Loving a Chinese man and expecting his child shouldn’t be a crime. But white Canadian Velma Demerson got arrested in Canada in May 1939 because she was pregnant at 18 with the child of her fiancee Harry Yip.
Authorities took her in under the Female Refugees Act of 1897, where women could go to jail and become institutionalized for “incorrigible” behavior, including promiscuity and pregnancy outside marriage. As Vancouver Observer reported:
Demerson was sentenced to ten months at Ontario’s infamous Mercer Reformatory for Women. There, she said attending physicians performed eugenics testing on her and her unborn child, tests Demerson believes cost the health of her son and sent her down a path of despair and tragedy.
(That lasted for more than 60 years — yes, you read that right — until she finally had her Canadian citizenship restored in 2004.)
But because she had plans to move to Hong Kong, she went to British Columbia and managed to secure a passport under her maiden name. If authorities ever found out, it would have meant five years in prison for her, a risk that worried her every time she left Canada on her maiden name passport.
Demerson’s marriage fell apart under the strain of her pariah status, and unable to make ends meet in Hong Kong, she sent her son home to his father in Canada without her. Upon return a year after, she discovered her son had been placed into state care. She was never allowed to raise him. The two never reconciled. He drowned at the age of 26.
She went on to remarry and have another family, but everything she suffered because of her love for Harry Yip still weighed upon her. So after turning 60, she researched her situation and eventually decided to seek justice through the legal system, filing a lawsuit against the Ontario government, demanding an apology and $11 million in compensation. She received an apology in 2003 and later an undisclosed sum of money out of court.
Additionally, Velma Demerson went on to help other women imprisoned under the Female Refugees Act of 1897 get justice as well.
It’s heartbreaking to imagine that all of this happened to Demerson just because she loved a Chinese man and was having his baby.
She was with her mother and a couple of other friends and they went to this Chinese café, and she thought he was a very cute waiter. So she kept dropping her silver to get his attention.
And finally he did pick it up and then he asked her for a date, and everybody was, like, happy about that. And then they went on some dates and she said that he was the most polite person and respectful person that she had ever met and just fell in love with him because he was such a decent guy — and good looking.
Just imagine what a beautiful life they might have had together, were it not for that fateful arrest.
Velma Demerson passed away in May 2019 at the age of 98. But Karin Lee hopes to share her story and struggle with wider audiences through a documentary about Demerson called “Incorrigible”, for which she’s currently seeking funding in an Indiegogo Campaign.
Hong Kong is a city with a sordid past of its own. After all, it has seen pirates, the Opium Wars, Japanese occupation in World War II and many other dark chapters, which also make for great stories.
So naturally, this side of the city deserves a literary nod – which is why it’s fitting that Akashic Books recently released the anthology Hong Kong Noir, edited by Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason.
Of course, it has 14 stories – a requirement of the publisher, but also rather apropos since the number 14 sounds like “certain death” in Cantonese. And these tales — everything from ghost stories to family issues to death and beyond – are gripping and occasionally grim, but overall make for a great read. The stories in the collection even feature a few cross-cultural relationships between foreigners and Chinese (including foreign women and Chinese men).
Even better, because the anthology covers so much territory of Hong Kong, it becomes a kind of nontraditional “travel guide” to the city, introducing you to many of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods. You could even take it a step further and try visiting that temple known for ghosts, or those steps drenched in blood, to add a noir twist to your travels.
I recommend this anthology for anyone interested in Hong Kong who also enjoys dark stories.
It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Hong Kong Noir through this interview with one of its editors, Susan Blumberg-Kason (who many of you already know through her compelling memoir Good Chinese Wife).
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, 2014) and co-editor of Hong Kong Noir (Akashic Books, 2018). She is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Asian Review of Books. Her work has also appeared in The Frisky, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and the South China Morning Post. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she researched emerging women’s rights over 100 years ago. Born, raised, and now based in the Chicago suburbs, Susan is an elected trustee of her public library.
Could you share with us how you came to be involved in this anthology?
I’d been wanting to read this book ever since I learned about the Akashic Noir series back in 2008 or 2009. Every six months to a year, I’d check Amazon and Akashic’s website to see if it had come out yet or if one was in the works. And for all those years nothing seemed to materialize. In late 2016, I was talking to my agent, Carrie Pestritto, about the year to come and had thought about trying to edit this book, but wasn’t sure if I would bring it up just then or wait another year or so. But at the end of that conversation I brought it up anyway without making a conscious decision to do it. It just came out. And she loved the idea. So I put the proposal together in a month or two and voila. We had a contract by the middle of 2017.
How did you select the contributors?
I contacted the biggest names in Hong Kong I knew. Akashic wants their Noir contributors to fit a certain formula: a number of best sellers in the city where the book takes place; some crime writers; a couple of up-and-coming or new voices; and writers who haven’t written noir or crime stories before. The contributors all needed to have a strong connection to Hong Kong. Akashic also wants a mix of backgrounds and gender. My co-editor, Jason Y. Ng, brought on a few contributors as did a couple of the other big names I had first contacted. Akashic’s other requirement is that we limit our number of contributors to fourteen. We had more than that, so to be fair I cut myself out first.
You have a deep relationship with Hong Kong, which you’ve detailed in your compelling memoir Good Chinese Wife. How did that impact your experience as you worked on this noir anthology?
