If Agnes Chan were a book, you couldn’t really judge her by the cover. Petite and adorable with a huge heart and the voice of an angel, the 62-year-old Hong Kong native is not just a pop star with a PhD but is a passionate educator, motivational speaker, avid advocate, UNICEF goodwill ambassador and dedicated mother of three.
Despite a busy schedule with the many hats that she wears, Dr Chan found time to produce 91 books in Japanese and Chinese, with many titles translated into English, Korean, Vietnamese and soon in Thai. Her 50 Education Methods from a Mother Who Put 3 Sons into Stanford has remained in the top slot in the Japan bestseller lists for more than two years. Her 35 Things that Parents Shouldn’t Do has been a bible for young parents in Hong Kong and Japan to raise their children to be happy and successful.
Agnes believes people can choose their own journey and that all paths can lead to the same destination. Considered one of the most engaged and philanthropic celebrities in Asia, who recently received a medal – the Order of the Rising Sun – from the emperor of Japan, she chooses to promote peace, understanding and happiness.
Elite+ sat down with the bestselling author in her of ce in Shibuya, Japan, to talk about her passion for writing and how she uses her experiences and innate talents to give people courage to nd joy and peace in their lives.
Tell us about your journey as bestselling author.
My rst book was actually an illustration-poetry book. I wrote poems and illustrated them myself. I was 18 years old so it was basically sold to my fans in Tokyo. It was received very well so I wrote three books of poems. But after that I was busy singing and studying so I didn’t have time to write. I came back from Canada and came to Japan to continue singing as my career.
Because people here were talking about internationalization, globalization and because I am a foreigner, they asked for my advice and opinions. So I became interested in social conditions in Japan and how they could learn more about what was happening around the world instead of just in Japan.
While I became a little bit like an opinion leader, they asked me to write a book and I wrote my rst called Hinageshi Goroku (Words of the Poppy Flower). Goroku means “a word I say” and hinageshi is “poppy ower”. And it was also the rst song I sang in Japan, a big hit back then. So we used hinageshi and goroku to be the title of the book. And surprisingly, although it was my debut, it became a bestseller and people liked what I said. They thought that we had to know what was happening in the world and Japan couldn’t just be an island country, but we had to be internationalized. Because of that wave, I started to write books. Sometimes about society, sometimes about cooking because I do a lot of cooking. And sometimes it’s about my feelings.
And then I got married and started to have children and I brought my rst son to work and it created the “Agnes controversy”, which was about whether a mother should continue to work after having a child, and if you want to work, you shouldn’t have a child – something like that. So it became a big feminist controversy in Japan and then I became another person for women's liberalization although I didn’t mean to be a feminist. So they started to ask me to write my views to help children and mothers have a place in society. More and more, I became an opinion leader and I continued to write those books. And I started to write childbearing books and education books. After I got my PhD from Stanford, I started to write cross-communication books and all kinds of books. I even have two short story books. Most of the books sell very well. Some of them become bestsellers, some of them don’t, but usually they make ends meet for the publishers so I continued. I have 91 books sold in Hong Kong, Japan and America. It’s a long journey, but when I look back, it seems like it was just yesterday.
What inspired you to write in the rst place?
When you were 18, you had romantic thoughts, you wanted to have a boyfriend, you were away from home and you were lonely. That’s why I wrote poems. I didn’t even write very good Japanese back then but I wrote poems. When I was lonely, I also drew. Then my manager and some of my staff saw my drawings and poems and said, “Why don’t you put it in a book?” It was a very small book and there were three of them.
What are some of your bestselling books and what are they about?
Besides the book of essays Words of the Poppy Flower, my signature series in Japanese called We All Live in this World became a bestseller as well. There are four books in the series now and I wrote one every 10 years. They are about my visits to children around the world. So inside them are stories of children in Ethiopia, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Iraq, Nepal, Bhutan, Somalia – mostly in Asia and Africa. These stories are heartbreaking and moving. Every time I go on a mission for UNICEF, I come back with these stories about children, so I put them into words and put them down in a book. The book is basically for junior high and high school students, and a lot of adults read them too.
