Larissa Lai is the author of The Tiger Flu, Salt Fish Girl, and Iron Goddess of Mercy. Recipient of the Duggins Novelist’s Prize, the Lambda Award, and the Astraea Award, she holds a Canada Research Chair at the University of Calgary where she directs The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing.
A sprawling historical novel about war, colonialism, love, and loyalty during Japan’s occupation of Hong Kong in World War II.With great heart, The Lost Century explores the intersections of Asian relations, queer Asian history, underground resistance, the violence of war, and the rise of modern China.
Interviewed by Margaret Gracie
Margaret Gracie (MG): What inspired you to write a book of historical fiction?
Larissa Lai (LL): I wrote this book during the first two years of COVID. I had just completed The Tiger Flu, which was, in part, a book about a pandemic. That book had taken a long time to write and when COVID hit, I felt I had already been inhabiting a pandemic world for over a decade. The emergency of the pandemic and my own responses to it got me wondering about how, in my own body memory, I might be carrying strategies and habits to make it through. Very early, I went through a period of denial, followed by a sudden recognition of the seriousness of the situation, followed by an urge to hoard– or stock up, depending on how you’d like to parse it. Not toilet paper, but rice, pulses, cans (cans figure largely in The Tiger Flu). A certain grimness, determination, and resignation came over me, as well as a compulsion to get very pragmatic. Where were my family and my dear ones? What did they and I need to survive? How would I obtain these things? Also harder questions like: Who really needs me now and who doesn’t? Whose needs are real and who is crying wolf? It struck me that all through the 20th century, ordinary Chinese people have been asking themselves these questions as so many emergencies have washed over and through us. I knew what to do almost instinctively and just started doing it. Because I’m writer, I pay attention. I could see what I was doing, and wonder at myself. This is what got me thinking about the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II, which is the emergency that most Hong Kong people, especially of parents’ and grandparents’ generations, carry around with them as a visceral memory. Weirdly, I don’t hear people talking about how the American embargoes against China during the Korean War affected Hong Kong people, though that effect was also huge. I’ve been intermittently aware that I carry the legacy of these emergencies as a kind of body memory, what Marianne Hirsch would call “post-memory” or what Abraham and Torok would call “encrypted memory”. It was this wondering that got me started writing the novel.
Further, my father was in the house, and he was also in a mood to remember. When it was clear that the pandemic was serious, I asked him not to go back to Vancouver, but to stay with me in Calgary until it was over. So he stayed. We talked a lot and he shared a lot of memories. It put me in the frame of mind to think about how he comes to be as he is, and what my grandparents’ lives might have been like.
MG: How did you enjoy the process in comparison to writing Salt Fish Girl and The Tiger Flu, two futuristic novels?
LL: This novel is about a very painful period in Hong Kong history, so I wouldn’t call the process of writing enjoyable exactly. But it did feel urgent and exciting. When I first began writing in the 1990s, there was such a market pressure to write autobiography, a pressure I resisted because I didn’t like the objectifying, commodifying impulse behind it– the prurient curiosity of the white world that is still so much used to sell books. However, what I’ve discovered over the years is that all writing is autobiography; it’s much harder to escape oneself than one might imagine. Autobiography does not need to take the form of confession. I think it was really confession that I was resisting. There was a certain relief in embracing realism, though I recognized quickly that realism has its tropes and conventions too. It is a genre amongst other genres.
Salt Fish Girl is also historical, albeit in a very different kind of way. But you’re right that The Lost Century gets at the known historical past in a way that neither Salt Fish Girl nor The Tiger Flu do. Because of its commitment to the known historical past, it was in some ways easier to write, and in some ways harder. The Tiger Flu had demanded a massive depth of original world building, which is part of why it took so long. I had to imagine the world of that novel and then make it consistent in order for the novel to make sense. Salt Fish Girl was a little more experimental– the challenge of that one was structuring it. With The Lost Century there was an existing historical record that I could reference and that I had to be true to. The scaffolding was, in a sense, already in place. Structurally, The Lost Century is pretty linear, so it was a bit more obvious how the chapters ought to be arranged, though it still took a little finessing.
The facts of actually-existing history made the mechanics of The Lost Century easier to structure. The flipside of this is that I had less control over the shape of the world because, as Agent Mulder in the XFiles says, “The truth is out there.” I had to tell the story to fit the world, I couldn’t adjust the world to the fit the story (which I could quite easily in The Tiger Flu). Further, because there is a “real world” to reference, there are many people’s politics, judgements, memories and hopes attached to that world, which I was conscious of as I wrote. I hope I’ve judged and remembered in a good way, and that the politics of the novel are generous and well thought through. But of course I can’t know that. We don’t know what we don’t know. A related difficulty was that I had to make my own judgements about that world, and also make my own guesses about those gaps and absences where no research was available. I was very conscious of my role as a “professional feeler” but also as a non-expert trying to feel my way into points of view on that story that are little documented and little recognized. Invariably there will be things that I missed, and things that I don’t fully understand.
