Stout Research Centre Chinese New Zealand Seminar Series:
"Writing Historical Fiction from a Cross-Cultural Perspective"
a seminar given by Alison Wong on 2 April 2003
The following seminar is a revised and greatly expanded version of one by the same name
given in Dunedin on 15 August 2002 as part of the Hocken Library New Zealand Studies
Centre Seminar Series.
The future was a time that called into question everything that came before it.
Ivan Klima, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light
The novel I am currently writing had its genesis at the Stout Research Centre. In 1996, I
received a Reader's Digest-New Zealand Society of Authors Stout Research Centre
Fellowship to work on a novel. My original proposal was to work on a contemporary
novel set in New Zealand and China, a project I had begun the year before while studying
creative writing at Victoria University. However, because of personal circumstances, by
the time it came for me to take up the two month Fellowship, I had decided I could no
longer write the novel at that time and certainly not in the way that I had originally
conceived it. I therefore had to conjure another novel to write.
There's a famous saying (probably misquoted, but I think very relevant here) that
writing a novel is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. It has been my personal
experience that when you embark on a novel, as opposed to a poem or a short story, it is
such a huge commitment that you have to find something absolutely compelling to write
about. It has to capture your imagination and address your obsessions sufficiently so that
even if and when the going gets tough or your life intrudes and it takes years and years
and you're still not finished, somehow despite it all, you can still keep that commitment
and just keep going. And so it was that when I looked for another novel to write, there was
only thing I could think of that seemed compelling enough at such short notice. And it
centred round a piece of family history.
It's interesting that my family didn't talk much about the past or about family history.
Like so many Chinese of their generation, my parents were simply too busy working and
providing us with an education to talk about the old days. It's that talk - the family stories
and mythologies - that can prove so rich for the writer. My father was a good,
hardworking man who provided for us and loved us dearly but he was also a man of few
words. My mother probably had the words, like a lot of women. but little time to speak
them. I also think it would have been different if I had grown up in Auckland close to my
mother's family and my grandmother rather than in Hawke's Bay where my father's
family was, because sisters, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and granddaughters are
more likely talk. Also there would have been so many more Chinese around. However,
when I received the Fellowship at the Stout Research Centre and my father realised I was
a writer, he told me something about his grandfather who had come out to New Zealand
from Kwangtung (Guangdong) province in 1896. My immediate reaction, apart from
fascination and horror that such things might be in my family background, was that this
would make a great novel. This tiny bit of family history could be the starting point for
something new and fictional. But I wasn't tempted. Historical fiction sounded too hard. It
involved too much work, too much research, and something contemporary I could relate
to, seemed so much more appealing - that is, until I had to think up a completely new
novel to write while on the Fellowship.
I won't elaborate on my great grandfather's story because I don't want to spoil the
plot for future readers, however, I am aware that there has been a lot of misleading and
inaccurate publicity. Therefore I want to emphasise that I am not writing family history.
What my father and relatives were able to tell me was scanty, and the true story is a
mystery. I've researched myself and then changed many facts that I do know about. I've
interviewed many elderly people, Chinese and non-Chinese. I've taken a bit here and a bit
there. I've created something new.
Graham Greene once said writing novels was like espionage - violations of faith and
trust. Writers come across a lot of wonderful material. Some people are dying to make it
into your fiction, others are sure you're writing about them even when you aren't (not a lot
you can do about that), and others would be horrified if they, their actions or
circumstances were portrayed in fiction. Some writers see literature as more important
than the feelings of individuals who may have inspired it. This is where ethics and the
demands of art battle it out. Regardless of the position you take, those writers who betray
confidences - whether of relatives, friends, acquaintances or enemies - have to live with
the consequences. Take for example, Woody Allen's movie Deconstructing Harry.
Allen's character is a novelist who doesn't make any effort to disguise his life or that of
those around him. It's almost like playing God, or perhaps, havoc, with the lives of family
and friends. The biographer and the writer of memoir/autobiography have to face this
issue even more keenly. At the least the novelist says that what they're writing is fiction,
even in cases where it is substantially autobiographical.
