Any writer who ventures into past eras for material knows the seductive power of research to distract you from what you had in mind. I know more now about 19th century Malay pirates than I’m ever likely to use, thanks to the adventure saga Among Malay Pirates (downloaded from Project Gutenberg) and several other sources. And the powerful Madame Ching (Cheng I Sao) with more than 1500 ships under her control in the early 1800s may yet inspire a story—but not the story that insisted on being written first.
The one I did write, “The Pirate from the Sky,” is set in the late 1930s, before my time, but not so much so that I didn’t already know a fair bit about what was happening in the world then. The East Asian/South China Sea/Pacific Islands setting did require some geographical and historical research, but Google and a good atlas handled that part pretty well. Details like how junks and proas are rigged, and whether a junk-rigged ship would be out of place in the Pacific atolls, and traditions about the supernatural qualities of the Malaysian blade called a kris, were all available online with enough poking about.
There’s also plenty of information about women pirates, or at least enough to start with. I kept coming back to mentions of Lai Choi San (Mountain of Wealth,) also known as the Dragon Lady of Bias Bay (near Macao and Hong Kong.) Some accounts glamorized her—she inspired the character in Milton Kaniff’s comic strip Terry and the Pirates--while others, more convincing, described her as a pretty nasty character, but it was one detail in I Sailed with Chinese Pirates by journalist Aleko E. Lilius that gave me my fictional characters. The Dragon Lady was always accompanied by two amahs, women as prepared to wield a dagger or a rifle as any other pirates. That was my starting place. My fictional Seok-Teng (a Malaysian name, though her background was more complex than that) and Han Duan (I only found out after I’d chosen it that there’s a Chinese Olympic soccer player by that name) met as amahs to Lai Choi San, and eventually broke with her to set off on their own. (Another character, Gu Yasha, also shares the name of a Chinese Olympic soccer player, this time on purpose.)
Pirates ranging far across the South China Sea into the Pacific during this period would surely be affected by the increasing Japanese presence there as WWII approached. Pirates have been known to side with the same nations they’ve pillaged when outsiders threaten them; in the 15th century Portuguese invaders were repelled, at least for a while, by the Orang Laut pirates who controlled shipping in the Straits of Malacca and the waters around Singapore, and were loyal in a pinch to the descendants of the Malaya line. Why shouldn’t my pirates resent the Japanese incursion?
Which brought me to the other historical character who inspired me and became my just-barely-fictional Pirate from the Sky. She doesn’t quite come onstage until near the end of the story, and I don’t give her a name, but I read extensively about her, her own writings, biographies, and the complex theories and research of others. I like to think she’d prefer my version. What do you think?
Here’s the prize: the first person who guesses the real-world identity of my mystery character and e-mails me at sacchigreen (at) gmail.com can have their choice of one out of any of the books I’ve edited, or this book. I’ll bet you can do it without even reading my story.