Simon Choa-Johnston’s real-life family, pictured in Hong Kong in 1925. Contributed photo

Simon Choa-Johnston’s real-life family, pictured in Hong Kong in 1925. Contributed photo

South Surrey author’s House of Daughters: revisiting Simon Choa-Johnston’s family saga

South Surrey author releases sequel to his bestselling novel House of Wives

There’s plenty of curl-up-with-a-good-book reading from Semiahmoo Peninsula-based novelists this winter.

Such noteworthy locally-produced volumes as Tanya E. Williams’ 1920s hotel story, Welcome to the Hamilton and Elizabeth D. Glass’ When The Bough Breaks, a Scottish saga spanning the years from 1917 to 1963, have been joined by the latest from well-known author and man of the theatre Simon (Choa) Johnston.

With House of Daughters (Earnshaw Books), which made its debut at the beginning of December, Choa-Johnston (he has added his mother’s maiden name, Choa, as a pen name tribute for the purpose of his latest novels) has once again mined his rich family history to produce a standalone sequel to his earlier international bestseller, House of Wives (Penguin Random House).

That earlier book told the story of Emanuel Belilios, a young Jew from Calcutta who comes to Hong Kong in the late 1800s, seeking his fortune in the opium trade. Becoming a successful, respected merchant, he marries Pearl, the much younger daughter of his business partner, Li.

As a wedding present he builds Kingsclere, Hong Kong’s most magnificent mansion, for Pearl. But Emanuel already has a wife, Semah, in Calcutta, and the newlyweds’ idyll is curtailed when Semah arrives unexpectedly in Hong Kong.

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Gradually, all three reach an unconventional understanding, in which Semah is allowed a wing of the building and she and Pearl become ‘sister wives’ – each of them bearing Emmanuel a child.

Ironically, tragedy ultimately brings Semah and Pearl closer together, and Semah dotes on Pearl’s daughter, Leah Felice.

House of Daughters picks up where House of Wives left off, in the early 1900s, as multiple misfortunes to the household begin to convince Pearl that a legendary curse – which says that those who profit from the opium trade are doomed to suffer misery through three generations – is what is ailing the family.

“That myth is very real in Chinese folklore,” Choa-Johnston said. “It’s serious stuff. Pearl eventually comes to the conclusion that she has to not spend any of her money.”

As Hong Kong experiences the dawn of the ‘Roaring 20s’ and the generation of Leah Felice’s daughter Rachel (fictional counterpart of Choa-Johnston’s own mother) comes of age amid an atmosphere of fashionable Gatsby-like indulgence, this becomes a primary conflict, he said.

While some streamlining of real-life events and characters inevitably had to be made for the novels, the fact that he was re-imagining the lives of family members instilled a sense of responsibility to their memory, he added, and a desire to write in a way that evoked a real biographical account.

“I look at the the old photographs they left me,” he said. “They’re a real source of inspiration – I had them pinned up on the wall of my home office as I was writing.”

A meet-the-author event at 2 p.m. on Jan. 28 (at a Semiahmoo Peninsula venue yet to be fixed) will feature readings from House of Daughters and a further chance for the public to hear firsthand about the real-life story behind the fiction, Choa-Johnston said.

The two novels were always conceived of a single story arc, he said. But he said he’s glad he heeded the advice of editors and others to separate the generations’ stories into two distinct volumes.

“Otherwise it would have been a 700-page book!”

Picking up the threads of the story for a second novel was no problem, he added.

“There were all these characters who were very insistent that they wanted to have their stories told,” he laughed. “I’d find them pouting in my office, wanting to be paid attention!”

Even above the inevitable drudgery of the writing process, he said, he was aware that it was also great fun.

“I knew this was a kind of roller-coaster, but at the end of the day, I was enjoying myself,” he said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be doing anything else.”

The result is a book that is masterfully told, highly relatable, and as vivid an as watching a play or a movie unfold before one’s mind’s eye.

It’s worth noting that, just this past November, Choa-Johnston was also the director of a staged reading of Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will, a gripping and compelling one-woman tour-de- force by Mahara Sinclaire, with effective music by Hugh Ellenwood, at Peninsula Productions’ ‘black box’ studio theatre at Centennial Park.

The continuing theatre connection is not simply coincidental to his writing – his instinctive, well-honed grasp of dramatic effect (his 30 year-plus career in theatre includes stints as artistic director at the Press Theatre, St. Catharines, Ont. and the Lighthouse Festival, Port Dover, Ont. and latterly at the Gateway Theatre, Richmond) informs each page of his fiction.

When the saga was first conceived, years ago, he was actually contemplating it as a theatre piece, he said.

“It became evident that it needed a broader canvas, and so I completed it (as literary fiction),” he said, adding that since publication of the novels, there has been talk of both theatrical and film adaptations.

“I did imagine (the story) as a stage play – particularly when I was in trouble during the writing, and wasn’t sure which way the action needed to go.

“It was very much like being in a rehearsal – it was ‘how do I do this with these actors, how do I help them over this?’ ”

House of Daughters is available from Chapters/Indigo (chapters.indigo.ca) or at amazon.com

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