Archive for the ‘Saving Sourdi’ Category

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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Kirkus Reviews gave TIGER GIRL a great review! My publisher, GemmaMedia, just sent me the clipping! Yay!!!

Author: May-lee Chai

Nineteen-year-old Khmer Rouge survivor and Cambodian refugee Nea Chhim sets out to uncover a lifetime of lies in this quietly powerful sequel to Chai’s Dragon Chica (2010).

It’s been a year since Nea found out she was adopted by Ma, and the people she’s always known as Auntie and Uncle are her biological parents. Plagued by nightmares about her childhood, Nea decides to confront the past in order to exorcise the ghosts of the present, resolving to gain Uncle’s love and approval as his daughter so her mind can rest. Nea is shocked to find that this once-wealthy man is now a low-key bakery owner living a monklike existence, donating most of his inventory to local charities in penance for the guilt he feels over his wife’s death. Nea plans to win him over by helping him prosper, but when the bakery becomes a local hot spot, her plan doesn’t yield the results she desires. When a family member long thought lost reappears, Nea must learn to let go of what’s she been trying so hard to grasp. Nea’s narration is meticulous, recapping the events of the earlier book and then proceeding, describing events and emotions in detail.

Readers need not have read the previous book to understand this story of family, forgiveness and belonging, and it provides a jumping-off point for further reading about Cambodian history. (Fiction. 15 & up)
Review Issue Date: September 15, 2013
Online Publish Date: August 28, 2013
Pages: 240
Price ( Paperback ): $14.95
Publication Date: October 30, 2013
ISBN ( Paperback ): 978-1-936846-45-0
Category: Fiction


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I saw the cover for my new novel, Tiger Girl, for the first time this week. And it is GORGEOUS!

I’m so excited that I just had to share it with everyone!


TIGER GIRL is coming this October 2013 from GemmaMedia.

Tiger Girl continues the story of Nea Chhim, the heroine of my novel Dragon Chica.

Plot: Nea is struggling with college. Nightmares of war flood the waking memories of this 19-year-old survivor of the Cambodian Killing Fields. Nea decides she must confront the past to overcome her fear and begin her own life in America.

Without telling Ma, she hops on a cross-country bus in Nebraska to see her biological father in Southern California. There Nea comes face to face with a man wounded by survivor’s guilt who refuses to acknowledge the family’s secrets. Nea decides to revive his struggling donut shop and help him recover. Her tireless efforts attract a mysterious young man’s attention. Is he casing the place for a gang? she wonders. It is up to Nea to find out the truth: about her family, the war that nearly destroyed them, and herself. Tiger Girl weaves together Cambodian folklore and its painful past with contemporary American life to create an unforgettable novel about love, war, and acceptance.

Advance praise:

“An original storyteller writing a book about the need for a young woman’s love, her cross-country journey that is also an inner journey, and her surviving, with others, a life they weren’t meant to survive. This is their story. I couldn’t stop reading. This is a writer to follow on her own journey of words.”–Linda Hogan, award-winning author of The Book of Medicines and Indios.

“Like many of her characters, May-lee Chai is a masterful storyteller with a poignant and gripping tale to tell. I couldn’t put TIGER GIRL down: I wanted to know what was going to happen next of course, but I also wanted to learn more about the past, to understand the painful and astonishing paths that led these people to find one another. Her book travels far and wide, but in the end it’s about families–not just the ones we’re born into but also the ones we make for ourselves. It’s enthralling and moving and fascinating and absolutely wonderful.”–Claire LaZebnik, best-selling author of If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now and Families and Other Non-Returnable Gifts.

The cover was designed by the talented Howard Wong of Grace Image Photography/SF.

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I just got back from meeting with my publisher, Trish O’Hare of GemmaMedia, in Boston. We had a great time discussing launch plans for my new novel, Tiger Girl, the sequel to Dragon Chica. This time around Nea is going to be traveling to California where she will surprise her father, who is still looking for her missing older brother. Ah, the family intrigues continue! I’ll be posting more soon. The novel is coming out this fall.


(This photo with Trish O’Hare was taken in front of the famed 10 1/2 Beacon Street Boston Athenaeum, one of the oldest independent libraries in America and one of only 16 members-only libraries. What beautiful art! It’s really a lovely place, full of stacks that members can browse with stunning works of American portraiture on the walls and sculptures tucked into alcoves. At a time when so many libraries are removing books and replacing them with computer terminals, I have to say the Athenaeum was a powerful reminder of the joy of browsing actual, physical, let-me-hold-you-in-my-hands books.)





