Archive for the ‘family’ Category

As promised, I’m now posting some short videos from the Tiger Girl launch party at Books Inc., including a short reading and excerpt from the Q&A, a song by the amazing Cambodian American singer Laura Mam, and a 30-second video that gives you a feel for the event!



Much thanks to everyone who came to the launch at Books Inc./Opera Plaza in San Francisco! And I hope these videos can give a feel of the event to those who could not come in person.

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Where would a Tiger Girl be without her Tiger Family? I was thrilled my family could come for the launch party at Books Inc./Opera Plaza in San Francisco!

I’ll be posting more “official” type photos of the book launch party (which was so much fun!) later, but for now I wanted to start with the people who’ve always been there for this tiger girl, my family. 😀

Gwynn-ariel-adelaide-jeni Jeff-evelyn-howard Jewel-Papa Laura-Mam-and-Ariel Laura-Mam-singing

Me and Adelaide

Me and Adelaide

me-signing-sitting-up  Tiger-Girl-Launch-Books-Inc Tiger-Sign

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I was very happy to learn that a class of students at San Francisco State University were reading my book, Hapa Girl, this semester. English Department instructor Sheryl Fairchild invited me to her class this week to meet with her students and discuss the book.

The students had prepared great questions and observations about Hapa Girl, and we discussed the impact of fear mongering in the media on communities and individual lives, ongoing fear of interracial marriage (including the case of the Kentucky church that recently voted to ban interracial couples!), the current atmosphere of hostility against Muslims and Mexican immigrants compared with the anti-Japanese fears of the 1980s, and the need to speak up in the face of injustice.

I was impressed with all the students’ intelligent comments, questions, and conversation. Whenever I meet a great class, I know I’m also witnessing the work of a great teacher who has taken a lot of time and thought to put together her curriculum (in this case students read literature on social justice themes), and then teaches it well. Brava to Sheryl Fairchild!

(You can see Sheryl in this photo–she’s second from the right, leaning forward:)

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Around the world, Chinese in the Diaspora and in China are spending the start of the Lunar New Year (February 3, 2011) by celebrating the arrival of the Year of the Rabbit!

Families gather to eat hearty meals, give red envelopes with lucky money inside to children and unmarried young people, and set off firecrackers (originally to ward off evil spirits, now to celebrate the new year). Here in San Francisco, over the course of the entire month there will be street fairs, lion dances, the Miss Chinatown USA Pageant, and the largest Chinese New Year Parade outside China.

But for hundreds of millions of Chinese in China, the Lunar New Year (a.k.a. Spring Festival or chun jie 春莭) is also a time to leave the cities where they work–in factories or  on construction sites or in other jobs that city dwellers don’t want–and return home to the countryside where their families must live and wait. This is the only vacation these migrant workers are allowed in order to visit their families. Some families are separated for years on end. (For example, see the essay Waiting for Chinese New Year written by a 14-year-old girl whose parents have not returned home in three years.)

This mass movement of Chinese workers is the largest annual human migration in history. This year according to People\’s Daily, an estimated 230 million Chinese will be traveling home…mostly by train.

In honor of these arduous journeys, I am posting below a series of links to articles and videos, including the trailer for the award-winning documentary “Last Train Home,” that convey in words, pictures, song and video this annual phenomenon.

Amazing photos of the yearly migration 1995-2011

Chinese New Year migration, Guangzhou 2008

Video for the song \”Afraid to Go Home for the New Year\” (with translation of the lyrics provided)

Running Naked Man … Chinese internet sensation (he’s not really naked, but this article shows how one man became an internet sensation after he waited in line for 14 hours for train tickets home only to be told he couldn’t buy any. He stripped down to his underwear and confronted the ticket office personnel at the train station…and inspired Chinese with his chutzpah!)

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Had a very exciting reading for Dragon Chica at the wonderful Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado.

Tattered Cover Book Store/Colfax Ave. location

I arrived early with my father when suddenly the lights went out. At first we thought it was just a blown fuse, but then everyone noticed the lights for the whole block were out…all buildings, all street lights, even the traffic lights.

Power outage!

Soon there were firetrucks racing down the street, police cars, sirens.

Waiting for the power to come back on!

