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It can easily be said that Michael David Kwan has lived an eventful life. One whose present career as a recorder of past truths has been shaped by having fate thrust him right at the epicenter of momentous events just as they were unfolding. It hasn't always been an easy fate.
This life trend began at Kwan's own beginning when, as a young child and with his native China on the very lip of the Great War, his life of privilege and isolation were shaken to their core. "My childhood was, if anything, exciting," Kwan says now with the British understatement he was raised with. "It was different. It was not the average North American childhood by any means. Of course there are scars. We can expect there to be. But they don't stunt you."
The possible scars could have come from myriad directions. Abandoned when he was a toddler by his beautiful Swiss mother and left in the care of his distant and private father and a handful of carefully selected attendants, Kwan no longer even remembers his mother's face. He recalls red lips, pale skin and "just a blank. I've never been able to fill that blank." This was, in part, because no one attached to Kwan who might have remembered his mother, Marianne, would ever talk about her after she was out of his life. Photos, memorabilia were, "all gone. All the photographs of her, the portrait, everything was gone. Nothing that pertained to her was left."
The brief time that Marianne was a part of Kwan's life is where he begins his riveting memoir, Things That Must Not Be Forgotten: A Childhood in Wartime China. It's a good opening: rich with Kwan's own innocence as well, in many ways, with the rapidly receding innocence of his country.
Born to affluence, the China that Kwan describes in his early years holds heavy echoes of colonial England, with exotic touches that mark the latitude and longitude. But as Japan overruns China in 1938 and the world moves inexorably closer to war, Kwan sees the life he's known disintegrate.
In some sort of odd slip in the time/space continuum, half a century later, in the late 1980s, Kwan would be invited to return to Beijing to teach tourism to students at the university there. And so it was that, with the oddest twists of the knife of fate, Kwan would once again be back in China and in position on campus when the events of Tienanmen Square exploded on the world consciousness. The non-fiction book that Kwan ultimately wrote, Broken Portraits, was about the Tienanmen incident, "before it happened through the actual event, until the time I was evacuated."
January Magazine spoke with Kwan recently in Vancouver, British Columbia where Kwan has made his primary home since 1963. The articulate, soft-spoken author talked about Things That Must Not Be Forgotten, his life since that time as well as the novel the author and award winning playwright is at work on at present.
Linda Richards: Things That Must Not Be Forgotten is a deeply personal book. Was it difficult to write?
Michael David Kwan: Yes. It was difficult to write. It's been rewritten many times. I started it when I was still in China in 1990 and finished the first draft in 1992. Then I'd written other things and would go back to it and tinker with it some more. So it's been a long, long time in the making.
What strikes me about the book is how different a picture you paint of the China of that era. Certainly different from what I'd envisioned. You describe it very much as a colonial society.
Yes. I don't think much has been written about that at all. This stratified society where there were Chinese on this side and Westerners on that side and then of course there were the in-betweens: the Eurasians who were also stratified according to their birth.
Another thing I found notable is that much of the book takes place during the [Second World] War. So your take is very different, since so much of what we've read comes from an American perspective.
Yes. And I think the other thing is that we were living in this very artificial environment, really. Because living in the Legation Court at Beijing and the British concession in Tienjin we were totally separated from the realities of China. You were only aware of those realities when you left that area. A lot of people, of course, had the idea that nothing would ever touch us. Which was, of course, false because after Pearl Harbor things changed very drastically. Nobody was really prepared for that.
In the book, you get a first glimpse of what life was like outside of the concession on the train. Just a glimpse.
And also going shopping with Auntie Hester in the Chinese city and seeing the beggar being decapitated. That was sort of a grisly scene. And the head bouncing across the street. I still shudder to think about it. Some things you never do forget. It gets put away somewhere, but... I don't for a moment accept what a lot of people say -- you read about people in the newspapers who had difficult childhoods and they've grown up to be drug abusers and totally useless people. I don't think that childhood traumatic experiences do that unless you let it. Unless we were perhaps made of sterner stuff, I don't know. Certainly those things don't leave you. But they get put away somewhere and you don't brood on it from day to day.
In many ways, your childhood was horrific.
My childhood was, if anything, exciting. It was different. It was not the average North American childhood by any means. Of course there are scars. We can expect there to be. But they don't stunt you. When I went back to China a lot of things came back to me. These things don't always come back to you in a rush like some sort of flood. But you get dribs and drabs here and there and everywhere. During my younger days in Hong Kong I used to talk to my Dad. And I would ask him about various things and various people that I remembered. He was a very private person but he would sometimes say: Oh! You remember that? And yes, I remember. This is the way I remember it. I would ask him to elaborate. There were things that he'd elaborate on and there were others that he wouldn't. Like the secret service people that he used to meet at the house. I remembered their hats. He wouldn't elaborate.
Marianne was absolutely taboo.
Even when you were an adult?
Did you ever see her again?
She saw me.
And you just carried away a vision of your mother of red lips and a very white face and...
... just a blank. I've never been able to fill that blank. There was a time when for no good reason at all -- maybe curiosity is the best reason -- I really, really wanted to know what she looked like. But of course nobody that knew her would talk about her.
You mention a portrait of her in the book.
That was all gone. All the photographs of her, the portrait, everything was gone. Nothing that pertained to her was left. That was my father's doing. And, of course, her mother: that horrible woman. But Marianne didn't like me and I guess I didn't like her either. I guess we're even.
Was working on the book all of these years part of your personal therapy?
No not really. I didn't really have things I had to work through as it were. These things happened to me and I'd taken them in stride and moved on. It was trying to tell it in an objective manner.