I feel like I know Hong Kong better than any other city, including my hometown of Chicago. Maybe it’s because I came of age in Hong Kong and have never driven there, thereby learning the neighborhoods on foot and through public transportation. I think that allows one to pay more attention one’s surroundings than if traveling everywhere by car and just focusing on other cars and the street signs and traffic lights. My story in Good Chinese Wife is pretty dark and isn’t unlike some of the stories in the book, but without the bleak ending! I’ve also had some other noir experiences apart from that marriage, so could relate to the feelings the contributors conveyed in their stories. Fiction writers obviously can’t always write about their own experiences, as shown in most of the noir stories, but many of the feelings they convey are genuine. I connected with these feelings, even though I certainly don’t have any experience castrating a boyfriend who’s done me wrong!
This anthology brings together a collection of stories — from ghostly to grim — that transports the reader to some of the darkest corners of Hong Kong, including many places you know. Could you share with us any places or settings in Hong Kong that you’ve visited that you happen to consider shadowy or noirish?
I have a bittersweet anecdote about Diamond Hill, the setting of Feng Chi-shun’s jaw-dropping story, Expensive Tissue Paper. Diamond Hill is located on the Kowloon peninsula, the latter of which is also known as the Dark Side. In November, Bleak House Books, a lovely bookstore up near Diamond Hill, so generously hosted a preview event for Hong Kong Noir. The bookstore was actually in an industrial area called San Po Kong, not far from the Diamond Hill subway station. So I took the subway alone while my family was out sight-seeing and shopping with my college roommates. I’d gone all over Hong Kong alone in my twenties, so how hard could it be in my forties? But after I got to Diamond Hill and followed the signs for San Po Kong, I couldn’t for the life of me find the right street to reach the industrial block that houses Bleak House Books. My phone’s GPS wasn’t working and I couldn’t tell east from west. Just as I started to give up and look for a cab (which I would never do in my twenties), my co-editor Jason found me completely disoriented! Of course he was heading to the bookstore, too, so I gave up trying to figure out where we were and enjoyed catching up with him, all the while feeling a huge sigh of relief. And just like everything else that has seemed daunting and a little scary, things always turn out fine in the end. After the event, I left with Jason, our Hong Kong publisher, Pete Spurrier, contributor Ysabelle Cheung, and writer and translator Martin Merz. We found the subway station just fine (well, I just followed the group!) and took the train together. I was the first to exit the subway to meet my family and friends, and as I ran across Nathan Road, it took me a second to remember I didn’t live there anymore.
A number of the stories touch on relationships and marriages — including interracial and international, LGBTQ and even those between Western women and Asian men — but all with a bleak twist. Without giving too much away, could you share with us a few of these couples or relationships that you found fascinating?
Tiffany Hawk’s and Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s stories appear in the second section, Obedience and Respect, and resonated with me for two reasons. One, they are both Handover stories, although Tiffany’s flashes back to the Handover, and mainly takes place this decade. And they both involve relationships between caucasian women and mainland Chinese men, which of course is my background, too. In the 1990s, before the latest wave of mainland immigrants, there wasn’t a large newly-arrived mainland community in Hong Kong. It was a special time because no one really knew what would happen after the Handover, which gave the era a sense of romanticism. I think many people in Hong Kong now reminisce about the 90s and these two stories epitomize the hope and endless possibilities back then.
What do you hope readers come away with from this anthology?
The desire to book a trip to Hong Kong! Seriously, I hope they’ll learn more about Hong Kong and be able to visualize the many different places that make up this amazing city. I’ve joked with Jason that I hope people use it as a guidebook. And that’s kind of rung true. My uncle came away from the book wishing he’d read it before he first visited Hong Kong so as to better understand the different areas there. His first trip to Hong Kong was in 1965. I can’t think of a nicer compliment
Shannon gave me an advance copy of Ferry Tale. It’s as enchanting as any big-screen rom com – but better, thanks to the Hong Kong setting and charming AMWF couple. Here’s the synopsis:
She wants to be someone else…
Katrina Keller flees to Hong Kong after the most humiliating moment of her life goes viral on YouTube. She starts over as a lounge singer in a fancy hotel, wishing only to be anonymous. But that’s tricky when you’re the wrong end of an Internet joke.
He doesn’t want to risk another heartbreak…
Sam So transfers to Hong Kong after his long-term girlfriend cheats on him. He doesn’t want to risk another heartbreak by dating again, and he’s not even sure how people date in the world of Tinder and texting anyway.
When the two meet on the Star Ferry, Katrina will tell him she’s someone else, someone who’s as cool and sophisticated as she’s always wanted to be. Sam will be too caught up in her spell to remember he’s supposed to be avoiding relationships. But it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out. Will they get their enchanted romance, or will Katrina’s lie destroy it all?
This is also a really fun, lighthearted romance perfect for whiling away the hours. It’s the sort of book I’d take with me on the plane, or to the beach, or even a weekend getaway. And if you’re looking for a good Valentine’s Day read, this book would be ideal.
Last week, the world collectively mourned the passing of Elsie Tu on December 8, 2015 at age 102, a woman who fought for social justice, became a renowned politician in pre-1997 Hong Kong, and ultimately left a lasting impact on the region. Some dubbed her “the real spirit of Hong Kong.” But did you know that Elsie Tu, who was originally from England, was also married to Andrew Tu for over 25 years, making her one of our AMWF grandmothers as well?
Born and raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, Tu moved to Hong Kong in 1951 following a period as a missionary in China. She became known for her strong antipathy towards colonialism and corruption, as well as for her work for the underprivileged. She fought for gay rights, better housing, welfare services, playgrounds, bus routes, hawker licenses and innumerable other issues and her campaigning is credited with leading to the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in 1974.
Tu, a former Urban Councillor and lawmaker regarded as a pro-Beijing figure, was well-known for her outspoken manner. The centenarian still actively turned in articles to newspapers to criticise government policies she deemed unfair or inadequate….
Turning a brand new page of her life, she met the late Andrew Tu Hsueh-kwei. The pair co-founded Mu Kuang English School in 1954.
Theirs was a long-blossoming relationship. It was not until 1985 that their friendship led to marriage – 30 years after the two teachers met. She was 71, her husband 63….
Remembering her late father’s teaching of helping those in need, Tu decided to delve into politics, in 1963.
Elsie Tu became a household name after she won election to Urban Council in 1963….
In the 1970s, Tu decided to take on the city’s corruption.
Her consistent effort was one of the forces that drove the colonial government to set up an unprecedented department, the Independent Commission against Corruption, in 1974.
Elsie Tu’s life inspires me deeply. Here is a woman who devoted herself to serving others. She truly wanted to make the world a better place. As this article noted, “Each year she made the same very public wish: “We can have a world at peace instead of all wanting to fight.”
Let’s take a moment to remember this incredible woman. Thank you, Elsie Tu, for all that you have done, and may you rest in peace.
Falling in love on the dance floor is not just the stuff of romantic comedies. It happened in London, England to Samson “Samo” Chan and book blogger Georgia Traher, who felt the sparks fly while dancing Modern Jive and Ceroc for fun.
But for this AMWF couple, dancing is more than a hobby. Samson recently won first place in the Advanced Freestyle category with his partner and now competes at an open level. Georgia, who has danced since she was 13, is an intermediate dancer just starting her competitive career. Wow!
This weekend, they will rock the ballrooms of Hong Kong as participants in the Pan Asian Ceroc Championships, a charity event raising money for Angels for Orphans. Here’s a Youtube video from last year’s event:
Want to leave your followers with that “Wwheee!” feeling and impress onlookers? Whip along to this workshop to cover both some whirlwind moves and slick techniques.
The technique side will focus on connection for both lead and follow, then you’ll be learning a style of moves called ‘Whips’ and ‘Scrolls’ that can be used to enhance your smooth jive repertoire.
Samo is known for his smooth and fluid style. This diverse dancer has stormed onto the UK ceroc scene, winning people over with his infectious smile and whirlwind whips. His smooth jive butters up all he dances with, and his collection of trophies would tell you the judges love him too!
FYI, for those of you new to Ceroc, here’s a quick introduction from the Ceroc website:
Ceroc is an abbreviation of the French phrase c’est Rock.
We have been introducing complete beginners to the world of partner dancing for over 30 years and today we are the biggest dance club in the world with hundreds of classes across the globe.
We teach dance in its general form, and we use dances like Salsa, Ballroom, Latin American, Street dance, Hip Hop, Musical Theatre, Tango and Jive to develop our creative and expressive inner-self.
I sat down with Georgia and Samson to learn more about how they met, their strengths as dancers, and what they’ll be up to during the Pan Asian Ceroc Championships.
You both met on the dance floor. Could you tell us a little bit about that first time you were together?
We had had a few dances before we officially ‘met’ but he soon became my favourite dancer.
Most nights after the class, the group will move on to a nearby bar to keep dancing. As we were walking over, he asked me out for a drink on our own and we’ve carried on dancing since then.
You do Ceroc and Modern Jive dancing. Why are you attracted to these styles of dance?
The Ceroc franchise is set up to be friendly and for socialising as well as learning to dance. All dancing is great for meeting people, my dad and step mum met while dancing (tango) as well! Modern jive isn’t what people imagine, it is alot smoother than traditional jive or swing dancing and people often surprise themselves with how easy it is to learn few moves.
Could you tell us a little about your competitive strengths as dancers?
Competitions are so much fun! Samson inspired me to start to compete after I watched him (win) in London. Competition dancing is a little different to our usual freestyle (casual/social) Dancing. You get used to finding your judge and showing off your personality. Samson’s speciality is musicallity and hitting every beat with a ‘wow’ move with his partner. I love the feeling of competition dancing, you have to tighten up your styling and there is nothing like hearing the crowd cheer!
This weekend, you are both in Hong Kong for the Pan Asian Ceroc Championships, which is being organized as a charity event for Angels for Orphans. Could you tell us a little about what you and Samson will be dancing in this competition and how your efforts are supporting this charity?
This weekend the Pan Asia Ceroc Championships are going on. We are a group of eight and we are performing a group caberet dance, which features ceroc in its most advanced forms to show off what is possible with these simple dance moves. Some of the more advanced in the group will be judging the competition beginner categories, and the group is also providing two workshops to pass on some signature moves. We’re entertainment, judges and instructors for the weekend.
What advice would you have for someone interested in competitive dance?
Here I’ll hand over to Samson as he’s the expert: The most important things for competitive ceroc dancing are the couple’s personality, that they are compatible with eachother and dance with the same style. A few flash moves are useful but most of all it’s important to listen to the music. And as I tell Georgia: No making faces! A resting happy face is fine, but if you mess up pretend you didn’t, you might think the judges can’t see a wrinkled nose, but they’re always watching! You have to love every move and every song, even if you’re dancing to YMCA by the village people!
—– A big thanks to Georgia and Samson for this interview! If you’re in Hong Kong and wondering what to do this weekend, consider heading to the Pan Asian Ceroc Championships, where you can catch them and many other brilliant dancers in action while supporting the charity Angels for Orphans. Book lovers will enjoy Georgia’s book blog Stories in Books.
Have you ever compromised your own core values in a relationship? That’s what happened to Jocelyn Wong (who blogs at Jocelyn Writes and Is That Top 30?) when she dated a fellow from China. She writes, “I grew up in Hong Kong but many of the things I was brought up with included splitting a meal, not having sex on the first date and waiting until the engagement to meet each other’s parents. These ideals were a smorgasbord of Western and Eastern values that were all torn down early on in the relationship.”
