INTERVIEW: Alice Poon, author of The Green Phoenix10 min read

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Alice Poon is a writer based in Richmond, British Columbia who recently published her first novel, The Green Phoenix. Born and educated in Hong Kong, Alice grew up reading Jin Yong’s martial arts and chivalry novels, all set in China’s distant past, sparking a life-long interest in Chinese history.  Her new historical novel The Green Phoenix set in 17th century China will be released in September 2017 by Earnshaw Books.    Alice is also the author of Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong, which won the 2011 Hong Kong Book Prize and subsequently the Canadian Book Review Annual selected the original English Edition as Editor’s Choice (Scholarly) in 2007.  Ricepaper interviewed Alice recently, learning more about her evolution as a writer.

Ricepaper Magazine: You’ve had a long and industrious career in real estate and property development, and at one time, employed as a personal Assistant to Kwok Tak Seng, the late Chairman and founder of the Sun Hung Kai Properties Group in Hong Kong. Tell us more about yourself and your journey from working a demanding career to one as a full-time writer now in Canada.

Alice: I had a long career in the corporate world involving various fields in Hong Kong and Canada, and my employers included British, Chinese and Canadians. It so happened that in the early middle part of my career, the property development field in Hong Kong was a vibrant sector of the economy (becoming dominant later), and finding a job in that field was much easier than in any other field. By the late 1990s, on top of feeling burned out, I grew increasingly frustrated about office politics in the workplace, and thus began revisiting my school days’ dream of becoming a writer. Then I dabbled in journalistic writing for a while. In the early 2000s, I decided to settle down in Vancouver and dedicate my time to reading and writing.

Ricepaper Magazine: Having arrived in Canada in the early 2000’s, you’ve witnessed the growth of the country and immigration in Canada. How has your identity as a Hong Kong and a Canadian evolved in the past so many years?

Alice: Prior to settling down in Vancouver in 2003, there was a period of shuttling back and forth between Hong Kong and Canada, including stints of residence in Calgary and Toronto. Like a lot of other Hong Kong immigrants to Canada, I’ve always felt blessed with this double identity upon being naturalized as a Canadian. On the one hand, we enjoy the many freedoms and rights that come with Canadian citizenship and welcome any chance to integrate into the mainstream society, while on the other, we can retain our Hong Kong roots and cultural customs and even the use of our native language. As much as Hong Kong and Canada are oceans apart, there is always this closeness to Hong Kong that we can feel through our ties to family and friends there, through access to Hong Kong news on TV and other media, and through liaison with our Hong Kong friends here in Canada. If anything, I feel that as time lapses, this double identity has become like my natural and organically developed identity.

Ricepaper Magazine: You’ve been involved in publishing for a while, so what are your thoughts and experiences in the literary industry? How has the industry changed in your eyes, having written and published as a journalist and eventually an author of books?

Alice: Perhaps the most significant change in the book industry has been the digitalization of books. At one time, many in the industry thought that sales in digital books would greatly surpass those in print books and that this technological change would sound the death knell for print books. As things have turned out though, this is not the case at all. According to what I can glean from industry news, it seems that print book sales are having a big comeback after being threatened by e-books for a while. Obviously readers seem to prefer being able to feel the bound pages in their hands. But perhaps the same cannot be said about the news media, where digitalization has put print media in a precarious situation.

The Green Phoenix is set to be released in September 2017.

Ricepaper Magazine: Why did you decide to write in English? Have you also written in Chinese? Is your writing particularly for unilingual audience?

Alice: It was more of a spontaneous choice than a conscious decision. I’ve loved the English language since my primary school days and have always preferred to write in English ever since my high school English Literature teacher openly praised a piece of my English composition (my high school is a Catholic convent school in Hong Kong where the teaching medium is English). On one of my previous jobs, I had to do translation from English to Chinese. That was the only time that I had the chance to write Chinese and since then I’ve seldom written anything in Chinese. But being conversant with both languages is a great help in doing research for my historical novels. As for my audience, I think my ideal target would be all who can read English, regardless of whether they are unilingual, bilingual or multilingual.

Ricepaper Magazine: How was your process in translating the character’s dialogues from Chinese to English? Or was it necessary at all? Could you walk us through your process? What can you impart to those Asian Canadian writers who wish to write in English but whose story is set in historical Asia?

