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Warm, funny, and deeply moving, Gus Lee's semi-autobiographical account of growing up in a conflict-ridden family, unable to fully embrace either American or Chinese culture, is an enthralling story of family relationships, the perils of boyhood, and the difficulty of being Chinese in 1950's San Francisco.
“Stunning . . . Lee vividly portrays cultural conflict . . . he reminds us of Maxine Hong Kingston, both in his style and material.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“China Boy forcefully fills a gap long neglected in American literature—the strong, authentic voice of an Asian-American male.”
—David Henry Hwang, author of M. Butterfly
“EXTRAORDINARY . . . a fierce and passionate song of triumph over an alien landscape . . . alive with energy, despair, willpower and great tenderness . . . It is an exciting experience.”
—The Washington Times
“Resonating with strong characterizations, evocative descriptions of San Francisco in the 1950’s, and the righteous indignation of abused innocence.”
“Gus Lee is one heck of a writer. He has a superb command of the language, of the lingo of the street and the Chinese-American argot.”
“COMPELLING . . . This is the Chinese-American experience as Dickens might have described it . . . vividly and intensely human.”
“CONVINCING . . . OFFERS A VIVID GLIMPSE OF CHINESE-AMERICAN LIFE.”
GUS LEE is the only American-born member of a Shanghai family. He grew up in San Francisco and attended West Point for three years until his failing performance in then-mandatory electrical engineering gave him the involuntary opportunity to become an enlisted man. After receiving his law degree from the University of California at Davis, he rejoined the army as Captain Lee and served as general counsel. He resumed civilian life to become a deputy district attorney in Sacramento, then served for some years as Director of Attorney Education for the State Bar of California. He is married and lives with his wife and two children in Colorado Springs. China Boy is his first novel.
To Mah-mee, for love; to Father, for guidance; to my stepmother, for English; to my sisters, for caring.
To those who encouraged my work, with particular thanks to Lee Hause, Ying Lee Kelley, Mary Ming Zhu and Maralyn Elliott, to Susan Leigh and Alfred Wilks; to my peerless agent, Jane Dystel of Acton & Dystel and to Arnold Dolin, Vice President and Associate Publisher, and Gary Luke, Executive Editor; to Mrs. Marshall and Captain Piolonik, my high school and West Point English teachers; to H. Norman Schwarzkopf, whose faith in callow youth is still valued; to Bill Wood; and to HMR and MTH, who set the standard for excellence.
To the men and women staff and volunteers of the San Francisco Central YMCA, who ministered for low pay and long hours to the needs of youth: Karl R. Miller, Tony Gallo, Bruce Loong Punsalong, Bobby Lewis, Sally Craft, Dick Lee, Ken Cooper, Pete Joni, Don Stewart, Keith Gordon, Dave Friedland, George Wong, John Lehtinen, Leroy Johnson, Harry Lever, George McGregor, John Mindeman, Art Octavio, Buster Luciano Weeks, Dan Clement, Sherwood Snow, Dan Moses, Ralph and Lela Crockett, Lola and her cafe, and my other teachers and coaches of youth whose names could not be held as closely as the lessons they imparted. And to Toos, wherever you are.
And, to the Central YMCA Boys Department on Leavenworth—a place where all youth were of the same color, and every lad could be a hero. A place now so desperately needed, and now so sadly closed.
Table of Contents
The sky collapsed like an old roof in an avalanche of rock and boulder, cracking me on the noggin and crushing me to the pavement. Through a fog of hot tears and slick blood I heard words that at once sounded distant and entirely too close. It was the Voice of Doom.
“China Boy,” said Big Willie Mack in his deep and easy slum basso, “I be from Fist City. Gimme yo’ lunch money, ratface.”
“Agrfa,” I moaned.
He was standing on my chest. I was not large to begin with; now I was flattening out.
“Hey, China Boy shitferbrains. You got coins fo’ me, or does I gotta teach you some manners?”
In my youth, I was, like all kids, mostly a lot of things waiting to develop. I thought I was destined for dog meat. Of the flat, kibbled variety.
In the days when hard times should have meant a spilled double-decker vanilla ice cream on absorbent asphalt, I contended with the fact that I was a wretched streetfighter.
“China,” said my friend Toussaint. “You’se gotta be a streetfighta.”
I thought a “streetfighta” was someone who busted up pavement for a living. I was right. I used my face to do it.
I had already developed an infantryman’s foxhole devotion; I constantly sought cover from a host of opportunities to meet my Maker. I began during this stage to view every meal as my last, a juxtaposition of values that made the General Lew Wallace Eatery on McAllister my first true church. Its offerings of food, in a venue where fighting was unwelcome, made my attendance sincere.
The Eatery was a rude green stucco shack. On one side was a bar named the Double Olive that looked like a dark crushed hat and smelled like the reason Pine Sol was invented. On the other flank was an overlit barbershop with linoleum floors in the pattern of a huge checkerboard.
The Eatery’s windows were blotched mica of milky greased cataract, its walls a miasma of fissured paint, crayoned graffiti, lipstick, blood, and ink. I always imagined that Rupert and Dozer, the Eatery’s sweaty, corpulent cooks, were refugees from pirate ships. They had more tattoos than napkins, more greased forearms than tablecloths. They were surly, they were angry, they were bearded and they were brothers, bickering acidly over what customers had ordered, over the origin of complaints or the mishandling of precious change; enemies for life, and so angered by countless hoarded and well-remembered offenses experienced and returned that no one would consider even arguing inside the Eatery, lest the mere static of disagreement spark a killing frenzy by the angry cooks.
“Flies, please,” I said to Rupert, who was the smaller, but louder, sibling.
“Fries! Crap! Boy, how long you bin in dis country? You bettah learn how ta talk, an’ you bettah have some coin, and don be usin no oriental mo-jo on me. Don job me outa nothin!” His voice churned like a meat grinder that had long been abused by its owner.
The Lew Wallace Eatery’s proximity to dying winos and artistic kids, its daunting distance from the Ritz, its casualness in differentiating dirt from entree—all were of no consequence to young folk who had tasted its fries and salivated to worship them again. Inside, food was ample, aromas were beguiling and my scuffed and badly tied Buster Browns were drawn like sailors to Sirens.
The Eatery was central to the nutrition of the Panhandle, but it failed to draw critics from the papers, gourmets from other nations, or gourmands from the suburbs. Passersby in search of phones, tourists seeking refreshments, the disoriented hoping for directions would study the Eatery’s opaquely cracked windowpanes, the cranky bulk of its grill managers, and steadfastly move on. The Eatery had not been featured in the convention bureau’s brochures. The Panhandle was the butt end of the underbelly of the city, and was lucky to have plumbing.
San Francisco is possessed with its own atmosphere, proudly conscious of its untempered and eccentric internationalism. With grand self-recognition, it calls itself “the City.” It is foreign domesticity and local grandeur. It is Paris, New York, Shanghai, Rome, and Rio de Janeiro captured within a square peninsula, seven by seven miles, framed by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and the interior half-moon of satellite villages rolling on small hills with starlight vistas of Drake’s Bay.