Read on for the full story.
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Kyle and I met through Tinder of all places after one too many messy breakups. Back then I was living in a small town in Canada. I went into the app with the notion that maybe people in my own social circle just weren’t “good” enough and that my circle of friends might be too small. So I took to online dating to correct that.
I grew up in Hong Kong but many of the things I was brought up with included splitting a meal, not having sex on the first date and waiting until the engagement to meet each other’s parents. These ideals were a smorgasbord of Western and Eastern values that were all torn down early on in the relationship.
Early on our relationship I found it difficult to communicate with Kyle even though I had a very international background. Firstly there was the pseudo language barrier. Don’t get me wrong, I am a native English speaker but there are times when I find it difficult to find certain words in English that communicate my feelings. This proved to be an obstacle on our first date when I was signaling furiously at him to try get him to understand what the concept of 無奈 or 孝順 was in half broken English and Chinese. At the very least, it broke the ice.
There were other things about him that really confounded me on a cultural perspective. I was raised with the theory that “sex comes after marriage” and that you should “only have sex with your husband”. Even barring that, sex always came after “monogamy,” as I was taught by Patti Stanger who hosted Millionaire Matchmaker on Bravo. He was a lot more promiscuous than I was (though I didn’t know it at the time). It was cute though when he asked “Do you kiss on the second date?” Immediately I knew that he was going to be mine sooner or later. I would pursue him romantically because that level of awkwardness and consideration was just what I was looking for in a partner.
I digress though. That night, there was something about him, something strange that just made me throw away all the principles I was brought up with. So I slept with him on that second date.
The sex was unfulfilling, but I should’ve known better.
I’d been spoiled previously – falling in love and having meaningful sex with my previous partners that I forgot what meaningless, hedonistic sex felt like. I regretted my decision almost immediately and wished I’d stuck with my traditional principles. Still, things worked out and we became a couple very soon. The sex didn’t improve though, we were still a premature couple and that level of connection needed to be built up.
The second time our values clashed was when I met his parents the day we decided to become a couple – five days after we had met – and it was too overwhelming. He expected me to be okay with meeting his family the morning after I had slept over at his place. This meant: no makeup, grubby outfit, no carefully pre-arranged gift and certainly no mental preparation. What kind of daughter-in-law was I going to be?! I was mortified. I was raised in an environment where it was absolutely necessary to give your significant other’s parent a gift on your first encounter and to look your best. That day, I failed all of those criteria and retreated into myself, I was disgusted with myself. I didn’t see him for a couple of days because I was so angry with myself and him for making me go through that experience.
More cultural differences: I met his parents again soon after that first awkward encounter. This time I was prepared. I was dressed to the nines and brought them their favourite choice of alcohol (the right brand even) and some gifts I had purchased in Toronto when I spent a weekend there. They were “taken aback by my generosity” but I honestly knew no other way to act. This was how I was brought up and it seemed to have made a good impression on my other Canadian boyfriends so I followed suit this time. I later learned that they found me to be a little over the top.
Throughout our relationship, we would have troubles communicating with each other because of our cultural differences but this was the most glaring when we broke up. I was raised on local TV shows and my mother’s advice to make breakups short and snappy, like “ripping off a bandage” and to “never speak to him again” afterwards. Clean and Clear. Just like those pore strips. And that’s how my breakups had been orchestrated each time: I returned my ex-lovers things and we never spoke to each other again. You can imagine my utter shock and horror when he suggested that we not only gradually return each other’s things but to remain “friends” or “friends-with-benefits” afterwards. I could not comprehend that level of promiscuity at all and his utter lack of consideration for my feelings.
This is not my first trip around the rodeo but one that embodied the biggest cultural differences. I didn’t realise I could compromise my core values for a man. But what can I say? I was stupidly in love. Let’s hope that next time around, I learn from my mistakes and stick to what I believe in and hopefully, it’ll work out.
When you love someone from another culture and country, there’s a chance you’ll end up in a long-distance relationship. But what if you thought the long distance was over, only to discover you would have to be divided for another year?
That’s what happened to Shannon Young, an American who fell for a British man while studying abroad in England who she described as “my very own Mr. Darcy, except…talkative—and half Chinese.” But after she moved to Hong Kong to finally be together with him, he suddenly gets transferred to his company’s London office for a year, leaving Shannon all alone. Year of Fire Dragons details the life-changing year she spent in Hong Kong while continuing a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend. It’s a beautifully written story about how far people will go for love — and the unexpected joys that come when things don’t work out as planned.
She writes a blog called “A Kindle in Hong Kong” and is an active member of the Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society. Originally from Arizona, she likes to read, travel and spy on other people’s books on the train.
I asked Shannon about everything from her thoughts on Hong Kong and managing a long-distance relationship to how her family’s ties to the city made her feel more at home there.
What inspired you to write this memoir?
Originally I just wanted to write about Hong Kong. The place itself inspired me, and writing became a way to catalogue and make sense of my experiences. But as I got further into the manuscript I realized I wanted people to actually read it. It became clear that I’d need to include my personal story to appeal to readers because that’s what appealed to me in the travel memoirs I read. Far away locations can be interesting, but a personal story that resonates with the experiences of real people is far more compelling. As I slowly opened up about my own life, it became easier to understand the growing process I was going through at the time. Writing the memoir morphed into a way to make sense of my feelings, perhaps even more than my surroundings, during a pivotal stage in my life.
