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Q&A with Andrew Kwong

Dr Andrew Kwong, writer and Central Coast GP, won the Michael Crouch Award for a debut book in the 2021 National Biography Awards.

One Bright Moon describes an everyday boyhood with friends and family, fishing and swimming, in the town of Shiqi, in the Pearl River Delta, during the 1950s and 60s. Yet young Ah-Mun, as you were then, is also surrounded by propaganda, famine, public humiliations and even executions. Your own father is sent to a distant re-education camp. What was it like to revisit your childhood? 

Writing a memoir is a rather soul-searching task, as well as a reflection of one’s life. Included should be any events that have left a life-long impression, good and bad, happy and sad, warts and all. My childhood was complex, as it was for millions of people around me in the wretchedly poor, exhausted, isolated, infantile People’s Republic of China at the height of global sanctions and embargos.

It would have been a lot easier to let those experiences remain deeply buried and not ever exhume them, as many of my contemporaries would do; just look ahead and live life as I had done in my formative years, preserving and nurturing that tiny spark of hope I hung on to, working towards fulfilling my dream of becoming a doctor one day. But recording those difficult times afforded me a much deeper understanding of what humanity is really about. I wrote away the sadness, resentment and anger at an unfair world.

Your story takes place within major events of twentieth-century Chinese — and world — history: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the influx of refugees to Macau and Hong Kong, migration to the United States and Australia for work and education. Did you find yourself re-reading history to make sense of your story alongside these events? 

One Bright Moon gives a glimpse of what it was like living through challenging times in a struggling new republic when the world was still recovering from WWII, when the global political divide threatened the hard-earned peace of the Chinese people and planet earth itself, in the form of the Cold War. Life was tough. The fact is we all live through history but, sadly, continue not learning from it to make sure devastating historical events don’t repeat themselves. Unintentionally, my memoir makes sense of the present geopolitical rumblings that threaten world peace.

Your father was clearly a great storyteller, though careful to tinge heroic folktales from previous dynasties with appropriate revolutionary fervour. When did you start to think of yourself as a writer as well as a doctor?

Baba was indeed a vivid storyteller, like so many from all cultures since time began. That’s how stories and legendary tales pass down from generation to generation. Storytelling provided him with a brief respite, gave him enough to carry on for another day, to endure the tremendous impact of a revolution.

I remember clearly the exact moment when I decided to document my personal story for my children, and their children. It was New Year’s Day 2000 at my sister’s home in Potomac, Maryland, USA during a regular family visit to my ageing mother and my three sisters and their families.

I woke predawn as usual, a habit since those days when I gazed at the stars on the Shiqi levee wall and thought about life. Looking out of the window at the faint glow of the horizon, the snow-capped, undulating paddocks of the distant neighbours began to rouse from somnolence. There was not a sound. The universe was at peace. A family of deer were grazing, the vigilant parents guiding the young, assuring their safety from predators. At that moment, something indescribable rushed at me, and the images of my parents’ endeavours to feed us in the times of famine amid a revolution hit home. I knew I had a job to do to honour their love and sacrifice for our survival, and our future.

Andrew Kwong, photo by Andy Carr

Photo by Andy Carr

Were your wife Sheree and your own now grown-up children surprised by your life story? What about your patients?

On school holidays in the 1980s and 1990s, like many NSW families, we took the long drive north to catch the sun and the glorious beaches. To keep the three children entertained when they became restless on those road trips, I used to tell them snatches of the happier times when I was young, careful not to burden them with the devastating parts.

My wife Sheree knew only snippets. She didn’t care about my background when we fell so deeply in love, only discovering more as I began to draft One Bright Moon, sharing the tears. My children and their families are very proud of the book. The grandchildren took it to school for show and tell!

As for my patients, no, I didn’t share my experiences with them until after the book was released and when it became well received. Being shortlisted in the 2021 National Biography Award was a great honour; to win the Michael Crouch Award for a debut work has absolutely been icing on the cake. Like my family, my patients are very proud of me indeed.

Your descriptions of hunger – living on the verge of starvation, fantasising about food, even eating algae – are vivid. Can someone ever recover from that desperate experience? 

Hunger and starvation, war and massacres of innocent people, untold hardship and challenges are all part of a humanity that has learned little from history; so human sufferings continue. ‘In the end love and family are the most powerful forces in our lives’, is what author Susanne Gervay reflected after reading my book. I do believe most people can recover from desperate experiences, given time to heal, with compassion from others and the power of love and family.

Your book's optimism is striking. Your mother, who had every right to feel malice and resentment, says at one point, 'A bright moon will shine again one day, after the clouds disperse.' How did you sustain this lack of bitterness, both in your writing and in yourself? 

My mother offered us the bright moon to hang on to — to hope in humanity, to believe that people are basically of good intent. To feel malice and resentment is to consume the spirit and energy we need to struggle to survive and live a meaningful life. The many compassionate people I have encountered are a constellation of the virtue and goodness of humankind. I always remember what my father used to say to us at the darkest moments: challenges are there to test our strength, not there to deter us from fulfilling our dreams.

To paraphrase Congreve, ‘They are the moon and I am the man in the moon.’

Please tell us about your memories of arrowroot biscuits. 

Since the 1800s when the Royal British Fleet sailed up the Pearl River — my birthplace perched by its bank — and pried open the Chinese Empire to force the sale of opium on the Chinese people, numerous young men sailed across the seven seas in search of better futures. Many came to the goldfields of Australia, the New Gold Mountain. They would return years later to seek a wife, which went on even during the Big Famine of the early 1960s. Those sojourners brought home what we called Goldfield Biscuits to sweeten the deal in arranged marriages. To us children, arrowroot biscuits were manna from heaven, especially during a famine.

Interestingly, since One Bright Moon was released, packets of arrowroot biscuits find their way to my workplace. Precious to me as they have always been, I have to be careful of my weight and cholesterol.

You quote your father saying, This time we must go as far away from China as we can, even if it means the South Pole’.  Landing in Sydney in 1969, could you have dreamt of becoming not only a doctor, but the author of a prize-winning book written in English?

Thinking back, I couldn’t imagine being anything other than a doctor. This drove me along as I worked after lectures to put myself through medical school. As to becoming a prize-winning author in English, that had never been my intention. The award was a great surprise. I must confess though that I’ve always enjoyed writing and the process in perfecting the art.

Andrew Kwong's book One Bright Moon is published by HarperCollins.

This story appears in Openbook summer 2021