The City’s principal park is the Golden Gate, a better Disneyland for adults than anything Walt ever fashioned. It has aquaria, planetaria, stadia, museums, arboreta, windmills, sailing ships, make-out corners, Eastern tea gardens, statues, ducks, swans, and buffalo. The park runs east directly from the Pacific Ocean for nearly half the width of the City, traversing diverse neighborhoods as blithely as a midnight train crosses state lines.
The Panhandle is where Golden Gate Park narrows to the width of a single block. It looks like the handle of a frying pan, and is almost in the dead center of the city. On this surface I came to boyhood, again and again, without success. I was a Panhandler. Panhandler boys did not beg. We fought.
A street kid with his hormones pumping, his anger up, and his fists tight would scout ambitiously in the hopes of administering a whipping to a lesser skilled chump. That was me. I was Chicken Little in Thumpville, the Madison Square Garden for tykes. It was a low-paying job with a high price in plasma. I had all the streetfighting competence of a worm on a hook.
Streetfighting was like menstruation for men—merely thinking about it did not make it happen; the imagined results were frightening; and the rationale for wanting to do it was less than clear.
Fighting was a metaphor. My struggle on the street was really an effort to fix identity, to survive as a member of a group and even succeed as a human being. The jam was that I felt that hurting people damaged my yuing chi, my balanced karma. I had to watch my long-term scorecard with the Big Ref in the permanently striped shirt. Panhandle kids described karma as, what go around, come around.
“Kai Ting,” my Uncle Shim said to me, “you have excellent yuing chi, karma. You are the only living son in your father’s line. This is very special, very grand!”
I was special. I was trying to become an accepted black male youth in the 1950s—a competitive, dangerous, and harshly won objective. This was all the more difficult because I was Chinese. I was ignorant of the culture, clumsy in the language, and blessed with a body that made Tinker Bell look ruthless. I was guileless and awkward in sports. I faced an uphill challenge with a downhill set of assets.
I was seven years old and simpler, shorter, and blinder than most. I enjoyed Chinese calligraphy, loved Shanghai food, and hated peanuts and my own spilled blood. It was all very simple, but the results were so complicated. God sat at a big table in T’ien, Heaven, and sorted people into their various incarnations. I was supposed to go to a remote mountain monastery in East Asia where I could read prayers and repeat chants until my mind and soul became instruments of the other world. I had a physique perfect for meditation, and ill-suited for an inner-city slum.
God sneezed, or St. Pete tickled Him, and my card was misdealt onto the cold concrete of the Panhandle, from whence all youth fled—often in supine postures with noses and toes pointed skyward.
Some who survived became cops, but more became crooks. We played dodgeball with alcohol, drugs, gambling, sharp knives, and crime. As children, we learned to worry about youth who held hidden razors in their hands and would cut you for the pleasure of seeing red. We avoided men who would beat boys as quickly as maggots took a dead dog in a closed and airless alleyway. The compulsion to develop physical maturity long in advance of emotional growth was irresistible. It caused all kids, the tough and the meek, the tall and the small, to march to the same drum of battle.
It was a drum tattoo that was foreign to the nature of my mother, but all too familiar to her life. This beat resonated with the strength of a jungle tom-tom in my father, but it ran counter to the very principles of his original culture and violated the essence of his ancient, classical education and the immutable humanistic standards of Chinese society.
Almost to a man, or boy, the children of the Panhandle became soldiers, until the Big Card Dealer issued a permanent recall, with the same result. Noses up.
As we struggled against the fates, Korea was claiming its last dead from the neighborhood, the ’hood, and Vietnam and every evil addiction society could conjure were on the way.
My family arrived in San Francisco in 1944, in the middle of the most cataclysmic war the planet had ever suffered.
The family called the trip to America Boh-la, the Run, which is like thinking of the Hundred Years’ War as a pillow fight. The Run was a wartime journey across the Asian landmass, from the Yellow Sea to Free China, to the Gangetic Plains of India, across the Pacific Ocean to America.
Even today, this journey would be a hardship. In 1943, it was a darkly dangerous, Kafka-like venture into the ugly opportunities of total war. A million extremely hostile enemy soldiers blocked the thousand miles of twisting river road from Shanghai to Chungking. From there, with a major assist from American aviation, my family continued to India, and from India, with the help of the U.S. Navy, to the United States. It is the type of exercise where one hopes for more than a cold beer at road’s end. Since I was born in California, I missed the trip.
My family was not built for the road. My eldest sister, Jennifer Sung-ah, was fifteen. She was already tall, with long slender bones and a chiseled high-cheekboned face for which fashion models pray. She possessed unimpeachable status, for she was the Firstborn. She was resourceful, but was also a patriot, and experienced deep conflict in leaving China.
Megan Wai-la, my second chiehchieh, or older sister (tsiatsia in Mandarin), was twelve, and possessed of a charming and mirthful spirit. Megan Wai-la was as beautiful as the elegant Jennifer Sung-ah, but was poorly dressed. She possessed the strength of iron, for her pleasant disposition had been formed without the benefit of enduring care from our mother. Mother had, of course, wanted sons. A first daughter, with some good fortune, could be endured. But two daughters! This augured bad luck, and Mah-mee passed this ill fortune to the little baby girl who could be blamed for not being a son. Worn, secondhand clothes in a wealthy family were symbolic of a powerful devaluation.
Janie Ming-li was four, and enjoyed the dual status of being unbearably pretty as well as a near casualty of the diseases of China. She was at an age when crying was normal, but in a situation where a cry at the wrong time could draw a soldier’s gunfire.
In 1943 my mother and sisters were alone in a world at war. All they had to fear were Japanese Imperial troops, brigands, typhus, dufei: bandits, rapists, thieves, deserters, and the unclean. My father was a Nationalist Chinese Army officer and joined the family in San Francisco after V-J Day.
“Earth, wind, water, fire, iron,” said my mother. “This is what makes the world. I think I am earth. I crossed it, and became it, in the Run. I look at my fingernails, so clean, and still see the earth’s dirt in them. Farmers’ hands have soil embedded in the pores, so they are like the paddies. I can still feel the Boh-la in the little grooves in my fingers.”
My mother’s favorite belongings had been deposited into a crate that had been hauled across the world, defying the curiosity of interlopers and the efforts of thieves. It was a treasure trove of books, photos, clothing, and memorabilia.
Notice had come in the early morning of November 5, 1943: “Kampetai coming for the family of Major Ting Kuo-fan!” the short Salt Tax prefect cried breathlessly. “Tomorrow—dawn!”
The Kampetai, the intelligence arm of the Japanese Imperial Army, had identified Major T. K. Ting, Kuomintang Army, as an officer assigned to General Stilwell’s Rangoon Headquarters. He was now known to be running in the hills of Hupeh province with renegade American soldiers, shooting Kwangtung Army infantrymen. He was being sought by their gestapo in retribution for his warlike acts. Our dogs would be killed if they barked. Sons would be bayoneted and hung from poles, the women shot.
Mother turned to Paternal Grandmother, her mother-in-law. “Please. My respects to you, and my father. Please tell him I had no time to say good-bye. I must take my children from your home and seek another. Tell my husband!
“Tell him we will go upriver, to the Cheng clan in the Su Sung Tai. From there, Chungking. I would like, please, the old vegetable cart behind the tailor’s outhouse. Please tell Yip Syensheng that the wheels should be oiled. We leave before dawn.”
