Photos: Olga Pichkova @olga.pichkova
Loveboat, Taipei, penned by Abigail Hing Wen, is a 2020 young adult romance novel that centers around Ever Wong's transformative journey. As senior year comes to an end, the burden of her parents' expectations weighs heavily on her shoulders, especially as she wrestles with her dreams of becoming a professional dancer and their insistence on her career in medicine. Her last summer before college becomes pivotal when her parents send her to Taiwan to attend a study program at Chien Tan where she is expected to learn Mandarin and connect with her cultural roots.
The program, famously dubbed “Loveboat” by its attendees and alumni due to the dating opportunities it presents, Ever meets the novel’s other main characters: Rick Woo, Sophie Ha, and Xavier Yeh. The novel beautifully weaves various themes, delving into matters of identity, mental health, racism, and more, making it a compelling and thought-provoking read. Loveboat, Taipei is followed by two sequels: Loveboat Reunion, which hit shelves last year, and the upcoming Loveboat Forever, which is slated for release this November.
Love in Taipei, a film adaptation based on the first novel, is scheduled to be released on Paramount+ on August 10. It stars Ashley Liao as Ever Wong, with Ross Butler, Chelsea Zhang, and Nico Hiraga rounding out the main cast. Recently, Timid had the opportunity to sit down with Wen to discuss her captivating narrative and role in the adaptation.
Abigail Hing Wen: I wrote for 10 years—five novels—on my way to Loveboat, Taipei. I had to bury the books—two of them came close at a major publishing house, but their marketing teams didn't know how to market them. This was in a world before Crazy Rich Asians and Hamilton opened up the world for diverse stories having general audiences. On my third novel, I signed with a huge Hollywood agency, and they all thought it was going to be a movie, so I had that bug in me.
I wrote Loveboat, Taipei two novels later, and everyone who was reading it for me said, “Wow, this is really cinematic. I can really see this on a screen.” So there was always a hope in the background. When I sent that novel out into the world for agents, I had a lot of agents interested and they all pitched film rights to me. We went to a multi-house auction with the publishers. HarperCollins ended up paying top dollar and we went with them because we felt that they had the biggest vision for my career overall. Once we announced the book deal, the scouts all started calling us and we started having conversations with different producers. But even with my very first conversation, my film manager said to me, “We can't celebrate until we're in the car driving to the premiere.” Now, I can say that we have a movie that's coming out.
AHW: I was involved with the film from the very beginning. That was actually a really important part of negotiations. My agents said, “This is an all Asian American cast. It's really important for Abigail to be involved in helping to make sure that it's an authentic story.” I spoke with the screenwriters on multiple occasions as the script was being written. Arvin Chen [the director] brought in a really wonderful group of talent in Taipei, and having diverse people involved in the making of the film helped with that authenticity.
I feel like the characters are really true to who they are. The few people who have seen the film were like, “Wow, the characters are exactly the same and you'll see them, they're all there. It's Ever, Rick, Sophie, Xavier, Laura, Debra, Jenna, Megan—who's Ever’s best friend—and then the boys, Marc, David, Benji Spencer, then the counselors Li-Han, Mei-Hwa, and of course, the Dragon, who’s the main antagonist on campus, and the parents, they're all there. There are also two new characters that are introduced. One is Auntie Shu, but she's actually the analog to the ballet teacher that Ever befriends because we had to condense a novel into a hundred page script. That character in the movie does double the work of being a mentor figure to Ever but also keeping Ever tied to her family which is part of the emotional arc. That journey of understanding, of finding the courage to be yourself, pursuing your passions while still honoring your parents—that theme comes through in both the book and the film.
AHW: I went when I was 12 on my first trip with my parents. I remember being struck by all these strange sights and smells I'd never seen before. I remember smelling incense for the first time and seeing that in our hotel and at temples. It's really industrialized a lot since then. Taiwan was always known as one of the Four Tigers, but even in my visits, I saw that incredible growth. When I first went, there was no Taipei 101, and now there is this incredible, gorgeous skyline-defining skyscraper. It's modern and yet it’s shaped like a pagoda, which I love.
AHW: For my Asian American readers and viewers, I want them to know that an Asian American girl and an Asian American boy can be the main characters of their story. 15 years ago, there was an Asian American author who wanted to publish a novel about an Asian American boy, and she was told that she would have a book contract but that she had to change her boy to a Caucasian boy in order to publish it. She said it was like taking a spoon to her heart, but she did it because it's so hard to get a book deal. That story was in the community for years. I didn't write Asian American main characters for many years. But over time, things changed. As I mentioned, Crazy Rich Asians, Hamilton, and then there were more books that were being published, so I wanted young, diverse kids to look at this work and be like “Oh, I can be the main character. My story matters.” The stories that we recognize, like that struggle we have with our family, that odd experience of bringing different kinds of food to school than anyone else, those are our stories that I never saw in books growing up, and definitely not on TV. I want kids to know that these stories matter.
What I want mainstream audiences to take away from the film is just a sense of diversity within the Asian American community. We're like everyone else, the good and the bad. We fall in love. We make stupid mistakes. We get back on our feet. We do better, just like everyone else.
AHW: I love how different mediums can be leaned into in different ways. In the book, you can go deep into a character's interiority and you also have the luxury of more pages to just tell the stories and have multiple subplots and complexities. You lose some of that in the film, but what a film can do that a book can't is to showcase the beauty of the scenery. One of the criticisms of the book, which I think is fair, is that it doesn't have enough Taipei in it. I just didn't have enough word count, but it wouldn’t have done it justice. But on the screen you can see the Grand Hotel and how amazing it is to have this huge pagoda-like building and all its grandeur, and of course Taipei 101 and the lush, gorgeous natural scenery of Taiwan, the night markets, and how exciting and vibrant the city is. Then with the dance, I can capture how it feels in her body and the emotion of it in words, but it's a different experience to see it flying across the screen. I'm super excited about those elements.
AHW: The sneaking out scenes, for sure. There are quintessential stories that came out of this Loveboat program and sneaking out was one of them. In my books, my characters sneak out in all kinds of different ways. In the novel, they sneak out through this blue pipe, but we couldn't film it that way because it's too dangerous, but we had fun with that aspect of the movie. We actually filmed a lot more footage than ended up in the film. Maybe one day if they do any behind the scenes or extra footage kind of stuff, it’ll be fun to bring some of those out.
AHW: So Loveboat Forever is set six years later, and it follows Pearl Wong, who is the younger sister of Ever. She’s a music prodigy, so she's quite a bit of a rising star and quite a big brand. She has this big blow up on TikTok, which I think is very relevant in today's time and culture. You just never know when you might say the wrong thing and things just go south. But she ends up going to Loveboat where she is supposed to lay low for the summer. There are a number of new characters, but then we bring the whole gang back so you get to see how everyone's arcs play out while Pearl has her own experience.
Love in Taipei is scheduled to be released on Paramount+ on August 10, 2023.
Loveboat Forever is expected to be released on November 7, 2023.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.