Though this novel is more realist than my previous novels, realism is relative. The Lost Century still contains some gestures to the speculative fiction tradition that I love so much. But nevertheless, there is a deeper commitment to material history in this novel, and less space given to those flights of the imagination that mark both Salt Fish Girl and The Tiger Flu. Which is not to say that there’s no material history in my previous novels or that there is are no flights of imagination in the new one. It’s about the balance of these things.
MG: The Lost Century is filled with very vivid details of Hong Kong in the 1930s and ‘40s. What kind of research did you conduct to make the setting so real?
LL: I’m so glad you found the details vivid! Thanks for saying so. I did a ton of research and worked very hard to make time and place as present as I possibly could.
I know very little of my family history from this time. Even my parents know very little, because my grandparents, and that generation broadly, did not like to talk. There is a Chinese ethical convention of not passing sorrow on– it’s very different from our current therapeutical culture of disclosure and truth-telling, and has both its benefits and its limitations. But there is a historical record of the period, albeit a very skewed one, mostly from the point of view of British, American, Canadian and Australian military people. I read a lot of those. They are full of details and anecdotes from the time, albeit mostly details and anecdotes that don’t foreground Chinese people. But they nevertheless give a feel for the time and place. The most useful of these was Anthony Hewitt’s Bridge With Three Men, about three soldiers (from Australia and New Zealand, I think) who escape the internment camp at Sham Sui Po through the New Territories. There are a couple of good historical accounts as well. I relied heavily on Phillip Snow’s The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation. I made ample use of photographs as well. There is an excellent website called gwulo.com, run by a passionate amateur historian and programmer called David Bellis. I also read a lot of news clippings from the time, mostly from the South China Morning Post. I read novels and memoirs from the period as well– Eileen Chang and Han Suyin were particularly helpful. I did a lot of reading between the lines. I also talked to people. Nadine Attewell, Warren Cariou, Monika Kin Gagnon and Scott Toguri McFarlane all read the book and gave generous feedback. Lillian Allen read chunks of it as well and was immensely supportive and helpful. My parents assisted a lot in the second draft, to point out problems with how I’d images spaces and practices. Though any errors are of course my own!
MG: The book contains strong female characters who live through very difficult times. In spite of their trials, they are able to love and forgive. What makes Violet, Emily and Ting-Yan so resilient?
LL: These are all good qualities, to be able to love, to forgive, to be resilient. You’re very kind to observe these qualities in my characters. It’s important to me, however, to register that their humanity includes more difficult, less noble qualities as well. And that perhaps their ability to survive and go on comes from ways of being that are not so healthy, at least not in the ways that we imagine mental health in our present moment. Violet survives by taking care of others, with the expectation that they’ll take care of her in return. They do, but never to the extent that she takes care of them. In essence, she survives by giving more than she gets. But she’s not a fully selfless person. She’s aware of this unjust calculus and embittered by it. Though she doesn’t dare admit it to herself, she wants the love and admiration that Emily receives by the bushel (at least in the first half of the novel). But she believes in types and she believes in fate. She doesn’t think she’s the kind of person who will ever receive what her sister receives. And because she doesn’t expect or even hope for such things, she doesn’t get them. Her resilience isn’t of the happiest kind, but it does nurture family, and in so doing afford her a stable, livable life.
On the flipside, Emily survives by going out and taking what she wants, without much consideration for what this might mean for anyone else, least of all Violet, whom she expects to clean up her messes and solve her problems, regardless of whether the messes are cleanable or the problems solvable. There is pleasure in this for her, but it’s also a necessity– if she doesn’t go out and grab the world by the throat, she’ll be used as chattel in her father’s business machinations. She’s both playful and greedy, but there’s a survival impulse behind her actions and strategies. In many ways she survives because Violet looks out for her, and because she’s lucky, until she’s not. Her tragedy in this novel is that when a stroke of ill luck befalls her, it isn’t her fault. Because she’s culpable for some things, but the punishment she receives is not connected to the things she’s guilty of, it’s hard for her to make sense of herself, to become a coherent subject as it were. Of course, the harm that comes to her it’s not a consequence of bad luck; it’s structural, racial, wartime violence. That violence shatters her happy-go-lucky, romantic world, and she becomes a deeply traumatized version of herself, almost another person. She survives by turning to men, initially because she wants to, but towards the end of the novel because she has no other choice. Some part of her, however, does retain a sense of self-possession. That core ability to kick hard in her own interests turns out to be available to her as an old woman, though readers will have to read to the end to discover how that works out.
