The end of an era

Thoughts on the Closing of Toys R Us

Children from toddler age to sub-teens run in and out of the automatic double doors. Inside the store, customers queue up at multi checkout lanes to pay for their lucky finds. That was then, this is now.

Then was about 1984 when Masters of the Universe, Star Wars and GI Joe figurines (early versions) were scalding hot, when our two older sons were seven and eight, when acquiring the latest figures from popular junior action series right after their release into the market was for them a big deal worth showing off and bragging to their peers. Like an indulging, dedicated mom who would go to all lengths in support of her children's grand mission, I had driven far and wide to as many Toys R Us and Kmart stores as I could within a range of over twenty miles in Chicagoland, the more remote suburbs the better, for the chance of spotting that latest figure of a character that had just hit the shelf for the first time. And voila! The joy of accomplishment, the triumph of success every time I marched into the house with my loot! Not only did kids like showing off their highly coveted items to their friends, their moms bragged too to other competitive moms.

"I found Buzz-Off!" I announced to a co-worker mom of mine the day after I hunted down that latest bee-like He-Man series figure.

"Where?" She sounded envious.

"At the Toys R Us in Bolingbroke. It was the seventh store I called, and we drove twenty-two miles to the store when they said they had just received a few. I got the last one," I said, trying to sound low-key and apologetic.

I was pretty sure if we had a daughter, I would be fighting for the latest of Cabbage Patch Kids. Then was a time when entering a Toys R Us store was for kids like losing themselves in Paradise, where they wouldn't mind being lost forever. 


Now is 2018. This weekend of March 17-18, kids and parents flog to Toys R Us stores, loot bags and all, kids emptying their piggy banks and parents Christmas shopping well ahead of the season. Excited voices ring out from the labyrinth of aisles. The lines are long at checkouts. Our sons and wives have brought their kids to the neighborhood Toys R Us, on their treasure hunt. Our grandkids are elated with this Christmas in March, not caring if this may well be their last journey to Toys R Us, that the company with which their fathers grew up is singing its swan song, and tomorrow (though not in the literal sense, as the stores will probably be kept open for another couple of months) it will be no more. As well, many adults don't care if the whole company is closing. At least they will get their bargains before it does. Rip it to the bare bones for those fantastic deals!

Call me a sentimental fool, given to nostalgia. Silently I weep for the death of major giant retail stores like Toys R Us, and the decline of once dominant retail chains tottering on the brink of ruin. I also miss catalog stores with nice showrooms the like of Service Merchandise which I loved to visit when starting our first home as a young housewife. Then there are the bookstores. Neighborhood and privately owned bookstores are relics of the past, having long given way to major retail bookstore chains which in turn have suffered a setback of mega proportions when e-marketing took over the book market, and advancing technology undermined drastically the print format of the written word with electronic and audio books. And not only has book-marketing gone through a major revolution in a span of some thirty years, marketing of all products under the sun have gone the same route by way of online shopping. Hence, the death of stores like Toys R Us. 

We have entered a new age of speed and convenience, efficiency and advancements in the sciences for the betterment of life, an age when dissemination of information has taken on the acceleration, extent and thoroughness that were unimaginable over thirty years ago. We are in an age when robots replace humans in certain functions, though thankfully not in all. Some things still require human intervention and the human touch. Progress is a fact of life, necessary for human survival, as long as what is natural and wholesome is not altered and abused. 

As I pass by my local Toys R Us near its closing time which ends another day of onslaught of crazed and eager bargain hunters, Ecclesiastes 3 comes to mind:

And there is a time for every event under heaven--

A time to give birth, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to tear down, and a time to build up.

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance.      


As the Chinese saying goes, "There is no endless banquet under the heavens." Toys R Us which has delighted children of all ages for some seventy years has seen its best of days, but is finally shutting down. What is beautiful in life is not only in the moment, but more lastingly in its remembrance.                                                                











Words of Remembrance: my mother, Elizabeth Chin

This morning, we’ve come together for my mother Elizabeth Chin’s funeral. This is not a time to mourn, but a time to celebrate my mother’s life, to give thanks to God for the gift of her in our lives, in whatever capacity or way we had been associated with her, whether as her children, sons and daughters-in-law, grandchildren, great grandchildren, nephews, nieces, friends, neighbors, former students or her caring attendants in the last years of her life.  While this is a satisfying closure of a life well-lived in our earthly domain, it is also the beginning of an eternal and beautiful life in the Heavenly abode, with God and the angels and saints, and with Dad.  God called Mom home at the best time of year, a time to celebrate Christ’s birth.

