Interview with “My Day with Gong Gong” Creators

Publishing on September 8, My Day with Gong Gong explores the relationship between a grandfather and a granddaughter on their trip to Chinatown. Take a closer at this illustrated story with APA in our review. Also, APA had the opportunity to exchange e-mails with author Sennah Yee and illustrator Elaine Chen to learn more about how they created My Day with Gong Gong.

APA: First of all, I just wanted to say that I loved your book! What motivated you to tell this story of a young girl’s trip to Chinatown with her grandfather? What significance — personal or otherwise — does this narrative have to you?

Sennah: Ah so glad to hear you loved it; thank you so much! My little sister first gave me the idea for this story — as I wrote it, it slowly grew into a love letter to our gong gong, and to Chinatown. My family is everything to me. (Side note, the main character, May, is named after one of my aunts, who’s also a writer)! 

I wanted to write a story that could feel both personal and universal. It was important for me to create a space where some of the intricacies of multi-generational differences could be examined and, ultimately, appreciated or celebrated. I wish with all my heart that my gong gong could still be around today to see this book, but it means so much to have our love for him live on in its pages. 

Elaine: The first question is more directed towards Sennah. However, when the art director first reached out to me about My Day with Gong Gong, I was immediately drawn towards the story. Even though I am fluent in Mandarin, my grandfather speaks with a native accent that is sometimes difficult for me to understand. In his old age and the recent years, we spoke less and less due to his hearing loss. So much of our interactions with our grandparents had been with gestures and acts of service. I think that is something you only learn to appreciate over time. I felt like this story shows us that love that is behind the universal language of simple gestures.

APA: Chinatown plays a significant role as both a physical setting and a space of cultural heritage across generations. What did the process of constructing Chinatown (in both writing and art) look like? 

Sennah: I wanted to portray Chinatown through the eyes of a child: its bustling energy with all kinds of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes! I always loved how each restaurant and shop felt like its own little world. 

Chinatown through the eyes of a Chinese-Canadian who doesn’t know much Chinese was also a perspective I wanted to explore. Sometimes when I visit Chinatown, I feel simultaneous closeness and distance — closeness in the way that simply being around others who look like me naturally brings that feeling of belonging (especially after growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood), and distance in the way that while I am Chinese, I do not understand the language.

Elaine: Even though I never grew up around Chinatown, visiting them had always brought a sense of familiarity to me. Both the Chinatown in Toronto, where I had my formative years and Vancouver, where I live now, were big inspirations for the art of the book. The amount of history that is in these parts of the town brings so much story and intrigue just in themselves, and I tried to capture that in the art. I had taken several research trips to local Chinatowns and even the one in San Francisco, where I happened to visit during the production of this book. I mixed and matched details of all these different locations, which is kind of the way Chinatowns are in general — a huge melting pot of cultures. 

Therefore the book’s version of Chinatown may not exist somewhere specifically in reality, but hopefully readers can pick up details that look just as familiar to the ones they know in their hearts.

APA: The story is told from the perspective of a child, which is incredibly impactful in terms of illustrating the communication between generations. Sennah, how did you get into the mind of a child while writing, and to what extent is May’s response(s) to Gong Gong interpreted through your own experiences?

Sennah: I always love writing in first-person; it’s a great way to quickly transport your readers into the mind and shoes of your character. I wanted to convey the wide range of emotions that a child could experience in this situation, and wanted May’s emotions to be the driving force behind all of her thoughts and actions. To me, this is a huge part of being a child: thinking and acting based on how you’re feeling, mostly right away and without saying why. Another way I tried to better understand how a child may react to the events of this story was running some earlier drafts by my little sister, who’s an early childhood educator, and one of my best friends, who used to dress up as a superhero for kid’s birthday parties — they were a great help!

While I share May’s confusion and initial shyness in not understanding much Chinese, May’s responses to Gong Gong are a little different from my own experiences – to create more conflict in the story, my editor and I decided to have May’s confused emotions mostly manifest as impatient and frustrated thoughts and actions. As a kid, I mostly felt sadness and grief that I wasn’t able to understand Chinese and connect with my grandparents in that way.

APA: Elaine, you depict the evolving nature of the relationship between May and Gong Gong throughout the trip within their interactions. While illustrating the story, what are some visual considerations you had in expressing it as art?

Elaine: There were many steps in the illustrating process where we had to pause and make sure we are depicting the relationship accurately and truthfully. For example, earlier on in the process, design of Gong-Gong was very crucial. We had gone through many iterations, before landing on the design that showed his friendly personality right off the bat. Of course I also had tried to bring out characteristics of the grandpas I know in my life while designing. What you may not know is that I had even gone as far as asking my friends for pictures of their grandpas as references. 