I have a book that’s successful recently called 50 Education Methods from a Mother Who Put 3 Sons into Stanford. This book was written in Japan when my younger son got accepted to Stanford and people around me asked, “How did you do that? Tell me!” So I told them and they found it very interesting and asked, “Why don’t you put it in a book?” I thought it was impossible to do that but my publisher was convincing so I decided to write a book. It took me quite some time and it was dif cult to put everything in the right sequence but nally we did it and it got published in Japan and got rave reviews and became No 1 on Amazon. Then a Hong Kong publisher wanted to translate it and it became a big bestseller in Hong Kong for a whole year. In 2016 and 2017, it was in the top ve, and now it’s 2018 and it's still in the top 10. So that was a big hit. It’s being translated into Korean, Vietnamese and soon to Thai and English.
My autobiography was also a bestseller in Hong Kong – it’s not translated into Japanese yet. And after that I wrote a book in Japanese again called 35 Things that Parents Shouldn’t Do and it sold very well in Japan, and it’s now a bestseller in Hong Kong. Right now people ask me to write about education mostly. Those are books that I’m very proud of.
Why is 35 Things that Parents Shouldn’t Do so popular?
I wrote the book with my eldest son. I would say, “This is something you shouldn’t do.” And then he would write a whole page of comments because he would say whether it was correct or not from a child's perspective from his own experience. And people nd it very funny and interesting.
For 50 Education Methods from a Mother Who Put 3 Sons into Stanford, basically teachers and mothers bought the book, but for 35 Things that Parents Shouldn’t Do, we found that a lot of fathers bought the book. Most fathers are not into child rearing – not every day – but at least they don’t want to do something wrong. So they buy the book and that made our customer range wider, including men. I thought the 35 things I was talking about are important and sometimes people forget about them. For example, “don’t compare”. In Hong Kong and Japan and probably Thailand, competition is strong. Parents always say, “Why aren’t you acting like your brother? Why did other people do so well and you did so badly?” And I am saying that’s not good. Another example is “Don’t scold your child. Don’t beat them.” If you want your child to understand you, that’s not the way to do it. When your child asks a question, don’t say, “Wait a minute!” because that’s negative. You should say, “Oh! Thank you so much for asking me. You are so good at asking questions!” You have to put something positive rst. We want to raise children who can ask questions because children who can ask questions are curious. If they like to ask questions, they will get more answers, and that’s the best way to learn from somebody. It’s even better than learning from books because when people explain things to you, it’s easier to understand.
You have a broad range of interests, from poems and cooking to advocacy. What genre do you like most?
I think it depends on my life. When I was small and romantic, I wrote love poems. When I was interested in society, I wrote about society. When I became a feminist, I wrote about feminist issues. When I became a mother, I wrote about how a mother feels and how to raise children. When I’m an educator, I write about education. And there was a period when I was interested in writing short stories, so they became part of my published books. Time and ow tell me what to write next. But right now people are asking me to help young mothers raise their children because many young parents worry a lot – they worry they are not good enough, they worry their children are not good enough, they worry schools are not good enough, etc. And they take the joy out of raising children and take the joy out of children growing up. That is pitiful, I think, because raising children is a blessing. And being a child is happiness. So we should bring that back to childbearing. Right now I think if I can be of service to people in that way because I’ve raised three children, maybe I should give them some hints to make everyday life happier and make child rearing easier and more joyful.
You are uent in Chinese, Japanese and English. Which language do you use to write?
I write mostly in Japanese because most of my publishers are in Japan. Recently, my books are selling well in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, so I’m starting to write in Chinese. I was very self-conscious at the beginning because when I am in Japan, I’m a foreigner so I don’t really mind if my Japanese is not so good. But I’m a Chinese. If I write in Chinese and it’s not so good, then I'll feel very embarrassed.
