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Reviews — Ken's Quest

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Ken’s Quest – a triumphant ode to the diversity of Australia, and a plea for tolerance

Cher Chidzey’s story of a Chinese engineer’s efforts to settle in Melbourne is part parable and part romance, and a reminder that migration is a two-way street

Ken’s Quest is a beautifully written and gently gripping story of a Shanghai engineer’s efforts to settle in Australia. Part parable and part romance, it reminds anyone who is fleeing, retiring or moving anywhere that they also bring cultural and experiential baggage with them.

Its author, Cher Chidzey, is a Singapore-born, Melbourne-based academic who’s had a lifelong affinity with migrants. The daughter of a wealthy refugee father from Shantou, in southern China, she emigrated in 1975 to Australia, where she earned a master’s degree; taught maths at secondary schools; and volunteered to help refugees and immigrants. In 2007, Chidzey self-published a well-received novel based on her upbringing, The House of 99 Closed Doors, which describes a large Chinese refugee family’s relocation in Singapore.

The author and calligrapher draws upon her own experiences again in Ken’s Quest, but also breaks new ground in refugee-lit by showing that migration is a two-way street. The book makes a timely plea for the acceptance of migrants, but it also reminds newcomers to work at being welcomed wherever they go. Rather than merely telling migrants to fit in, Chidzey spells out how refugees, migrants and people newly posted overseas can integrate better into their new surroundings.

Ken’s Quest begins as a cautionary tale. Shanghai businessman Wei Da arrives in Melbourne and becomes “Ken” in 1993, but his mind is still in Shanghai. Having lied and bribed his way to a holiday work visa, Ken realises his Australian dream has gone wrong. His big business ideas evaporate when he finds his Chinese professional qualifications aren’t recognised and he must take menial jobs, first in a Mildura winery and now fitting security doors in Toorak with an ocker Australian named Red.

Ken doesn’t help himself fit into Melbourne, however. He is blunt about Red’s laziness, racism and addiction to drugs. The widower also prepares stinky tofu in front of colleagues at tea breaks and reports Red’s poor timekeeping to their boss.

Chidzey mocks Ken’s sense of superiority: as he seethes about his reduced status, Aussie colleagues taunt him about his accented English. Ken, dressed in ’90s China style, also feels prejudice in Melbourne.

Readers might soon wish Chidzey sent Ken back to China, but instead the author examines why he and other migrants often appear so unlikeable. In brief asides and recollections, she describes how Ken was raised rich but his circumstances and morals were reduced by the fear, secrecy and lies of the Cultural Revolution. Chidzey also acknowledges Ken’s personal tragedies; his deep obligation to family; and how he gained a migrant’s determination and resilience to risk everything to create a better future somewhere else.

As a result, the ever tense Ken has no time for Aussie small talk, and his desperation increases when family letters ask him for money and remind him of his mission “to fall in love, marry and gain permanent residency” – all within the 180 days remaining on his visa. Such deadlines intensify old issues of “face”. If Ken succeeds, he will relieve the suffering of his aged mother and crippled daughter, and educate his son in Australia. If he fails, he returns in shame to Shanghai.

Chidzey’s chapter headings remind the reader that Ken’s visa is running out. He seems hopeless until Red’s dog gets hurt, and Ken and Red have an excuse to meet after work. The author reveals how communication erodes prejudice as Red introduces Ken to leisure and later explains why he hates immigrants, and Chinese in particular. Ken in return reveals some of his family obligations and learns some basic Aussie mateship.

Happier, Ken resumes his marriage mission, but Chidzey cruelly records his dating efforts and then pairs him with Julia, his Aussie teacher. She’s not Ken’s type, but she reveals an uncanny knowledge of Chinese culture that Chidzey explains in a subsequent twist to her racing plot. Julia loves Ken’s food, but as she peels off his arrogance, lies and clothes, Chidzey expertly revives the love-struck migrant’s tension with new revelations in Melbourne and more gut-churning letters from Shanghai.

Chidzey’s characters might seem stereotypical and her plot improbable, but she can tell an entertaining story with the clarity of a teacher. She conveys vivid, film-ready pictures of immigrant life in Victoria, from overstayers’ fear of officials in Mildura to stern voices at an asylum-seekers’ detention centre. Chidzey also snapshots Victoria, from Barwon Bluff to Footscray and Sandringham, and describes the shimmer of the River Yarra with poetic brevity.