You followed Ben to Hong Kong so the two of you would finally be together and then, after a month, he leaves you there to take a position in London. You couldn’t afford to chase after him because you had already committed yourself to a job in Hong Kong that would help you pay off your $80,000 student loan debt. Could you share with us some of your hopes and fears that came to mind when you said goodbye to Ben that fateful afternoon in September?
I was probably too optimistic for my own good. I thought the whole experience would be easier than it was, and didn’t realize how much turmoil I would end up feeling over the course of the year. I felt alone and disconnected in those first moments, but not as much as when the months dragged on and being together seemed less and less likely. The chances of the whole thing not working out were much greater than I let myself acknowledge at the time.
One of the love stories in your memoir follows your own relationship with the city of Hong Kong and how it unexpectedly charms you in so many ways. What was the most surprising thing about Hong Kong that you came to cherish?
I didn’t expect to love the energy so much. I’m a fairly reserved, introverted type, and it was surprising how much I loved the opportunity to be on the go and to see all sorts of different people around me every day. Hong Kong is enchanting, and living in such a vibrant city was more stimulating than I expected.
Your own family has an interesting connection to Hong Kong because your grandparents lived there for a period of time and your father was born there. How did your family’s ties to Hong Kong influence how you felt living alone there as well as your feelings about your relationship with Ben?
Hong Kong wasn’t 100% foreign to me, and I think that helped. I grew up hearing stories about Hong Kong and, although I never expected to live here, it had always been on my radar. I still meet people in the US who think Hong Kong is in Japan or who don’t understand the difference between Hong Kong and Mainland China, and that was never an issue for me. During my childhood, my dad used to talk about how much he’d like for us to move to China. He’d studied Mandarin and he had fond memories of his childhood in Asia. The prospect of an international life wasn’t as scary to me as it might be for someone whose family has always lived in the same town. Once I actually moved, it was encouraging to know that other people in my family had done it first. I even had the letters my grandma wrote home while she was living here in the late 1950s, and I’ve included excerpts in Year of Fire Dragons as a counterpoint to my own journey in Hong Kong. As for Ben, his stories about Hong Kong are guaranteed conversation starters around my relatives!
While in Hong Kong, you decide to buy a wedding dress, even though you weren’t certain if or when you would be getting married. You write, “I’d taken enough risks for Ben already. What was one more gamble that everything would work out?” Do you think that this kind of confidence is an example of how long-distance relationships can be a positive experience?
I think so. Looking back I’m still a little surprised I did that. It comes back to me being maybe a little too confident for my own good. On the other hand, long-distance relationships are difficult enough and you have to be hopeful and confident about your prospects in order for them to work. That kind of positive attitude can help carry you through the tougher times. I am lucky it turned out well, and the dress still fit me on my wedding day!
Now that you’ve survived a long-distance relationship, do you have any advice for anyone out there in the same situation? What do you think it takes to make a long-distance relationship successful?
Communication is absolutely the most important part of a relationship, especially a long-distance relationship. You have to be honest with each other about your concerns and feelings. It makes it much easier to trust the other person when you feel you can talk to them about anything, and without trust it won’t work at all. I think it’s also helpful to make plans for the end of the long-distance period, even though my own plans were thwarted a few times.
What do you hope readers come away with from your memoir?
I hope they’ll come away with a sense of optimism from my journey, and a reassurance that even during a tumultuous time like your early twenties, things can turn out better than you ever imagined possible. I also hope they’ll be as enchanted by Hong Kong as I am after reading about my adventures here!
In her post, Shannon writes about her own marriage to a half Chinese (from Hong Kong) and half British man she first met while studying abroad in London. She also shares an excerpt about how they first fell in love from her new memoir Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong (Blacksmith Books), which details that life-changing year she lived in Hong Kong while managing a long-distance relationship with him. It’s a beautifully written story about how far people will go for love — and the unexpected joys life can bring us when things don’t work out as planned.
My husband is half Chinese (from Hong Kong) and half British, and I am an American. Sometimes this means we connect easily, thanks to his Western side. He’s a native English speaker, and we share a common cultural language: American movies, Harry Potter, an independent streak, an appreciation for British humor.
He looks more like his English father, so he can easily pass for a Westerner — until he starts speaking Cantonese. We live in Hong Kong, and it’s always fun when my husband speaks Cantonese to shopkeepers, taxi drivers and acquaintances for the first time. We’ve had countless variations on the scene:
The man at the goldfish market explains something to us in tentative English. My husband asks a clarifying question in Cantonese. The goldfish seller stares at my husband’s Western features for a moment, then laughs and unleashes a string of compliments about his fluency. My husband explains that, yes, he is half English and half Chinese (I understand this part). The goldfish seller and my husband chat for a few minutes in Cantonese (I don’t understand this part).
Because he seems so Western at first, both culturally and in appearance, my husband’s Chinese side can come as a surprise. He has a strong sense of filial responsibility. He was raised in a Hong Kong family where the only acceptable career choices were doctor, banker or lawyer. He followed the common Hong Kong practice of living with his parents until our marriage (not counting the ten years he spent on his own in the UK). He has an all-consuming passion for good food: he cooks; he talks about restaurants a lot; he has strong opinions about frying pans and the right way to prepare instant noodles. This can be hard to match for an American girl who grew up on Kraft mac’n’cheese and weekly backyard barbecues.
On the other hand, I care more about saving face than he does. He worries that I’m too concerned about being embarrassed. He’s very good at having frank discussions and urging me to talk through problems until they’re resolved. It’s a quality that’s all his own.
Living at the intersection of two cultures has made him the perfect candidate for our multicultural relationship. He is good at compromise — a nonnegotiable part of mixed marriages — and at seeing things from different points of view. I’ve learned a lot from him.
