#AuthorInterview: Joyce Bergvelt on Lord of Formosa

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War Era Historical

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Joyce. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about Lord of Formosa.
Lord of Formosa tells the little-known, true story of the time the Dutch colonized seventeenth-century Taiwan (previously known as Formosa). They ruled the island for nearly forty years, until Koxinga, the son of a Chinese merchant pirate, expelled them in a spectacular way. Set against the time of the Manchu invasion and the final days of the Ming dynasty, it also tells the life story of warlord Koxinga: from his loving relationship with his mother, his fierce loyalty to the Ming, his retreat to Formosa, his battle of wills with the stubborn, last governor of the Dutch on Formosa, his father’s treachery, and to his obsessive belief that his destiny is to rule Formosa. Closely based on historical events, Lord of Formosa dramatizes the first major clash between China and the West. It is an epic tale of determination, courage, and betrayal during one of the most turbulent periods in Chinese history, in which loyalties and family ties are severely put to the test.

At risk of sounding impertinent, where did you find this story? Did it strike like lightning out nowhere or was it an idea that grew over time?
Not at all impertinent! The seed was sown a long time ago. I lived in Taiwan as a teenager, and even back then I was intrigued by the fact that the Dutch had once colonized the island. When I later went on to study Chinese Studies at Durham University (UK), I wrote my academic dissertation on the episode. After all the research I had done on both sides of the story, that of Koxinga and the Dutch, I knew it would make a great story for a novel: it deserved a bigger audience. There was so much human drama there. Mind you, I didn’t get to write about it until twenty years later. 

Koxinga is a fascinating character. What do you hope readers take from their experience of this fictional account of his life? 
He was an exceptionally fascinating man. He was a sensitive poet, a learned scholar, a man with a strong bond with his mother, and a womanizer. But at the same time, he was skilled at the martial arts and shaped by wartime events: China overrun by the Manchus, his father’s betrayal, his mother’s violent death. These hardened him and turned him into the sometimes cruel, but competent military leader that he finally became.

In China and Taiwan, Koxinga has been portrayed over the centuries as a hero whose exploits have gained mythical proportions. In schools, children never learned of his faults, teachers never said anything negative about him. His story was used for propaganda purposes by the Chinese Nationalists who had to flee to Taiwan from the Red Army: the Nationalists’ version is that that he came to Taiwan to rid the island of the Dutch colonists. The truth of the matter is that he and his army were forced to retreat to Formosa, from where he intended to reclaim China and restore the Ming. The Dutch were simply in his way. He never succeeded: he died on Formosa. I hope that readers will accept him as a man of flesh and blood, with his many flaws, superstitions, inner conflicts and the many dilemmas with which he was faced, and that they will see him as a man caught in the momentum of war and dynastic change.

I didn’t know anything about Dutch Formosa when I picked up your work. What resources proved the most useful in the course of your research? Which would you recommend to readers who want to know more? 
I have to go back in time now, as I wrote the dissertation, which formed the backbone of this book in 1987. From what I can remember, the most valuable sources were Frederic Coyett’s memoir Neglected Formosa (1675), Leonard Blussé’s The Source publications of the Daghregishers (Journals) of Zeelandia Castle at Formosa 1629-1662). More recently, Tonio Andrade’s How Taiwan became Chinese (Gutenberg, Columbia Press 2005) was very useful, as was Jonathan Clement’s Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty (2004).

Which book I recommend now? Lost Colony, by Tonio Andrade (2011). An excellent, highly readable non-fiction work from the historian’s point of view.

I was delighted to discover so many cultural notes in the fabric of this story and wanted to ask why you felt this theme so important.
The cultural information woven into the fabric is vital for the reader to get a feel for and understand the places where the story takes place. It begins with the childhood of Koxinga in Japan, then continues when he is taken to his father’s family in China and finally crosses the Strait to Taiwan. Even Indonesia plays a part, as this is where the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had their regional headquarters. Readers want to be transported. I not only take them to the seventeenth century, I take them to these places as well, and then cultural details such as the use of incense in ancestor worship, the make-up used by matchmakers as a mark of their trade, the inscribed oracle bones used by fortune tellers – all help to bring it to live and make it authentic. 

And another aspect: Chinese cultural factors such as Confucianism, filial piety (honoring your parents, elders, and emperor) play a vital role in the inner conflict that Koxinga had to deal with during his lifetime, another very important theme in the book. I lived in Japan, Taiwan, and China, so the use of the cultural notes came quite naturally. 

