Friday, March 10, 2017

My Upcoming Historical Epic about Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang

After two-and-a- half years of solitary hard work, I am thrilled to say that I recently put my pen on a publishing contract for my historical epic set in 17th century China. The novel is presently undergoing editing and proofing.

Before reaching this stage, my publisher Graham Earnshaw of Earnshaw Books had also offered me a role as the curator of a new series of historical novels set in Old China, a role I gladly accepted because I felt he and I share a vision of extending and enhancing interest in and knowledge of Chinese history to a global audience through fictional works. The project is progressing well.

Over the last few years, I have read several books and many articles on the craft of writing. The essay that impressed me most is Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. The key lesson I drew from the essay is this:

“I’ve always constructed them on two levels: on the first, I compose the novel’s story; over that, I develop the themes. The themes are worked out steadily within and by the story. Whenever a novel abandons its themes and settles for just telling the story, it goes flat.”

My upcoming novel is based on the life story of the Manchu Qing Dynasty's influential first matriarch, who was born a Mongolian princess. She was the beloved grandmother of Kangxi Emperor. Set against a background of war, racial hatred and great turmoil, when the failing Ming Empire was dealt the final blow by the invading Manchus, the novel encompasses such themes as conflicts caused by cultural gaps, duty versus love, self-interest versus the greater good, how power corrodes humanity and the burdens of hatred and forgiveness. In the course of writing, I made sure that I followed Mr. Kundera’s advice closely.

The latest I’ve heard from my publisher is that my novel has been tentatively scheduled for release on July 1, 2017.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review - "Corrag" by Susan Fletcher

If I hadn’t read this book, I would never have imagined that there was still persecution of witches in late 17th century Great Britain, the practice of which was only banned from 1735 with the introduction of the Witchcraft Act.

The story is a gripping one that recounts the political massacre of Glencoe in February 1692, told through an imprisoned woman who was condemned as a witch and was waiting to be burned, and who had earlier managed to save many lives in Glencoe. Her only audience was a reverend of Christian faith, whose motive was initially to obtain an eyewitness account for political purposes. During the course of listening to the “witch”, he was transformed from a disgusted bigot to a compassionate sympathizer.

The structure of the novel is such that the first-person narrator flips between the “witch” telling her story and the reverend writing to his wife. The themes that dapple the novel are love of nature, getting in touch with one’s heart, futility of hatred and violence, tolerance of others’ values and compassion for all living creatures.

The writing is deeply affecting, especially the description of Scottish scenery. In the end, I think it is the underlying themes that resonate viscerally with me.

These are passages that I love:-

But maybe the best thing I learnt was this: that we cannot know a person’s soul and nature until we’ve sat beside them, and talked.

When was I not a bit lonesome inside? I mostly was. Seeing true, natural beauty can lessen it, because sunsets and winter light can make you say inside you ‘I am not alone’ – you feel it, through such beauty. But it can worsen it, also. When you want a person with you it can be a sore thing. Sometimes you see this beauty and think it is not as lovely as them.

Your heart’s voice is your true voice. It is easy to ignore it, for sometimes it says what we’d rather it did not – and it is so hard to risk the things we have. But what life are we living, if we don’t live by our hearts? Not a true one. And the person living it is not the true you.

It is the small moments, sir, which change a world.

No war. Fight with your pen. Give your battle-cry in ink, and mark your dreams down on a page.

I’m giving this novel 4.5 stars.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

How Did Johann Adam Schall von Bell Relate to the Qing Dynasty?

It may be common knowledge for current and former students of The Chinese University of Hong Kong that the earliest student hostel ever built on campus is called the Adam Schall Residence. But perhaps the person Johann Adam Schall von Bell, in honor of whom the hostel was named, is not too familiar a figure for many, students or otherwise.

Johann Adam Schall von Bell was a German Jesuit missionary born in Cologne. In 1619, at the age of 28, he arrived Macau with a few other Jesuit missionaries, planning to enter China to spread Christianity, only to find themselves stranded in the Portuguese Settlement, as it was the Chinese policy then to curb foreigners’ entry. So Schall von Bell decided to settle down in Macau and learn Chinese and continue with his mathematics studies.

A few years later, in 1622, he unexpectedly got embroiled in Portuguese Macau’s military defense against an attack by the Dutch Calvinists, which attack was instigated by trade disputes. The Dutch (i.e. the Dutch East India Company) had for a long time been jealous of Macau’s lucrative intermediary position on the China-Japan trade route (silk in exchange for silver) and wanted to capture the Settlement. Schall von Bell and his fellow Jesuits went up to the citadel to man cannons that fired on the invading Dutch soldiers, and a shot accidentally hit an explosive dump near their camp. The defense was victorious and the Dutch were chased out.

When news of this reached the Ming Emperor’s ears, he invited Schall von Bell to Court and asked him to produce cannons for use against the invading Manchus. But the Jesuit’s skill at weaponry was clearly eclipsed by his knowledge in astronomy and his work in the calendar reform.

