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From Ipoh to Hong Kong: Maureen Tai Tells Lyrical Stories with Words and Photographs

Residing in Hong Kong, Ipoh-born Maureen Tai Suet Yee is a writer cum visual storyteller who tells lyrical, heart-warming and character-driven stories about people and places.

Ipoh Echo caught up with Maureen to learn more about her inspirational journey of creating work which chimes with younger readers among others.

To begin with, her interest in storytelling was sparked off by two pivotal individuals in her life: her mother, Ng Chow Thai and her former English teacher at Main Convent Ipoh, Miss Nair.

“At home, mum often entertained us with animated accounts of her exciting life as a nurse and midwife in 1960’s England. At school, Miss Nair encouraged and supported my passion for writing stories, elocution and debating,” she recalled, adding that she has always kept a diary as well.

She left Ipoh in 1988 after completing Form Five to spend a year in Japan as an exchange student then to Canada for university: “Afterwards, my work took me on a bit of a world tour, but for the last 15 years, I’ve settled in Hong Kong primarily due to my husband’s job and my children’s education.”

“For better or for worse however, my old-fashioned Asian sensibilities led me to a over 20-year stint in law, corporate finance and NGO administration. It’s only been in the last three years that I’ve seriously pursued publication of my creative work. In 2019, my prose poem for teens was published by Cha, an online literary journal based in Hong Kong. Since then, I’ve written and published a range of poems, short stories and articles for both children and adults,” the amiable Maureen expressed.

Recently, her unpublished manuscript, The Magic in Ming’s Hands, seized the 2022 WriteMentor Picture Book Award complete with an honorable mention from the American doyenne of picture books, Ann Whitford Paul, in the annual Most Promising Picture Book Award.

Equally memorable to her was when her work was shortlisted/longlisted for other competitions such as the Bridport Prize for flash fiction and the Guppy Books open call for unpublished middle-grade manuscripts.

“Best of all, my mum, my kids and their friends really like my stories,” she enthused.

Audience will quickly note that all her published work is inspired by and set in Asia, featuring childhood, family and friends as major themes: “For example, Itterasshai (2021) chronicles my year in Japan whereas Life We Can No Longer See (2019) explores the relationship between a teen and his dying grandfather. Unseen (2019) is a photo collage of foot selfies from 100 domestic helpers in Hong Kong and Kennedy Town, 5:30 am (2020) is a non-fictional account of a pre-dawn saunter in my local neighbourhood.”

As she keeps moving forward, one cannot but wonder, how does she juggle it all?

“Finding time and the headspace to write while juggling family responsibilities (in particular caring for my aging parents and growing children), personal commitments to friends and colleagues and self-care, is a daily challenge. I wouldn’t be able to pursue my passion for writing without my understanding, supportive family and friends and my engaging, inspiring writerly community,” she pointed out.

“When rejections come thick and fast (and they do on a regular basis!), the main thought that keeps me going is that one young person out there is waiting for my words and my stories, fulfilling a need that neither she/he nor I are even aware of, and so I have a responsibility to that one person to keep moving forward, one word at a time,” she continued.

Maureen cited US-based Malaysian poet and educator, Shirley Lim Geok-Lin as one of the many writers who have inspired her: “My virtual interactions with her have reignited my love for poetry: conveying beauty of thought and depth of emotion with a few well-chosen words.”

Here is her advice for budding writers who are just starting out:  “Seek out good books to learn from and read, read, read, as many books as possible of the genre that you’re writing. There are so many great resources online these days as well as thoughtful, dedicated book reviewers who can help you keep your reading list manageable. Don’t forget to play with your writing as well. Have fun and try experimenting with different forms to keep things fresh and interesting.”

“Finally, be willing to share your work – with trusted writing buddies or critique groups, for example – and be open to feedback and constructive criticism. Seek out writing contests or submission opportunities – most are free to enter or have nominal submission fees – and submit your best work. The sense of validation when you see your work in print or acknowledged in a shortlist is priceless!” she highlighted.

All of Maureen’s published work is listed in her author website. Do check out her book review blog where she and her kids regularly review children’s books that they have read and loved over the years. She also makes short video recommendations on her YouTube channel, A Bookish Minute and shares her writerly thoughts and news on Twitter and Instagram.

At the end of the interview, the Ipoh girl shared on what she misses most about her beloved hometown: “I miss the calm, effortless and meandering way in which days in Ipoh unfold, and how most Ipohites still find time to smile, wave and talk to one another. On the food front, I most often crave the delectable, savoury and crunchy kacang putih from the legendary Wong Fei Hung in Ipoh Garden.”

By Mei Kuan

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