Back to the beginning
Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Chan Ling Yap is blessed with beginner’s luck. Her first novel, Sweet Offerings, published in 2009, received rave reviews. Two years later, her second novel Bitter-Sweet Harvest also became a success.
Currently based in the United Kingdom, the fitness instructor and full-time author has recently completed her third novel, New Beginnings, which like her earlier two works, revolves around her Chinese roots.
Chan said in an email interview: “It is common among authors to create characters that they feel they can relate to most strongly. This, of course, does not preclude me from including characters who are non-Chinese.
“In Bitter-Sweet Harvest, Hussein plays a dominant role, while in my latest novel, the important non-Chinese character is an Englishman called Grimes.”
Her latest novel is set in the southern province of Guangxi in the 1800s. Amidst the turmoil of the Civil War and the Opium Wars, a woman is kidnapped and her husband is shipped out to Singapore to work as a labourer.
It tells the story of one man’s plight as a result of opium addiction and his journey to riches in British Malaya.
It was her UK literary agent who suggested that an epic drama of the Opium Wars in China, told from the perspective of people who bore the brunt of the wars’ impact, would make an interesting read.
“The evils of the Opium Wars had been generally swept under the carpet,” says the 66-year-old author, who holds a Ph.D in Economics and had lectured at Universiti Malaya before joining the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations in Rome, where she worked for 19 years.
Chan pointed out that the two Opium Wars (1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860) were also the periods with the largest outflow of Chinese from China to foreign lands.
“Singapore, Malaysia, and California (in the United States) were ranked as the main destinations for those leaving China at that time.”
Chan had taken the same Malaysian family she had featured in her first two novels – Sweet Offerings and Bitter-Sweet Harvest – and took them back in time to create a story which saw them leaving China for the first time.
“The biggest challenge I faced when writing this novel is that I have very little from which I could draw on, except from my own experience and life, because the story was set in the 1800s,” she said. “I have to start the novel from a totally blank canvas.”
In order to get a feel for the period and set the ambience for the novel, Chan visited museums, read a wide range of books, did endless amount of research on the internet and browsed through old pictures.
“I have been to China on several business trips,” she said. “I must say that those trips were useful because they gave me an insight into the psyche of the Chinese people.”
What was most difficult and challenging for her was depicting how Malaysia (then Malaya) and Singapore were like in the 1800s. There were very few good books written about the Malayan history and heritage during that period.
“The migration of large numbers of people to Malaya from China in the 1800s with the introduction of rubber and the railway lines are well documented.
“However, there is very little written on their personal lives, for example, how they lived, how they moved from place to place, what was their fortune like when they first stepped into Malaya and so on.”
One inspiration for the book came from Yap Kwan Seng who was the fifth and last Kapitan China in Kuala Lumpur.
“He was my great-grandfather,” she said. “Sadly, I knew very little about him as I have no contact with his other descendants. I knew that he arrived in Malaya as a coolie and rose to importance and wealth. Beyond that, I had very little knowledge about his personal life.”
When asked what had motivated her to write fiction, she said: “In my professional career, first as a lecturer and associate professor in Universiti Malaya, and then as a senior economist within the United Nations, I have always written and published extensively. However, these works were academic and technical in nature.”
When she retired, she wanted to write something that was completely different from what she had written then.
“The idea of writing a fiction and of using my imagination just sprung from nowhere,” she said. “I love writing fiction because fiction takes me to areas in my mind which I never knew existed.”
Chan feels that there are still many areas in Chinese history for her to explore.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *