Writers on Wednesday: Cher Chidzey
Welcome to another great Writers on Wednesday post. This week I am speaking with Cher Chidzey, author of Ken's Quest.
Tell me a bit about yourself …
I am the youngest of nineteen children, twelve girls and seven boys. My father Huat was born at the end of the Qing dynasty in Shantou, a fishing village.
Father and his three wives, four sons and eight daughters migrated to Singapore when the Japanese invaded China. I was born in a household of over thirty people, in a house built on stilts, in the “House of Ninety-Nine Closed Doors”. Father relocated shortly after with my mother and her two sons and six daughters to a simpler dwelling in Serangoon Gardens, the stomping ground of Australian and British military personnel.
Growing up in a household of siblings schooled in the Chinese language I learnt to appreciate Chinese poetry, Teochew opera and calligraphy. My childhood was chaotic with the comings and goings of relatives; the stepbrothers and their families also relocated to the same neighbourhood. The tribal voice, the gossip, the bickering continued but I kept my head down and studied. I was the only child educated in a missionary school run by Irish nuns. I rebelled against the family’s strict Confucian code and converted to Catholicism.
In 1974 I hatched an escape route from the chaos and ended up in Highett High school in Sandringham, Victoria. My political education began in that school under the mentorship of my classmate Harviva and continued when I studied at Monash University. I went to street marches and attended political campaigns despite feeling dreadfully scared of being spied on. The Singapore government uses the Internal Security Act to detain people indefinitely without trial.
My journey from a strict Confucian upbringing to Catholicism to involvement in seeking social justice is something I’m proud of. I’ve lived both cultures.
Tell us about your most recently published book?
Ken’s Quest is my most recently published book. Before I dive into the bowels of the novel I’d like to tell why I wrote it. I’ve observed the likes of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party lashing out at migrants, pointing fingers of blame but also the reluctance of people to speak up honestly, openly and civilly about their feelings, about the differences in cultures. Keeping silent creates undercurrents and discontent. That build up can lead to the rise of the right wing as we are witnessing now. We have many programs and initiatives to promote multi-culturalism but we could take a further step. Encouraging people to talk openly and honestly about differences is an essential step towards true multi-culturalism.
Bravo to Betul Tuna who lives in Shepparton, one of Australia's One Nation strongholds, where Islamophobia is rampant and she's got a smoking idea to put an end to it for good. By day she's a community worker and a single mum with three kids. By night Betul and her best mate Suzan Yilmaz are transforming an old caravan into a shisha cafe on wheels. They're gearing up to travel around the country with it, parking in random streets, opening their doors to all Australians who might fear Muslims.
"Forty nine per cent of Australians don't want us here," she says.
"I'm facing my fear and I guess I'm expecting the forty nine per cent to face their fear and maybe come have that cup of coffee."
Ken’s Quest was set in the 1990s. First part of the novel focused on the Ken-Red journey. Ken’s characterisation: he was given poor spoken English. His career profile as chief engineer in Communist China made him authoritarian. His upbringing in a wealthy family made him superior. These attributes created a rigid personality, one that would not adjust to a new environment easily.
Red was Ken’s assistant at Lucky Security Gate. His xenophobic propensity led him to clash with Ken. The turning point came when Ken saved Red’s dog Fu Manchu. They became friends.
Their conversation began with work related issues, of work procedures, of the meaning of work and the concept of career. As the friendship deepened, the conversation shifted from work place related issues to societal values – familial responsibilities.
Red discussed his fragmented childhood experience, being passed from one step-father to another like a recycled Christmas present, his fear of displacement by migrants, his loneliness and lack of meaning in life.
Slowly Ken reassessed his assumption about Aussies having it easy and government financial aid should mean success for all. Red exposed Ken’s many flaws: his denials, his lying, his arrogance, lack of social skills. Despite the fiery verbal exchanges Red was touched by Ken’s care and affection, especially after a drug related mugging.
Their cross-cultural exchanges was possible because Red and Ken trusted each other. To get to the state of trusting we need courage to venture outside our comfort zone. And that takes us back to our intention when we speak of differences in our cultures.
The second part of the novel focused on the Ken-Julia journey.
Julia was Ken’s communication teacher at TAFE, turned lover. The macho Ken was kept on his toes. She questioned his assumed male superiority in bed, his controlling way over his son, over her, his secretiveness, his face saving tendency and his overwhelming jealousy. The cross cultural tension was tipping Ken to the edge but for the first time he was willing to listen, to reassess his male superiority, his tribal voice, the voice of his ancestors and connect with his woman. Through her insistence and interrogation he learned to speak honestly and confess his secrets. Observing Julia made him realise some serious truth about himself. He assumed he had achieved wei-yan (gaining respect without effort) but he was wrong. As chief engineer in his company in China, Ken was able to wield his power over his co-workers. The highly stratified power structure meant workers had to pretend to respect him to get by. That behaviour was misinterpreted as wei-yan. Ken required a different place, a different context to realise that.
Ken’s quest of gaining wealth and status was shifted furtively. He was awakened to the simple pleasures in life. They rode bicycles in the country, sipped wines, listened to classical music, discussed literature and politics and recited poetry.
The transformative power of love was for all to see.
Tell us about the first time you were published?