As we settle into our second year of marriage, I wonder which parts of myself I’ll compromise. Will I become a bit more Hong Kong in my thinking? Will he become a bit more American? I suspect it’s both. All couples, whether we’re blending two or three distinct cultures or two families from different parts of town, have to learn how to hold on to the best parts of ourselves as we work to form new families.
More importantly, we have to learn how to speak each other’s languages. People are more than the sum of their cultures. We each have our own special brand of communication. Marriage is all about learning how to speak your partner’s language, no matter where you’re from.
In my new memoir published in Hong Kong this month, I share the story of how I followed my long distance boyfriend to Hong Kong and his company immediately sent him away to London. Over the course of one year I got to know the city on my own terms, which allowed me to better understand his culture — and myself.
Jocelyn has allowed me to share the first chapter of my book below. It is the beginning of our love story, the story that brought me to Hong Kong.
YEAR OF FIRE DRAGONS
The fire dragon trundled toward me through the crowded street. Smoke curled from the incense protruding from its long, thin body like thousands of spines on some mystical porcupine. Sweat poured down the faces and backs of every spectator. The fire dragon wound back and forth through the streets, faster and faster, dancing to the beat of drums. A wave of cheers rippled through the crowd each time it came near. The drums rattled the high-rises, the dragon danced, and the pavement shuddered under our feet.
This was the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong, a time to celebrate the moon goddess and her flight across the sky.
My flight wasn’t like that of Chang’e, the moon goddess who escaped her lover in a blaze of luminescence. I was flying toward mine. His gravitational field had pulled me across the sea, drawn me to a distant isle of fire dragons and skyscrapers. I’d follow him anywhere—even to Hong Kong. We hadn’t lived in the same country since we’d met, but this was our chance to be together, to build a life in the city where he grew up.
But one month ago, his company sent him to London.
I first met Ben in London, at a fencing club. I was a bookish American student on a semester abroad. He was an opportunity for a real live English romance, my very own Mr. Darcy, except that unlike Darcy, Ben was talkative—and half Chinese.
I’d taken up fencing several years before, attracted by the romance of sword fighting and the fact that it was something unique, historic, literary even. I wasn’t bad, and the sport brought me unexpected confidence. It seemed like a great way for an introvert like me to connect with people at the university in London.
When I pushed open the door to the club, the familiar buzz of the scoring machine and the squeak of athletic shoes on the floor reached my ears. I rocked on the sides of my feet, unsure how to join in. Ben came over immediately, introduced himself, and invited me to fence him. I was relieved at being included and already curious about this open-faced young man whose accent I couldn’t place. He won our first bout by one point; he always said I wouldn’t have dated him if I had been able to beat him.
We fenced a few more bouts, and then sat cross-legged in our matching gear, masks forgotten on the floor. He prodded at my shy shell; he asked me questions, joked about fencing, told me he was from Hong Kong. He had an eloquent vocabulary mixed with an offbeat sense of humor. He didn’t seem to mind when people didn’t get his jokes. He put me at ease, and I found myself stealing glances at him as I adjusted my equipment and met the other fencers. By the time I changed my shoes and left the gym, I was already lecturing myself about reading too much into his attention. I didn’t want to get swept away, blinded by the novelty of an international fling. But it was too late.
For two months, we wandered the streets of London together, kissed on street corners, and took spontaneous trips to Oxford and the coast. He took the time to get to know me, using our shared love of fencing to get me talking. He surprised me with his insight, his persistence. He seemed to understand why I, analytical and introverted, never quite fit into any group. As someone who had grown up shuttling between Hong Kong and London, not quite Chinese and not quite British, he knew what it was like to be an outsider. Ben had a gift for coaxing people to confide in him and trust him. Before long, he got even the most reserved, responsible American girl to give him handfuls of her heart.
When the semester ended, we said goodbye at Heathrow in a flurry of kisses and long-distance promises: “It will just be for a year, maybe two.”
“I can visit you in America.”
“I’ll get a job wherever you live after graduation.” Our confidence in each other was reckless and optimistic, but staying together felt like the only sensible thing to do.
In 2010, thoroughly in love, I moved to Hong Kong to be with him.
It lasted for one glorious month.
Ben left me in Hong Kong on the eve of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Instead of exploring the city with him, I was at the airport saying my goodbyes while the children of Hong Kong flooded the streets and parks with lanterns. Instead of walking beneath the Mid-Autumn moon together, we shared a fierce hug and made a hundred tiny promises. The next day, still reeling from the sheer solitude, I found my way to Tai Hang—to the incense and the drums. The fire dragon loomed, full of possibilities.
It had already grown dark, or as dark as it ever gets in the city, when I emerged from the subway into a night that felt nothing like the end of September. The humidity surrounded me like steam pouring out of a broken dumpling. I made my way along the street. An arch announced the festival in gold foil and tissue paper fringe. I found a spot beside a Chinese family of three or four generations. A group of Mainland girls chattered in shrill Mandarin in front of me. The balconies of a hundred apartments teetered over our heads.
I hadn’t had a chance to ask Ben what the fire dragon would be like before the airport security line swallowed him and carried him away. The fire dragon in my mind looked like a dancing, tuft-eared Pekinese dog, with people standing under a big sheet to form the body, holding up the head. Of course, that’s an image from a lion dance, not a dragon dance, I would soon learn. I was just starting to discover that Hong Kong was full of surprises—and I was ill prepared. I jumped up on my toes and looked for the Pekinese head.