Some writers just don't use sensitive material even though it's crying out to be used or
else they wait till certain people are dead before they publish. Many writers mix fact and
fiction or fictionalise material to such an extent that it bears little resemblance to the
I never intended to write a historical novel. I wouldn't normally recommend that a
novice writer like myself, without a rich background in history or family history, attempt
first up to write a historical novel, particularly one set in an culture, place and era which
are not well documented. Why make it hard for yourself? But sometimes you are
compelled to do something hard and no reason is strong enough not to do it. When you
find yourself in a boat out at sea with only rudimentary skills in sailing, you need some
things to anchor you, some things to guide you, something to aim for. Family history has
been like this for me. It gave me a rough setting - Wellington from the 1890s through to
the beginning of WWI - and an idea for a story. Then the novel took on a life of its own.
It's now set from the 1890s to the 1920s in Wellington, Dunedin, Kwangtung
(Guangdong) Province in China and the Western Front during WWI. I've set some of my
main characters where my great grandfather lived in Adelaide Road, Newtown, doing the
kind of work he did as a fruiterer and greengrocer. But no-one knows what he was like as
a person. He was an only child, but I have created two brothers. All my main characters
are fictional, though some of the minor characters are real life historical figures. The novel
was inspired by family history but that history is more like the rich soil in which my novel
was planted and watered and has grown, than the novel itself. Well-known historical
events and people have watered the novel and become incorporated into the cell structure,
but the novel has a life of its own. It is a work of the imagination fed by history.
Brian Castro, a part Chinese novelist who grew up in Hong Kong, Macao and
Australia, quotes Graham Greene and agrees that writing is like being a spy, but he
describes a writer as "someone who does not fit comfortably into any culture but who
watches it secretly". I think there is a lot of truth in that. There is something in the writer's
psyche of not quite fitting in with the so-called 'normal' world, an 'otherness' or state of
'not-belonging'. Otherwise why would writers spend so much time writing instead of just
getting out there and living? Why are writers driven to create other worlds?
There is a specific kind of 'otherness', which is particularly relevant to the novel I
am writing. Immigrants, or minorities of any kind (whether racial, ethnic, religious or
otherwise) sometimes talk about living a hyphenated existence, straddling two cultures,
sometimes belonging to both, often belonging to neither.
Being a writer, let alone a person, from an ethnic minority like most things in life,
can be both a curse and a blessing. You've potentially got a slightly different story to tell,
which can set you apart in the marketplace. But there is also the danger of being pigeon-
holed or stereotyped, of being expected to be different when you're not. Many novels are
dominated by characters from a particular ethnicity and perspective. I have chosen to tell
mine from both Chinese and NZ European perspectives.
There has been little New Zealand fiction written from the Chinese perspective, and
if you look at the literature of the time, that is the early 1900s, the Chinese were largely
absent, a people who did not exist. The few instances where Chinese are referred to are
often racist, stereotypical, unflattering, or at least, alienating. Take Katherine Mansfield's
short story, Prelude, for instance. Beryl says:
"Mother, whatever can I do with these awful hideous Chinese paintings that Chung
Wah gave Stanley when he went bankrupt? It's absurd to say that they are valuable,
because they were hanging in Chung Wah's fruit shop for months before. I can't make out
why Stanley wants them kept. I'm sure he thinks them just as hideous as we do, but it's
because of the frames," she said spitefully. "I suppose he thinks the frames might fetch
something some day or other."
Here Chinese objects are referred to as 'awful hideous' and perhaps they really
were, though of course that is a value judgement, which can be very much influenced by
Later in Prelude, Stanley Burnell is on his way home from the office. "At the
Chinaman's shop next door he bought pineapple in the pink of condition, and noticing a
basket of fresh black cherries he told John to put him in a pound of those as well."
The Chinese shopkeeper is referred to as a Chinaman and 'John' instead of as a
Chinese, or by his actual name if known. We have a people who have no name and are
seen to be all the same so you can call them all 'John'. They aren't really human - they
aren't 'people like us'.
In Mansfield's At the Bay, Linda and her father dream of sailing up a Chinese river.