My mother told us stories, which in my mind were unsuitable for the very young Cher because they seeded mistrust. However, those stories became the material for my memoir The House of Ninety-nine Closed Doors, self-published in 2007 after ten years of tears. I had wanted to write the memoir since the age of ten. The whispers, the secrets, the victims’ laments were pleading to get out. My tribal voice reprimanded me for hanging out the dirty linen but I could not ignore the victims’ pleas. It was important for later generations to understand the complexity of such a big, dysfunctional family.
As writer, what has been your proudest achievement so far?
Stories of how migrants struggle against all odds to get here, to seek wealth, status and freedom have been told repeatedly, it is a well-worked over field in the words of Professor Sneja Gunev.
Ken’s Quest breaks new ground in refugee-literature by showing that migration is a two-way street. I make a timely plea for the acceptance of migrants, but I also remind newcomers to work at being welcomed wherever they go. Rather than telling migrants to fit in, I spell out how refugees, migrants and people newly posted overseas can integrate better into their new surroundings. I challenge the underemployment of professional migrants in the 1990s. I discuss issues of gender, “face” and parent-child relations from the perspective of my old and new worlds. The discrimination against homosexuals and transgenders was revealed through subplots in the novel. I’m very proud of my courage to take a different approach to multiculturalism and encourage people to speak about their differences.
What books or writing projects are you currently working on, if anything?
I’m concurrently writing a novel and a play titled Su Su. The work explores the journey of a young student Su Su, a spoilt girl from a wealthy Singaporean family, set in the 1970s in Australia. There were many hurdles awaiting Su Su in the local high school and in the university.
She was brainwashed by her mother who fed her Confucian philosophy. Su Su was expected to live a monk like life till she graduated from university. In the local high school her sexuality was rudely awakened by her classmate, Trevor, a rebel and a clown. The censored press in Singapore meant Su Su’s political views, understanding of the machination of government and world affairs were that of the government. Eve, her classmate in the Australian high school where she studied, turned those views upside down.
Su Su’s conflict accelerated when she met political activist Freckles, who became her lover. Now she was caught between offending her parents and plunging into political activities or standing back and displeasing Freckles. The1970s saw the political upheaval in Australia, the sacking of Gough Whitlam government, the opposition to uranium mining and the flood of Vietnamese refugees.
Su Su was warned of the danger of participating in political activities by her mother Zum who declared herself as the decision maker in Su Su’s life. She had said, ‘Parents are traffic lights, warning signs to imminent danger and disobeying them was equivalent to running the red lights.’
Which do you prefer? eBooks or Paper Books? Why? Indie Publishing, or Traditional Publishing?
I like the feel of paper books, the aesthetics of a book cover and that the layout enables smoother reading. Having said that eBooks are convenient because I can change the font size. You see failing eyesight comes with aging!
After reading Katharine Hamilton’s article on Indie versus Traditional versus Self-publishing I’m warming up to Indie Publishing. Traditional publishing is difficult to get into unless you’re established. The way the wholesale-retail operation works, the return to publisher is small and that means royalties are small too. Indie publishing seems to offer the maximum flexibility and you’re boss of the operation.
Aside from your own books, of course, what is one book that you feel everybody should read?
Ba Jin’s trilogy: The Family, Spring and Autumn.
Li Yaotang (25 November 1904 – 17 October 2005), better known by his pen name Ba Jin was a Chinese author and political activist best known for his novel Family. He is considered to be one of the most important and widely read Chinese writers of the 20th century.
Finally … is there anything you would like to say to your readers in Adelaide, Australia?
Stories told by our ancestors, historical events of wars and violence all pointed to an unsafe world. Fear and mistrust is hard wired into the human brain. I also have been influenced by my tribal voices to not trust, to not let on too much. ‘They’ll take you down.’ The voices of my parents echoed in my ears, made me jumpy and edgy, my eyes roaming on the lookout for enemies.
I disobeyed them. I wrote The House of Ninety-Nine Closed Doors to expose our dysfunctional family. I let them down, hung out the dirty linen, felt guilty for a while, felt shameful for a while but decided the truth (the truth I have perceived) was more important than anything else. I risk severing relationship with family members over it but it must be told.
I went on to ask what’s wrong with questioning about other people’s values and beliefs. I decided there was nothing wrong if my motive was to understand them better. In writing Ken’s Quest I’m questioning multi culturalism in Australia and I risk rejection from many people who like to think everything is cosy and fine.
I’ll cite an example about the harm in holding back. I’m slow in responding. A colleague once said, ‘Why are Singaporeans so Kiasu? They have to be at the top of the queue.’
I did not reply but I was furious and remained so for the next few years. By the way Kiasu is a Singaporean term which means “afraid to lose.” A Kiasu person never misses out on anything. He/she is always grabbing and grasping selfishly. If she had coined her question differently I might have the courage to respond. I was afraid that once I opened my mouth I might lose control. If she had said, ‘I find the go go go energy of Singaporeans difficult to handle. Can you help me?’ I would have been more motivated to explain.
Communication can be very complex, easily misunderstood so think carefully about your motive. Is it a genuine reaching out? Is it a means of belittling? Even with the best of intentions sometimes communication can go wrong given the complexity of different cultural values. So my guideline: If unclear do not assume, ask for clarification.
Read Ken’s Quest. We need to move out of our comfort zone, explore, engage and grow. Spread the word.
For purchase from publisher please go to
For private sale ($26 including postage) please email Cher Chidzey, go to email@example.com
To view author’s talks and posts please go to