Kwa, Lydia 1959-

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KWA, Lydia 1959-


Born 1959, in Singapore; immigrated to Canada, 1980. Education: University of Toronto, B.Sc. (psychology), 1980; Queen's University, M.A., 1983, Ph.D., 1990 (clinical psychology).


Office—412-207 West Hastings, Vancouver, BC V6B 1H7, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, poet. Clinical psychologist in private practice, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.


The Colours of Heroines (poetry), Women's Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.

This Place Called Absence (novel), Turnstone Press (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), 2000.

Contributor to anthologies, including poetry to Swallowing Clouds, and fiction to Hot and Bothered.


Lydia Kwa moved from Singapore to Canada in 1980 to study psychology at the University of Toronto, where she first began to write poetry. When she went on to Queen's University, she learned the technical aspects of the genre while a member of a group of former students of the poet Bronwen Wallace. After completing her education, Kwa worked in Calgary, Alberta, then moved to Vancouver to work and later established a private practice in Vancouver and also expanded her literary output. The Colours of Heroines is her collection of poems that trace her life from childhood in Singapore to adulthood in Canada. They celebrate the varieties of ways women transcend their struggle.

This Place Called Absence is Kwa's novel about four women and takes place over a century. The first character, appearing in 1994, is Wu Lan, a lesbian Vancouver psychologist whose father, Yen, has committed suicide in Singapore. Wu Lan is still grieving the loss of her former lover, Kim, who changed her lifestyle to become a wife and mother. Her mother, Mahmee, has never accepted Wu Lan's lesbianism and is now attempting to reconcile her feelings about her husband's suicide.

As Wu Lan deals with her grief over her father's death, she turns to casual sex and reading for comfort, and is given some insight in a Buddhist temple. In researching her father's life, she comes across a history of prostitution in early twentieth century Singapore, and it is then that the reader meets Lee Ah Choi and Chow Chat Mui, who in their first-person narratives reveal how, at the turn of the twentieth century, they became lesbian lovers in Singapore, where each had came to work as an ah ku, or sex trade worker. Wu Lan learns that typically women who came from Japan and mainland China to enter this profession were slaves, indentured into the trade to pay off debt. Some, like Lee Ah Choi, had been sold by their families, in her case by her father, for three sacks of rice. In spite of this, she sends money to the family each month, but also hides some under her mattress and prays for the day when one of her customers will ask her to marry him.

Chow Chat Mui came to the brothel of her own choosing, to flee poverty and sexual abuse by her father, and it is she who is rescued by a man. Lee Ah Choi is beaten after her money is discovered, and with her health and beauty gone, as well as her hope, she takes an overdose of opium. Indira Karamcheti noted in Women's Review of Books, "Wu Lan has unearthed her own ancestry. In doing so, she has realized her likeness in the faces of the past and simultaneously her own individuality."

A Publishers Weekly contributor said that Kwa's writing "is often vivid. But it can also be clumsy, as when Wu Lan resorts to psychological explication, and Kwa introduces many more themes than she develops."

Quill & Quire's Judy Fong Bates felt that Kwa's portrayal of the lives of Chow Chat Mui and Lee Ah Choi "is so vividly detailed that one can see the tiny cubicles where they serve clients, smell the hot summer sweat of Singapore, and feel the glimmer of hope that they find in their doomed and forbidden love." "Kwa's spellbinding portrait of dispirited women haunted by ghosts and hampered by circumstances echoes with raw, emotive drama," wrote Carol Haggas in Booklist.



Advocate, March 19, 2002, Kera Bolonik, review of This Place Called Absence, p. 67.

Booklist, February 15, 2002, Carol Haggas, review of This Place Called Absence, p. 992.

Books in Canada, May, 1995, Colin Morton, review of The Colours of Heroines, p. 46.

Publishers Weekly, January 21, 2002, review of This Place Called Absence, p. 62.

Quill & Quire, June, 2000, Judy Fong Bates, review of This Place Called Absence, pp. 49-50.

University of Toronto Quarterly, winter, 2001, Susan Knutson, review of This Place Called Absence, pp. 1-39.

Women's Review of Books, July, 2002, Indira Karamcheti, review of This Place Called Absence, pp. 22-24, "Singapore on My Mind: Fiona Cheong, Lydia Kwa, and Shirley Geok-lin Lim Compare Notes" (interview), p. 24.


Rice Paper, (October 18, 2002), Fiona Lam, interview with Kwa.