It never happens. Instead Linda wears a Chinese shawl. Here the view of the Chinese is
not negative but it is an outsider's view. The two stories portray Chinese culture and the
Chinese as either ugly and negative or exotic. Where is the insider's view? Where are the
ordinary people who just happen to be Chinese? And how in these circumstances can
anyone identify with the Chinese or be proud to be one? Certainly, I found reading
Prelude alienating and shameful. The reader is meant to sympathise with the European
characters, and yet here were people like my own grandfather and great-grandfather who
were portrayed in a denigrating manner. This kind of writing divorced me from the New
Zealand literary tradition. No one spoke for the people I came from. Although Mansfield
was reflecting a common attitude of the day, it becomes a problem in a nation's literature
if these kinds of perspective are not balanced with alternatives.
So why am I writing the novel from the New Zealand European or pakeha
perspective as well? Why not write it only from the Chinese perspective? Because I want
to show both sides of the story. In fact there are many sides, not just two. Prejudice and
misunderstanding are not limited to one group. The Chinese were and still can be racist
too. And then there were those on both sides who tried to reach out to each other and
overcome misunderstanding. My family have been in New Zealand for five generations, if
you count my son. I am the third generation born in New Zealand. I have grown up in a
largely pakeha-dominated country, with largely pakeha friends. I understand pakeha
perspectives, and many of them I feel comfortable with. Also, pakeha history and culture
is much better documented than NZ Chinese history and culture. For me, writing the
Chinese story of one hundred years ago is more of a challenge than writing the pakeha
story of the same time. That being said, there are aspects of Chinese culture that have been
passed down to me. I have had to explore aspects of my upbringing and innate attitudes,
and recognise their Chineseness.
Writing this novel, I have sometimes felt like I am living a hyphenated existence,
moving between different worlds and finding their intersections, and also those huge
spaces where they do not meet at all. I have to try to look at the assumptions that we make
of other people and their actions and try to find those that do not apply in a cross-cultural
context. I quote from Gary Snyder's translation of one of the Cold Mountain (Han-shan)
My heart's not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You'd get it and be right here.
So where is the common ground between cultures and where do our assumptions
lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding? How do you write individual, authentic,
non-stereotypical characters who realistically live in the times and culture of the day and
yet are not always or necessarily bound to those traditions? These are not easy questions. I
find it a real challenge to try to address them and do the novel justice.
There can also be a real tension between the demands of fiction and the demands of
history. So far, as much as I have been able, I have tried to make the novel completely
historically accurate. Writing something fictional so accurately that it could have really
happened is very challenging. Sometimes you have a great idea from a story or
metaphorical point of view but it could never have happened, i.e., because the sequence of
events does not fit with historical fact or because a particular person could not have been
in that place at that time doing that what you as the author want them to do. Many
novelists will sacrifice historical accuracy for story. Perhaps the help I have received from
so many historians and experts and people with some knowledge of the events and times,
and also my grave sense of responsibility, have so far not allowed me to sacrifice
accuracy. I'm not certain though, whether I'll be able to keep this up till the end of the
The novelist Jim Crace doesn't even try to make his fiction accurate, he
unashamedly makes it up. For Crace, the believability of his worlds are paramount. His
worlds work for his story but they do not correspond with reality. They are works of the
imagination that work in an imaginary world. Some writers combine facts with make-
believe or with events which are out of sequence because it works better that way for the
story. Other writers like Catherine Chidgey are scrupulous in their research and want
every small detail to be accurate. Chidgey says you have to go one way or the other. Either
like Crace, make it all up, or like herself, make sure that you get it all right. One of the
consequences of getting something wrong, is that some day someone somewhere will
notice it and the error will leap out at them and break the fictional spell - that contract that
the writer and reader have where the writer says, 'I know what I'm doing, take my hand
and come with me, trust me.'
I think it is possible as a novelist to write well about a place, time, and/or culture
that is not your own. You must have a good imagination. If you want to provide a lot of
detail and be factually and spiritually accurate then you must research very, very well and
preferably have or start to have contact with the people, place or culture. However, I do
think it is much easier to write if you are an insider, and there are certain things that only
an insider could write about - as an insider there is so much that you know without even
needing to think about it.
How do I define insider? Insiders are those who think and feel and see themselves as
insiders, just as the definition of ethnicity is not one of race but of how one identifies.
