Ms. Yip is here to tell us how she researched for her book! Enjoy!
Research Behind my Novels
In my opinion, any novel needs research, be it historical or contemporary. I’ll start with my fifth and newest historical novel, The Nine Fold Heaven.
Camilla, the protagonist in The Nine Fold Heaven is a nightclub singer, spy, and assassin working for a gangster. Her boss has ordered her to assassinate his rival, Shanghai’s number one gangster Master Lung. If she fails, she’ll be killed herself. To succeed, she must seduce Master Lung, but the beautiful and cunning magician Shadow competes with her to win Lung’s affection. And Camilla must contend with he own emotions -- against her will she falls in love with both Lung’s only son and his most trusted bodyguard.
In The Nine Fold Heaven and my previous novel Skeleton Women (The title refers to Chinese Femmes Fatales), I had to do research on 1930ies Shanghai with its spies, gangsters, and corrupt police, as well as its nightclubs and stage magicians. I do research online, but mainly for fact checking and minor details. It is easy to find things on the internet, but not everything one finds can be relied upon.
For important matters I rely upon books, preferably scholarly ones. For my historical novels, I also watch old movies to get a sense of the atmosphere of the time. Though books on obscure subjects like women spies in China are not easy to find, I was lucky enough to locate several on the two most famous woman spies in China and a few on spies in general, which I specially ordered from China.
Materials on gangsters are easier to find but somewhat scary to read. Sometimes I fear that if my writing is too realistic, if gangsters read it (though very unlikely) they might suspect I was trying to expose them! I do know some of their secrets, such as their mudras (hand gestures), which I found not in any books, but in Chinese newspaper clippings.
Magic has many secrets also. Magicians, though they know how to make the Statue of Liberty disappear or walk through China’s Great wall, will keep these secrets with them to their graves. I was very persistent and did finally learn how they did some of these tricks. Now they are my secrets and you will need to read my novel to find them out.
My three novels, The Nine Fold Heaven, Skeleton Women, and Peach Blossom Pavilion are all set in the 1930ies Shanghai, possibly the sexiest era in history. I have long been fascinated by its larger than life characters from movie stars and the spoiled children of the rich to vicious murderers. I have used my academic background to gather materials on this intriguing period, including such obscure matters as costumes, cosmetics, even hairdos (I found out that Chinese women wore hair extensions more than two thousand years ago!)
For Peach Blossom Pavilion, my novel about the last Chinese courtesan, I wrote a scene about women’s hairstyles throughout China’s long history. In this scene, a group of young prostitutes go together to a salon to have their hair fixed in different styles with poetic names – weeping willow, star-studded sky, one-line bang.
For my contemporary novel Song of the Silk Road, I actually went to the remote desert of Western China for my research. However, the old Silk Road was very long so I couldn’t travel to all the areas the ancient silk merchants traversed. I supplemented my travels by reading everything I could find about these faraway places, including histories, novels, travelogues, maps and guide books.
For another one of my novels, Petals from the Sky, about a would-be-Buddhist nun falling in love, I visited Buddhist temples, read its philosophy, witnessed its rituals, and listened to its chants. These give the novel its unique atmosphere. I was also inspired by my experiences growing up in Hong Kong with many friends who were Buddhist nuns.
Learning about different times and different ways of life is enjoyable. Until you sit down to write, you do not know which details you will need to fill out your story. But in the end, it is not just research but your feeling for your characters that counts.
Excerpt from The Nine Fold Heaven on prostitute in Shek Tong Tsui, Hong Kong:
Soon the tram reached Shek Tong Tsui and I quickly got off, leaving behind the heart-breaking melody, but not my broken heart. I walked slowly by the harbor to enjoy the salt-smelling breeze and the twilight on the waves. Along the roadside in front of dilapidated buildings, a few women leaned by doors, chatting, smoking, and throwing hopeful glances. Despite the British having recently banned prostitution in their colony, it was obvious that these gaudily-dressed and flirtatiously acting women were not here to appreciate the view, but to practice women’s oldest profession.
Among them, a fortyish one, her face plastered with white powder like a geisha’s, yelled toward me, “Hey, little beauty, if you were a man, I’d give you a big discount!”
I smiled back but didn’t respond.
Her “colleague,” another past her prime goddess laughed hilariously. “Ha! A discount? Are you joking? If Little Miss Beautiful were a man, it’ll be free!”
A third grandmother echoed. “Free? How about I pay him for it?”
The whole group burst into thunderous laughter. Of course they were joking to make the best of their lot. Business was bad and they were bored. No man would pay for these pathetic women except the equally old, ugly, and poor. But once they had been young, pretty, and highly sought after.
I felt a chill. If I didn’t start to really plan for my future, near or far, would I end up like these women? I had some money, but what would my future be?
Just then, suddenly there appeared a group of fiftyish men in rags, smoking, stinking of alcohol, and talking loudly, their conversation mainly insults regarding each others’ parents’ sex organs.
Once the run-down goddesses saw the even more run-down coolies, instead of running away like ghosts from daylight, they flocked to them like moths toward light. But the coolies out numbered the goddesses. So the former clustered around to wait for their turn.
I overheard one of the women say, “Three dollars for five minutes. Five for ten, and one hundred overnight.”
One coolie laughed. “Grandma, you have a mirror at home? If not, I’ll bring you one next time, on the house.”
Now all the coolies burst out laughing like there was no tomorrow.