Evoking Hong Kong: Q&A with the author of 'The Piano Teacher'

By Kate Appleton
January 12, 2022
Courtesy Penguin Group

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.

More on Literary Travel


A Family Trip to Hong Kong

Fresh Air: Hong Kong Gets Green


Save up to 50% on Hotels

1 rooms, 1 guests
Keep reading

Celebrating haggis and Robert Burns

Scotland wants you to taste its quintessential dish in the land where the idea of cooking liver, oatmeal, and onions inside a sheep's belly was first dreamed up. Really, it's not so bad—and just because my name is MacNeil doesn't mean you can't trust me. I'm not the only fan. In fact, the country's national poet, Robert Burns, loved the stuff so much he dedicated an entire ode to it. Each year, on his January 25th birthday, every self-respecting Scot holds a Burns Dinner in honor of the man and recites the Address to the Haggis before serving it with a lot of whisky. If you think you have to be there in order to get what all the fuss is about, well, you're in luck: Last-minute discount packages to experience Burns Night in Scotland were just announced. The three-night deals to Edinburgh or Glasgow start at $499 and include a traditional Burns Night Supper, a city tour, transfers, breakfast daily, and either an evening at a local pub or a ghost tour. This January is even more special because it's the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birthday, and Scotland is using the occasion to launch Homecoming 2009, a yearlong series of events celebrating Burns and other Scottish favorites such as whisky and golf. As for the "neeps and tatties" usually served alongside haggis? Don't look at me—you're on your own there! RELATED Scotland's Big Bard Year: Robert Burns's Festivities


A few good links: Is your travel agent crooked?

White Noise for No Noise: Bliss on the Plane White noise on your MP3 player helps make a nightmare flight more bearable. [Travelocity] Shine a light on it An ultraviolet light to see how clean your hotel surfaces are [Boston Globe] A walk in the park For the holiday season, many amusement parks dress up, slow down, and attract a milder crowd than usual. [New York Times] 8 ways to tell if your travel pro is crooked Demanding that payment be made only in cash is not a good sign. [] 10 Seriously Unusual & Outlandishly Weird Asian Hotels The one shaped like a toilet is my favorite. [ProTraveller] Versace Mansion in South Beach begins tours The $65 tour includes a stop to admire the pool, "made of more than a million Italian mosaic tiles and 24-karat gold pieces." [AP]


