The Next Chapter

Simon Choa-Johnston on one man, two wives and a Hong Kong mansion

The author talks about exploring his family’s secret past in his debut novel, The House of Wives.
The House of Wives may be a novel, but it draws on Choa-Johnston's fascinating family history. (Emily Cooper)

Simon Choa-Johnston's debut novel The House of Wives is based on his own family, whose mysterious background fascinated him from childhood. His great-grandfather, Emanuel Belilios, was a Jewish opium merchant who left his wife and family in Calcutta and went to Hong Kong, where he married a Chinese woman. Choa-Johnston's book imagines a situation in which one wife finds out about the other and moves in with her husband and his second wife.

When we were moving Mom into a care home, among her belongings was a box of letters and diary entries and photographs that opened up a window into who my ancestors were. I traced them all the way from Venice to Iraq and then down to Bombay, where the Jews had huge communities and were very instrumental in the business sector in those days. Then I traced Belilios' life from Calcutta as an opium merchant as a young man, bringing opium to China and selling it there. They made so much money that they had to form a bank, and that bank was the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, of which he became the chairman. So I wrote to the current chairman of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, and he very graciously allowed me to look at the archives.

What I was interested in was what happens behind closed doors. I imagined that they split the house down the middle and that Emanuel lived in the middle and visited each side at appropriate times, and they would perhaps come together for meals and high holy days and sit on opposite sides of the table. Then the interesting issue for me was, what to do with the servants? Who was to report to whom? And that of course is the rivalry that begins to play out in the novel.

Simon Choa-Johnston's comments have been edited and condensed.