My family name is written like this -
It means ‘king’
In Mandarin it sounds more like Waang. So the closest to the sound is Wong.
I wanted to be an archaeologist, zoo keeper and artist when I grew up.
My hobbies are horseriding, travelling and taiqi.
At school my best subject was Art and sport, especially netball and tennis.
I like tropical places.
I’ve worked as a sales girl, abalone sheller, dishwasher, waitress, graphic designer, English teacher and Chinese teacher.
I wasn’t good at writing when I was at school.
I never kill spiders I find in the house but catch them in a glass and let them go outside.
My favourite movies are Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro.
My Great Grandfather was a pioneer. His name was Ah Kew Chen and he came to the Victorian gold fields from China in 1853. Later, he became a pioneer of Wahgunyah, a town on the Murray River, contracting workers from China to clear the land for the vineyards, which are still operating today. When he was fifty, he sent for a young bride from China. In those days, all Chinese marriages were arranged – nobody married for love.
My great grandmother was a very brave woman to come all the way from China to a strange land to marry someone she had never met before, and who was old enough to be her father. They had six children and one of these children was my maternal grandfather. My father was born in Shanghai, China and met my mother when he was sent to Australia during World War Two.
When I was growing up there were not many Asian faces in the street so I felt embarrassed being Chinese. I wanted to be white like everyone else. I couldn’t speak Chinese and I didn’t know very much about Chinese culture. We called ourselves ‘bananas’. That’s someone who is yellow on the outside but white on the inside. I looked Chinese but I didn’t feel Chinese. Often people in the street would yell out nasty names or pull funny faces which made me feel even worse. That’s why a lot of my books deal with the problem of fitting in. I always wanted to be an artist. I was always drawing. When I was small my most treasured possession were my set of 72 Derwent Pencils.
After I left school, I went to RMIT where I studied Graphic Design. When I graduated, I opened a design studio with a group of artists called Rum Jungle. It was at this time, I began to realise I hardly knew anything about my Chinese heritage, and the best way to find out more was to learn the language. That’s when I began a part time Arts degree at Melbourne University, majoring in Chinese language.
Living in China
The next logical step was to go and live in a country that spoke Chinese. I went to Taiwan and lived there for five years. I also learnt Chinese painting and calligraphy. Later, I went to China and furthered my studies in Chinese painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou.
Writing and publishers
It was around this time I started getting ideas for a picture book and began to do some illustrations for it. When I came back to Australia, I sent it around to publishers, but it was rejected every time. I gave up on ever getting published but still kept on writing and illustrating my own books. I had two children and when my youngest started kindergarten I began teaching Chinese language at RMIT. At the same time, I was still interested in writing picture books so I took one subject at Tafe called Writing for Children. It was in this class that I surprised myself. I discovered that I could write novels. I was never good at writing when I was at school or even when I left school. But it was at Tafe that I wrote my first novel, The Garden of Empress Cassia.
When I finished writing The Garden of Empress Cassia, I sent it out to six different publishers and an agent. Once again, it was rejected by them all. But this time I was determined not to give up like I did when I sent out my picture book all those years before. There was one big publisher I hadn’t sent it to and that was Penguin. I gave it one more desperate try. They loved it.
My Chinese heritage influences all my work. I like to include Chinese philosophy and folk tales in my writing.
Now I understand how fantastic it is to have two cultures – Australian and Chinese.
I use my imagination a great deal when I write. Our imaginations are our most treasured possession. Without it, the world we know would not exist. When I write I see moving pictures in my mind.
The following is an interview by Natasha Boyd, owner of Book Bonding in Essendon:
Who were/are your writing inspirations
1. I’m inspired by Chinese philosophers like Laozi and Zhuangzi. I like to use some of their thoughts in my books. They talk about peace and harmony and going with the flow.
Where do your ideas come from for your books?
2. I write from my personal experiences because I’ve had lots adventures both really exciting ones and sad ones. An idea for a book might come from a dream as in The Garden of Empress Cassia a picture I see in my mind’s eye as in The Hidden Monastery, or a memory as in The Pearl of Tiger Bay. The rest comes from my imagination and what I observe around me.
What does your writing process involve?
3. The whole process of writing a novel from the time I have an idea until the time it is in the bookshop takes two or three years. Sometimes it can take longer than that if I come to a deadend and have to put the idea away for a while. Starting the novel is always the slowest part for me because I’m still getting to know the characters especially the main character. The main character is always a part of me. I do a lot of experimenting in the early stages and make many drafts for the first few chapters. When I write a new chapter, I like to go to a cafe with my notebook and sit in a corner drinking a chai latte. Later I come home and put the words onto my laptop.
What are some of your favourite words to use in your writing?
4. I don’t have any favorite words, but often, while I’m reading a novel, I’ll see a word that I haven’t used in my own writing before, then I will make a note of it and try and use it the next day. This is a great way to expand your vocabulary.
Who or what kind of books do you enjoy reading?
5. I enjoy all kinds of books – dramas, thrillers, detective novels, some science fiction, non-fiction. But my favourite books are those written in a similar genre to mine – those set in the real world but have magical or supernatural elements to them.
Where’s your favourite place to read?
6. I love reading in bed, but unfortunately tend to fall asleep too soon. I’ve recently bought an ipod and listen to audiobooks. Now I read three times as many books as I did before because I listen to my ipod while I’m eating breakfast or taking my dog Saffy for a walk or sitting in the car driving somewhere. It’s great!
Who are some of your favourite book characters and why?
7. I have many favorite characters. One of them is Lyra from Northern Lights by Philip Pullman because she’s very brave. I like all the main characters from my own books too because I get to know them so well as if they are real people. And they always turn out just the way I want them to be, of course. They might start out being timid or fearful or sad, but they will always triumph in the end and become brave and contented souls who have gone on a long long journey.