A potential set book for school English courses, Ken’s Quest also reminds Hong Kong of its own relationship with migrants from China, the underemployment of its racial minorities, and rarely discussed issues of gender, “face” and parent-child relations. Chidzey writes about each from the perspectives of her old and new worlds, but leaves readers to reach their own judgments.

Ken’s Quest is a triumphant ode to the diversity of Australia, and a plea for tolerance in these turbulent times.

4.5 stars

April 9, 2017

— William Wadsworth, The South China Morning Post

 

We are readers of stories.  The stories about people who arrive here and struggle hard, have a special attraction. Ken’s Quest’ is just such a story and yet, it is not. For unlike stories that in their telling, provide us with a glow of empathy, Ken’s Quest creates opportunity.  This is an opportunity to go deeper into our own responses.  We observe and can take part as the dialogue unfolds.  We will have opinions and realisations.

For the author, Cher Chidzey, herself an immigrant, arriving from Singapore more than 40 years ago and who studied in Australia and qualified BSc and MSc; the ultimate goal is to reach an understanding that we can ‘live and let live’. She provides a path for us to follow.

So Ken is introduced.  An engineer with management experience and fiercely held ambitions to succeed, in Australia; he brings much baggage.  Here Cher Chidzey introduces us to ‘tribal voices’, the cultural imprinting that overlays our actions and reactions throughout life. Ken finds work using his temporary working visa.

What follows explores the layers of Australian society, circa 1990s.  We see clearly the inter-racial tensions in the work place and the abiding, unremitting sense of desperation that temporary visa migrants live with 24/7. Ken would not be able to gain the insights needed to feel comfortable if it were not for two disparate characters entering his life at this time.  The first of these, a young bloke named Red and his dog Manchu, both with attitude.  The other, Julia, his English tutor, a woman with genuine interest in Asian cultures.

While Ken struggles with his long-held traditional values, Red gives him new perspective.  They travel to the coast and into rural areas.  He surfs and goes fishing.  Ken revels in the feeling of freedom that he experiences.  Julia also works with Ken’s values while teaching more of the language.  She becomes the love of his life.  However, Ken’s desperation to gain residency remains intense. Wrongs have been done. Ken has felt shame for a long time.  Now, he understands there is acceptance and self-worth, enough for him to disclose these past wrongs. Ken knows he has friends for life, and he in turn, accepts his friends.  Red is family, Julia is the love of his life.  

So while there is still much work for Ken to do, it is as though he understands that there is a peace in knowing that you are accepted, that you can agree to disagree and still see value in each other.

This is a story of real achievement on a personal and human level.  The person who arrived here on a dodgy visa, with a past life he is ashamed of, has developed a totally new outlook.  Regardless of what happens next, he’s a changed human being. Ken’s Quest is a story that asks us the question, ‘Can you agree to disagree and still be friends?’ In this book Cher Chidzey has given us much to think about and in today’s world all of it is so important.

 

— Del Nightingale, vice-president, Society of Women Writers Vic.

 

The Ken of Ken's Quest is not an easy man to like. When we meet him, he has 180 days to go until his working holiday visa runs out and he must leave Australia to return to China. As he plots to win his sought-after permanent residency, Ken does little else but grumble.

His employer, Lucky Security Gates, harbours a number of racist employees, including the odious Red, who is Ken's partner as an installer. Ken shares his West Brunswick apartment with a couple who constantly, and noisily, copulate, and a lazy, drunken relative, Meng. Ken complains about his homosexual teenage son, Yong, and worries that he has exchanged a high-status job as a chief engineer in Shanghai to become a lowly labourer in Melbourne. 

But his biggest gripe, and his greatest fear, is that he will fail in his quest: to become wealthy, and to bring his two children to Australia and to bestow upon them the blessing of permanent residency. Viewed through Ken's eyes, Australia is an unfriendly, somewhat threatening place.

Our protagonist, though, is not entirely without redeeming features. He tall and is blessed, he believes, with the perfect leg-to-body ratio of 1 to 1.6; he can dance up a storm, and he cooks sublime Chinese cuisine, including Shanghai's famous soupy dumplings. He also possesses at least some powers of insight, without which he would be a very difficult narrator to bear.

