My life: Julian Lees
The Hong Kong-born stockbroker-turned-author tells Amy Chew about his family's relationship with China
HAPPY CAMPER My mother's maternal grandfather was a high-ranking [Russian] Cossack general who served under the tsar. In 1917, with the Bolshevik revolution escalating, he was forced to flee Russia with his family. They went first to Harbin and later Shanghai, where he worked as a doorman at the Wing On Department Store. He had two daughters, Agrippina and Galia. The older Agrippina, my grandmother, married George Talbot, the son of a wealthy Eurasian family that owned one of the most successful Chinese herbal companies in China.
George had a charmed life. He didn't have to do much work. During the second world war, he and his family were interned in a university named the Lung Wah Camp as they were British citizens. When George heard he was going to be interned, he went to his tailor to get some white trousers as he was going to a new place. He told his tailor he was going to a "camp". My grandfather's first job in camp, dressed in his white trousers, was garbage duty. After that, he was put in charge of ensuring everyone had clean water to drink, which meant keeping huge coal fires burning. Every morning, people queued up with their flasks. Water was rationed like food. He and his family were released in 1945 and they returned to their family home, a mansion on Bubbling Well Road, next to Nanjing Road.
FRAGILE LIVES My mother was born in Shanghai in 1937, well before the communist takeover. I remember her telling me that they had a Chinese cook who spoke fluent Russian and, on weekends, everyone gathered for family meals - there would be 40 people around several tables. She looks back to that time now with great sadness as they lost everything when the communists came. They had an extraordinary collection of rare and priceless Chinese porcelain - it was confiscated by the communists in 1959 and now resides in the Shanghai Museum.
I have never visited our ancestral home in Shanghai, nor the Shanghai Museum. Sometimes I think it is better to leave the past be. Perhaps it's because I would have mixed feelings about seeing the house and the porcelain. My great-grandfather published The Marvelous Book in 1930, with 102 colour images of his collection. I have a copy and browse through it once in a while.
MATCH MADE IN HONG KONG In 1950, my mum and her parents boarded an American ship, the General Gordon, at Taku Bar and sailed to Hong Kong, later to settle in Macau. All they could take with them was 45 pounds of luggage each, everything else was left behind in Shanghai. In Macau, George started up a Chinese herbal medicine business that did quite well. In 1959, he moved the family to Hong Kong. It was there that my father, John Lees, met my mother, Sandra Talbot, and they got married that same year. My father had arrived in Hong Kong in 1955 to work for Wheelock Marden, one of the "hongs". He was their managing director for many years and chairman of Lane Crawford. My mother was what I like to call a corporate housewife; she helped raise his profile whenever she could. She was also chair of the Hong Kong Cancer Ball.
THERE AND BACK AGAIN My mother speaks Cantonese, as did my grandfather. However, I picked up the language from my amah, Ah Bing, and from watching cartoons. I was very close to my grandfather, George Talbot, and visited him often. He passed away in 1982.
I was born in 1967. My parents owned a house in Shek O with sprawling lawns and gardens so I was always outdoors. It was a welcome contrast to the bustle of the city.
I attended Cambridge University, where I studied theology. After I graduated, I joined UBS in London. Three years later I was headhunted by Salomon Brothers and returned to Hong Kong, to work on their institutional sales desk.
THE WRITE STUFF I had grown tired of broking; the daily grind was getting to me and I needed a change. I was holidaying in Phuket, reading The Beach by Alex Garland, and I thought to myself, "I could write a story like this." A year later, having quit my job, I found myself staring at a blank computer screen, wondering what on Earth I'd done. Fortunately, I'd made some decent money as a broker so I had a financial cushion to fall back on. Money's important but you have to enjoy doing what you do. There is a great deal of politics behind getting a book published. To be a successful writer, you have to get a literary agent to represent you. However, literary agents usually only represent published authors. Publishers, on the other hand, will only read your work if you have an agent to pitch for you. So it becomes a chicken-and-egg scenario.
I don't think I turned my back on capitalism and became more of an idealist. I think I was always a bit of an idealist.
NOVEL APPROACH Many of my characters are outsiders in society - this mirrors my grandparents' experiences in many ways; Eurasians were looked down upon in Shanghai, as were the Russians - so this sense of dislocation is certainly apparent in my stories. My first novel, A Winter Beauty, was based on my family's history. My second novel, The Fan Tan Players, is about a refugee from pre-revolutionary Russia living in 1928 Macau. My latest and third novel, The House of Trembling Leaves, is set in colonial Malaysia and tells the story of a young Chinese girl who runs away from home to England when she is ordered to marry a fat, one-eyed banker whom she loathes. I think the Chinese in Malaysia have had to fight harder for a sense of self and therefore have formed a greater communal and religious identity.