I just wrote my rst book in Chinese – my autobiography – and it won a literary award in Hong Kong and I was very encouraged and I felt like ... OK I can express myself freely in Chinese from now. I have a lot of awards as a singer but, out of 91 books, that was my rst literary award. I’m very happy and excited. There’s always a rst no matter how old you are.
Why do your books touch people's lives?
I always offer readers a different kind of view. For example, in We All Live in this World, I bring the stories to them because it’s very dif cult to go to a war zone if you are an ordinary person. But because I’m a UNICEF ambassador, I can go on missions and go into war zones. I can see the real picture, I can see real children and hear their stories. So I think people are interested in that – something they won’t be able to see and they see it through my eyes. So I want to be the eyes and ears of the people and bring back the stories and give readers new information from a different angle.
You are a singer, speaker, educator, author, advocate and mother. Which hat do you most like to wear?
Be it speaker, singer or author, my aim is basically the same. It’s actually about peace – about understanding, living in peace and promoting peace. I lived in a foreign country most of my life. I’m lucky because I’m a little famous so I’m not so much discriminated against. But there are a lot of foreigners who are being discriminated against; children live in war zones, and people ght. These things are prominent in this part of the world. Koreans were separated; China is also separated from Taiwan. My birthplace Hong Kong until 20 years ago was also not part of China. They have a lot of rivalries in this part of the world. Actually it’s peaceful but mentally people are quite stressed about these con icts. For all of the countries I visited in Africa and the Middle East, there are many con icts, many wars. People who are in con ict or war zones suffer the most. And even after war has ended, many bruises stay. Look at Japan and China, the war ended many years ago, but people are still hurt. So my goal is always for understanding, empathy, feeling kind towards others. When I talk, I talk about loving yourself, loving others, loving children and loving people who are different from you. Embrace differences. Welcome diversity. Celebrate life. Celebrate love. No matter what I do, I want to remind people that our rst and last breath is all about living, loving, being kind and being happy. And we can’t do that if we ght.
Being a singer, speaker and author is good, but those things are bigger than myself. After I sing a song, it becomes my fans’ song; it’s not only my song. So the song is bigger than me. If I write a book and a mother likes it and says, “Oh this is good, I’m going to do it,” then it belongs to them and the book is bigger than me. I would say I like being a mother the most because it’s so real. You feed them. You let them go to bed. And the next day they are a little bit bigger. Yesterday they were just babies but now my three boys are taller than me and their father. One of them got married. You can really see the efforts becoming reality. If you really love your children and make them understand that you do, they love you back and you will never feel lonely. That’s a big gift and it comes with motherhood.
Who are your favourite authors?
I like to read everything. Sometimes when I stay in a hotel and have nothing to read, I read a bible, a hotel publication, a menu, everything. Usually I read novels – anything from detective stories to thrillers to love stories to classics.
I like Hemingway. I like JD Salinger. I read them over and over again. I also like Lee Child. I think he’s a good writer and very knowledgeable. He teaches me a lot about weapons, though I don’t use them.
I would like to become a Hemingway. He doesn’t use a lot of adjectives. His sentences are very short. He just describes the situation but you the reader imagine your own adjectives. Lee Child’s style is very similar. His sentences and dialogues are short. He just gives you the situation and you think about it. It’s very simple and it’s the most dif cult form of writing because we tend to use a lot of adjectives to try to persuade readers to think like you, but Hemingway just achieved it without trying to persuade. I think that’s a very high form of writing. I hope I can write like that.
How would you encourage writers to stay inspired and keep writing?
If you have something to write, nobody can stop you. Don’t keep on thinking that writing is a job; writing is an expression of yourself or something you want to share with people. So don’t stop writing even if it won’t get published because somehow or sometime later, it will nd a way out to be published if it’s worth publishing. You can write when you are on a train; you can write in a car. Even if you have to have two jobs to make ends meet, you can still write. Even if you have three children like me, you can still write. Real writers will always keep writing – they can’t stop themselves. The lucky ones will get published; for the unlucky ones, just enjoy it. Keep on writing and keep on showing people your writings. Don’t give up writing. Writing is a passion and it can’t be stopped.