Author returns to Chinese roots in debut novel

March 1, 2020 — by Esther Luan

Lawyer Abigail Hing Wen draws inspiration from her own experiences in “Loveboat, Taipei,” telling an adventurous tale that dispels Asian American stereotypes.

Trapped between her parents’ wishes for her to attend medical school and her own burning passion for dance, graduating senior Everett “Ever” Wong (whose immigrant parents couldn’t tell the difference between girl and boy names) winds up in a cultural immersion program in Chientan, Taipei. 

To Ever’s surprise and her parents’ horror, the program, nicknamed “Loveboat” for the sheer number of young couples who had emerged from it throughout the years, hurls her into an crazy party of rebellion and ebullience that lasts all summer. 

She wins, loses, laughs, cries, breaks every rule in the Wong family book and finally understands who she is and wants to be.

Upon her return, Ever rejects the path that her environment and her obstinate parents had set for her, finally having the backbone to stand up for her dreams.

Just like the protagonist of her debut novel, “Loveboat, Taipei,” author Abigail Hing Wen grew up in Ohio with a passion for the arts, an ambition that contradicted with the career she planned to pursue. The book was released on Jan. 7 and captures the struggles of young Asian American adults grappling with their identities while maneuvering an environment without parent guidance or protection. Along the way, they learn to discern between cultural expectations and personal aspirations.

Wen’s inspiration for the book came from her own experiences, as she held the same interior conflict as her protagonist. 

"I loved to dance, and I also loved to write, but I never really thought that I could be a dancer or writer,” she told The Falcon in a video interview while on her book tour. 

Wen studied government at Harvard, then went on to law school — a normal corporate path. She was thinking about becoming a law professor when she decided to write “Loveboat, Taipei,” a crazy tale of self-discovery. Wen had always wanted to share the Loveboat tale but didn’t feel ready for it for many years, she said. 

Growing up, Wen had always been a storyteller. Narrating to her younger brother and sister was a long-held tradition in the family, she said.

“I always had this bug in me,” Wen said. “I loved to read, I loved books, and I just had these ideas for a fantasy novel in my head.”

It took Wen many years to put this dream into action. Ambitious and accomplished, she never stopped working along the way, earning an MFA in writing in addition to working in artificial intelligence and venture capital in Silicon Valley among several other paths.

The story of “Loveboat, Taipei” is inspired by Wen’s experience at the program, which has been around since the 1960s, she said. The program she wrote about is real and is well known in the community, Wen said. 

“I showed up prepared to learn about Taiwanese language and culture,” she said, chuckling. “Lo and behold, it’s just this crazy party all summer; sneaking out clubbing, doing glamour shots.”

Using this experience as the fulcrum of her novel turned out to be a good choice for Wen, who felt deeply immersed in the characters’ world throughout the process of writing. 

Wen’s parents are from the Philippines and Indonesia, her grandparents from Shandong and Fujian province in China, and her husband and college roommate’s families both have Taiwanese and Chinese heritage. 

“I feel like I’ve just had so many opportunities to meet with different types of Chinese Americans and Taiwanese Americans, and I wanted to capture that in this book,” Wen said.

The all-Asian American characters in “Loveboat, Taipei” showcases the uniqueness and diversity of the community, Wen said. She also mentioned that she tried to draw upon stories from different cultures to create unique characters that come to life. However, many of the experiences she wrote about were inspired by her own.  

Wen, who now has a writing career to juggle along with her work in law and artificial intelligence, identifies with Ever’s struggle between two cultures and two dreams. 

“It’s funny because I feel like Ever got to think about these questions a lot sooner than I did,” she said. “I’m still trying to figure it out, because I love both.”

One of the biggest challenges for Wen was deciding whose perspective the story would be told from. 

She started writing from four points of view, blowing through 120,000 words and 26 drafts before finally deciding on Ever. 

The original ending for the book was a big fight that ensues, followed by the characters being swept into the waters by a typhoon; they were then rescued by Xavier, the playboy with a heart of gold. 

The published book is draft 31.

“While I was in school, my law professor told me to give ourselves permission to write terrible drafts,” Wen recalls. “That’s how you find the one that’s good.”

Wen’s numerous revisions have paid off: “Loveboat, Taipei” hit the New York Times Young Adult Bestsellers’ List just weeks after its release, and on Feb. 25, ACE Entertainment, the company behind hit Netflix rom-com “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” announced its purchase of the rights to adapt Wen’s novel to film. Release dates are to be announced.

“These 30 Asian American characters, they can do anything they want — from politics to technology to dance,” Wen said. “I want to show that to the world.”