Cecily Wong might not know her way around Oahu all that well, but she does know from local food. When she was 7 years old, her family moved from Honolulu to Eugene, Ore., where her parents, Kono and Susan Wong, opened a Hawaii-style plate-lunch restaurant called the HodgePodge. "It was a little adjusted for mainland tastes," Wong said, noting that the most popular order remains teriyaki chicken, mac salad and banana bread.
In April, HarperCollins published Wong’s first novel, "Diamond Head," which the author hopes will appeal to Hawaii tastes. The 27-year-old author admitted to being nervous about her upcoming reading in Honolulu on Saturday. "It’s scary to write about a place that’s not your own," she said in a phone interview from her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
"My brother Kasey was also born in Hawaii, and we say locals know we’re not really from here as soon as we open our mouths," said the Barnard graduate, who speaks with a brisk, slightly brash New York accent. (A sister, Lindsey, was born in Eugene.)
While her pidgin may be lacking, Wong has a local’s love of place. She goes to see her former home in Pauoa Valley whenever she visits Honolulu. "It’s a tiny little house, but with a terraced backyard, three levels up a hill, with a lemon tree."
In Honolulu, she said, she wants to present her novel with respect for people who grew up here, such as her parents and grandparents, out of whose reminiscences "Diamond Head" grew.
Not that the novel is about her family, Wong is quick to add, although it started out that way. When she enrolled in a fiction workshop as an undergraduate student, her goal was to write about her mother’s life.
After 60 pages the novel didn’t feel right to Wong or her mother, with whom she shared the draft, and Wong put it aside, deciding not to use her mother’s story at all. Instead, to find new material for the tale of family legacies and star-crossed loves she wanted to write, she returned to Hawaii for extended visits, sitting and talking story at the table with her grandparents, Raymond and Helen Wong of Pearl City and Jack and Wanda Hee of Hawaii Kai, who used to own a small restaurant, Jack’s, in the Aina Haina Shopping Center.
A fictional story line began to grow out of real-life characters who captured her imagination: a great-grandfather who was a photographer in Chinatown during World War II; a great-great-grandfather who was a wealthy shipping magnate from China.
Wong named this rich patriarch Frank Leong and gave him an estate at Diamond Head, a neighborhood where her grandparents remembered attending parties at the homes of wealthy school friends. Like so many great homes in fiction, Leong’s three-story oceanfront Chinese mansion, with its terraced gardens, koi ponds and massive gate, has a personality reflecting its owner’s.
A rags-to-riches romance with a murder mystery at its core, "Diamond Head" covers three generations and ends in the mid-1960s.
Wong’s family served as fact-checkers for the physical details of the island. "When my family was reading ‘Diamond Head’ in galleys, I would get a phone call every single day with stuff like, ‘On Page 70, when you’re in the car going south? The water should be on the left, not the right!’"
The Honolulu book signing is bringing the family together for a reunion; Wong’s parents are coming from Oregon, and "my popo’s so excited. I know I’m going to meet a lot of cousins, some not actually related to me," Wong said.
Although Wong insists that Hawaii "isn’t mine, it’s theirs," she did spend her formative years here, and moving to Eugene, with its homogenous population, was a shock. "It was the first time I realized I was Asian; everyone was Asian in Hawaii, it seemed."
At her parents’ restaurant, they played Hawaiian music taped by relatives back home. "I would listen while working in a Hawaiian restaurant in Oregon and feeling very culturally confused," she said.
When she was 15, Wong’s family visited New York, where "I saw so many different cultures and was blown away. I became obsessed with New York, and when I finally got here for college, I wanted to rekindle my relationship with Hawaii and being Chinese," she said, explaining that the city made her want to explore her own heritage.
Back in Eugene, HodgePodge is still going strong, and there are now at least seven other Hawaii restaurants, Wong said, lamenting that she hasn’t found a single local-style plate lunch in New York. But in both cities, she added, "Hawaii is very misunderstood. It has its own culture, but they just think of it as an American place with a beach."
Local or not, readers of "Diamond Head" will be guided beyond stereotypes to uncover one fictional family’s emotional truth.
Cecily Wong will read from her novel "Diamond Head" at a book signing at 1 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble at Ala Moana Center; call 949-7307.