The helpful staff at Tattered Cover were leading patrons around with flashlights. My father and I decided to head to the attached restaurant, Encore, where we were allowed to sit in the dark in their waiting room. The maitre d’ told us about her exciting blackout experience in New York City from a few years ago, and my father shared his exciting blackout stories from 1977 in NYC (which was immortalized in Spike Lee’s movie Summer of Sam). Ah, the looting, the gunshots, the chaos…what memories!

My father waiting out the blackout

The most excitement we witnessed through the windows tonight, however, was a brave (crazy?) man who decided to jaywalk through the intersection of eight lanes of traffic. I have to say, Denverites are very polite. I have a feeling he would have been a damp spot on the pavement in many other cities.

At last the lights came back on, and my father was even able to eat a lovely heart-healthy entrée at Encore, before it was time to head back to Tattered Cover for my reading.

At the Dragon Chica reading

I was rather afraid no one would show up because of the blackout. However, we had a lovely turnout including many family friends who had braved more than 11 blocks of traffic-light-less intersections in the dark to drive to the bookstore. Much thanks to Joe McGowan (my former boss at the Associated Press-Denver Bureau), Babette André (a former foreign correspondent who reported from Vietnam during the American-Vietnam War years), Lisa Stuart (a founding member of the J-USA club at CU-Boulder—-talk about memories!), Lynn Taylor (a Denver public schools librarian) and her charming husband, and Joe Nguyen (editor of Asian Avenue Magazine and www.asianxpress.com, which both cover the Asian American community in the Denver-metro area). Sorry I didn’t catch everyone else’s names.

Babette André and Joe McGowan, Jr.

As many of the people present had traveled to SE Asia or personally had experience with the arrival of the first generation of SE Asian refugees in America (including friends and family members), we talked about the circumstances that led to more than 100,000 Cambodian refugees being relocated to the U.S. after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), the infamous American bombing campaign in Cambodia (Operation Menu), the difficulties of diagnosing PTSD then and now across different cultures, and even the current state of politics in Cambodia as well as the positive efforts made by Cambodian Americans to form NGOs and other groups to help Cambodia…from education to entrepreneurship.

This is one of the many reasons I love the Tattered Cover Book Store. It’s truly a national treasure! For those who’ve never had the pleasure yet of going to TC, not only does the store stock amazingly diverse books (my father was able to find an academic book on China he’d been looking for), but they have amazingly helpful and knowledgeable staff, a gorgeous setting in a renovated former theater (check out those high ceilings! and red-velvet chairs). Plus they attract very knowledgeable people to their readings!

My father and me with the Taylors

Pat Walsh asked if I would put together a book club guide for Dragon Chica and so I will get working on that. Will post as soon as it’s done!

Pat Walsh of the Tattered Cover

As this is my final book tour stop until spring 2011, if you want an autographed copy of Dragon Chica, you can order one from books@tatteredcover.com. They ship worldwide.

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Much thanks to www.LargeHeartedBoy.com, the amazing music and book blog, for featuring my new novel! Here’s my essay on the musical playlist (w/ links to the actual music) that I imagined the characters would listen to and that inspired me as I was writing Dragon Chica!

Book Notes – May-lee Chai (“Dragon Chica”)

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

In a year filled with moving coming-of-age novels, May-lee Chai’s Dragon Chica stands apart with its gripping story of the young Chinese-Cambodian girl, Nea. Her tale of facing bigotry as an immigrant to the United States after surviving the Cambodian civil war and Khmer Rouge is skillfully told and enlightening.

Dragon Chica is an important book both teens and adults will find fascinating, especially if they read (and discuss) it together.

Robert Olen Butler wrote of the book:

“It is very rare that a coming of age novel transcends its inherent limitations and attains the complex emotional resonance of adult fiction. Dragon Chica does this with great aplomb. The book explores with subtlety and depth the mature, universal issues of identity and connection, but it also retains its direct appeal to younger readers. May-lee Chai has performed a remarkable act of literary magic.”

In her own words, here is May-lee Chai’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Dragon Chica:

When I first started writing my novel Dragon Chica, I knew music would play an important part in the life of the narrator, Nea Chhim. She comes to the U.S. as a young child, a refugee and survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. Music (except for a few propaganda songs) was banned by the Khmer Rouge, so music will be a complete revelation to Nea. While many experiences about adapting to a new culture and a new language are painful, I know music would be like the American Dream wrapped up in a bow. Better than candy. Better than Christmas and New Year’s combined. Music unleashes the power of the soul to feel again, and Nea’s soul needs a lot of healing after all that she has been through.

At one point Nea’s mother berates her: “What’s the matter with you?” she demanded, and then before I could reply, she listed my sins herself: I wanted to be an American, I talked back to my mother, I never obeyed, I thought of myself before my family, I sang their songs, I danced around just like them.

But to Nea there is no “us” versus “them”: Music is for everyone. And that is precisely why regimes like the Khmer Rouge ban music. . . because totalitarian regimes fear the fundamentally democratic, rebellious, uncontrollable power of music.

As I wrote Dragon Chica, different songs came to mind for different scenes and different characters. Some of them ended up in the book, some still play only in my head as I read the passages to myself.

Here’s my Dragon Chica playlist:
“Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys

What could be a more quintessentially American song? In my mind, Nea hears this song late at night on the radio on a Golden Oldies program as she tries but fails to sleep in her family’s too-hot trailer in their first American home in Texas. She can’t make out the words yet, but she loves the optimistic, almost silly beat, the simple rhymes, the carefree sound of this song. Will her life ever feel as happy as this song? She hopes so.
“La Llarona” by Lila Downs

Since Nea’s family first ends up in Texas, it makes sense she’ll hear Spanish-language music on the radio. In fact, her introduction to “American” is a mix of Spanish and English words (hence the title of the book, Dragon Chica). Nea won’t understand the words of “La Llarona” when she first hears them, but I imagine that later in life, when she revisits this song, with its tale of a beautiful woman whose ghost haunts the river banks where her children drowned, it will have a new poignancy, as it will recall her own family’s losses to war, the sacrifices of the women in her life, and the children who did and did not survive.
“Jolene” by Dolly Parton
(This video is of a live performance with Dolly and Mindy Smith)

By the time Nea moves with her mother and siblings to Nebraska in the early 1980s, the music scene changes dramatically. Here country/Western dominates the radio waves. Even though “Jolene” was written a decade earlier, it’s a song that has an eternal quality, as its many covers show. How could Nea not hear and like this song? Although the song at first seems like a plaintive lament from a woman with no confidence, Dolly’s subversive qualities—her outsize appearance, personality, and amazing voice—enable the listener to imagine a woman who may be in fact warning her rival to back off. There is steel behind Dolly’s lilting soprano. The song’s not in the book, but I bet you can hear it in the back of your mind as you read.
In the Mood for Love, Movie Soundtrack by various artists

As I was writing the novel, I thought of the music on this CD every time I wrote about Nea’s mysterious and once wealthy Uncle. He is ethnically Chinese and the embodiment of a tragic, romantic hero from a different era, one of prosperity, urbanity, and a sophisticated mix of many cultures. Now transplanted to running a Chinese restaurant in a small town in the Midwest, Uncle is too old and too injured to resemble the actor Tony Leung from the movie In the Mood for Love… except for his beautiful, sad eyes.

“The moon always reminds me,” Uncle says at one point, thinking of a lost child, a lost love, a lost way of life.
“Ces petits riens” by Serge Gainsbourg

This is the kind of sophisticated, French pop music that Uncle and Auntie would have listened to in Phnom Penh before the wars destroyed their life together.
“Glass of Wine” by Ros Sereysothea

Nea gets to hear only one Khmer pop song that Auntie has on an old cassette that she bought off a family who immigrated from Cambodia years earlier. Nea doesn’t recognize the song or the singer, but she is transported by its mix of electric guitar, go-go drums, and the soft voice of a woman singing about love. For me the song has to be by Ros Sereysothea, one of the most successful Khmer pop singers from the 1960s and early 70s. She was brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge, but her music lives on…in the soundtrack CD to the movie City of Ghosts, in online homages, and in covers by contemporary American bands like Dengue Fever and The Like Me’s.
“Walk This Way” by Run DMC