My mother was born Liang Sau Hai in Hong Kong on Sept. 6, 1922. She spent her early and adolescent years in Hong Kong but left for China during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in the Second World War. She and Dad were married at the end of the War and returned to Hong Kong to settle and raise a family. They migrated to Canada in 1969, giving up well-respected careers in Hong Kong, in order to give their children, Tony, Joe, Judith and myself, a better life, a more promising future. Our parents had been together for 69 years until Dad’s death two years ago at the age of 97. Mom and Dad taught Judith, Joe, Tony and myself well by their exemplary manifestations of Christian values in all aspects of life, career, marriage, parenthood, grand-parenthood, and in our relationships with family, relatives, friends and acquaintances.  The overwhelming messages of condolence I have received from Mom’s past students at Sacred Heart Canossian College in Hong Kong where she had taught for over twenty years are a testament to how much she meant to them as a teacher, a mentor, and a friend.  She was a pious woman, serving the less fortunate in Hong Kong as an active member of the Legion of Mary for many years, performing works of charity in the true spirit of what it meant to be Christian. Prayer including the rosary was a constant part of her daily routine. God had blessed her with years of relative lucidity after her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease about nine years ago, until the last few months knowing us, calling us by name, remembering people who had been close to her. She was blessed with quality of life made possible to a great extent by the unconditional care of my sister Judith and brother-in-law Gary. As late as end of September this year, when her grandson Tim visited her, she advised him to buy a house soon, for investment.  At mealtime, she loved studying photos of her grandchildren, great grandchildren which Judith had laminated on placemats for her. At the end of October on my second last visit to Edmonton, when I peeked into her room in the hope she’d be awake enough for me to say goodbye before Michael and I left, we found her fully awake in bed. She was clear-headed enough that we were able to share some tears. That was our real goodbye, a moment that will live with me for the rest of my life.

On a small plaque given me by a friend were engraved these words, “When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.”  Our mother, Elizabeth, had graced and enriched with her life all of us present here today, and all those dear to her who are unable to attend her funeral. She has become a living memory in our hearts, a memory that has become a treasure. Let us celebrate her life. 

Words of Remembrance at Elizabeth Chin's funeral, Edmonton, Canada, December 31st, 2016


The best part of a destination is the getting there -- my talk at the Foster City Library on Nov. 12, 2016

Competing with the regatta taking place around the beautiful Foster City lagoon on a gorgeous, sunny Saturday, November 12, I was very pleased with the surprisingly good turnout of attendees at my author talk Aspiring to write a bestselling novel? The Dream, the Journey, the Reality. Here is a summarazed transcript of my presentation. 

The Dream

My initial and early reason for writing novels is I have always loved to write fiction, and novels give me ample space to tell my stories the way I want them told, more room to express myself than a short story.

I have loved writing from the time I was in 7th or 8th grade or its equivalent in Hong Kong.  In my adult life, there is another big reason for my writing novels, and that is I want to express in a ficiton genre what I want to say.  For every novel I have written, and the one I am currently writing, I have something to say, a sense of purpose beyond the story itself. I want to write about a subject or a place that means a lot to me, but under guise of a story to make it more interesting and perhaps more entertaining. 

A bestseller? Certainly don’t mind if I have one. But to me, the success in sales is the gravy on the steak, the icing on the cake. It’s very nice, but not essential for my sense of fulfillment and gratification which I find in the writing, during the process of creating the work. There is the saying the best part of a destination is the geting there. That literally applies to novel writing.

 The Journey

From the time I was in high school in Hong Kong, like many students whose favorite and perhaps best subject is English, I was selected to send in essays for the British Commonwealth essay competitions. I won commendations and prizes in those competitions several times, little perks of encouragement that gave me incentives to write, and eventually I dreamed of becoming a novelist some day.