Ting-Yan survives through an extraordinary ability to adapt and to recover from heartbreak. As a young woman, she loves someone who doesn’t love her back, which any young woman who has lived through such a thing will tell you, can be extraordinarily painful. She’s consumed by jealousy. Helpless to regain the attention of the one she loves, she sets off a chain of events that, in one way of reading at least, initiates a cycle of reverberating violence that touches all the other characters in the novel. The second person she loves is deeply deserving, but the Japanese invasion intervenes. Of the three women, I imagine Ting-Yan as the bravest and most noble, but no amount of bravery is enough to stop the forces of history.
MG: I love that you’ve written from the point of view of so many diverse characters. Were there challenges in representing the different sides of political and sociocultural divisions? What advice can you give to other writers about including voices similar and not so similar to our own?
LL: This novel was my chance to make sense of the 20th century from a range of Asian locations, Hong Kong most immediately, but also a Canada with a long history of Asian contact and presence. Who was actually there in Hong Kong during the war? Who crossed paths with whom? We tend to think of it as a primarily Chinese place, which of course it is, but it also has a long colonial history and a long history as a contact zone through which many people moved for many kinds of reasons. In our own historical moment, relationships among Indigenous, Black and Asian people tend to be triangulated through whiteness. We don’t do much of the reach across from Indigenous to Black locations or Black to Asian ones, or Asian to Indigenous ones. And we don’t historicize these relationships, although they have existed for centuries (shifting of course, with shifting understandings of race and racial categories which are deeply experienced forms but not necessarily stable or eternal ones). I have known for some time that the Winnipeg Grenadiers fought in Hong Kong during the war. I wondered if there were Cree and Métis soldiers among them. I did a bit of research, and of course, found out that there were. I learned a lot also from Alexandra Lazarowich’s beautiful film Cree Code Talker about Charles “Checker” Tomkins, which tells us a little about Tomkins’s life and about the history of the Cree Code Talkers on the Western Front. There were no Cree Code Talkers in Asia that I could find on the historical record but I imagined that William Courchene, one of the characters in The Lost Century, might have had some of the training before being deployed to Hong Kong. Long conversations with the ever-generous Warren Cariou helped me to think through this character, and also the role of cameras in the novel. Through gwulo.com and Anthony Hewitt’s book I also learned about the life of Percy Davis Chang, a mixed-race Black/Chinese Jamaican man who guided refugees and internment camp escapees across the Sai Kung Peninsula during the war. Nadine Attewell, a professor at Simon Fraser University currently working on a book called Archives of Intimacy: Racial Mixing and Asian Lives in the Colonial Port City generously shared with me a fragment of a letter that Chang had written to the British government trying to hold them to their promise of repatriating anyone who had helped them during the war. (They didn’t keep their promise, and Chang died of tuberculosis in Hong Kong.) I also became fascinated by WEB DuBois’s interest in Japan prior to the war, and that finds its way into the novel too. In other words, I did a holy mountain of research, and then I consulted people from the communities that I both wanted to and felt a responsibility to address.
I did this because it seems to be the relationship-building work that our present moment calls for, but I fully recognize that there is no writing without risk, and that as the writer, you’re always responsible for the representations you make. I always worry when I’m making representations of people who are different from me, but on the flipside, it would also be irresponsible to tell stories only about people like myself. So the gamble is a serious one, and yet socially, politically and narratively necessary. I hope that I’ve built relationships and had conversations in the real world that are solid enough the support the work I do creatively. I do a lot of research for all of the characters to make sure I get them as right as I can get them. This meant researching their social and political milieu, the possible forms their relationships to family, lovers and friends might take, the range of possibilities for their work lives. I also gave a lot of thought as to when to make representations of real historical figures and when to fictionalize my characters. All of the main characters are fictionalized; I’ve represented real historical people only in the cases of those who had public lives at the time the novel is set. Once I had the first draft complete, I showed the work to four “sensitivity” (or what I prefer to call “po-ethics”) readers to get feedback on both the ethics of representation and verisimilitude. Some of this work was about getting facts straight but it was more about making the representations as complex and believable as possible. It was important to me that all characters have flaws– to make any character too perfect can also perpetuate a kind of racism. Not that I’m so arrogant as to think my book is free of racism, or other oppressions. How can it be when the world I inhabit is rife with problems? For me, it’s a question of balancing the risks and setting the book up to do more good than harm once it’s born into the world. Not I think I can control how it travels or how it is read, because of course I can’t that either!