Only as this novel, the first by Singapore-Australian author Cher Chidzey, progresses do we learn that Ken, whose Chinese name is Wei Da, has lied about his age to even qualify for the working holiday visa. His application is based on a fraud. It has virtually no chance of success. This count-down to deportation gives the novel its structure and its urgency. It's one story of latter-day immigration to Australia. As the days tick by, two key figures emerge in Ken's life. The first, Red, the racist co-worker, gradually becomes Ken's friend. Their ‘brotherhood’ is sealed when Ken rescues the young Aussie from violent drug dealers in a Footscray alley. 

The second figure is Julia, Ken's flame-haired English teacher at the Footscray Community Arts Centre. She makes of Ken her lover, despite his grumpy disposition and curt approach to sex. The pay-off, perhaps, is in the sublime array of food he provides her.

Between them, Red and Julia educate Ken in the ways of Australian life, and, more importantly, in humility, kindness and ultimately, love. For Australian readers, the most interesting part of Ken's Quest is hearing so clearly the protagonist's ‘tribal voice’ — a bullying, status-conscious, wealth-obsessed inner monologue that drives his every action. Ken's development as a character we could actually like is largely a result of his battle to turn down the volume on that voice.

— Michael Bachelard, investigations editor, The Age

 The earliest account we have by a Chinese man about his time in Australia is dated 1860. It was followed by many more, in fact and fiction, recording the gold-seekers’ hopes and disillusionments. With individual variations, the pattern is so consistent that it almost seems they wrote what was traditionally expected of Chinese far from home.

A boom-time for Chinese diaspora novels of a different kind came when the ‘Tiananmen students’, who stayed on in Australia, tried with varying success to make new lives here. Yet more than a century after the gold rushes, many still wrote as their predecessors had about their struggle to survive, make money, and bring honour to their families and to China. Several expressed distaste if not contempt for Australians, and resentment that their superiority as Chinese ‘intellectuals’ was not acknowledged.

Wei Da’s name means greatness, and that is what he seeks in Melbourne. He is ‘on a mission to fall in love, get married and obtain permanent residency.’ His wife has died, he has left his two children with his mother, and when Cher Chidzey’s story begins, he has 180 days of his Australian visa left to realise his dream. Now called Ken, his engineering qualifications from Shanghai are not recognised and he is reduced to driving around Melbourne’s suburbs fitting security doors with a cynical Australian called Red and his dog, Fu Manchu. Ken learns that Australians of several backgrounds don’t welcome his advice about improving their lifestyle, so most of the time he keeps it to himself, while his workmates keep their distance from what he brings for lunch. It’s as if he is shut out by the very security doors that pay his wages.

At weekends, Ken wanders around Melbourne and its scenic countryside, increasingly accompanied by big Julia, a TESOL teacher with a taste for exotic lovers. But she has sworn off marriage, so they have to explore other options to keep Ken living in the style to which he is increasingly becoming accustomed, even as pressure mounts for him to go back to take responsibility for his disabled daughter and gay son in Shanghai. The real action, though, takes place in Ken’s mind, as his conditioned traditionalism pits him against the laid-back tolerance of people he has surprisingly begun to love.

In this second book after her autobiographical The House With 99 Doors, Cher Chidzey flicks deftly back and forth between Chinese and Australian prejudice and never takes sides. Ken is a pain to begin with, but becomes less so; crude, argumentative Red eventually shows his vulnerable side; and tough, self-assured Julia turns out to have her own dilemmas. The result is funny as well as poignant — a polished satire on the clash of cultures.

Cher knows from experience how hard it is to break out of one culture and into another. She has lived in Australia for more than 40 years, has taught mathematics and has run workshops for TAFE teachers. A couple of decades ago, she decided to reinvent herself as a writer, and her efforts have at last been rewarded with the publication of this novel. She further develops her creativity with playwriting and painting, and even takes film roles as an extra. She volunteers for asylum seekers and homeless people. Anyone with doubts about multicultural Australia should look at Cher, and read her, too.

— Dr Alison Broinowski, the Australian National University