In that one tear-streaming night my mother and sisters tore through their belongings, putting all they could into the crate. Mementos went in, sacrifices came out, but the loss was not material. They were leaving the people of their blood and the home and hearth of their ancestors, and their efforts were like waving good-bye to the world. They were leaving everything, from love itself to the best kitchen staff and cook in the maritime provinces.
“How can this be?” my mother asked.
“Everything beneath Heaven is disturbed,” whispered Da-Ma, her sister-in-law, who was higher in rank and therefore possessed the answers. Their children cried as they said good-bye to each other, fearing the eternal loss of irreplaceable friendship, dreading death and the loss of the clan’s lineage.
When the cocky roosters called forth that morning, sitting atop empty dog kennels, my mother and her three daughters were already five hours upriver, stirring cool road dust with the chef’s finest provisions and the house’s best guard dog in the cart.
Jennifer, my eldest sister, looked forward to reaching Free China, and even America beyond, with the fierce determination common to the young in 1940s China. She did not want to leave the most exciting city in Asia, but her duty was to Mother.
Father had been born in 1906, six years after the foreign powers had seized Beijing in the Boxer Rebellion. Two years after his birth, the Empress Dowager Tz’u-hsi died, leaving P’u-yi, the infant Last Emperor on the throne of the Empire of China. P’u-yi and my father had been born in the same month of the same year, in the last dynasty in Chinese history. When my father was five, the Empire fell, and the warlords appeared. After the popular student democracy movement of 1919, my father’s mother, who ran the Shanghai Salt Tax Companies Office in the name of her husband, foresaw a Western-influenced future. She promoted a younger man to be house interpreter and chief of tutors.
He was Luke Hung-chang. He was from Fukien province, was missionary-trained, and had bright, penetrating eyes. All my sisters remembered that. He spoke English, French, and German, was a ferocious reader, and represented the hope of a new China. He gave my sisters their Western names on their last night at home.
“Sung-ah, I give you the name Jennifer. It is very classy, very tremendously musical! A name Amadeus Mozart would have composed!” said Tutor Luke, smiling while tears glazed over his fiery eyes.
“Wai-la, close your eyes and listen. Listen to this sound: Megan! Is that not dramatic, and beautiful! A name of love.
“Wai-la. It is a tremendously special name. And your honored mother appreciates the effect of name-changing. It will bring you her affection, and change your yuing chi. It is an excellent name change! I will think of it, and the sound of it, as you wear it in Free China!”
The tears now streamed down Tutor Luke’s cheeks, the dark comma of his forelock continuing to fall into his glistening eyes. He knew their chances of reaching Chungking were not good. If they succeeded, he also knew that Major Ting wanted the family in America, a place he would never go. His duty was in China.
Chinese men are only allowed to shed tears when the cause is great. He was losing the girls of his dreams. My sisters remembered his passion that night, and how his tears and hair fell as relentlessly as his hopes. He knelt before his smallest student.
“Syau Ming-li. Little Ming-li. I name you Janie, the name of an empress queen of Yinggwo, England, the name of strong and good women of foreign literature. No one pushes around a Janie! So! Remember to keep your head tall, and straight. I expect you to remember me, and to keep this name. This would honor me, Bohbohbei, Little Precious.
“Say it,” he whispered.
“Jen-nii,” she said, sadly, reaching forward, touching his tears.
“Remember me, my beautiful students,” he whispered.
In the vegetable cart that was their transport, Megan, drama in her name and cursed with being Second Daughter, looked back, fearing a future without the greater family’s protection from an uncaring mother. She was twelve.
Jane, four years old and not to be pushed around by anyone, slept in our mother’s arms.
Mr. Yip, the barrel-chested horsemaster with a German self-loading Mauser in his belt, spat on the road as they left the delta, heading for the danger of Japanese lines, the hope of sanctuary with our clan’s allies, the Chengs of the Su Sung Tai, and the heady promise of Free China near Chungking.
My mother wept silently, not looking back to the east. She turned to the north, to her father in Tsingtao. She carried an unpaid debt of shiao, piety to parent, in her breast, as heavy and as foreboding as the rock of Sisyphus.
She also carried a wealth in diamonds, pearls, and rubies in the lining of her clothing. Smaller gems had been sewn into the jackets and pants of her daughters. The thumbs and fingers of my mother’s and sisters’ hands were numb with the accidental prickings of the desperately rushed needles. The jewels were their passports to safety in a world gone mad.
Mother feared that Father would never find them, wherever the fates compelled them to stop. The world was insane, and very big, the Yangtze longer than the Great Wall itself.
I later asked Megan about their flight from China.
“Oh, Little Kai, it was frightful, and horrid. The fear was—hateful. Mah-mee cut off all our hair, smudged us with charcoal, bound our chests, dressed us like peasant boys. We pretended to be stupid as we hiked the Yangtze gorges so men would not look at us.”
“Why no want men look at you?” I asked.
“It took six months,” said Jennifer from across the hall. Megan licked her lips and shook her head, her long hair shimmering in the light from the bright ceiling lamp in her room. She loved having as many lights as possible illuminated. “We really were in terrible danger,” she said. “Mah-mee wore a butcher knife on her forearm, tying it against her, like this,” showing how it lay on the inside of her left arm, always within reach. “She threw it at bandits once. We were always frightened. Then we lived with the Gungtsetang, the Share Wealth Party, for over a month. Mother convinced them that we were peasants, and they accepted us.” Megan peered into the distance.
“It was safer with them than to be on the road. But we left the Share Wealth village for the Nationalist capital in Chungking.”
The Gungtsetang were the Reds—the communist enemies of our father and General Chiang Kai-shek. I could not understand it. “We saw so many people who were going to die.” Her fingers rustled through the hair on my head. “Father met us near Wuhan. He said to Mah-mee: ‘I know you; you never give up,’ and he gave us troops to escort us to Chungking, but they were killed. Dufei, bandits, and tuchun, warlord soldiers, attacked us. That’s when Mah-mee threw the knife. Ayy,” she concluded.
They had bounced and swayed in the old, unpainted cart, clutching the crate, listening to the hooves of the horse, ignoring the men on the river road, hearing the rippling tides of the Yangtze as it rushed to the sea, the dog barking anxiously at his new world.
“Quiet, dog,” said Mr. Yip. He evaluated the road people. Refugees, spies, thieves, misplaced farmers, homeless, hopeless. He curled his eyebrows and his lips, promising death for their interference, placing the menace of his guardianship into their fantasies of finding wealth in the crate.
One of the best prizes of the redwood crate was a book written by Mother’s tutor for her. Years later, she pulled it out to show me.
“See,” she said, “the character, Tang, my tutor. Oh, son. He was so wise, so deep. He always wanted to train a prodigy to become the tallest scholar in Chingsu, the Forest of Brush Pens, in the imperial capital. Instead, he got a girl who could never take the examinations. And I revere his memory because he also taught me about Mozart.”
My mother wept for him. As she related this family history to me, I twitched and rubbed her arm, which only made her cry louder. I asked her the key question about the escape story.
“Yip Syensheng and doggie kill bad guys?” I asked.
