Susan Blumberg-Kason and Sonali Dev will discuss writing as mothers, setting their stories overseas, and why we need diverse books.
Twenty years ago I met a graduate student from MIT at the outdoor canteen (cafeteria) just next to the Olympic-sized swimming pool at my grad school in Hong Kong. She was researching early language acquisition and how even if someone stops using a language acquired at young age, it’s still there. She was studying a southern Chinese dialect from an area not too far from Hong Kong. This would hit close to home years later when my oldest son would re-learn the Chinese dialect he heard on a daily basis his first two years of life, but not after that.
Lisa Ko writes about early language acquisition and so much more in her stellar debut novel, The Leavers. Her story centers around a Chinese immigrant named Polly Guo, who moves to New York pregnant with a son she names Deming. It’s the 90s and China is not the country of wealth and opportunity it is today. People are desperate to leave for a better life, and at any cost. Polly, like so many fellow compatriots from Fujian Province, does whatever she can to get to the US.
In New York, Polly works in a clothing sweatshop, but when Deming is born she has a dilemma. She has no family in the US to take care of him while she’s at work, but if she hires a sitter, all her salary would go to the caregiver. And she wouldn’t be able to pay back the $50,000 she borrowed to pay the snakehead to get her to the US. Or the money she is expected to send to her father back in Fujian.
After a six-month leave from her job to care for baby Deming, Polly is still at a loss for what to do about childcare. Her coworkers encourage her to send him back to Fujian to live with her father. It’s the last thing Polly wants to do. Deming is the only family she has in the US and she can’t bear to part with him. But there’s no other way. Deming lives in China for more than five years and returns to live with Polly in New York after her father dies.
Before Deming returns, Polly meets a kind butcher–also from Fujian–named Leon who lives with his sister in the Bronx. Leon works odd hours at a slaughterhouse and his sister, Vivian, is home sometimes when she can take in sewing jobs. Vivian is also a single mother and has a son named Michael. So Polly and Deming move in with Leon, Vivian, and Michael. The two boys become very close and look out for one another.
Then one day Polly disappears. No one hears from her, not Leon, not Vivian, not Deming or Polly’s best friend at work. Leon and Vivian figure she abandoned them after they call Immigration to see if she’d been arrested in a raid. But Immigration has no record of a Polly Guo. It seems as though she disappeared and it’s very, very confusing for Deming. He naturally blames himself, as kids tend to do when something horrible happens to their families.
Leon returns to China six months after Polly disappears. Vivian can’t take care of both boys without Polly’s and Leon’s salaries. She can’t even stay in their apartment with just her salary. She brings Deming to child services one day and he’s sent to a Chinese foster family for a short while. Deming thinks it’s just temporary. He’s about ten or eleven years old and still feels completely responsible for his mother’s disappearance (had he done something to make her leave?). But instead of returning home to Vivian and Michael, Deming is sent to another foster family, this time to a white couple in Upstate New York. Deming Guo becomes Daniel Wilkinson and he does all he can at a young age to find his mother, to no avail. Kay and Peter Wilkinson soon adopt Daniel. All hope of finding his mother and returning to his old life vanish.
Ten years later, Michael finds Daniel. The two are both in their early twenties and have gone in different directions. Daniel has so many questions about his mother, and also about Vivian and Leon and why they let him leave their lives after his mother disappeared. But Daniel isn’t sure he wants to find the truth. Would that hurt even more than the fact that his mother disappeared a decade earlier and there’s been no trace of her since then?
I love this book for so many reasons. For showing how incredibly difficult it was for Chinese immigrants to get to the US in the 90s. And how hard they work in grueling jobs that other Americans don’t want to do: hot and exhausting days in sweatshops, picking under other women’s nails and waxing them in other areas in cheap salons, and back-breaking jobs in slaughterhouses, not to mention everything that goes into running a Chinese restaurant.
And when the economy and opportunities improve in China, many immigrants return because they suddenly have better working conditions in a place where the culture and language are familiar. It’s not just that, but also that in China they aren’t invisible or treated poorly.
Lisa Ko’s characters show how difficult it is for women immigrants who have to deal with child care, often on their own, and housework and many more responsibilities than just going to work each day and paying the bills. Polly’s dilemma about keeping Deming in the US and not earning enough money to pay her debts and support herself versus sending him back to China until he starts school was quite a common practice in the 80s and 90s. No parent wants to be separated from his or her child, but what other choice was there?
She also writes about pressures of first generation children to please their parents and how addiction is color blind. And she brings up many issues related to international adoption. Identity is a huge part of this.
The Leavers is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in a long time. I finished it feeling sad and angry and hopeful. If you’re looking for a gripping book for the end of the summer, I’d say there’s no better choice than The Leavers.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s Handover from Great Britain to China. While few have anything to celebrate and it’s no more than a morose milestone, I thought I’d put together a list of books that people were reading in Hong Kong 20 years ago as the Handover approached, and books that pertain to it either pre-1997 or post-. None of these are listed in any particular order.
