Four years ago, Australian author Carol Jones was visiting a Buddhist temple in Guangzhou, China. There, she came across an unusual sight: An old woman cursing loudly as she angrily tossed moon blocks (jiaobei blocks), which are wooden divination tools used to ask Chinese deities questions.
“She was really, really angry. She was speaking in Hokkien or some other dialect, so I asked a guide, and he told me that she was angry with (the goddess) Guan Yin for not giving her the right answer she wanted about her son and his future,” recalls Jones, 61.
The incident stayed in the author’s mind long after she completed her visit. And the old woman’s loss turned out to be Jones’ gain. For it inspired the creation of Madame Chan, the antagonist of The Concubine’s Child, her first novel for adults.
“There’s a scene similar to this in the book, when she becomes upset after she doesn’t get the answer she wants from the goddess Guan Yin. She expects the gods to reciprocate for all the work that she’s put into honouring them.
“Over the years, I’ve come to understand that a lot of Cantonese society is about mutual obligation. You’re expected to reciprocate, in one way or another, for many things. It’s something that I’ve sometimes found hard to come to terms with, as it’s not a big thing in the culture I’ve grown up with,” says Jones at a interview in Kuala Lumpur recently.
Set in 1930s Malaya, The Concubine’s Child is a tale of family secrets and twisted revenge, featuring brave female characters who struggle against the roles and limitations that society imposes on them. The book is published by Head of Zeus.
It tells the tale of Yu Lan, a 16-year-old apothecary’s daughter who dreams of marrying her sweetheart, only to be sold as a concubine to a rich old towkay desperate for an heir. Trapped behind the walls of her lavish mansion, Yu Lan longs to escape, and finds an unlikely friend in the family’s amah, Ho Jie. Opposing her, on the other hand, is the spiteful Madame Chan, the towkay’s first wife, who loathes Yu Lan for usurping her place in the household.
Yu Lan hatches a plan with far-reaching consequences: four generations later, her great-grandson Nick will attempt to uncover his family history, only to be shocked by what he finds. This discovery has repercussions on many people Nick knows – including his wife Sarah.
“The two stories, Yu Lan’s and Nick’s, complete each other. They’re actually mirrors of each other,” explains Jones.
Born in Brisbane, Australia, Jones first worked as a teacher in secondary schools, teaching English and Drama. She then became an editor of children’s magazines, as well as a freelance writer, writing everything from children’s books to textbooks, young adult novels, and even “books for the bath”. Her young adult books include Goddess Of Cool (1996), Cupid And Co (2002), and It’s True! Women Were Warriors (2012).
Jones now lives in Melbourne: she has two children, both in their 20s. Her husband, Vincent, is a Chinese Malaysian from Kuala Lumpur; Jones first visited Malaysia in 1991 while on her honeymoon, and now comes back every year.
She still finds herself fascinated by the culture and traditions of the people here.
“It was unusual for me to see people with altars to the gods in their homes. I was interested, and would ask my sister-in-law lots of questions – she seemed to me like the keeper of family traditions. I would ask her which gods she was offering to, and so on,” says Jones.
“I also love the lion dances here. I’ve seen them before, but here, they would come to people’s houses. It is all really interesting and colourful.”
One particular historical fact that fascinated her was how Chinese men used to have more than one wife in the old days – this sparked the inspiration for The Concubine’s Child.
In writing the book, Jones did extensive research, referring to everything from period films to old photographs, from academic texts to old newspapers and maps from the National Archives of Singapore.
“I’m not Malaysian and not Chinese, and I was very conscious of that. I had to really get things correct. I couldn’t afford to make mistakes, because people would say, why is she writing about things she knows nothing about? Which is fair comment,” says Jones, who got her husband to read her manuscript before it was published to pick out any errors.
“Sometimes novelists make up things that happen in the past. But I tried not to. I tried to make everything factually very real.”
Her favourite character to write about? Definitely Madame Chan, who Jones can imagine Michelle Yeoh playing if her book ever becomes a film.
“She’s fantastic. Yu Lan is the protagonist, and it’s her story, but she’s not always the most fun to write. Now Madame Chan, she’s so unrepentant about her choices, you could just go for it.”
Jones has exotic dreams for her next work: she’d like to set a novel in the Straits Settlements, for example, and has an idea for another set in the South Pacific. The novel she’s working on now, however, will feature Chinese immigrants from Guangdong who travelled to Australia during the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century. The story, she says, has love, murder, and a character reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind, and will be a tragic love story.
Hmm. And then there’s The Concubine’s Child – does Jones have a fondness for tragic love stories?
“I think so,” says Jones with a laugh. “Although I have an idea for the book after this, and that one will have a happy ending!”