“Here is the character, Mar,” she continued wetly, “my family, and Ahn Dai, my name then. The book explains the great philosophers K’ung-Fu-tzu, Lao-tzu, Meng-tzu from a female viewpoint.” Later, I learned that K’ung-Fu-tzu was known in America as Confucius, which is as East Asian a name as DiMaggio.
“You change names, Mah-mee?” I asked. My mother’s name was Dai-li.
“Oh, yes, My Only Son,” she said, sniffling and giggling and pulling my ear. “We change names at our pleasure. For foo chi, good luck, or for better luck. Luck is everything. Foo chi is controlled by gods and spirits. Only clan names and family titles, like Mother and Oldest Daughter and Father and Uncle and Auntie and Firstborn’s Tutor, are unchangeable, for these ranks were established by the gods themselves in the beginning of time.
“Your father has had many names. He was such a dashing, handsome rogue at Taoping Academy that he had a series of them, each from a different teacher. I changed my name only once. When the first Japanese sentry at Hangchow Gate outside Tungliu asked where we were taking my crate and pressed his long knife into Megan’s face.”
“You care for Megan?” I asked.
Mah-mee’s face said: Wrong question.
“Father name, real name?” I tried.
“Of course it is. It is the last one he adopted at the academy. It came from his college roommate, from the powerful Cheng clan, of the Su Sung Tai up the Yangtze gorges from Shanghai. Father now works for the daughter of the Chengs.”
“Where Yip Syensheng? Where doggie, Mah-mee?”
She shook her hand at me, since the horsemaster’s fate remained unknown, but he was a powerful, smart, and resourceful man. He was a survivor. He was probably shoeing a horse as we thought of him.
“What doggie name, Mah-mee?” I asked.
“Name? He was a dog. His name was Dog,” she said.
“Doggie live, Mah-mee?”
“The guard dog ran away in Free China. Tsa, tsa! You are so much a boy, worrying about a dog! He salivated constantly after the Run, and peed on everything in Chungking everytime the Japanese bombed us.”
As I grew older and came to see fighting as a way of life, I wished that I had been born earlier, so I could have participated in that grand odyssey. My father understood that sentiment, but it made my sisters think me daft. In many ways, as a child, I prepared myself for an epic test, an adventure that would measure my worthiness to be the only son of the American extension of the Ting clan.
The Panhandle and the Haight, our mirror ’hood south of the park, were standard-issue wartime blue-collar districts where shipyard workers and longshoremen returned after back-busting, long-shift days at Hunters Point and Fort Mason. The Handle and the Haight were in the sunbelt, unique San Francisco districts without fog, thunderstorms, or people of Chinese or Caucasian descent.
When I arrived squalling—no doubt prescient about my imminent fate—the streets were half black. By the time I was in the second grade and in the center of the frying pan, I was the only Asian, the only nonblack and the only certified no-question-about-it nonfighter in the district. Black families, tired of being hammered by the weight of history and pressured by the burden of being members of the wrongly hued tribe in Georgia and Mississippi, were heading west armed with hope and cheap gas.
That same hope brought my family trekking eastward on a U.S. Navy Liberty ship called the USS George Randall, which my sisters, accustomed to great wealth but sobered by war, regarded as the Queen Elizabeth. My father’s service as infantry liaison to the China–Burma–India Theatre and Army Ground Forces Commander, Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, had earned him a place in the general’s heart and berths for our family on an American airplane and a naval vessel.
These families from Macon and Kiangsu met in the Panhandle, a new and voguish rendezvous point for those interested in building life from the rubble of sundered cultures.
Our families arrived gasping, recoiling from shock, happy to be alive but unsure about all else. There was a feeling that something was owed them for this outrageous upset, for nothing that had been done during the preceding years could have justified the insult of war, the hidden costs of relocation, the tariffs of change, the loss of life.
Blacks, for more than a hundred years, had been fighting and bleeding under their nation’s flag, hoping for a share of the fruits of victory. They had all the optimism of Dickens’s Mr. Micawber, with none of his chances.
During that same century, the Chinese were beset by government corruption, foreign invasion, civil, religious, and ethnic wars, revolution, famine, drought, flood, and excess population. They had suffered countless blights. The Taiping Rebellion, whose fourteen years of steady siege coincided with the American Civil War, had killed 60 million people. Foreign powers ruled China’s coast and imported opium to pay for exports. Legalized opium was laying waste the aristocracy, splintering the social fabric, and threatening even those too poor to purchase it.
China, of course, is not what a billion people call their own country. It is Chung Gwo, the Middle Kingdom, the central state, the center of the universe, the axis of the world, the home of the celestial heaven’s chosen people. It is the home of the tamers of dragons, the sailors of the sea, the students of the moon. Until the eighteenth century, its armies and navies did their will, needing only whim to lash out with lance and sword to carve new boundaries and conquer new worlds.
The land of my heritage was like Big Willie Mack—its personality was that of an unfairly large bully. And karma had come calling, for all of us.
My mother was nearing forty, her rather perfect face concealing a third of those years.
Her five-feet-and-seven-inch frame was usually in dynamic motion, her delicately featured pale oval face, framed in thick black hair, was quick and precise in its expressiveness. Her eyes cast the mood for the house, and they lay above a molten and active personality that had the reflective calm of Vesuvius. Mother had endured family division, seen war and the destruction of her society. But the marks of loss were not in her delicately thoughtful face.
She was smart and probably more beautiful than wise, a woman who saw passion as life itself. She was like Sophia Loren or Anna Magnani, ignited by the surging and crackling impulses of life, inserted into a society of women sworn by Confucian edicts to apparent silence and conspiratorial whisperings.
My mother did things that most Chinese women would not imagine attempting in a state of final extremis. She refused obsequiousness, rejected submission, and exchanged restraint for spontaneity, stating the contents of her mind at the moment of the thought, however transient. She acted as if she were an enfranchised male.
This was the propensity of persons seized by quah, curious behavior, or of molten Italian actresses captured by drama. It was not the recommended mode of highborn Kiangsu gentrywomen. Worse, Mother used this unsanctioned license to speak her mind to criticize her own mother.
Her sister-in-law, my da-ma, the wife of my uncle the Firstborn Son, saw Mother as a revolutionary. That is akin to a Mother Superior suspecting a novitiate to be a Protestant. My aunt’s cranium was analytical, mathematically driven, and poorly suited to coexist with Mother’s passionate persona. Da-ma, it was said, believed that Mother was a repository for tortured spirits whose descendants never honored them in ching ming, filial worship, and were therefore never satisfied and would never know peace.
As Firstborn Son’s Wife, Da-ma held higher rank, a position fortified by her bearing a son while my mother produced daughters. Da-ma punished Mother by ignoring her and encouraging her part of the household staff to do the same. These sisters-in-law lived on the same floor of the ancestral home in Shanghai, sharing space and tasks. Their enmity was poisonously patent, disturbing the geomancy of the house and causing the renowned head cook to tremble and overseason main platters. When Grandmother complained about this grievous failure in cuisine, she directed the head cook’s assistant to make the sauces, and he overseasoned as well in order to protect his boss. Often, in China, it was difficult to fix problems.
Mother came from an aristocratic line that had more money than affection and more pride than skill. Mother’s mother had scorned her work-loathing husband and denied his existence.
