Looking back, which experiences, jobs and personality traits do you think have really helped you? You may think that I am joking but I truly believe that the job of emptying the family chamber pot when I was a seven-year-old actually helped me the most in my adult life! It used to be my most dreaded domestic responsibility because the route from home to the public toilet was unfortunately the same as that to my primary school. Every morning was an unbearable ordeal during those years – imagine how embarrassing it was for me to run into my schoolmates with a smelly poo pot in my hand! But my mother Rong insisted that I should continue doing this task for the family. I didn’t know the real value of that experience until I came to Australia to chase my dream of freedom as a new migrant. During my second week in the country in July 1997, I had to find a job to pay off my borrowed tuition fees so I walked into the nearest Westfield Shopping Centre. Suddenly I felt the same dread and embarrassment as carrying the chamber pot in my hometown street – I was a high-achieving intellectual in my home country and never had to ask for a low paying job as a shop assistant before! But I didn’t give up – I knocked on every door of the shops asking for available vacancies. I got one eventually but wouldn’t have succeeded without that prior chamber pot character training. In many ways, the ‘shit’ task definitely has tampered my mental resilience to face challenges later in life.
Which traditions from your childhood do you continue? The most lasting tradition is the love of arts and literature that my mother Rong nurtured within me. Since I was a little Kindergarten child in the 1970s, Rong had been taking me to all theatrical shows, concerts, movies and performances that she could possibly obtain tickets through her teaching ‘Guangxi’ (connection), no matter revolutionary or non-revolutionary, domestic or foreign. We had no money but were rich in our hearts and minds. She also channelled me to appreciate unique artistic expressions and encourage my independent thinking, which is now part of my psychological routine.
What was the best thing about writing this book? Writing this book bonded me with my mother, Rong. I used to be a rebel and caused Rong much grief but writing this memoir made me realise the deepest connection between us – after all, we are both women with our idealistic dreams and carried the same stubborn and determined genes from Silver Dollar, my feisty great grandmother! I am also really proud that I have given the ordinary women of 20th Century China a voice and a stage so that they can be heard and seen in this book. In most historical chronologies, we rarely find much about these ‘invisible’ women who toiled hard and made great sacrifices to keep their families together and carry the nation forward despite of all the surrounding atrocities.
Which are your favourite images in this book? Personally, I particularly love the image of my dry nurse Nai Nai. To describe her, I adopted a similar technique to that of a Chinese ink wash painting, i.e. I utilised minimalist but evocative description to capture the essence of Nai Nai’s image and the spirit of her personality so that readers would complete their own loving pictures of her with their own sparked imagination. In my opinion, Nai Nai was a human embodiment of Guanyin Bodhisattva, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion – she gave her love unreservedly to all people around her despite of her illiteracy and extreme poverty. She was my first teacher of kindness and generosity, which I am eternally grateful.
What were some of the most important moments when writing this book? The chapter called ‘Living As Long As the Great South Mountain’ about my grandfather’s execution – the most heart-wrenching chapter to write but my fingers just would not stop typing as if they were pushed by some transcendental force, pouring out those images screaming in my head. The epilogue – my mother suddenly fell grimly ill in my smog-shrouded hometown when I was approaching the end of this memoir. I flew back to Chengdu as quickly as I could. After coming back, I completed this chapter. It was a sombre and poignant end but a fitting one for mum and modern China.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? The honour of bringing the authentic contemporary China to my readers in other parts of the world. It was most rewarding to read all of those heart-felt letters and reviews from my readers. Amongst them, two of the most memorable happenings were receiving a personal phone call from author Thomas Keneally about the book and a heart-warming letter from Dame Marie Bashir sharing her views with me about contemporary China that she saw during the Cultural Revolution and beyond. I am humbled by their support to the book and their recognition of Chinese women’s resilience and fortitude.
What would you most like to ask your great-grandmother, Silver Dollar? I would be so eager to ask her about the death of my grandfather’s second wife, Zhao. I want to hear her statement of this tragic event. Was it a result of her negligence or connivance of Le’s (my grandfather’s first wife) abuse or was it a joint conspiracy of torture or killing conducted by two women? Silver Dollar was a formidable female leader but like all great leaders, she would for sure have her greatest regrets during her years of command. What would they be?
What do your bookshelves at home look like – where are they and how do you arrange your books? So far I have two bookshelves. Black, simple, straight out of IKEA. One is sitting downstairs in the living room and one upstairs in my study. The downstairs book shelf is also a display cabinet so books are mixed with a few of my art and craft collections, an ancient fish fossil from Northern China, a dozen of large dictionaries (due to my cross-cultural consultancy projects and translation work past and present), a special set of silver coin collection and some tea sets. When I wrote Forged From Silver Dollar, I used to have a set morning ritual before start – I must have a cup of freshly brewed Sichuanese Jasmine tea before I started my writing – the sweet scent of the baked jasmine petals and the spreading tea leaves slowly descending to the bottom of the mug would without fail open up my mental passage to the distant past. I grew up with that aroma – Chengdu used to be renowned for its myriad of indoor and open-air teahouses in every of its winding laneways.
What do you choose to do in your spare time? Currently I am designing a matriarchal tour to China in 2016. No men are allowed on this trip! Haha! The rest of my spare time spreads among yoga, gardening, catching up with friends and going to movies, festivals, concerts and interesting talks around town.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? Well, I am a Parramatta Eel’s fan – would this qualify me to be a true blue? The first weekend I arrived in Australia, my host family took me to an Eels’ game straightaway. After a crash course on the game rules and how to cheer ‘Go, Parraaaa!’ and sing ‘We will we will rock you!’, I was ready to rock and roll! The following day when I woke up, I noticed that the skin on my cheeks was peeling off, which was a big shock for me – I had learned my first lesson under the Aussie azure sky – never forget your sunscreen, mate!
Read my review of ‘Forged From Silver Dollar’ here.