Your question is also one about point of view, I think. The different characters in the novel carry different embodied histories and hold different political positions. It was important to me that my characters be round — that they have both good and bad qualities adding up to a believable, human whole. They are also caught up in a moment when a range of political positions are available to them, and it is not obvious which one to choose. Kind of like now! Which is part of the point. The questions are hard ones–who to marry and under which cultural traditions, whether or not to commit to democracy and humanitarianism when democracy and humanitarianism seem to be attached to British colonialism, what to make of a rising Communism that espouses such beautiful ideals but pursues them in disturbing ways, what to make of Asian nationalisms that might free Asian people from European colonialism but seem to produce murderous, raping fascisms. It’s all well and fine to debate these questions with friends and community members, but when war comes and you have to choose a side on pain of death, what do you do? And what if it scrambles your brains or breaks your heart or lands you in a torture chamber? I’ve tried to show my characters grappling with these questions to the best of their ability, and deciding on courses of action which invariably throw them into conflict with other characters or other forces. The choices they make, of course, are dependent on who they are at the outset. And the interactions that they have in the wake of what they choose shape the world we inherit. I wanted to show all that as compassionately and fully as I could.
MG: Can you tell us a bit about the importance of food in the book? Cheung is a cook; Captain Lee is a fisherman. Ophelia and Violet have a veritable feast as the clock ticks down to the handover in 1997. Beyond the cultural significance of the dishes, what role does food play?
LL: When I first began writing fiction in my twenties I made a pact with another Chinese Canadian writer friend not to write about food. We thought it opened the door to objectification and Orientalism– Chineseness as a thing to be consumed. The pact was impossible to keep because too much of life occurs through eating. A better strategy, I think, is to take it up, but pay attention to the dangers of how the work might get read and make sure there’s a critique embedded somewhere in the narrative. My previous novel, The Tiger Flu, is a deep contemplation on the act of consumption, of food to be sure, but also humans, animals, plants, ideas, ideologies. The Lost Century still addresses these issues, though they aren’t thematized so overtly. I take a little more pleasure in food in The Lost Century. There are so many brutal things in this novel, and food functions in this case as a site of respite, though not in any easy way. So you have the crab at the start that is gendered and active, a little more lively perhaps than some people might want their food to be. Already deep fried and seasoned, he waves his antennae at Ophelia and Violet and gazes at them a little too sagely. Food, in this novel as in some of my previous work, provides a connection to the nonhuman world, to which we are responsible. You’re right that the food has cultural significance. I tried to choose dishes that would be meaningful to the characters. Typhoon Shelter Crab is the keystone dish at the Typhoon Shelter Restaurant where Ophelia and Violet eat. This restaurant is a fictional place, though in my humble opinion such a place could easily exist in our present moment. I called it into being to remember the original typhoon shelter at Causeway Bay, that is now reclaimed land, Victoria Park. (A Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter still exists, but in a different location.) I wanted to set up an implicit conversation with Lee Maracle’s short story “Goodbye Snauq” and remember the sea gardens that were destroyed to make False Creek in Vancouver. This kind of “terraforming” (to borrow a speculative fiction term) was done all over the British Empire. Once subject to it, Chinese people all over the world have taken up the practice on a grand scale, brought it home, and brought it to other spaces and places. So in that name and that one dish, a whole cascade of unjust processes are remembered, if one knows how to read them. I’ve probably been a little too subtle in the name of the restaurant, to avoid being overly didactic. But I hoped someone would ask the question, so thank you!
The “terraforming” thematic is one that also accrues– it is present in the story of the rice dish that Ting-Yan and Tak-Tam cook aboard the Oolong early in the novel as well. As Ting-Yan and Tak-Tam cook and check each other out under their fathers’ watchful eyes, Old Cheung (Tak-Tam’s father) reminisces about the rice paddies that used to form the basis of subsistence for his natal village of Wong Nai Chung. When the British took possession of Hong Kong Island in the 1840s, one of the first things they did was outlaw rice production. The fertile paddies, no longer tended by the villagers, didn’t drain properly and the whole area that is now Happy Valley became a swamp, and a breeding ground for mosquitos and thus malaria. The newcomers build cemeteries around it (different ones for different religious denominations), and it became a valley of death! The name “Happy Valley” is in fact an ironic naming by the British themselves, for this newly created valley of ghosts. Without Maracle’s “Goodbye Snauq” and the stories she used to tell orally about the sea gardens at Snauq (now False Creek, Vancouver), it wouldn’t have occurred to me to piece the story of Happy Valley together from the reports of the forbidding of rice growing, later descriptions of the place as a swamp, multiple reports of flooding and disparaging descriptions of the inhabitants in the English language papers. It was a grim bit of sleuthing I did, but I wouldn’t have known what to look for without Lee.