My mother was the firstborn, a station of unquestioned majesty and responsibility. She sided openly with her abandoned father against her mother, and did it seriously, maintaining the commitment in the face of popular disapproval. She persevered in her choice long after the death of Grandmother and the separation of an ocean from her father.
“Loyalty is,” Mother said. “Loyalty never dies. Women who do not revere their husbands do not merit loyalty. Of course, I revere my husband, but love him more than I respect his authority.”
Emphasizing her eccentricity, she dabbled with the spices of foreign languages and European music. To the horror of both her parents, she studied the Christian God and seemed genuinely affectionate about a poor prophet named Jesus Christ. Mother’s portly maid, Round Pearl, accompanied her to the mission for English lessons. Round Pearl was very conservative and anti-Christian and feared the foreigners, but her presence did not impede Mother, or calm her parents. Mother’s parents knew that Christ Syensheng had been hung with thieves for his opposition to traditional authority, and were only too aware that their sparkling daughter had married a soldier. They used to argue about which condition was worse, each blessed with the energy which only the self-righteous possess.
In contemporary terms, my mother came from a badly dysfunctional family.
My father was a descendant of warriors, whose line had atrophied in the three centuries of peace that China had won by war.
When militant Italian Jesuits arrived in China in the seventeenth century, they saw mounted shock troops of regimented and color-coordinated Banner warriors, bristling with razor-sharp weapons and quivers of iron-shafted arrows. The warriors rimmed the horizon with blood-red armor, pounding glinting tools of death against their chests and flashing cold ivory smiles as they anticipated the pleasures of homicide.
These men killed for the joy of blood and performed all functions, except the writing of sentimental sonnets, from their worn and battle-scarred saddles. They eventually suffered from an embarrassment of riches: they laughingly killed all their enemies and created their worst nightmare. A world at peace.
By the nineteenth century, Bannermen used saddles as drying racks for silk costumes and gourmet braising pots. They carried swords that had been blunted to avoid accidental cuts. Disputes were resolved by rash games of gambling and false threats rather than by combat.
When confronted by the modern armies of invading European imperialists bent on taking all the tea and silver in China, the descendants of the first armies to use field organization, maneuver, and gunpowder blinked dumbfounded, threw fine porcelain teacups in the air and ran hooting in a flapping of silks for their latrines, crying upon the Seat of Heaven to unleash the celestial furies.
That army, unimaginably, would worsen under the goading pressures of famine, overpopulation, and bribery. My father had all the attributes needed to be one of the great captains, but he was as out of place as a bishop in a liars’ contest. It was my dad’s sad fate to be a great officer in the lousiest military organization since the Children’s Crusade.
My father’s father, Gung-Gung, was a tremendous poet and artist who showed great fidelity to classic calligraphy, to high-throated, gilded-tongued dongszi singsong concubines, to his kang, the teak hardwood bed where he smoked opium, and to his fine, high-priced gum burners where the drug was softened for the pipe. He absorbed the poppy in a self-destructive fury. He pretended that he had no children. He was a product of wretched excess, when the very purpose of living had been lost through the oppression of wealth.
He was a matinee-handsome man who could have been an actor on the Mandarin stage. My paternal grandfather died the way he had lived: in disorder, with his sons facing the end of the world, their wives at war, the clan’s wealth whisked to the winds of the poppy, his wife forgotten, his body turning on itself, the angered and exploited peasants at the gate unfurling red flags and asking for heads.
My mother believed in spirits, in bartering with capricious ghosts, in burning joss sticks to them in moments of reflection, in conversing coherently, and aloud, with her beloved father in Tsingtao while she was in a bathtub in San Francisco.
“The tub is perfect,” she said. “I have come across the sea like the Ming admiral, Cheng Ho, to find this perfect tub. It is because of excellent deals I have made with the spirits of water and wind. The tub allows my feet to point to the west, toward Father, where the feng shui, geomantic forces, inspire calm and peace and allow the sun to sleep.”
She once said at the dinner table—the center of life—that she wished I were a speedy forest and sea spirit who could deliver messages to my grandfather by air, wisping through space in the direction of her toes, toward the setting sun.
She trusted spirits in principle and distrusted people in general. She kissed the joss sticks to ensure that any carelessness in calling spirits to the fragrant paste during their manufacture would be repaired by her own attention to detail. She was superstitious, her respect for the unseen ranging from mild acknowledgment to hysterical drama.
A leading family belief—begun by rumor and concluded in reality—was that the only male child in Mother’s first cousin’s family in Ningshia had died horribly after eating peanuts. Whether it was anaphylactic shock from a unique allergy or asphyxiation from catching the peanuts in the throat, this is unknown.
But peanuts—eating peanuts—became the equivalent for me of spitting on an ancestor’s grave.
I was eating a chienkuo, a peanut. “TII-IINNGGG!!!” Mother cried, making my entire body jerk in a massive, involuntary lurch.
The Chinese are wizards at homonyms; one word has a hundred definitions. Ma, for example, means “mother,” “horse,” “locust,” “frog,” “thirty-six English inches,” “hemp,” “agate,” “question mark,” and “numb.” Old and venerable societies need not bother with the invention of new words; the old ones will do, and can be reissued for new concepts if absolutely necessary. The Chinese, who outnumber the rest of the world in multiples, have only one hundred family names for all of them to share. Italians, I later learned, have a relatively small population and more family names than stars in the night sky.
Our family name means, among other things, “stop.” So I wasn’t sure if Mother was telling me to desist or was calling my name.
Mother picked me up as if I were a rolled blanket and whisked me to the bathroom, inserting her finger into my throat, causing me to deposit the contents of my stomach into the unsuspecting sink. Then she beat me on my back. Gagging and gasping, eyes wild with this insult to my digestive process, her hand pounding me, I heard her sob:
“Please, please, Only Son! NO, NO PEANUTS! It weakens your shigong, your vital spirit! Here! Take some Chiing chun bao, the liquids of life!” she cried, pulling the plain brown bottle from the medicine cabinet and pouring it into my mouth. “No peanuts! No no no no no! I did not wait my entire life to finally have a son, here, in this remote world, to have you die of peanuts!”
The liquids of life were extract of baleen whale pancreas, or supreme glorious squid tentacle essence, or somesuch, and always tasted worse than the malady it sought to cure. It advanced the use of shock to cure anything by scaring it out of your body, with immediate effect. It encouraged health, since fear of the remedy could exceed the harm of the ill.
“Mah-mee,” asked Janie. “Why do we eat peanuts, but Kai cannot?”
“Kai is My Only Son,” said Mother.
Even today, the name Chiing chun bao sends a shiver up my spine. But the whiff of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich makes my stomach quail. Eat peanuts or suffer death-by-a-thousand-cuts? I would have to think about it.
My sister Janie Ming-li also enjoyed the benefits of deep-seated superstition. When Janie fell victim to infantile dysentery in China, Mother marshaled all the forces of the spirit world to keep her suffering child in health. She posted violent scripture all over the house, on every floor. She hung the sayings from the alternating peach trees and weeping willows on the street, and on the wutung oil, magnolia, and mandarin orange trees in the central courtyard. She burned money as sacrifices to needy gods and refused no petitioner her unique counsel. She advertised positive thoughts in a specific campaign to show the weak gods that she was not given to fear.
