but for most people that’s where it should stay,” but Cash is one step ahead of him, tricking him into taking the job because he fixes a bet. Cash plays a similar trick on Anthony as Bob Hope plays on several couples at a racetrack in the movie The Lemondrop Kid. I think my knowledge of movies and gambling helped add some clever twists and turns to the novel, which should keep the readers on their toes.  

How would you describe your writing style? Which writers or books are you similar to?

A Booklife reviewer called my prose, “savvy and brisk but with sharp edges,” and it was “alive with memorable talk,” which, I think, is a compliment on the dialogue. The reviewer also compared my book to Lawrence Osborne’s The Ballad of a Small Player. Osborne is an Edgar Award-nominated writer and I respect his work so that was a nice compliment. When I workshopped the book, one reviewer said, “I detected something of David Foster Wallace in the complexity in your writing, and in your intent, maybe?” It was a great compliment and I think readers will recognize I have honed my craft to prose that is tight, clean, and invigorating. Also, my dialogue is witty, memorable, and highly entertaining.

My favorite writers are an eclectic mix of authors, playwrights, and screenwriters, including Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Mikhail Bulgakov, Elmore Leonard, Steve Lopez, Laurence Shames, Nicholas Rinaldi, Henry Miller, Ron Faust, Billy Wilders, David Mamet, William Goldman, Edgar Wright, Mel Brooks, and Aaron Sorkin.

What challenges did you overcome in writing this book? 

Although many of the subplots are events that really happened – a gambler getting beaten to death by loan sharks, fundraising for a cryptocoin that was going to fund a floating casino in Macau, a hitman trying to outsource his hit, a junket operator going to jail for running an illegal casino operation in China – the book centers on the failing relationship between a pair of twins. Although everything that happens in the book is purely fictional, the story sprang from problems I had with my business partner, a person who happened to be my twin. Needless to say, it was one of the most challenging things I had to do, especially since the company I was overseeing at the time seemed to be falling apart at the seams. I had to spend a lot of time learning about the technology that is being utilized in the book. I ended up writing several books on the subject of analytics and AI and even ended up speaking on the Forbes Middle East stage about this technology, so I think I did okay.    

If people can buy or read one book this week or month, why should it be yours?

There’s nothing like it. It’s highly original, filled with wonderfully irreverent yet empathetic characters who are facing life-changing decisions, which, in some cases, are life-and-death ones. The dialogue is memorable and laugh-out-loud funny, I believe. It’s a great madcap story

The Booklife reviewer also said, “The novel will both delight and disgust readers fascinated with wealth and power run amok.” This is the kind of subject matter that seems to be resonating with audiences right now, with TV shows like Succession and The Squid Game pulling the curtain back on how the 1% live. It’s also a wonderful look into how the 1% live in China.

Readers should also know they’re in good hands. This might be my first novel, but I’ve adapted seven other novels into screenplays that were good enough to attach respectable talent, including a three-time Oscar-nominated actress.

There are some twists and turns most readers will not guess. Hopefully, anyone who does pick up and read my book will feel the same way several of the other writers who have read this story. Their only complaint, it ended too soon. “I wanted to spend another hundred pages with these characters,” they said because they found the characters so compelling.

Where can readers find out more about your work?

My website is I have a Medium blog as well -- I’m on Instagram @andrewwpearsonauthor and at Twitter or X now, I guess – @intelligenciaAI




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