The Pirate Queen

With his new book, Hong Kong author Larry Feign reveals the 'true' story of legendary South China pirate Shek Yang, the flower boat girl who became a feared leader of men

With new biographical novel The Flower Boat Girl, well known Hong Kong author and former political cartoonist Larry Feign (I grew up with his daily comic strip The World of Lily Wong) has not only told a ripping yarn of South China Sea pirates, but – through much painstaking diligence and a decade's worth of research – told the story of the life of female pirate chief Shek Yang, better known as Cheng Yat Sou (aka Cheng I Sao). Living on a rural island in Hong Kong once troubled by pirate attacks, Feign became fascinated by the story of how this brilliant early 19th century lady came to lead a fleet of more than 1,500 ships crewed by up to 80,000 sailors - but he struggled to discern what was true and what was fabrication and embellishment. The only solution was to write the book himself, delving deep into the past to give us a fascinating modern tale.

What's the first pirate story you remember reading?

Appropriately for me, it was a daily adventure comic strip, Terry and the Pirates by artist Milton Caniff, which ran in American newspapers when I was growing up. One recurring character was the fearsome but beautiful Dragon Lady, inspired by Lai Choi San, a Chinese woman pirate who operated in the Pearl River Delta in the 1920s.

When did you discover the world of Chinese pirates?

I first read Treasure Island as a teenager, but I was then more interested in World War I aviators. I later learned about the early 19th century Chinese pirates from an old Chinese sailor on Lantau Island, whom I’ve known for years. He recalled hearing his grandmother singing a folk ballad about a lady pirate based right on this island who stood up to the imperial government and won. Something clicked in me. I had to know more. I never actually found the song lyrics, but as I looked into the story, I became fascinated by it: a young woman kidnapped by pirates, forced into marriage with their leader, faced with a choice between certain death if she escaped or educating herself in the business of piracy, and eventually becoming the brains behind uniting the pirates of the South China Coast into the largest pirate fleet the world has ever seen. What kind of person must she have been? What motivated her? She must have been both brilliant and charismatic to achieve such a status in a male-dominated society.

How difficult was it to find reliable sources on Shek Yang’s background, and how were you able to verify them?

Therein lies the rub: the colorful information about Cheng Yat Sou (aka Cheng I Sao) ones finds online (such as on her Wikipedia page) is seductively sensational: a fierce woman who stood up to a dangerous pirate and demanded (and got) a partnership within moments after her capture. And so on. I studied history at university and developed a researcher’s bullshit sensor. The historian in me smelled a rat.

However, when you delver deeper, the real story of Cheng turns out to be far more exciting, including a love triangle with a pirate poet, meeting the boy Emperor of the Annamese Empire (that’s present-day Vietnam) and being a key player in a civil war alongside a powerful woman general who commanded an elephant-back cavalry. And of course her love affair with her husband's bisexual male concubine. Some of this I found in obscure records, others I pieced together by "triangulating" various sources.

The first narrative history of the early 19th century Pearl River pirates was written by a Chinese amateur historian more than thirty years later. He states his agenda clearly: he wants to defend the honour of the Chinese navy, which was given short shrift in the foreign accounts. In fact, it’s amusing to compare the three. The British obviously portrayed themselves as heroes battling pirates, undermined by the perfidious Portuguese and Chinese navies, while the Portuguese countered with reports which showed them as the courageous defenders of law and order if it weren’t for those back-stabbing English and Chinese. You can guess what the Chinese version was about.

To give him his due, at least the Chinese author attempted to tell the full story from around 1801 to 1810. However, not only did he wear his nationalist agenda on his sleeve, but he engaged in flights of fancy, inventing meetings and conversations that no-one could possibly have been privy to. The book was later translated into colourful English by a German missionary. This semi-fictional book History of the Pirates Who Infested the China Sea remains the ur-document for learning about the Chinese pirates.

Everything that came later was based on this source with one embellishment after another added along the way. In the 1930s, an American amateur historian named Joseph Gollomb, wrote a chapter called “Mrs Ching Goes A-Pirating” in a popular history book. Citing as his source his “local Chinese laundryman” (he really wrote that!), he penned a sensational chapter loosely based on the History of the Pirates, while stuffing it with imaginative but entirely made up scenes and plenty of racist tropes. This story was hugely popular and became the basis of the legend of “Mrs Cheng”.

