arts & entertainment
Jean Kwok lives a life of transition
By Mark Anstead FOR THE PERFECT example of a very formative childhood, look no further than Jean Kwok, author of this month’s Book Buyer’s Pick, Girl in Translation. As an immigrant to America from Hong Kong in 1973, Kwok arrived at age 5 with her Chinese-speaking fam- ily and ended up living in a Brooklyn slum. For six years she had to endure living in a cock- roach-infested apartment exposed to the elements during harsh Ne w York winters because many windows did not even contain a pane of glass. After school she joined her parents and older siblings working in a Chinese-owned
sweatshop, paid by the piece to sew
and press clothes.
It would seem Kwok’s childhood has both
haunted her and driven her to succeed. A bright stu-
dent in Hong Kong, in America she was initially
considered stupid until she overcame the language
barrier and then she excelled, sensing education
was her way out.
“Thankfully my parents got out of that horrid
apartment after five years and opened a shop, but
business was still hard sometimes,” she says.
“Returning to the factory never seemed far away.”
Kwok’s ambition took her all the
way to Harvard, where her habit of
fitting study around work continued.
Ask her how she managed to graduate with honors while holding down
four part-time jobs to pay living costs
and she says it was fear—fear she
might one day be forced to return to
Her predicament is almost exactly
like that of the main character, 10-year-
old Kimberly Chang, in Girl in Translation, her debut novel: Kimberly and
her mother arrive in New York, escaping Hong Kong before it is handed
back to Chinese control, only to become exploited
in the land of the free.
“If I hadn’t won a 100 percent
scholarship I would never even have
gone to college,” she says. “That’s
why I had to aim high for the richer
universities, and I am incredibly lucky to be natu-
“The factory where my family worked was a
form of slave labor,” says Kwok, now 42. “Most peo-
ple stayed there until 10 p.m. every night and then
took piles of clothes home afterwards just to earn
enough to live. They were given a cent for each
piece, which was illegal.
“We had expected to find the New York we’d
seen in newspapers and magazines: skyscrapers,
glistening stores and beautifully dressed people.
Instead we were dismayed to be living in a slum
where people beat each other up in the street.”
Today Kwok lives in Holland with her child
psychologist husband, Erwin Kluwer, and their two
children. After moving to Holland she took a job
teaching English in a Dutch university and enrolled
in the same university to learn the Dutch language.
She spent the next 10 years working there while
drafting her novel.
“I found it very cathartic to write this book,” she
says. “It is fiction, but it is based on so much I had
hidden away. I had never referred to my childhood
because I was ashamed. Writing the book helped
me with that.
“I really wanted to take the reader into the mind
of the Chinese immigrant, and the only way at some
points was literally to think in Chinese while writing. When you first meet Kimberly, for example,
you only hear English through her ears and what
the sentences might have sounded like to her.”
Kwok says her book initially met with disbelief
that sweatshop child labor could really have existed
in 1970s America, until she explained her own
experiences. Now she has almost finished her second book, about a Chinese immigrant who becomes
a successful ballroom dancer—yet another aspect of
ond book, about a Chinese immigrant who becomes
“What pleases me most is hearing from
“What pleases me most is hearing from
people who say they feel helped because
someone in their family was in this posi-
tion,” she says. “And some people say
the story has inspired them to be
kinder and more understanding,
which really makes me feel it’s been
COSTCO HAS 50 SIGNED COPIES of
Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation to give
away. For a chance to win, send an email
with your name and mailing address to give
firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Jean Kwok”
in the subject line. Or print your name,
address and daytime phone number on a
postcard or letter and send it to: Jean Kwok,
The Costco Connection, P.O. Box 34088,
Seattle, WA 98124-1088.
NO PURCHASE OR PAYMENT OF ANY KIND IS
NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN THIS SWEEPSTAKES.
Purchase will not improve odds of winning. Sweepstakes is sponsored
by Penguin Group, 375 Hudson St., New York, N Y 10014. Open to legal
residents of the U. S. (except Puerto Rico) who are age 18 or older at the
time of entry. One entry per household. Entries must be received by
November 1, 2011. Winners will be randomly selected and noti;ed by mail
on or before December 1, 2011. The value of the prize is $15. Void where
prohibited. Winners are responsible for all applicable federal, state and local
taxes. Odds of winning depend on the number of eligible entries received.
Employees of Costco or Penguin Group and their families are not eligible.
Signed book giveaway
WHEN I FIRST read about
Jean Kwok, the author of
this month’s Book Buyer’s
Pick, I felt like a bit of an
underachiever. Kwok came
to the U.S. at age 5, and
eventually was awarded a
scholarship to Harvard. She
also worked in a handful of
science labs before going
to college and competed
as a ballroom dancer after
graduating from college. On
top of all of that, she’s an
In Kwok’s debut novel,
Girl in Translation, Kimberly
Chang emigrates with her
mother from Hong Kong to
Brooklyn. This exceptionally
bright girl attends a school
for gifted students, yet must
work in a sweatshop to be
able to survive. She meets
very different boys in both
worlds while she struggles
with translating the
language as well as with
who she is in her new
Girl in Translation is
available in most Costco
For more book picks,
see page 51.
Pennie Clark Ianniciello,
Costco book buyer
Mark Anstead is a UK-based freelancer.