ONCE-UPON-A-TIME Herald advertising rep Mimi Kwa went on to make a mark in national television as a journo and news anchor with the ABC and Channel 9.
She interviewed everyone from prime ministers to sporting stars like Serena Williams; Hollywood heavy hitter Russell Crowe once growled at her to “do something meaningful” with her life during an airport ambush.
But when it came to telling her own story, Kwa’s utterly astounding and at times confounding family proved far more riveting than any A-listers.
It’s been a year since her memoir, House of Kwa, announced her debut as an author, and Kwa is returning to Perth this month for an anniversary tour; it’s also where much of the action takes place.
“Much of the book is set on Blackwall Reach Parade in Bicton, where I grew up reading the Fremantle Herald,” Kwa said.
It’s a darkly humorous tale which grips the readers’ attention from the opening chapter when Kwa opens a letter from her father, only to read the unthinkable: “Supreme Court of Western Australia, Kwa v Kwa”.
“Dad was suing me,” she writes.
To explain how it all came to this, Kwa delves back four generations to the late 19th century when her family were rich Chinese silk merchants and an impatient son fled the family home with his father’s fourth wife. Including concubines, he’d had six to start with.
From there, this thread of the family tale heads to Hong Kong, where Kwa beautifully details the rivalries and tribulations of her grandfather and his three wives as between them they bear 32 children.
It’s a time of great change and great tragedy; Britain has annexed Hong Kong, while the Japanese constantly threaten to invade from the east, which they finally do under the cloud of World War II.
Kwa’s description of the Japanese occupation; mass rape, brutal senseless violence, the starvation and fear, through the eyes of a family trying to survive is evocative and masterly.
Her own father’s birth is quite extraordinarily; the family pierces his ear and gives him a temporary female name after news arrives of the Japanese killing newborn boys.
“Hong Kong is in utter chaos, a war zone of mortars and grenades. The deafening sound of high-speed shells sends people running onto the streets. Everyone but the Kwas,” she says of her family who successfully shelter in their own home using trapdoors and hideaways to avoid the marauding troops.
As Hong Kong rebuilds, one of her aunties scores a job as BOAC’s first Asian air hostess, and she uses the money to send Kwa’s father Francis to Australia to study.
From there it’s an almost-familiar story about the challenges of adapting to a new culture, and the relentless but seemingly acceptable racism Kwa faces growing up between Scarborough and Bicton is cringeworthy – but important for us to hear. To be reminded of a time when “Scabs” was so down in the dumps it was considered a status symbol to sport scars on your wrists – even if they were made by a rubber – says a lot about how far Perth has come – and sometimes hasn’t.
Central to all this is her unfathomable father, the notorious litigant who takes on his neighbour for having a stone protruding 20cm onto council land, doesn’t bother to invite her to his last two marriages, but is capable of setting up the southern hemisphere’s biggest backpackers. The section when he uses a tenant’s murder as an opportunity to promote the benefits of the hostel’s swimming pool during an interview is pure comedy; probably not for Kwa who watched on in horror with her colleagues in Sydney, where she was by then working for Channel 9.
That Kwa would still talk to her father after the embarrassment and the litigation – and then write about him with compassion and humour – says volumes about her own character and perhaps explains why she had what it takes to get to the peak of her career.
After all, she is Kwa.
Mimi Kwa will be giving an author’s talk with fellow journo Gillian O’Shaughnessy at the Chesterfield Lounge at Bar Orient on Thursday June 23 from 6.30pm. Tickets $5 from trybooking.com.
If you can’t make it, you can still pick up a copy of House of Kwa from New Edition on High Street.
by STEVE GRANT