about jean

Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok, photo by Chris Macke

Jean Kwok is the award-winning, New York Times and international bestselling author of Searching for Sylvie Lee, Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. Her work has been published in twenty countries and taught in universities, colleges and high schools across the world. An instant New York Times bestseller, Searching for Sylvie Lee was selected for the Today Show Book Club and featured in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, CNN, The New York Post, The Washington Post, O Magazine, People, Entertainment Weekly and more. Jean has been chosen for numerous honors including the American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award international shortlist. She has appeared on The Today Show and spoken at many schools and venues including Harvard University, Columbia University and the Tucson Festival of Books.  A television documentary was filmed about Jean and her work.

Jean immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood while living in an unheated, roach-infested apartment. In between her undergraduate degree at Harvard and MFA in fiction at Columbia, she worked for three years as a professional ballroom dancer. Her beloved brother Kwan passed away in a tragic plane accident and was the inspiration behind Searching for Sylvie Lee. Jean is trilingual, fluent in Dutch, Chinese and English, and studied Latin for seven years. She lives in the Netherlands with her husband, two sons and four cats.

Jean’s Story

Jean Kwok
Jean Kwok

The youngest of seven children and a girl at that, I was a dreamy, impractical child who ran wild through the sunlit streets of Hong Kong.  No one was more astonished than my family when I turned out to be good at school.  We moved to New York City when I was five and my only gift was taken from me since I did not understand a word of English. 

We lost all our money in the move to the United States.  My family started working in a sweatshop in Chinatown.  My father took me there every day after school and we all emerged many hours later, soaked in sweat and covered in fabric dust.  Our apartment swarmed with insects and rats.  In the winter, we kept the oven door open day and night because there was no other heat in the apartment. That was the inspiration behind my debut novel, Girl in Translation.

Jean Kwok and her mother

Jean and her mother

As I slowly learned English my talent for school re-emerged. When I was about to graduate from elementary school, I was tested by a number of exclusive private schools and won scholarships to all of them.  However, I'd also been accepted by Hunter College High School, a public high school for the intellectually gifted, and that was where I wanted to go. 

By then, my family had stopped working at the sweatshop and we'd moved to a run-down brownstone in Brooklyn Heights that had been divided into formerly rent-controlled apartments.  It was a vast improvement, but there was still no money to spare.  If I didn't get into a top school with a full financial aid package, I wouldn't be able to go to college.  Although I loved English, I didn't think it was a practical choice and devoted myself to science instead.  In my last year in high school, I worked in three laboratories: the Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology labs at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center and the Biophysics/Interface Lab at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Brooklyn.

I was accepted early to Harvard and I'd done enough college work to take Advanced Standing when I entered, thus skipping a year and starting as a sophomore in Physics.  It was in college that I realized that I could follow my true calling, writing, and switched into English and American Literature. I put myself through Harvard, working up to four jobs at a time to do so: washing dishes in the dining hall, cleaning rooms, reading to the blind, teaching English, and acting as the director of a summer program for Chinese immigrant children. Like many working-class people, I didn’t have the opportunity to take lessons for extracurricular activities as a child. It was in college that I also discovered I loved to dance.

Jean Kwok

Jean dancing with Jungie Zamora, photo by Montage Production

I graduated with honors, then while looking for a day job, stumbled across a newspaper ad that read: “Wanted: Professional Ballroom Dancer, Will Train.” Terrified and unprepared, I went to the dance studio in an oversized red dress, black pumps I had covered with permanent marker to disguise their bald patches, and a long red scarf wrapped around my head like a turban. Somehow, despite all this, they invited me back for the audition, and then for the three-week training class. Ultimately, they hired me and taught me how to dance. I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for Fred Astaire East Side Studio in New York City for three years. I trained, did shows and competitions, and taught students how to waltz, swing, and mambo. For a young immigrant woman who had never fit in, who had never felt graceful, it was a great personal transformation. That was the basis for my second book, Mambo in Chinatown.

After winning Top Female Professional at Fred Astaire National Dance Championships, I left ballroom dance to pursue my true dream, writing. I went to Columbia to do my MFA in fiction. Before I graduated from Columbia, two stories of mine had been published in Story.  In my last year at Columbia, I worked fulltime for a major investment bank as a member of a five-person computer team that addressed the multimedia needs of the Board of Directors. 

I then moved to the Netherlands for love and went through the process of adjusting to another culture and learning another language again. I taught English at Leiden University and the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands. I also worked as a Dutch-English translator until I finished Girl in Translation.  After it was accepted for publication, I quit to write full-time. 

Jean Kwok at CNN

Jean Kwok at CNN

Then my beloved older brother Kwan passed away in a tragic plane accident, which inspired my third novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee.

Jean Kwok

Jean's brother Kwan, Jean, and Jean's husband Erwin


Now, I live in the Netherlands with my husband and two sons, and sometimes, while walking alongside a canal, I am quite surprised by the path my life has taken. Surprised, and very grateful.