Jean Kwok was five years old when her family moved from Hong Kong to Brooklyn in the 1970s. By day she went to school and by night she worked with her parents at a Chinatown sweat shop. Kwok’s heart-wrenching debut novel, Girl in Translation, is about a family’s rise from poverty. Mambo in Chinatown, her second, follows a young woman, Charlie Wong, a Chinatown dishwasher who finds transcendence through ballroom dancing and love.
Kwok will speak about her new book at the Decatur Library Auditorium on June 25 at 7:15 p.m.
ArtsATL: How did you get the idea for Mambo in Chinatown?
Jean Kwok: I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for three years. In that time, my father got sick and my family insisted on treating him with Eastern medicine. I really fought to get him a Western diagnosis, but I was unsuccessful and he died undiagnosed. The pull of different beliefs and ways of life is the emotional heart of the story. Also, I wanted to tell the stories of people like the taxi drivers, the girl behind the counter, the man working in the back kitchen. I wanted to render these invisible people visible.
ArtsATL: Your novels are based on your life, yet you chose to write fiction instead of memoir.
Kwok: Fiction was initially a coward’s move since I think most people who come from a poor background like mine want to leave it behind and not be reminded of how very poor they were because it’s shameful and embarrassing.
ArtsATL: Even though in America everyone loves a rags-to-riches story?
Kwok: They do when you become successful! When I was growing up, I confided in friends who didn’t believe it or, if they mentioned it to their parents, their parents said it couldn’t be true because in America kids do not go to work in factories. Perhaps these stories are still so secret because people like myself, who have left those circumstances, are either ashamed of them or choose secure professions like accounting or law or sciences rather than becoming novelists.
ArtsATL: Mambo in Chinatown explores the tussles between duty-oriented and individualistic cultures.
Kwok: I believe in duty and love for your parents, but I believe even more strongly that, ultimately, your life is your own and that none of us, no matter how much we’ve sacrificed for our children, have the right to take away their choice of what they want with their lives.
ArtsATL: But sometimes this realization comes late, and you’re left with a suitcase of regrets. That can take its own toll, as Charlie begins to realize.
Kwok: Compared to Western parents, parents of that generation may seem inflexible and extremely strict, but I think it’s important to realize that, as far as they are concerned, they have already bent beyond themselves. Of course, that’s hard to hear when your friends’ parents are thrilled because they’re not flunking out while you come home with your straight As and one A-minus and your parent says, “What is this A-minus?”
ArtsATL: Charlie may not agree with her father, yet she continues to respect him.
Kwok: My parents were old enough to be my grandparents and so, as a teenager, I truly experienced the struggles of cultural restraints. But I also felt very keenly the sacrifices of that first generation who leave their family, their loved ones, their land in order to give their children a better future. I was able to see both perspectives and that translates into characters neither completely complacent nor completely rebellious. Charlie can see and appreciate that her widower father is doing the absolute best he can. She has that mix of love and guilt and duty towards her father even though she dances without his knowledge.
ArtsATL: Charlie, who is American-born, is surprised to find out that her friend Mo Li, who is Chinese-born and Communist-raised, can speak Korean, and she is shocked when Mo Li says, “Asian languages aren’t hard when you are Chinese, when you are real Chinese.“ I loved the way this introduces the concept of authenticity — what are the criteria to belong, what it means to belong within a language.
Kwok: In a way Mo Li is right because she actually lived in China and she’s completely fluent in a way that American-born girls cannot be.
ArtsATL: You’ve just opened a huge can of worms.
Kwok: I know, but you know being Chinese is a very fluid concept, and one thing I find so interesting, and my novels explore, is that though Communist China tried to eradicate much of China’s cultural heritage, that heritage moved abroad, so things like Buddhism and temples have flourished in places like the United States. I had a friend from Communist China who said to me, “Why are you always writing about that Kuan Yin stuff, no one believes in that anymore,” and I said, “Actually people do.”
ArtsATL: You grew up in the U.S. and now live in Holland. Would life have been different for your protagonists had your novels been set in Europe?
Kwok: My next book is about immigrating to Europe and explores this question in depth. One great advantage in the U.S., especially in cities like San Francisco and New York, is their large immigrant populations and the ready help that provides. But those same numbers can allow people to disappear in Chinatown if they want and never step out. This disappearance would be harder in the Europe that I have seen, because the Chinese communities tend to be smaller.
ArtsATL: What would you like your readers to take away from your work?
Kowk: That the dreams and hopes and desires of someone working in a restaurant or tending a food cart are no different from yours. I’m hoping people can part their curtains of distance because in the end we share the same heart, we share the same soul.