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Championing Cheng Yat Sou

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Reporting by Elizabeth Kerr
Photos by Duey Tam

One-time cartoonist and freshly minted novelist LARRY FEIGN shines a light on Mui Wo’s murky past by celebrating the life of a notorious pirate queen

It’s been five years since Larry Feign was a press subject. In 2016, when I interviewed him for this very magazine, he was talking about retiring from cartooning for good (leaving The World of Lily Wong as his legacy) and he had just updated Aieeyaaa!, his satirical ‘dictionary’ which pokes fun at life, love and culture clash in Hong Kong and China. At the time, Larry was hinting at a dip into prose, and at the time he couldn’t talk about it. Now he can. The 30-year Wang Tong Village (Mui Wo) resident has just released his first novel for adult readers, one that will be of particular interest to Lantau residents, since much of the action takes place in early 19th century Tung Chung and Tai O.

“The Flower Boat Girl is based on the true story of the infamous woman pirate Cheng Yat Sou,” Larry opens. “Sold by her father to a flower boat (floating brothel), the novel begins as she finally buys her freedom and is almost immediately kidnapped by pirates and forced into marriage with their leader. Over the following years, dragged through raids and a Vietnamese civil war, she survives by embedding herself into the dark business of piracy. Courted by powerful pirate leaders and pitted against her main rival, who happens to be her husband’s male concubine and her adopted son – Cheung Po Tsai – she faces a choice between two things: power or love.” Motivated by the fact that every account published about Cheng is both incomplete and rife with falsehoods, Larry devoted five years to researching her story, and he is likely the world’s leading expert on this brilliant and powerful woman.

All in all, The Flower Boat Girl is the result of well over a decade’s worth of work; Larry started digging into Cheng’s story while working on something completely different in 2008, and started writing a few years after that. “The book started out as a straight biography, but it became a mission,” Larry explains. Almost immediately it became clear researching Cheng would be a challenge. Reports on her life often conflicted, if they existed at all (her husband Cheng I was more thoroughly documented). “There’s no romanticising piracy like there is in the West, in Pirates of the Caribbean, so when you go back into the historical record there was no one writing these fairy tales. They’re just criminals,” he says.

Larry’s sources ranged from University of Macau professor Robert Antony and historian Dian Murray, to a particularly rich trio of accounts of a 1809 pirate scuffle, written by a Portuguese trader, a British naval officer and a Chinese bureaucrat – the latter colourfully translated into English by a German missionary.

“If you triangulate these three sources the main facts are confirmed. But when you get deeper into the details and motivations you just can’t know what was true,” states Larry. As a history major, he knew where to dig though, and he lucked out with a firsthand account of Lantau piracy when he met an elderly woman while lost on a hike one day. She regaled Larry with stories of pirate raids in Mui Wo from her lifetime.

“A lot of her account goes into what I wrote. 1930s Lantau wasn’t much different than it was 100 years before. That’s some of what was going on in the research. I was filling in gaps in the history through extrapolation. I opted for what was most plausible.” The sheer volume of detective work, extrapolation and finally imagination is what ultimately led Larry to fiction.

Not that it was easy. “I’d never done anything like this. I’m a cartoonist,” Larry says, recalling that over a dozen drafts of the first version were dumped in favour of starting fresh. He’s fortunate he had a psychologist on hand (his wife Cathy) to ask about motivation, and he managed a spot at the Obras Foundation writer’s retreat in Portugal in autumn of 2018 for some valuable workshopping.
When I started, every paragraph had a dadum, da-dum, da-dum rhythm,” Larry says. “That was the cartoonist in me. Everything in the first sentence had to be resolved by the last sentence. I realised I needed help, and some really brutal commentary from various mentors worked wonders.”

Larry’s satirical work has appeared in Time, The Economist, the New York Times, and other publications around the world. He now writes books full-time, including a best-selling children’s book series under the pen name MD Whalen. He has directed animated cartoons for Walt Disney Television and Cartoon Network. He is a MacDowell Fellow and three-time recipient of Amnesty International Human Rights Press Awards.

Back in 2016 when Larry was working on The Flower Boat Girl, he was contemplating the newfound sense of identity that was sweeping Hong Kong. His first novel is just in time to catch that wave but, what with the current reckoning on race and race relations in many corners of the globe, it’s also likely to get caught in the appropriation and representational debate. Larry has been wrestling with issues of identity since he started his cartooning career with The Standard back in the 1980s. A resident of Hong Kong since 1985 and of Mui Wo since 1991, where he and Hong Kong-born Cathy raised two kids, the native Californian is releasing his historical fiction at a time when some would say he shouldn’t — and that he has no right. The question has to be asked: As a white man, who is Larry to write a novel about a Chinese woman? “I think I’ve earned my credentials. All my alter-egos have been women, like Lily Wong. Hong Kong people are more sophisticated than Americans,” Larry theorises.

For Larry it comes down to the distinction between appropriation and appreciation, and he slots himself firmly into the latter category. “In 220 years, no one has written about this amazing woman. If no one else is going to then I will. What am I supposed to do? Throw away this wonderful story? I spent 13 years on this because the story took hold of me and I want to share it with the world.”

And when it comes down to it, the story Larry is sharing with the world could not be more relevant or relatable. It’s the story of a real-life heroine who, against all odds, shapes history on her own terms. Like it says on the dust jacket, ‘Her father traded away her youth. Sea bandits stole her freedom. She has one way to get them back: Become the most powerful pirate in the world:’ The Flower Boat Girl is a celebration of girl power, regardless of the writer’s gender.

The final work clocked in long enough to break into two instalments (though readers can rest assured the first is a complete story in itself). And within this epic, there’s room for a third, loosely related entry. But for now, Larry’s focus is on The Flower Boat Girl – and the time-consuming business of indie-publishing.
“I’ve been publishing my own books since 1991,” Larry explains. “Not because publishers reject me (in fact, I’ve turned down offers from fairly big publishers), but because I can do a better job of it and have full control of both art and commerce. Sales and promotion are a daily part-time job. Advertising, seeking reviews, blogging, and interacting with readers are all part of the job, some obviously great fun, others less so. But I’d rather be doing this job, working for myself, than anything else.”

The Flower Boat Girl was released on March 15 in Hong Kong, with the official launch being held at VIBE Book and Music Shop in Mui Wo on April 3. Available at VIBE and Bookazine and most other English book retailers, it will be launched internationally in September.

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