Janice Y.K. Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong and went to boarding school in the United States before attending Harvard College. A graduate of Hunter College’s MFA program and a freelance writer, Lee is a former features editor at Elle and Mirabella magazines in New York. She currently lives in Hong Kong with her husband and four children.
This assured tale of romance, secrecy, and betrayal alternates between the lives of two vastly different women. In 1941, Trudy Liang is a beautiful, Eurasian society belle who falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Will Truesdale, a newly arrived Englishman. But their love affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese as World War II overwhelms their part of the world. Will is sent to an internment camp, where he and other foreigners struggle daily for survival. Meanwhile, Trudy remains outside, forced to form dangerous alliances with the Japanese.
Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong and is hired by the wealthy Chen family as their daughter’s piano teacher. A provincial English newlywed, Claire is seduced by the heady social life of the expatriate community. She soon begins an affair… only to discover that her lover’s enigmatic persona hides a devastating past. As she begins to understand the true nature of the world she’s entered, and long-buried secrets start to emerge, Claire learns that in the undertow of war, sometimes the price of survival is love. I had a chance to speak with the writer Janice Lee during her press tour in New York City.
ASIANCE: You were born in Hong Kong, when it was under British rule and you moved to the United States when you were fifteen. Now you are back living in Hong Kong and it has reverted to Chinese rule. Has it changed? What is different for you and what has remained the same?
Janice: As a child in the 70s, I definitely felt the British influence. For a short time, I went to English schools and got a glimpse of that world, but I soon switched to an American school. I am by nationality Korean, so I was never a local in a strict sense of the word, but Hong Kong is so international that it never really mattered. People wash up in Hong Kong and stay, and create new lives for themselves. It’s that type of place.
I was there for the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. It was an odd time. People were afraid but putting the best face on it. They didn’t know what would happen.
I moved back to Hong Kong in 2005 and it is a part of China now – ”the currency looks different, all the “Royals” have been stripped off the Postal Service, the clubs, etc (many institutions used to have the “Royal” in front of their names) – ”although there’s no part of China that looks or feels like Hong Kong. I love the English provenance of the street names: Gloucester, Pottinger, Connaught, and I do love that there are remnants of its history in hidden corners, although they are fast disappearing.
ASIANCE: You just got into New York, is it a trip mostly for book promotion or fun?
Janice: It’s half work and half fun!
ASIANCE: Can you tell us a little about yourself in general and how you started the novel?
Janice: I’m basically a mom and wife. So I’ve always been a writer and used to be a magazine editor. So I started this book when I went to grad school and had not written a novel before but just thought I should try to write as the characters kept coming back to me. I wanted children too so I had my first child. I then worked on it for five years and I didn’t know what it was but I found it very gratifying and after my second child and moving to Hong Kong I found that I had a lot of the story and it was starting to become very real and also found out I was pregnant with twins. I wrote a lot every day at that point and really tried to finish it and did. Up to that point I would say I have always written and wanted to be a writer but was not sure where it would go. I didn’t know if it was real and then eventually it did become real.
ASIANCE: How did you come up with the characters?
Janice: They are not based on people I know. It started out as a short story and I had never written a novel before and didn’t know what to do but just started writing these characters and what they did with each other and said to each other and the story just came from that.
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ASIANCE: THE PIANO TEACHER is set during a major piece of world history – ”World War II. How much research did you do for the book? How historically accurate is it? What environment did you write in?
Janice: I started writing the story then I came across a book set in the 70s when I grew up in Hong Kong and then drew inspiration from short stories in the 40s and I read a lot from people who were in the camps and wrote a lot. I obviously never lived in the 40’s or 50s but it’s the daily details that I had to get right. The little things are the most helpful so I sort of read, watched movies, looked at newspapers on microfiche, movies like Lust, Caution and The World of Suzie Wong, set in Hong Kong, it is all very helpful.
And it is as historically accurate as I could make it. For the most part, the dates are real. Hong Kong did fall on Boxing Day, 1941. They did call people to Murray Parade Ground on January 5, 1942. So those things are real, and as I read, I found a lot of the detail fascinating. But I believe the obligation of the novelist is to the story, not to the truth. I was trying to tell a story about Will and Trudy and Claire, people who found themselves in a desperate situation, and the background is there to anchor them in this period.
ASIANCE: Is the Hong Kong you write about different from the Hong Kong you know?
Janice: Very! The Hong Kong in the book is entirely imagined by me although I hope it is a true version of a Hong Kong that once existed. Being neither English nor Chinese, I really had to create a world out of what I could glean through books and movies. My Hong Kong now is very much an expatriate American world and as a child, it was an immigrant’s Hong Kong and the world I wrote about was in the past, and about people in a different sphere.
ASIANCE: Did you ask the older generations about the time period?
Janice: Yes, well my parents were not around at the time or they would have been too young to be helpful. I thought about asking people but I wanted the stories to be mine more and I think when you ask people about their life it is very much their own and so I wanted to find out more from books.
ASIANCE: Is a screenplay in the works? Who would you want to be in the film version?
Janice: We were just talking about this last night! I think the book is very cinematic so there is potential. I think Daniel Craig would be good, Kate Winslet or Keira Knightley would be fabulous and I think someone unknown to play Trudy. I’m sure there are lots of unknown Eurasian actresses to play that role, but there don’t seem to be that many who are known.
I’m sure there are lots of unknown Eurasian actresses to play that role, but there don’t seem to be that many who are known.
ASIANCE: What makes the story so unique?
Janice: I hope it’s not a stereotypical book and like the white guy with some exotic girlfriend which is what it starts off seeming but I think Trudy is not your usual exotic Asian girl, I hope it is more nuanced but I don’t know if it will help with stereotypes (laughter). People will enjoy the story.
ASIANCE: Are your children old enough to read the book? How old are your children?
Janice: My children are very young. My oldest is six.
ASIANCE: That must be so challenging as a mother to write at the same time, how did you manage?
Janice: It’s difficult. Especially when I didn’t know if it was going to happen or if it was real or not. I definitely write when my older kids are in school. When my babies, the twins are at home, I write in the morning, then usually have lunch when my second son comes home for lunch, then around three or four knock off a page or two, go to the park, it’s definitely a lot of things going on.
ASIANCE: That’s so admirable.
Janice: Well, women do it every day.
ASIANCE: Has the book been translated in Chinese?
Janice: Yes we sold two versions, simplified Chinese and complex Chinese and we sold it to Mainland China, I don’t know about Taiwan.
ASIANCE: What was life like growing up in China, in Hong Kong?
Janice: Hong Kong and Mainland China are so different. When I grew up there and it was an English colony. My parents are Korean so I was born and raised in Hong Kong and it has always been helpful as a writer to be kind of an outsider and it gives me a different set of eyes. I was definitely a Korean growing up in Hong Kong and then when I went to America for school I was already very Americanized having gone to international school in Hong Kong. I was like an American ex patriot coming back to Hong Kong.
ASIANCE: What made you return to Hong Kong after attending school in America for so long?
Janice: My husband’s job.
ASIANCE: Will you move back to America?
Janice: I think if I moved back I would go to New York, I adore it, but I think we will be in Hong Kong for a while.
For more information and her book tour visit www.janiceyklee.com
Photos Gasper Tringale