Li Feng arrived in Sydney as an adult after fleeing Communist China and an overbearing mother. She made sense of her childhood by piecing together her family’s fascinating history. The result is a well-researched and emotionally charged story of family struggling over four generations in Forged from Silver Dollar. We spoke to Li Feng about her remarkable story and the road to a brave and compelling memoir.
1. Forged from Silver Dollar deals with your ancestors in China. Can you tell us something about the research you did for this?
When writing Forged from Silver Dollar I explored both public and personal channels for information. The extensive interviews I did with family members in person or over the phone formed vital parts of the research for the book.
Some of these interviews proved very emotional. For example, when I interviewed my Uncle Ning who was an eyewitness of my grandfather’s execution as a ten-year-old. It was a heart-wrenching chapter to compose. When I finished writing the chapter, I rushed downstairs to my backyard and sank into an armchair on the sun-filled deck, breathing deeply while feeling warm tears gently sliding down my cheeks. There was this surreal sense of relief arising in my heart– it’s almost like I had just freed a ghost who could finally ascend to heaven when truth was told and justice was given.
In addition to these interviews, I took three trips back to Chengdu and one trip to my great grandmother and grandfather’s home village in Shehong County. I used available historical records from the municipal library of Chengdu, online archival information in both English and Chinese and old family photos and correspondence.
2. Your relationship with your mother is explored thoroughly in the book. How much has this affected your life and writing?
All of us could say that we are the products of our parents but I used to believe that I had the worst hit – made in (tumultuous) China and raised by a formidable Chinese matriarch impossible to disobey.
“We are inseparable!” was my mother’s slogan that she tried hard to hammer into me. I always resisted by letting it fly in one ear and out the other. Now, funnily enough, when she is no longer in this world, her old words eerily start to sink into my previously rebellious heart – I realised how much my mother and I had lived, loved and pursued together as a dynamic team and how badly I miss those heated, intense but lively and stimulating debates that I had with her!
My mother’s influence to the final outcome of this memoir was paramount. Ultimately, it was my mother’s brave, giving and altruistic actions that made this book possible – she opened those bleeding wounds hidden in the darkest chasm of her memory and showed them to me unreservedly no matter how gory, painful and controversial they were at times. I felt sad that I never got the opportunity to thank her properly for this tremendous courage and tell her how proud I was to write about her and other of our feisty female forebears’ battles.
3. We’ve read that you moved to Australia ‘to escape’ the intense relationship with your mother and the pressure of that relationship. Can you tell us a little about that?
If you read the Chapter, No One’s Slave, in Forged From Silver Dollar, you would understand my frustration and the pressure that I felt at the time. My relationship with my mother went from bad to worse after I graduated from my university and started my first job in my hometown Chengdu. The propaganda organisation that I worked in was imbued with bureaucracy and nepotism, which I felt hard to fit in as a naively idealistic youth. Meanwhile, my mother refused to acknowledge the validity of my agony at work. Instead, she kept blaming me for not appreciating this media job which was seemingly glamorous in other people’s eyes.
The stubborn genes that we both inherited from my headstrong great grandmother, Silver Dollar, didn’t help the situation either! Horrendous clashes erupted. At one stage, my mother had shingles and she told the whole world that I was the deadly cause of her illness!
I was really lucky to be able to escape to Australia (The Chapter, The Bank statement to Freedom, explained all in detail). Otherwise, God knows what war could have broken out between me and my mother had that unbelievable good luck never fallen on my lap!
4. The idea of the ‘Tiger Mother’ has been explored in fiction/non-fiction recently. How true is this idea still pervasive in Chinese societies outside of China, such as in the US and Australia?
Tough mothers often came out of tough times – my great grandmother Silver Dollar and my mother Rong were two good examples. If you read what they went through, you wouldn’t blame their “tiger” spirit. Earlier tribulation and hardship made them have stronger desire to better control their destiny and more inclined to realise their crushed dreams via their children. Now, as peace and prosperity have been lasting for a few decades in China, the Chinese tiger mothers are getting gradually “softened up” as well. I noticed that change in my mother’s attitude towards her granddaughter, my niece. However, most of the Chinese families take their children’s educational success to their hearts. The test-driven education system in China fuelled that flame even higher.
