By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Jamie Ford grew up in the Seattle area and his first novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” won several awards and has been translated into 34 languages. His new novel, “Songs of Willow Frost,” uses Seattle’s Chinatown and Chinese American community during the Great Depression as its setting. He answered some questions over email.
NWAW: Please describe your background and your upbringing. Were you a native of Seattle? If not, when did you live/work/play in Seattle? What were your earliest impressions of Seattle’s Chinatown and other aspects of the city? How did these impressions change over time?
Ford: Ah, Seattle. I tend to say “Seattle” in interviews the same way someone says “Chicago” when they live in Naperville — it’s close enough and less confusing. I graduated from high school in Port Orchard. I also lived in the Capitol Hill area and on Bainbridge Island.
My earliest impressions of Seattle were always Beacon Hill (where my grandparents lived) and Chinatown, where we went shopping and went out for dim sum. And, of course, places like the China Gate Restaurant, where we’d go to celebrate someone’s golden birthday or wedding anniversary — huge, eight-course meals with bird’s nest soup, black-bean crab, and rock-cod stuffed with ginger.
NWAW: How did your awareness of your racial identity evolve? At what age(s) did you learn your lineages? Did you ever face racism? If so, where, when, and what were your responses to it?
Ford: I always knew I was half Chinese — that was an inescapable fact. My father ran a Chinese restaurant and I grew up in a very Chinese American home. But you know, I never felt Chinese enough because I didn’t speak Cantonese like my dad. But then my Caucasian friends at school would freak out whenever I ate dried cuttlefish, or li hing mui, so I never felt white enough. It wasn’t until I moved to Hawaii that I felt comfortable in my own skin (and gained an appreciation for the term “hapa”).
As far as racism, I never faced outright prejudice. Part of that was because my dad also had a part-time job teaching martial arts to police officers — I’m sure that helped more than I realized at the time.
NWAW: Your great-grandfather, Min Chung, changed his name to William Ford, which you describe on your website as a “long story.” Can you relate to it? How did he get along as a Chinese man with a Western name? Where did he live and how did he get along?
Ford: He came through Angel Island around 1865, and somewhere around 1890, he changed his name to William Ford. No one knows the whole story, but I suspect it had something to do with owning property, which might have been made easier with the name Ford. But he also became a labor foreman for the Borax Mining Company in Tonopah, Nev., so having a white-sounding name might have helped advance his career. As far as we know, he was quite successful. William “Billy” Ford is mentioned in several Nevada history books.
NWAW: How did you decide to be a writer? Where did you attend school, and how did your schooling assist with your choice of profession? Did you ever have to work the dreaded “day jobs.” If so, what, where, and how did such employment influence you and your work?
Ford: I graduated from the Seattle Art Institute and worked as an art director and creative director for years. It was a great career, but I was basically renting out my artistic soul by the hour. Because of that, I began writing fiction on the side, just to have a creative sandbox to play around in —something unrelated to my day job. Now, I live in that sandbox.
NWAW: What was the inspiration for your first novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet?” How did you go about incorporating Seattle ambiance and history into the book? What were the major challenges in completing the book and how did you rise to them?
Ford: While attending a workshop in Virginia in 2006, I composed a short story based on the “I Am Chinese” button that my dad had once mentioned wearing during WWII. My instructor said, “The moral territory is novel length,” so I ran with it.
History-wise, I love research. I combed through the archives at the Wing [Luke Museum], I joined the Densho Foundation, I bought old maps off of eBay, read old journals and letters from the time period — anything to help recreate that era. Plus, I also visited the Panama Hotel.
The challenges were in trying to validate my historical assumptions, because various non-fiction books might have conflicting points of view. For that, I interviewed historian Doug Chinn. His input was incredibly helpful.
NWAW: How did the genesis of your new novel, “Songs of Willow Frost,” differ from your first novel? What was its inspiration? How did the selection of Seattle ambiance and history differ? What new challenges arose and how did you meet them?
Ford: I’ve always been intrigued by the Great Depression in Seattle because that’s when my grandparents met at the Wah Mee Club. That’s also when there was a fledgling film industry in the Northwest. “Willow Frost” began as an exploration of that time and the confluence of cultures and economic calamities. It’s also a story of abandonment and redemption — two themes that I wanted to explore.
Honestly, the real challenge with “Willow Frost” was to write a more emotional story, a sadder story, at times. It was strangely difficult because I was having so much success with “Hotel.” I had to forget the pleasantries of my everyday life and embrace the struggles of depression-era Seattle.
NWAW: Care to drop any pennies on the young adult series you’re developing? How do your own teens inspire you on this project and generally speaking…?
Ford: All I can say is that it’s a gas lamp fantasy, set in a Chinatown around 1890. My affinity for young adult (YA) literature came from reading what my own teenagers were reading. At first, I was curious, then I was entertained, and later wildly impressed by the quality of storytelling. The renaissance in the publishing industry is all in YA. And yes, in general, having a household of teenagers is crazy. But it’s the best kind of crazy. (end)
Official walking tours based on Ford’s novels, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” and “Songs of Willow Frost,” are offered by the Wing Luke Museum, 719 S. King St., Seattle. For tour information, call 206-623-5124 ext. 133, or visit www.wingluke.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.