When Shek Yang was a little girl at the end of the 1700s along what came to be known as the “China Coast”, she lost her mother and newborn brother within hours. To make up for the loss of his son, her father trained Shek Yang in sailing, fishing and other seafaring skills. But he couldn’t prepare her for what was to come. His gambling debts accumulated and after selling his boat, he sold Shek Yang to a floating brothel, euphemistically called a flower boat. And so begins Larry Feign’s new book—and his first historical novel—The Flower Boat Girl, which tells of the real-life Shek Yang’s rise to become one of the fiercest pirates in the South China Sea in the early 19th century.
Once sold, Shek Yang never saw her father again. Some years later she repaid her father’s debts and gained her freedom but continued working as a prostitute for lack of alternatives… at least until the pirate Cheng Yat kidnapped her and held her captive. Shek Yang proved herself a fierce fighter and more intelligent than the men on the boat and soon Cheng Yat asked her to marry him. She agreed on the condition that she would become an equal business partner with him.
Feign’s protagonists are all Chinese—this is no “East meets West” tale.
One cannot mention historical fiction set in the early 19th-century South China Sea without bringing to mind James Clavell’s Tai-Pan. Feign’s work bears comparison both in its historical and geographical sweep, as well as in its readability and attention to regional historical detail. But Feign’s protagonists are all Chinese—this is no “East meets West” tale. It predates the founding of Hong Kong, Portuguese Macau (or “O Moon”) is mentioned in little more than passing, and such Europeans as do appear are restricted to cameos.
Feign, who made a name for himself in the 1980s and beyond with The World of Lily Wong, a very popular comic strip (and then a series of books) about a Hong Kong woman and her foreign husband, remarks in his author’s note that the novel is based on true people and events that took place near his current home on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island. Although the story is not unknown and has inspired other creative works—the 2010 Mandarin-language opera The Legend of Zhang Baozai is based on the same story—Feign says an old fisherman told him about long-ago turmoil in the South China Sea and the female pirate, Shek Yang.
Hong Kong retains its pull on novelists.
Shek Yang and Cheng Yat’s marriage could be described as a business arrangement: she found more independence on the seas than in the brothels and he grew to depend on her strategies for building his pirate empire, but in Feign’s telling, Shek Yang grew to love her husband. A woman would have had very little say when it came to marriage, to say nothing of marriage to a pirate who had abducted her. But Feign has Shek Yang ask for a proper wedding celebration, which would demonstrate respect and commitment, two things she hadn’t enjoyed during her youth.
I was a princess from a story. In less than two days the entire water world of the great heaven of Tunghoi would gather to watch me–me, Shek Yang–marry my man. For once in my life, the world revolved around me.
The pair found differences in superstition: he prayed daily to a statue of Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea, which she found outdated and silly. But Shek Yang didn’t eschew all tradition and enjoyed Chinese holidays like the Moon Festival, giving Feign the opportunity to indulge his powers of description
The sky turned the color of weak red tea. A fat orange moon peeked over the eastern tip of the island. We divided pomelos and starfruits among the children and ourselves, and for the first time, I felt a sense of community among this hodge-podge group of seamen and women.
Shek Yang encounters competition from Cheung Po Tsai, a teenage boy kidnapped by Cheng Yat before she entered the scene. The resulting triangle of ambition and affection drives a plot which features sea battles, loops in the former Amman Empire (which is now modern Vietnam), and building a coalition of pirates with Cheng Yat at the helm, with Shek Yang the brains behind the operation.
Feign is something of a stickler for authenticity, making use of Cantonese transliteration (something readers of Tai-Pan may recall, but which is increasingly being superseded by Mandarin pinyin renderings). Readers familiar with Hong Kong, meanwhile, will also recognize names of places like Chek Lap Kok, Tai O and Tung Chung, among others.
Hong Kong retains its pull on novelists. Feign, as an old Hong Kong hand, has delivered a historical saga that should sate the nostalgia for the novels of yesteryear, while updating (or perhaps pre-dating) the themes more appropriate for its post-colonial present and future.