Jean Kwok

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Jean Kwok
Jean Kwok 8-2010.jpg
Born Hong Kong
Occupation novelist
Period current
Genre Novel
Notable works Girl in Translation, Mambo in Chinatown

Jean Kwok is a contemporary Chinese American writer and the award-winning, bestselling author of two novels: Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. Kwok's family immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong when she was only five years old. She spent much of her childhood working in a clothing factory located in Chinatown, close to Brooklyn, NY.[1]

Kwok is an accomplished scholar who attended Harvard University. Since her family was not well off, Kwok had to work up to four jobs at a time in order to put herself through college. While at Harvard, Kwok learned that she loved to dance and worked as a professional ballroom dancer for three years after graduation. This experience helped form the basis of her second novel, Mambo in Chinatown. Kwok then decided to go back to school to pursue her MFA in fiction at Columbia University.[2]

Kwok currently lives in the Netherlands with her husband, their two sons, and their cats. Kwok can speak English, Cantonese, and Dutch fluently, which can be seen in the Dutch VPRO documentary filmed about her, released in 2012.[3]


When Jean was five years old, her family decided to immigrate to Brooklyn, New York. The apartment that she, her parents and siblings lived in was roach-infested and they did not have any central heating. She had to work in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood.[4] After elementary school, Kwok was accepted to Hunter College High School, a public secondary school for intellectually gifted students. Upon graduation from high school, she won early admission to Harvard College. Originally interested in science, in part to escape a life toiling in a factory, she realized when she was at Harvard that she could follow her dream instead. This realization prompted Jean to change her concentration to English and American Literature.[5] She received her BA in English with honors, all while working up to four jobs at a time. After pursuing dance for a few years after graduation, Kwok then decided it was time to go back to school and received her MFA in fiction at Columbia University.[5] She then moved to the Netherlands and worked for Leiden University, teaching English and as a Dutch-English translator. She speaks English, Chinese, Dutch and studied Latin.[6] She lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two sons, and now writes full-time.


Ballroom dancing[edit]

After her graduation from Harvard, Kwok needed a day job to help support herself while she was writing. She saw an ad in a newspaper for a professional ballroom dancer with training provided. She decided to go in for the interview and got the job. She spent three years working for Fred Astaire East Side Studio in New York City.[1][7]


Girl in Translation[edit]

Kwok's debut novel Girl in Translation was published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin, in May 2010 and became a New York Times bestseller. It has been published in 17 countries and translated into 15 languages. Kwok drew upon her personal experience to write this novel about an exceptionally bright young girl who leads a double life in an exclusive private school and a Chinatown sweatshop. Although Kwok's family was initially reluctant to share their story via her writing, they were ultimately proud that their story had been told.[8]

Author Min Jin Lee compared the novel to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.[9] Nicole Tsong in the Seattle Times commented on Kwok's innovative use of language that allows readers to experience the linguistic barriers for themselves: "Kwok uses the potent combination of... halting English and a sophisticated internal narration about her new life to tell [the heroine's] story." [10] Hannah Lee in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice noted that Girl in Translation was "as accurate to my childhood and upbringing in the world of New York's garment factories as a novel can be."[11] Girl in Translation was featured in The New York Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others.[12][13]

Mambo in Chinatown[edit]

Kwok's experience working as a professional ballroom dancer helped her to write her second novel about a young woman torn between her family duties in Chinatown and her escape into the world of ballroom dancing.[14]

Kwok's second novel Mambo in Chinatown was also published by Riverhead Books. It was published in the United States on June 24, 2014 and has been published in 8 countries and translated into 7 languages. It was one of the New and Noteworthy Books listed by USA Today in June 2014[15] and was selected for Penguin Stacks and Best Books of 2014 by Real Simple and Woman's Day.[16][17] The Chicago Tribune wrote, "rarely has [this story] been told with such grace, lightness and humor as in this delightful novel" while the Boston Herald called it "a great story of cultural conflict and reaching for your dreams."[18][19]

Future writing[edit]

Kwok said in an interview with Banana Writers that she's "working on a new book and that one will be about grief, rebirth and moving to Europe." [14]

Honors and awards [1][edit]



  • Girl in Translation (2010)
  • Mambo in Chinatown (2014)

Short stories[edit]


  • "Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds" (2000)
  • "A Translation of Schrijvende Vrouw" (2000)



  • Elements of Literature (2007)
  • The NuyorAsian Anthology (1999)


  1. ^ a b c Kwok, Jean. "Jean Kwok | Official Author Website". Retrieved 2015-08-06. 
  2. ^ "'The sweatshop was my home': How one woman escaped the poverty trap". Retrieved 2015-08-06. 
  3. ^, retrieved 2015-09-15  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ "Jean Kwok" Contemporary Authors, Gale Cengage, 2011.
  5. ^ a b "Jean Kwok" New York, NY: Penguin Speakers Bureau. Last accessed May 1, 2011.
  6. ^ "Jean Kwok and the Girl in Translation" by Amanda Cardo, Sampsonia Way, April 27, 2011.
  7. ^ "Bustle". Retrieved 2015-08-19. 
  8. ^ "Interview: Jean Kwok and Girl in Translation (Part Two) | Sampsonia Way Magazine". Retrieved 2015-08-19. 
  9. ^ "Girl in Translation", Princeton Book Review. Last accessed May 1, 2011.
  10. ^ "'Girl in Translation':Debut Novel is an Immigrant's Tale" by Nicole Tsong, Seattle Times, May 1, 2010.
  11. ^ "Reflections on Labor Unions since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire" by Hannah Lee, Philadelphia Jewish Voice, March 29, 2011.
  12. ^ "Girl in Translation", Liberty Bay Books. Last accessed May 1, 2011.
  13. ^ "News & Reviews", Jean Kwok Official Website. Last accessed May 1, 2011.
  14. ^ a b "Website For Asian Writers". Website For Asian Writers. Retrieved 2015-08-19. 
  15. ^ "Books: New and noteworthy". Retrieved 2015-08-12. 
  16. ^ Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok - Penguin Books USA. 
  17. ^ "Real Simple Readers Review the Best Books of 2014". Retrieved 2015-08-12. 
  18. ^ Tribune, Chicago. "2014 books that flew under radar". Retrieved 2015-09-15. 
  19. ^ "Dreams take flight in Jean Kwok’s ‘Chinatown’". Retrieved 2015-09-15. 

External links[edit]

See also[edit]