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Birth Of An Idea: Carol Jones on what inspired her novel The Concubine’s Child

August 14, 2018

About the author

Carol Jones was born in Brisbane, Australia, but has lived in Melbourne for most of her life. She taught English and Drama in secondary schools before working as an editor of children’s magazines, and has been a full-time author since 1999, writing primarily for children and young adults. Decades of visits to her husband’s family in Malaysia have given her a deep insight into this culturally diverse nation, and she drew on this knowledge when writing the Malaysian-set The Concubine’s Child, her first novel for adults.

Purchase a copy of The Concubine’s Child here 

 

 

I first stepped inside a Chinese temple on my honeymoon in 1991. It was also the first time I witnessed my husband’s mother and sister making offerings to the gods at their home altar and the first time I was surprised by a monkey as I hung out the washing. In Melbourne, I was accustomed to backyard wildlife like possums and lorikeets, not monkeys. Everything about that first visit to Kuala Lumpur was strange and exotic. But having returned every year since, the exotic has become familiar. Gods, ghosts, and monkeys have all become part of the vernacular.

It was a chance remark that my mother-in-law, Lai Lai, didn’t attend school in the 1930s, instead learning to read and write at her local clan house, which suggested the first chapter of The Concubine’s Child. Sixteen-year-old Yu Lan helps her father in his apothecary shop because he doesn’t believe it worthwhile sending her to school, finally allowing her to attend lessons at the Chan clan house.

I chose the Chan clan because the Chan See Shue Yuen is their stunning hall and lineage temple in Kuala Lumpur. Built in traditional Chinese temple style, it glistens with brilliant turquoise tiles. Like many other temples and shop houses in old Chinatown, it was built in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. This area is where my mother-in-law grew up and it is where the first few chapters of The Concubine’s Child are set.

I call my mother-in-law Lai Lai and my father-in-law Lou Ye. This is how daughters-in-law traditionally address their husband’s parents in Cantonese, the language my family mostly speak at home, although they also speak a couple of Fujian dialects and Mandarin as well. Lai Lai was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1925. My father-in-law, who passed away in 2005, was born in Singapore in 1918 and moved to Kuala Lumpur at the age of twenty-four to open a furniture store. Like many families in Malaysia and Singapore, my husband’s grandparents migrated to Malaya from Fujian Province in China.

Lai Lai’s father operated a kopi shop with his younger brother in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Unlike my protagonist, Lai Lai didn’t work in her father’s shop. Being conservative, he would not let his daughters mingle with strangers. In fact, when she married my father-in-law in 1943, a professional matchmaker arranged their marriage. Matchmakers were an integral part of the marriage market in the Chinese community, even up until the 1950s. In The Concubine’s Child a matchmaker negotiates Yu Lan’s sale as a concubine to the wealthy, ageing Towkay Chan.

Lai Lai’s father ran his kopi shop with his younger brother, who did have two wives. The first wife migrated with him from China and the second wife he acquired in Malaya. No one in the family seems to know whether the relationship between the wives was amicable, for the first wife died quite young. But the surviving children were close. My husband and his siblings called them all aunty and uncle in Cantonese, often referring to them fondly by nicknames such as, Drunken Uncle or Loud-voiced Aunty. We took a photo a couple of Chinese New Years ago, of my then 90-year-old mother-in-law sitting with Ah Yi, her China-born cousin of the same age, the two matriarchs holding court together.

Concubines and polygamy were once a way of life for many families in Malaysia. No one in my husband’s family thinks anything of it. And although in their family, everything seemed to work out okay, I wondered what it would be like for a young woman forced into one of these arrangements and whether the first wife would resent her. And so the idea for The Concubine’s Child was born.


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