Evoking Hong Kong: Q&A with the author of 'The Piano Teacher'
In her first novel, a high stakes love story, Janice Y.K. Lee keenly describes the expat social whirl and everyday flavor of Hong Kong, shifting between 1952 and the tumultuous Japanese invasion in late 1941. Out on January 13, The Piano Teacher has already won praise from big names like Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love).
Flipping through a review copy at work, I found myself immediately swept up—in part because of a personal connection. I've been to Hong Kong repeatedly as my husband, like Lee, grew up there in a non-Chinese family. I e-mailed Lee, curious about where to find traces of the old Hong Kong she depicts, how the expat community has changed, and what she makes of the local cultural scene.
Read on for Lee's perspective and a video of her discussing the novel…
How did you go about researching the Hong Kong of the '40s and '50s?
I read a lot of memoirs by people who had been in the camps and who had lived in Hong Kong at the time. I really loved the feel of the writing of the time, which gave me immediate insight into how people talked and how they had parties, and how they related to each other, etc. I also watched a lot of movies like Love is a Many Splendored Thing. Anything that was set in the '40s or '50s I would watch with a heightened interest for the details, like what kind of coat or dress they were wearing, what they ate at restaurants, or what kind of car they were driving.
Where can travelers go to find traces of old Hong Kong, particularly from the period of the Japanese occupation?
Unfortunately, there are not a lot of old buildings left in Hong Kong. In the middle of Central, Statue Square is still there, pretty much unchanged, and the Legco [Legislative Council] Building is in the old traditional style, a wide, large, gracious building surrounded by skyscrapers. The Helena May is still around; it's a women's club with dining and lodging facilities and it's very colonial in feel and look still, but it's a private club. Tea at The Peninsula is fun, but it's pretty modern now. Still, it's nice to go and have a proper English tea.
Are there other places you would suggest readers visit if they make it to Hong Kong?
The Repulse Bay is a large arcade that overlooks the beach. In it, there is a restaurant called The Verandah that I remember visiting as a child in the 1970s for its Sunday brunches. If you squint your eyes very, very hard, you can imagine you are back in the '50s! I live close by so I'm always there for the supermarket, coffee shop, and also a restaurant called Spices that I love. Visitors to Hong Kong always go to The Peak but I fail to see the attraction, although the view is pretty spectacular.
How do you think the current expat scene in Hong Kong compares to that of the novel?
In many ways, it can feel very similar. Many an afternoon, I'm sitting at a table at a club with other women watching our children play on the lawn. There is still a languorous, non-American feel to much of life. Of course, the pace is more frenetic and it's very international, but many women are not working and their husbands are working a lot, and you form your own community. The expats are still the privileged minority, although attitudes have changed for the better. This is a very specific type I'm describing though. Of course, there are many sorts of expats: young, hard-driving expats, older people who have been here for ages, etc.
Hong Kong initially struck me as thriving, chaotic, and shopping-crazed (not unlike NYC), but I've wondered about the cultural scene. How do you find it to be living there as a writer? Are there local organizations or events that you'd recommend?
People always complain about the cultural scene in Hong Kong. And they're not wrong. Although there has been an effort to bring culture into Hong Kong, more often than not it seems a bit forced. The Arts Festival is a several-week event that highlights many different performances, many of which are good, but what ends up happening is that you have to cram all your "culture" into a few weeks, which is a bit hard to digest. The Literary Festival is good for book nuts like me. Having lived in New York, where culture was an enormous smorgasbord you could pick from any night of the week, it's odd to have comparatively little to choose from here. There are often productions that come into town but there's that…and often nothing else (I'm talking about a Western taste here). I don't speak Cantonese so I can't speak to the local scene. As a writer, it's been good, actually! I just read books and stay at home and write!
In the three-minute video clip below, Lee shares more about the book and the city—including her love of Hong Kong's quieter, greener side and the long-time phenomenon of people washing up there to reinvent themselves.
