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Friday, 28 October 2011

A Tortured Path to Writing and Cartooning

Philip Chen

I am, by nature and experience, a very serious man.  Just look at the things that I have done and you will see no flights of fancy, no falling off the beaten path, and certainly no aspirations of the literary kind.

As the immigrant son of strict Chinese parents, there was no opportunity to indulge in anything but adhere to rules.  Life from an early age was rigorous: obedience to parents, and constant studying.  If you were found doing anything that was not “educational”, you could expect to be punished and not by being given time outs, either.  Comic books were frowned upon and I remember that any Mad Magazine found in my room was torn up and thrown away.  My purchase of an Ann-Margret album was smashed.  All this was evil stuff that diverted you from your essential purpose: study and then study some more.

At an intellectual level, even at a young age, I understood why my parents were so strict.  Growing up in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s as an Asian was not easy.  We lived in Washington, D.C., which at that time was at the intersection of southern institutionalized racism and northern false hope.  Opportunities for Chinese in America, during the time of the Chinese Exclusion laws, were few and far between.  As a young child, I was resigned to the fact that I would be channeled into some technical field.  Any aspiration of going into architecture, art, or other creative pursuit was, simply put, a non-starter.

There were no laws that said Chinese could not pursue these avenues, but society, reinforced by my parents, said that any attempt to do anything but pursuing a technical education was doomed to failure.

So I became a serious man.

I went to engineering school and did well.  I worked as an ocean research engineer and then went into environmental and power plant engineering when funds for ocean research mysteriously dried up.  Even in engineering, this notion that Chinese could not do anything but be technicians was manifest.  Despite my having been educated at two very serious and highly rated universities for my bachelor and masters degrees and having had straight A's in English at university, a well-meaning engineering manager once told me, “Phil, your problem is that you don't write good.”  I had to bite my tongue from correcting him that he meant “well” not “good”.

You see, the mantra of the time (and unfortunately still true to some extent today) is that non Western Europeans are unable to master English and because of that  they are often relegated to analytical functions.  Managerial positions (concomitant with higher pay and stature) were meant only for people who could master English.

By the mid-seventies, American society had opened up slightly, thanks in great measure to the civil rights movement led by African-Americans.  As a serious man, I saw an opportunity to broaden my knowledge of the rapidly developing area of environmental law and its application to my job as an environmental engineer.

That's when it the serious life started to unravel.  

Starting legal studies at night and eventually finishing full-time at a major law school, I found that I could have a career that did not box me into a strictly technical field.  I became a trial attorney in 1979.  Even then, I admit that not many Chinese Americans were trial attorneys, although there were many practicing patent law, the equivalent to being an engineer in the legal profession.  One thing led to another and I saw myself spiraling away from the walls of my childhood imprisonment.  In quick succession, I became a municipal securities attorney, an investment banker, and private equity manager in Africa.  Quite a path for a young immigrant child who was told that he could never aspire to do anything except engineering calculations and drawing plans on a piece of vellum.  I started to see a world that I had never dreamed about.  I dined at the finest restaurants, stayed in the most luxurious hotels and resorts, had junior personnel ready to do whatever I asked, and even flew on the Concorde.

But I remained a serious man.

I did this for twenty years, pursuing the career of a serious man.  I married, had two children, bought a house, bought a summer home, and planned seriously for a professional life.  Although my career was eclectic, I never wavered from the path that fate had chosen for me, however tortuous it might have been.  I had no intention of doing anything else.

Then it happened.

In 1990, I suffered through a long period of restless nights, triggered by violent, incredibly vivid nightmares.  In these nightmares, I saw gangs of what looked like ordinary Americans rampaging through my country killing people and destroying buildings.  I saw majestic skyscrapers crash to the ground in flames.  Even when I would be startled awake, these images continued to play out in the darkness of my bedroom, as though I was watching some urban horror movie.  These dreams haunted me during the day as well.  It was as though I were trapped in an endless loop of these scenes of destruction and human tragedy.

During that same time period, I was traveling frequently to Europe for business.  I remember buying a new novel by a famous author who had been paid a handsome advance.  I prefer not to identify the novel or the writer, but I found the book to be so utterly pornographic in its depiction of violence against women and so mundane in its repeated details of life, that I could not finish it - and I am not a prude by any means.  I threw the book away into a trash can at Heathrow Airport.  As a serious man, I said to myself - I can do better than that.

I was carrying a lightweight laptop for business and on those long overseas flights, in lonely hotel rooms (mostly in the U.K.), and during weekends at home, I started to type out a novel about gangs of foreign spies who hid in plain view in America for decades and struck when ordered to do so by their masters.  I did this without any formal training in writing or experience as a storyteller.  My previous writing had always been serious technical, legal or financial papers.

I found that my story was easy to transcribe.  It was as though my characters lined up one-by-one to tell me their tale and I merely transcribed their stories.  I finished the draft in about one and one half months and produced a 560 page manuscript.  My nightmares stopped upon the completion of this manuscript.  It was as though the story was told.

For twenty years, I tried to get literary agents and publishers to look at this novel.  For twenty years, my efforts were continually rebuffed.

In 2001, I watched aghast as jetliners were used by foreign agents in an attack on America.  I was astonished to later learn that these agents had lived amongst us, some for decades, as they plotted this horrendous attack.  My first action after September 11th was to take my principal character's office off of the 100th floor of One World Trade Center, because I did not want people to think that I was trying to profit off this tragedy, although the action in the story takes place in 1993.

My story still had no takers.  It was as though the guardians of the sacred temple thought that my tale of foreign agents hiding in plain view for decades, marrying innocent Americans, raising children, buying homes, holding down jobs, stealing the identities of dead babies, and living the casual suburban life was preposterous.  Things like that just didn't happen in this country - not in America!  Of course, until it did in June 2010 when Russian spies were found to have been doing exactly what my fictional spies did for twenty years.  The only difference was that my spies didn't grow hydrangeas.  One of my fictional agents was even a gorgeous female who posed as a financial consultant.  I started posting excerpts of this story on Scribd.com in May 2009 (see, http://scribd.com/PhilC68) and the novel was first copyrighted in 1991.  I add these facts just in case anyone doubts my history.

That is when I decided to self-publish, in August 2010, just in case any more of my story was broadcast on prime time news.  Like that Swedish discovery of a mysterious object buried on the floor of the Baltic Sea - a principal story line in my novel.

Remember how I reacted on September 2001 to the attack on the World Trade Center?  I now believe that the skyscrapers that I saw in my nightmares crashing to the earth in flames were the Twin Towers.  The reason that I was able to so accurately portray my principal character's office in the Twin Towers is because I was describing my own office as a managing director for Lehman Brothers situated above the 100th floor of Two World Trade Center in the late eighties and early nineties.  I left the firm in 1992, but had I stayed there and if my office was on the same floor on that dreadful day, I would not be writing this today.

This story that the watchdogs of the dead tree book industry so roundly dismissed has now been on sale for a little more than one year. It has been purchased over 4,400 times and has received close to fifty four and five star reviews on various sites.  It also has the unqualified recommendation of noted U.S. book critic Alan Caruba who concluded his review with, "If you read just one novel in 2011, make it Falling Star."

But writing a novel is not necessarily a departure from being a serious man.  Writers tend to be serious about what they do.  But cartooning?  That is another story.

I became less serious.

When I was sixty-three, my cardiologist telephoned me and told me that under no circumstances should I pick up anything heavier than a pencil (a slight exaggeration) over a weekend until he could set up an angiogram.  He was concerned that I was going to burst some pipes or something.  So with absolutely nothing to do, I surfed the web and came across an interesting astronomical theory that there has to be a parallel universe filled with strange matter in order for our universe to maintain cosmic balance.  Don't forget, serious men read serious stuff.

