Finding themselves

Third Culture Chinese

Children’s book reviewer Kate Shepherd looks at three very different stories about the experience of Chinese children. Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim is a dramatic story for young adults, based on true events at the end of the Cultural Revolution, while two thought-provoking and beautifully illustrated picture books for younger children by Sally Rippin examine the issue of cultural identity of Chinese children living in Australia.


Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim pb 9781760113414  $17.00

The characters of Ming and Li and Fei are so vividly and realistically drawn that their stories stayed with me for days after finishing this very well written book.  Set mainly in the sixties in Mao’s China in Guandong Province, just opposite the island of Hong Kong, it describes the impact of the Great Famine on the small village in which Ming lives.  Ming and Fei, a young girl from a neighbouring village, are orphaned as a result of this terrible famine.  After the Famine, the Cultural Revolution caused huge upheavals in society.  Young Red Guards were sent all over the country to teach the peasants about Mao’s teachings and to throw off any bourgeois background and to learn the work of the farm worker.  Li is one of a group of Red Guards sent to Ming’s village.  He is from an educated city family and suffers terribly while adapting to the extremely long hours of toiling in the fields and very poor food, but he becomes a firm friend of Ming’s.

Ming teaches him to swim in the ocean and it is one of the pleasures they share.  The description of how these two very different groups are forced to live and work together in the one village is fascinating.  It portrays so well the brutality and intense harshness of those times, when there were always some who watched for any chance to report a fault to their superiors.  Life becomes more and more unbearable for Ming and Li and they decide to risk their lives by swimming across the sea to Hong Kong.  Apparently thousands did this during the sixties. Many died in the attempt and many were captured but thousands made it to Hong Kong.  I find it amazing that I have never heard of these “freedom swimmers”.  The book is based on the true story of Wai Chim’s father who fled and swam across to Hong Kong.  Excellent.  (11 – 17 years) 

Picture Books

How marvellous that these two delightful picture books are back in print.   Speak Chinese, Fang Fang! was Sally Rippin’s first picture book.  She wrote it for a student called Fang Fang who she was tutoring in Chinese and who was complaining that her parents wanted her to speak Chinese at home all the time but she spoke English with her friends and at school and didn’t see why she should bother with Chinese.

This was Sally’s way of showing her why speaking Chinese was a good idea.  This was in 1996 and Sally had no thought at the time of having it published until a friend suggested it.  It is beautifully illustrated in a style reminiscent of traditional Chinese brush paintings but with a vibrancy which is very much her own.


Speak Chinese Fang Fang!  by Sally Rippin pb 9781862912908  $15.99  Big Book  9781742991818  $39.99
Fang Fang would much prefer just to speak English. At school her friends come from many different countries and they all speak English but her parents are forever wanting her to speak Chinese.  However when her young cousin from China comes to stay, she learns that there are advantages in being able to speak Chinese and English.  Beautifully illustrated. (5 – 8 years)   KS


Fang Fang’s Chinese New Year  by Sally Rippin pb 9781862912915  $15.99
Fang Fang was born in China but considers herself very Australian and prefers everything Australian. When her friend Lisa is invited to the Chinese New Year celebrations, Fang Fang thinks that the celebrations are all boring and is most surprised at Lisa’s enthusiasm. However as Fang Fang catches her friend’s enthusiasm for all the celebrations as well as the Lion dance and drumming and the food, they both have a wonderful time.  Lively illustrations using the black outlines of traditional Chinese brush paintings bring the celebrations to life.    (5 – 8 years)  KS


Kate Shepherd
Kate has been reviewing books and making lists of recommended books for International Schools since she first set up Austral Ed in 1993.  Now Austral Ed is part of Gleebooks Education which is the Educational division of gleebooks, one of the oldest independent bookstores in Sydney.
Click on the bookshop to follow the link to the Gleebooks Education International Service and further information about their services for international schools.




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