Article – “Growing Up” by Joyce Chng
Rebel in a secret war
Like a rebel in a secret war, I wrote.
While I pursued my studies in Western Australia, I continued writing. In fact, I grew up writing in Australia. By then, I was heavily influenced by fantasy and science fiction. I wrote my first serious chapter detailing the life of a red dragon, replete with a beguiling landscape of canyons and magic. I enjoyed my first open mic poetry reading. I explored fanfiction, I sent my first submission to an anthropomorphic zine. I loved seeing my name on paper.
My first language is English. I do not write in Mandarin Chinese, even though a part of me thinks I should. I am Chinese, am I not? But the language I grew up with and am most comfortable with is English. When I write, it is in English, except for the smatterings of half-hazy Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese and Hokkien words. My writing voice is English. I think and speak in English.
At first, I wielded my pen like the rebel I was (still am, by the way – a little, I swear!). English became a shining blade. I wrote more, perhaps to prove to my parents that I could write well. I wrote more and my command of Mandarin Chinese grew cobwebs, became rusty and eventually atrophied. I thought I could burn bridges and set myself free.
As a diasporic Chinese, I straddle multiple worlds. I often say that I am a textual shaman. I walk between worlds; I cross the bridges. Sometimes, one world is louder, more evocative, than the others. And when that world speaks, it is vital to pay attention to it.
In the beginning
I grew up with white snakes, fox women, spider ladies and a cosmology populated with the Jade Emperor, peach fairies and eighteen hells. At the same time, I grew up with tales of other people, tales that became part of my life: hantu, spirit tigers and jinn.
Growing up meant straddling between being Chinese and being in a tropical land so different from where my ancestors had come. My grandparents came from China, drawn by the prospect of a better life in Nanyang. They brought along with them traditions, customs and stories. They settled down, sank down roots like the banyan tree and their children grew up with the stories of many worlds.
When I first explored the world of SFF (and I didn’t even know what SFF was), it was through the fantastic landscapes of wuxia and Chinese legends. Gallant swordsmen, daring warrior women, amazing plotlines filled with intrigue, fighting and extraordinary beings filled with extraordinary skills, both physical and magical. Condor heroes, magical blades, mythological entities come to life. The Monkey King travelled to the West, beset by myriad bewildering creatures. Dragons were sinuous, graceful and powerful controllers of water. Fairies were both benevolent and capricious. Interwoven were the customs and traditions of the Han Chinese like the Lunar New Year, Duan Wu and Mid-Autumn. The importance of family wove throughout these traditions.
Growing older, wuxia was joined by a host of other worlds. I read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, Dragonlance and Frank Herbert’s mystical Dune. When I was a teenager, dragons with bat wings and vicious breath took the place of the elegant sinuous dragons I knew as a child. There were starships, there were robots, and there were new worlds I could explore. There was the Star Trek dictum: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC). That was what made SFF so powerful: the possibilities, the sheer diversity.
For Singaporeans, the teen years are years filled with rigorous curriculums, where academia is paramount, where kids are pigeonholed into nice little categories. Everyone is pushed to excel and conform. Writing became my sanctuary. I would sit down at my desk and enter worlds of dragons and shape-shifters. Writing became my voice. I spoke through my prose. I remember writing my first novella (I didn’t know what a novella was – it was the early nineties and there was no Internet to tell me!) and getting it read by my best friend, another Pern fan. Imagine: my first reader. My first audience. It was a powerful boost to my self-esteem.
My mother, however, didn’t like the idea of me being a writer. In a fit of rage, she tore my writing and flung them in my face. My heart ripped apart with it. I sobbed and hated my mother.
So, I became a rebel. A writer.
Starting to remember and remembering
I paid attention. Oh boy, I did.
I remembered the worlds of poet-swordsmen and feisty women warriors. They had faces similar to mine. They spoke a language I intimately knew. I remember reading – and strange how memories become so clear like spring water – a book about valiant generals who could turn into tigers, about phoenixes; my inherent cosmology, but it was buried within me.
I remembered the stories, the morals. Chinese legends and myths teach as well as fascinate. They teach Confucian values like filial piety, honor and love for country. The customs and traditions teach about the importance of family and kin as well as the lunar passage of time. Values that resonate for me. Like a DNA strand, spiralling deep down inside me. The tales with important values intertwined with similar stories from Western traditions. I cannot separate these two strands. They are one within me. I need both. I need the bridges. I love writing. I have accepted what I am: a border-crosser, a textual shaman.
Now, I smile when I see wuxia series on TV. I smile when I see stories with Chinese dragons who change shape into human form. And I smile when I see re-interpretations of the Journey to the West. With the advent of CGI, wuxia has become more fantasy in texture and appearance.
I return gratefully to the worlds of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. To the stories of self-sacrifice, of love and – most importantly – of intense emotions (that’s what make stories tick, isn’t it?). I listen to the spine-chilling tales of the pontianak, scary ghost women who died during childbirth. I listen to the tales of spirit tigers who haunt the graves of long-dead sultans. Singapore has a thriving horror fan-base, fed by a series of ghost-written (pun intended) anthologies and often-whispered ghost stories.
After years of living in Singapore and growing up with these classics and legends, I see SFF as diverse and multi-faceted. And because I straddle between so many worlds, SFF is perfect for daydreamers and writers like me. SFF is beyond English or Mandarin Chinese: it is universal.
hantu: Malay for ghost.
wuxia: The genre of Chinese martial movies (media: television series, movies and comics).
Nanyang: Literally ‘south sea’. Southeast Asia.
About the Author
Joyce Chng lives in Singapore, loves sf/f, reading, writing, cooking, gardening and assorted stuff. She has two lovely daughters and a wonderful husband. Her cat drives her crazy but he is very lovable.
Her other writing and publishing credits include a self-published anthology of speculative fiction, Crossed Genres, Semaphore Magazine and Bards and Sages Quarterly.
Visit http://jolantru.dreamwidth.org for more of her writings.