A week before the release of her debut memoir, Elaine Lui is understandably nervous. While she has gabbed about dozens of celebrities on her blog LaineyGossip.com for nearly a decade, Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When a Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do? A Memoir (Sort Of) (Random House Canada) marks the first time Lui has written in detail about herself and her family.
“It’s probably the most personal thing—no, not probably, it is the most personal thing I’ve ever done,” she tells the Georgia Straight on the line from her home in Toronto. “But I’m really excited for people to learn more about my mother and to perhaps understand her more. Also, I’m excited to be able to share with people how much I love her—that was the point of the book.”
Lui began writing about her mother—nicknamed the Squawking Chicken, or Tsiahng Gai in Cantonese—on her blog.
“Many of the stories I tell on my website are about these troubled young celebrities, and oftentimes, I wondered, ‘If they had a Squawking Chicken in their lives, would they have turned out differently?’ ” she says. “For example, many years ago, when I was writing about Lindsay Lohan, I would say, ‘The Squawking Chicken would never let me live in the Chateau Marmont at 16 by myself with my boyfriend.’ So the more I told these stories—always in relation to celebrity—the more I dropped the Squawking Chicken into the blog.”
Lui became interested in celebrity gossip while working in fundraising for UBC. The Toronto-born, University of Western Ontario graduate moved to Vancouver in 2000 and started sending lighthearted emails about Hollywood stars to work colleagues. Eventually, these emails turned into a daily newsletter, with a following that reached thousands. By the end of 2004, while Lui was working for Covenant House Vancouver, LaineyGossip.com had been born.
“Within a few months of launching the website, the executive producer of [CTV’s] eTalk at the time, Jordan Schwartz, heard about my website and thought that for eTalk, it would be an interesting addition to have gossip as part of the show,” Lui explains. “Eventually, eTalk got busier and busier, so I ended up leaving Covenant House in 2006 and devoting myself full-time to the blog and to eTalk.”
Lui and her husband, Jacek Szenowicz, who manages the business side of her website, lived in Vancouver until 2013, when they returned to Toronto so that Lui could cohost CTV’s The Social, a daily talk show on pop culture and lifestyle topics. They would also live closer to Lui’s parents.
At the time, Lui’s mother was recovering from a potentially fatal illness. She had been diagnosed with POEMS syndrome several years before and her determination to live inspired Lui to tell her story. Although Lui was contacted by her eventual editor and publisher previously, she did not have the time or a subject she was passionate enough about to fill the pages of a book.
“When my mother became ill, Random House happened to email me during that time and it seemed like an alignment of sorts and ended up coming together,” she tells the Straight. “I had been writing about her consistently on my blog, so when they said, ‘A book about your mother would be great,’ it just sort of clicked.”
At the start of Listen to the Squawking Chicken, Lui provides readers with background information about her mother—an explanation of the Squawking Chicken’s no-nonsense, fiercely independent, firecracker personality. Raised in a Hong Kong suburb, Lui’s mother dropped out of high school to care for her five younger siblings, taking a job at a night lounge and mixing with local gangs. At 15, she was raped, and when her family offered no help or sympathy, “my ma started squawking,” Lui writes. “As soon as you hear her, you’ll never forget her.…The volume is jarring, yes. You can’t imagine that something so loud can come out so effortlessly and without warning. The Squawking Chicken doesn’t give you time to acclimate to her levels. It’s one level, and it’s all-out assault.”
The rest of the book is devoted to describing morsels of wisdom Lui has picked up from her mother, each lesson accompanied by personal anecdotes told in Lui’s relatable, conversational tone. One chapter describes the importance of filial piety and why Lui feels forever financially in debt to her mother. Another explains how feng shui and a fear of its consequences have come to dictate specific rituals in Lui’s life that include using eye-drops every morning and a need to consume a papaya each day.
One chapter, entitled “Miss Hong Kong Is a Whore”, explains the value of hard work over physical beauty—a lesson that Lui singles out as the most important one her mother has passed on to her. The author acknowledges that some of these teachings may seem harsh and extreme, particularly to westerners.
“The book is intended to tell the story of her method of parenting and her very unique individual style of motherhood—not as an emblem of Chinese motherhood,” Lui confirms to the Straight. “She has mythologized herself to me, as I address in the book, and within that mythology, I have been able to recognize her awesomeness but also recognize that she’s far from perfect.”
While Lui says that she wrote the book mainly for her mother, she believes that Listen to the Squawking Chicken will resonate with anyone who has grown up with an unconventional mother.
“In the course of writing about the Squawking Chicken on LaineyGossip, I have heard from people who have said, ‘I love reading the stories about your mother because I’m originally from Jamaica and I have a Jamaican Squawking Chicken’ or ‘I’m from Russia and I have a Russian Squawking Chicken,’ ” Lui says. “Living in North America, the immigrant experience is one that is universal for those of us who grew up immigrant. There are these stories that we all share. There’s something about when your parents aren’t from here, and they have to get here, and a culture shock ensues, and an acclimation ensues that binds us together.…It’s a book that mothers and daughters can share together, even if this wasn’t their kind of relationship—even if this was the polar opposite. The point is that what we have in common is the love.”
Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When a Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do? A Memoir (Sort Of) will be published in Canada by Random House on Tuesday (April 1). Elaine Lui will embark on a cross-Canada book tour that ends in Vancouver on April 11 at the Villa Amato Ballroom (88 East 1st Avenue). Tickets for the event, which includes a copy of the book, are $39 and available for purchase online.