SINCE her book “One Child” – about the unintended effects of China’s one-child policy – came out in January, KL native and now Washington, D.C.-based journalist Mei Fong has been busy criss-crossing the US on her book tour.
Outstation doesn’t usually do endorsements but I’m going to make an exception here and say you should all run out and buy it! And not just because it was written by Malaysia’s only Pulitzer-prize winner. Her analysis of the one-child policy, its tragic side effects and its ultimate ineffectiveness deftly mixes the personal with the political and she writes with a journalist’s eye and a human heart. And a uterus.
Between dinner and putting her twin boys to bed, Mei talked to Outstation on FB Messenger.
You were born and bred in KL, yes?
Yes, I grew up in Damansara Heights, and went to Bukit Bintang Girls’ School.
How did your BBGS experience shape you?
My whole family of sisters – I am one of 5 – went to BBGS. I remember washing toilets, running to the wet market opposite to buy last-minute flowers and ingredients for home science. It’s all gone now. Everything’s a mall. I think having to wash toilets was a good thing. It kept us humble.
Also, doing choral speaking helped with an appreciation of language and creativity.
Where did you head after BBGS?
I went to Singapore, to Raffles Junior College to do my A-levels, and then onward to National University of Singapore for an undergraduate degree in literature and psychology.
Have you always wanted to be a journalist?
Since I was about 16. I won a prize in the Commonwealth Essay competition, which led to my being invited to a reception to meet Queen E. when she was in town.
I realized then that perhaps my pen could take me places. Nothing exciting had ever happened in my life until then.
Did you join The New Paper straight out of university?
Pretty much. I had a scholarship from Singapore Press Holdings, and one of the pre-conditions was I had to work where they placed me. The New Paper was not my first choice–it was considered by many to be below the Straits Times–but as it turned out, it helped me develop things like a thick skin, which is very useful in journalism.
What sorts of stories did you cover there?
They started me on the crime and social beat. Lots of school stories, and stories on traffic accidents, interviewing bereaved relatives. Editors liked sending young female reporters to funeral homes to interview relatives, since we were perceived as being more sympathetic. It got to feeling quite ghoulish.
You went on to Columbia University in New York on another scholarship, and were hired by the Wall Street Journal after that. The paper sent you to Beijing. What was it like reporting in China? With a Chinese face but limited language?
Thankfully the Journal had researchers, and I usually had one with me to help translate. I knew enough to understand the gist of things and to ask simple questions, but it was much easier to think up questions in English and have the researcher translate.
You start your book with the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and its aftermath, when you travelled by road and rail with a Chinese couple frantically trying to get to home to the quake-hit area to search for their only child. At what point did you think…this is a book?
I don’t think I did at the time. I was too much in it, too tied up in the stories then, and also my own personal annus horribilis when I had a miscarriage.
It was only a year after, when I was thinking of writing a commemorative anniversary piece, that I started tying the threads together, and wondering how my personal experience intersected with this huge momentous disaster.
Initially, I wasn’t sure there was much relevance. I was so used to erasing myself as a journalist, to being a fly on the wall.
I think one of the book’s most powerful elements is your connecting the personal and the political, not least your own quest to have children.
Not everybody thought that way. I remember pitching that piece to a section of the Journal and the editor rejected it. They thought it was too sob-story, and it was perhaps a mistake to try and equate something like a miscarriage to the enormity of losing a grown child.
Yup, the potential pitfall of a weeping woman story.
I wasn’t trying to equate the losses as similar, but I did feel instinctively there was some connection. But in the end the Journal only ran that piece online.
I think people are squeamish about things like miscarriage and ‘women’s issues.’ That’s why it had to be someone like Mark Zuckerberg–white rich male–talking about miscarriage before people can accept it.
I know we’re running out of time and your babies are calling so I’ll wrap up… You’ve been away from Malaysia for how many years now?
Oh, since I was, like, 19.
These days when you visit, what do you think?
I am worried about the rising tide of fundamentalism. Maybe I’m remembering Malaysia through the eyes of an idealistic teen but it seemed like we were much more in sync racially, and there was a huge effort made into the live-and-let-live ethos.
Now I see things like the redshirts and yellowshirts, a growing them-and-us divide and it is worrying. It’s all too easy for politicians to play the race card to divert attention from the slowing economy, and I’m afraid there’s going to be more of that down the line.
Crime’s also another issue. I get so many WhatsApp warnings from friends on all the latest scams that can happen to you when you’re getting into the carpark at the mall, etc.–and just this last visit I see there’s “Women’s Only’ section in carparks.
It’s a shame when there’s so much that is lovely about the Malaysian way of life.