Finally, in the 1980s an American scholar, Professor Dian Murray, conducted ground-breaking research into these particular pirates. But she was focused more on broader topics of sociology, ships and weaponry, and so on, rather than on personalities. In my own research I found a few minor inconsistencies in her book. When I wrote to her for help in clarifying which ones were true about this or that person, she replied she didn’t know, confirming that this is the problem with historical research; sometimes you just don’t know which sources to believe. I was determined to get to the bottom of things.

How were you able to create such a marvelously vivid depiction of 19th century Pearl River Delta life? And did it make you see the region in a different light at all?

I’ve lived for thirty years on the same island where the pirates eventually set up their base. My house is at the end of a centuries old footpath, overlooked by a stone watchtower built to protect against pirates. I read every 18th and 19th century memoir I could get my hands on. I spoke at length with local boat people whose families have been here for generations. I crawled into cramped holds in traditional Chinese junks, hiked old trails, and came across old temples on uninhabited islands. A number of books about daily life in the 1930s contained a wealth of information about religion, rituals, and living conditions on the south China coast. Such places were extremely remote at the time, and life must have been not too different than a hundred years before. All of this background study made me deeply appreciate the hardships and poverty people endured, but also the depth of traditions in every aspect of their lives.

Why did you use Cantonese instead of Mandarin phonetics?

The people I wrote about didn’t speak Mandarin. Cantonese was, and still is, the dominant language of southern China. So nobody would never have called her Cheng I Sao or Zheng Yi Sao. Since my novel tries to bring these characters to life, it’s bad enough that I make them speak English. But when a Chinese name or word leaves their mouths on the page, it should at least sound like they would have spoken it.

Is there any historical connection of the South China pirates to the group of islands we now know as Hong Kong? 

In the mid-18th century, two brothers from a Fukienese pirate clan moved south to what is now Hong Kong. Cheng Yat (the pirate who abducted and then married my protagonist Shek Yang) was born and raised in Lei Yue Moon, a village that sits next to the eastern entrance to what we now call Victoria Harbour (remember, this was long before the British annexed the territory in the 1840s). A prominent temple built by his father both for worship and to stash stolen goods still stands there. His cousin Cheng Yat grew up around Tung Chung on Lantau Island, where his father set up a base. Of course, many other small-time pirate gangs operated in and around these islands for centuries. No wonder the whole archipelago at the mouth of the Pearl River was known for centuries by foreign sailors as the ladrones (Spanish word for “thieves”).

Do you feel that your book will help Shek Yang come out of the shadow of her famous stepson and later husband Cheung Po Tsai? Who do you think was the greater pirate?

I hope so. She was definitely the brains of the pirate confederation, operating from her command ship like a CEO, while Cheung Po in his brilliant purple robes was its charismatic, flamboyant public face. They were indispensable to each other.

Did your research and writing change your view of pirates?

I tried writing this book from the point of view of pirates without either glamorizing or condemning them. But through the process I came to a deeper understanding of the forces which help to create and motivate piracy. When I read news about modern-day Somali pirates, of course I see them as hardened criminals and murderers, but I can also see similarities between the conditions of poverty on the Somali coast and on the south China coast 200 years ago, with which these criminals rationalize their actions.

How do you feel now that you've finished the book?

Nervous as hell. This is my 22nd book, but the first that doesn’t involve humour or satire. I’m anxious about how my writing will be received. I’ve already started planning for the follow-up book, of course. This novel is about Shek Yang’s rise to power. The second book will tell the story of her rocky start to leadership, her escalating war of wits with a brilliant Chinese imperial official, betrayal by one of her closest colleagues, and her coming to terms with the major differences between wealth, power, and love.

I promised no Lily Wong questions, but I have to ask – are there any comparisons between Shek Yang and Lily?

There’s no real direct connection, other than that I’ve almost always written about female protagonists. I guess you can say they’re my female alter-ego coming out. Anyway, women are much more interesting and complex characters than men.