The drums began. “Want me to hoist you up?” An American man stepped close behind me. He was tall, and the scent of stale alcohol mixed with the incense.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“You sure? You want a good view when they bring out the dragon,” he reached for my arms.
“I can see just fine.” I maneuvered away from the man, finding refuge on the other side of the Chinese family. My fingers curled tighter around my purse. Suddenly, I was aware just how alone I was in the crowd, and in the country.
“Why didn’t you just go to London instead of Hong Kong when you found out Ben would be leaving?” my friends had asked me. “You’re already moving across the world for him.” I wondered the same thing myself—now. But this was 2010. I wasn’t in a position to jet around the world after men lightly. I’d graduated from Colgate University with nearly $80,000 in student debt, debt I had taken on before the economy crumbled. Moving without a job was not an option. Employment would be hard to find in London for an English major with limited work experience and no visa. I didn’t have a chance.
Jobs were not easy to come by anywhere in the Western world. My generation faced the worst job market in living memory. My college-educated friends competed tooth-and-nail for part-time barista work, borrowed more money for graduate school, and moved in with their parents. There was a mounting sense of desperation among those of us who had taken out big student loans only to discover there was no work for us in our own country when we graduated.
Asia was another story.
There were rumors going around that this was where the jobs were to be found. Ben had found work in Hong Kong, his hometown. My own sister had recently begun teaching English in South Korea. So, I spent nearly a year applying and interviewing for a job in Hong Kong (and yes, living with my parents while I did it). When a local school emailed and asked me to be their new English teacher, it seemed the long distance part of our international romance, which had lasted two and half years by now, was finally done. I showed up with a work visa and a salary advance, ready to take on the city and the next stage in our relationship. Yet here I was, alone in a crowd as the fire dragon approached.
I couldn’t afford to give up my new job when Ben’s circumstances changed. With a one-way ticket and a monthly student loan payment of $935, I stayed in Hong Kong.
The drums pounded. A row of children appeared, carrying lanterns that bobbed above the crowds. Their glow mixed with the lights from the apartment buildings looming over our heads. My arms brushed an elbow on one side, a woman’s handbag on the other.
Ben had been lucky, really, to be sent to London. It was a one-year placement at a law firm with the prospect of a permanent contract afterwards. All I had to do was spend this year in Hong Kong looking for an opportunity in London where we could be reunited once again. “It’ll be for one more year, and then we’ll be together,” we promised each other as we set up our web cams. “We already know we can handle the whole long distance thing.” We plotted our reunion in a whirl of emails and long distance calls. “It’ll just be this year,” we said, “and then that’s it. No more long distance.”
Of course, the other thing people asked was, “What if you don’t get along when you finally do live in the same country?” That was a question I couldn’t answer.
As I stood in the Mid-Autumn crowd, little did I know that my move to Hong Kong would bring about our longest separation ever, a separation that would bring me face to face with the reality of the risk I had taken.
The pounding of the drums intensified. The people around me drew closer together, choking what little breeze there was. Finally, the fire dragon appeared, followed by more children carrying lanterns. I was surprised when I saw what it was really like. It had an elaborate head, made from branches twisted into impossible shapes and filled with a thicket of incense. The thin body was over 200 feet long and muscular bearers danced beneath its undulating shape. The people around me cheered as the dragon’s head passed us and then turned back on itself, leaving behind a million tiny trails of smoke. I felt a growing sense of excitement as the fire dragon whirled and darted through the streets. Its wiry, crackling body defied my expectations. It was fast. It was wild. I pushed forward so I could see better. I was a part of the crowd. I didn’t feel like a foreign girl, alone, in an interrupted romance. This was an adventure! I could do this; I could live in Hong Kong, alone. Ben and I would be together soon enough.
As the dragon twirled in front of me, I didn’t know that in nine months I’d be sitting on the floor of my single apartment, cell phone pressed to my ear, feeling the foreign ground shift beneath me, feeling a panic I’d been too confident to anticipate. I pulled my hair away from my neck, trying to find relief from the suffocating heat, too stubborn to guess at the coldness that was coming.
This was not what I had planned. Nothing happened the way I expected. This was Hong Kong.
As the rumble of the drums reached a crescendo, the men carrying the dragon pulled off the sticks of incense and passed them to the crowd. Within seconds, the fire dragon dispersed into a thousand tiny sparks in the night.
Thanks so much to Shannon for this post and lovely excerpt! Don’t forget, if you’re in the Hong Kong area this weekend and would love to have your very own signed copy of her excellent memoir, Shannon will be appearing at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on Sunday, November 9 at 10am at Room 202, Duke of Windsor Building. Tickets are $90 to attend (purchase yours here).
An anonymous woman writes of the Chinese man she once dated, “He made me alive and dead. He once left me sobbing on a hotel chaise lounge, naked and overlooking the Hong Kong skyline, and I remember thinking this was what it was like for an artist’s muse to become an artist’s mistress.”
It’s a powerful story of an all-consuming, passionate love between one Western woman and one Chinese man that ultimately burned out — but will never be forgotten.
Do you have a gripping story of passion or a guest post you’re dying to share on Speaking of China? Learn how at the submit a post page.
I found myself falling in love with a man who amazed me. I’ll call him Richard. From his view on the world, to how he would take care of me, and how he invited me to China after only really being together for two months. It. Was. Amazing. He was intelligent, hilarious, and dressed impeccably, He had ambition that matched mine and was damn sexy. Tall, dark, beautiful. Strong, but elegant and delicate. Before this whole experience, I had never dated a Chinese man, let alone, someone who hailed from another country. I was two years older than him (26 and 24), and I was okay with it because of his deep maturity and knowledge and love for the world. All I wanted was to know more about him. Though I have been in love before, I had never felt the pure need I had for Richard. It was real and scary and intoxicating.
