Category Archives: China

Review : Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi

Book Review of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai by Wang Anyi

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of ShanghaiMy Thoughts after Reading

This literary fiction is translated from a Chinese work. It takes its title from a classic Tang dynasty poem about the tragic love between the Emperor and his favourite concubine.

Right from the opening chapter, the author invites you to step inside the world and relish in every minutiae of Shanghai life. I am amazed at how the author is able to describe so much about everyday things we take for granted, from apartment blocks to pigeons.

I recognised some of the expressions in Chinese. In some ways, I would say the beauty of the language in the original text is lost in translation. I say this because a single word in Chinese, after translation, becomes a three syllable word in English, or a string of words to describe the same context. When the rhythm is lost, the reader can only grasp about 70-80% of the author’s original intent.

This story centres on Wang Qiyao, from a high-schooler all the way to her death decades later. Although she is the main character, this account is narrated from a detached omniscient view. Right to the end, I didn’t really understand her. I felt as if I’ve seen her entire life through frosted glass. People came and went in her life. They seem to be drawn to her, but apart from her beauty, I could not understand why. She lived through the tumultuous times in China history, but the author has skirted round these historical events. We get little hints that it’s going on outside.

Nonetheless, the unhurried pace allows you to immerse completely in every aspect of Shanghai life. 3/5

Goodreads Blurb

Set in post-World War II Shanghai, “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow” follows the adventures of Wang Qiyao, a girl born of the “longtong,” the crowded, labyrinthine alleys of Shanghai’s working-class neighborhoods.

Infatuated with the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood, Wang Qiyao seeks fame in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant, and this fleeting moment of stardom becomes the pinnacle of her life. During the next four decades, Wang Qiyao indulges in the decadent pleasures of pre-liberation Shanghai, secretly playing mahjong during the antirightist Movement and exchanging lovers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Surviving the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history, Wang Qiyao emerges in the 1980s as a purveyor of “old Shanghai”–a living incarnation of a new, commodified nostalgia that prizes splendor and sophistication–only to become embroiled in a tragedy that echoes the pulpy Hollywood noirs of her youth.

From the violent persecution of communism to the liberalism and openness of the age of reform, this sorrowful tale of old China versus new, of perseverance in the face of adversity, is a timeless rendering of our never-ending quest for transformation and beauty. 

Don’t read this if you like Chinese food

So, what do the Chinese in China eat, and how different are they? To make sure the Chinese setting of my middle-grade book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, was authentic, I took a trip to China to get a feel for the place. The places I saw inspired my setting. It was befitting to check out the palates too.

When I say Chinese food, you are probably thinking of sweet and sour dishes, Singapore noodles or egg-fried rice. I love them, and I grew up eating these. But that is the variation in Singapore. What we eat, whether the more widely known ones or the regional ones like Hainanese Chicken Rice, has been passed down and modified from our immigrant ancestors. Later, when I went to live in the UK, I discovered many new Chinese dishes. Some are variations of what I had come across in Singapore, like crispy aromatic duck instead of Peking duck. These regional variations are not surprising really, when you think of how large China is. In this article, I will describe the food I ate in South-West China. I must warn you, if you like Chinese food, I am taking you on a mouth-watering journey that leaves you craving for it.

On my first night, I visited a nearby restaurant. The first thing that struck me was the way my crockery was served. It was all wrapped up in plastic. I am not a beer-drinker, but I associate tall or big half-pint glasses with beer. Not in this part of China. If you wanted beer, it was served with a tiny glass.

When I planned my trip, on days out with the guide and arriving late in a new place, I had asked for meals to be provided. I was very glad for this as I would not have discovered new palates otherwise. Here are some of the food I ate. In every meal, regardless of city or countryside, eateries or restaurants, there was always a big bowl of soup to go with the several dishes. The dishes were 75% vegetables. In the more rural places, we were served mushrooms and other vegetables grown and harvested locally.

On this trip, I fell in love with garlic stalks. After my return to Singapore, I discovered the supermarkets sold them. I just hadn’t noticed them before. From then on, fried garlic stalks was a regular dish on my dinner table. Now that I am back in the UK, I miss not being able to purchase these so easily. I’ve tried to grow my own, but I’ve not had much success so far. Naturally, if I had to pick one food to mention in my book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, it’s garlic stalks.

