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The Admiral’s Wife

Author M.K. Tod's new novel shines a light on Hong Kong history

I’m happy to welcome author M.K. (Mary) Tod today in celebration of her fabulous new novel, The Admiral’s Wife, in which the lives of two women living in Hong Kong more than a century apart are unexpectedly linked by forbidden love and financial scandal.

I previously hosted Mary (see interview here) to discuss the history behind her excellent novel Paris in Ruins. Today, Mary returns to share the history behind a fearsome typhoon that swept through Hong Kong in 1906 and became a dramatic turning point in The Admiral’s Wife. Over to you, Mary!

 

Creating a Typhoon Experience

Many thanks, Amy, for inviting me onto your blog. It’s a real pleasure to share some of the background to writing The Admiral’s Wife.

The Admiral’s Wife is a dual timeline novel with this premise: The lives of two women living in Hong Kong more than a century apart are unexpectedly linked by forbidden love and financial scandal.

Who are these women? How did their lives connect? What do they do to cope with the challenges of their lives? How will they suffer? How will they change?

These are the kind of decisions we as authors make while writing a novel. Sometimes, the decisions are planned. Sometimes they come about through serendipity. In the case of the typhoon that occurs in the 1912 timeline of the novel, it was serendipity in action.

While researching early 20th century Hong Kong, I discovered reports of a devastating typhoon in 1906 with more than 100,000 lives lost. The paragraph below comes from A Diplomatist’s Wife In Many Lands by Mrs. Hugh Fraser.

“Once they had docked the passengers began to disembark, Fraser stepped gingerly from the gangway to the safety of dry land, only to glance down and realise her heeled foot was inches away from a bloated corpse. She screamed. ‘It was the worst typhoon of the past fifty years,’ she had been told on board, “swooping down into that deep tea-kettle of a harbour. It had taken just two hours to rake Hong Kong to its foundations. The harbour was filled with debris, hundreds of bodies lined the shore and battered homes and businesses formed a sorry backdrop to scenes of despair.”

As a Hong Kong expat, I’d learned about the threat of typhoons and the structural changes that had been made to the hills around the city. These structural changes involved concrete embankments and an elaborate system of pipes to carry water down the hills to avoid the devastation of landslides. I also learned of the system of flags that had been hoisted atop the Hong Kong Observatory (HKO) long ago to warn residents a typhoon was coming and the gun that was fired if the threat level increased.

What if a serious typhoon occurred in The Admiral’s Wife? How might that affect the story and illuminate my characters’ attributes? Could the typhoon be a turning point in the story? Here’s an excerpt from the early scenes of the typhoon. Isabel Taylor is the admiral’s wife, she has been buying fabric from Murphy’s Fine Silks & Linens, a store located on the Praya – the waterfront.

Outside the wind was stronger and the sky was thick and menacing. Waves churned the harbor. Sampans lining the shore pitched up and down. The air smelled of lightning. An explosion sounded, the blast echoing in her ears.

Suddenly, the mood of the Praya changed. Chinese workers hurried away; some abandoned the tools of their trade—rickshaws, brooms, wheelbarrows, long poles, rickety chairs and tables—while others pushed, pulled, or carried their belongings with them. Those who made their homes and living on the sampans swarmed the decks of their vessels grabbing this and that, hurrying nimbly along the gunnels, and scrambling up the ladders connecting them to long-fingered piers.

The wind grew stronger. Isabel’s hat blew off, rolling along the Praya like a runaway wheel. Without thinking, she chased after it. Hampered by the bulk of her purchases, she weaved this way and that. Every time she got close, the wind picked her hat up again. It’s gone, she finally admitted as the blue concoction sailed off over the water and rain pelted down—big, fat drops that smacked her skin. I should return to Murphy’s and wait out the storm.

She swiveled around. The Praya was deserted. Several sampans were precariously close to capsizing. The wind that had previously been at her back now buffeted her with such force, she could barely keep her balance. Isabel braced herself against the gale. Murphy’s seemed a long way away.

The wind howled like an animal in distress. The rain grew in intensity. “One step at a time,” she muttered aloud. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. She caught a glimpse of a man falling from a sampan into the water. Should she try to rescue him? Would her skirts weigh her down so that she would only drown trying? The sky closed in. Day felt like night.

Isabel continued to push forward. Without warning, someone grabbed her arm. She struggled to break free.

“I’m trying to help you, Mrs. Taylor,” Li Tao-Kai said, his voice gruff. “Don’t you realize this is a typhoon?”

A typhoon. She’d heard about typhoons—the Asian equivalent to hurricanes—and had even heard about the devastation caused by one that hit Hong Kong in 1906, but she had no idea what such an event would be like. “How was I supposed to know?” she said.

“The typhoon signal went off.”

“Was that the explosion I heard?”

He jerked his head in a quick nod and she thought he might be a little exasperated with her, although it was difficult to tell. They were both shouting to be heard. Li Tao-Kai held her arm firmly and a few minutes later, pulled her inside the shop.

“I saw a man fall into the water,” she said, as soon as she caught her breath. “He needs help.”

“We can’t go out again,” he said. “It’s dangerous. If you don’t believe me, look out the window to see for yourself.”

 With the sun totally obscured and only one narrow window in Murphy’s Fine Silks and Linens, the interior was dim. Isabel hadn’t noticed the men milling about the room when she and Mr. Li had entered, but now she saw that there were about fifteen of them, a mix of Chinese and European. Isabel nodded in their direction, then crossed over to look out the window. Debris skittered along the Praya: bits of wood, sheets of paper, a straw hat, a broom. A table had fallen over and now scraped along the asphalt. She looked for the place where she’d seen the man fall, but everything was so topsy-turvy she could find no trace of him. A crash sounded as something smashed against the building.

Did I experience a typhoon while living in Hong Kong? No. Although I have been in two hurricanes, one when I was four years old and another while on vacation in Cape Cod with my husband and children. I’ve seen the uprooted trees, damaged homes, and scattered debris, experienced winds capable of blowing me over, watched the skies darken and the storm pummel the windows so hard we thought they might shatter. Mother Nature can be fearsome indeed.

Learn more about this historic event:

South China Morning Post article: In the Eye of the Storm https://multimedia.scmp.com/typhoons/

Photos from the 1906 typhoon discovered on Gwulo.com: https://gwulo.com/node/38137/photos-of-event

Buy The Book:

Amazon U.S.: https://www.amazon.com/Admirals-Wife-M-K-Tod-ebook/dp/B09XRCKX7F/

Amazon Canada: https://www.amazon.ca/Admirals-Wife-M-K-Tod-ebook/dp/B09XRCKX7F/

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/ca/en/ebook/the-admiral-s-wife

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-admirals-wife-m-k-tod/1141372217?ean=2940160976242

About M.K. Tod:

M.K. (Mary) Tod has been writing historical fiction since 2009. The Admiral’s Wife is her fifth novel. She is also the author behind the award-winning blog, www.awriterofhistory.com, where Mary and guest writers explore the reading and writing of historical fiction. Mary can be reached on her author website www.mktod.com, or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at MKTodAuthor.

2 Comments

  1. Mary Tod says:

    Many thanks for having me on your blog, Amy! The Admiral’s Wife has special resonance for me because of the years I spent living in Hong Kong. Never did experience a typhoon, though!! Warm wishes, Mary (M.K.) Tod

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      My pleasure, Mary. Glad you didn’t get caught in a typhoon during your time there!

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