There were other small but important decisions such as making sure May is at a height that is reasonable for their eventual hug, tall enough for them to hold hands comfortably, but still short enough to fit her age.  

Some of the decisions were very also unconscious and just part of my art process. The way Gong-Gong interacts with the waitress at the dim sum restaurant resembles the way I have seen adults interact with waitresses as a child, while promptly feeling like I was being ignored. Doing the chore of carrying the groceries and waiting around while the adults chat, all draw on real memories. I feel like that is how you make something really relatable to others, is when you put your own truth and genuineness into them.

APA: “My Day with Gong Gong” incorporates a lot of Cantonese words within the dialogue. In your opinion, Sennah, why is language so important in the story you’re telling? 

Sennah: The power that language has both as a barrier and a bridge was especially important to me in this story. Not understanding someone because of a language barrier can bring all sorts of emotions: confusion, frustration, shame, anxiety, amusement … then with the added layer of that barrier being with someone in your family, and someone you love? That can be a lot to process, especially as a kid! I remember growing up and feeling a little envious of my friends who were able to have full conversations with their grandparents. But now I know that we just simply connected in different ways, and those ways were still just as special.

I know only a handful of words in Cantonese: how to say thank you, the names of my favourite dim sum dishes, etc. I had to refer to friends, family, and the internet for help with the translations for this story! I feel a little embarrassed at times – like an imposter of my own culture. But I try to remember that this experience is quite common, and that talking about it really helps. It’s been really special connecting with people who also grew up similarly, not knowing how to speak the first language of their parents/grandparents — but who still loved them and felt love from them all the same. 

I wanted this story to be about why language is important, but also in a way, why it isn’t! Sometimes actions and gestures can transcend what is spoken, and be just as, if not more, meaningful.

APA: Given the language divide portrayed, the story also focuses on the way small gestures are a form of connection. Elaine, in what ways do you think your art reflects these more tangible reminders of communication between generations?

Elaine: Small gestures are like details in a setting; they are subtle but they are also crucial to the whole setting and are the building blocks that make the environment what they are. Like the ruffle of the hair elders do to the young, is something I know I do too when I see something adorable. Making sure your jacket is zipped up and sleeves pulled down, are the small gestures as a child you may have found annoying, but appreciate so much now. As you know now that is one way that one conveys love outside of words. I think my art simply brings those memories that we all have, to the audience hopefully in a way that can trigger their own memory and emotions.

APA: As someone who’s grown up not really seeing my culture/identity reflected in books, “My Day with Gong Gong” is the book I needed when I was younger; I think it engages with so many different themes (multi-generational differences, language divides, cultural reconciliations) that really resonate with a hyphenated identity. Why do you think representation matters, and what do you hope readers will take away after reading “My Day with Gong Gong”?

Sennah: I’m so glad to hear that it resonated with you! And that you mentioned a hyphenated identity — I used to find living in the hyphen of “Chinese-Canadian” to be a somewhat confusing, alienating place. Similarly to what I said about language, I used to see the hyphen almost as a barrier, rather than a bridge. But slowly but surely, I’ve grown to embrace it as a bridge, and all its complexities and possibilities. To me, a hyphenated identity is a reminder that there is no one or correct “way” of being Chinese, Canadian, and/or Chinese-Canadian. Everyone has a different relationship to their roots, and expresses this relationship in different ways.

To me, representation matters because it is an opportunity to see and be seen. That’s how I approach storytelling: a way of looking. As a kid especially, representation can shape your ideas about yourself and others in the world – for better, or for worse. For better, representation can be an invitation to another facet of life, a call to open up to another way of being and understanding. While this story represents only one kind of experience, I hope it can still speak to many, and that readers will feel a simultaneous strength and tenderness in our differences after reading it!

Elaine: We often don’t realize what effect certain books or events in your childhood have on you until way later. Since immigrating to Canada, I probably didn’t even realize the books I was reading had no protagonist that I can resonate with. Results of that might have been part of the reasons why I felt left out, or didn’t have the right to speak up, or even as long-lasting as confidence in this new culture. Representation matters because it allows every child of various backgrounds to feel like they can be part of a story, that they are allowed to tell theirs. 

I hope the readers can resonate with our story and simply feel like they got a hug from their own grandparent in the end. I hope it can bring up fond memories that they themselves had in similar backgrounds, or small gestures of love that remind them of their elders’ love for them. 

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