In The Magazine

The Secret Lives of Hong Kong Wives

Friday, January 1, 2016

Janice Y. K. Lee’s new novel depicts the small, privileged and curious bubble of expatriate Hong Kong . . . and she would know.

“The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week. They get off Cathay Pacific flights from New York, BA from London, Garuda from Jakarta, ANA from Tokyo, carrying briefcases, carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, carrying babies and bottles, carrying exhaustion and excitement and frustration . . . They are thrilled, they are homesick, they are scared, they are relieved to have arrived in Hong Kong—their new home for six months, a year, a three-year contract max, forever, nobody knows,” writes Janice Y. K. Lee in the prologue of her forthcoming, so-titled novel, The Expatriates.

Sitting across from the author over coffee at the Carlyle Restaurant, it is clear that she would make a sharp and insightful observer of the curious little world that is expat Hong Kong (the society in which her novel is set, and the society she briefly inhabited in real life). Lee is put together by every calculation I can make: She speaks calmly, and politely but doesn’t hesitate for a second in ordering her coffee with steamed whole milk, or suggesting to the waiter that side noise should be minimized while we interview. She wears complementary layers of gray, accessorized with diamonds that are noticeably beautiful but not ostentatious. She seems neither extreme nor subdued; she just seems like she knows what she’s doing.

The Expatriates (releasing January 12) is a work of fiction. It is the story of three women living in Hong Kong’s American expat community. Margaret, Hilary and Mercy—the aforementioned story’s main characters—are each uniquely tormented, connected in a tragic web that was entirely created in Lee’s imagination. Yet, their lives and their stories unfold in both a city and a community that Lee has herself inhabited—giving the story insight and perspective that make you wonder if some moments weren’t borrowed from actual experiences.

Lee has lived in Hong Kong as both a native and an expatriate. She was born (to Korean parents) and raised there until she left to attend St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire for high school. She went on to Harvard and then broke into professional writing in New York. After some exploration, she felt most at home as an assistant features editor at ELLE and began working her way up the ranks. But books had always been her passion. “I remember loving to read,” says Lee. “I discovered Little House on the Prairie. I remember being this little girl in Hong Kong and reading about prairie life!”

After Lee got married she decided to pursue her dreams of becoming an author. She got an MFA at Hunter College, where a short story became the precursor to (first novel) The Piano Teacher and she met Theresa Park, her book-agent-to be. Halfway through writing The Piano Teacher, Lee’s husband’s private equity job called for the growing family (they have four children) to move to Hong Kong. So, Lee returned to Hong Kong, only this time as an American expatriate, and stepped into the world that would inspire her second novel.

Lee and her family arrived in Hong Kong in 2005. “It’s a very odd world because it is this privileged bubble,” she explains. For the uninitiated, Hong Kong’s American expat community is small. A 2009 estimate put it at 60,000 (compare to the Upper East Side’s 210,000 inhabitants). Americans take short-term contracts from banks, hedge funds, private equity firms and the like because they are either promotions or they hold promises of promotions. They learn the Asian markets, the culture, and maybe learn Chinese. The island is small, hot and densely populated, but salaries stretch a whole lot further in Hong Kong, where help is far cheaper than that of American cities. People who might have had minimal to moderate help in the United States suddenly find themselves with drivers, live-in housekeepers and multiple nannies. It is at once glamorous and disorienting, as the newly pampered make the shift from independent to, well, dependent.

“It doesn’t seem like real life . . . it’s like going to college. In the beginning I think you have really good intentions. You want to live the local life, but it’s just not meant for an American expat who is there for three years.” The book’s characters, in multiple instances, marvel at how this sensation can snowball and change various areas and dynamics in their lives. The novel displays familial issues that find their ways to the surface when people are immersed into a different culture. Some of the despair and grief highlighted in the book—such as one woman’s fertility struggle—is personal, and likely would have occurred independent of geographical location. But some of it is circumstantial, a direct result of displacement; in addition, the dependence on 24/7 drivers, maids, chefs, nannies and the like makes the characters feel obsolete. One character notes how in her 8 years in Hong Kong, she has seen at least 10 marriages of people she knows dissolve at the fault of affairs.

“The other women were mostly there because of their husband’s jobs,” Lee says of the people she encountered during her real-life stay in Hong Kong. “You are busy enough being a mother and wife,” she continues—indicating that most don’t work for their short stints in Hong Kong. She also mentions how some women use this time (and extra help) wisely, and they thrive abroad. They use their time to learn a language, pursue their passions, better themselves . . .

By all apparent measures, Lee seems to have fallen into the latter category. She had started her first novel, and while she busied herself as a mom, a wife and a social member of the community, she privately kept her concentration on finishing it. “You say you’re writing a novel, and it seems very fanciful, because you don’t know if you’re ever going to finish the book, if you’re going to sell the book. So I was sort of secretive about my work.”

She had her agent back across the Pacific, who kept encouraging her. And ultimately The Piano Teacher was not only published, it spent 19 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list as well. It is historical fiction, so research became an unwittingly disciplinary part of Lee’s writing process. Writing her second novel went nothing like that.

“I was just struck by all the characteristics of the world that I was living in, and I wanted to infuse the novel with all of my thoughts and feelings and observations about what I saw,” says Lee. “I hope it’s a very sympathetic and empathetic look at women in that situation.”

Some of the more trivial moments were indeed ripped directly from her experiences in this world. “There’s a moment where someone was telling me that they had taken a villa in Sri Lanka and there was no cell service,” says Lee of one such story she was told while living in Hong Kong that makes a cameo in the novel. The friend of Lee’s described how the men were going crazy from being disconnected and the wives wouldn’t allow them to leave. They made an arbitrary request to their driver to bring them something from the city, and secretly put their phones in a bag in the trunk of the car so their emails would download during the drive. “When the car returned, they rushed it like tweens at a Justin Bieber concert,” says the character in the book who recites the same story.

Though the setting is specific and the culture is unique, the themes of loss, desire, grief, motherhood, womanhood and family are transcendental. “A lot of women have husbands who work a lot; a lot of women work themselves, but they all tied together. Your husband doesn’t have a bag,” says Lee. Here, she is referring to a moment in the book when Margaret, the protagonist, is carrying all of the family’s extra items during an outing, and they begin to feel particularly burdensome: “Sometimes it was just about the bag . . . Men strolled through life with a wallet in their pants, and women were saddled with children, the map, the bag, the half-empty water bottles,” Lee writes.

“All my American friends who read it here have reacted to it. It’s so universal,” says Lee. And now that she is back in New York for the foreseeable future, the theme continues. They returned this past summer and settled uptown. “We go to the park a lot. Our favorite restaurant is Elio’s; we’re there at least once a week,” says Lee. “But lately I’ve been locked in our apartment because my son has so much homework!” With that, her point is taken: The trials of motherhood are ubiquitous.


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