At The Table With...Jean Kwok, author of "Mambo In Chinatown"
Today we're twirling with Jean Kwok, the Netherlands-based author of Mambo In Chinatown, which I paired with "fake-out" chow mein earlier this week. The novel is Jean's second, and features a good dose of inspiration from her own life. Like her protagonist, Charlie, Jean too labored in Chinatown before working as a professional dancer for some time. Here's how Jean sums up Mambo In Chinatown's plot, in her own words:
"At the beginning of the book, Charlie is a dishwasher in a noodle restaurant. She gets the chance to be the receptionist at a ballroom dance studio and gains access to a whole new and glamorous world as she discovers her own hidden dance talent. However, as Charlie blossoms, her little sister becomes ill and when their father insists on treating her sister exclusively with Eastern medicine, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds to rescue her little sister and herself. "
Read on to get to know Jean!
What is your all-time favorite book?
There are so many wonderful books and my all-time favorite changes, but at this moment, it’s The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I love the voice, the way she weaves different narratives and media like newspaper clippings into one complete storyline.
What meal do you love to cook?
I’m actually quite infamous for burning food. In fact, when I offered to make pancakes for my kids as a treat, they both cried in unison, “Oh no, not your pancakes!”
I do like to bake, mainly because I’m truly interested in desserts and also because the oven turns itself off, a wonderful trait.
In terms of food, one of my favorite dishes to make is a Chinese version of the Indonesian soup, soto. Basically, you set a pot of steaming broth in the middle of the table and arrange condiments all around it. People add what they want to their bowls, then pour the hot broth over their ingredients. It’s always so much fun for people to build their own soups and you can choose to make this soup into whatever you like. The full recipe is here, along with some other tried-and-true dishes for book clubs who are reading my books.
What is your favorite food scene from a book?
I was absolutely fascinated by the scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis when the Queen makes magical Turkish Delight. As a recent immigrant from Hong Kong when I first read this, I had no idea what these sweets could be and dreamed about the mysteries for Turkish Delight for years. Nowadays, I love going on holiday to Turkey and I always pick up fresh Turkish Delight when I’m there.
“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle onto the snow and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmond had never tasted anything more delicious.”
Coffee or tea?
Definitely tea. I love the taste of coffee but can’t take the caffeine, I think because I’m naturally hyperactive.
What is the last book you abandoned?
I know how very hard it is to write a book and I have a policy of never being negative about another author’s work in public, so although I have abandoned books, I must keep mum about which ones they were. ;-)
Author you'd most like to meet for dinner, and your order?
Poet Pablo Neruda, for his passionate, lyrical writing. I’d take him to a great local Italian restaurant I know; I bet he’d enjoy their calamari and pizzas.
Where do you go to find new recipes?
Well, believe it or not, my readers know I’m such a bad cook that they often give me cookbooks when they see me! They don’t want me to starve. So I’m building up quite a collection…
Where do you go to find new reads?
Goodreads, Facebook or Twitter. Or I ask my Riverhead publishing team for recommendations — they read *everything* and they’re so smart too.
Tell us about your book — the inspiration for it, why you wrote it and your favorite aspects.
My heroine Charlie Wong in Mambo in Chinatown is based on me. I was such a disaster as a Chinese daughter: a terrible cook, unable to clean, dreamy, impractical and clumsy. I was also very poor and I worked in a garment factory in Chinatown with my family from the time I was five years old – I wasn’t allowed officially to work, of course, but I went there every day after school to help as much as I could, as did many other children there. Although I was fortunate enough to leave that life, my heart remains in Chinatown, along with the family and friends who still work long and grueling hours there.
At the beginning of the book, Charlie is a dishwasher in a noodle restaurant. She gets the chance to be the receptionist at a ballroom dance studio and gains access to a whole new and glamorous world as she discovers her own hidden dance talent. However, as Charlie blossoms, her little sister becomes ill and when their father insists on treating her sister exclusively with Eastern medicine, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds to rescue her little sister and herself.
In my own life, I also worked as a professional ballroom dancer for three years in between my degrees at Harvard and Columbia. It was such a revelation to me to find some sort of grace, although as you know, I am still hopelessly clumsy in the kitchen. With this book, I wanted to bring readers into two hidden places: working class Chinatown and the professional ballroom dance world. I wanted to write about someone poor, clumsy and seemingly untalented who goes on to discover the special interests and talents that make her happy and fulfilled.
Here is a recent video of me dancing with a professional partner, whom I did hit on the head by accident during rehearsals: