PP Wong is the first British born Chinese novelist to secure a publishing deal in the UK. She was born in Paddington, London and spent her childhood moving between London and Singapore.
After completing a degree in Anthropology and Law at the London School of Economics, PP Wong worked as an actress for six years. She acted in lead roles at the Soho Theatre in Moonwalking in Chinatown and BBC Radio 4’s play Avenues of Eternal Peace. Her very first role was “Screaming Vietnamese Girl no. 105” in a James Bond movie.
PP Wong speaks to Nee Hao Magazine
In The Life of a Banana, the main character Xing Li goes through racist bullying. Why did you choose to cover this topic?
In recent years, there has been a shocking trend of children committing suicide themselves as a result of bullying. Standing against racist bullying is something that is close to my heart; it was a topic that I wanted to tackle and illuminate as a real problem that exists today.
Just like almost every Chinese person I know, I was bullied in school. While doing research for my novel, I talked to ethnic minorities who faced prejudice and bullying in school. I heard devastating stories of people who were beaten up every day, thrown in ditches and locked in closets. The psychological aspects of being ostracised, being treated as a second-class citizen and being ignored still deeply affects people today. It was an emotive topic that I found challenging and sometimes deeply tragic. I hope my novel gets people to dialogue about a topic that is not talked about enough.
The Chinese people in the UK are often referred to as the “silent minority.” Do you think things are getting better or worse?
When I think back to my childhood, I don’t remember having any British Chinese role models on TV or in the public eye. In recent years, there are slightly more Chinese faces in the media and the arts. We’ve seen the first British Chinese peer in the House of Lords, the first children’s TV show with a Chinese cast and various East Asian-looking journalists and presenters on TV. Last year, I went to three plays with a majority Chinese cast, unheard of when I was a child.
I think things are getting better but perhaps at a snail’s pace.
In terms of the corporate world and professionals in the city, people still tell me that there is a glass ceiling. Many of my BBC friends who moved to Asia climb up the corporate ladder much quicker than in the UK. In the UK, you don’t have many directors, managers and CEOs that are Chinese.
I’m currently based in Singapore and it’s really made me appreciate “quiet-power.” In Asia, many people don’t feel the need to show off – they let their work speak for themselves. Whereas, in the West your presentation skills often a way to get noticed for promotion. So, Chinese people may be good at their work but may not make as much of a “song and dance” as their western contemporaries.
In your novel, you talk about the life of a British Chinese family living in London. Are you close to your family?
Yes, I’m very close to my family. We did not have a lot of money when I was young, and I am extremely grateful for the sacrifices my parents made to make sure we were well educated and fed. In recent years we’ve got even closer as a family due to my Dad not being very well.
When we were growing up, my older brothers and I did everything together. From our comic book phase; to our air gun with plastic pellets phase; to our Guns & Roses phase. I have my brothers to thank for my sometimes crude sense of humour and for bringing me to my first club when I was fifteen. I also have to thank them for the fact that I’m very adventurous at trying new experiences and I don’t have any fear of creepy crawlies. The other day I killed a cockroach that was more than two inches in size. I tried to whack it with a slipper and it tried to fly into my mouth. But it surrendered when I got the hose out!
What struggles did you face as Chinese growing up in London?
I think many British Chinese people go through identity issues, in terms of feeling neither here nor there. When you go to Asia, you are not seen as a local because of your British accent and mannerisms. While in the UK you are not seen as fully British because you don’t look white and your name and cultural norms are slightly different.
I think being an ethnic minority in any country will always come with challenges. It is something that is at the back of my mind whether I like it or not. For example, if someone does not give you a promotion at work, you can’t help but wonder whether it was because of your work, or your race, or your “fit.” As the comedian Ali G said, “Is it coz I is black?” And in some ways, when you are faced with challenging circumstances or challenging people you can’t help but ask, is it because “I is Chinese?”
I wish it wasn’t that way but growing up as a BBC has made me think that way. When I was seeking to get my novel published and received rejection letters, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was because I was a bad writer or whether it was due to the fact that my novel was about Chinese people. Rightly or wrongly, it crossed my mind that if my novel were about an English family, maybe it would not have received as many rejections – I will never know. If I were not an ethnic minority that question would not have even crossed my mind.
Is The Life of a Banana based on your life story?
The Life of a Banana is a work of fiction. I wish I were as funny, brave and glamorous as all my characters! We have a beautiful actress, a Jamaican Chinese boy who plays the flute and a naggy Poh Poh with a past.
Nevertheless, the identity problems and racial bullying are based on real issues that British Chinese people face. I think it is important to write fiction that is entertaining, but at the same time to use your words to bring some truths about society into the open.
I understand you’ve travelled a lot. If you could get in a plane and go to anywhere in the world which place would you return to?
There are so many places I would like to return to. But two places come to mind – Kerala in India and Tokyo. I think it’s not so much the places but more the people. When I did some voluntary work in India, I was blown away by the kindness and positivity of people despite their challenging circumstances. In India, I remember a girl who lived in the slums. Her house was a small tent made out of colourful saris and bits of timber with a mud floor. Yet, she insisted on giving me two gifts – a broken pen and a rubber band. Whenever I look at the gifts they are a good reminder to be grateful whatever challenges I go through.
Tokyo was a fascinating city with, in my opinion, the best dressed men in the world. I felt like I had stepped into the film “Lost in Translation.” Many of the locals did not speak a word of English but made it their personal duty to help me. I asked for directions three times and in each circumstance, the person (male and female) insisted on walking me to the place. Even if they were unsure, they would follow you and ask other people along the way. I got very embarrassed because usually in the UK if someone doesn’t know they will say sorry and let you go, or at least they will point you in the right direction. But I’ve never experienced a personal escort like that! At the same time it is a city of great contradictions. You have the strip clubs, maid cafes and pornographic computer games that live side by side with quiet, sophisticated people who thrive on order and cleanliness.
The main character in your novel is a 12-year-old girl called Xing Li. What advice would you like to give your 12-year-old self?
I would tell her to be more confident, to stand straighter and that when she grows up everything will turn out fine. Also, she should enjoy her childhood and her imaginary games because you are only a child for a few years. You have the rest of your life to be a grown up.
In your recent article for Huffington Post you talk about your challenging journey to getting published. Not many authors would admit to being rejected by 27 publishers, why did you choose to share this?
Being the Editor-in-Chief of Banana Writers, I come across many East Asian authors who dream of getting published. I wrote my article for Huffington Post because I wanted to encourage ethnic minority writers and underdogs not to give up. If I had given up after the first or the tenth or even the twentieth rejection, I would never have got a publishing deal. I don’t think there is anything wrong with facing rejection. Rejection is part of the human experience; it is how you deal with rejection that is most important.
We cannot sugar coat the prejudices in our society, but at the same time we cannot give up hope that real tangible change can happen. The great change makers in history never gave up despite the odds. They ignored society’s opinions – people telling them that change would never happen. Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, William Wilberforce and Rosa Parks are just a few examples of people who did not give up and their actions have affected millions of people positively.
What are your future plans?
Well, I’ve started on my second novel, which tackles the topic of lost dreams and corruption in politics. I also have quite a few events related to The Life of a Banana in September – all Nee Hao readers are warmly invited! It would mean so much to me to see some East Asian faces at the events. Do check out my website www.ppwongauthor.com for the latest news and events.