ight hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japan launched an attack on Hong Kong. British, Canadian and Indian troops fought to defend the Crown Colony of 1.5 million against the invading force. By Christmas Day the British Governor threw in the towel.
In the ensuing three years and eight months seven thousand British solders and civilians became prisoners of war while the Chinese who made up the bulk of Hong Kong's population tried to adjust to being subjects of a Japanese empire bent on rapid and ruthless expansion. As soon as the war ended the British were quick to reclaim their colony. They soon learned that their relationship with their colonial subjects had been permanently altered.
The dying days of Hong Kong's colonial era, when onetime subjects emerged as the new masters, provide the social backdrop and the moral subtext of The Piano Teacher, Janice Y. K. Lee's first novel. The part of it that strives for psycho-drama draws its dark matter from the ugly survival instincts that rewrote the old social contracts during the oddly liberating days of the Occupation, only to re-submerge beneath the colonial facade of moral detachment and uneasy assumptions of racial superiority.
It is 1952. A provincial Englishwoman named Claire accompanies her civil servant husband to Hong Kong. She finds herself giving piano lessons to the daughter of a wealthy Chinese family. Claire's affair with Will Truesdale, the Chen family's enigmatic British chauffeur draws her into the colony's social fabric, badly rent during the Japanese years, as she discovers.
Lee's novel maintains a coolly elegant aloofness toward its central characters, as though conducting a clinical vivisection of a pathological social specimen. It draws its interest mainly from the accelerating pace at which the colony's schizoid social fabric unravels in the War's aftermath.
We were intrigued as much by the novelist's unique background as by her choice of subject matter. What follows is our email exchange with Janice Lee, a onetime Elle features editor who has returned to live in Hong Kong with her husband and four children.
GS: How did your Korean family come to be living in Hong Kong?
JL: My parents moved here around 40 years ago for more opportunities. I was born and raised here and then "my" family came to Hong Kong around 3 1/2 years ago because of my husband's job.
GS: What made you set your first novel in the Hong Kong before and after the Japanese Occupation?
JL: I often ask myself that question. For me, it was not about me deciding to make my first novel about this time period; it was more the subject found me. The novel came out of a short story I had written about an English piano teacher and her young Chinese student. The novel grew from that small kernel.
GS: What part of your own life did you draw from to bring Claire to life?
JL: I think, luckily for my friends and family, I had written out my life in my 20s — that is to say, I had gotten a lot of that autobiographical urge out of my system by the time I started The Piano Teacher. Certainly, I brought to bear a lot of my observations of Hong Kong, but I can't say that there is a lot from my life in the book.
GS: Will seemed to be the moral center of The Piano Teacher. What aspect of your life did you draw from in portraying the tortured man with a past?
JL: See as above! I suppose you could just say I used my imagination and my love of observing human nature.
GS: Tell us about your own background and family.
JL: I have an older brother. We spent our childhood in Hong Kong, where we were surrounded by many Koreans, tending as they do, to community. It was, as I remember, idyllic.