As rap music gains in popularity, in the late 80s even in Nea’s small town, this song will herald a turning point in Nea’s life, a moment when she must decide to save her beloved older sister, Sourdi, even though it means betraying her mother’s trust. On a symbolic level, the song shows the tug of war within Nea’s heart because ultimately she can’t follow in anyone else’s steps anymore; she must forge her own path.
“Lucky Star” by Madonna

As Nea drives in a borrowed pickup truck down an icy highway in the middle of the night, this song is playing on the radio. Yet all she can think of as the moonlight glints eerily off the patches of snow on the sides of the road is how the minefields in Cambodia looked at night as her sister, Sourdi, carried Nea as a child on her back. Sourdi stepped on the bones of the dead because she knew it was safer that way; after all, the dead had already exploded the mines that lay hidden in the ground. “Lucky Star” cannot seem farther away at this point in Nea’s life.
Chanting by Buddhist Monks

This type of music isn’t played on the radio, but it plays an important part in Nea’s life as she reaches adulthood. Visiting the Cambodian Buddhist temple in Des Moines, Iowa, as the monks chant, Nea is suddenly able to remember her father’s face. But what does this memory mean? As more revelations follow, Nea must decide if her heart has grown strong enough to forgive.
May-lee Chai and Dragon Chica links:

the author’s blog

Chien Route review
Librarian of Doom’s Chaos Lounge review
The Lost Entwife review
Marjoleinbookblog review
Medeia Sharif review
Paper Adventures review

Medeia Sharif interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film’s soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week’s CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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Had a great time this weekend at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s special art exhibit “Shanghai” with Vancouver-based playwright and actress Laara Ong.

SF Asian Art Museum

Laara is writing a play about Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s for a Vancouver theater company, so this exhibit also served as research for ideas on set design, decor, costumes, etc.

Laara Ong and me

We both loved this lithograph of Shanghai women with bound feet playing billiards!

Yes, this billiard player has bound feet.

The exhibit had more than 130 works of art loaned from the Shanghai Art Museum in China, including paintings from the 1850s (so cool to see old Shanghai’s skyline!) to the contemporary period, qipaos, 1930s silent movie clips, avant-garde performance art videos from today’s young artists, posters from the 1930s, Art Deco furniture from the 1930s (gorgeous!!!!), Cultural Revolution posters, wood block prints from pre-1949 China, and two amazing silk embroidered panels based upon the burial cloth for the coffin of a Han Dynasty empress but updated with symbols taken from China’s post 1949 history. Sorry, the museum did not allow us to take pictures.

Here’s a picture from the Asian Art Museum’s official website (but it really doesn’t do the embroidery justice):

Embroidery designed by Li Dahong
Shanghai magazine cover for “The Young Companion”

While we were looking at the wood-block prints, one of which showed a “Bar & Cafe” from the 1940s,  a man approached us and asked me, “So when do bars close in Shanghai today? Do they stay open all night? Do they close at 2 AM like in the U.S.? Can you go out later than that?” I was startled and went straight into my default mode, which is teacher mode, and began to describe the nature of private business in Shanghai today. Laara, on the other hand, leaned over and said to Mr. Bar Guy, “Why? Do you want to go to Shanghai just to get face plastered?”

His face turned red and he quickly slunk off to another part of the museum.

Way to go, Laara!

After the museum, we met up with Laara’s husband, Bill, who was attending a design conference today.

At David’s Deli on Geary

I can hardly wait to see Laara’s new play, in which she will also star, but Laara tells me it will probably be a couple more years before the debut. I will definitely post more in the future about it as the opening approaches!

For more information on Laara, you can actually watch episodes of some of the TV shows she’s appeared in here:  Laara Ong bio.

Here’s a link to the Asian Art Museum’s exhibit: Shanghai Exhibit

I’ve always loved visiting Shanghai. It is the city of my father’s birth, and I love that its culture is a hybrid, not just of East and West, but also of so many different Chinese subcultures, as it has always been and continues to be a magnet for Chinese from other parts of China. I’ve visited the city probably a 100 or more times since my first trip to Shanghai in 1985. It’s amazing how the city has changed over the years. This exhibit was very special to me. I’m glad I could share it with a friend.

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