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Interview with      
Kwai-yun Li
author of
The Palm Leaf Fan
& Other Stories

   Grant Weaver,        
   GuidingStar.ca        
     

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 fascinating city.

            Ms. 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 Kai-shek.

            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.   

Kwai-yun Li:  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?

Kwai-yun 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?

Kwai-yun Li:  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 arranged marriage!

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 adopted?

Kwai-yun 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.

Kwai-yun Li:  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?

Kwai-yun Li:  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 me coming.

GuidingStar.ca:  This was a resentment of the fact that they had given you up to someone else, that they couldn’t raise you?

Kwai-yun Li:  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? 

Kwai-yun Li:  Yes.

GuidingStar.ca:   Did you have any feeling at that time that you would write stories, that you would be a writer? 

Kwai-yun Li:  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 hard.

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?

Kwai-yun 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?

Kwai-yun Li:  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?

Kwai-yun Li:  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 out?

Kwai-yun Li:  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 mainstream.

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?

Kwai-yun Li:  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 patriarchal.

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.

Kwai-yun Li:  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.

Kwai-yun Li:  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.

GuidingStar.ca:  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.

Kwai-yun Li:  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’. 

Kwai-yun Li:  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?

Kwai-yun Li:  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 .....

Kwai-yun Li:  ... you look after him, or else!  Yes, it was to Kali, mainly, because it was after life.  Calcutta is named after the goddess Kali, so therefore Kali is very strong there.  But you pray to one of the gods.  The Chinese are very practical.  I visited my nephew’s restaurant, in Diamond Harbour, a suburb of Calcutta.  He’s got Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, all the gods, they are all on the same altar.  We’ve got to be very careful, you don’t want to leave anybody out.  We cover our bases.

GuidingStar.ca:  There are also many Muslims in West Bengal.  In one of the stories you say: ‘the chanting of the temple blended with the call from the mosque’.

Douglas Chin get his copy autographed.

Kwai-yun Li:  The Chinese, because they worked in the leather industries, they tended to live near the Muslims.  The Muslims were the leather workers.  In Calcutta, there was a huge district, just warehousing.  The rawhides, they were being salted, literally with salt.  When they threw it out salt flies everywhere.  So, when you see them coming, when they are just about to put them down on the truck, you run, otherwise you will be salty.

GuidingStar.ca:  The stories are specific, in a way, but do you feel they have a universal quality as well?  I really enjoyed them because I have visited Calcutta and I lived a year in India, but do you feel that people who are not from these backgrounds can still enjoy these stories?

Kwai-yun Li:  Oh yes.  I read the story The Fish Pond on CBC’s First Person Singular.  One of my friends said ‘this is an anglicized story’.  Maybe that’s true.  I don’t know.  But, I do find that it seems to have appeal. 

GuidingStar.ca:  You mentioned some of your writing projects for the future.  What about other stories?

Kwai-yun Lai
:  Yes, I have a story that was first published in “Kiss Beside The Monkey Bars”.  It was about what happened to my mother.  She thought, growing beans sprouts is really hard work, so maybe there’s money in bootleg alcohol.  So we make moonshine.  That was a really funny one because you actually made it with firewood, burning a huge pot of fermenting stuff, with tubes running everywhere, and it’s eighty percent proof!  You can set the alcohol on fire.  That was a very interesting episode.  In the story, my friend and I watch to see if the police are coming.  We bribe the police, saying, if you are coming to raid, we will make sure you’ve got a couple of bottles to get, but please don’t come when we are in the middle of making the batch.  But sometimes they do, even though you give them chai money, tea money.

GuidingStar.ca:  And ... any stories set in Canada?

Kwai-yun Li:  I have quite a few stories set in Canada.  I’ve written one about a girl who has just immigrated.  She is married.  And then I (the narrator) find out that the father wants her to cook for the son, wash clothes for the son, actually wait on the son, do everything for him, and also do housework.  Otherwise, according to her, he throws things around, throws furniture around.  And I suspect that he beats her up too.  But the thing is, to her it’s unthinkable that you say no to your father.  I found the conflict was very interesting, so I wrote about that.

GuidingStar.ca:  That is a story which has been published, or is coming up ... ?

Kwai-yun Li:  Actually, it is sitting in my archives.  I am thinking of submitting it somewhere.  I wrote quite a few about how cultures clash.

Author with husband Robert Boylan

GuidingStar.ca:  Why did you want to write these stories now, at this time in your life? 

Kwai-yun Li:  I think because, in a way, I started to see things differently.  I am beginning to notice a lot of culturally interesting things that are happening, and how the interaction goes on between the cultures.

And they are nice stories.  I enjoy writing and I get to meet some really great people, like here now.  You just never know what you will come across.  And, writing a book, you do run into people with, not necessarily similar interests, but when you talk to them you gain something, something that tells you about society, about what you are looking for.  And now I think I am looking for insights into how to be more thick skinned.  I’ll work on it.

GuidingStar.ca:  What do you do in your day job?

Kwai-yun Li:  I am an accountant.  My day job is just part-time accounting.  I go to different clients, do the accounting, do their books, in the sense of recording their transactions, mainly for very small companies.

GuidingStar.ca:  Is it a stressful job?

Kwai-yun Li:  Oh no, it’s fun.  I enjoy it a lot.  For example, the other day, I went to a BMO shareholders meeting.  I was hoping it was going to be fun.  It was.  Hilarious.  Amongst the banks, BMO didn’t do that badly, they did really well.  But among BMO people, they felt they didn’t do that well.  And the way the directors tried to cover up!. And this one guy jumped up and said ‘this is unconscionable’ and started yelling at the official, and he went on and on.  It was very entertaining.  So, I decided I’m going to try somebody else.  The next day, it happens that Royal Bank was having their annual general meeting.  They were the best performers among the big five banks.  And, of course, it was really more subdued.  And the same guy who yelled at BMO, jumping up and down, was now ‘Mr. Chairman, may I say?’  It was just so different.  It was hilarious.  I can enjoy things like this.  And, of course, I am going to write about this.  I am taking a course at U. of T. about writing across language and culture and this is going to be one of my projects, probably I am going to write about that.
     And who knows, it might be a story.
 


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