Thai or Chinese? Male or female? Fiction or fact? Will the real Judy Chan please stand up? To answer the easiest question first, J. Chan - who writes under four different names depending on the genre - is definitely a woman, and recently broke into English-language publishing following the translation of her award-winning novel A Walk Through Spring. The story follows the lives of four grandmothers, formerly Cantonese maids to rich families in Thailand, who reminisce in front of a thirtysomething relative, inspiring her to make the most of her life. 'Nowadays, some authors choose to write about the worst side or even make up disgusting stories about their own countries to stun readers and grab easy money,' says Chan, whose family originated in Guangdong. Chan was born in Bangkok, where she lives with her surgeon husband, in 1955. 'Rape in the family, torture and killing - do we have to write that to earn our living?' she asks. Much is revealed as A Walk Through Spring's principal characters chatter, including the secrets of female immigrants who are far more distinguished than their menfolk; the aromatic details of artistic Cantonese cooking; and treasured beliefs and traditions to be passed on to the next generation. The award of the 2008 Chommanard Book Prize - which is open to women writers only - came as a surprise to Chan. 'I was a bit reluctant to enter to start with; generally Thais stick to melodrama and I thought I didn't have a chance, but unexpectedly the judges liked the period detail and I was very honoured to be presented with the award by Princess Sirindhorn,' she says. A trio of translators - a former Reader's Digest editor, a one-time Bangkok Post columnist and Chan herself - took on the task of rendering the novel into English. 'It's not easy to translate a book full of Cantonese and Thai slang, profound Cantonese culture and humour, and specific Cantonese words,' says Chan. 'We worked very closely to get the right phrasing because I hate to compromise and wanted the international audience to get the same message and feeling as Thai readers.' New to English readers, Chan has long been known in the Thai literary world; but it was only in the 1980s, following decades spent running a bakery, that she was fully able to take up her pen. Inspired by the likes of Pearl S. Buck and M.R. Kukrit Pramoj (who was briefly Thailand's prime minister in the mid-1970s), Chan tried her hand at fiction first, using the penname T. Aksara, prompting many readers to think she was a man. A book about her time at Chulalongkorn University- We Are The Class of Arts 41 - followed, before she published a highly successful series of 'how to' books that sold well in the wake of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, when many sacked white-collar workers were looking to start their own businesses. 'I started off writing tips about owning a bakery, drawing from my own experience - where to buy machines and tools, what to do with the workers and how to manage the shop efficiently. It became a best-seller and the publisher asked me to do the same with a coffee shop and a flower shop. I did a lot of research and the books are well known for being the first of their kind.' Throughout Chan's books there is a strong sense of her Chinese heritage and of an immigrant making her way in a foreign milieu. 'At one stage being Chinese in Thailand was a kind of embarrassment. Thais always made jokes of our accent, our appearance and our culture,' says Chan. 'Thais spoke so softly while we spoke so loudly and fast. They didn't call us Chinese but 'Chink'. 'However, this situation slowly declined with the rise of the Chinese nouveau riche and second-generation Chinese are more Thai than Chinese. They are well educated and wealthy and the local people have more respect for the rich. I think this is the good part of Thailand: Thais look at others' fortune as karma and accept it happily,' she says. 'I don't think we separate people by nationality but by wealth, social status and personal interest. People are grouping themselves according to their social networks, hobbies and education.' Chan's literary course takes a new turn with her forthcoming book, a novel based on the history of a German firm that has been operating in Thailand for more than a century. 'It all started with a publisher who was looking for an author who was equally conversant with both fiction and non-fiction, and they decided I was the answer,' says Chan. 'The firm in question, B. Grimm, opened in Thailand in 1878 - they had a good relationship with the royal family. 'Grimm has had a lot to do with the prosperity of Thailand, and I have already spent a year digging through the archives and conducting interviews. I've completed the first two chapters, which take the book up to the first world war, but I have to finish by December because I have three other books lined up!' Nothing if not prolific, Judy Chan - or Yuvadee Tonsakulrungruang, or Khemploy, or T. Aksara - has her work cut out for herself until at least this time next year.