Wednesday 16 November 2022

Bridging two cultures. Nicky Harman interviews London-based, Beijing-born Alicia Liu of SingingGrass


NH: Can you tell me briefly where you come from and how long you've been in the UK?

Alicia Liu: I was born in Beijing and moved to the UK to study in 2003. Although I considered myself a Beijinger, my family was a mixture of northerners and southerners from China. My dad was born in Inner Mongolia and my mum was born in Shanghai and grew up in Beijing. My grandmother was originally from Guangzhou and grew up in Hong Kong in the 1920s. I have fond memories of hearing her speaking a mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin while growing up. Since moving to London as a teenager, I've managed to spend an equal amount of my life in the East and the West.

NH: What is your company SingingGrass? (where did the name come from?) and what are its main activities

AL: My company name was inspired by the book The Grass is Singing by the British author Doris Lessing. My grandfather, a renowned literary critic and translator in China, had written the preface to the book when it was first translated and introduced to China in the 1950s. One of my favourite quotes in the book is "he knew how to get on with natives; dealing with them was a sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying game in which both sides followed certain unwritten rules."

I set up Singing Grass Communications in 2013 with the aim of guiding our clients in their engagement with China through arts, culture and lifestyle. We provide in-depth market research and insight, advise on business strategy and local partnerships for content brands such as the LEGO Group and international publishers such as Hachette Children's Group to maximise their potential in China. We also support international PR for important trade fairs such as Beijing International Book Fair and Shanghai International Children's Book Fair. (

NH: We talked when we last met about the problems of finding good books about China suitable for young readers like your son (now and in the future when he's bigger). What success have you had, what are the best books you've found (and why were they good?)? I assume they are all in English, or perhaps you have found him some in Chinese too? And also, the best places to look for these books?

AL: Bringing up a child to be bilingual, or shall we say bi-cultural and bi-literal, is an exciting and yet challenging mission. Looking back on my own journey of learning English, I think it's ultimately about nurturing your personal interests and immersing yourself in a different culture through various mediums, be it reading books, listening to music/ audiobooks, watching TV/film or developing hobbies. 

I used to be obsessed with listening to and dancing to the tracks from the British girl band Spice Girls in the mid 90s in the hutongs, the narrow alleys in Beijing, and loved doing my school fieldwork by being a tour guide in the Temple of Heaven with my limited knowledge of English. My mum was doing a research fellowship with the Ford Foundation and one of her colleagues introduced me to a ballet class when I was about 6 years old, which has since developed into a lifelong hobby. We also had an exchange student staying with us in Beijing for a week from Sweden. Listening to her talking about her life in Sweden blew my mind as a 14 years old. We became pen pals afterwards. I had all that early exposure to English language and western culture before I ventured from China.

So likewise, when I had my son here in London, I was determined to offer him every possible opportunity to be exposed to the Chinese language from the day he was born.

I was fortunate to have worked on the Shanghai International Children's Book Fair in 2013 and have witnessed first-hand the rapid growth in baby and toddler books in the Chinese market. By the time my son was born in 2018, there were several bestsellers from the UK available in China, in translation or as bilingual editions, for example, Nosy Crow's Bizzy Bear series and Usborne's Lift-the-flap books.

Chinese is a visual language - so reading picture books together and making things together to share the cultural experience is very important in my opinion. I have also bought children's books about Chinese cultural festivals or traditions in both English and Chinese. These include celebrating the Spring Festival, as well as making dumplings, tangyuan (glutinous rice balls) and mooncakes. The stories in these books are things that we can relate to the food he likes to eat at home during the festivals. I've also given Chinese New Year talks at his nursery and local libraries. I think it's important for him to experience Chinese culture as part of the mainstream environment. 

However, children are full of surprises too! My son was fascinated by Toilet: How it works by the US author David Macaulay! I managed to track down the Chinese edition of the book. There were days when I’d be working with clients attending a glamorous fashion or exclusive art show during the day, only to return home and spend the night reading about the sewage system in Chinese! This was a turning point as it showed me that my son had an interest in mechanics – how things work.

As my son started school this year, I've noticed a second phase of his language development journey. He is learning so much new knowledge in one particular language, and it's hard to ask him to translate it back into a different language - it is a whole new experience for a four-year-old!