Outside China, that thousands-year-old admiration to intellectual elitism and academic achievements in Chinese culture is still hard-wired among Chinese migrants, especially the first and second generations. Very often, these Chinese migrant parents had to make significant concession of their dream for academic achievement and professional success because of their linguistic barriers. Naturally, they passed that unrealised ambition to their children. In order to keep their kids in the leading positions at elite schools, Chinese mothers were granted more authority by its tradition to drive their children harder than parents from the western culture. In such contrast, the micro-managing, strict and hard to please Chinese mothers looked even more like fierce tigers rather than gentle, smiling fairies!
5. The ‘Silver Dollar’ of the title refers to your great grandmother. Can you tell us a little about her?
Silver Dollar was a legend in our family – I never met her but kept hearing relatives talking about her. She was a stoic matriarch forged by unimaginable suffering and hardship during her youth as a child bride sold into the family. However, the same tribulation also tempered her into this determined, tactful and cool-headed female leader later on – she managed to plot her way out of poverty and eventually, via years’ hard toil and endeavour, change her own and her family’s destiny around. Genetically, I feel honoured to carry her fighting spirit in my blood. But I would not like to be her daughter-in-law as she was such a hard master! Her character was complex with strength and defects at equal strength.
6. You reconciled with your mother before she died. Was she able to read any of the book? What was her reaction?
As my mother does not read or speak English, she was not able to read any part of this book. However, before she died in January this year, I explained to her about what I have written in this memoir and showed her the proof copy of the book (the book was not published as yet). She was very emotional with heart-felt gratitude when she held this copy in her hands. Before my departure when I last saw her alive, she took hold of my hands and kissed them. “Thank you, thank you…” she murmured softly. She had been a stoic iron woman who rarely displayed her tender side to her children. However, I was so glad that she did on that day because it became a defining moment which made me realise the depth of her love and our emotional bond in between despite of all the bitter arguments and gaps of understanding that we had in the past.
7. When you return to China now, how much has it changed from what is found in Forged from Silver Dollar?
I quoted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words, “I call architecture frozen music”, in Forged From Silver Dollar when I wrote about my hometown – my city, like the rest of China, went through such radical and dramatic changes during the last century, especially in the last couple of decades, that many cultural heritages and ancient charms are now buried under the monotonous and uncharacteristic concrete jungles. In the latest Lonely Planet’s travel guide, Chengdu was labelled as ‘a city of little appeal’ at the first glimpse. My heart aches whenever I think of those words. So, in Forged From Silver Dollar, I tried my very best to bring that enchanting, poetic “frozen music” of my buried cultured city of more than two thousand years back to life on paper.
8. You also run a ‘cross cultural’ consultancy. Will the publication of your first book mean a change of direction? Do you intend to write more?
For me, cross-cultural facilitation is my life passion and commitment. No matter if I am contributing as a consultant or a writer, my ultimate goal would always be to make China decipherable and bring it closer to the rest of the world. I don’t think that I would change this direction in future but, writing definitely adds another dimension to that commitment.
9. What Australian authors do you read/most admire?
Tim Winton would be my first choice. In 2005 when I became a true Aussie after my citizenship ceremony, a dear friend of mine gave me this awesome photography book called Australian Colours, the Image of the Outback, in which Tim Winton wrote the opening of each chapter. Words just ‘sparked’ to life in his writing and became organic creatures like gum nut babies! He is such a maestro of penning Australian outback landscapes – I mean, who would have written lines like “On a vast red plain a tree is always a human figure until it declares itself a tree” and described them as “men walking”? And who would have talked about those “grizzled face beneath a sweat-stained Akubra ring” as “custodians of national symbols, the keepers of the flame” because “as a nation we still dream of dying with our boots on and our mouths full”. Lines like these go straight to a true Aussie’s heart and will stay there forever.
Colleen McCullough was my other favourite. Interestingly enough, my first encounter of her famous Thorn Birds was on Chinese national radio in the early 1990s when a Mandarin broadcaster read this gripping family epic to us in series every day! Today, when I think of my mother, the main character featured in Forged From Silver Dollar, those famous lines in Thorn Birds come to my mind – “But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain…” I hope through that pain sincerely told in Forged From Silver Dollar, readers would see hope too – the hope of China, the world and our universal humanity.
As told to The Better Reading Team
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