We met at a work party — Richard, a citizen of China, and I, a Midwestern girl. It was a whirlwind. Our first week together was spent in three different cities, jumping from hotel to hotel as we traveled with our work. His English wasn’t very good, and I speak no Mandarin. I almost liked how he struggled with the language, and how I had to simplify things just a bit. Instead of the usual nonsense I have to go through with native English speakers, he and I had to cut through all the crap and just say what we really meant.
It was refreshing.
Luckily, we found ourselves in the same city for the next month. Unluckily, our jobs considered dating a no-no, so we had to figure out ways for none of our coworkers to find out about the beautiful thing we had discovered. This entailed sneaking into each other’s rooms at night, only having midnight meals and gifts mysteriously being left in my room. One day, I had found a bottle of perfume hidden under my pillow. My good friend and co-worker, who I spent most of my free-time with, questioned where I got the scent. I struggled for an answer and internally swooned.
All of this sneaking was almost romantic, and added a sense of urgency and danger to all of our rendezvous’. It was entirely worth the rushed meal, just to be able to look into his beautiful eyes and feel the power he had over me. I still get chills thinking of our first kiss, outside of a sushi restaurant at two o’clock in the morning, no one else on the street. Our conversations were sparkling and we had this power over one another that was so electrically charged. My emotions ran so high for him, and his for me.
But still, most of our communication was via WeChat, where he was my only contact, and consisted of nearly 70% of my phone’s activity.
Just as soon as it all happened, Richard was on his way back to China. Now, being too many miles apart, things really got interesting.
The instant he landed in Hong Kong, he made it very clear what he wanted. Me. To not hang out with too many guys (but most of my friends are guys!) and not drink too much (but my hometown is KNOWN for beer!) and to text him from the moment I woke up, to the moment I went to sleep.
And I did. And he did. And we both became obsessed.
We texted from my morning, to way way into his night. I think each of us were only getting about four hours of sleep. Of course, we were still keeping things secret from our friends and common co-workers, so we had no time to Skype and could barely talk on the phone. Strictly WeChat. Our conversations were normal. Flirty, romantic, sexy. Up until a week before I was scheduled to leave.
A week before, his contact suddenly became slack. Not texting when he woke up, barely giving me details of his day. So I pulled back (with lots of struggle, of course). I was hurt and confused and couldn’t figure out where the change came from. All I knew is that I wanted to see him again so I could touch him, and kiss him, and have the bright conversations we were enjoying only a month ago.
I got angry. He got angry. And anger does not translate well on WeChat. Three days before leaving, I found myself awake at four in the morning, sobbing because he wasn’t responding to me. Richard assured me everything was alright, that he was busy preparing for my arrival. I understood.
When I landed for my three week trip, things got even weirder. I wasn’t greeted with a kiss. I wasn’t greeted with a hug, or even a ‘hello’.
“Wow that is a big suitcase.”
My first night in Hong Kong was spent kissing, then fighting, then making love, and fighting again. I felt like I was in a music video. The trip was off to a bad start and working things out was difficult. He was acting strangely. I was acting strangely, our whole vibe was different than it was before.
After a good talk and couple days of me wandering this foreign city by myself, we were better. But looking back, maybe we were faking our happiness. The controlling side of him took over, and my people-pleasing side was brought to surface. Our personalities clashed. Without the secrets, and sneaking, our ‘love’ was different than before. I thought he was urgent before to keep us from getting caught. But as he rushed me through a fantastic dinner, I saw a side of his personality that I didn’t like. And when I protested, he would call me selfish. I would fall to my knees and give in, abandoning half of my food.
We had our ups and downs, and told each other we loved one another. We fought passionately, made love passionately, and I felt pain in my gut when I made him mad. It was a dangerous relationship.
After three weeks of traveling, it was time to part. I think we both knew it was our end. When I landed, he messaged me making sure I made it home okay. I told him I had.
And that was it.
Though the specifics in my tale are lacking, the feelings stirred up just by writing this assure me the experience ever even happened. It makes me want to message him. But I know I can’t. I know we are both better off. This whole ordeal is two months old, and I still feel like my life is lacking a certain something, something toxic.
Maybe it was the lust, the passion. The way he would hold me at night, like I was a life-raft. He made me alive and dead. He once left me sobbing on a hotel chaise lounge, naked and overlooking the Hong Kong skyline, and I remember thinking this was what it was like for an artist’s muse to become an artist’s mistress. I wanted to think I had the power, but if I really thought that I was a fool. He didn’t have it. I didn’t have it. The power was in us, together.
And I think letting go of that power is the worst thing I have ever done.
Though preferring to remain anonymous, the author is a young professional with bad luck in love.
Monday, October 13, 7:45pm – Hong Kong Jewish Community Center (Reading and Signing)
Everyone is welcome to attend this event, but due to tight security you MUST be on the guest list in order to enter. Contact Erica Lyons at [email protected] to get your name on the list. Bring your ID the night of the event to get in, plus a cover charge (HK$65 for JCC members, HK$100 for non-JCC members) that includes dessert and a drink. Books will be for sale.
Tuesday, October 14, 6:30pm – Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club (Talk)
Susan will be speaking to the Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society (WiPS) about memoir writing, but anyone can attend this event. There will be a fee to get in (HK$200 for non-WiPS members and HKD$100 for WiPS members). Appetizers will be served and books will be for sale here, too.
Thursday, October 16, 6:30pm – Bookazine in Exchange Square (How Does One Dress To Buy Dragonfruit? Launch Party)
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