I also was able to visit the lovely Boston Museum of Fine Arts where I was particularly taken by some of the works depicting what I call “fierce women.”

For example, these polo-playing Chinese ladies:

Tang Dynasty polo players

Tang Dynasty polo players











And this rather interesting porcelain figurine (made in Germany circa 1720) of Guan Yin:

Guan Yin...and Christ?

Guan Yin…and Christ?











And how about this 1803 portrait by William Jennings of “Mrs. Cephas Smith and Child”?

Quite the expressions on this madonna and child!

Quite the expressions on this madonna and child!










Overall I had a great trip and feel energized as we prepare to launch Tiger Girl in 2013!


Speaking of fierce women...the Dragon Chica's adventures will continue this fall!

Speaking of fierce women…the Dragon Chica’s adventures will continue this fall!

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“The old-timers say it’s good luck that it’s raining. A good start for the Year of the Water Dragon!” said my friend Ratha Kim, who is one of the coordinators of this year’s Cambodian New Year Festival in San Francisco.

(left to right: Ratha Kim and Jenny Chea-Vaing)

Indeed after a particularly sunny winter, we had an uncharacteristically rainy Saturday this March 31, in time for the Cambodian New Year celebration at the Tenderloin Children’s Playground. I hope that it is indeed a blessing from the water dragon, or water Naga –the giant mythological snake that is the ancient protector of Cambodia.

This year’s festival started with a blessing bestowed by orange-robed monks from the Nagara Dhamma Temple of San Francisco and King Monks Maha Ghosananda Temple of Oakland. After they chanted New Year’s blessings, people lined up to give the monks the delicious food they’d prepared for the celebration.

As the monks dined on separate gold-colored floor mats, the rest of us sat down on mats and rugs and ate the delectable Cambodian dishes prepared by members of the San Francisco Bay Area Cambodian community.

I loved the delicious ginger-and-lemongrass spiced chicken, curries, and silver thread translucent noodles!

This year’s festival had to be moved indoors because of the rain. Last year more than 400 people attended the day-long festivities which included band after band, dancing, food booths galore and vendors selling Cambodian-themed clothing. This year’s celebration was much smaller but had a nice family feel as most of the participants were from the Tenderloin.

A highlight was the Fashion Show. I managed to tape part of the rehearsal, which features students from Bay Area schools including San Francisco State University, CSU-Fresno, and the California Culinary Academy. (Ratha Kim is shown emceeing in the video:)

And of course there was lovely live music by local Cambodian singers. Here is a sample:

I was pleased to meet one of the organizers, Jenny Chea-Vaing, who has been volunteering to help put together the community New Year celebration for the past 10 years.

Jenny’s own story is quite remarkable. She moved to the Tenderloin as a child in the 1980s when her family was sponsored to come to America after spending years in refugee camps in Thailand. “Our sponsors were in Utah, but when we got off the plane, they weren’t there!” Jenny’s family was forced by officials to spend the night in the airport. Eventually they discovered their sponsors had sold their house and were in fact in the process of leaving Utah, so Jenny and her family were not allowed to stay. Instead her father sold everything of value– including the new clothes they’d bought to wear in America and her step-mother’s wedding ring–so that they could all buy Greyhound bus tickets to California where he had a relative. Jenny and her family ended up in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

“We lived with four or five families in one studio [on Leavenworth and Eddy],” she said. At night they slept on mats on the floor, head to toe, practically no space in the single room they all shared.

She grew up in San Francisco, attended Galileo High, worked in donut shops to earn money, and had an arranged marriage at age 16. She went on to graduate, study medical training, and now works in the insurance industry.

As a teenager, her oldest son, Jimmy, twice spent his summers as an apprentice monk so that he could earn merit for his family.

Jenny's son Jimmy (in the middle)

Jenny says she’s grateful for the opportunities she’s had in America. Having survived Pol Pot’s reign of terror and the violence and extreme poverty that followed the Vietnamese military takeover of Cambodia in 1979 (toppling the Khmer Rouge), she has seen incredible hardship in her young life. Her older sister rescued her from marauding soldiers by hiding her under dead bodies during the daytime. Her sister then hid herself under bodies nearby. “I could hear the soldiers come and kill people who cried out, ‘I’m a civilian! Don’t kill me!’ I knew I couldn’t make a noise or they’d kill me too.”

At night they walked on foot through the jungle, trying to find the rest of their family. “My older sister picked young leaves for us to eat. She’d always try them first to make sure they were safe. She saved my life. That’s why I was always grateful to her, I never fought with her [in America], I always honored her.”

Even after the Pol Pot-regime fell, Jenny and her sister were not safe. Their mother had died, their father fled to Thailand to try to make a better life for them, and they were put in the care of relatives who treated them as slaves. One day Jenny witnessed them trying to kill her older sister, taking her out on a canoe and hitting her repeatedly over the head with an oar. Jenny had climbed up a tall tree and could see everything. She called out for help as loudly as she could and an old fisherman finally heard her and helped the sister, throwing a log into the river so that girl could float to the bank to safety.

Finally her father was able to bring them to Thailand where they lived in the Khao I Dang refugee camp from 1980-1982 then two other camps for 3-6 months each before they were sponsored to come to America.

Despite this incredibly hard life, Jenny is a cheerful and kind person.

“That’s why I try to give back,” Jenny says of her life experiences. “That’s why I’m grateful today. I’m thankful. I had many people help me along the way.” She volunteers every month around the city as well as for AIDS Walk and cancer charities.

I think Jenny is an incredible person. She also embodies some of the loveliest qualities of Cambodian culture that extreme hardship have not managed to destroy including a warmth and graciousness that is hard to define. Despite the hell almost every Cambodian refugee in America has gone through, Cambodians can be some of the most warmly welcoming people I’ve ever met.

Because of the hard work of community volunteers like Jenny Chea-Vaing and her entire family (including her kids, husband, step-mother, mother-in-law, and nieces!), Ratha Kim, and the cheerful student volunteers from SFSU, CSU-Fresno, and other Bay Area schools, the Cambodian New Year Festival is a wonderful celebration of Cambodian culture in America.

I am hoping the New Year of the Water Naga is a good one!

The official New Year is celebrated world-wide April 13-15. Other area events this coming month include:

New Year Festival at the Oakland Branch of International Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks Center (King Monks Maha Ghosananda): 633 Douglas Avenue, Oakland, CA: April 13–chanting for the New Year; April 14-food, music, and dancing from 8:30 am to night; April 15-final ceremony. (call 510-924-7189 for more information)

New Year Festival at the Stockton Cambodian Temple: the weekend of April 13-15, when 1000s of California-based Cambodians gather for larger-scale musical performances and dances. Food stands will be open to provide many kinds of Cambodian dishes.

Members of the public are welcome to attend.

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 (My publisher Trish O’Hare at GemmaMedia  just sent me a link to this review of Dragon Chica by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of the novel Gringolandia about life in Chile under Pinochet. This review just made my day! Writing can be a lonely affair, as writers never know if our works will be meaningful to other people. When I hear back from readers that the story resonates with them, I am cheered immensely!–May-lee)

Crossover Dreams: A Review of Dragon Chica

July 4, 2011


Reading Ann Angel’s review of Carlos Eire’s memoir Learning to Die in Miami—and then reading the book itself—got me thinking about the crossover genre, books originally published for adults that have found a wide audience of teens, or books published for teens or younger children that have become adult favorites. My own Gringolandia first came out as a YA novel but is now showing up in college classes and on bookstore shelves in the adult section. In various stops on my blog tours several years ago, I participated in thoughtful discussions on why the novel was published as young adult rather than adult, as its teen protagonists moved almost exclusively in an adult world, with the high stakes reflected in this exchange between Daniel and his girlfriend after they’ve entered a brutal dictatorship (Chile under Pinochet) with forged documents:

With her finger, Courtney traces the map in the guidebook. “We have to be back before curfew.” She flips to the previous page and says, “It’s kind of like the government is our mother.”

“Yeah. Except she doesn’t ground you when you miss it. She shoots you.” (208)

The same high stakes characterize May-lee Chai’s Dragon Chica, published by indie press GemmaMedia as an adult novel but of interest to teen readers who appreciated An Na’s award-winning YA novel A Step from Heaven. Like A Step from Heaven, Dragon Chica is told in chronological vignettes that end with the Asian-American protagonist about to leave for college after a series of crises that threaten to divide her family forever.

Dragon Chica doesn’t begin in the old country, however, but in Dallas, Texas in the 1980’s, where then-12-year-old Nea’s mother has abruptly taken the family and from where they will leave just as abruptly. Nea’s mother is accustomed to fleeing under cover of night. The family—including Nea, her older sister, her younger brother, and younger twin sisters—have escaped Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge for asylum in the United States following the death of the children’s father in the camps. Leaving Dallas, the family arrives in Nebraska, where Nea’s aunt and uncle own a struggling Chinese restaurant. Once prosperous, Aunt and Uncle have found few customers and much prejudice in their small town. Ultimately, Uncle will sell both the restaurant and Nea’s older sister’s hand in marriage to a wealthy and somewhat sketchy former business associate who is establishing a chain of Chinese restaurants in the Midwest.

In contrast to her submissive older sister, Nea quickly embraces the ways of the United States and of every place she has lived—hence the tough “Dragon Chica” image (and Spanish accent) she has adopted from her months in Dallas. She chafes against a family that sees her only for the labor she can provide and a community that refuses to accept her as an equal. She wonders why her mother, aunt, and uncle don’t treat her the same way that they treat her siblings, but her memories of the dark days of the Khmer Rouge and her life before are dim and reflect the trauma of having survived the genocide.

Dragon Chica is a powerful and gripping story that offers a model of strength and survival to young people going through difficult times. Nea is far from a stereotypical “good girl” and her toughness and willingness to stand up to injustice add to her appeal. Although published as an adult title—and certainly of interest to adult readers—Dragon Chica belongs in teen collections. It is a story that transcends age, ethnicity, and immigration experience to cast light on all of us struggling against the forces that constrain our lives.

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What a beautiful Cambodian New Year Festival this year at the Tenderloin Recreation Center in San Francisco! Although the official Cambodian New Year begins April 13, communities in the Bay Area will be holding celebrations all April long. I was very fortunate to attend the SF festival on April 2.

2011 Festival in San Francisco

The community-organized event included traditional dance performances, breakdancing, a spoken word performance, food, a fashion show, and music music music! There was the amazing electric guitar stylings of Khmer pop that was in vogue in Cambodia in the 1960s and early 1970s before the Khmer Rouge, traditional flute (khui), xylophone (krim), mouth organ (kaen), and drum (gong) performances as well as many local singers.

Wuttihan Bussabokon playing the krim

One of my favorite performances was the traditional girls dance known as “Robam Neary Chea Jour,” which is meant to celebrate the beauty and grace of Cambodian women.

The five little girls practiced this dance for four hours every Saturday for the past two months. This was their very first performance!

Their amazing teacher is Ratha Chuon Kim, who volunteers with the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage and Musical Performing Arts center in Oakland, www.seachampa.org, where she teaches Khmer social dance. “I am not a professional dancer, I just love dance and learning about it!” says the ever modest Ratha. “I first learned social dance from my dad, an art form that’s easily learned through observation and asking questions.” Later Ratha studied folk dance at the Nagara Dhamma Temple for two years, where the head teacher–Theap Kong–had studied dance before the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, a rare teacher indeed! Ratha later started a classical Khmer dance program with the Cambodian Community Development Inc. and for the next four years went to every practice so that she could assist and learn from the classically trained dancers.

Ratha and me

If you watch the video of the little girls dancing closely, you can see several women in the background wiping tears from their eyes. It truly was moving to see these young girls learning about the beauty of their culture and heritage.

The vicious Khmer Rouge regime killed an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians during the 4 years of their reign of terror. During that time, 90 percent of Cambodia’s educated population as well as artists, dancers, and trained musicians died.

Despite the tragedies that almost every single Cambodian family in America has experienced, many in the community are coming together to pass on the rich and beautiful traditions of Khmer culture.

As you can see from the pictures, there was nothing but joy at this Cambodian New Year Festival!

Check out this breakdancing performance:

Breakdance Video

Great food…

Good friends…

Tamiko Wong trying on a krama

And good krama (from the folks at www.goodkrama.com), who buy these traditional scarves directly from the women who make them in Cambodia and donate a portion of the proceeds to help women and children in Cambodia.

krama scarves

Last but not least, I was thrilled to see Sandra Sengdara Siharath, the founder of www.seachampa.org.

Sandra holding a kaen and Philip Siharath holding a traditional drum (gong)Sandra has been a major force in promoting Southeast Asian culture and arts in the Bay Area. She comes from a very talented family. In fact, her father, Philip Siharath, is the man in the green shirt in the videos playing the drum!

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