This bilingual journey has been getting harder as they develop their interest in more sophisticated subjects. So again, when it comes to further nurturing language development, I think books and reading following the child's particular interest has tremendous power. I was fortunate to have worked on the development of Science Pop! a series of popular science books in the UK and in China in the past few years. I've been testing it out on my son by reading the First Steps in Coding books in English and in Chinese. It ended up as a fun storytelling play session - he and our family members have become the main characters - little robots that can build treehouses, play music and make decisions on birthday party venues based on the weather forecast! We discussed it in both English and Chinese and had so much fun together! 

NH: Where is the best place to get good books about China for children in the UK?

AL: Ah, it's such a good question! I've been struggling with this. I've been relying on mostly getting sample books through work or asking family in China to buy and post children's books in Chinese from China. If anyone has suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

My grandfather (Dong Qiusi 董秋斯) first translated Charles Dickens' David Copperfield into Chinese when he lived in Shanghai in 1945.

 We donated his latest Chinese edition (published in 2011) to the Dickens Museum in London. One day I hope to take my son to visit the museum and I can proudly show him the Chinese edition in the museum collection on display!

Earlier this year we facilitated a new Chinese partnership for Cloudaloud Education, the UK's first dedicated streaming app for children with Phoenix Publishing and Media, the second largest school education publisher in China, to launch Chinese audiobooks into UK nurseries and schools. Cloudaloud Education will partner with CLPE Centre for Literacy in Primary Education to bring multilingual audiobooks into the classroom through school libraries in the UK, including Mandarin. It's an exciting start and I hope more opportunities like this will follow.

NH:  What do you think can be done to make books about China, including novels and children's books, more popular and more widely-read in the UK?

AL: I hope there will be more access to multilingual content in the mainstream public library collections in the UK. Previously we worked with the US based Bibliotheca CloudLibrary app to acquire digital access to contemporary Chinese literature for US public libraries such as the New York Public Library (NYPL). In the UK overall I think there is very limited access to books about China, including novels and children's books in public libraries or bookstores in comparison with the US.

I still have fond memories of working on the exhibition China Design Now at the V&A Museum in 2009. Following the exhibition there was a big wave of interest in Chinese art, design and books about contemporary Chinese culture in British society. Perhaps we need another major public exhibition to excite people again!

In the children's sector there is an increasing trend for diversity and inclusion themes to feature Chinese heritage in children's stories. I was delighted to see that British Chinese illustrator Yu Rong’s Shu Lin's Grandpa, published in English by Otter-Barry Books, was shortlisted in the Yoto Kate Greenaway Medal in 2022. Yu Rong brings the Chinese picture book to a world audience. 

Science fiction is probably one of the genres in which we have increasingly seen Chinese books in translation, such as The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. I enjoyed the UK publisher Nicolas Cheetham's essay 'Journey to the West' published in SF Magazine in which he pointed out that Chinese genre fiction only arrived in the West in the last few years. It was not until 2015 that The Three-Body Problem, translated from Chinese, won the Hugo award. He also quoted the Chinese author Liu Cixin, saying that "SF is the most global, the most universal storytelling vessel, with the capability to be understood by all cultures." The Netflix series adaptation is coming out in 2023, which no doubt will increase the popularity of Chinese SF books.

We are currently working on an educational project for a publishing partnership between Hachette Children's Group and Phoenix Fine Art Publishing, called Art Alive! with Science.  It features art history and popular science educational content for children in China and the UK. I can't reveal too much about it yet, but hopefully it will be a good balance of content from the East and the West!

NH: Do you have any advice for parents in your situation?

AL: I enjoyed reading Adam Becks' book about Raising Bilingual Children - through his personal journey of raising his own children speaking and writing in Japanese and English. I've also been following some of the advice shared on Bilingual Monkeys, an online discussion forum for multilingual families run by the author since 2012.

I believe language is an emotional bond. So it's important to establish the bond early by exclusively speaking to children in your mother tongue from the day they're born.

It's also important to build a home library with Chinese books or books about China in English that suits the child's interest and reading the stories together. I think reading and writing give us the time and space to think and reflect. Like I said earlier, this is a learning journey for both the parents and the children, and I'm only at the start of this exciting bilingual adventure myself!

NH: Anything else you'd like to add?

I think the current (millennial) generation of parents face different challenges building a Mandarin and English bilingual community here in the UK. Older generations appear to have a more settled community and shared experience. How do we provide an environment that allows our children to develop an interest in Chinese language and culture? I’d love to hear suggestions or experiences so do get in touch if you’d like to exchange ideas!