The girl dancing mambo in Chinatown

Kwok dancing with Jungie Zamora. – Pictures BY Jean Kwok, Chris Macke and Montage Production
Kwok dancing with Jungie Zamora. – Pictures BY Jean Kwok, Chris Macke and Montage Production

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 24 ― Many of us live our entire lives in one place, usually where we were born, and this strong sense of home and belonging is one kind of blessing. Others may move from city to city, spending different stages of their lives in different continents. This can be very challenging, of course, for where do you put down roots if you keep getting uprooted? Yet this can also be a kind of blessing as those who persevere grow in experience and wisdom far beyond their years.
Jean Kwok, author of New York Times bestseller Girl in Translation, understands this paradox all too well, having emigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, New York when she was only five. From working in a Chinatown clothing factory as a child to gaining early admission to Harvard and becoming a successful writer, she is living proof that we are masters of our own destinies.

We had a chat with Kwok to discuss her incredible journey and her new novel Mambo in Chinatown.

What inspired you to write your first novel Girl in Translation?

Girl in Translation was really rooted in my own childhood. After moving from Hong Kong to New York, we found ourselves living in a roach-infested, unheated apartment in the slums of Brooklyn. My family had been fairly well-off but we’d lost everything in the move, and my parents started working in a garment factory in Chinatown. Even though I was only a small child, I went there after school to help as much as I could. Fortunately, like my heroine in Girl in Translation, I had a gift for school and that saved me. My life now is very different but I have never forgotten the people and circumstances I left behind.

How did moving from Hong Kong to Brooklyn and then working in a Chinatown clothing factory as a child affect your view of the United States growing up?

I found America to be a hard, cold place after leaving my beloved Hong Kong. I used to dream of the sunlit streets where I used to run free. It was very difficult. To make matters worse, our apartment had no central heating, which meant our bodies were numb with cold throughout the bitter New York winters. There was ice on the inside of our windows. My family needed to work day and night just to survive and I missed them. I didn’t fit in with American children at all. I felt lonely and sad much of the time.

However, I was always grateful for the opportunities I found in the United States. Once I learned to speak English, my teachers at school supported my creativity and independence. I was not held back because I was a girl. There were many things I loved about growing up there.

America is a land of immigrants and some of these immigrants have flourished. Are immigrants hungrier for success?

I believe many immigrants work incredibly hard. In some ways, Girl in Translation is also about how much first generation immigrants give up in order to provide their children with a brighter future. People leave behind their family, friends, professions, diplomas, language and culture. It is a tremendous act of love and sacrifice.

In my own life, I was very hungry for success. Unlike my American friends, I knew I had no safety net. If I failed, I would work in the garment factory until I was an old lady. There was no money for me to go to college so I understood that I needed to be accepted to a top university with a full scholarship or I would not go to college at all.

Author and former professional ballroom dancer Jean Kwok
Author and former professional ballroom dancer Jean Kwok

Tell us more about your time as a professional ballroom dancer. How did this experience influence your subsequent writing?

When I was studying at Harvard, I finally realised that I was free of my life at the factory. It was there that I finally dared to follow my dream, which was to become a writer. At the same time, I discovered I loved to dance even though I had never taken dance lessons as a child. After graduation, I was looking for a simple job to support myself during the day while I tried to write in the evenings. I saw an advertisement in the newspaper that read, “Wanted: Professional Ballroom Dancer, Will Train.”

Although I was terrified, I applied for the job and miraculously, I was hired. I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for Fred Astaire Studios in New York City for three years. I taught waltz, tango and mambo lessons; I did shows and competitions. Finally, after winning Top Female Professional in a national competition, I left the ballroom dance world to study at Columbia University to become a writer, which was what I really wanted.

My experiences as a dancer combined with my working class background as a factory worker helped to create Mambo in Chinatown. I wanted to write about the people who are so often invisible – those who work in restaurants, dry cleaners, drive taxis. I shaped a story around a young girl, Charlie Wong, who is working a miserable job washing dishes in a noodle restaurant, and how she finds her own talents and dreams when she finds a job at a dance studio.

Even at a young age, Kwok was precocious and eager to learn (left). Kwok and her parents (right)
Even at a young age, Kwok was precocious and eager to learn (left). Kwok and her parents (right)

Many who are inclined to the arts, especially the Chinese diaspora, give up their passions to pursue more “sensible” vocations to satisfy parental or societal expectations. How did you feel about finally answering your calling to write?

I actually never chose to become a writer. It was more like something I could not escape. There were years when I wished I could have become something else because it would certainly have been easier. However, no matter what other work I was doing, I felt guilty whenever I was not writing. I felt like it was what I was meant to do.

Life as an immigrant child in America
Life as an immigrant child in America

I think my parents would have wanted me to choose something more practical as well, but they had already despaired of me. I was a disaster as a Chinese daughter. I was clumsy and impractical. I burned everything in the kitchen and couldn’t clean at all. When I was accepted to Harvard, my family was thrilled – not because I would be getting a great education, but because this meant they would not need to find a husband for me! They were sure that would have been completely impossible. So they were happy I had a job, any job, and that they did not need to try to find some poor man willing to marry me.

As a writer, do you agree with the maxim that one should write about what one knows? Would you consider writing a novel that doesn’t take directly from your own experiences?

Every writer is different in this. Some write very well about imaginary experiences, much better than about real ones. For me, the emotional heart of my novel has to mean a great deal to me. This means that I tend to draw upon my own life. I am often wrestling with issues that I have not fully resolved, experiences that hurt me deeply or brought me joy. However, I need to impose craft upon that raw material as well. I have to shape it into an intriguing, moving story that will hopefully both entertain and enlighten my reader. I always like to bring my readers into a new world, something they may not have seen before.

Kwok at five years old (left). Kwok and her principal, Mrs. Kasindorf (right)
Kwok at five years old (left). Kwok and her principal, Mrs. Kasindorf (right)

Now that you are living in the Netherlands, how is the Dutch lifestyle different from America and Hong Kong?

The Dutch are very different. First of all, they are enormous, the tallest people in the world. I can never reach anything in the supermarkets. When I am in a public restroom, the top of my head doesn’t even peek out above the bottom edge of the mirror. They are kind, yet also extremely direct. If they do not like something about you, they will tell you very clearly. As an Asian and an American, I am often shocked but I also appreciate their honesty. It is certainly interesting living here!

What makes you so particularly adept at adapting to different cultures and countries?

I don’t know that I am so good at adapting. I make many mistakes! I do think that it is very important to learn the language and my first priority when I moved to Holland was to study Dutch. However, there are so many subtle aspects of each culture that it takes a lifetime to master them all. It is hard to be caught in between different cultures but at least I know then that a choice exists and I can then make each choice consciously.

Jean Kwok’s latest novel Mambo in Chinatown is out in bookstores. For more information, visit the author at her website

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