Although I am racially fully Chinese and I tick Chinese for my ethnicity, in fact, it would
be as relevant for me to tick both Chinese and NZ European/pakeha.
I don't think I could have written this novel if I wasn't a Chinese New Zealander.
There is a connection, something personal that has kept me going despite all the ups and
downs, despite life intruding. But here I must add that although the traumas and
responsibilities of life can keep us from writing, it is these things themselves that make the
writing what it is. Novelists, short story writers, poets, playwrights, all write from life and
about life, even when it's completely fictional.
As a Chinese New Zealander, there is a different feeling to talking with elderly
Chinese if you are Chinese yourself and from one of the old families. Even better if you
are related or if the person you are talking to was a friend of your grandfather. The
provincial, county, clan and village ties (and here I am talking about place of origin in
China) are breaking down more with each generation but for my grandparents' and
parents' generations they were very important. One person I interviewed said to me that he
was only telling me certain things because I was family. And family for the Chinese is
traditionally much, much bigger than the Western nuclear or even extended family. It goes
back many generations to a common ancestor. We talk of village cousins because we
came from the same village in China.
The three years I spent in China during the 80s and 90s have been helpful in writing
the novel - seeing the place, seeing villages, interacting with the people and the culture.
Modern-day China is very different from the days of my novel and yet there are still carry-
overs in terms of place, culture, and ways of interacting and being.
One regret is that I cannot speak or understand Cantonese. When my brother, who is
four years older, had to go into hospital for an operation at age four, he could not speak
any English. My mother had to tell him that whenever he was thirsty he should say Milo.
The nurses commented to my mother about his love of Milo! But I didn't learn Cantonese
because a European woman, who worked in my parents' fruit and vegetable shop, thought
that whenever they spoke Chinese to us children, we were actually talking about her
behind her back. My parents stopped speaking Chinese and I grew up unable to
communicate with my grandparents or elderly relatives. This has been a problem for me
personally and also in researching and writing the novel. Imagine this scenario: my mother
and father help me by interpreting when I interview elderly non-English speaking Chinese
(who, by the way, have often lived here most of their lives.) I ask a question and my
parents struggle to translate. A five-minute reply comes back in Cantonese and my parents
translate it back to me in one or two sentences. Sometimes you've got to wonder what you
missed. Maybe the most valuable thing to you as a writer was in the four and three-quarter
minutes that was never translated, not necessarily always in the substance of what was
said but in the way it was said or not said. Maybe what you have lost is half a dozen other
questions you might have asked if only you had heard those four and three-quarter
minutes and been triggered into asking them.
When I was in China I learned Mandarin, which has been invaluable, despite my
lack of fluency. As a writer it would be even better if I could read Chinese fluently.
However, the characters of my novel spoke Cantonese, not Mandarin. Everything in the
novel needs to be in Cantonese and, if I can work it out, in the Cantonese of the day.
I know a few Cantonese words because of my background, and sometimes in my
interviews I pick up from people certain Cantonese phrases or metaphors, but often I have
to think in Mandarin first and then translate, if possible and appropriate, into Cantonese. It
doesn't always work. I also have the problem of how to write Cantonese words
phonetically. Some of the standard ways of writing romanised Cantonese look ugly, long
and difficult to read. They don't look right in a novel, and Chinese writers don't seem to
have a standard for writing Cantonese in English, unlike for Mandarin where there are two
acceptable systems. Another issue is with Chinese names, places and words that are well-
known in English. These are often recognised when written in romanised Mandarin but
not if written in the way my characters would have pronounced them. I would like
consistency in naming conventions but probably understandability is more important.
Writing the novel has been and continues to be a challenging, even daunting
experience for several reasons. Firstly, because I'm not a historian, there is so much to
research and to learn. Secondly, because my family has been in New Zealand so long,
over the generations the Chineseness of my family has been diluted and there is much to
research and learn about the Chinese and Chinese culture and history as it applied one
hundred years ago. There is a certain tenuousness about any claim I could make about
being an insider writing about Chinese in NZ one hundred years ago. Thirdly, it's just
long enough ago so that almost no-one is still alive from the main period I am interested
in, or they were so young that their recollections tend to be of later times or from the
limited viewpoint of a very young child. Fourthly, the pre-WW1 period appears to be one
of the less well documented periods of NZ history. There is probably more about colonial
or Victorian New Zealand, about the Chinese during the gold rush, about the women's
movement during the late 1800s when women were campaigning for the vote, and so on.
