Tuesday, March 2, 2010

blending east with west

Niki Bruce speaks to Kylie Chan about Chinese gods living in modern Hong Kong.

THE first time I picked up one of Kylie Chan's books, I have to admit that I was a little bit jealous. Chan's fantasy stories that mix ancient Chinese myths and legends, gods and demons with modern society were exactly the type of themes that I'd once thought of writing about.

So, while I was a bit disappointed that it had already been done, I was even more excited to have something to read that I knew I'd be both interested in and would understand.

Chan's first trilogy – White Tiger, Red Phoenix and Blue Dragon which made up Dark Heavens – followed the life of an ordinary Australian young woman living in Hong Kong and working as a nanny to a mixed-race child whose father seemed to be an ordinary Chinese businessman.

The nanny, Emma, eventually discovers that her new boss is not only not ordinary, he's not even human. John Chen is in fact is a 3000 year old Chinese god; the god of martial arts. The Dark Heavens trilogy follows Emma as she becomes a practitioner of martial arts, falls in love with a god and fights demons from Hell to protect her charge, Simone – who is actually a Celestial Princess.

What really makes these books come alive, is not just the detailed information about the Chinese myths and legends – the Jade Emperor, the Monkey God, dragons, phoenixes and all kinds of other mystical beings – but the warmth of Chan's human characters and the depictions of Hong Kong where the stories are set.

The writing is classic fantasy with action scenes neatly slotted between more philosophical slabs of information and background. The dialogue is good, there are not too many diversions into descriptions of technical things like Chinese spelling and the pace is very balanced.

Chan's writing style is quite casual, dare I say, very 'Australian' in its rolling syntax and the way it embraces the reader. While Dark Heavens and the new book Earth to Hell wouldn't necessarily be described as high literature, they are very well written with a non-intellectualism which allows for easy reading and an easy understanding of the complicated plots and histories of Chinese mythology.

Chan herself spent a long time living in Hong Kong – she is an Australian national who married a Hong Konger – and so some of the characters are based on herself, her friends and her family. Although she admits that John Chen, the romantic hero, is not exactly based on her now former husband.

In an interview from her current home in Brisbane, Australia, Chan laughingly admitted that John Chen was more like 'a preferred type of husband', rather than based on any real person. Simone, however, was based on her own, mixed-race daughter when she was younger.

It was Chan's immersion in Chinese culture while living and working in Hong Kong that actually led her to develop both her interest in Chinese mythology and to writing the books.

"It was so hard (to find information), there is so little written in English about Chinese mythology," she explained. "When I got married there were always people talking about things and making assumptions about things I should know about."

Chan said that most Chinese just "know" about the myths and legends, as it's assumed knowledge that they've picked up from their grandparents and family members. The fact that she's been successful in tracking down the information and blending it with modern life in what's coming to be known as Urban Fantasy, is clear.

"I get lots of messages and comments from young Chinese, Chinese Australians and even Vietnamese saying 'thank you' for explaining it all. They say that while their grandparents may have known all this stuff, their parents often avoid it, saying it's just 'old-fashioned superstitions' and the young people want to learn about their culture. It's particularly had if they can't read Chinese," Chan explained.

As for adding the modern day to the mix, Chan said that she thought it would be fun and allowed her to play with the incongruence of ancient gods dealing with modern contraptions like mobile phones, computers and access to the rest of the world.

Another aspect that makes Chan's books an interesting fantasy read is that fact that her characters are far from perfect: "I wanted real people's reactions to these things, often fantasy characters are too perfect and they're not 'real'. This makes them more sympathetic. Although people have complained both that they're not heroic enough and that they are still too heroic. Well, you can't please everyone all the time!"

In Earth to Hell, Chan continue the story of Emma and Simone – John disappeared in Blue Dragon, sacrificing his humanity for his family – it's eight years later and Simone is a teenager, while Emma is attempting to keep the Wudang Martial Arts School running, as well as John's Kingdom on the Celestial plane.

The family has also been reduced by the absence of Leo – John's black, gay, HIV positive retainer who is sitting in Hell refusing to be raised to an Immortal because he believes he failed his lord. Leo is one of Chan's most 'real' characters and adds another layer of modernity to her story themes.

Earth to Hell is the first in the new series – Journey to Wudang – and was a long time coming for many of her fans. Between the end of the last trilogy and the beginning of this one, Chan says "life just got in the way". With a divorce, a move back to Australia and working full-time, it's understandable why it took so long.

However, Chan assured me that the next one – under the prosaic working title of Book Five – is already almost finished and will be available around the middle of this year. Then there will be Book Six as well as a third trilogy which will be the "final showdown".

Chan is still obviously overwhelmed by both the success and the support she has received for her work – during the interview she laughs a lot, says thanks a lot and modestly receives praise. She's very excited that the first trilogy is about to be released in the UK and America for the first time after being picked up by Angry Robot – a rising imprint of HarperCollins.

Although, getting her work translated into Chinese is a "terrifying thought" for the author as she's concerned about what Chinese people would think of her "white girl's interpretation of Chinese mythology", but she seems quietly hopeful.

As an avid fan of the books, I was excited to be able to pick the author's brain on some of the cliffhangers and major questions that run through the stories. While Chan was happy to confirm a few of my guesses, she wouldn't give away too much about the main question – will Emma and John end up together?

I didn't mind too much; after all I will definitely be reading every book as it comes out, so I'll find out eventually. Besides, some mystery has to remain.

Earth to Hell by Kylie Chan is published by Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins and is available from good book stores and online.

First published on The Straits Times blogs on January 19, 2010 


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