Tag 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.

Six Books that Take You to Real Places

Whether you are travelling in the summer or not, here are five books that take you to places around the world.

1. Spain

The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, #1)The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This general fiction is set in Barcelona. It’s an intricate web about people in the publishing world: a book lover, an author, and a publisher. We don’t know who are the real friends or foe. Friends, siblings and lovers intertwine. Every little piece of the jigsaw was introduced slowly and then all pieced together in the end. What seemed like innocuous facts were in fact crucial information. It’s a really good read.

2. Italy

Call Me By Your Name (Call Me By Your Name, #1)Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

This is a beautiful book. Elio is a very talented and intelligent boy who falls in love one Italian summer. You get inside the mind of this seventeen year-old and his obsession. I feel his passion and I feel heartbreak.

My favourite line in the book is when his father speaks to him at the end. “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!”

3. Malawi, Africa

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and HopeThe Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba

It’s a memoir about a boy who taught himself the laws of electricity and then built a windmill to power his home.

What an incredible story. Famine led to poverty and his father could not afford to send him to school. But William did not let this set him back. He knew he wanted an education and frequented the local library. He taught himself Physics just from reading some borrowed books and grasped the difficult principles of electricity and electromagnetism. Then he applied his understanding and built a windmill, by using scraps from the junkyard, with very limited tools. In the end he succeeded in powering his home. Very inspirational book. I am full of admiration that he self-taught himself the principles of electricity and electromagnetism and went on to build a windmill made from scrap-heap items to power his home.

4. India

The Room on the RoofThe Room on the Roof by Ruskin Bond

This is about a Caucasian teenager who falls out with his guardian and finds his own way in India, befriending the locals. I felt energy of the Hindu festivals, the heat of the place, and then the refreshing coolness of the water from the public pump. I could visualise the colours of the bazaar and the smell the chaat shop. If you are looking for a book that takes you to the heart of India, this book will do just the job.

5. Japan

Shadow of the Fox (Shadow of the Fox, #1)Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa

After her temple was burnt down, the only survivor, a humble temple girl finds herself responsible for the Scroll of a Thousand Prayer. She has to keep it from falling in the wrong hands.

This book is a good way to understand further about the Japanese paranormal culture. There were so many demons, yokai, yurei etc I had to keep flipping back to the glossary to remind myself what sub-category they belonged to. The occasional Japanese word dotted around made it authentic. Indeed I felt myself transported to this mysterious Japanese world in the past where samurais were revered.


6. China

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird LaneThe Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

This book is about a girl from the Akha ethnic minority group in China. We learn about their customs and practices and why has to give up her daughter at birth, who ends up being adopted in America.

On one hand we follow her throughout the years, from late 1980s onwards. As she grows up, we also learn about China’s progress through these times and how China’s progress resulted in prosperity in her family and her rise in social status. I learnt about the tea industry and the Pu’er tea bubble.

On the other hand, we follow her daughter growing up in America. The story highlights the social issues faced by adopted girls from China growing up in America. I liked the way the story tied up at the end. Ultimately she had her mother’s blood and it is this heritage that brought them together again.

The language is simple but the story is multi-dimensional.


secretsofthegreatfiretreeSecrets of the Great Fire Tree by Justine Laismith

Goodreads Blurb

A Boy.
His Pendant.
A Magical Tree.

In rural China during the New Year celebrations, Kai receives devastating news. A poor harvest spells disaster unless his mother accepts a job in the city caring for a wealthy family.

Abandoned in his mountainous village, Kai is desperate to bring his mother home. He gives in to superstition and unlocks the secrets of the Great Fire Tree. The Great Fire Tree will grant Kai’s wish—for a terrible price. With the help of his new friend Xinying and his trusted piglet, Kai will make a sacrifice to make his family whole.

Justine Laismith weaves together Chinese mystique and rural charm in an enchanting tale of an antidote that kills and an amulet that curses.


Can you think of any books that whisk you to another country? Drop me a comment below and tell me more about it.

Eight Middle Grade Books that Take You to Real Places

Travelling is something we can start dreaming about. Here are eight middle-grade books that take you to locations around the world.

1. Yellowstone Park, North America

Dreaming the BearDreaming the Bear by Mimi Thebo

Goodreads Blurb

“When I get up, there’s nobody home. Even Mum has gone out. The note says, ‘I have to check my emails. I’ll snowmobile to the meltline and be back soon. XX Mummy’.
And I think, ‘Good. I can feed my bear…'”

Darcy’s life was never exactly simple, but it was about to become a lot more complicated.
Recovering from a distressing illness in her parents’ cabin surrounded by looming pine trees, Darcy spends most of her days alone, warming herself by the log fire. That is, until she ventures into the woods hours before a heavy snowstorm, and finds herself face-to-face with a grizzly bear. Their encounter takes a surprising turn when it flourishes into a warm and caring companionship.

Set against the backdrop of the snowy Yellowstone National Park in Montana.

My review

2. Holland

The Wheel on the SchoolThe Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong

Goodreads Blurb

Why do the storks no longer come to the little Dutch fishing village of Shora to nest? It was Lina, one of the six schoolchildren who first asked the question, and she set the others to wondering. And sometimes when you begin to wonder, you begin to make things happen. So the children set out to bring the storks back to Shora. The force of their vision put the whole village to work until at last the dream began to come true.

My review

3. Malawi, Africa

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and HopeThe Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba

Goodreads Blurb

William Kamkwamba was born in Malawi, a country where magic ruled and modern science was mystery. It was also a land withered by drought and hunger, and a place where hope and opportunity were hard to find. But William had read about windmills in a book called Using Energy, and he dreamed of building one that would bring electricity and water to his village and change his life and the lives of those around him. His neighbors may have mocked him and called him misala—crazy—but William was determined to show them what a little grit and ingenuity could do.

Enchanted by the workings of electricity as a boy, William had a goal to study science in Malawi’s top boarding schools. But in 2002, his country was stricken with a famine that left his family’s farm devastated and his parents destitute. Unable to pay the eighty-dollar-a-year tuition for his education, William was forced to drop out and help his family forage for food as thousands across the country starved and died.

Yet William refused to let go of his dreams. With nothing more than a fistful of cornmeal in his stomach, a small pile of once-forgotten science textbooks, and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to bring his family a set of luxuries that only two percent of Malawians could afford and what the West considers a necessity—electricity and running water. Using scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves, William forged a crude yet operable windmill, an unlikely contraption and small miracle that eventually powered four lights, complete with homemade switches and a circuit breaker made from nails and wire. A second machine turned a water pump that could battle the drought and famine that loomed with every season.

Soon, news of William’s magetsi a mphepo—his “electric wind”—spread beyond the borders of his home, and the boy who was once called crazy became an inspiration to those around the world.

Here is the remarkable story about human inventiveness and its power to overcome crippling adversity. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind will inspire anyone who doubts the power of one individual’s ability to change his community and better the lives of those around him.

My review

4. India

Boys Without NamesBoys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth

Goodreads Blurb

For eleven-year-old Gopal and his family, life in their rural Indian village is over: We stay, we starve, his baba has warned. So they must flee to the big city of Mumbai in hopes of finding work and a brighter future. Gopal is eager to help support his struggling family until school starts, so when a stranger approaches him with the promise of a factory job, he jumps at the offer.

But Gopal has been deceived. There is no factory but, instead, a small, stuffy sweatshop, where he and five other boys are forced to make beaded frames for no money and little food. The boys are forbidden to talk or even to call one another by their real names. In this atmosphere of distrust and isolation, locked in a rundown building in an unknown part of the city, Gopal despairs of ever seeing his family again.

Then, late one night when Gopal decides to share kahanis, or stories, he realizes that storytelling might be the boys’ key to holding on to their sense of self and their hope for any kind of future. If he can make them feel more like brothers than enemies, their lives will be more bearable in the shop—and they might even find a way to escape.

My review

5. London, UK

The City of Secret RiversThe City of Secret Rivers by Jacob Sager Weinstein

Goodreads Blurb

Magic is real. History is a big, fat lie.
Before Hyacinth Hayward moves from Illinois to London, she reads up on the city’s history. Too bad for her. Because the books are wrong. The truth is, London was built on magical rivers, and all the major events in its past have been about people trying to control the magic.
Hyacinth discovers this when her mom is kidnapped. In the chase to get her back, Hyacinth encounters a giant intelligent pig in a bathing suit, a boy with amnesia, an adorable tosher (whatever that is), a sarcastic old lady, and a very sketchy unicorn. Somehow Hyacinth has to figure out who to trust, so she can save her mom and, oh yeah, 
not cause a second Great Fire of London.”

My review

6. Australia

Pie in the SkyPie in the Sky by Remy Lai

Goodreads Blurb

When eleven-year-old Jingwen moves to a new country, he feels like he’s landed on Mars. School is torture, making friends is impossible since he doesn’t speak English, and he’s often stuck looking after his (extremely irritating) little brother, Yanghao.

To distract himself from the loneliness, Jingwen daydreams about making all the cakes on the menu of Pie in the Sky, the bakery his father had planned to open before he unexpectedly passed away. The only problem is his mother has laid down one major rule: the brothers are not to use the oven while she’s at work. As Jingwen and Yanghao bake elaborate cakes, they’ll have to cook up elaborate excuses to keep the cake making a secret from Mama.

Told in prose and graphic novel elements, this middle-grade novel is about a boy’s immigration experience, his annoying little brother, and their cake-baking hijinks!

My review

7. Russia

The Wolf WilderThe Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

Goodreads Blurb

Feodora and her mother live in the snowbound woods of Russia, in a house full of food and fireplaces. Ten minutes away, in a ruined chapel, lives a pack of wolves. Feodora’s mother is a wolf wilder, and Feo is a wolf wilder in training. A wolf wilder is the opposite of an animal tamer: it is a person who teaches tamed animals to fend for themselves, and to fight and to run, and to be wary of humans.

When the murderous hostility of the Russian Army threatens her very existence, Feo is left with no option but to go on the run. What follows is a story of revolution and adventure, about standing up for the things you love and fighting back. And, of course, wolves.

My review

8. China


Secrets of the Great Fire Tree by Justine Laismith

Goodreads Blurb

A Boy.
His Pendant.
A Magical Tree.

In rural China during the New Year celebrations, Kai receives devastating news. A poor harvest spells disaster unless his mother accepts a job in the city caring for a wealthy family.

Abandoned in his mountainous village, Kai is desperate to bring his mother home. He gives in to superstition and unlocks the secrets of the Great Fire Tree. The Great Fire Tree will grant Kai’s wish—for a terrible price. With the help of his new friend Xinying and his trusted piglet, Kai will make a sacrifice to make his family whole.

Justine Laismith weaves together Chinese mystique and rural charm in an enchanting tale of an antidote that kills and an amulet that curses.

This is my own middle-grade book. I chose this location because my ancestors were from there and I wanted to find out more about the place. I took this opportunity to travel to China to carry out my research. You can read about the various aspects of Chinese lives I learnt here.

First published Oct 2018. Updated 4 July 2020.

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.

Six Middle Grade Books to Take you to Exotic Places

Multicultural Children’s Book Day in on 31 Jan 2020. Here are six diverse books for you.

1. Taiwan

Dumpling DaysDumpling Days by Grace Lin

This book is about a Chinese-American girls who goes to Taiwan for the summer for a family celebration. It gives a very good insight into the local lives in Taiwan, and the experiences of a third-culture kid.

2. Myanmar (Burma)

Bamboo PeopleBamboo People by Mitali Perkins

This is about two boys growing up in the political and military backdrop of Burma-Thai border. It is a sobering story about how similar experiences evokes different responses depending on the individual. It won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Children Honour in 2010 and has been nominated for several other awards.

3. Korea

A Single ShardA Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

Set in 12th Century Korea, this story centres on an orphan and his determination to become a craftsman in pottery. It has won several awards, including the Newbury Medal award in 2002.


4. India

Boys Without NamesBoys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth

It’s about a kidnapped boy forced into child labour.

Prior to reading this book, I naively thought that child labour happened because poverty had driven the children to work to contribute to the family’s income. This book opened my eyes. We see how farmers are under the mercy of weather and demand. Circumstances beyond their control led Gopal’s family to upsticks to Mumbai. He wanted to help his family financially and went looking for jobs. But he was tricked and then kidnapped. Locked away in an attic, he was forced to work alongside other kidnapped boys to make beaded frames. This book is age-appropriate for the subject.

The Night DiaryThe Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Historical fiction set in 1947 when a border was put up, forming India and Pakistan. When India gained independence from the British, it separated into two countries, India and Pakistan. The Hindus had to move south to India and the Muslims north to Pakistan. Seen through the eyes of a girl, Nisha, this was not a peaceful transition. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who used to live peacefully now fought and killed one other.  This book was an Honour Book in the 2019 Newbury Medal award. My review

5. China

Spilled WaterSpilled Water by Sally Grindley
It’s about a poor girl being sold at market as a child labourer.

Do not be fooled by this book. The blurb isn’t enticing, and the cover could be more attractive, but the story is eye-opening. Not only does it give a realistic feel to being China, but it highlights a social issue there. Girls in China were sold at market and became the property of these employers, who put them to labour in poor working conditions. Sally Grindley had done a lot of research and even travelled to China. It’s a great book for Middle Graders.This book won the 2004 Smarties Award for fiction 9 – 11.


Secrets of the Great Fire Tree by Justine Laismith

Also set in China, this is a tale of an antidote that kills and an amulet that curses. Blending Chinese superstition with fantasy, this story also highlights the social issue of children left behind by working parents.


Are there any books set in exotic places that you know of? Drop it in the comments below and I’ll check them out!

First published 1 Aug 2019. Reposted on 25 Jan 2020 for Multicultural Children’s Book Day.

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.


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


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.


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

Three Unusual Ways of Getting Around in China 8C


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.


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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Would you Die for your Country?

Growing up in Singapore, I did not have formal history lessons in primary school, but indirectly we learnt about heroes in China history during Chinese lessons or festive seasons. Behind each of them, there was a take-home message to look to them as role models. There were three that stuck in my mind.

Qu Yuan 屈原

rice-dumpling-1438663_640Because the main character in my book makes a key journey during the Dumpling festival (7 June 2019), I had previously written an article describing the story behind this Festival. Here’s what was written:

‘This festival commemorates Qu Yuan (340–278 BC). He lived during the Warring States Period as a king’s advisor in Chu. Backstabbed by his jealous colleagues, his counsel was ignored by the Emperor who even exiled him. During this time, he wrote several poems to express his love for his country. In 278 BC, his beloved Chu finally fell to the powerful Qin. On hearing this, Qu Yuan threw himself in the Miluo River, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

The Chinese believe in the afterlife, hence the body must be intact at death. The locals could not bear the thought of this patriot’s body being eaten by fish. So they went out in dragon boats to find his body, but without avail. As a result, they resorted to deterring the fishes by generating noise and giving an alternative food source. They banged on drums, and threw dumplings (zongzi, 粽子) in the river.’

This is what my teacher said to us at the end of the story: ‘He was a loyal man. He loved his country so much that he was prepared to sacrifice his life for his country.’ She went on to tell our elementary class to be like loyal like him, and to love our country and be prepared to die for it.

Yue Fei 岳飞

Would You Die for your Country Yue FeiAnother Chinese hero is Yue Fei. He was a famous general who lived in the 12th century (1103-1142) during the Song dynasty. In Eastern China, there is a temple built in his honour.

Yue Fei had won many successful battles. But the lesson teach at school was not about his conquests. Like Qu Yuan, he was fiercely loyal to his country. However, he was an even better role model. The Chinese place a lot of emphasis on filial piety, ie respecting one’s parents and elders. The most famous story about him is the four-worded 精忠报国 tattoo his mother made on his back. ‘Serve your country loyally’. So the filial son obeys his aging mother and goes off to fight battles for his country.

Naturally, like the teacher who taught us about Qu Yuan, this one was also full of praise for his loyalty and filial piety. Because those lessons had embedded in my mind, even though I hadn’t mentioned Yue Fei’s name in my story, I touched on such lessons about loyalty to the country. If you want to know more about Yue Fei, this cultural website is a good place to start.

Confucius 孔夫子

Would You Die for your Country Confucius

Like Yue Fei, I did not mention this famous Chinese philosopher directly in my book. But I am sure you have come across this name. Today, Confucius (551–479 BC) is still widely respected. Despite globalisation Confucian teaching schools have gained popularity in China because parents want their children to learn about their own ethnicity and culture. Confucius believed the family is the core unit of society. When one is good to his own family, this extrapolates to his interactions with the outside world, ultimately leading to loyalty to his country. His many teachings are often quoted. Here is an example: What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others己所不欲,勿施于人

In fact, he is so well respected that some will even invent quotes, like this one: Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. (from Citizen of the World by Oliver Goldsmith)

Others are misquoted. This famous one is from another Chinese philosopher Laozi 老子: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. 千里之行,始於足下

If you want to know more about Confucius, this educational website is a good one.

Great Yu 大禹

If you have been following my articles, you will know that I went on a trip to Sichuan in China researching my book. On this trip, I learn about Great Yu (2123 -2025 BC). My tour guide was surprised I had never heard of him and took pleasure in telling his story as he was from the region.

Would You Die for your Country Greatyu T

He lived at a time when China was plagued with floods. Despite dams and dikes built by his father, hills were still flooded. When he took over, he was rumoured to be married for only four days. He toured the country to understand the geology, and did not visit his wife and newborn even when work took him closer to home. He finally returned after thirteen years, when he successfully controlled the waters with river dredging and canal irrigations. Here’s a sculpture commemorating his great works.

As my guide was so proud of him and this sculpture had such pride of place in the rural village of Taoping Qiang, I had to slip this hero’s name in my book. Here’s a link for more information about him.

I have given you insight into four Chinese historical figures mentioned directly or indirectly in my book. To balance the gender out, I will write another article about female historical figures in a future article.

This article was first published 1 June 2019. Updated 18 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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