POPULAR BOOKS BEFORE AND DURING THE HANDOVER
In Hong Kong just before the Handover, some new books and some old favorites were all the rage in the expat community. I’ve listed them here along with some others that were published years or even decades before the Handover.
Jan Morris’ Hong Kong is something I read back in 1990 or 1991, but she came out with a new edition just before the Handover and it was all the rage in Hong Kong in 1997.
Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong is dated, but a classic and nonetheless shows the old Hong Kong, one that people were reminiscing about in ’97, as attested by the many old Hong Kong-themed parties that summer.
Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong was a popular book that year, although few expats and old Hong Kong hands thought it resembled anything to do with 1997 Hong Kong. And even though I wasn’t privy to the expat community there until my final year in Hong Kong, I think they’re right.
Ackbar Abbas’ Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance came out a few months before the Handover and discusses film, architecture, and culture as it relates to Hong Kong’s sovereignty (the old [UK] vis a vis the new [China]).
John LeCarre’s The Honourable Schoolboy came out in 1977, but what a visionary he was when he wrote this Hong Kong-based spy thriller. LeCarre predicted the British would abandon Hong Kong 20 years before the Handover and a solid five years before the PRC and UK started talks that led to the Joint Declaration that led to the Handover. I’m reading this book now for the third time and it’s just as chilling as ever. One of my favorite books of all time.
Larry Feign’s many graphic novels, including Let’s All Shut Up and Make Money: Hong Kong’s Last 100 Days As A British Colony.
Simon Elegant’s A Chinese Wedding is a page-turning novel I can relate to very well. It takes place in Hong Kong several years before the Handover. I found this at the book store at the Star Ferry in 1994, just after I moved back to Hong Kong and took it with me in half a dozen moves since then.
Richard Hughes’ Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time: Hong Kong and Its Many Faces was published 21 years before the Handover and a good 8 years before the Joint Declaration. The cover is fabulous, isn’t it?
Kevin Rafferty’s City On The Rocks: Hong Kong’s Uncertain Future is excellent and came out in 1990. This was the year I first moved to Hong Kong and I’m almost certain one of my classes there discussed this book.
John Burdett is known for his Bangkok series, but my favorite from him is The Last Six Million Seconds, a gruesome Hong Kong thriller. This came out several months before the Handover.
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita et al’s Forecasting Political Events: The Future of Hong Kong. This came out 9 years before the Handover and the authors’ predictions rang true.
Michael Davis’ Constitutional Confrontation in Hong Kong: Issues and Implications of the Basic Law is a book I read back in 1990 when I took a constitutional law class with the author in Hong Kong.
And of course, The Basic Law.
BOOKS I LIKE THAT CAME OUT AFTER THE HANDOVER
Elsie Sze’s Hui Gui, which is the Mandarin for Handover, is a riveting saga of a Chinese family that parallels modern Chinese history.
Alison Singh Gee’s memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing, takes place in Hong Kong and India in the mid-90s and shows the mood of Hong Kong just before the Handover.
Steve Tsang’s narrative non-fiction Hong Kong: An Appointment With China was published a month an a half after the Handover and is an excellent assessment of why there even was a handover. He writes about Hong Kong history as if it’s a thrilling novel. It’s especially telling to read it two decades after the Handover. Tsang pretty much predicted what would happen after China took over.
Jason Y. Ng’s Umbrellas in Bloom is a great history of why there’s a Handover and how the Occupy Movement came into being in 2014. I especially enjoyed his personal narrative. His other books in his trilogy also bring the reader into post-Handover Hong Kong issues. Hong Kong State of Mind and No City For Slow Men are both excellent. Stay tuned for a newly released box set of the three!
Xu Xi’s books are all fabulous, but her novel The Unwalled City specifically deals with Hong Kong a couple years before the Handover. She captures Hong Kong at the crossroads between the old and new.
I was a contributor of Xu Xi’s Fifty-Fifty: New Hong Kong Writing in 2008 and wrote an essay about language in Hong Kong after the Handover.
Chan Ho-Kei’s The Borrowed is one of my favorite novels and I got goosebumps reading it and never wanted it to end. It’s that good. Spanning decades before and after the Handover, this book shows how Hong Kong has changed over the decades. It reads like the best police drama one could imagine.
Karen Fang’s Arresting Cinema: Surveillance in Kong Kong Film details Hong Kong history from the mid-1950s until today and how the territory has become one of the world’s most surveilled places and how it happened without many people realizing it. Bone-chilling and informational, this book is must-read for anyone interested in Hong Kong politics.
This Is Hong Kong was written in the 1960s, but was rereleased about 10 years ago and is one of my favorites. It’s a picture book and shows Old Hong Kong as no one but M. Sasek could.
And for some shameless self-promotion of my memoir, Good Chinese Wife, I wrote about the few years leading up to the Handover in Hong Kong and right after.
