When Abigail Hing Wen was a teenager, she spent a summer in Taiwan to get in touch with her Chinese roots. The program, funded by the Republic of China, has been dubbed the “love boat”, but has nothing to do with ships or the sea.
Started during martial law in the late 1960s to provide North American Chinese teens with a cultural experience back in the old country, the “love boat” program took on this nickname—a reference to an American TV sitcom of the 1970s and 80s—after it became known (perhaps among participants rather than their parents) more for debauchery than serious studies. It’s been a mainstay for teens with family ties to Taiwan, including restaurateur and TV personality, Eddie Huang.
The subject of a recent documentary, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be mined for a novel. And since heritage programs to places like Israel and Greece are rites of passage for American teens of many ethnicities, Abigail Hing Wen has chosen a setting—and title—for her debut young adult novel, Loveboat, Taipei, that is likely to resonate beyond Asian-Americans.
Her protagonist is 18-year-old Everett Wong, who goes by the nickname of Ever. Her parents, immigrants from Fujian via a short spell in Singapore before settling in a Cleveland suburb, are set on her becoming a doctor. After rejections from the Ivy League, Ever finally receives an offer from Northwestern University. Ever’s parents are delighted. What they don’t know—and certainly wouldn’t approve of—is that Ever really wants to dance and has also gotten herself admitted to the fine arts program at New York University’s Tisch School. Ever keeps this secret to herself and before she can spring it on them, her parents reveal a secret of their own. They’ve applied for her to attend the Chien Tan heritage summer program in Taiwan. At first it sounds like punishment. Ever knows nothing about Taiwan apart from that it’s an island off the coast of China.
For many of the students in the program, including Ever, their strict Chinese parents haven’t allowed them to date in high school. During their summer in Taipei, they attend classes in Chinese language, along with electives like calligraphy, Chinese traditional medicine, Chinese dance and martial arts. But at night and in the dorms, it’s anything goes. The counselors and teachers look the other way when the students sneak out at night to go clubbing or pair up. Ever has a running list of all of her parents’ rules, ticking them off in her mind each time she breaks one. Yet she can’t help but enjoy the freedom, even though she feels that she really is “for-Ever Wong” in her parents’ eyes.
The characters in Loveboat, Taipei aren’t just concerned with dating and clubbing. They also bond to discuss issues that their non-Asian friends—or their parents, for that matter—wouldn’t understand: college admission quotas, everyday racism, and the pressures to succeed and go into professions their parents choose for them. Ever finds friends who can relate to her love of dance and how she is afraid to tell her parents that blood makes her feel queasy. How can Ever ever become a doctor if she can’t stand blood?
There’s also a bit of Crazy Rich Asians to the story, as middle class, Midwestern Ever is courted by two ultra-wealthy boys from prominent Taipei families. The reader is brought into a polished Asian city—in this case Taipei:
A dragonfly shoots over the grass after him, quick daring movements from flower to flower. I follow him to the Qing-style mansion and through sliding paneled doors into an inner courtyard, where sunlight spills over scalloped eaves onto a square of dirt floor. More carved, paneled doors on three sides slide open to bedrooms displaying historical Chinese furniture. The scents of parched grass and oiled wood float on the wind, but despite the peaceful setting, my mind whirs like the leaves sweeping ahead of us.
As in Crazy Rich Asians—the protagonists are all Asian, yet presented in a way relatable to readers no matter their backgrounds. Less like Crazy Rich Asians, Hing Wen discusses topical issues like domestic violence, gender equality, and mental illness.
But it’s the Chien Tan setting that sets this book apart. Teens face the same pressure to feel accepted, and Loveboat, Taipei brings readers to a place of acceptance for many Chinese Americans that hasn’t been shown in young adult literature before.