The Palm Leaf Fan
& Other Stories
On March 3, 2007 I had the pleasure of
interviewing Kwai-yun Li, author of The Palm Leaf Fan & Other
Stories, published by
Tsar Books. The interview, after a reading from her recently
released collection of short stories, took place at Chapters bookstore at
Woodside Centre on Highway 7 in Markham.
Kwai-yun Li grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s in the Chinese community
of Calcutta, India and the stories are steeped in the customs of
that community but also in the sights, sounds and atmosphere of that
Li emigrated to Canada in 1972 and has, only in the last few years,
begun to explore, through her stories, the society in which she grew
up. The stories deal with the situation of a religious, cultural
and racial minority within a larger society which was itself a
complex one. There were also practices, within the Chinese
community itself, that often set the fictional narrator off against
the generation of her elders or against the customs of her society.
The stories also depict the divisions that
existed within the community between supporters of the China of Mao
Tse-tung and those who supported the Nationalist cause of Chiang
Painful historic episodes are also evoked, such as the border war
between India and China in 1962 which resulted in the deportation of
some Chinese from India or, hauntingly similar to the internment of
Japanese Canadians here in our own country during World War II, the
removal of many Calcutta Chinese to an internment camp in the
Rajasthan area of India and the subsequent loss of their property
upon their release.
Ultimately, however, the brush strokes are those of someone who sees the
human, and the comic, richness of the place and time of her youth.
Kwai-yun Li read “The Fish Pond”, a favourite from this collection,
and then engaged the audience in a fascinating discussion about
identity, writing, favourite authors, and the history of the Chinese
of the Hakka dialect that she belongs to, and of this group’s
emigration to many parts of the world.
After the reading, I sat down with the author for a personal
interview. Here are the highlights of that conversation.
GuidingStar.ca: This book is about
growing up as a member of a small community inside a larger one.
But you also tell it from the point of view of someone who now lives
in Canada, and has for a number of years.
Definitely. Actually, I have lived longer
in Canada than anywhere else so, yes, in a way it is ... At the time
that I was writing, I was just writing stories. But I guess
everything in the book is about trying to identify what it was like
to be Chinese in Calcutta. Then again, you see, my Canadianness is
in there somewhere too because I am looking at these people from the
perspective of a Canadian.
GuidingStar.ca: You are also writing
as a person who has reached a certain age and you are looking back
on a much younger period of your life. Do you feel that you see
some of those events differently now than you did at that time?
Li: Yes, most definitely. Yes, I do.
You know, for example, I just interviewed somebody. I was trying to
get information for my next book, about the concentration camp.
And this woman looked at me---she is in her forties, from
Calcutta---and she said ‘I’ve got a lot of stories to tell you but I
can’t because I’ve still got my sisters living in Calcutta, the
secret police is going to get them’. I mean, this sort of thing,
because I am so Canadianized, I have to do a double take, thinking
‘what do you mean, they are going to get you?’ So, although I am
free to write about it, ‘this happened, the police arrested people,
the army took the people away’, yet, even now, some of the Chinese
will not talk about it. They say ‘we’ve still got family there’.
And then, of course, I went back and I worry about that too because
I’ve got three brothers living in India, so will it affect them? ...
I don’t think it should affect them.
GuidingStar.ca: When I was reading
the stories, I felt that you identified with the first person
narrator, with that character, although it’s not exactly
autobiographical. It seemed that there were places in the story
where she is rebelling a little bit against the restrictions of the
customs and the culture in which she lived. For example, she
questioned the arranged marriages, or someone having to marry
someone they didn’t really want to marry. In one of the stories,
she says someone is too young to marry. When you were growing up in
that culture did you ever feel that you were a little bit in
rebellion against it?
Actually, I used to be rebelling against a lot of things. But yeah,
at that time, it seemed so silly. (The episode of marrying too
young) happened to one person but I didn’t know her that well. I
only knew her as someone’s cousin’s friend’s friend. But then, I
look at my brother, he was so happily married, and that was an
I was adopted when I was a week old and my
adoptive mother also adopted a girl for her son whom she adopted in
China, who was still in China.