A rare peek at Homeland Security's files on travelers

The oversize white envelope bore the blue logo of the Department of Homeland Security. Inside, I found 20 photocopies of the government's records on my international travels. Every overseas trip I've taken since 2001 was noted. I had requested the files after I had heard that the government tracks "passenger activity." Starting in the mid-1990s, many airlines handed over passenger records. Since 2002, the government has mandated that the commercial airlines deliver this information routinely and electronically. A passenger record typically includes the name of the person traveling, the name of the person who submitted the information while arranging the trip, and details about how the ticket was bought, according to documents published by the Department of Homeland Security. Records are made for citizens and non-citizens who cross our borders. An agent from U.S. Customs and Border Protection can generate a travel history for any traveler with a few keystrokes on a computer. Officials use the information to prevent terrorism, acts of organized crime, and other illegal activity. I had been curious about what's in my travel dossier, so I made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a copy. I'm posting here a few sample pages of what officials sent me. My biggest surprise was that the Internet Protocol (I.P.) address of the computer used to buy my tickets via a Web agency was noted. On the first document image posted here, I've circled in red the I.P. address of the computer used to buy my pair of airline tickets. [An I.P. address is assigned to every computer on the Internet. Each time that computer sends an e-mail—or is used to make a purchase via a Web browser—it has to reveal its I.P. address, which tells its geographic location.] The rest of my file contained details about my ticketed itineraries, the amount I paid for tickets, and the airports I passed through overseas. My credit card number was not listed, nor were any hotels I've visited. In two cases, the basic identifying information about my traveling companion (whose ticket was part of the same purchase as mine) was included in the file. Perhaps that information was included by mistake. Some sections of my documents were blacked out by an official. Presumably, this information contains material that is classified because it would reveal the inner workings of law enforcement. I have grayed out other parts of the documents because they contain information, such as my passport number, that I'd rather not share. The parts I've blocked out are colored gray to distinguish from the government censor's black marker. Here's the lowdown on the records. The commercial airlines send these passenger records to Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. Computers match the information with the databases of federal departments, such as Treasury, Agriculture, and Homeland Security. Computers uncover links between known and previously unidentified terrorists or terrorist suspects, as well as suspicious or irregular travel patterns. Some of this information comes from foreign governments and law enforcement agencies. The data is also crosschecked with American state and local law enforcement agencies, which are tracking persons who have warrants out for their arrest or who are under restraining orders. The data is used not only to fight terrorism but also to prevent and combat acts of organized crime and other illegal activity. Officials use the information to help decide if a passenger needs to have additional screening. Case in point: After overseas trips, I've stood in lines at U.S. border checkpoints and had my passport swiped and my electronic file examined. A few times, something in my record has prompted officers to pull me over to a side room, where I have been asked additional questions. Sometimes I've had to clarify a missing middle initial. Other times, I have been referred to a secondary examination. (I've blogged about this before.) When did this electronic data collection start? In 1999, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (then known as the U.S. Customs Service) began receiving passenger identification information electronically from certain air carriers on a voluntary basis, though some paper records were shared prior to that. A mandatory, automated program began about 6 years ago. Congress funds this Automated Targeting System's Passenger Screening Program to the tune of about $30 million a year. How safe is your information? Regulations prohibit officials from sharing the records of any traveler—or the government's risk assessment of any traveler—with airlines or private companies. A record is kept for 15 years—unless it is linked to an investigation, in which case it can be kept indefinitely. Agency computers do not encrypt the data, but officials insist that other measures—both physical and electronic—safeguard our records. I wonder if the government's data collecting is relevant and necessary to accomplish the agency's purpose in protecting our borders. The volume of data collected, and the rate at which the records is growing and being shared with officials nationwide, suggests that the potential for misuse could soar out of hand. Others may wonder if the efforts are effective. For instance, I asked security expert Bruce Schneier Schneider about the Feds' efforts to track passenger activity, and he responded by e-mail: "I think it's a waste of time. There's this myth that we can pick terrorists out of the crowd if we only knew more information." On the other hand, some people may find it reassuring that the government is using technology to keep our borders safe. What do you think? Feel free to post a comment, below. Oh, one more thing: Are your records worth seeing? Maybe not, unless you've been experiencing a problem crossing our nation's borders. For one thing, the records are a bit dull. In my file, for instance, officials had blacked out the (presumably) most fascinating parts, which were about how officials assessed my risk profile. What's more, the records are mainly limited to information that airline and passport control officials have collected, so you probably won't be surprised by anything you read in them. Lastly, there may be a cost. While there was no charge to me when I requested my records, you might charged a fee of up to $50 if there is difficulty in obtaining your records. Of course, there's a cost to taxpayers and to our nation's security resources whenever a request is filed, too. However, if you are being detained at the border or if you suspect a problem with your records, then by all means request a copy. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is required by law to make your records available to you, with some exceptions. Your request must be made in writing on paper and be signed by you. Ask to see the "information relating to me in the Automated Targeting System." Say that your request is "made pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, as amended (5 U.S.C. 552)." Add that you wish to have a copy of your records made and mailed to you without first inspecting them. Your letter should, obviously, give reasonably sufficient detail to enable an official to find your record. So supply your passport number and mailing address. Put a date on your letter and make a copy for your own records. On your envelope, you should conspicuously print the words “FOIA Request." It should be addressed to “Freedom of Information Act Request,” U.S. Customs Service, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW., Washington, DC 20229. Be patient. I had wait for up to a year to receive a copy of my records. Then if you believe there's an error in your record, ask for a correction by writing a letter to the Customer Satisfaction Unit, Office of Field Operations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Room 5.5C, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20229.


How Solo Travel Changed My Life (And How It Can Change Yours Too)