After the Ming Empire transitioned into the Qing Dynasty, Schall von Bell rose to prominence as a key adviser in Shunzhi Emperor’s reign. His influence on Shunzhi and Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang was profound. After Shunzhi died, Schall von Bell’s envious Chinese colleagues initiated a depraved false accusation against him, which led to a death sentence. Although ultimately exonerated, his prison ordeal took a toll on his already frail health and he died shortly after regaining freedom. This roller-coaster phase of his presence in China was nothing short of dramatic and is one of the sub-plots in my upcoming novel.

Monday, March 6, 2017

AnnLoretta's 5-Star Review of "Fated and Fateless"

I was heartened to see this review by a Goodreads friend AnnLoretta:-

Unrelenting suspense. This is a wonderful story of woman versus adversity in a culture which is blind to women.

The tension Ms. Poon creates about the ultimate fate of Wendy, the protagonist, and that of the other women in this story -- for the men are always secondary characters to the upheavals they continually create -- is riveting. What can Wendy make of her life? '

I spent nearly 10 years in a publicly traded real estate investment firm, so I fell immediately into the technicalities of the business. One needn't be able to do that to appreciate the situations these women are in on the changing climate of Hong Kong. The conflicts are deeply communicated and leap off the page.

This book is engrossing, and I greatly enjoyed its story and well-drawn and varied women characters.

Based on this book, I am looking forward to Ms. Poon's next book, due out soon! 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Book Review - "The Lover" by Marguerite Duras

3.5 stars rounded up to 4. The emotions portrayed are not only related to the poignant forbidden love between two unlikely lovers because of their differences in age, race and class, but also connected to tense family relationships, especially the bitter-sweet mother-daughter relationship.

My nit-pick was that sometimes I got confused about the timeline as the story flips back and forth.

I had seen the movie many years ago and now think that I enjoyed the film more than the novel.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Book Review - "The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand" by Elizabeth Berg

This is a compelling fictional biography of one of France’s most talented but often misunderstood female writers. Berg takes readers on an exploratory journey into the depths of George Sand’s heart and soul in recreating her controversial life. The author presents the narrative with much authenticity, understanding and admiration.

The novel is written in the first-person, with the protagonist doubling as narrator. I’m aware that this is a popular style of writing, but for me, the weakness in such a style is that it becomes easy to indulge in the protagonist and to make him/her seem larger-than-life, and this renders the narrator a little untrustworthy.

The story runs on two parallel timelines, one starting from Sand’s childhood and the other from the point when she is divorced from her husband, with the two parts alternating in sequence. As the reader learns of the protagonist’s engagement in amorous relationships after the divorce, he/she understands her reasons better because of the doses of information on her childhood/adolescence that are being simultaneously fed through.

In general, this is a touching story of Sand’s life. We see her as a romantic feminist, a literary genius juggling fame, love and family, a doting and sensual lover (for both sexes), a loving and dedicated parent, a loyal and compassionate friend and an innate music lover all rolled into one.

But this is also a lucent study of the perceived notion and reality of romantic love, of the hardships and dilemmas of motherhood, of an artist’s struggles against melancholia, and of an idealistic way for a woman to balance work and emotional needs.

In my view, it fully deserves 4 stars.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Few Historical Tidbits about Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang

On this day (January 27) in 1688, a pivotal historical figure from the Qing Dynasty passed away. This person was a Mongolian princess named Borjigit Bumbutai, better known as Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang.

Her existence was critical to Chinese history in that she was the one who pulled the fledgling Qing Empire from the brinks of disintegration in its early days. It can be said that without her sharp wit and charismatic leadership, Qing history, and for that matter Chinese history, would’ve been re-written. The reason is that at the time when her son Shunzhi and grandson Kangxi came to the throne in tandem, they were only young children, and those times were steeped in social and political chaos and unending wars while the ruling Aisin Gioro clan was split by vehement discord and self-interested strife.

As fate would have it, Shunzhi lived a short life of 23 years, his time on the throne even shorter – only 18 years. During much of his reign, although his mother tried to steer him on the right track, he was coerced by self-seeking and corrupt ministers like Oboi and his venal clique. When Kangxi was enthroned, he was only a seven-year old child, but he smartly looked to his self-taught grandmother for advice, guidance and support, which she graciously bestowed. Her greatest contribution was perhaps teaching Shunzhi and Kangxi to appreciate the importance of soft power and humanity.

History would witness Kangxi eventually becoming the most culturally-minded, tolerant and benevolent of emperors. Under his auspices, the Kangxi Dictionary was compiled. Poetry lovers would no doubt know that the world-renowned Three Hundred Tang Poems emanated from the Quan Tangshi (Complete Tang Poems), which compilation Kangxi had personally championed.

In 1691, in honor and memory of his beloved grandmother and mentor, Kangxi built a temple called “In Eternal Veneration” (永慕寺) in South Park (南苑), the imperial hunting park located south of Beijing.