Food does a lot of other kinds of work in the novel too– it shows repressed sexuality, it shows the cultural differences between an overseas Chinese like Ophelia and a Hong Kong born Chinese like Violet (Ophelia, for instance, doesn’t like the crunchy-chewy texture of boiled pork skin– there’s a crunchy-chewy aesthetic in Chinese food that doesn’t appeal to many Westerners and many Westernized Asians), it is a mode through which love and care are expressed, it’s a site of violence and death. Both Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats and Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill, and the ethics they ask us to consider are on my mind when I write about food. I’m conscious of where food comes from, and I wanted to pay attention to who grows the rice and vegetables, who catches the fish. Elsewhere (in a short story for Room Magazine) I’ve thought about who raises and slaughters animals.
I’m conscious as well in this novel of a Chinese aesthetic of freshness, which can appear too close to aliveness for some Westerners.
MG: I learned a great deal about Hong Kong from reading your book. It made me realize how little we are taught about Asian history and Asian relations in North America. What do you hope readers will take away from The Lost Century?
LL: At core, I was thinking about what circumstances would make a woman go back to a man who has tried to kill her. I see so many relationships in my community that are profoundly unhealthy in spite of the goodness of the people involved and I wonder why it is like that. The reasons are of course complicated, and historical, and may have little to do with who people are as individuals and more to do with the kinds of circumstances they’ve lived through and how it stunts or distorts their lives. Or maybe who we are as individuals emerges from what we’ve lived through historically. No one has their being in a vacuum after all. In this novel I’m trying to make sense of how the emotional lives of three Hong Kong families are connected to the invasions, sanctions, and death they’ve endured, but also the relationships they’ve built, the institutions and businesses they’ve built, the wealth some of them have garnered, the politics they’ve accepted and the politics they’ve refused. And the spiritualities as well that they’ve taken on, as well those they’ve denied or forgotten.
What readers take away will depend on the reader and what they are already carrying. One of the real challenges of writing this book was considering and writing for more than one audience. I hope diasporic Hong Kong people in particular, and diasporic East Asians more broadly will see something of themselves and their own histories in this novel. It’s my grandparents’ generation that is directly addressed here. But there are many resonances between historical period the novel addresses (the 1930s and 1940s) and our own. I hope diasporic readers will see/feel those resonances and that the novel will help them/us make sense of the present.
I also really hope that the book will do some relation building work from Asian communities across to Black and Indigenous ones, and that it will help readers from across a broad and profoundly unequal set of experiences of dispossession, colonialization and empire to see how our lives and fates are interlinked. I do my best not to gloss over the unevenness and the injustice. Readers reading this way will have to tell me whether my representations have been fair or not. It is early days in the conscious and deliberate unfolding of the work of relation, and there is a lot of work yet to be done. I know for sure already that the story I’ve told in this regard is not complete– they can’t possibly be because our experiences are too broad and disparate. I hope those holding other pieces of the big interlinked story will feel inspired to write their piece.
And of course, there’s a broader public out there, consisting of people who love and care about books and ideas, but may not know a whole awful lot about the many histories of Asian people in Canada or around the world. I hope this book will help those people understand more deeply the complex politics of South China and how they are connected to and lived out here in Canada. I wasn’t taught these things while I was growing up in Newfoundland either. I learned a lot about myself and my family by doing the research for this book. If people understood these histories more completely, alongside the histories of Black and Indigenous people, I think they’d understand the present very differently. Maybe it will do something to stop the kinds of anti-Asian racism that we witnessed during the pandemic, which have much longer roots both here and across the Pacific. Maybe it will do something to help us understand Asian relationships with Black and Indigenous people and places, and to begin to see again our connections (imperfect, for certain, yet existing and available to memory) through the “Third World” movements of the 20th century. Maybe it will help readers see the long-standing, fraught cosmopolitanism of Hong Kong in particular and other Asian cities by corollary. I hope it will illuminate the complexity of Hong Kong life in all its wealth and poverty, comfort and pain, sorrow and joy, and the long-standing connection of those lives to life here on Turtle Island.