This article was written by Jessica Festa and originally appeared on Yahoo Travel. I never thought I would travel solo. It kind of just…happened. Growing up, my vacations consisted of Caribbean cruises and road trips spent searching for thrilling roller coasters and America’s best beaches. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Sydney at the age of 20 that I got the itch to begin expanding my travel horizons. Inspired by Australia’s rich Thai cuisine culture, I decided I wanted to go to Thailand to try the real thing.  I started saving immediately upon my return home to New York, planning to head to Southeast Asia the next summer. Right after Christmas I began asking friends and family if they would be interested in visiting Thailand with me that summer. Doing homestays, hiking through rice terraces, taking cooking classes, perusing night markets, and spending some time volunteering—who could resist such an adventure? Apparently, everyone I knew.  When the time came to book my ticket, I was faced with a big decision: Travel solo or stay home and give up on an experience I had been looking forward to for months. I worried I would feel awkward or that I would be lonely. I worried I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone because of language barriers. I worried about finding accommodation and ordering food and getting ripped off. But most of all, I worried I would miss out on an enriching opportunity. A round-trip ticket to Bangkok, please. How many passengers? One!  As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried. Solo travel has changed my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined or anticipated, and if you take the leap, it’ll change yours too. Here’s how: Your Self-Esteem Will Skyrocket Since my first solo travel experience in Thailand I’ve had many others: A summer through Europe, three months through South America, an adventurous journey exploring French Polynesia, some alone time in Morocco, and numerous solo trips around the United States. You see, every time I travel solo it’s like a self-esteem boost as I’m reminded of all that I am capable of.  Traveling with others, you tend to rely on different people for different things. Maybe Joe handles the map because he’s good at navigation while Jenn smooths out any ordeals because she’s an excellent problem solver. When you’re traveling solo, you’re responsible for it all: Reading the map, navigating local transportation, communicating through language barriers to order food or a bus ticket, problem solving when you miss your train or your motorbike runs out of gas, getting un-lost in unfamiliar cities, and any travel mishap in between. And guess what? You’ll do it! You may not think you can handle all the tasks that come with solo travel, but you’ll surprise yourself. Because when you’re looking out for yourself and a challenge comes your way you’ll accomplish anything and everything.  Related: Scared to Travel Solo? Try a River Cruise You Will Learn to Shine  Before I began traveling solo I was much more reliant on other people. I was shy and would hide within the circle of my friends. After traveling solo as a female, however, I realized I could be a social superstar if I tried. I think I truly reached my full socializing potential when partaking in some solo female travel through Europe. The culture is extremely social in itself, with people mingling and sharing wine in public squares and the ability to make friends on every corner. Suddenly, people were coming up and starting conversations with me in money exchanges, train stations, parks, buses, piazzas, and hostels.  As I assimilated more into the European culture and the friendliness of the backpacker circuit, I began initiating conversations myself. I would bring a bottle of wine to a park, offering to share with picnickers in exchange for some cheese and bread, or I would invite people from a walking tour out for drinks at night. I made a lot of great friends, many whom I still keep in touch with. Even more, I realized how easy it was to make friends once you came out of your shell, a skill that has helped me in work, friendship, and relationships. You Will Develop Independence  While I’m thankful to have always had such helpful parents, being young and inexperienced in the world left me dependent on other people; however, one solo travel trip to Asia left me transformed. When you’re traveling solo, independence isn’t something you need to try to attain; it’s just something that happens naturally. There is nobody there to rely on for money, to watch your luggage when you go to the bathroom or show you the way when you get lost. It’s all up to you. And the more you figure these things out, the more independent you become. I can remember a time when my luggage was lost on a flight from Munich to Nice. It took me a week to get it back, and the airline made me travel 12 hours to pick it up, which made me almost miss my train, which made me almost get to my hostel too late to check-in. Yes it was a hassle, but I figured it out and solved the problem—all on my own.  Related: The Unofficial Solo Female Traveler’s Manifesto Open-Mindedness Will Become Second Nature The best thing about traveling solo is that it forces you to interact with locals and not just talk to your travel buddies from home. When you visit a foreign place you must adapt to the local culture, figuring out how to order food, dress appropriately, and ride the local transport system. If you don’t know how to use a squat toilet in Thailand they’re not going to roll out the red carpet for you and bring you a flusher. You figure these things out as you go, and as you encounter new situations and cultural facets you’re able to engage, process, and react to them without influence from others.  For example, when backpacking through South America I spent much time riding the bus. This is a cultural experience in itself, as you sit with locals for 20 hours at a time, meet local artisans, hear traditional musicians, sample typical foods and see what the farmers are selling. If I were traveling with a friend I may have had to deal with judgmental comments or persuasive opinions, or I might have been too consumed talking with my companion to actually notice the everyday nuances of culture going on around me. Solo female travel has allowed me to take culture in and interact with it without distractions, transforming me into a more worldly and open-minded individual. You Will Experience Pure Freedom  Probably the greatest gift solo female travel has given my life is the experience of ultimate freedom. When you travel solo you decide where you’ll go, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. There’s nobody trying to change your plans and there’s no need to compromise. You’re in complete control of your travel experience, and it feels good. As I’ve gotten used to traveling alone, I enjoy traveling without making plans. When I arrive to a place I discover it organically, asking for recommendations from locals and using CouchSurfing to meet new people. I change my plans daily based on how I’m feeling and who I meet. Life’s one big adventure full of experiences to be had, and there is nobody there to tell me I can’t.  WATCH: Taste-Testing Greenland’s Finest Microbrew Beers You’ll Remember That It Isn’t Permanent  I think what helped assuage my fears from the get-go was the realization that I really was in control of the trip planning, down to the fact that I could hop on a plane home if I really felt uncomfortable. Many people seem to forget that just because you make a decision to travel somewhere solo doesn’t mean it’s permanent. Once you arrive at your destination give yourself a few days to get used to being on your own and orienting yourself. If you genuinely feel terrified or miserable after giving it a fair chance, change your location or go home. When you’re traveling solo, it’s all up to you. My Most Important Lesson  The most important thing solo female travel has taught me is that anything is possible. It’s opened the world for me and made it a smaller and larger place all at the same time. While it’s easier than ever to cross seas and explore new continents, there are so many experiences to be had and so many interesting people to meet. I’ve gone from blindly believing stereotypes and what I hear on the news to experiencing places and cultures firsthand, creating my own truths. And while I know there are bad people and dangerous places in the world, solo female travel has turned me into an optimist that believes there are many more safe places and people with kind hearts. Solo travel has taught me how much more worthwhile life can be when you live it to the fullest without regrets.  Would you ever travel solo? If you already have, has the experience taught you any valuable lessons? Please share in the comments below.  More from Jessie on a Journey: Exploring Sustainable Adventure In The Resort Destination Of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic My Most Ridiculous Bus Encounters Backpacking South America   Quiz: What Type of Traveler Are You?