1. Ben, congratulations on your new book. Finishing a book is a major accomplishment, and I think the entire Asian American blogosphere is happy for you. Can you tell us a little about your book? What is it about?
Thank you, Byron, and thank you for your interest in my book.
The Legend of Fu is a historical thriller set in the late 19th Century. The main narrative happens in the San Francisco Chinatown, but the early part of the book takes place in Mexico. The story follows the protagonist, Fu, as he survives brutal treatment aboard a coolie ship and a brief sojourn in Mexico, and finally presents the main events that take place in San Francisco.
Fu becomes a successful merchant in the Chinese quarter, and his philanthropic endeavours land him in the middle of an intrigue. He rescues a group of women from a brothel, one of whom turns out to be a white woman trying to evade violent pursuers who fear she can expose their secrets.
The woman’s pursuers utilize anti-Chinese sentiment to help them flush out Fu and the woman by inciting a mob of thousands to attack Chinatown. As the mob descends on the quarter, Fu realizes that if he can solve the mystery, then he might be able to save Chinatown in the process.
The story takes place against the backdrop of actual historical events – namely the decades-long persecution of Chinese migrants on the West Coast. For example, the mob in the novel is based on an actual anti-Chinese mob attack that took place in San Francisco in 1877 involving eight-thousand people. Throughout the novel, all references to various mob actions against the Chinese are almost all derived from actual historical events, and some are retold as flashbacks.
This was a necessary context for the novel. I wanted the story to be told in a fast-paced and action-packed way that is driven by the narrative, but also recounts a serious history via the medium of an entertaining story.
2. As a Filipino, why did you decide to write about this episode of Chinese history?
That’s a good question! I actually agonized over this.
The mass migration of the Chinese in the mid-nineteenth century was significant for all Asians because at some point, their story becomes an Asian-American story, and ultimately an American story. I view these early Asian migrants as both pioneers, and as a kind of “founding father community” for all Asians. For this reason, it was important to me to tell a piece of their story.
What happened to them became the template for how all subsequent immigrants from East and South East Asia were treated and excluded. So, I viewed the project as adding to the American historical narrative as well since it recounts the actions of Americans as much as the actions of the Chinese.
I made the choice not to overplay the “Chinese-ness” of the characters. Audiences – particularly mainstream audiences – tend to focus on the exotic characterizations of Asians and I wanted to move past all of that and leave the focus on the historical narrative and on how human beings might act in extreme situations. I would have followed the same approach even if I was writing about Filipino characters.
3. What was your inspiration behind the book? Is there one particular incident that gave you the idea for the story?
There were several sources of inspiration for the novel.
First and foremost, the actual story of the brutal suppression and persecution of the Chinese at the time has practically zero presence in America’s cultural consciousness, or even in the cultural consciousness of Asian Americans for that matter. I had a problem with that.
When you consider that for several decades starting in the mid-nineteenth Century, perhaps hundreds of Chinese communities were attacked by mobs, Chinese were rounded up and forcibly removed from their homes, their properties were burned to the ground or simply expropriated, and their possessions looted, we ought to be concerned that we have almost no cultural memory recounting these events.
We hear more references to the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, and the pogroms against the Jews in Tsarist Russia than we do about the systematic pogroms targeting Asian migrants on the West Coast. I did not have to exaggerate the violence depicted in the novel – I simply dramatized actual historical events.
Secondly, I wanted to address the idea of the Asian male arch-villain as manifested by such stereotypes as Fu Manchu. I conceived of Fu as a kind of “anti-Fu Manchu”.
The arch-villain stereotype is typically depicted as hyper-intelligent and morally deficient, and having a kind of supernaturally dark, mystical power that he utilizes to scheme against western moral values and civilization. The arch-villain carries out his evil plots from a secret underground lair where he keeps white female slaves whom he craves sexually.
In The Legend of Fu, I incorporate some of these elements into the novel to highlight their racist source. Fu does indeed have a “secret” place, but it exists as a resource for his philanthropy and as a place where victims of mob violence and racist exclusion find sanctuary. Fu also has a connection to “mystical power”, but this mysticism is benevolent.