BOOKS RECOMMENDED BY OTHERS
Sebastian Gerard’s For Goodness Sake: A Novel of the Afterlife of Suzie Wong
Robert Elegant’s Last Year in Hong Kong: A Love Story
Ben Zabulis’ Chartered Territory: An Engineer Abroad
Chris Patten’s many books, including East and West
William McGurn’s Basic Law, Basic Questions
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita et al’s Red Flag Over Hong Kong
Todd Crowell’s Farewell My Colony
Paul Blaney’s Handover
Muhammad Cohen’s Hong Kong On Air
PENGUIN’S 20TH ANNIVERSARY HONG KONG SERIES
Penguin is putting a series of books to commemorate the Handover. I can’t wait to check them all out later this year and early 2018!
Christopher DeWolf’s Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong
Dung Kai-Cheung’s Cantonese Love Stories: Twenty-five Vignettes of a City
Magnus Renfrew’s Uncharted Territory: Culture and Commerce in Hong Kong’s Art World
Antony Dapiran’s City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong
This list is by far definitive, so if you have any to add, please let me know in the comments! I don’t know many people for whom the Handover is a reason for celebration, but perhaps these books will shed some light on this ongoing political experiment and bring us back to a time we knew and loved.
Last year I wrote the introduction for this classic Chinese text written by Ban Zhao, China’s first female historian. Camphor Press reprinted the book and asked me to write the introduction because I’d quoted from Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls in my memoir.
I’d found this book on Amazon several years ago and thought Ban Zhao’s advice mirrored some of my behavior in my first marriage. Camphor Press initially published their rerelease of Instructions as an ebook, but just recently introduced a print version.
It’s a small book and a quick read, now available on Amazon or on Camphor’s website. While I wrote the introduction, I learned about Esther Jerman, the Christian missionary who translated Ban Zhao’s classic into English. Her life paralleled Ban Zhao’s in a couple ways: both were independent, educated women ahead of their time and both died at the age of 70.
Some of Ban Zhao’s advice might seem laughable and outdated, but she wrote it a good 500 years before Confucius was born. So the fact that a woman was a scholar was a huge feat back then.
This book makes for a fun gift for the China scholar in your life or anyone who is interested in history or feminism.
Back in the late 1990s, I lived in the most dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco. The only familiar retail outlet was a Walgreen’s pharmacy a few blocks away. The neighborhood had been an old Maltese enclave, but only one Italian grocery remained from those years. The main shopping street was littered with Cantonese BBQs (our favorite was run by a former cop from Macau), Chinese groceries, herbal medicine stores, and a dim sum parlor with a pink exterior.
So when I heard about The 100-Pound Gangster, which was set in 1990s San Francisco, I was naturally curious and eager to go back in time to a place I knew well. I’m not saying I could relate to Henry Lin’s life as a gangster in San Francisco Chinatown or in prison, but I knew was it was like to live in a rough area of San Francisco (home to most of the 60+ gun deaths in the city, which was a pittance compared to the rest of the US!).
I got into this book right away and didn’t put it down until I finished it later that evening. It’s a quick read and very engaging from start to finish. Lin is born and raised in San Francisco’s Sunset District, an area in San Francisco known for the best Chinese restaurants. His parents were not poor, but his family life was very dysfunctional. His father left the family when Lin was young and his mother favored his older brother in a way that made Lin feel all alone. No child should ever be made to feel worthless and unloved, especially a young teenager.
Lin found acceptance and family in a Chinatown gang. Soon he was in charge of twenty gangsters and had a reputation for being loyal and trustworthy (as he would find out, those two traits are nowhere near the same thing). He was arrested for assault with a metal pipe and was going to get a light sentence since he was still only in his early teens. But the prosecutor had just embarked on a campaign to crack down on gang activity and made an example of Lin, serving him an eight-year sentence.
In prison, Lin grew up. He not only became friends with prisoners from all different backgrounds, but also began to write. He wrote for a prison publication and gained the attention of a facility in Pennsylvania for troubled youth. He continued writing there and ended up leaving a year before his sentence was finished.
Throughout the book, Lin travels back to Hong Kong to visit his grandfather, some kind of official high up in the Chinese government. Although Lin never learns exactly what his grandfather did for the Chinese government, he understands that his Gong Gong was high up in intelligence and may have even worked with the CIA. As his relationship with his mother and brother deteriorate, his relationship with his Gong Gong strengthens. Lin dedicates his book to his late grandfather.
Lin feels many temptations to return to the old life after he returns from Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. He tries his hardest to stay out of his former Chinatown gang and the reader can tell how difficult it was for him abstain from that lifestyle. His last act in the underworld takes place in a casino in Macau. I found myself rooting for Lin, for him to succeed in this movie-like finale.
Although Henry Lin is a pen name and he doesn’t reveal his true identity, his voice is powerful and shines through his pages. He never discussed the neighborhood where I lived, but I knew the Chinatown Playground, as well as Sam Wo, a restaurant I went to when I visited San Francisco in 1997 for a week and ended up buying a house in said bad neighborhood on that trip.
The only thing I wished for in this book was more about his time in Hong Kong. But that wasn’t the main focus of his book, so I’m hoping for another one from him set there. Henry Lin is a fresh new voice and one I hope to read again and again.