You won The Praxis [screenwriting] Award in 1999? That's very exciting: it's a huge honor.
Yes, it is. Particularly since it was the first screenplay I'd ever written. So I was really, really gratified.
The screenplay is called The Undaunted?
Yes. It's about Chinese laborers building the railways through the Fraser Canyon [in the 1800s]. And, of course, a lot of it is based on fact. The way people worked, the way people lived, the kinds of difficulties that they came across. The racism and so forth. And their interaction with the Western world.
Sounds like a book. Is there a book there?
I think not. I'm really rather fond of theater and I had written two stage plays before. Both won prizes. And I said to myself: I enjoy theater so much, I'll write a stage play. So 1998 was my stage play year and I originally was trying to do The Undaunted as a stage play, but I very quickly gave up that notion because the stage is too confining. You couldn't really tell the story properly. So I said: Well, screenplay then. But what do I know about screenwriting? I'd written for the stage, but screenplays are different. There's a lot of jargon I didn't know. There's a specific way it has to be laid out and I didn't know that. So I went back to school. I took a screenwriting course. I was the youngest in the class, as you can imagine. [Laughs] They were all about 19 or 20. I was the only one who asked questions.
Because you had the maturity and the self-assurance to do that.
Well, [the instructor] was used to teaching this course so he would use jargon to explain jargon. Which doesn't work. And I would just stop him and say: Well, what do you mean, in English?
The first semester was all about the technical terminology: how to use them. How to lay it out on paper. The second semester was actually writing the script. I cheated a little bit because before I started the course I'd already written the treatment. So when it came towards the end of the first semester the instructor said: Those who want to continue doing the script bring in the treatment. So I brought in my treatment and he read it and he said to me: This is a very good start, but it will never be filmed. And I said: Why? And he said: Because it costs too much. Why don't you write it as a novel instead? And I said: I'm going to write it as a screenplay and I'm coming back! [Laughs]
So I came back in the second semester and I said to myself: I'm going to finish the first draft of this screenplay by the time this course finishes, so help me God! And I did it. He was impressed, but he still said: It won't ever be filmed. But we'll see.
The next step will be to find somebody to produce it.
What are you working on now?
I'm actually finished but I'm not ready to let loose of it. It's a historical novel called Death and the Dragon. It's about Chin Sihuang Di, the first emperor of China who is buried in the Terra Cotta tomb. And he built the Great Wall. But what I'm concentrating on is not the building projects but on the man's obsession with death and finding some means of immortality.
So that's finished?
But I'm not ready to turn it loose yet. [Laughs] I'm still tinkering with it. At this stage I think I might be jettisoning the first nine chapters.
Is that hard to do?
Yes. It is hard to do. But writing it and dropping it and going back I've just decided that it wasn't getting to the nitty gritty quickly enough. So out!
Will it be a long book?
It's shorter now. [Laughs] By the time it's finished it will probably be a little bit longer than Things That Must Not Be Forgotten, but not horribly longer.
I think that Death and the Dragon might be controversial because I portray Chin Sihuang Di as a cripple. The reason for that is because I have seen in China a painting -- mind you it's politically slanted -- that portrays him as a very ugly man. Almost like a Richard III: a hunchback and a withered right hand and a very ugly face. Very narrow sullen features sort of all squashed up. It sort of made sense to me that he might have been this way because his mother had been a prostitute -- a very famous prostitute -- and so she may have had any type of sexually transmitted diseases. And some of them do cause deformities. So this might have been the case for him. He was despised by his parents because he was so monstrous and there was talk that his mother had even suggested killing him.
Things That Must Not Be Forgotten is not your first book?
No. It's the second book. The first one was called Broken Portraits and that was about the Tienanmen incident but it was written from within the campus because I was teaching and living on the campus when it happened. So that is from before it happened through the actual event until the time I was evacuated.
Where were you educated?
I was educated in China. In Hong Kong. Partly here [in Canada]. I went back to university when I came here.
Your speaking voice is quite British.
Well, I've spoken this way all my life. I guess it comes from my stepmother. My parents were very strict about language.
When you talk about your parents, you mean your father and your stepmother?
Yes. If I was speaking Chinese I was speaking Chinese: no English words mixed in there. And the same with English. It was good because from a very early age I could switch from one to the other without problem. Later on this came in very useful when I was translating because I could read Chinese and think English.
Did that strictness with the language influence you to become a writer?
No, I don't think so. I don't know what attracted me to writing. Maybe it was because my father knew a lot of writers. I got to know a lot of them and sort of envy their life or what I could see of it. I think also being a solitary child -- I didn't have any playmates -- I was used to being around adults and I often felt that children were not very interesting. So I read a lot. And I used to amuse myself by taking an English book and translating it into Chinese and vice versa. And when I got stuck I would go to my father and say: What do I do now? And he would tell me. So this became sort of an everyday activity. I've always wanted to write and my father encouraged it but he said to me: Writing is a very tough occupation and presumably you want to live comfortably so do all the things you need to do in order to live and eat. When you are reasonably secure and all of the obligations have been met, then write. And that's exactly what I did because it was very sensible advice. I'm afraid starving in a garret was not for me. [Laughs]
You were an academic?
No. I've been many things. I've been a social worker, I've been a civil servant, I've been a broadcaster [Laughs]. I've worked for two major airlines. I did public relations work, I did training, schooling and instructing, I did accounting and I came to Canada with Pan Am and when Pan Am closed their office here they wanted me to move but I decided I didn't want to. So we parted company and I went into travel agencies and carved my niche in that industry. Then I was invited to China to teach tourism. | August 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.