Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am

'But what is the definition of Chinese?' poet and novelist Alison Wong asks. While rhetorical (we hope) in this instance, the question is certainly at the heart of the Long-distance Call column; and for the third-generation Chinese-New Zealander, the answer is inextricably tied to the immigrant experience in her country.

As the Earth Turns Silver, her first novel, was published at the end of last year and in a few short months has made the top 10 best-sellers list for fiction in her homeland. Central to the novel is a clandestine love story between fruit seller Wong Chung-yung and a European widow. The story is told from both Chinese and European points of view and is set largely in early 20th-century Wellington but also wanders to Guangdong and the western front during the first world war.

'Although I made up the ... love story, I was rung late last year by a woman who [said] many aspects of my story were true of her [grandparents],' Wong says. 'Her grand- mother was an English widow with a son and daughter, who couldn't make ends meet and who married a Chinese man. My portrayal of the Chinese protagonist reminded her of her grandfather, a kindly man with Cantonese-accented English, who was a very good cook.

'You might find it interesting that As the Earth Turns Silver is the first novel written for adults by a descendant of the original Chinese poll-tax payers in New Zealand,' Wong adds.

The poll tax, established in 1881 and abolished in 1944, was introduced to dissuade Chinese immigration into the country.

Wong grew up in the 1970s and 80s in the twin Hawke's Bay cities of Hastings and Napier, and the 49-year-old says she remembers Chinese Association potluck dinners and watching 'very bad B-grade Hong Kong martial arts movies'. But it wasn't until she turned 20, and was studying maths in Wellington, that she 'woke up' to her Chinese heritage.

'Everywhere I looked I saw China,' Wong recalls. 'From then on I prepared to go. After completing my degree, I learned a little Mandarin then was awarded a New Zealand-China student-exchange scholarship. I spent 1983 to 1985 at Xiamen University, in Fujian.

'When I came back from Xiamen ... I was offered several IT jobs.'

She married a man from Shanghai and moved there in 1994.

'It wasn't until my mid-30s that I realised what I really wanted to do and why nothing else had seemed fully satisfying - I was actually a poet-novelist at heart.'

Having left her husband to return to New Zealand, Wong took a creative-writing course at Victoria University, Wellington.

Despite meagre finances - Wong was drawing single-parent benefit until last year - her first years as a poet were creatively enriching. Her work has been widely read - the 2006 collection Cup garnered positive critiques from such literary reviews as Hong Kong-based Cha - and she's become active on the festival circuits of New Zealand and Australia.

'Some of my poetry is autobiographical. Anything can inspire poetry ... a situation, experience, phrase, sign. The key is to play and then, if necessary, to do a lot of rewriting. Novels are a hard slog but ultimately fulfilling. I spent years researching ... to make the novel as historically accurate as I could ... it made me think long and hard about 'Chineseness'.'