“The Lost Century” by Larissa Lai and “The Loyal Daughter” by Nancy Lam

The Lost Century, Larissa Lai (Arsenal Pulp Press, September 2022); The Loyal Daughter, Nancy Lam (At Bay Press, September 2022) The Lost Century, Larissa Lai (Arsenal Pulp Press, September 2022); The Loyal Daughter, Nancy Lam (At Bay Press, September 2022)

In Larissa Lai’s new novel, The Lost Century, elderly Violet Mah wonders, “Why is it that the grandchild most distant from the history is the one most interested in it?” It is this question that frames Lai’s story set in Hong Kong just before and during the Japanese occupation. This question is also the basis of another new novel, Nancy Lam’s debut, The Loyal Daughter, which takes place in southern China, Hong Kong, and Ontario. 

In The Lost Century, Violet’s grand-niece Ophelia is visiting Hong Kong from Canada during the Handover and the two go out to dinner during the rainy evening of 30 June 1997 so Violet can answer Ophelia’s questions about the sacrifices the women in their family have made to carry on their lineage. Going back to before World War II, two old Hong Kong families, the Mahs and Cheungs, are sworn enemies after the elder Mah produced and sold an opium alternative that the elder Cheung died from after overdosing. Mah was ordered to pay a hefty fine to the Cheung family and spent three months in prison. He stopped producing this line of drugs that killed old Cheung, but these punishments were too little too late. Despite the family history, in the mid-1930s, Emily Mah and Cheung Tak-Wing elope against their families’ wishes and all hell breaks out. Emily’s sister Violet is the great-aunt in the Handover part of the narrative.

The elder Mah is open-minded when it comes to his daughters, Emily and Violet. He fully supports Violet’s wishes to study medicine at the University of Hong Kong, but when Emily wants to marry Tak-Wing, Mah refuses, claiming that the Cheung family are “riff-raff from the countryside.” Violet begs to differ.


“Old Cheung and his sons are also descendants of an important Hong Kong family. Wong Nai Chung Village was here on the island before the British came. Before Hong Kong was even Hong Kong.”



Emily and Tak-Wing go through three marriage ceremonies. They elope and then marry in a western wedding ceremony at the Hong Kong Cricket Club, where Tak-Wing is a member and star cricketer. His father works at the HKCC as a cook. Their final wedding is a Chinese tea ceremony to appease both families after they finally come around to the reality that their children truly want to marry.

Lai inserts interesting tidbits of Hong Kong history throughout her story and the HKCC wedding ceremony is no exception. She also uses some historic figures in her story.


The band struck up. Rather than the traditional “Here Comes the Bride,” they played the “Free Marriage Song” at the request of the ever-thoughtful Mrs. Hancock, under the advice of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke. I had never heard this song before in my life. But Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke told me later that it was a song that celebrated true love and choice of beloved against the old traditions of arranged marriage and reverence to ancestors, and that it had been sung at the wedding of Sun Yat-Sen and Soong Ching-Ling, whom she knew personally.


The Japanese occupation put an end to Emily and Tak-Wing’s honeymoon in Hong Kong and Lai does not hold back when it comes to the brutality of those years. It’s the women in the Mah and Cheung families that try to keep their loved ones alive and functioning as normal as possible in the early 1940s.


Female resilience is also a theme in Nancy Lam’s The Loyal Daughter, based on her mother’s brave actions to give herself and her family a better life than what she experienced in the 1950s and ’60s. When the main character, Mai Gum Chung, is a young girl in southern China just after World War II, she receives a prediction that she will move to North America, or “gold mountain”. A decade later, during the Great Leap Forward, she enters nursing school in the small southern city of Jiangman. Mai studies well and becomes engaged to a dashing pilot named Dat Wah. He is soon sent off to Nanjing due to a promotion and the two cannot agree on their future together. She believes she will end up in North America while Dat Wah hopes she will join him in Nanjing. He thinks she’s living in a fantasyland, but she disagrees.


“It is not a fantasy. I am here studying nursing instead of farming in a forsaken village in southern China. That, too, would have been considered a fantasy,” Mai says, her voice rising.


Mai ultimately makes a harrowing escape by a smuggler’s boat to Hong Kong. It’s 1962 and she knows she will probably never see Dat Wah again.


The two-hour trip seems much longer given the turbulence and darkness at the bottom of the boat. …  The little boat is so unstable Mai is convinced she will join her ancestors in the next life at least three different times as she swallows to force back the rice she ate before she boarded. Only then does she think to pray for her life.


If the journey from Macau seemed longer than two hours, it probably was: in those pre-hydrofoil days, even ferries took longer than that. Mai’s dream of North America suddenly becomes a reality, when several years later she becomes engaged—via written correspondence—to a Cantonese man in North Bay, a city several hours outside Toronto. But the life she finds there belies the attribution of “gold mountain”.

One reason Mai had been set on North America is that her grandfather moved to San Francisco decades earlier and abandoned the family, neither visiting nor sending them money. Years later, Mai’s daughter Amy tries to find his whereabouts, long after he has passed away. Like Ophelia in The Lost Century, Amy is interested in stories of her forebears. As much as the older generations hope to forget the past and provide for their children and grandchildren, Ophelia and Amy want to know where they came from and the sacrifices their families made. Violet says to Ophelia at the end The Lost Century:

Remember how I didn’t want to tell you this story? Most old ladies would refuse outright. But I can see that your psyche is different from mine. You need the truth to move on.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.