A few good links: Italy's holiday witch
O little town of Bethlehem, Pa. "White 26-point Moravian stars twinkle into life on every porch…" [Chicago Tribune] Crapped out? Vegas still offers fun at low stakes These days looking for cheap fun isn't a sucker's bet. [AP] Australia's National Breakfast Spread Gets Its Own Museum Vegemite is now behind glass, where it belongs. [Jaunted] A bespoke tour of Manhattan Bicycling around the island on the Waterfront Greenway. [Guardian] Taking Flight with Italy's Holiday Witch In many parts of the country it's an "ugly, broom-flying and present-wielding witch who keeps children on their toes" for Epiphany. [Spiegel]
First Venice, now Rome drenched by floods
The swollen Tiber River was expected to overflow its banks on Friday after days of foul weather in Rome and throughout Italy, according to Reuters. The city's smaller Aniene River already burst, and Mayor Gianni Alemanno declared a state of emergency: "In Rome, it has been like an earthquake, with more rain in one night than normally comes down in all of December." More than four inches of rain fell on Thursday night alone. Roman authorities are urging people to use public transportation instead of cars as many roads and tunnels have been affected. (A left-wing trade union cooperated by calling off a transportation strike planned for Friday, as reported in The Times.) Firefighters evacuated people stuck in cars and on the ground floors of buildings; police divers found one woman dead in her car, which was submerged in a suburban underpass. Earlier in December, Venice experienced its worst case of acqua alta ("high water") in 22 years. The NY Daily News published photos of people wading through knee-high water and St. Mark's Square awash in almost three feet of water. It's déjà vu for Venetians this week, with more alarm bells and another bout of high tides.
Exclusive: New York's holiday windows as festive as ever
It's been a wet, slightly grim week here in New York, and that means that we at least could use a bit more holiday cheer than usual. There may not be any snow covering the sidewalks yet (just puddles), but at least the holiday displays are out in full force. To get a taste, check out photographer Ian Gittler's slide show of the department store windows that make New York's midtown such an extraordinary place this time of year. What holiday windows and other decorations have you seen in your travels that make you pause and take a second look? Let us know in the comments.
How to see a space shuttle launch live
Go for lift off! NASA will conduct 10 more launches of space shuttles before it retires the Endeavour, Discovery, and Atlantis. If you don’t see one of these launches by the end of 2010, you may have to wait a while. A new series of manned spacecraft, Orion, might not take to the skies until 2014. Pick a three-day launch window NASA regularly updates the launch schedule on its website, but the agency usually changes the schedule repeatedly—including at the last minute. Plan to be around Cape Canaveral, Fla., for at least two days—the scheduled day and the day after. (We suggest you arrive a day ahead of the launch date so that you can take a tour and snap photos up close of the space shuttle on the launch pad.) The area immediately around Cape Canaveral isn't that interesting, but Orlando is about a 45-minute drive west, and the Spanish colonial town of St. Augustine, Fla., is only about two hours north. Here's where to catch the best views The closest you can get to a rocket launch is the NASA Causeway, which offers a clear view from a spot five-and-a-half-miles from the launch pad. At this spot, you'll hear official launch countdown commentary and have access to restrooms. Visitors must buy a launch transportation ticket and admission to the Kennedy Visitor Complex. The other officially sponsored option is The Rocket Garden at the main buildings at the Kennedy Visitor Complex. At the Rocket Garden, you’ll be able to hear launch briefings, talks by astronauts, and a live NASA countdown. You'll also see video presentations on a jumbo-sized screen. But the Center is six miles from the launch pad, and a treeline partially obstructs the view of the take-off. Tickets for both sites, which include a tour of the Kennedy Space center, become available from the Kennedy Space Center by phone at 321/449-4444 about six weeks before a launch. They cost $40 to $85, varying by the launch date you pick and the location you choose. Tickets are limited. The next launches are Discovery on February 12, 2009, Endeavour on May 15, 2009, and Atlantis on July 30, 2009. Updates about future launch tickets can be found on the space center website: kennedyspacecenter.com A word of caution If your launch is rescheduled up to the day before, your tickets will be valid for the rescheduled launch date. But if you enter the Center and the launch is rescheduled to another date, your launch viewing tickets are considered “used” and you'll have to buy a new ticket for the new launch date. And if a launch is canceled (or "scrubbed," in NASA lingo), you don't get a refund. Rather save money? Watch from an off-site location. NASA recommends four different locations (the first three listed on this webpage are free). Listen for launch details on the radio on AM stations 1240 and 1350. Can't make it to Florida? NASA TV streams the launch from its website. Here's a minute-and-a-half video with a synchronized collection of space shuttle launches. –Katie Jakub