WAR GAMES In the late 1930s, my mother, a third-generation Hongkonger, came to San Francisco with a cousin to visit the World's Fair, met my father, a Scottish-American from Idaho, fell in love with him and got married. Chinese-white marriage was illegal in California at the time so they drove to Washington state, where a minister, who was a friend of my father's family, married them. For the duration of the second world war my parents made their home in San Francisco's Chinatown.
My father was a merchant seaman, rarely home, and my mother, missing Hong Kong and her family terribly, returned with my sister and myself in 1947. I was one year old. We lived in Sai Ying Pun. My earliest memories are of playing in second world war rubble, listening to talk of atrocities from that war and the civil war then raging in China, and watching the streets and hillsides fill with refugees. My father died (in America) while I was in Form Five at the King George V school.
I wanted to further my education and had heard in American films and by talking to schoolmates that, in the US, youths without means could work their way through college. So after I passed my O levels, I left Hong Kong with that as my goal. It was 1962, and I was 16 years old.
WORD OF MOUTH I was seven when I knew I wanted to become a writer. My father had sent me a diary, and writing in it gave me an abiding sense of wholeness. I've always been a voracious reader, but books were hard to come by when I was a child since Hong Kong didn't have public libraries back then. What I did have was access to oral storytelling. In those pre-television days, Hong Kong still had public storytellers, who would roam the neighbourhoods; in order to get money at the end of their stories, they had to have held the attention of the audience. I find it's their voices I hear in my head whenever I sit down to write. So, like them, I try to pull in the reader straight away. My prose is as unadorned as theirs. And my style is direct with a beat to it.
BATTLING NIGHTMARES The need to be practical meant I set aside my writing aspirations initially, and I didn't begin writing seriously for publication until I was almost 30. At first I was reluctant to write about war. As a young child growing up in Hong Kong, I witnessed the aftermath of several wars. At school we read the powerful first world war poets, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and between their poems, the stories from the second world war and China's civil war, plus my vivid imagination, I used to wake up night after night screaming from nightmares about war.
As for my personal feelings about war, I can't say I'm a pacifist because I've never tolerated bullying, whether directed at myself or others. Well into my teens, I used to fight bullies physically. So, yes, I find war repellent and have been opposed to specific wars, such as the United States invasion of Iraq. In the case of America's civil war, slavery was repellent, too. Why wouldn't someone like Thomas Sylvanus (a Hongkonger originally called Ah Yee Way, about whom McCunn has written) who was (taken to America on a ship in the 1850s when he was eight years old for schooling, but was enslaved in Baltimore), seize the opportunity to fight for his personal freedom and that of others?
PEOPLE POWER Thomas exhibited so much personal courage in living through his nightmare, that I couldn't turn my back on bearing witness. It's always the people that I'm writing about that drive me. Thomas' life was a very tough and almost relentless struggle. In fact, I held back from including (in Chinese Yankee) every awful thing that happened to him after the war because I feared it would be too much for the reader. That he should remain steadfast in hoping and working for better in the face of unending challenges is what I found so impressive.
REALITY CHECK It is irritating to me when a writer of historical fiction says he or she has changed the facts "to serve the story". By changing the facts, the story itself is changed. As the writer, it's my responsibility to try to figure out the how and why behind the facts. Sure, there's guesswork and invention, but it is educated guesswork and invention that rises from the facts, the context of the times, which is why it's necessary to go beyond merely researching the individual's life.
ONCE A HONGKONGER … I definitely always will be a Hongkonger. But the Hong Kong I knew disappeared in the eight years between my departure in 1962 and my first return in 1970. That was such a shock that I didn't return again until 1981. Then, for the next 15 years, I was back to see my mother almost every year. The last two times I was back was to bury my mother in 2000, then to be with someone very dear to me who was dying in 2002. That was the last time I was out of the US, and, as much as possible, I avoid flying within the US, because I loathe airport security measures and everything they represent.
SUCCESS STORY I'm leery of the word success. My life as a writer is one of doubt. That said, I've been lucky in finding inspiring individuals with fabulous stories to tell. I attribute my good fortune to writing about extraordinary Chinese pioneers with compelling stories. My books have done sufficiently well in terms of critical acclaim and sales that I've been able to keep doing what I love.