Sun Hung Kai Properties

Chinatown initiation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 May, 2010, 12:00am

On Jean Kwok's website, visitors are invited to explore five 'fun facts' about the author and her debut novel, Girl in Translation, an account of her Hong Kong family's struggle to realise the American dream in New York's Chinatown. Fact No1 states that Kwok's novel has 'two REAL characters', and that clicking on links will reveal who they are.

Disappointingly, the two characters include neither the author nor her parents, nor any of her six siblings, who all triumphed over poverty, oppression and a daunting language barrier, and inspired Kwok to write her novel. Instead, the characters turn out to be Kwok's cats, Tommy and Andy, who died shortly before her book was published this month.

That seems to be a playful way of acknowledging that although her novel could easily have been a memoir, it is in fact a skilfully woven tapestry of experience and fiction.

Kwok writes in the first person as her novel's protagonist, Kimberly Chang, who moves to the US with her mother aged 11. Chang is eager to see the architectural marvels of her adopted hometown, which she pronounces as 'Min-hat-ton'.

A devious aunt who has helped bring Chang and her mother to the United States dumps them in a seedy neighbourhood in Brooklyn, where they sleep on the floor on a single mattress in a run-down apartment infested with rodents and roaches. Chang's mother, once a music teacher in Hong Kong, is forced to work in a garments factory in Chinatown to repay the aunt for the expense of bringing her family to America. To help, Chang, too, works in the sweatshop after school.

When Chang confides about child labour to her only friend at school, a white girl from a wealthy family, she's told that children don't work in American factories - a falsehood the girl has learned from her well-heeled father. 'That day,' relates Chang, 'I began to understand that there was a part of my life that should remain hidden.'

Making sense of the suffering and alienation that many immigrants endure and eventually overcome in a foreign culture is the theme of Girl in Translation.

Like her protagonist, Kwok, too, worked alongside her mother in a Chinatown sweatshop. 'My father took me there every day after school and we all emerged many hours later, soaked in sweat and covered in fabric dust,' she recalls.

The youngest of seven children, Kwok describes herself as a 'dreamy, impractical child who ran wild through the sunlit streets of Hong Kong'. A gifted student, she was five years old when she moved to New York, where she quickly discovered that 'my only gift was taken away from me - I did not understand English.' But Kwok spins this handicap with great effect in her novel.

'Readers are sent so far into the head and heart of a Chinese immigrant that they can no longer understand the English spoken by Westerners to Kimberley [Chang], yet they hear Chinese expressions as naturally as a native Chinese speaker,' she explains.

Kwok grew to love English and won a scholarship at Harvard, where she studied literature and worked four jobs to pay the bills. (In the novel, Chang goes to Yale.) After graduating, Kwok became a professional ballroom dancer, went on to earn a master's in fiction from Columbia University and, after a stint at an investment bank, finally found her calling in writing.

Kwok says she decided not to write a memoir because she didn't want to reveal the personal details of her life. But while working on her novel, which took 10 years to finish, she realised that autobiographical insights would help improve her story. 'People wanted to know: 'could this really happen in America?'' she says, referring to the exploitation she and her protagonist suffered in Chinatown. 'And I had to answer, 'Yes.''

For years after settling in America, Kwok continued to miss Hong Kong intensely. 'We were not very wealthy, but I had a nanny and our store in Kowloon was large enough to hire several employees,' she wistfully recalls. 'We lost everything in the immigration process and were forced to start all over again.'

The mother of two young boys, Kwok now lives in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband. The couple returned to Hong Kong for their honeymoon a few years ago. 'I instantly felt completely at home, even though Hong Kong has changed so much,' she says.

Kowloon, she adds, has lost none of its charm at night, and although the fare at Hong Kong's fancy restaurants is delicious, it's the street food she most enjoyed.

New York, the Netherlands and Hong Kong are the three places Kwok considers home. But nowhere does she feel more at home than in the city of her birth. 'Hong Kong will always be my deepest idea of home. It was where I had no concept of being foreign.'