“My little baby girl is in wonderful health!” she declared with loud overconfidence to all who greeted her.
She offered to make peace with every woman with whom she had warred in the house.
“Honored Mother,” she said to her mother-in-law. “I have wrongly criticized you for bathing in the front hall. This has been unforgivably dishonorable and disloyal. I appreciate your showing your daughters how beautiful your skin is, and compliment you on being the most beautiful lady in all of the Central Kingdom.”
“Honored Elder Sister,” she said to my da-ma. “How could I have questioned your wise judgment? Of course, I suffer from quah, for I hoard within me the despair of free-floating ancestors, abandoned by their unworthy clans! Please forgive me.”
“Sung-ah,” she said to my eldest sister, Jennifer. “I have confessed to my elders as they have wished. My yuing chi must now be indomitable and will save our little baby!”
“I have a sick baby,” she told the best herbalist in the International Settlement. She described the symptoms.
“This is all for a girl, Lady?” replied the herbalist.
“You will treat this ‘girl’ as if she held your own life, Learned Doctor,” she said.
“I will take your failure in her treatment personally,” she added, using all her powerful nonverbals, silently focusing her fiery intent. The herbalist adjusted his wide, white medical headband. I know how he must have felt—as though the dragons of antiquity had come calling, the flames only hinting at the level of disaster promised. Mother had a way of making men touch their hats or make discreet lower-body movements to ensure they still possessed their manhood.
The herbalist provided thick paper packets of spotted-deer antler horn, Tian Shi Pian royal-red Korean ginseng root, griffin essence fluids, crushed foxglove, and Beijing royal gelatins for mixing into Janie’s foods. Mother applied Zheng Gi Shui liniment and Dragon balm analgesic to her daughter’s skin.
Unlike some, Mother did not cut her own flesh and add it to the pharmaceuticals. She understood the difference between form and substance, and knew that flesh-adding was all show with little curative value. The herbs had a pharmacological base; she was becoming a new-world scientist. Mother burned joss as she fed Janie the gentle, medicinalized rice gruels, bean pastes, and soy bean curds. She enclosed Janie’s bed in heavy mosquito cloth to seal her from the spirits of sickness lurking within the family and required her other daughters and their servants to fast once a week to appease any jealous gods from striking the baby.
Friends were barred from the children’s quarters in the house until Janie was three.
Episcopalian missionaries, to whom Mother was a mercurial darling, offered the magical elixir of Western culture to save the little girl. Mother used this as well. It was Cream of Wheat, from Passaic, New Jersey, and Mother always treated this particular cereal as if it were something found inside the Holy Grail by crafty archaeologists. Even Round Pearl liked this high medicine and she thought the lao mao tze, the Old Hairy Ones, the European foreigners, were evil incarnate.
“I’m not feeling well, Lady,” Round Pearl would moan. “Please—one prescription of lao mao tze porridge medicine?”
“Here, toast,” Mother would say to us at breakfast in America. “And,” with brio, “Cream of Wheat!”
When Janie was old enough for hard-fiber foods, like inland broccoli, beef, chicken and long-bean, Mother softened the food by chewing it first. Janie was surprised when she discovered later that all food did not arrive in paste form.
Had Janie been born healthy, she ironically would have become the new Worthless Daughter, freeing Megan from that rank. Janie would have been the child with a living nonmother, cursed with being yet another in a line of honorless females and unborn sons. Yuing chi’s, or karma’s, downside is the utter ignorance of what one had done in the previous life to deserve the pain of the current rotation.
When it was unmistakably clear that Janie Ming-li would not only recover, but that she was probably the most robust child in two provinces, Mother revisited the herbalist.
“Doctor, I am in your debt. I gave you cash money for herbs; you gave me my daughter’s young life. I owe you,” she said, bowing. “Our clan would be honored by sharing any task or burden that falls into your road.”
My mother’s father, Na-Gung—the Outside, In-Law Grandfather—was a big, shambling broad-shouldered scholar with a large estate. He was generous with books, kindly to his daughters, quick to laughter, and slow to work. He appreciated the outrageous—a wonderful trait while traditional, Imperial China went to hell in a handbasket. In America, his lawn mower would have been hidden in the corner of the backyard in weeds and rust while he played checkers with children. His wife was not amused.
My mother, as was the custom, left the home of her father to join the household of my father. But her father had likewise left the home of their ancestors, taking his great library and Wang the fish cook to the northern port of Tsingtao, where the Germans were training dockworkers to become brewmasters. Here the crushing condemnation of an angry wife could be nullified mug by mug, fish by fish, book by book, chuckle by chuckle.
Tsingtao, from whence China’s best beer would emerge with a Bavarian accent, is six hundred miles north of Shanghai, hard on the upper curve of massive Shantung peninsula on the Yellow Sea coast.
“Spirits,” my mother said, “are perfect because they never die and never leave you. Women, My Only Son, have the great spirits. It is our gift.”
Daughters, sisters, wives. In parts of society, a man and wife were merely a permutation of a boy and his dog. Women were expendable birthing organisms for the glory of the family. Mother resisted this status.
“Why must you always argue with me!” roared my father, shattering wine goblets on the other side of the city.
“Sweet honey,” she said. “I am the one who left my dear father and brought our children to the Pretty Country. I did not argue about leaving that night. We left, and here we are. Your yuing chi is to hear my argument now, and to agree with me later.”
She scrutinized naked male Rodin statues while thinking reproductive thoughts in an effort to make her fetus a son. Fearlessly, and in opposition to the embarrassed grumblings of her husband, she pinned pages from art books on the walls of their bedroom. The selected art was representative of the European masters, but the variations shared one trait: they all displayed the male organ. My sisters would enter our parents’ bedroom and cover their eyes, bumping into the furniture with their shins.
Mother would hum her favorite Christian hymns while looking at the pictures, praying in her wonderfully eclectic way to God Almighty, Michelangelo, and the Yin, the Goddess of Fertility. She lit joss sticks, with some difficulty, and closed her eyes, visualizing male babies. She shelled peanuts, crushed them, and threw them away with the announcement, “For you, Watching Gods!” Most Chinese, like the gods, enjoy peanuts, and Mother was banking on the gods not knowing that she personally hated them. She attended Episcopalian churches and overdonated, murmuring, “For my Son, whom You will give me, thank You.”
Hardly likely, of course, but here I am.
She did not hesitate to express herself fully to any person, be it the president of the Chinese bank where my father worked so arduously or a toddler, with equal force and elocution.
Men who made passes at her were not rude ruffians but agents of evil river spirits. She would shop at Old Petrini Market on Divisadero Street and wonder why men stared at her. In China, men of my parents’ social grouping developed peripheral vision and would not gaze openly at women.
“River–Spirit–Men!” she cried after returning from Petrini’s, throwing her tiny purse at her second undaughter with the flair of Sandy Koufax. “Why do they stare at me so? Why do they lick their lips like Gobi nomads at a well?” She put her hands on her hips, frowning at their misbehavior.
Even at the age of five I knew why. She was beautiful and wore tight, side-slit, high-collared, short-sleeved Mandarin dresses. She carried a parasol to keep the sun from her face.
She was an expert in nonverbal communication. Her lips, eyes, nose—these were the instruments of discourse. Spoken words were not crucial because people should be able to divine the next move. For me, initially, it was like learning how to play patty-cake without a partner.