Do you have a favorite scene in Lord of Formosa? 
Not really, but I must say I rather liked the scene in which Dutch doctor Christian Beyer, who was sent to Amoy alone to treat Koxinga for his ailment, examines his patient for the first time, under the jealous scrutiny of Koxinga’s Chinese personal physician Wang. Or another one: at the beginning of the book, when the seven-year-old Koxinga urges his mother to allow him to have his fortune told, and she relents.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing Lord of Formosa?
A lot ended up on the cutting room floor! For one thing, an entire chapter on how the Dutch came to be in Formosa and were able to claim the island as their own. I decided that there was too much narrative on the many battles and the endless negotiations. I felt it delayed the story. If I had brought this to life, I would have had to include more characters who would have no part in the rest of the book, which would only serve to confuse readers. I even ended up fusing a number of minor (historical) characters for readability’s sake.

If you could sit down and talk with a member or members of the cast of Lord of Formosa, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you invite and why?
Great question! I think that would probably be the last VOC governor, Frederic Coyett. Why? Because during the course of my research and writing, I felt as if I knew him. I sympathize with him, as he really had a tough job on Formosa. I admire him for his guts for not surrendering to Koxinga when he and his men arrived on Formosa in overwhelming numbers, choosing to hold the fort for as long as he could. Besides, we have a lot in common. He was an expat child like myself (his family left Sweden for Amsterdam), and as an adult, he lived in Japan and Taiwan. There are many parallels. So, I think we would have plenty to talk about!

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers – to play your characters in a big screen adaptation of Lord of Formosa, who would you cast?
This is going to be fun: 
  • Koxinga: Andy Lau (The Wall, House of Daggers) 
  • Koxinga’s mother, Matsu Tagawa: the Japanese actress Sachiko Hidari (1930-2001)
  • Zheng Zhi-long, Koxinga’s father: Ken Watanabe (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – why not? Koxinga was half-Japanese, after all!)
  • Frederic Coyett, the last VOC governor of Formosa:  Russell Crowe (one of my favorite actors)
  • Doctor Christian Beyer: Michael Caine 
  • Reverend Antonius Hambroek: Anthony Hopkins
  • The reverend’s daughter, Johanna:  Eleonor Tomlinson (the redheaded Demelza in Poldark) 
  • Deng Cui-Ying, Koxinga’s first wife: Lisa Liu (Charlie’s Angels) 
  • The treacherous merchant He Ting-bin: Ken Jeong (The Hangover) 
  • The bold, ambitious and arrogant Admiral Jan van der Laan:  Nikolai Coster-Waldau (Jamie in Game of Thrones) 
  • Nicolaes Verburgh, governor Coyett’s jealous predecessor and enemy within the VOC: Kevin Spacey
  • Uma Thurman as Coyett’s second wife, Helen. Or, alternatively, myself as a cameo, so I get to pair up Russell Crowe. 😊 
What next for you? Do you have another project in the wings? 
At the moment, I am about three-quarters into another historical novel: it is based on actual events during the seventeenth century and centered around a historical character employed by the VOC, who ended up playing an important part in the history of South Africa. This time, the book will take the reader from Mauritius to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Holland, and finally, to South Africa. The main character’s story will be told through the eyes of the women in his life: his mixed-blood mother, his stepmother, his wealthy, high-born wife, his sister-in-law, and the slave women with whom he shared his bed. 


“This gripping novel dramatizes one of the most fascinating events of world history: the conquest of the Dutch colony of Taiwan by Chinese warlord Zheng Chenggong. Bergvelt's vivid prose tells a taut story through the eyes of well-drawn characters based closely on real historical figures. A delightful book, and one that provides an excellent entrée into an important period of history.”—Tonio Andrade, author of Lost Colony and The Gunpowder Age

"A fascinating read, juxtaposing the life of Ming-dynasty warlord and pirate Cheng Cheng-kung with those of his adversaries on the Dutch side, in particular Frederick Coyett, the last Dutch East India Company governor of Formosa. A highly valuable contribution to the understanding of life in Taiwan in the 17th century."—Gerrit van der Wees, for the Taipei Times

"Bergvelt describes the whole tragedy vividly.”—NRC Handelsblad