As I sat there reading that article in BBC News, I started thinking (something that tends to get me into trouble), just what kind of life could or would live in such a place?  Would leaves seek help for their fear of autumnal demise?  Do elephant seals sue for protection against orcas?  And, for that matter, just what do the statues on East Island think about as they stand there for centuries staring out at the tranquil waters of the Pacific Ocean.  So without any formal training in art or cartooning, I picked up a number two pencil and started drawing.  My first cartoons appeared on a local message board where they developed a small but vocal following.  Then the New York Times asked me to contribute to their experiment at local news reporting on the web, aptly called, “The Local”.  Eventually, I started my own cartoon blog and posted on various forums and message boards to which I belonged.

Followers of my cartoons compare them favorably to Gary Larson's Far Side, a comparison that pleases me as Larson is one of my favorite cartoonists.

How do I reconcile being a serious man, a writer of thrillers, and cartooning?

Actually writing a novel and drawing a cartoon are not that different.  In each case you are telling a story.  In the first case, your story is related using only words, constructed in such as fashion that the reader is led on a journey into your mind.  In the latter case, your cartoon paints the story in more visual ways and the caption is the punch line.

What the future holds.

As 2011 fades into 2012, I am working on Volume 2 of my series.  In this volume, there will be more clarity in what lies at the bottom of the ocean.  However, Mike must deal with another encounter of the human kind as he is assigned to stop the distribution of a new drug with a most unusual side effect.  But before he can solve that mystery, one of his actions in the first volume comes back to challenge Mike's continued service to CSAC.  I am also assembling volume 2 of There is Strangeness in the Universe.  The tentative title is Happy Holidays?  And Other Tragedies in Life.

Books by Philip Chen

Only one man can save the planet; small problem he just died.

Mysterious but silent objects have been found buried deep in the murky depths of the ocean.  Dormant for decades, they are now awake and sending messages to outer space. Mike, pulled back into a clandestine world to finish a job he started as a young Navy Ensign and help decipher these strange messages, is attacked by gangs of ordinary Americans and must fight for his very life. 

From the deepest reaches of the abyssal plains to the arid but mystically  beautiful deserts of the American Southwest, Falling Star takes you on a journey through the darkest aspects of human existence to enlightenment of mankind's soul.  It is a realistically written novel and contains scenes of graphic violence and strong language.

It may be strange to you, but it is life for us.


Philip Chen was born in China in 1944 and immigrated to the United States in 1949. Growing up in Washington, D.C., during the 1950s and 1960s, Philip learned both the pains and triumphs of American society at a crucial turning point in America's history.  In the fifties and sixties, Washington stood at the crossroads of southern institutionalized racism and northern false hope; a point not lost on the young Chinese immigrant.

After receiving a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering with Distinction from the University of Virginia and a Master of Science from Stanford University, he worked as an ocean research engineer in the development of deep submergence systems. Part of his work dealt with vehicles that could freely dive to 20,000 feet of water depth. He also participated as a hyperbaric chamber operator for manned dives inside a pressure chamber to 1,500 feet. He holds one U.S. Patent for an underwater mooring system.

After his stint as an ocean research engineer, Philip was an environmental and energy engineer, a trial attorney, a public securities attorney, an investment banker, a corporate executive, a private equity manager (in Africa), a strategic consultant, a cartoonist, an illustrator, a website manager, and author. He received his law degree from the University of Minnesota.

One of his mentors once told Philip that it wasn't that he couldn't hold down a job; he couldn't even hold down a career! Philip's biography has been included in Who's Who in America and in Who's Who in the World for many years.



  1. Excellent blog post of a writing life. Don't think you could write as 'well' as you do if you hadn't lived the life.
    Looking forward to the sequel.
    Nash Black (Irene)

  2. So glad that you found your writer's way, Phil! There are definitely more paths than just one, and I'm glad your book has met with such a receptive audience.