My undergraduate major at the University in Hong Kong was English Literature. Couldn’t think of any other subject I wanted more to study. Then in graduate school at the University of Toronto, I did a masters degree program again in English. At the age of 23, I was confronted for the first time with the practical question ‘What can I do with two degrees in English to make a living? Where do I go from there? What about my dream of writing novels and getting them published? Little did I know that it would take me two different careers before I finally wrote and published my first novel, 36 years later. Writing is my third career.

Yes I had to bank that dream of writing a novel for 36 years. Instead, I took another program in education at the University of Toronto and became a teacher of English in high school. A few years later, I realized I really preferred library work more than teaching, and so I diligently returned to studying for a degree in Library Science, this time at the University of Chicago. After that, between raising a family, I spent 17 years as a librarian, in Illinois, then Toronto, Canada.

Then one day I said to myself when I was in mid-life, “Elsie, you are not getting any younger. If you want to follow your dream of writing a novel (and my ambition then was a novel, not more), I had better do something about it. It’s now or never.” I was determined to act on it.

So, while still working as a librarian, I took a summer workshop and some correspondence courses in creative writing with a reputable writing school in Toronto. The instructors were all established Canadian authors. The result was my first novel, Hui Gui: a Chinese story. It’s a historical novel that spanned 37 years of Chinese history from 1934, the rise of communism, the Long March, through the Japanese invasion of China, and the 2nd World War, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, then on to British Hong Kong with the influx of refugees from China as a result of communism controlling the country. The novel ends with the return of Hong Kong by Britain to China in 1997.  With a well-edited manuscript, I signed up with a literary agent in Canada. There were a couple of near breakthroughs, and my hopes were temporarily raised that I would land a book contract, but as my agent said, “Don’t count on it until a contract lands in your lap.” After a year with the agent, and without definite results, I decided to take matters into my own hands, and self publish Hui Gui: a Chinese story in 2005. The book was professionally produced, printed by the University of Toronto Press, distributed by a professional distributor who placed multiple copies of the novel in bookstores of the Chapters/Indigo chain across Canada, and many academic and public libraries in Canada and the U.S. As well, the novel was distributed through online bookstores, the most popular one being and its worldwide network. I hired a publicist for a while to promote it, and attended many radio and TV interviews.  

A national Chinese TV station in Canada, Fairchild TV,  did an-hour long documentary of me and my novel Hui Gui, aired during prime time on a Sunday evening just before Christmas, 2005. Everything was done right. Sales were good the first year after publication. Over the years, I have become my own distributor of this novel, and now in its eleventh year since publication, it is still being purchased and read. Earlier this year, I saw a copy of it on the shelf of Kinokunya Bookstore in San Francisco. I just sent out two copies of the book to to fill customer’s orders in the last few days. The shelf life of Hui Gui has been quite long for a first novel. 

My second novel was The Heart of the Buddha, a mystery and love story set in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. I had traveled to Bhutan in 2000 for 5 days, and I fell in love with the little kingdom. Two years later in 2002, I returned to Bhutan to research for a story. I subsequently wrote my novel and it was published in 2009.  Again the novel was well received, and it is still alive and well on online bookstores.

I had a special dream for this book. It was to make it accessible to the Bhutanese people. Sold for US $15 on online bookstores, it was relatively unaffordable to them. Then in 2011, I received a request from a publisher in India which wanted to republish The Heart of the Buddha for distribution in the Indian subcontinent which would include Bhutan. A contract was signed and the book under a different cover was published and distributed in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. I specified to the Indian publisher that I wanted the book to be made accessible and affordable to the Bhutanese people. My dream of having the novel available to the reading public in Bhutan was realized. A year later, a Bhutanese Facebook friend posted to me that she found the novel in her college library, and she was reading it.

