Tell us about yourself and how many books you have written.
I come from a very interesting family during an era of epochal change, and grew up at the confluence of Eastern and Western cultures.
My father joined the guerrillas that fought the Japanese occupation in the Chinese province of Shandong before and during the Second World War. He was just a young teen at the time. Most of these local resistance groups were organized by the Chinese Communist Party. It was a fact of life for someone who wanted to fight the occupation. I have based one of my characters on my father. Many of the characters in the story are based on real people, including the one-eyed slave girl.
When the Chinese Civil War resumed after the Second World War, my father decided that he did not want to be a part of that conflict, and he left home to find his fortunes in Hong Kong. He became a regular actor for a major studio and met my mother who was the family tutor of his studio boss.
My mother was born in Hainan Island (South China) and grew up in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, of Vietnam. Practically everyone on my mother’s side of the family left their village in Wenchang (hometown of the Soong Sisters) and emigrated to Saigon and Haiphong. Some of them would make their fortunes from the Vietnam War. After the collapse of South Vietnam, the wealthy relatives would leave on chartered planes with gold bars strapped to their belts; others less fortunate—such as my uncle—would have to risk their life trying to cross the treacherous seas in little boats. They are known in history as the Boat-people.
My mother was a strange breed. She came from a line of strong women. Despite growing up in a highly patriarchal culture which did not care about girls being educated, she left home in her early teens to attend a famous State run (Nationalist) high school (Hanmin) at Guilin during the Sino-Japanese War. She was determined enough to take the trip from Saigon by herself on foot. When the Nationalist government collapsed at the end of the Civil War, my mother went to Hong Kong instead of returning home to Saigon.
My adventurous father’s northern genes met my conservative mother’s southern genes in the British colony of Hong Kong in southern China. North, South, East, and West collided and here I am.
My father was a naturally talented artist, being able to play the erhu (two-string viol) by ear and sing Peking opera without any formal training. Similarly, I never received any musical training, but I find that I have a good ear for music. This tale is interspersed here and there with musical elements.
My father never attended much school but decided to become a writer. His first book was a spy novel based on the Sino-Japanese War. It was an instant best seller in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, and was made into a movie. That was before James Bond became a phenomenon. My father would go on to write a series of historical novels. I am told that his books are collected by some libraries in North America, including the University of Toronto and Princeton University.
Given my father’s acting connections, both my older sister and I acted in small roles and walk-ons during preschool years. My mother’s younger sister was married to the son of a studio boss, and I grew up watching how movies were made.
Being an actor and an author with a Bohemian streak, my father was seldom home. Financial support was also intermittent and not always timely. We grew up in a dysfunctional family with my mother as the head of the household working three jobs and raising three kids. It was perhaps by inexplicable luck or some say providence that I was accepted into La Salle, an elite English boy’s school in Hong Kong established and run by Irish Catholic brothers. I would spend thirteen years getting my entire primary and secondary education at the school. I would say it made me into who I am.
I became a confirmed Catholic and at one time attended Church and chapel on a daily basis, volunteering to lead rosaries after lunch rather than playing with the other boys, quite convinced that I wanted to become a priest or at least a brother when I grew up. That did not happen because my spiritual guide left the school as I was having teleological questions. He would return to be the school’s headmaster the year after my Form 7 (grade 13) graduation. Brother Thomas would remain a fixture of La Salle to this day. But his absence during those crucial years dampened my religious fervor. I moved on. One can’t help but wonder what if.
After graduating with an Engineering degree in Canada, I returned to Hong Kong and got my first job as a production assistant at one of Hong Kong’s only two TV stations, Rediffusion-TV (RTV), later Asia TV. It was a natural choice for me because I was returning to familiar environments. I worked there for one year, learning practically every facet of television production before immigrating to Canada. I made fast friends at the station, some of whom would later become mega-stars (one received the Palme d’Or for Best Actress; another graced the pages of Playboy), and a connection would inadvertently take the unexpected turn to impact my life many years later. But that’s another story.
At that time, Toronto had just launched its first multi-lingual television station CFMT (now bought by Rogers and renamed Omni). I had missed their hiring period by about six months. I decided to volunteer. When their senior producer found a solitary mad man simultaneously working three edit bays on Christmas Eve, he hired him on the spot. The only person working that evening in the darkened building on Lakeshore Boulevard was an unpaid and starving new immigrant from Hong Kong.
At first I was the field director of English news, even doing a stint as their Chinese news anchor. Soon I found myself producing their Chinese language program, which quickly became the most successful time slot at the station. I became a minor celebrity in Toronto Chinatown. Even Martin Yan came to me asking for my help to produce his first syndicated cooking show Yan Can Cook. This would become one of the longest running cooking shows in North America, and it is still airing on PBS. Martin and I have remained friends for nearly four decades.
A Chinese person from Hong Kong approached me and asked me if I could help him apply for a Chinese language television license. It was a far-fetched idea at the time, but persistence paid off and we got a license several years later. The burden of building a television station from scratch on a shoe-string budget fell on my shoulders. My one year experience at RTV came in handy. I also solved the problem of program delivery to small markets across Canada. Later, I wrote a dBase IV program to facilitate traffic (logistics) for the TV station. All of that is without formal training in broadcast engineering, television production, business administration, or computer programming. I just winged it.
Later, when the original owner/investor defaulted on his debt, I was appointed by court to act as joint receiver-manager with Ernest & Young to save the station. Both the creditors and the CRTC (broadcast commission) supported the appointment. They knew it was not a job for chartered accountants. Using the same staff and by then dilapidated equipment, I was able to increase monthly advertising revenues by twenty-five times within ten months, doubled subscription income, and used cash flow to build a brand new studio. When the station was sold in an auction a few years later, all creditors were repaid in full.
A friend from Hong Kong saw the new production facility that I built and made me an offer to work in China. He happened to own the largest broadcast and telecommunications technologies company in China at the time. That was the time when China had just taken back Hong Kong from the British government, a new century was dawning, and everything seemed possible. I was able to experience up close and personal the seachange in China.
Living in China gradually opened my eyes. Having worked in the mainstream media in the West for a couple of decades, I began to realize that in the West, the story of China has been seriously warped by people who do not know Chinese history and do not understand Chinese culture, but rather project their own misconceptions and disparate values on a whole country and its people, usually based on false narratives, jaundiced prejudice, or outright lies.
Since retiring and returning to Canada, I can finally begin this new project which has always been close to my heart. I have always wanted to tell a better story of the China I know, but I don’t want it to be pedantic. There are lots of non-fiction books written by Western experts on the subject. I therefore decide to follow in my father’s footsteps and write a historical novel, infusing it with puzzles and mysteries, thrilling adventures, Homeric battles, literary and cultural allusions, both from the East and the West, and at the same time, making use of sci-fi elements to tell the possibility of a better socio-economic future if we can somehow avoid destroying ourselves in the first place.
The first book “The Unconquered: Children of the Divine Fire” lays the scene. The reader will learn much about China while enjoying a sci-fi adventure story. Some of the material are from original research and will baffle the most erudite Sinologists.
The second book which is work in progress is provisionally titled “Antebellum.” This will explain the origin of the one-eyed man and the Watchers, and tell the story of a technological paradise on a planet long ago and faraway. We will learn how their culture ended up on earth to affect human civilization. This is of course a parable.
The last book of the trilogy as yet untitled will talk about the final conflagration and renewal. It explains the power by which existence is possible. This power is inexorable, ubiquitous, and indescribable; infinite in the past and the future, infinitely large and infinitesimally small, and it cannot be understood without enlightenment, which involves the awakening from our stupor and the acknowledgment of the Big Lie. It sounds religious but it’s actually science. I have tried to use real science as much as possible. In the story, this power must be wielded for salvation, but this power is also merciless to all those who dare to wield it. The answers will be revealed as the story progresses.
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What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?
The title is “The Unconquered: Children of the Divine Fire”
This is based on China having been invaded and conquered by foreign tribes almost without respite throughout most of its history. This included the last dynasty of Qing which preceded the modern Chinese republics. Few in the West realize that the Qing dynasty was not Chinese. They were Manchurians, descendants of the Jurchens from south Siberia. They were ethnically, culturally, and linguistically very different from the Chinese. The name of the ruling house was Aisin Gioro … not a Chinese name at all. They ruled all of China for 268 years. They had ruled even longer in Manchuria. In the end, China the conquered conquers their conqueror, not by the sword, but by the word. The Manchurians have become Chinese and they now call China home.
The Unconquered also has something to do with the main character’s name Victoria Solana and with a mysterious oracle of the “Stopping-of-the-Sun.” The answer is in the book and it is for the reader to find out.
