The Read Interview

PP Wong's novel of a British-Chinese schoolgirl was inspired by experiences of alienation

PP Wong's novel of a British-Chinese schoolgirl was longlisted for the Bailey Women's Prize

Born to Chinese-Singaporean parents in London, writer Ping Ping Wong knows all about being stereotyped and the butt of racist jokes.

Her experiences of alienation inspired her first novel, The Life Of A Banana, which was longlisted last month for the well-known Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), alongside star authors such as Britain's Ali Smith, Pakistan's Kamila Shamsie and America's Anne Tyler.

Wong, who goes professionally by her initials "PP", found the experience of being on the longlist both thrilling and hilarious.

"I had a bit of a chuckle with my family," she wrote last Wednesday in an e-mail sent from Changi Airport before her flight to Manchester, where she will speak about her book at the British Inter-University China Centre on April 30.

"On the longlist were people such as Anne Tyler who have sold millions of books and been nominated for goodness knows how many prizes. Then there was me with my banana book."

Her story of a British-Chinese schoolgirl coping with the ups and downs of being "yellow on the outside and white on the inside" was published by Legend Press last year in the United Kingdom and by Monsoon Books this year in South-east Asia. It has sold about 2,000 copies in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, says Monsoon Books' founder Phil Tatham.

While The Life Of A Banana did not make it to the shortlist last week, it attracted much interest at the London Book Fair, which ended last Thursday, and has already sold rights to Israel and Italy.

Wong, who turns 33 this year, holds a British passport but is now often in Singapore to be with her parents, who have moved back here.

In an earlier interview with The Straits Times, she explains that her father, an accountant, and mother, an educator, regularly moved between Singapore and London as their three children were growing up - Wong has two older brothers - because they could not decide which country they preferred.

Wong has a sneaking preference for Singapore, where her Chinese features did not attract the racial taunts she heard in London, such as "ching-cheong".

"Even the teachers would make fun of my name," she recalls of one British school. And one day, when she tried to stop a bully from hitting another boy, he turned to her and said: "You have no right to talk to me, you're Chinese."

"Like I was something beneath his shoe!" she says.

She has happier memories of the time she spent in primary and secondary school at Methodist Girls' School and later Anglo- Chinese Junior College before a degree in anthropology and law at the London School of Economics.

As a teen, she thought she might become an actor and landed a Hollywood role - the part of "Screaming Vietnamese Girl 105" in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

"They were just looking for any Oriental-looking people," she says, laughing.

It is funny now, but in the six years when she was trying to make a name for herself, she was often disappointed at the roles she was offered in Britain.

In Singapore, it was different, and she acted in TV dramas for the then Kids Central channel as well as the 2006 staging of Ronald Harwood's The Dresser by the Singapore Repertory Theatre.

But in Britain, she had parts such as "a dancing Japanese monkey doing gongfu moves" in a Channel 4 musical, where she wore a bright yellow Bruce-Lee style jogging suit.

"I would go to auditions and they would expect you to speak in a stereotypical Chinese accent. They would expect you to be DVD sellers or running from the triads," she says.

There were some good roles as well - in plays involving Asian characters or British- Chinese storylines such as the BBC Radio 4 play Avenues Of Eternal Peace and Soho Theatre's Moonwalking In Chinatown.

She moved on to working as a "medical actor", playing different types of patients for medical students during their examinations and also wrote freelance.

While working on material for a non- governmental organisation three years ago, she realised: "Here I am writing what other people want me to write. Why don't I write the book that's in my heart?"

What was in her heart was a desire to make readers aware of what it is like being Chinese in Britain. While there is plenty of fiction from the Asian-American perspective, The Life Of A Banana is possibly the first from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, which is why it attracted the interest of Legend Press.

She also started a group, Banana Writers, for Asian writers to discuss their experiences and share advice on finding editors, agents and getting published.

"I wanted to create a platform to empower Asian writers," she says. "I hope my book is something that can open doors to other Asian writers in the UK. That they can also write what's in their heart."

akshitan@sph.com.sg

The Life Of A Banana by PP Wong (Monsoon Books) retails at $18.74 at major bookstores.