House Of Kwa
Two indelible images at the start of this book had me riveted to its pages. The first is of the author, a television celebrity in Australia, pulling at a gray strand on her signature long black hair.
She’s just opened a letter in which her father is suing her. The next image occurs a few pages on when she goes back a few generations in her Chinese family. Her great-grandfather tramps furiously through the courtyard of his house yelling for his servant girl to find and light his opium pipe.
This is no ordinary memoir. Set across four generations of the Kwa family, merchants in silk, and as it later develops, in anything that will sell, House of Kwa takes the reader through the story of Mimi’s grandfather, Ying Kam, and his three wives, of her father Francis and his siblings, children of Ng Yuk, wife number three, and Mimi’s childhood and youth as a mixed-race child in Western Australia. On this journey, we’re shown Hong Kong under Japanese occupation in World War II and the trauma it induced in the children of wife number three. The girls are hidden in secret rooms in the house, while the two boys must find work and food. Tak Lau, later known as Francis, starts work at the age of seven, scrounging bits and pieces to sell to help his starving family. He works for a blacksmith and is recruited by a Japanese commandant to clean the armory’s guns. This childhood experience of working for people he knows will kill his family at any provocation appears to cement his character. He’s driven, narcissistic, and will do anything to survive. He’s utterly insensitive to the needs of others.
Mimi, born in 1974 to Francis, now settled in Western Australia, and a 19-year-old Australian student, has an extraordinary childhood as well. Her mother has undiagnosed mental illness and Mimi is cared for by her maternal grandparents. Francis insists that his daughter work for him at an early age, just as he had to work as a child. Her story of parental neglect, adolescent misbehavior, and racial abuse at school is heartbreaking at times. But the Kwas are survivors. Trips back to Hong Kong to visit her aunt Theresa give Mimi the unconditional love she needs, and help her navigate her multi-cultural, confusing world.
In writing her story, Mimi shows compassion to her parents, including her father’s second and third wives (consecutive, unlike his own father’s simultaneous three wives) even as Francis’s behavior veers from eccentric to disturbing. Her success shows remarkable intelligence and resilience. House of Kwa is a page-turner.