GuidingStar.ca: You yourself were
Li: My biological parents had nine
children. I was the youngest. My mother wasn’t in good health and
my sister who was two years older than me had TB. She died when she
was about seven years old and I was four or five. So, I was
adopted. My adoptive parents had not had any children so
first she adopted a boy---I keep saying she because she
seemed like such a strong person---I should have said they
adopted a son in China. Then they left the son with an uncle, and
left for India. In India she adopted a girl to be the wife of this
son who was in China. And then they adopted me. And after me she
adopted a boy to remember a son who had died stillborn, or in
infancy, her own son. She did not want that son to be forgotten so
she adopted this boy, who was a year younger than me, to be a
grandson. He called me Auntie. So that was kind of interesting.
GuidingStar.ca: I hope you don’t mind
talking about this, the fact that you were adopted.
It’s a very common thing. We got adopted all over the place ... for
example, the fact that my biological parents adopted a girl to be
the wife of their eldest son.
GuidingStar.ca: Were you in touch
with your biological family a lot?
Oh yes, I met them at least once a week. Oh, I was a total brat.
When I went there, I resented me being somewhere else and so, I was
pretty bad. I would grab my sister’s toys, and she was sick at that
time, and then I would insist that I take the seat of one of my
brothers. I was a total, total brat. They ran every time they saw
GuidingStar.ca: This was a resentment
of the fact that they had given you up to someone else, that they
couldn’t raise you?
Because what happened at that time was that my adoptive father died
when I was one year old. And then, because of the patriarchal
society, my adoptive family became very, very poor. Sometimes we
didn’t have money to buy food. So, I had to actually work when I
was about five years old, to carry water, to wash dishes, to wash
clothes because we all had to chip in. So, when I went to my
natural parents once a week to have dinner with my mother, when I
saw them (my natural siblings), they were playing, they were chasing
monkeys, chasing dragon flies. So, I kind of resented that
too. I was so much younger, so they should be working, why
should I be working. I am the baby.
GuidingStar.ca: When you were growing
up, you went to a Chinese language school?
GuidingStar.ca: Did you have any
feeling at that time that you would write stories, that you would be
No, actually, all I aspired to be was an airline stewardess. A
wonderful thing! It was probably tied in to the fact that I wanted
to leave, to go somewhere, to leave India. It was a hard life, very
GuidingStar.ca: Despite the
difficulties of life, you seem like a very ebullient kind of
person. Do you feel that your childhood, growing up, was a happy
one? Or was it a difficult and sad time?
Li: Actually, it was a happy
childhood. I know we worked hard but then, so did my neighbours,
the kids, my friends next door, my friend across the hallway. We
all had to work really hard. The lower or middle class Chinese
tended to live in one area. I still found time to play. I think my
favourite thing was to sneak up on a rooster and pluck the tail
feathers. That was my favourite thing. And I had my favourite egg
laying hen. I would feel ‘that is my hen’. I looked after
her and gave her extra food. We had fun.
GuidingStar.ca: On the question of
identities, you mention that you are a partly of Chinese identity,
partly of Indian identity, partly of Canadian identity. Is writing
a way for you to deal with these various aspects of your identity?
It probably is on a subconscious level. Because when I first came
to Canada, I was more or less trying to be as Canadian, as
mainstream, as possible. And now, a couple of years back, I swung
the other way. So, yes I think it is a way of me dealing with the
question of who I really am. I find that I thought I was
comfortable with it but I think I am still working it out.
GuidingStar.ca: How old were you when
you came to Canada?
Just before my twenty-second birthday.
GuidingStar.ca: The bio on the back
of your book says that it was through an arranged marriage that you
came to Canada. If it is not too personal to ask this, did it work
It didn’t work out and I was actually in bad shape and had to go and
see a psychiatrist for a while. But I met a lot of great people. I
was working in a place as an administrative assistant. The sales
manager was a woman and I think she was one of the first women in
the 1970’s, a woman sales manager. Everybody called her ‘bitch’.
