Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
As a writer and news anchor for TV networks for over twenty years, first with the ABC then Channel 9, Mimi Kwa felt compelled to write this memoir after opening a letter from her father which contained the following information:
THE SUPREME COURT
OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Kwa v Kwa
In the Author’s Note she states: ‘Delving into my past to bring fractures of time into focus has uncovered my story through a kaleidoscope of experiences…this is a story that began millennia ago and has no end’ (1-2). It encompassed four generations deeply influenced by Asian culture. Throughout the story line, the dragon entwines itself around the many members of the House of Kwa. Mimi herself is the daughter of one of thirty-two children of a wealthy silk trader and with her the dragon is replaced by a tiger.
Her book is divided into three major sections – Old Kwa, New Kwa and Now Kwa and reveals how world events impacted the decisions made by key family members. Each of these parts are made up of many chapters with their own bold title. The memoir concludes with eight pages of family photos.
The first section begins in 1884 with the author’s great grandfather who was a prominent trader of the elite class of Beijing. The story then follows Ying Kam, the author’s grandfather, who fled from the Kwa compound in Beijing, stealing his father’s concubine as he creates his own House of Kwa in Swatow only to have it fall but rise again in Hong Kong. World War Two and the Japanese invasion were to have a great impact on the mighty house of Kwa. Ying Kam was the 22nd first-born son of the first-born son of Kwa.
By including the information that she has, Mimi Kwa has highlighted a culture rooted in tradition, and one which may seem harsh to the modern reader. When the first wife does not conceive, a baby boy is purchased, but years later when the wife has been productive, this son is exiled as he had served his purpose. This action, coupled with leaving his first wife behind to be supported by her grown children when the shift was made to Hong Kong, seems heartless.
What is revealed is the importance of status which brings respect and the events which bring shame on the family name. ‘The villages regard Ying Kam with reverence for his many wives, children and accomplishments ‘(29). ‘He has respect as a Grand Master as he has his own compound with a courtyard and koi pond and even his own drivers’ (25). However, there is shame in the loss of male triplets at birth. What is most evident is the determination and industriousness that these family members display and their loyalty to the family name.
As the first section ends, the House of Kwa moves into a new phase of survival (104) and emphasis shifts to ten-year-old Tak Lau, who takes on the English name Francis, and his sister Theresa who displays grace, charm and diplomacy. ‘The Pageant of Theresa’s Life is about to begin’ (107).
Section two follows these two siblings, one in Australia the other in Hong Kong and the birth of the author to Tak Lau and his wife. Her early life is not an easy one but her yearly visits to her aunty Theresa teach her much about her family as well as instil in her personal values which will help her in her adult life. Life in Australia does not bring the respect to the Kwa family as it did in Asia, so Tak Lau (Francis) takes every opportunity to raise his profile suing anyone and everyone. He becomes well known for all the wrong reasons. His eccentric actions cause his children much embarrassment.
In the final section, more attention is given to the life of Mimi Kwa and the challenges she faces. ‘The dragon hurtles towards the tiger, who can no longer hide’ (348). The author finishes her family tale with a message to her children and the statement, ‘When the dragon closes his eyes for good one day, I will know that the tiger and predator reached an understanding of sorts and a kind of peace in the end – one that could really only come about from telling my story in order to let it go’ (359).
This story raises many issues including racism, patriarchy and loyalty and has received praise from many well-known Australians. An interesting read.
House of Kwa
by Mimi Kwa