Discussing “Freedom Swimmer”: A Story about Immigration and Freedom

The Stuyvesant Alumni Association hosted a Book Talk discussing themes of immigration and freedom prevalent in “Freedom Swimmer,” a recent novel by alum Wai Chim ’00.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Freedom Swimmer,” a historical fiction young adult novel by Stuyvesant alum Wai Chim (’00), tells the story of the thousands of Chinese refugees who swam for hours from Mainland China to Hong Kong during the 1950s to 1980s in search of sanctuary. The Stuyvesant Alumni Association hosted a Book Talk on November 17 that featured Chim and alum Telly Leung (’98), who narrated the audiobook for the novel, with award-winning journalist Heather Chin (’02) as the moderator, discussing the release of this book.

Chim’s novel is based on the experience of her father, who was a “freedom swimmer.” “The book is inspired by my father’s story; he swam from China to Hong Kong in the 1970s as a ‘freedom swimmer,’ which also is the title of the book,” Chim said in an e-mail interview. “As the writer, I researched and put into words the details of the story that needed to be specific and universal to readers, so they can follow and experience the story.”

When Chim learned her novel’s audiobook was being narrated by a fellow Stuyvesant alum, Leung, whose parents were also freedom swimmers, she took interest in organizing a Zoom panel to share each other’s stories with the Stuyvesant community. “I thought that was really great to have a coincidental Stuyvesant collaboration and [I also] wanted to know about [Leung’s] parents’ story and how it was like my father’s,” Chim said.

Leung also reflected on the relevance that “Freedom Swimmer has to her family’s story and her own life. “This particular book has personal meaning to me and Wai because both of our parents were freedom swimmers. [...] Had both our parents not made the long journey, where would we be today? Would we both be artists? Would we have gone to Stuy?” Leung said in an e-mail interview.

Chim invited Chin to moderate the panel, as the two knew each other during their time at Stuyvesant and had kept in touch after graduating. “Wai Chim and I have been friends since our days at Stuyvesant when we met via Key Club, where she was club secretary and editor when I joined as a freshman,” Chin said in an e-mail interview. “Wai reached out to me to be moderator not just because she knows I am a journalist and a Stuy alum, but also because she knew I was familiar with the book and her work in general. As a fan, friend, and bibliophile, I was naturally delighted.”

Leung was also excited to meet Chim not only for being the voice of the audiobook but also for being able to bond over their shared Stuyvesant experience. “Oftentimes, an author will select the voice actor for an audiobook and never ever meet the actor. I was thrilled that I got to meet the author, and that the author happen to be a fellow Stuyvesant alum,” Leung said.

During the discussion, Leung was particularly interested in the differences between her and Chim’s stories. “I was fascinated (and surprised) that both Wai and I had freedom swimmers in our family, but our families told us in very different ways. [...] As an actor, I am infinitely fascinated by human nature and how different people deal with challenges & trauma differently, and Wai and I had such contrasting stories,” Leung said.

Chin noticed parallels between the discussion of the book and the classes she took at Stuyvesant. “The key takeaways of the novel were themes and questions for the reader: what does freedom mean to us? To echo what I learned in senior Existentialism class way back then, is it ‘freedom from’ or ‘freedom to’ that resonates for our own sense of self?” Chin said.

The event also brought into question the true meaning of “freedom” as demonstrated in the present day. “I am hoping the story of these two Chinese boys willing to risk their lives to swim for freedom will make us appreciate our own freedom in a different light and give us perspective about what freedom means in the West,” Leung said.

Chim wishes for her readers to gain historical knowledge as well as inspiration of a Stuyvesant alum being an author. “I hope people learned a little bit about history, the migrant experience, and also how it’s like to have a creative career post-Stuyvesant,” she said.

Along the same lines, Chin sees a relevance between the events in the novel and events happening now. “Personally, I hope that modern readers recognize that this may be part of history, but it isn't ancient history and continues to repeat in ways large and small,” Chin said.

The event was special to the three alumni involved, as it allowed them to reflect on how their high school experiences influenced who they are today. “It was really a great dream come true to come back to my alma mater as an adult and reminisce about my time out there and discuss how it inspired and shaped my adult career,” Chim said.

Chin expressed her post-event thoughts and compliments of her fellow Stuyvesant alumni in making this event a success. “I was thrilled with the outcome of the panel event. Wai and Telly did an amazing job of connecting with the audience and telling their own personal and family stories and inspirations. It was a lot of fun,” Chin said.

Chim hopes that alums will continue to collaborate in the future and organize similar events. “There are so many amazing creations being launched into the world by Stuy alums and I hope that students and fellow alumni alike continue to support one another. We can never stop learning together,” she said.