Like all stereotypes, the Asian arch-villain stereotype exists partly as a means to discourage miscegenation, and one of the reasons that I felt compelled to allude to it is because we can still hear echoes of it in today’s emasculating stereotypes of Asian men which are also a means to discourage miscegenation between white women and Asian men.
Thirdly, I was interested in how identity is formed or changed via the historical experience and the deeper identity-forming process this entails. During the battle for Iwo Jima, Japanese soldiers recounted how they discovered the commonality they shared with US soldiers. When in the throes of death, both called out to their mothers for comfort.
In a similar way, I wanted to explore how people look to a deeper place within themselves to meet the challenge of traumatic experiences and how cultural peculiarities in a person’s character disappear under these circumstances. I hoped to humanize the characters and the community by portraying them whittled down to the bare bones of their humanity.
Over the past several years I have been thinking a lot about overbearing and megalomaniacal political figures who seek power and control over every aspect of their private and public constituencies. It is hard for us coming from established democracies to comprehend how such figures can strive for and crave absolute power over both those near to them and those out in the wider society.
4. What was your writing process like? How long did it take you to write this? What was the editing process like?
The writing process was a highly enjoyable rollercoaster ride! I began writing around mid-2013 and started with a simple outline of the themes that I wanted to cover, followed by an expanded outline that detailed specific events or scenarios that I wanted to have take place in the narrative. I had already written much of the book in my head over the previous year or so.
The novel subsequently built upon itself, presenting obstacles and dilemmas that I largely resolved by adhering to the primary goal of writing a dramatized historical narrative. My environment started to become integrated into the writing process. Something as mundane as the difficulty of climbing one of Istanbul’s many hills when you are already tired found a voice in the novel somewhere.
Another time, I got caught in the middle of a large anti-Israeli protest at which people were chanting “death to Israel” and the like, and I gained some insight into what it would be like for the characters in The Legend of Fu to hear such a mob descending on their homes. Yet another gathering – this time an anti-American one – gave me insight into Wei’s experience when he came upon the agitating labor meeting. In the moment, I felt compelled to stop and listen to what was being said, whilst simultaneously feeling the strong urge in my gut to get away fast.
I got to see first-hand in real-time how such an encounter might terrify someone, and, most significantly, how visceral and primal instincts take over in high-danger situations. In this way, you can become engrossed in the process, and I found myself going about my daily business contemplating how the characters should or would act in the situations in which I had placed them in the novel and how scenarios in my own life mirrored my novel.
Because of this, when I had completed the work, I experienced a sense of loss – almost a depression – that I had lost what had become an integral aspect of my daily life. That lasted until the editing process made me want to jump into the Bosphorus and never come up again.
I finished the book within roughly two years, and the back-and-forth of editing suggestions and re-writes took another year or so to complete. Also, minor changes suggested by my editor led me to instead make major changes and so on, which then again had to be edited. The editing was far less enjoyable than the writing process.
5. Why did you decide to self-publish?
I knew that I was writing material that highlighted historical events in a very honest and accurate way that might not be agreeable to some and I did not want to compromise on any of that. Self-publishing left me in full control over what went to print.
6. What are your goals for this book? Who are your intended readers?
I wrote this work because I wanted to write a historical novel that I would enjoy reading myself – and I admit that I did enjoy reading it! In particular, I enjoyed the fact that I could read a story about Asians that doesn’t slap them in the face at some point with an unexpected bit of racist stupidity. Simply put, despite there being many works of culture covering the period of the Wild West and the opening up of the west coast, I cannot think of many that recount this hugely significant story. How can such a major part of history – a massive ethnic cleansing! – be absent from our cultural narratives?
Furthermore, depictions of Asian men from that, or any other period are not what I would like them to be. These Chinese migrants were every bit as courageous and intrepid as the white heroes celebrated and enjoyed in American culture, and I wanted my novel to describe such men in a way that I could relate to and feel as though they gave a good account of themselves.
I hope that anyone who values history as an integral part of identity formation would find some interest in the book. Early reviewers say that they could not put it down as they wanted to find out what happened next. This is a small victory and a guiltless pleasure for an author. I hope that anyone who wants to read a book that they cannot put down would like my novel.
At the same time, once readers have finished the book, I want them to ask the question “did this really happen?” and for that to be the beginning of a dialogue.
Purchase “The Legend of Fu” here.