Thursday, September 23, 2021

Q&A with Claire Chao




Claire Chao is the author, with her mother, Isabel Sun Chao, of the book Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels. Claire Chao has worked for companies including Tiffany & Co. and Harry Winston, and she lives in Honolulu.


Q: How did you and your mother end up writing this book together, and what was the writing process like? Did you know most of the details in the memoir as you grew up, or did you learn much of it in the course of working on the book? And what impact did writing the book have on you?


A: I grew up in Hong Kong knowing very little about my parents’ families. Like many of their friends, they had fled Shanghai in the 1940s, and generally didn’t talk much about the city they’d left behind. That’s probably been true for immigrants throughout history—people who, in order to create a brighter future, must face forward and not dwell on the past.


Though only two hours away from Hong Kong by air, Shanghai and indeed all of China were inaccessible to outsiders during my childhood. Although unaware of it at the time, as a youth I continually sought connections to my parents’ Shanghai homeland, and in college focused on Chinese history and art. 


In 2008, I visited for the first time my mother’s childhood home in Shanghai—a house that my grandfather had built during uncertain times, with a civil war in full swing, Communists and Nationalists struggling for power, and the Japanese steadily carving their way deeper into China.


While surveying the ruined house, now occupied by perhaps 20 strangers, I was rocked by the revelation that my mother and her family had lived full lives within these four walls, and that I knew virtually nothing about them or what had come before. That was the moment my mother and I together decided to write our family memoir.


Initially we expected to spend a year or two lightheartedly penning a few interesting anecdotes.


It was only when I began digging that I discovered how truly dramatic the lives of my ancestors had been—five generations over two centuries spanning the full sweep of modern Chinese history. Our “guest stars” included the empress dowager Cixi, a famous opera star, a warlord’s son, even an underworld boss.


The research, writing and design process ended up taking 10 years to publication! An ongoing challenge was the overabundance of stories, and figuring out how to convey them in a logical, readable, well-paced style.


Although there were many adventures and surprises along the way, the most gratifying for me was uncovering an uncanny link with my grandfather whom I never met—but you’ll have to read the book to find out about that!

Q: The book also includes many photographs and other art. Did you need to track down this material as you wrote the book, or did most of it already belong to your family?


A: As a child I was mesmerized by my mother’s albums of exquisite black and white photos; many of my favorites found their way into Remembering Shanghai. It was only while researching our book that I realized how precious these images are.


Most families like ours escaped Shanghai under difficult circumstances, at best keeping only a handful of cherished photos. Our family albums fortuitously made their way out of China intact because my grandmother divorced my grandfather (a rarity in that generation) and moved to Hong Kong in 1948, a year before the situation became utterly fraught.


As a highly visual person, it’s important to me that readers have an immersive experience not only through our words, but also strong visual and even audio elements.


In addition to our family photographs, we commissioned original watercolor illustrations by two artists—one younger, to create whimsical little tableaux; the other, more mature, for complex scenes such as the reconstruction of the Shanghai house. Additionally, I searched other sources for historical illustrations, some of which had never been published.


The result is a collection of 160 illustrations that envelop the reader in what we hope is an immersive experience.


On the audio front, we’ve released an audiobook featuring an amazing award-winning actress, Rachel Yong, who created over 60 character voices for the book’s dialogues. One reviewer commented that she enjoyed listening to the audiobook with a print book open in front of her, so she could follow along with the illustrations.


Q: What do you hope readers learn about your family from reading the book?


A: Our readers’ comments show that individuals have widely ranging takeaways from Remembering Shanghai: different characters, stories, and themes seem to resonate for different individuals.


This makes sense to us and is very validating, since my mother’s and my primary goal was to create a richly layered medium for a wide audience with varying knowledge of China.


We wanted to interweave our family stories with just the right amount of historical context and cultural highlights to make it unique and meaningful, revealing China in a deeply human way through a Shanghainese lens.


Q: What are you working on now?


My mom, having turned 90 earlier this year, is mostly working on her mahjong game (she’s a whiz)!


I’ve been hard at work with screenwriting and design partners to develop the Remembering Shanghai TV series. We hope to start pitching in earnest in late 2021. No doubt another fun and fascinating journey!


We are also about to launch a completely revamped website with lots of new features, including guest blogs by the best and brightest Old Shanghai aficionados.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: After self-publishing Remembering Shanghai (a decision in large part driven by the book’s many illustrations that would have made it challenging for a traditional publisher) we are delighted that the book will be re-released in October 2021 by our new publisher, Girl Friday Books.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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