Australian broadcast journalist Mimi Kwa comes from a lineage going back to imperial Beijing. In her new family memoir, House of Kwa, she tells the remarkable story that brought her father’s family to Southern China, Hong Kong, and Western Australia.
At the end of the 19th century, her great-grandfather Ying Kam runs away with his father’s fifteen year-old fourth wife, Lotus Flower. At just seventeen, Ying Kam is a teenager himself and the pair head to the port city of Swatow, now called Shantou, in Guangdong province. It’s there that the pronunciation of their surname changes.
The original Kwa family name is Ke, which is written with the same character as Kwa. It’s pronounced Ke by Mandarin speakers in the north of China and Kwa by Cantonese speakers in the south. Ke and Kwa both mean ‘handle of an axe.’
The couple hopes to start a family in their new home, but after a few years with no luck they adopt a boy to carry on the Kwa name. Ying Kam would go on to father thirty-one more children with a number of wives, although not all of these would live very long. Ying Kam eventually sends Lotus Flower back to China after they move to Hong Kong around the turn of the last century.
It’s in Hong Kong that Ying Kam makes his fortune in textiles, including silk and embroidery. His shop, Swatow Lace, is located at 16 Pedder Street, but the family lives across the harbour in Hung Hom where the factories are housed. Kwa’s father, Francis, is born in 1935 and as a young boy is taken under the wings of the Japanese occupiers. His sister Theresa works as a translator for the Japanese. Although collaborators were scorned in Hong Kong, especially after the war, it seems as if the Kwas escaped repercussions when Hong Kong returned to British rule at the end of the War.
Kwa is an engaging storyteller and people who know Hong Kong will recognize beloved landmarks. Her Aunt Theresa also became the first Chinese air hostess for BOAC, flying in and out of Kai Tak during the golden age of air travel. Her boyfriend founded the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and she designed some of the suites. Theresa sends Francis to Australia to study engineering and this generous act will seal the fate of Kwa and that of her family.
Francis arrives at the tail end of the White Australia Policy and develops an eccentricity there, perhaps as a defense mechanism against the racism he faces in his new home.
It is a daily obstacle course of torment. Francis must circumnavigate ignorance, outrun resentment, skirt spite, hurdle hatred, shot-put cynicism, scale scourge, bounce belligerence. He likes to think of it in these terms taken from the English dictionary he studies every night—a word Olympics. Somehow the sport references make him feel as though he’s ‘going for gold’. Each time he gets over the finish line unscathed, unbruised and unaffected, he can chalk up one more day of survival in this foreign promised land.
Francis marries a woman almost twenty years his junior when he’s thirty-eight. Mimi is born soon after the wedding, but her childhood is anything but happy. Her mother suffers from schizophrenia and her father makes a career of suing anyone and everyone he can, representing himself. He also runs a backpacker hostel in Western Australia called Mandarin Gardens and puts young Mimi to work there at the reception desk and as a housekeeper. It might not be a typical place for a young girl to grow up, but Kwa learns to appreciate the stories of the travelers that pass through Mandarin Gardens.
What I love most is that everyone has a story. They wear them on their faces and their clothes, and very often sit down and tell me their whole tale. I’m a good listener, so this is a perfect storm for a lonely, curious girl. With amazing things from far-off lands to ponder, and constant dramas to deal with and conundrums to solve, I become worldly in my own backyard. Fire dancers and Olympic athletes parade across my days, and I sit on our lawn watching them rehearse and train. I meet people from every walk of life, and it inspires me—to do what, I don’t know yet.
These skills would lead to Kwa listening to her parents and other relatives to tell this story, a story of leaving home to start anew and the changing of generations.