There was only one dish I did not like. In my story, I described how the food tasted like twigs. That was literally what it was like: thin, brown, hard, chewy twigs. Ironically, in this picture, my favourite garlic stalks was next to my least favourite “twigs”.

Garlic Stalks

Yummy stir-fried garlic stalks and chewy “twigs”

The front of the eateries in rural China vary as you can see in the pictures below

Eatery in Jiuzhaigou

Eatery in Jiuzhaigou

(i) I talked about Jiuzhaigou town centre in a previous article. The blue signs, red ornate doors welcome you. Once you step inside, the white walls tell you they are functional places. The menu is on the walls, with pictures of the food so there are no surprises. In our case, that didn’t matter because we didn’t have to choose anything as our driver did all the ordering for us.

Eatery in Huanglongxi

(ii) I thought the eatery in Huanglongxi Ancient Town is the most rustic. I love the outdoor stove and racks of vegetables, all ready to go.  On the ground, the metal basins had fishes; usually one fish per basin. This was so common I had to mention it in my book. We did not stop to eat in any of the eateries. Read on to find out why.

(iii) Comparing all three pictures, naturally the prettiest is from Taoping Qiang. The place where we ate seemed to be someone’s living room. Apart from a round dining table with a lazy susan, there was furniture in dark wood, including one where a TV sat on. Not surprisingly, we weren’t shown a menu. Our guide spoke to someone in Sichuanese and after a short wait, a feast arrived.

Taoping Qiang tearoom

In both the ancient town Huanglongxi and Jiuzhaigou National Park, there were several stalls selling the satay equivalent of barbecued yak and other meats. Since our arrival in South-West China, we had seen so many Yak products in shops, and enduring the aromatic smell of barbecued meat wafting from all directions. So at Huanglongxi we decided to buy a few sticks to snack for lunch. Sichuan is famous for its spicy food; here you can even smell it in the air when you walk past a BBQ stall. I imagined this was how Han, a character in my book, was overwhelmed with the fragrance when he first arrived in Pumi village.

When my trip came to an end, I went back to my writing. Fishes in metal basins, the market’s fragrance, garlic stalks and ‘twigs’ found their way into my story.

 This article was first published 15 July 2018. Updated 30 Jan 2021. Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is published by Aurelia Leo.

Secrets of the Great Fire Tree Book Cover

Review : Queen of Physics by Teresa Robeson

Book review on Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom by Teresa Robeson

Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the AtomMy Thoughts after Reading

In school we are taught many science concepts which are invariably associated with men from Europe and America, even though China has  existed much longer as a civilisation. As such I am always interested in books about women-in-Science, and this one stands out for me because she is from China.

The illustrations are great. It portrays the lives in China very well. I also enjoyed reading about her background. This is perfect to introduce diversity and culture in picture books. When it came to the science and her achievement, I am not sure what I feel about it. I am not a physicist and the concepts are not familiar to me. Despite it being a picture book, they are still too abstract for me. For this reason, I wonder if this is suitable to be classed as a picture book. It seems more apt for tween readers, who have might have some knowledge of the atomic structure and would be ready to learn more about it.

Nevertheless she is someone we should know about, especially when she has been over-looked for the Nobel Prize, which is yet another example of the Matilda Effect. 3/5

Goodreads Blurb

Meet Wu Chien Shiung, famous physicist who overcame prejudice to prove that she could be anything she wanted.

When Wu Chien Shiung was born in China 100 years ago, most girls did not attend school; no one considered them as smart as boys. But her parents felt differently. Giving her a name meaning “Courageous Hero,” they encouraged her love of learning and science. This engaging biography follows Wu Chien Shiung as she battles sexism and racism to become what Newsweek magazine called the “Queen of Physics” for her work on beta decay. Along the way, she earned the admiration of famous scientists like Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer and became the first woman hired as an instructor by Princeton University, the first woman elected President of the American Physical Society, the first scientist to have an asteroid named after her when she was still alive, and many other honors.

Review : Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

Book Review of Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

Bronze and SunflowerMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

My Thoughts after Reading

This middle-grade book takes you to the rural areas of China. Bronze and Sunflower are names of two children whose brought together by destiny. Bronze loses his ability to speak after an illness. Sunflower is orphaned when her father drowns in an accident. Right from the outset, when Bronze catches Sunflower being bullied, he came to her defence. This connection carried on throughout the book, even after Sunflower was adopted into the family.

The story takes an idyllic stroll through rural China. It is almost like a compilation of short stories surrounding the lives of Bronze and Sunflower. I got a lot out of reading about their lifestyles, from agriculture to making reed shoes to building roofs made of cogongrass. The struggles of family is demonstrated through various incidents and disasters. Despite their poverty, there is a lot of love in that family.

While Sunflower was orphaned at a young age, she remained a sunshine to all those she met. Bronze is a lovely boy who deserves so much more. He is intelligent, caring and loyal. I wished life was fairer to him. I would say the ending was bittersweet.

PS. If you’ve enjoyed this book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is another book set in rural China. Whilst Bronze and Sunflower is set during the Cultural Revolution, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is set at the start of China’s economic boom.

Goodreads Blurb

When Sunflower, a young city girl, moves to the countryside, she grows to love the reed marsh lands – the endlessly flowing river, the friendly buffalo with their strong backs and shiny, round heads, the sky that stretches on and on in its vastness. However, the days are long, and the little girl is lonely. Then she meets Bronze, who, unable to speak, is ostracized by the other village boys. Soon the pair are inseparable, and when Bronze’s family agree to take Sunflower in, it seems that fate has brought him the sister he has always longed for. But life in Damaidi is hard, and Bronze’s family can barely afford to feed themselves. Can the little city girl stay here, in this place where she has finally found happiness?

A classic, heartwarming tale set to the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution.

Review : Waiting by Ha Jin

Book review of  Waiting by Ha Jin

WaitingThis book has a sedentary pace. The narration is somewhat detached, but the story is told in such a deliberate way it intrigues.

I enjoyed the time and setting. I know enough China history to recognise some of the names and incidents mentioned in the story. For this I rate it 3*.

I found myself sympathetic to the characters and the situation they are in. Mid-way through the book I asked myself if they were truly in love, as I could not sense it in the narration. However, I also know that Chinese love stories are usually more subtle. Showing emotions is not the Chinese culture. So I tolerated with this anomaly. For this I rate it 2*.

Given how the characters were portrayed in the story, the ending did not come as a surprise. Overall I rate the book 2.5*.

Goodreads Blurb

For more than seventeen years, Lin Kong, a devoted and ambitious doctor, has been in love with an educated, clever, modern woman, Manna Wu. But back in his traditional home village lives the humble, loyal wife his family chose for him years ago. Every summer, he returns to ask her for a divorce and every summer his compliant wife agrees but then backs out. This time, after eighteen years’ waiting, Lin promises it will be different.

Three Unusual Ways of Getting Around in China

I’m not talking about trains, planes or buses, but I am talking about automobiles. When you go on road-trips at home, or overseas, perhaps in Europe, Australasia or Northern America, I’m sure you’ve noticed how different they are. In this article, I’m talking about China.

When I dreamt up my middle-grade book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, I knew it was going to be a boy with his pig, and I knew the story centred around a mysterious tree. However, I struggled with the story location for a long time. Eventually I decided on China.

I pictured my protagonist living in the mountains and going everywhere on foot. Other than that, trips to towns and cities would be by the usual modes you’d expect; cars, buses and trains. To me these are simply modes that take me from A to B. My knowledge is basic: cars, lorries, tractors, motor-bikes and bicycles. I do not get excited about them. Nevertheless, I knew my setting had to be authentic. As I have never been to China, I took a trip there to get a feel for the place. This blog is about transportation in rural China.

The variety on the vehicular front was a feast for the eyes. I could not help snapping pictures when travelling in the car. Even when I was on foot, I’d snap a picture of a whizzing vehicle. Many of the pictures are blurry, as you would expect from a moving vehicle and a low quality camera. But it gives you an idea of the type of unusual transportation you can expect to see. I’ve categorised them into three main types.

Motorbike front

The highlight for me was the different permutations and combinations of front and backs you can find on the roads. Think of playing with Lego cars, and how you can attach different backs to it depending on what scene a child is playing (eg zoo, farm, home). Well, here in rural China, it’s real!

Here is a “normal” motorbike that caught my attention as it past me. This one is by no means the smallest load at the back of a bike.

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The rest are more exotic, different designs to suit their needs. Please excuse the really blurry pictures.

To carry passengers

Some were even improvised to provide shelter. They even come in different designs.

To carry goods at the back

These have mini-wheels, obviously for lighter loads. Meat was hanging from the top in the first picture. The second one doesn’t have a ‘shelter’ to keep the goods dry, or hang any meat off it.

To carry both passenger in the front and heavy/bulky loads at the back

Notice how this is wider and longer; it can take one passenger in the front. It has normal car-like wheels

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Moving up in size, these have large tractor wheels, or even a tractor with a trailer.

Pedal Bicycles

If I saw any cyclist when I was there, it did not leave an impression. However, I snapped a couple of three-wheeled bicycles. I saw many of these growing up in Singapore. Not so many these days, so seeing them brought back a nostalgic feeling.

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You would probably recognise this one as a trishaw. They can still be seen in many touristy places in the world.

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Three-wheelers

Three-wheelers are a rare sight, but here in China they have an added dimension when I saw the front combined with the back of a lorry. On closer inspection, I realise it’s a variation of a bike-front, lorry back vehicle. Except this one has a metal shelter fitted in the front.

Here’s a picture of another from the back. I’ve deliberately not cropped out the rest of the scene so you can have a look at what else is on the roads on a typical day in Chengdu.

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With such a marvellous range of vehicles, I had to include them in my middle-grade book.

This article was first published 15 Apr 2019. Updated 22 Nov 2019 for the official blog tour of Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, published by Aurelia Leo. I pledge to give 25% of the royalties from its sale to charity.

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Six-year old Left Alone for a Year

Over the last months you must have had a chance to meet up with friends and family. These festive holidays are great for catch-ups and stories. Over the dinner table during one such get-together, I heard this account:

A group of charity workers had found a little boy living on his own. He had a pig living with him. His parents had gone away to work and his sole responsibility was to look after the pig until his parents’ return to celebrate Chinese New Year. He lived in a mountainous area, and his house was the only one in the area. They reckoned he was about six years old.

It wasn’t a first-hand account, and I never verified the story’s details. But it moved me. To leave behind a six-year old and let him fend for himself for an entire year, the conditions at home had to be desperate.

When I delved deeper, I learnt how left-behind children were paying the price of China’s economic development. Most are left with a relative. However, very often the relative is a grand-parent who needed looking after. Not only do these children have to fend for themselves, they become carers themselves. They have to fit their education around managing house and farm. And what of the emotional vacuum of absent parents? I needed the world to know about this. This was how I starting writing my middle-grade book.

As part of my research for this book, I found many moving videos about these left-behind children. Here is a report by a Wall Street Journalist Andrew Browne capturing the lives of left-behind children.

You can get a good insight from the children’s point of view in The Diary of Left-Behind Children. Their teacher Yang Yuansong wanted his students to improve their literacy. For homework they had to write about their daily lives. Through this he realised how hard their lives were and published their works to bring awareness to their plights. I got my copy in Chengdu when I went to China. As you can see, it is well thumbed through.

Since buying it in 2013, this has been translated into English by Huang Yujia and illustrated by Miranda Mo.

There is a even video made around this book. The teacher is interviewed and you can also get to see the lives of some of those students. I should warn you it got teary in some places. You might want some tissues to hand.

If you want to know more about rural China and the struggles of the people, here is a list to videos to get you started. Their stories kept me going whenever I got stuck with writing Secrets of the Great Fire Tree.

  1. Ice Boy/Frost Boy
  2. Climbing dangerous ladder to get to and from village/school in Alute’er (at 2.40 min, you can see people with baskets on their backs, as I described in a previous blog)
  3. Doctor Deng Qiandui using zipline to get to remote villages

Children left behind by working parents does not just happen in China. It is a global occurrence. The non-fiction Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario is an account of a Honduran boy on a journey to find his mother working in United States. For younger audiences, Candy Gourlay’s middle-grade book Tall Story is about a Filipino mother who left her son behind to come to the UK to work.

Enrique's Journey: The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother

Tall Story

 

 

 

 

I pledge to give 25% of my royalties to a charity to help these left-behind children. I hope it will be able to make a difference in some way. I thank the people and charities who are already making a difference for them.

This article was first published 27 May 2019. Updated 10 Nov 2019 for the official blog tour of Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, published by Aurelia Leo.

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Rustic Homes of China’s Ethnic Minorities

If you’ve come to this page, you are probably looking for some information about what type of houses the ethnic minorities in China live in. How do they live, compared to your lifestyle?

I went in search for this information when I was writing my middle grade fiction. I knew it was going to be a boy with only his pig in a lone hut in the mountains. But where exactly does he live?  At the time, I was living in Singapore, a modern city so densely populated it was hard for me to imagine such a remote setting. To cut a long story short, I eventually decided on China. I have never been to China but I knew the story setting had to be authentic, especially the homes of my characters. While you can find a lot of information on the internet, as the Chinese saying goes, 百闻不如一见。Translated roughly, it means there’s nothing quite like seeing it for yourself. So I took a trip there.

The surroundings

When I arrived in South-West China, it was easy to find inspiration. There were several houses nestled in the mountains, some on their own, like Kai’s home in my story, and some in small clusters, like the hamlet not far from Kai’s home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI saw people working in the fields, but without any machinery. I drove past a few spots with small areas of land where you’d expect weeds to grow wild. Instead I saw neat rows of plants growing, or rows of soil covered with plastic sheets. In my story, I described Kai working on the land, planting seeds and covering them with these sheets to stop the birds from eating them.

The Exteriors

Here is a picture that helped me formulate the architecture of the wooden home in the mountain.

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The hanging of corn and chilli to dry was particularly striking in Taoping Qiang, the village where the ethnic minority Qiang people lived. They adorned the entrances of the homes. Some were simpler, and others more elaborate.

The Interiors

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While in China, I visited the inside of two homes, one of the Tibetan homes in Jiuzhaigou and one in a Qiang home at Taoping Qiang. The Tibetan one was has a formica kitchen, and two different types of stove. There was a bench on the side furnished with the intricate embroidery similar to the ones being sold in the local area.

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As you can see, the Qiang kitchen was more rustic. The kitchen walls and floors were concrete. To give you a sense of where things were, when I took this photo, I was standing by the place they dined. In fact, I was especially fascinated with the stove/dining table.

The gentleman who was showing us his home informed us that all the homes in Taoping Qiang had the same set up. He demonstrated how it doubled as a table when the cover was used. It kept their food warm and their proximity to the stove kept them warm while dining. This was so unique I had to incorporate it into my story. When you read Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, you will see how it is part of Kai’s world.

This is what I learnt about the man about his kitchen/dining table:

(i) Stand-alone sunken stove is used for cooking.

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(ii) When food is cooked and ready to be served, the wooden frame is placed around stove.

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(iii) The wooden cover is placed over the top of the frame, serving as a table top.

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In both homes, there were cured meat hanging in the rafters. I did not see any refrigerators. In the story, I described Kai’s mother hanging the excess meat left over from Chinese New Year.

The furniture I saw in the Tibetan home is shown below. I touched on them in Secrets of the Great Fire Tree. What a contrast to the soft, cosy settees I am familiar with.

Even though the owner showed us his little bedroom, I did not feel right to look around for too long nor take any photos of it.

Nevertheless, this trip helped me crystallise my thoughts on Kai’s home and the surrounding areas. Whilst he does not live in a particular place in China nor does he belong to a particular ethnic minority, he comes from a beautiful country with a rich cultural. I hope you will get a flavour of this when you read my middle grade book.

This article was first published 1 Sep 2018. Updated 9 Nov 2019 for the official blog tour of Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, published by Aurelia Leo.

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Baskets on their backs

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Picture a traditional oriental scene of someone carrying items, perhaps a farmer, or a trader, and you’ll most likely visualise a carrying pole balanced on shoulders, with loads on either ends of the pole. When I was in China, this was a less common way of carrying things.

While you do see people using polythene bags, people with baskets on their backs was a more common sight, especially in rural China.

Yes, you read it correctly. Baskets on their backs. This is their way of life for a long time, even Meindert DeJong’s House of Sixty Fathers contained illustrations of children with baskets on their backs. Here is a close-up of a back basket. It’s deep and has string tied to it, shoulder-width apart.BasketsontheirBacks4 C

In a crowded market, these ladies were only two out of several with baskets on their backs.

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I even saw a young child in the basket. At that point I realised I had not seen a single pushchair in this busy market. You can see people with baskets on their backs in the city too. I spied this person carrying an enormous rice cooker on his back in Chengdu.

In the reference book The Dairy of Left-Behind Children, there were accounts of the children trekking through the mountainous paths to fetch water. They carried their buckets in these baskets. The buckets held 15-20 L of water. For even heavier loads, the baskets were lined with metal, as you can see from this picture of a construction worker.

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In my book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, I described, on several occasions, Kai and other characters carrying baskets on their backs. They carried water, clothes and even their lunch.

When I gave an account about my retail experience in China, I mentioned about how the vendors came and set up stall on the ground. Here the basket doubles up as a table to display the rabbit on sale.

BasketsontheirBacks5 CEven when the load is too bulky for the basket, some find alternative ways to carry their load, as you can see from this picture I snapped while passing through a town.

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Although I did see little children being carried in these baskets while I was out there, I did not take any pictures. So I haven’t got one to show you, but carrying people in these back baskets is not limited to children. I came across a video recently, of an elderly couple, where the wife has mobility problems and her husband carries her around in a basket on his back. A real-life story of one of Aesop’s Fable.

In a later post, I will talk about the mountainous area and the barriers to everyday things we take for granted, like getting to and from school/ work. I’m giving you a sneak preview because in this video, at 2.40 min, you can see people with baskets on their backs, climbing up the mountain, just going about in their everyday lives.

Baskets on their Backs. For a long time, this was the title of my middle-grade book. As it’s set in rural China, I had chosen this because it was such a common sight there. Eventually I chose a different title that gave more of an essence of the story.

This article was first published 1 June 2018. Updated 8 Nov 2019 for the official blog tour of Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, published by Aurelia Leo.

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How the Sichuan Earthquake Impacted my Twins

On 12 May, China will be marking this day. Nearly a decade ago, in the spring when China and the world were looking forward to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. An earthquake of magnitude 7.9 struck south-west China on May 12, killing more than 68000 people, including over 5000 school children.

Nearly two years ago, on 8 Aug 2017, Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan, China, suffered an earthquake, magnitude 6.5. If you read my earlier articles, you’ll know that I’ve been to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Jiuzhaigou National Park. These two pictures give you an idea why it’s a renowned place. Sadly, the beautiful waterfalls and blue lakes were destroyed by the earthquake. It was a stark reminder. What Nature gives, she can take it all back.

After visiting Jiuzhaijou, I returned to Chengdu and took a day trip to Taoping Qiang, a village where the Qiang ethnic minority live. It was a long journey for a day trip. Sichuan is a very mountainous area. We went through tunnels that connected one mountain to another. We crossed over bridges in other areas. Tunnels, mountains, bridges and rivers were all part of the scenery. However, one section stood out. These were parts that were affected by the earthquake in 2008.

Here we were driving alongside a river, when I saw this broken bridge.

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My guide described several of the places we drove past. As the area is highly mountainous, the earthquake dislodged enormous boulders that came down to ground level.

Here you can see how the rocks and earth have complete overwhelmed the bridge. The river here has dried up as the stones have stopped all water flow.

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Here is another picture of a dried-up river.

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On the day of the earthquake, when the rocks blocked up the river, a dam formed behind it. As a result, the river rose and flooded the villages on upper ground. This village is preserved as a memory of what happened on the day. You can see how high the water level rose to from the water marks left on the building.

This school, Xuankou Middle School, was also not restored so the public could see the devastation.

My guide gave me her personal account of that day. She was not working, but a friend of hers was. She texted and called, and texted and called, constantly, but did not get any response on the phone. Her friend, like so many others, had disappeared on the day and not heard from since. We were in the car when she relayed the story. She was sitting in front, next to the driver. I could not see her face, but from the tone of her voice, I could tell the memories was still fresh and the loss still raw.

It was a sobering experience. I wanted to mark, in some small way, to the lives loss.

When I decided my middle-grade story would be set in China, I had to give my characters authentic Chinese names. As this is a story written in English, this meant I had to give my characters names spelt in hanyu pinyin. Hanyu pinyin is a method of pronouncing Chinese words in Mandarin using the common alphabet system. However, like any language that uses the alphabets, not every letter of the alphabet sounds the way you expect in your native language. I thought hard about the names for my characters, like any expectant parent naming their child. For me, they had to be spelt in hanyu pinyin. In my head, I went through several common Chinese names and how they would be pronounced by readers who do not know hanyu pinyin. By the time my trip to China arrived, I had not thought of names of a couple of my characters –  a pair of twins.

The Sichuan earthquake in 2008 was also known as the Wenchuan Earthquake. That very evening, when I returned to Chengdu, the twins’ names came to me. Wen and Chuan.

This article was first published 1 Aug 2018. Updated 7 Nov 2019 for the official blog tour of Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, published by Aurelia Leo.

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