Congratulations on the publication of your first children’s book Lizard’s Tale. What was it that inspired you to write this tale of adventure set in Singapore in the 1940s?
I spent my childhood in Singapore, and we often visited my father’s family who were still living in the tailor’s shop house where he grew up in the 1940s. The wooden back door had bullet holes in it, and I was told that they had been there since the Japanese occupation. Wanting to share my family’s cultural heritage with my children led me to write a story set in this complex, fascinating time and place just before the onset of WWII in Asia.
What would you like readers to know about the character of Lizard?
Lizard is a boy of contradictions: he’s British and he’s Chinese, he’ll fight a boy and then befriend him, he’ll steal from a girl and then rescue her (with another girl’s help), he’ll lie to someone and then bleed for them. He’s full of secrets, but he can’t always keep them. You’ll laugh with him and then he’ll break your heart.
Why do you think it’s important for children to read historical fiction or fiction that draws on significant historical events in the plot?
Historical fiction can show how attitudes of the time shape the way people treat others, and that reprehensible behaviour occurs when people believe others are inferior to them. Unfortunately, some people still have these attitudes. I hope that by reading Lizard’s Tale, younger readers learn to empathise with those who don’t look or sound like themselves. Understanding historical events starts with the books you read as a child. So, I hope that next time the news shows images of asylum seekers in boats or walls separating families, readers of Lizard’s Tale will feel compassion and question why it is happening.
This book is dedicated to your father (and mother) who grew up in Chinatown – did you draw on his memories of the location to write this story?
Yes—my father had a childhood very different from mine: his father smoked opium, his mother died of tuberculosis and he lost one of his brothers during the war. He told us stories of the boys who played and gambled and fought on the streets of Chinatown.
Can you share with us some of the stories you read as a child that made an impact on you?
My mother introduced us kids to stories through comics—we read things like The Beano and The Dandy, Casper and Wendy and Mickey and Donald. When I was older, I read the ubiquitous Secret Seven and Famous Five stories of Enid Blyton, then E. Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers and Five Children and It. Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci chronicles were a great favourite, and I very fondly remember the beautiful and slightly spooky book by Eric Linklater called The Wind on the Moon. I also loved the Little House on the Prairie series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I still sometimes read. As an adult, I’m now fascinated by the historical details of their more sustainable way of living.
Weng Wai Chan was born and grew up in Singapore. She now lives in Auckland with her husband and three children. Lizard’s Tale is her first book.