Fifthly, there's so little fiction out there about and/or by the New Zealand Chinese, that the
novel is more likely to attract attention and criticism.
Because I have started from a place of such ignorance, the challenge I face is to do
enough research to write the novel well and yet not get so bogged down in it that the novel
is never finished. If I'm going to get the chance to write several novels in my lifetime, I'm
going to have to live with the knowledge that despite my best intentions, I'm quite likely
to get a few things wrong. One way to minimise errors is to give the novel or parts of it to
various historians with specialist knowledge or other people 'in the know' so that they can
verify its accuracy. If writing fiction were a crime then I have had many accomplices -
more than half of the others giving seminars as part of this series, and countless others
associated with the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University, University of Otago,
National Library, Historic Places Trust, Wellington City Archives, Defence Library,
Hocken Library, Hewitson Library, Olveston, etc, etc. Then there are all the individuals I
have interviewed, and all the writers who have encouraged me, given me feedback, or
with whom I have discussed the knots and problems in the narrative. The list could go on
But even if you make every effort to get everything right, how do you know what is
'true'? Every historian or biographer may give different and conflicting interpretations of
the facts, and when you interview people they may give conflicting versions of the 'facts'.
I have had this experience myself. How fictional is history or biography or
autobiography/memoir anyway? There is the view that fiction is more honest because it
doesn't pretend to be strictly true.
The other thing to remember about my novel is that everything is filtered through
the characters. Their interpretations of events and of people may not be true, and the
accepted knowledge of the time might not be true either. For instance, it was commonly
believed that Lionel Terry, the infamous murderer of Joe Kum Yung in Haining Street,
Wellington in 1905, was educated at Eton and Oxford. This was not true but it was
reported in all the newspapers at the time. Therefore, although I as the author, through my
research know that he attended the boarding school Merton College in Wimbleton, not
Merton College, Oxford, my characters and the novel do not know this. Similarly, Dr
Truby King is well known for having publicly advocated domestic-focused education for
girls because women were physiologically unfit for the strains of academic or professional
work. He believed women were designed to be wives and mothers and could only be truly
happy in that context. Because of this, one of my characters, who is prominent in the
women's movement, denounces King. What is not known by my characters is that
although King campaigned against academic education for girls, in practice he was very
helpful to a particular medical graduate, Dr Eleanor Baker, who was in need of work and
whom he appointed as temporary Assistant Medical Officer at Seacliff Mental Hospital.
However, this fact may never surface in my novel. The novel's purpose is to be a good
story, not to be a piece of propaganda or a piece of writing overburdened by facts that do
that not have any real relevance to the main story.
It does become a bit tricky when fiction incorporates real historical figures. Instead
of creating all your characters you have to try to give as accurate a portrayal of real life
figures as possible. What you write may not be pleasing to descendants of those historical
figures or it may not fit with the opinions of other interested parties. And yet these figures
may be so prominent during the period of the novel that you either have to refer to them or
create other characters similar to them. I have chosen to include real historical figures as
minor characters rather than create imaginary ones. When the real characters are so
interesting, what is the point in creating a fictional Truby King or Lionel Terry anyway?
I've become interested in the genuine article. It may be a novel but it's good to learn
something about real people and events as well.
Every writer writes differently. Some write first and then do the research and go
back and change anything they got wrong. Some write and research side-by-side, and
others need to do a substantial amount of research up front and then do further research
while they write. I think the approach you take depends on how much you know to begin
with. If you can't assume anything because what you're writing about is so new, then
you'll need to research more upfront and then continue with the research as and when
required. That's what I've had to do.
Sometimes you can get stuck in the writing because you need to do more research.
To be able to write you need a lot of confidence, a lot of self-belief, and knowing your
material can help you with some of that. Also, the wonderful and surprising nuggets you
find during research often end up becoming part of the story, sometimes taking the story
to places you'd never dreamed of.
In the end you've just got to write. You've got to write something that works as a
story, choose some interpretation of history that works as a story and works with your own
psyche and obsessions.
