This August, SBW TalkBooks read The Jade Rubies by Valerie Lee, a serious and heartbreaking portrayal of human trafficking as it took place in 1915 China. The monthly meeting was held with record-breaking attendance and included a live question and answer session with the author.
Valerie is a writer of Chinese heritage who grew up in Chinatown, Vancouver. She based her novel on a true story about two young girls who were sold into slavery. Read on for more information about the novel and Valerie’s writing in the following interview recap.
Did you intend for your book to contain themes of modern-day human trafficking?
At the time I wrote it, I didn’t think of it that way or as something that was against the law. Chinatown in those days was very closed, with a lot going on behind the scenes.
How did you happen to write the book?
Women gathered to play mahjong and I listened to the gamblers’ stories. That’s how the story blossomed. Sulan and May were two true sisters. I fictionalized their names, but the book’s based on a true story.
Where did you get the idea to include jade rubies?
I remember looking at a piece of jade and seeing a red ruby inside. I thought there could be two of them, one for each of the girls, and then used the name for the title. At the end of the story, the family comes together and the girls become stronger.
Have you read and enjoyed books by Amy Tam?
Yes, I’ve read The Joy Luck Club, as well as writings by Lisa See.
Where did you get the additional details included in your book, such as the descriptions of foot binding, gambling and the opium trade?
I saw bound feet once as a child; it was the practice of upper class Chinese women. Gambling was also part of the culture. Women mainly played mahjong. Men had various types of games. As for the opium trade, I remembered seeing a pipe in a bucket at Chinese restaurants. I knew something was going on, but I didn’t learn what that was until I was older. I learned more about the culture through stories; my mother was very popular and my father was a cab driver who knew about everything.
Did you have a plan from the beginning of what would happen to the different characters?
No, I didn’t know how the book was going to end. I started with the two girls and wrote from there, piecing the story together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Did you self-publish?
Yes, and I consulted my friend who had his own ad agency in New York about the book design cover. I told the artist about the story and theme. The totem pole on the cover symbolizes Vancouver—I wanted Canada to be represented there. The jade rubies are featured on the cover, as well as the boat used to travel from China to Canada. The rest of the cover fades into black because I wanted there to be a sense of mystery.
What projects are you working on now?
A book about the Vancouver Chinese, a cab driver and myself in the 50’s. I have another book out now titled A Long Way to Death Row, written from many years of candid interviews with Charles Ng.
Set in 1915 China, we’re introduced to two sisters, Sulan and May. In a whirlwind fashion, the girls are torn away from their mother after being sold to a child broker and then to a wealthy couple who takes them on a life changing journey to the New World. Once settled into Vancouver with their master and mistress, the sisters fall into a routine of abuse at the hands of rich sadists and drug traffickers.
Valerie Lee was born and educated in Vancouver, British Columbia. After her marriage, she moved to the United States where she has lived most of her life. She is the great-granddaughter of Reverend Chan Yu Tan, who was ordained as a Minister of the Methodist Church in Canada in 1923. She fondly remembers learning how to recite her prayers in Cantonese when the Rev. Tan officiated at the Chinese United Church in the 1940s. Valerie has worked as a reporter for several newspapers, covering many topics, but always with a strong emphasis in writing cultural awareness pieces for the Chinese community. Valerie’s articles have appeared in the Vancouver Chinatown News, Asian Week, Asian Pages, Face Magazine, and True Story Magazine. The subject of many of her writings is about life in Vancouver’s Chinatown. She is currently working on another book.
Disclaimer: The Jade Rubies contains adult content, including graphic sexual situations, drug-related activity and violence.