The Divine Fire refers to the fire of Prometheus that sparked the beginning of human civilization. The first archaeologically proven dynasty of China is the Shang, and the first father of Shang is the god of fire. His star in heaven is known as the Big Fire, later known in China as the Heart (star) of the Dragon (constellation). The Shang dynasty collapsed in the 11th century BCE. The physical existence of Shang disappeared from the face of the earth. History became legend and legend became myth, until oracle bones and bronze vessels of that era were discovered a little more than a hundred years ago. While there is ample evidence, and no scholars and historians have ever contemplated it, my story openly declares that the children of Shang have always been around, hiding in plain sight. Their lineages exist to this day, some of which have become very well-known and influential.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I have been a night owl since very young. I like to be secluded in my library and write until the sun comes up.
Being a hybrid creature of the East and the West, my writing is suffused with literary and cultural elements from both worlds. For example, there are chapters titled “Hill of Beans” and “Doing a Hudsucker,” both alluding to Hollywood movies. The Watchers named Vincent and Jules is a tip of the hat to another film. The names “Watchers” and “Grigoris” are of course biblical, if not canonical. There are also lines from classical literature, popular songs, musicals, poems, and Shakespearean plays. The careful reader will discover numerous examples all through the book.
I am also not averse to using archaic words or applying ancient meanings to common words. Some readers may puzzle at the last paragraph of the book, which says “Victoria will tickle their catastrophes.” This is Shakespearean. The explanation is in the next line. I advise the serious reader not to peek.
What authors, or books have influenced you?
I read very widely and I enjoy reading the classics. I am very interested in antiquities, history, and etymology. I am a serious student of the Bible, although no longer in the religious sense. I have therefore also studied the Gnostic texts including the Nag Hammadi scrolls and other non-canonical books such as Enoch I. If I have to list a few influential books, I would say the Iliad and the Odyssey, The Histories by Herodotus, Livy’s History of Rome, Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul and the Civil Wars, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and Virgil’s The Aeneid. I have read Dante’s Divine Comedy several times, once in Italian, and all of Shakespeare’s plays at least once. Milton’s Paradise Lost is a personal favorite, and it is the title of a chapter of my book. I was reading the Milton masterpiece on a flight with Meryl Streep seated behind me. I threw decorum to the wind and begged her to autograph my Milton, which she gracefully complied without protest. More recent works of note include The Lord of the Rings, Slaughterhouse Five, Holy Blood Holy Grail (the historical mystery used by Dan Brown in his Da Vinci Code), Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace, and Beinhocker’s Origin of Wealth. I also read Chinese classics and Chinese history written in Chinese. My most favorite Chinese books would be the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Chamber, and the Annals of the states of Eastern Zhou.
What are you working on now?
I have already created the story of the second book Antebellum in my head. I am in the process of putting it into words.
What is your best method or website when it comes to promoting your books?
I have just begun to promote The Unconquered through book promotion sites. I’m still learning and gaining experience, so I will not make any judgment at this time. I may have a better idea after a couple of months.
Do you have any advice for new authors?
Do what you love, write of things you’re familiar with, and share something meaningful with the world rather than just trying to sell books. Writing a book for the first time is a learning process. Think of it as going to school. It will get better if you do not give up.
What is the best advice you have ever heard?
Confucius said, “Put yourself into other’s shoes. Do NOT unto others what you do not wish others to do unto you.”
What are you reading now?
Winston Churchill’s biography of his ancestor: “Marlborough, His Life and Times.”
It consists of four books. I read it when I was young. I have decided to read it again to refresh my memory. The recent movie “The Favourite” is based on the extraordinary relationship between Queen Anne and the wife of the first Duke of Marlborough Sarah Jennings.
The book relates Marlborough’s (John Churchill) multiple cycles of rise and fall in the service of king (sometimes queen) and country, and describes in detail his unrivaled military achievements. He did not suffer a single battlefield setback, which even Napoleon could not boast. Churchill also made public for the first time many private letters written by Marlborough to his wife. It is amusing to note that Marlborough in almost every one of his letters always swears undying love for Sarah, calls Sarah his soul, and professes he can never be happy until he is with her again. He would do that even in his fifties while dodging bullets in the battlefield. That is something one never reads in history books.
What’s next for you as a writer?
I would like to share my book with as many readers as possible. I will also attempt to translate it into Chinese and share it with a billion Chinese readers.
If you were going to be stranded on a desert island and allowed to take 3 or 4 books with you what books would you bring?
The Bible, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Dream of the Red Chamber, and the Annals of the states of Eastern Zhou.