I talked earlier of the ethics and problems of disclosure. Disclosure is not necessarily
just about individuals. It can be about how a society or culture sees itself or how it wants
to be seen. It can be about not airing the dirty laundry for the outsider to see. The racism
that the Chinese have faced in NZ has made them particularly sensitive to criticism. They
are proud of their heritage but they don't want to stand out, not unless it is in a favourable
light, and even this can be problematic. If they are too successful or too visible, then they
may be worried about a backlash. It doesn't matter how many generations the Chinese
have lived in NZ, unlike their Dalmation or Polish or Danish counterparts, they stand out
because they look different. And so there can be a tendency to not want to stand out, and
in particular, to downplay any negative aspects of their society or culture or the less
favourable actions of some of their members. But of course, isn't this what literature is
made up of? A host of individuals who are flawed and both lovely and unlovely.
Lin Yutang, in his book, With Love and Irony, writes: "I should never for a moment
question the intelligence of the European race. But the sad part of it is that, after all,
intelligence has very little to do with the course of human events, which are mostly
dictated by our animal passions. Human history is not the product of the wise direction of
human reason, but is shaped by the forces of emotion - our dreams, our pride, our greed,
our fears, and our desire for revenge." I think this can say a lot about what novels are
about, whatever people you are talking about, Chinese, European, Maori, Pacific island,
Indian, whatever. There are real differences between cultures but we're all human with all
I seem to have attracted quite a bit of publicity for receiving the Robert Burns
Fellowship at the University of Otago. It has raised my profile and that of the novel I am
writing. Perhaps there are expectations. Perhaps I have to shoulder a certain responsibility
because we are only at the beginning of what I hope will be a wave of NZ Chinese writers.
Perhaps some people expect me to be some kind of spokesperson for the NZ Chinese. I
can only say that I am a writer because that is who I am. It is my life, my passion, my
reason for being. It is not because I am different from anyone else or because I necessarily
have anything better to say than anyone else. It's just that I have no other choice.
When pakeha writers publish novels, they are not expected to write the definitive NZ
European novel. They have their individual voice and they are one voice among many.
The danger for the NZ Chinese writer, or writer from any other ethnic minority in NZ, is if
what they write is held up to be a definitive work, instead of just one voice and story
among what will hopefully become many.
Brian Moloughney, when answering a question from the floor in the opening seminar
in this series, said that he thought that literature changed people, certainly more effectively
than politicians or academics. I think that good literature should make the reader think and
feel. But I do not think it is the role of the novelist to consciously set out to educate or to
change the reader. Too often the result will not ring true. It will read like propaganda or
polemic. The role of the novelist is to write a good novel, and in doing that the writer will
invariably address themes and issues that arise out of the subconscious, out of the psyche
and personal obsessions of the writer. James K. Baxter said, "I would like to change the
emotional climate of this country, make it one per cent warmer before I die." His mother,
Millicent Baxter, in her memoirs, quoted her son and added, "I think perhaps this is what
we all must strive for, and first to have a change of heart in ourselves." Each of us needs to
take personal responsibility for ourselves, for the way we interact with others, and for this
society and nation and world. Writers and literature are only one part of the complex
organism which is multicultural NZ. We each have a role to play.
To those who might have difficulty with my story or my interpretation of history or
of culture, I can only quote the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, Gao
Xingjian, the first Chinese to win the prize, who said in his Nobel lecture that "literature
can only be the voice of the individual and this has always been so. Once literature is
contrived as the hymn of the nation, the flag of the race, the mouthpiece of a political
party or the voice of a class or group, it can be employed as a mighty and all-engulfing
tool of propaganda. However, such literature loses what is inherent in literature, ceases to
be literature and becomes a substitute for power and profit."
I am not writing this novel for anyone else. I am writing it because I have to. If I had
to write this novel for anyone, it would be for my father who never lived to see it come to
fruition, and for my mother, and for the generations who came before.
As a writer all you can do is have something to write about that you believe in
passionately enough to finish it and then let it be born into the world. That's when your
baby might be praised or savaged by critics and the public, but there's nothing you can do
about that, except to try not to let that stop you writing the next project. And that's a