Unlike most of the known world, Mother did not like American cigarettes. But she enjoyed the eccentric radio commercial that featured a high voice yodeling, “Call for Phi-ilip Mor-riss!” and having Megan light them for her.
“Call for Phi-ilip Mor-riss!” she sang in a high voice, and Megan delivered a cigarette with a flaming match. Mother delicately puffed the expelled smoke, lips pursed as if she were kissing a newborn, and she would pose as if she were a European lady, gesturing with the cigarette. Mother could have delivered the Gettysburg Address in pantomime, using the motions she made with a lighted cigarette in her hand. When the smoke burned her eyes, she doused the cigarette with a thoroughness that was unnerving.
Mother knew that I had trouble seeing, so she would move her silently expressive face—the medium of discussion—close to me if she wanted her features to say something, so to speak.
Father, to introduce us to American culture, got the family hooked on the cinema. My sisters enjoyed the movies that featured Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck. Mother loved the escapism that films provided her, for she allowed her spirit to reach out to the women on the screen, urging them to success, to leave the undeserving men, to kill the bad ones, to protect the children. She felt she could influence the outcome of the screenplay by her concentrated thoughts as the story unfolded. Father went to absorb the values and the symbols of American culture, but never succeeded in making the diet a pure one of Westerns and war films.
“See here,” he would say. “This man [John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Victor Mature], strong like my army friend, Na-men Schwtz’d.” Father was fortunate in his friends, but not in the friendliness of their names.
It was an American ritual in the fifties, when the studios still produced a new movie every week, to go to the movies as regularly as to church. Before Mother realized my nearsightedness, she buried my head in her bosom at moments of great drama, to protect me from the frights of the screen. I had no idea what stimulated her actions. I thought people went to movies to listen to them.
When something confused her, which happened as regularly as the ticking of the magic clock, she giggled brightly, delighting in the mysteries of the world. She used to say that there was a small god inside the doorbell, and she called him the Chime God. We could hear her laughing from anywhere in the apartment. She, like Archimedes, had just experienced a close encounter with a truth from the endless excitement of the world of physics.
“Mr. Westinghouse and General Electric,” she said, “are great men! They have absolutely superior shigong!”
Mother loved ice from our kitchen freezer. Shanghai summers were hot and humid, and the two middle weeks in August were insufferable. Although San Francisco summers are cool and foggy, she always kept ice in bowls throughout the apartment in August, like votive candles in a chapel, small perpetual ice floes to ward away the sticky-handed gods of humidity that, across the ocean, had robbed everyone of the pleasures of sleep and dryness.
“It is so hot in Shanghai now!” she intoned. “It is . . . is—hateful! Megan Wai-la! More ice! It melts!”
Father bought her a new Kelvinator refrigerator-freezer on New Year’s Day on the lunar calendar, February 4, 1950. I was five that year in Chinese counting, which counts one year for the mother’s hard work in pregnancy. I was four years old by the American standard.
Mother stood in front of the freezer, standing on her tiptoes, her hands clasped together, jumping, giggling, touching it.
“It’s perfect! I’m so happy!” she cried. “I want a party!” While she happily cavorted, I crept up to the huge white smooth box and gingerly touched it. It did not bite, nor did it give me food. Mother’s smile was huge, and I smiled at her, moved by her joy.
“Oh, no, My Only Son!” she hissed. “Don’t smile so broadly for gifts! The Teeth God will want all your bright teeth, which you show so bravely! Remember—moderation in all things.” I immediately clapped a hand over my mouth.
“Oh, Mah-mee,” moaned Jennifer. “There is no such thing as the Teeth God! He would have taken your teeth and mine and Ba-Ba’s and Megan’s and Janie’s teeth by now! And you are not moderate or Confucian in all your thoughts!”
“Tsa, tsa, daughter,” she scolded. “How you argue! The Teeth God does not want women’s teeth! And he is afraid of your father, who is a warrior! My Son, however—he is a musician and scares no one! And of course I am Confucian; I respect my father.”
That night we recelebrated my Red Egg Ginger Party. “Red Egg Parties are held one month after birth,” my father said. “To celebrate the male baby and his mother surviving birth. It allows recovery before the barbarity, the social invasion, of the family. And of friends. It allows time against disease, to know that the infant will live.”
Red paper, reflecting good fortune, with bright, bold, gold calligraphy, was hung in the kitchen. The largest banner bore the name of her father, Na-Gung, and she prepared a special seat for him at the other end of the table from my father’s chair.
Mother invited Uncle Shim, who brought groceries and helped make pigs’ feet in vinegar, baked dumplings, and steamed cakes—special dishes that reflected the honor of the moment. Uncle Shim was a wonderfully elegant, silver-haired man with bright metal spectacles and a mind that seemed to contain all the wisdom of China. He had been a famed scholar by profession in the old days, in the old land, and had been nominated by my father to be my tutor in America. Uncle Shim used to call me Hausheng, his personalized and shortened way of saying Able Student. He had done great honor to my father by calling me Hausheng on the day of my birth, before I had evidenced the slightest potential for scholarship.
Jennifer and Megan made the special Mother’s Chicken Soup. It brewed inside the brown earthenware soup vessel with the nipplelike lid handle emblazoned with the characters for double happiness. Dozens of eggs were boiled in bright red dye. The soup was medicinal for the mother’s recovery; the shape of the bowl was suggestive of reality, and the eggs spoke for themselves. Father was a great cook and seemed to use every pot in San Francisco. He made long-length longevity noodles—not for their superstitious value, but for their taste.
He especially enjoyed this party because it was flouting tradition—it was four years after its customary time. He was a proud iconoclast, meeting the rigidity of the past with equal fervor.
“Why Na-Gung not here?” I asked, pointing at the empty chair.
“Oh, but he is here, Kai,” said Mother.
I stared suspiciously at the empty table setting. Na-Gung was alive, so he could not be here as a spirit. Everyone said that I had trouble seeing. No one else seemed bothered by Grandfather’s absence, or tardiness, or invisibility. His serving of food grew cold, and no ghostly, unseen chopsticks attacked it.
So we ate for hours, laughing and full of the joy of family. At first, I was afraid to smile, but Mother said that the Teeth God was dangerous when you smiled from greed, and that people laughing at food would never offend the touchiest of spirits.
Uncle Shim laid lavish praise on my parents for the quality of the food, the effort in preparation. Then, after tidily wiping his mouth—which in no way impaired the perfect cleanliness of the napkin—he told jokes. Everyone laughed at his humor, although Janie and I were merely imitating the noises of others. Mother cackled, covering her mouth with one hand, in the Chinese way, and slapping her thigh with the other hand, in the American way. But Father’s laughter boomed through the house, filling the air in the dining room. I blinked and grinned when I heard it. It was a huge, wonderful, spontaneous sound, suggestive of whales calling vigorously to each other across oceans. It was the sound of a dying race, the call of a species bound for extinction, laughing at the moon while karma closed against the throat. After these days, I was not to hear his laughter again.
