An Interview with Laurence Yep about The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung: A Chinese Miner

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D.: Wong Ming-Chung's story is your first book written in the form of a journal. Did you enjoy writing in this form? Did it cause you to alter or change your writing or approach to storytelling?

Laurence Yep: My editor, Amy Griffin, stressed that she wanted the diary entries to sound like a child really wrote them. I had originally thought the journal would be similar to epistolary novels like Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, the entries would have sounded too grown up. Having had plays produced, I've learned the difference between dialogue that sounds "literary" and dialogue that sounds "natural" so I crafted each section as a monologue and the entire book as a script for one actor who is doing the Journey of Wong Ming-Chung.

RFA & LMP: In discussing your early writing you have said, "From the very beginning, I think I was dealing with that childhood feeling of being an outsider." It is now 34 years since your first published story. Are you still mining this theme in Wong Ming-Chung's journal?

LY: When I was Wong Ming-Chung's age, I was small and bookworm-ish too. All my friends in both Chinatown and my own neighborhood were into athletics more than books, and my own family was a family of athletes. I found it easy to identify with Wong Ming-Chung.

RFA & LMP: In doing your research on the Gold Rush, what did you learn that surprised you most?

LY: I was surprised at how cosmopolitan the Gold Rush was: prospectors were of all races, genders, and countries. I was equally surprised at how fast gold prospecting became big business. I had also been raised on the romantic image of the individual prospector panning for gold. I hadn't realized such prospectors belonged only to a short period.

RFA & LMP:
Home plays an important role in this book. When Wong Ming-Chung thinks about his friend Hiram, he writes, "Americans are so rootless. I almost feel sorry for them." Are Americans still rootless today?

LY: My ancestors come from a part of southern China where most villages can trace their roots back at least a thousand years or even more. However, as a typical American, I have lived in four cities and moved at least seven times. I don't see the American pattern changing. If anything, people are even more restless and mobile than they were in 1849.

RFA & LMP:
In the About the Author notes for Wong Ming-Chung's journal you wrote that the gold rush was the story of dreamers. Do you see Runt as a dreamer, or was he just obeying his parents?

LY: Wong Ming-Chung didn't go to America because that was his dream. Instead, his dream was to stay at home reading books and studying, but he was willing to obey his parents and give up that dream. And as his brother pointed out, Ming-Chung liked to read because books took him to faraway places. Now he was going in person rather than vicariously. So, in a way, he was getting to carry out his dreams. Ming-Chung was also typical of many immigrants who adapt to their situation, and whose dreams change with them. In the end, he wound up falling in love with his new country and wanting to stay — even though he was now rich enough to go home and live out his original dream of reading books.

RFA & LMP: One of the most interesting lessons that Runt learns from the Fox occurs on April 10th when Fox notes that hate is a luxury that slows a guest down. Where does this idea come from? Is this part of your own personal outlook?

LY: As a child growing up in San Francisco in the 1950s, I sometimes met insults when I ventured outside of Chinatown or my neighborhood. I have even been spat on and threatened with a knife. I could have let my anger fester until it became hate. However, I realized they were isolated incidents and I simply got on with my life.

I taught creative writing at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara and in the first assignments some of my students were caught up in their anger over various issues. Anger is a valid emotion but it makes for monotony. Imagine listening to a song that only had one note played over and over. Part of what I did as a teacher was guide my students into other emotions.

I hated my Chinese school teacher so I thought I would get revenge by putting her into a book. However, as I began to write about her, I began to see her viewpoint. From her perspective, I was a lazy, irresponsible child who had turned my back upon my Chinese culture. What began in anger became acceptance.

RFA & LMP:
If you could ask young readers of Wong Ming-Chung's journal one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?

LY: I guess I would ask them how they feel about the racial tensions. Most of the fiction on the California Gold Rush makes it sound like one grand boyish adventure. However, when you read the real history, you realize that it wasn't that way at all.

RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung: A Chinese Miner?

LY: I would hope that children who read Wong Ming-Chung's journal would learn to be just as adaptable as he was. He was open to a new world, new cultures, new ideas. That flexibility of mind let him see that there was more than one solution to a problem. If I can go back to my roots as a science fiction writer, I would "predict" that adaptability is what children will need in the future. My brother worked in Silicon Valley where businesses expect their product to be out-of-date within a year, and I think that rate of change is also accelerating. Moreover, our economy is becoming increasingly global which means they will have to get along with other cultures. Even more than I did when I was their age, children will have to be "nimble of foot" as Fox advised.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.

  • Subjects:
    Immigration, Chinese and Chinese American, Tolerance and Acceptance, Prejudice and Tolerance Experiences
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