P.P. Wong puts down her life as a BBC into a book

  • Books
  • Thursday, 24 Dec 2015

For her debut novel, Wong drew on her experience of being an ‘inbetweener’ – ‘Not really white, not really Chinese. Someone who lives between two cultures,’. — GUO SHENG

It was a terrible sight for an eight-year-old girl to witness: one boy beating up another right in front of her.

She knew she could not stand by and do nothing. A sense of justice boiled up within her. Mustering her courage, she carefully stepped towards the bully.

“Hey, what are you doing?” she bravely questioned him.

The bully shot her a disgusted look. “You’ve no right to talk to me. You’re Chinese!” he spat.

This was the moment that P.P. Wong came face to face with the ugliness that is racism.

She remembers it vividly, even to this day, recalling the scene as if it had occurred yesterday.

“It’s scarier at nights. There would be youths gathered in a group, shouting at you and asking you to go back to China,” she says about growing up in a London suburb.

“I remember when I was a teenager, I wore this hoodie and walked through these areas and looking like a bad boy. I was quite tall.

“When you look back, it’s kind of funny but it’s also sad because I had to go through all that,” says Wong.

And this is exactly what the young protagonist of Wong’s highly successful debut novel, The Life Of A Banana, deals with, on top of many other things, including a nasty grandmother.

Told through the eyes of 12-year-old Xing Li, Banana tackles issues of racism, bullying, and the harsh realities faced by kids in the British-born Chinese community, or the BBC, as Wong calls it.

str2_dkwong_ma_coverBanana hit the bookstores last year to rave reviews (including Star2’s, published in January this year) and even got the 33-year-old writer longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 (the eventual winner was Ali Smith for How To Be Both).

In fact, Wong, who completed her bachelor’s degree in anthropology and law at the London School of Economics, is the first BBC novelist to get a publishing deal in Britain.

She is currently working on her second novel and immediately notes that it’s not a sequel to Banana at our interview last month when she was visiting Kuala Lumpur.

Born in Paddington, London, to Singaporean parents, Wong is quick to dispel any notion that her heroine is in fact ... her.

The only similarity between Xing Li and herself, says Wong, is being the “inbetweener”.

“Not really white, not really Chinese. Someone who lives between two cultures,” Wong says.

An adolescent identity crisis, if you like. And this phenomenon is shared by many BBCs, says Wong.

But don’t be mistaken. Wong is very much rooted in her Chinese culture, a far cry from her banana protagonist, a term Malaysians are familiar with and which refers to a Chinese person with Western sensibilities.

Wong says she grew up as Chinese as any Chinese could.

“I ate Chinese food at home, my mum made me and my two brothers attend Chinese classes on Saturdays and after school, I would come home and do the mummy-kind of homework on top of my own homework.”

But if it wasn’t for her “tiger mum”, Wong may not have become a writer. Besides taking her to the local library every week, Wong’s mother made her read stories out loud, complete with different voices for the different characters, and recorded it all on a tape recorder.

And that was not all.

“She would write different words on little slips of yellow paper and put them in a little jar. She would shake the jar and then I would pick out a word and I had to spell it. It’s kind of a strange game really if you think about it!” Wong recalls, laughing.

It was Wong’s love for books that made her notice that she wasn’t able to find any books “about the Chinese people, people with black hair and brown eyes, who would have stories that were similar to my experiences.”

The closest she got to anything like that at a young age was the Topsy And Tim series by Jean and Gareth Adamson. The mischievous twins are very English but at least they have black hair so Wong gamely tried to identify with them!

“But I couldn’t, really, because what they were going through was very different from my own experiences.

“As a writer, you should always write what you want to read and I very much wanted to write a book to show the hidden side of the British Chinese community,” Wong says.

She tells about the horror stories many from this community shared with her when she was researching her book. Tales of getting locked up in cupboards, kicked in the head, and getting beaten up in school.

“I wanted to show people this other side of the British Chinese community and I didn’t want to sugar-coat it. I wanted it to show the gritty reality,” stresses Wong.

Did Wong hate being Chinese back then?

“I think my life would probably have been easier if I weren’t Chinese but at the same time I feel that because I am Chinese, because I was seen as an outsider and on the periphery of society, it has made me stronger and made me the person that I am now,” she says.

No wonder, then, that Banana is well-loved by readers from all parts of the world. All of us have been outsiders at some point in our lives, the victims of human wickedness. Maybe it takes the voice of a young Chinese girl to help us see that we are all in this together.

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