The novel that would come to be Second Chinese Daughter started many years ago, and the stories behind it, decades before. This is Shirley Fung’s debut novel, which charts the trials and tribulations of Feng, and Feng’s mother and grandmother – three generations of women living in Malaya.
The narrative begins in the 1930s, and is set against a backdrop of significant historical events and everyday life in Penang through to the 1960s.
When Fung embarked on this project in 2012, she set herself a target of no less than two hours of writing per day. Eight months in, the manuscript was completed, but she did not feel comfortable with the first-person narrative she chose.
“Some parts of the story are autobiographical and when I write in the first person, I feel as if I am overly exposing myself to my readers. It became too personal for me. I therefore decided to shelve my manuscript for a while and to look at it again later to see if I still felt uncomfortable,” she relates in an e-mail interview from where she now lives, Australia.
“Later” ended up being four years down the road, and this time, Fung knew that something would have to change. So she rewrote the entire manuscript, this time adopting the voice of the omniscient narrator.
“I decided right from the beginning that I would be writing ‘faction’, because I wanted to write fiction that includes factual events and settings, so as to bring an element of ‘realness’ to the stories,” she explains.
Second Chinese Daughter draws heavily from the stories Fung heard growing up in Penang. There were 11 people living in the family home: besides her parents and six other siblings, there was also her grandmother and the house help. Stories were told over dinner – in two rounds, because the table was not big enough for 11 people at one sitting – and young Fung lingered over her meal, all wide eyes and big ears as the adults shared their tales.
“I was a slow eater, or perhaps deliberately ate slowly, so that I could continue my dinner into the second round and listen to the stories my grandmother and mother shared. My maternal grandmother who lived across the street also contributed her fair share of stories,” she notes.
Over time, Fung discovered the common threads running through these tales, namely, the hardships faced by women of their time in searching for love, identity and belonging in a society that devalued their contributions, and, above all, in surviving ill-treatment in a male-dominated society.
“I like stories that reflect the culture and practices of the society of which I am a part. I was fascinated by my grandmother’s stories about people’s beliefs and superstition.
“I was moved when she described the hardship of the women of her era and their subjugation in a male-dominated society.
“I like comparing what was then and how things are now for women of today, often grateful for not living in my grandmother’s time,” she shares.
Fung was awarded a Colombo Plan Scholarship to study at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, in 1967. She has worked as a science educator and as the director of curriculum at Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne. She wrote for the “Sun Study” page of the Herald Sun newspaper in the 1980s, and has eight biology and environmental science books to her name.
Second Chinese Daughter is her first novel, and the protagonist is based mainly on Fung’s own life experiences.
The stories she heard from her family members were compiled and woven into the lives of the three main characters in the book. Fung relates how she wanted to write as truthfully as possible but, unfortunately, had not kept a diary or a journal.
“I have a vivid memory of scenes and settings, but cannot be sure that my accounts are without exaggeration. Facts became blurred over time.
“I wanted to inject as much factual information as possible, but when stories are passed on by word of mouth, I cannot vouch for their accuracy. There were gaps between factual events. This was when I wove fiction in to link them up into a seamless narrative,” she says.
Working on this novel was a emotionally-charged affair for Fung, especially as the stories are biographical.
But as it drew to a close, she found that it provided her with a sense of closure and proved cathartic.
Second Chinese Daughter gives a voice to the people in her past, whether those she knew in person or got to know about through the stories passed on by word of mouth.
“I write this book in the hope that future generations can appreciate how the roles of women in society have evolved for the better.
“I hope they will take pride in what they are capable of achieving and will actively work to lay the way for a better life for the generations after them, not just for women, but also for the many marginalised people in human societies,” she concludes.