The Cost of Being an Astronaut: Author Pik-Shuen Fung Explores the Inner Lives of Hong Kong Emigrants

 The characters in Pik-Shuen Fung’s debut novel Ghost Forest are haunted by jet lag. It follows them from Hong Kong to Vancouver and back, sapping their energy, souring their moods, lingering like a fog of ill-temper fed by the individual sacrifices each character has made for the family’s good. “One of the feelings I really wanted to capture in this book is the feeling of rootlessness,” says Fung. “The narrator feels she doesn’t belong in one particular place. It really asks the question of what is home if your family lives in more than one place.”

And yet the mood of the book is anything but dour. Written as a series of vignettes, it tells the story of a girl who moves with her family from Hong Kong to Vancouver in the years before the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule. The unconventional format gives each scene room to breathe, and while some are infused with the angst of separation and longing, there are many moments of levity and warm-heartedness. It’s a book that reflects the experience of migration in all its complexity – as well as the specific experience of Hong Kong’s so-called astronaut families, whose lives are split between countries and continents. Because, while the young protagonist of Ghost Forest crossed the Pacific with her mother and grandparents, her dad stayed behind to work in Hong Kong. 

It’s a scenario familiar to many of the one million Hong Kong people who left the city in the 1980s and 90s. At least 250,000 of them moved to Canada, with many of them settling in Vancouver. Compared to Toronto, the other main destination for Hongkongers in Canada, the 11-hour flight to Vancouver aboard CX888 made it a relatively convenient location for astronauts. Their nickname—taai3 hung1 jan4 (太空人)—is a play on words, meaning both someone who flies through space, as well as a man living without his wife. 

A Cathay Pacific plane in 1990, when thousands of migrants were leaving Hong Kong each year.

Like the protagonist in her book, Fung grew up in Vancouver with her mother and sister, while her dad worked in Hong Kong, reuniting only occasionally with his family. There were enough families like that in Vancouver that she never really thought hers was out of the ordinary. “It was just so common,” she recalls by video call from New York, where she now lives. “It wasn’t even a notable circumstance because like so many of my closest friends, I never met their fathers.” 

The economic and social impact of Vancouver’s astronaut families is easy to trace: it transformed the previously obscure city into the global magnet it is today, and it created a strong bond between Canada and Hong Kong, as families and individuals moved back and forth for school and work. But what about the human impact? How did astronaut families cope with the “tyranny of distance and the particularities of place,” as Vancouver-based geographer David Ley once described it? 

“In my family, we never talked about it,” says Fung. “I’ve had the chance to talk to other folks about it since the book has come out. I think that a lot of times it’s easier to focus on what was gained through immigration. In my family, in my own personal experience, we didn’t talk about the difficulties of immigration or the emotional aspects of it. I think that was one reason I was really drawn to writing this book.”

In Ghost Forest, the toll exacted by transnational life is revealed gradually, at first through the words of the protagonist, who eventually becomes aware of her own rootlessness. “As I got older, I kept moving and moving—from Vancouver to Providence to London to New York—because whenever I started to feel attached to a place or to people, I wanted, subconsciously, to make sure I would be the first to leave,” she says in one of the book’s vignettes.

Occasionally, the perspective shifts to those of her mother and grandmother, who relay remarkable stories about their own lives – stories they have rarely if ever, shared. “I was definitely inspired by conversations I had with my own mother and grandmother, stories that I’d heard from my family,” says Fung. “I feel like in Chinese families, the focus is on the family and not the individual. I wanted to have the collective quality that I experienced growing up. And I wanted to show how the mother and grandmother are so creative and funny and defiant and intelligent. I feel like so often women from older generations in Chinese families are silenced or not able to speak for themselves. Those were things that were really important to me.”

It takes more time for the book to dismantle the father’s emotional armour. He is an alien presence in the early pages of the novel, a dour figure tormented by insomnia, which is worsened by the jet lag he suffers on his fleeting visits to Vancouver. Things don’t improve after the protagonist moves back to Hong Kong after university, butting heads with her dad over cultural differences. “You don’t have Chinese roots,” he laments. But when he falls seriously ill after she moves to London and she flies back to Hong Kong to take care of him, she eventually begins to understand the sacrifices he made to offer his children what seemed like the best possible future. 

In one poignant vignette, the protagonist sees the empty, immaculate dining room in her father’s Hong Kong apartment, a single place setting arranged at the head of the table. She remembers all the times she sat around the dinner table in Vancouver, giggling as she ate pizza pockets with her mother and sister. “I looked back at his place setting on the table,” she says. “I saw, in one moment, all the other times he sat there. With the news on, while a typhoon lashed rain against the windows, as a fly buzzed around the room. During the green spring, through the humid summer, in the white morning light of winter. For most of the year, he worked all day, came home to eat alone, and couldn’t fall asleep at night.”

Over the course of the novel, Fung builds these vignettes like layers in an oil painting – a technique she attributes to her own training as an artist. Like the protagonist in the novel, she left Vancouver to study as a painter. She was in graduate school when her dad fell ill and died. “Somehow in this dreamlike state of grief I started writing one day and it came out in a vignette form,” she says. She ended up writing four or five vignettes and read them in a voiceover for a video artwork based on a Chinese ink painting. “At a certain point, I was just writing more and more. I would print four vignettes on a page and cut them into cards. I would put them on the floor and arrange them according to this intuitive process. If I think about it in hindsight, it was very emotionally driven for a long time.” 

That’s what eventually led to Ghost Forest, albeit with a few detours, including an attempt to rewrite the story in a more traditional way, which Fung quickly realised was a mistake. “What was really important to me was having this sense of spaciousness and slowness,” she says. Some of the vignettes are just a few sentences long. That’s something Fung says was inspired by Chinese ink painting – “the way there’s so much empty space on the paper.” 

It speaks to her desire to create a story that is expansive in scope, which is one of the reasons she didn’t want to write it as a memoir. “In the beginning it was definitely inspired by my own experience,” she says. “But I wasn’t interested in writing a book to say that this is what happened to me. I wanted to write a book that felt like a space reader could enter. I wanted there to be this feeling of spaciousness and expansiveness where readers could bring their own memories, their own emotions, and draw their own connections while reading the book, instead of reading about this narrator’s interiority.”

That gives Ghost Forest an emotional resonance that goes beyond the specific circumstances of the family it depicts. “Readers have told me that they’ve rethought their relationships with their parents and reached out to them, or realised that they want to say I love you to their parents,” she says. “I didn’t expect that kind of response, to be honest. It feels so touching. It almost always makes me cry.”

But there’s no doubt the book carries extra weight for anyone who has had the experience of growing up in an astronaut family. “Now that my book has come out, so many of my friends from when I was young have reached out to me,” says Fung. “We’ve had these conversations where we didn’t know that these were things we were all thinking about or struggling with. It’s actually been really wonderful to reconnect with some of my friends from school and talk about growing up with our fathers staying put in Hong Kong.” 

Pik-Shuen Fung will speak about Ghost Forest in a virtual session at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on Saturday, November 7, 2021. Click here for tickets and more details.

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