I had gone to Sarawak on the island of Borneo several times in recent years, to visit my relatives there and also to research my third novel. I completed the manuscript in 2012. In 2013, it so happened the Women in Publishing Society in Hong Kong of which I was a member inaugurated a literary prize called the Saphira Prize for unpublished fiction. I submitted my completed manuscript, and won the Saphira Prize which was that the novel would be published by the Women in Publishing Society. The novel Ghost Cave: a novel of Sarawak was launched in March, 2014 in Hong Kong, and again at the literAsian Festival in Vancouver a few months later in October same year. I was invited to participate at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in 2015 at which I gave a presentation about Ghost Cave.

 The Reality 

How much your dream becomes reality depends on what your dream is.

An overnight success? A national bestseller? No matter how good one is as a writer, luck and opportunity play a very important role in one's success, as in the cases of struggling artists in all genres of creativity. The reality is that not every novelist will be a JK Rowling. If a writer wants to create a potential bestseller novel, he or she might stand a better chance picking a subject that’s popular for the majority of the reading public, something that goes with the current and the tide, a timely topical matter, or a fantasy that goes well with the young and the not-so-young. 

But even if your novel does not get to the level of a bestseller, be happy with what you have achieved but do not stop there. Keep plucking away with a passion even if your notion of success seems to elude you.

On the other hand, if you have something you want to say, or a story you want to tell, then listen to your heart, and write your story even if you suspect it may not have worldwide appeal, or the topic is not a trending one. The settings of my three novels are a. China and Hong Kong in the last century; b. Bhutan; c. Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Ask people around you where Bhutan is, or where Sarawak, or even Borneo is. See how many can tell you instantaneously and accurately. Why did I pick these settings for my novels? Because they all meant something to me in a personal, intimate way. Take Ghost Cave: a novel of Sarawak for instance. I wrote it for my father who was born and grew up in Sarawak. He was a third generation descendant of Chinese immigrants to Sarawak, his grandparents having migrated there from China in the early 20th century. I wanted to write a novel for him and for the family there. My dream was realized, my goal was reached when I presented the newly published novel to my family in Sarawak soon as the book came out in 2014, and particularly to my father who was 97 and living in Edmonton, Canada at the time. He held the book in his hands and looked pleased and proud. His first question to me when I presented it to him was : “How many copies have you sold?” He passed away four months later.

I have enjoyed and loved every moment spent researching and composing my novels. Call me a dreamer, an idealist, but aren’t all novelists so, one way or another?  Are my novels bestsellers? No. But they are still selling. Readers have sent me reviews and comments. They are not bestselling novels, never will be, unless one gets picked up accidentally by Ang Li or some other movie producer! We can always dream! But I am happy with the outcome of my work. To me, having written my stories which embody what I want to say, and having my novels published and read are the realization of my dream. 

Finally a few tips on creating opportunities for yourself as a writer:

Networking is important. Use different ways and means to communicate with the publishing community, writers and readers. 

  1. Join writers’ groups;
  2. Use social media to reach out far and wide;
  3. Have a website and a blog; 
  4. Attend writing functions, literary events, readings, book fairs, occasions that may give you opportunities to meet the publishing community, writers, editors, publishers, agents.
  5. If and when invited to do readings or give talks, say yes. 






Aspiring to write a bestselling novel? The dream, the journey, the reality  


Join me at the Foster City Library, Saturday, November 12, 2016, at 2 p.m.



Good Turnout at Elsie Sze's Book Event at the Foster City Public Library

My book event An Afternoon With Elsie Sze at the Foster City Public Library, Foster, CA on January 30th was a great success, thanks to the organizers at the Library and overwhelming support and enthusiasm from the audience. The turnout was very good. I talked about the inspiration and motivation behind each of my novels -- Hui Gui: a Chinese story, The Heart of the Buddha, and Ghost Cave: a novel of Sarawak, and my research journey for each of them. Photos taken on my research trips were flashed on a screen. Audience interest and participation were most encouraging. The event ended with a reading from my recent Saphira Prize award-winning novel Ghost Cave. I received many favorable comments from participants. It was a very gratifying experience.

Talking about my novels with the help of photos taken during on-site research

Reading from my recent Saphira Prize award-winning novel Ghost Cave: a novel of Sarawak. Photo of the entrance to the Ghost Cave in Sarawak is flashed on a screen.