Sunday 8 August 2021

The Flower Boat Girl, guest post from Larry Feign

Larry Feign is an award-winning writer and artist who lives walking distance from notorious pirate haunts on an island near Hong Kong. He is the author of several books about China, as well as a children’s book series under a pen name. He is married with two grown children.

His latest novel, The Flower Boat Girl, set along the South China coast, in the early nineteenth century, is based on a true story. Sold as a child to a floating brothel, 26-year-old Yang has finally bought her freedom, only to be kidnapped by a brutal pirate gang and forced to marry their leader. Dragged through stormy seas and lawless bandit havens, Yang becomes involved in the dark business of piracy. In order to survive, she carves out a role despite the resistance of powerful pirate leaders and Cheung Po Tsai, her husband's flamboyant male concubine.  As she is caught between bitter rivals fighting for mastery over the pirates, and for her heart, Yang faces a choice between two things she never dreamed might be hers: power or love.

Here Larry discusses how he went in pursuit of a pirate queen…

In 1801, a fisherman’s daughter, sold as a slave to a floating brothel, was kidnapped by the meanest pirate to sail the China Seas and ordered to marry him or die. She fought him tooth and nail and finally demanded a partnership. Smitten by her wildcat spirit, he agreed. When he died in battle, she took his place and became the most powerful pirate leader in history. Her name was Zheng Yi Sao.

Or was it?

I first learned of the Chinese pirate queen from an old Hong Kong sailor who remembered his grandmother singing a folk song about the fearsome lady pirate who commanded ten thousand men. Intrigued, I looked for more information. I found hundreds of articles about Cheng I Sao/Zheng Yi Sao, all telling the same story of a feisty ex-prostitute turned pirate. But something didn’t sit right with me. In university, where I’d studied history, my mentor taught me the tricks of historical research, including how to develop my “historical bullshit meter”. That meter was now shooting off fireworks inside my skull. As I traced the sources of these reports, I quickly determined that most of what is “known” about “Cheng I Sao” is based on nonsense. Even her Wikipedia page is a tapestry of contradictory facts and wild speculation. With so many different tales claiming to be true, which do we believe?

I was determined to discover the truth. All right, I was a bit obsessed. I spent eight years immersed in research, gradually piecing together her story like a huge jigsaw puzzle, filling in holes one little discovery at a time.

First, let’s get her name right. She was Cantonese, born in a fishing village west of Macau in 1775. Zheng Yi Sao or Ching Shih and other names attributed to her are Mandarin, a dialect she didn’t speak. Her real name, as she and everyone around her pronounced it in Cantonese, was Shek Yang.

The boat people were the lowest caste in imperial China, despised by land folk. For some the only way out of poverty was to turn to piracy. Others in need of quick cash sold their daughters. Which is how thirteen-year-old Shek Yang wound up on a flower boat, the poetic name given to floating houses of prostitution, her involuntary home for the next thirteen years.

She was 26 when she was abducted by Cheng Yat, the pirate godfather of the Pearl River. Having recently earned her way out of sexual servitude, she did not go lightly back into being someone else’s slave, so she resisted. Entranced by this spirited beauty, Cheng ordered her to marry him or die. In any case, she soon discovered that he often preferred a different bed companion: his handsome teenage male concubine, Cheung Po Tsai.

Over the next several years Yang made the best of her situation, gradually becoming the brains behind her husband and transforming a ragtag bandit fleet into a well-oiled criminal enterprise.

Along the way she confronted royalty, was courted by a pirate poet, and became very, very rich. From the lowliest of origins, she was now on top of the world.

Then her husband perished in a storm. Yang faced a terrible fate: banishment as a widow, the lowest status among the boat people. Or...well, I don’t want to spoil the whole story.

Somehow this epic tale had been sitting in plain sight for 200 years, but nobody had done the work to assemble all the pieces, not even in Chinese.

As I dug through mountains of documents, a remarkable picture began to emerge, not only of an amazing larger-than-life story, but of a complex and brilliant woman. Shek Yang was given the worst life could offer—raised in poverty, sold as a child, kidnapped by pirates, forced into marriage, dragged into an unwinnable war—and gradually found her own way not just to survive, but to take over her entire world. A woman raised to believe that respect and romance were out of reach, who finally faced a choice between power and love.

Then there were her role models. She may have heard of Chinese heroines like Hua Mulan. But imagine how she felt when she came face-to-face with a real-life woman general who commanded an elephant cavalry!

My search became a quest to discover a woman’s soul. Why did she choose to stay with her captors when escape might have been easy? What sort of genius enabled this illiterate former prostitute to innovate a new multinational criminal enterprise? What sort of charismatic figure commanded the loyalty of tens of thousands of rough, hardened sailors?

Why was there no book about her?

Toni Morrison said: “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”

So I did.

I wrote a historical novel because a straightforward biography couldn’t do justice to her character. I had to explore what motivated her, what she feared, who and how she loved. What did she want? What did she dream about? Did she ever find love? She had to be utterly charismatic, able to read men’s souls. She defied everything about traditional women’s roles and got away with it.

Donald Barthelme advised historical fiction writers: “Just don’t contradict what is known.” That means, don’t alter the facts or change their order, even if it makes a more dramatic story. You can make things up, as long as to the best of your knowledge, they could have—or likely—happened. I stuck to that in my writing, exploring Yang’s personality and motives as I believe she must have thought, while remaining committed to the historical facts.

I never did find the words to that folk song. This novel will have to do. It has been my mission, a daunting one, to enable an extraordinary but misunderstood woman to speak for herself, allowing me—and my readers—to peer into a pirate woman’s soul.

Details: The Flower Boat Girl is published by Top Floor Books (USA) in eBook, hardback and paperback, priced in local currencies. More information here.