She saw me crying into the filing cabinet and she came up to me and
said ‘what happened?’. So when I told her she said ‘you are
coming with me!’ She was so nice. She took me to look for a
place to live. And, she said, ‘I’ve got some clothes, and you
haven’t been paid yet, here is some money to tide you over, and okay
I’ve got bed sheets’. She was a single mother and she was just so
nice and then, of course, I kind of thought ‘bitch? bitch must be a
good word’. And then, of course, later on I realized that bitch
shouldn’t be a word used to describe somebody nice. But yes, I did
meet a lot of nice people, very helpful and who didn’t want anything
from me. That is when I wanted to be mainstream, very
GuidingStar.ca: When you were young,
you were a little bit in rebellion but you still did accept to have
an arranged marriage. Was that because the cultural pressures were
so strong that it is just the way it had to be, that that was the
only way to get married?
Basically, yes. I had one friend who was in love, who wanted to
marry the boyfriend. She faced so many obstacles. She was forced
not to see him for many years. Yes, arranged marriages were the
norm. With most of my siblings, marriages were arranged. Only one
brother actually met, I mean, chose, his future wife. The first
meeting between my brother and his prospective wife, I was there.
My sister was there. We were chaperoning the couple. Arranged
marriage was a norm, you go with it. And the other thing is, what
choice did you have? You could not leave home. You don’t get a
job, and you just don’t leave home, not as a female. It was very
GuidingStar.ca: So, in a way, that
aspect of the culture that you grew up in really impacted a great
deal on how your future life would go.
Yes, it did. I came to Canada, in 1972 (under the circumstances
that I mentioned). But, two years later, I met my husband here, in
1974. So, actually, I did mainstream rather fast.
GuidingStar.ca: You mentioned during
the discussion that you felt a little reluctance to talk about some
of the cultural aspects of the community because some people feel a
little bit of embarrassment about some of the customs that existed
at that time.
Actually, I think it is more a
cultural thing. We feel that practices such as wearing the prayer
beads is superstition whereas on a bus I see people, Catholics, with
their rosaries, saying Hail Marys and that is not superstition.
Whereas if I say “Na Mo Ao Ni Tho Fu” (Hail to Amitabha Buddha)
people would say ‘you don’t do that in public’ it’s
superstition. It’s just a question of society, what you are brought
up in, I guess.
But are you meaning
that people today are embarrassed to have these things talked
about? After all, you are talking about a society as it was forty
or fifty years ago.
Well, just recently I was in a kind of interview, talking to a
cousin. And I said, ‘have you seen the documentary called Legends
of Big Fat Momma?’ That’s a documentary, it actually aired on BBC,
about the Chinese community in Calcutta. I said ‘have you seen
that? did you know Big Fat Momma?’. Because I kind of vaguely
remember her. And he looked so embarrassed, and said ‘that’s not
really her name, it’s just a nickname, it doesn’t mean any harm’.
He started to justify it. So, I think the embarrassment is still
there, a lot of it.
GuidingStar.ca: Another aspect that
you talked about in the book was being a cultural minority in India,
facing what was at times a kind of prejudice on the part of the
majority population. You do make reference to someone referring to
one of your characters as ‘dirty Chinese’.
And there is a rhyme that says that they eat cockroaches. Oh yeah,
but that is done everywhere. I mean, we talk about the ‘Newfies’.
GuidingStar.ca: What was the
relationship between the Chinese and the Indian population? I know
there were these episodes that you referred to, but generally, did
you get along well with each other?
Yes, but remember
that Hindu society was very caste oriented, and the Chinese,
especially the poor Chinese, you don’t know where to put them, so
they put them with the Untouchables. So, you have to think that,
because it was a caste society and we didn’t have a caste, so, you
had to be careful. The Brahmins wouldn’t want to associate with you
because, well, you are dirty, you don’t have a caste. It was a very
strict caste system. So, we associated with Anglo-Indians, those
were the Indians for whom one of the forefathers was English,
probably a soldier. They were Anglo-Indians and they did not
subscribe to the caste system.
GuidingStar.ca: But in one of the
stories, entitled “Babu”, the relationship of the main character
with this young Hindu man was quite touching. Babu is the one who
lost a leg and didn’t have good prospects for marriage because of
that, and he drowned. But the girl, the main character, prays to
Ram, to the Hindu god .....