Alice: My writing generally does not involve translating – I just have the narrator and characters think and speak in English as their acquired language, bearing in mind that readers are English speakers. A key exception is where Chinese literary texts (like poetry) appear, in which case, I would offer my version of translation. Another exception would be the way of addressing someone in a superior class in China’s ancient past (e.g. the term “Venerable” is used, which is an approximate translation from Chinese). For the writing of historical novels, there is always the dreaded trap of anachronisms. My advice to Asian Canadian writers who wish to write Asia-set historical novels in English is to write in modern English while trying to avoid present-day English or American idioms in dialogues, and ensuring that cultural and background details are grounded in research and conform to the historical period in question.

Ricepaper Magazine: What does it mean to be a “Chinese Canadian” or “Asian Canadian” writer? How does your background as someone who grew up in colonial Hong Kong and now a Canadian citizen inform your identity and your writing?

Alice: Having been born and grown up in colonial Hong Kong gave me the opportunity to receive a trilingual education that opened doors to a lifetime of self learning and immersion in three different cultures: Chinese, English and French (I learned French in my early twenties). This exposure helped to shape my adult worldview and receptive attitude towards universal values like social justice, human rights and freedoms. As a Chinese Canadian, those values, as well as my cultural and ethnic roots, are important to me. That in turn is a crucial factor that informs my identity and my writing in general. I would think for the writing of historical novels set in ancient China, it is primarily my deep interest in the lengthy history of the Chinese civilization, from which my cultural and ethnic roots emanate, that informs my writing.

Ricepaper Magazine: How long did it take you to complete this novel, from conception to printing?

Alice:   I started doing research in mid- 2014 and began writing the first draft at the end of that year, which took two years to complete. Then rewriting and polishing took another half year. In total, it took a little over three years to bring the project from conception to print.

Ricepaper Magazine: The novel’s main character, Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, was a leader who did not crave power, but who used power in a humane way and for the greater good. Could you elaborate?

Alice: When her son Emperor Shunzhi came to the throne, he was merely a six-year-old boy. His uncle Dorgon was elected by consensus of the Qing ruling council to be his Regent, but his regency was short-lived. Then a Han scholar official made a petition to Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang pleading for her to take up the regency. By that time she had already gained much respect and support within the Imperial Court and from the Han subjects. But she refused. Instead of seizing power at an opportune time, she focused on educating Shunzhi and guiding him to become a benevolent Emperor and helping to heal the rift between Hans and Manchus and bring about peace. She did the same with her grandson Kangxi Emperor, who held her in the highest esteem.

Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong, which won the 2011 Hong Kong Book Prize

Ricepaper Magazine: You grew up reading Jin Yong’s martial arts and chivalry novels, all set in China’s distant past. That sparked a life-long interest in Chinese history. How is your writing informed by your historical research? Does history sometimes get in the way of fiction?

Alice: Chinese History and English Literature were by far my favorite subjects in school, and reading world historical fiction has been a recent passion of mine. In the writing of historical fiction, doing research is of paramount importance. As I said before, being bilingual gives me a certain advantage in the area of research, as I can access research materials written in both languages. I have tried to base my novel on historical facts as far as possible, but have exercised liberty where there are gaps left by historians or just mere hints. Where there is a major deviation from facts, I have tried to explain it in the Author’s Afterword, where I’ve also listed the reference books that I consulted. Yes, sometimes history does get in the way of good fiction, much like the saying: if she is beautiful, she is not faithful; if she is faithful, she is not beautiful. It is up to the historical novelists to fine-tune the balance.

Ricepaper Magazine: What some historical facts that readers should know about Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang? Why did you select this historical character as the heroine of your story?

Alice: Some historical facts about her include: she was a Mongolian princess from the Khorchin Mongolian state descended from Genghis Khan’s brother Khasar; her maiden name is Borjigit Bumbutai; she was the consort of the Manchu Emperor Hong Taiji, mother of Shunzhi Emperor and grandmother of Kangxi Emperor; she helped Kangxi to subjugate the treacherous and anti-Han regent Oboi and to put down the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. After her death, Kangxi Emperor built a monument temple for her in the imperial hunting park called South Park, with the inscription “In Eternal Veneration”. I selected her as the heroine of my novel because I felt that the contributions of this charismatic and humane female leader have been grossly underrated. Also, she had never been introduced to the Western literary consciousness. Western readers have long been obsessed with only two Imperial women in Chinese history – Empress Wu Zetian and Empress Cixi – who were not even respected by the Chinese people.

Ricepaper Magazine: What is your upcoming book project? Do you have anything that you’re developing at the moment?

Alice: I am working on a historical novel set in the same epoch as The Green Phoenix, i.e. end of Ming and start of Qing. This work-in-progress is about the tragic lives of three famous courtesans, one of whom has already made her appearance in The Green Phoenix.

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