After the jokes, Uncle Shim recited poetry in a lyrical, singsong voice full of great, shaking drama and octave-spanning cries, his face floridly contorted with the effort of creating a total spectrum of earth-shaking emotion from the force of his recitation alone. He did not use his body. The Chinese language requires great intonation, and Uncle Shim was the cat’s pajamas of tones. I thought his poetry was funnier than his jokes, but I often got things wrong in those days.
That year, when I was four, I asked permission to escape the suffocating confines of our darkened apartment. To the street. Into the air, to the magically beguiling sounds of other children.
Mother looked out the cracked window of our secretive second-story walk-up apartment. She lifted a blade of the graying venetian blinds as if it were made of fragile gossamer thread, as if she herself were under observation from an ominous, watching god.
Our apartment was a block from the Municipal Railway Car Barn, six blocks from the park, and ten thousand miles from Shanghai. She saw the teeming clutter of squalling children, the routine combat at the corner of Masonic and Golden Gate Avenue. Our neighborhood looked like a refugee camp, bursting its seams. It was. She shook her head.
Kai, said her face, you are not going outside. Bad river spirits there; I can feel them, in command of the street.
“All those children that fight out there hurt their karmas,” she said. She ran her hands through her long and pretty hair and then looked thoughtfully at my chest. Karma. God kept score.
Westerners look up to God. My mother looked at the chest, the site of the true scoreboard, where all the ganglia and veins congregate, preparing to make final judgment on their host.
“There are fine musicians in America; you are to be one of them. I feel it,” she said, nodding with a grand smile. It was infectious, and I grinned back at her. She hummed Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. Her face said: If you go outside, you will lose the music and become a ruffian and the sun will bake your skin and make you the same as the urchins on the street.
“Wupo, witches, outside,” she whispered. “Devils.” Accented by a shaking head, her hands, fingers pointing, gesturing, directing.
Wupo! Here! In the streets of America! I had thought they lived only in China. I trembled in fearful excitement.
Chinese believe in shaping children like clay. I still wanted to go outside, to see the witches, their evil little horns, wicked white hair, and red, gleaming rat eyes.
Don’t make that face! she said with her eyes.
I stopped my face.
Her face was lovely, oval with large, deep-fired brilliant eyes, cheekbones chiseled softly from pale soapstone to hold haunting shadow and a mouth that seemed perfect in its fine linearity, its connectedness to the dimples that had been the common pride of her divided parents. A wonderful, joyous mouth that could laugh and grin and smile in a hundred expressions of precious, life-giving mirth.
She said the things that protect children from their fear of night, their anxieties about change, the terror of abandonment. I was so happy to be her son, her strength and beauty a shield against the glare of complicated and misunderstood days. She used to rub my ears with her fingertips, my cheek with the backs of her slender fingers.
“I love you so much, My Only Son,” she whispered, clutching me to her as if she feared I would run away.
“I love you, Mah-mee,” I managed, breathlessly.
She had the light, shade-cultivated complexion valued by Chinese aristocratic gentry. The portrait of her that was commissioned in Shanghai by the famous Japanese painter Nishio in 1932 shows a Madonnalike visage that stops the casual observer and begs reflection. I think it made happily married men review their vows.
She was proud of her rigorous classical literary education, but paradoxically cursed by a mind that could not grasp the simplest physical fundamentals of the Newtonian world: she would look in mirrors, bewildered by the image. She could never understand why the gardenia in her hair appeared on the left in the mirror and on the right in photographs. “Magic,” she whispered.
I shared her confusion. Bread went into the toaster and disappeared. Burnt toast came out; so where was the bread?
She had come from a preindustrial society, where running water represented the New Age, and servants struggled red-faced with the crazed implements from Western forges, such as cars, irons, victrolas, and radios.
My father came from wealth but chose to fly airplanes, to jump out of them with parachutes made from silk, to march with armed and illiterate peasants in the yellowed loess muds of Chinese rivers, to accept Western military science, and to shoot guns at people for political reasons. He claimed Na-men as his best friend—a huge hairy foreigner whose clan name sounded like a summer mountain thunderstorm rolling down the Yangtze gorges.
Father loved the Americans. They were unspeakably competent with machines, were far friendlier than the Germans in the China Military Mission, and generously shared the best cigarettes in the world. They spoke easily in front of large groups—always a sign of deep inner strength. They chewed gum like tall, two-legged cows and laughed as easily as the wondrous, multivoiced, rubber-faced street storytellers in the International Settlement who spun gymnastic tales of lost lovers, lucky peasants, seasick sailors, and hardworking students, and rewarded the most appreciative members of the audience with the treasured white rind filament membranes of ripe oranges. Even better, the Pretty Countrymen, Americans, came from a country so young—less than two hundred years old—that they possessed no rock-bound traditions. In fact, they had no truly independent traditions at all.
Father had understood the present moment of China’s history. He knew that the Sheng-Yu, the Sacred Edict of Master Confucius, could not provide the answer. He took to aviation lessons and the mechanical introduction to industrialized war as if born to the role. He was what the U.S. Army had prayed for—a tall, tough Chinese soldier who was fascinated with machines and could smile at death.
The American cadre clapped him on the back, shook his hand like village idiots and took his picture every five minutes.
ABOUT GUS LEE
Gus Lee is the only American-born member of a Shanghai family. He grew up in San Francisco and attended West Point for three years until his failing performance in then-mandatory electrical engineering gave him the involuntary opportunity to become an enlisted man. After receiving his law degree from the University of California at Davis, he rejoined the army as Captain Lee and served as general counsel. He resumed civilian life to become a deputy district attorney in Sacramento, then served for some years as Director of Attorney Education for the State Bar of California. He is married and lives with his wife and two children in Colorado Springs. China Boy is his first novel.
From the author bio and the acknowledgments in this book, it is apparent that your life, at least superficially, is similar to Kai’s. How much of this novel is autobiographical? Where did you draw the line between novel and memoir?
The book began as a journal for Jena, our seven-year old daughter and for Eric, our five-year old son. Jena had asked me about her missing grandmother—my mah-mee—and when I told her that I remembered nothing about her, I suddenly saw the moral need to learn and then tell her story to our children. I researched her story with my family. When I reached the point in the journal in which our mother died, I could have stopped writing. But I wanted my kids to know what it was like for me when I was their age and to understand that they came from a former culture, so I kept writing. I had no idea it would become a book. I just hoped our kids would be willing to read it someday!
When Diane, my spouse, urged me to submit the completed journal for possible publication, I changed our family name and altered material family facts in the manuscript to avoid offending my father.
All the characters in the story are real, from Sippy Suds (real name unknown) to Angelina in the Y cafeteria (real name, Lola.) Uncle Shim was Uncle Shen. My sisters are Elinor (also, Lily), Ying and Mary (also Ming) instead of Jennifer, Megan and Janie. Tony, Pinoy and Bobby Lewis were my real instructors. The Y was my true home. The most fictional element is Chapter 24, Wood, which I added upon my editor’s suggestion. The events in that chapter never occurred.
What influenced your decision to make Kai’s attempt at assimilation so violent? Do you think it possible for the teachings of Chinese culture to reconcile with the violence of American culture?
I decided to tell the truth, and the truth is that violence is universal, human and thus far, inescapable. Will and Ariel Durant have written that humans will be violent as long as we disagree with each other in our homes, schools and workplaces. Individuals struggle to avoid competition, jealousy and anger; how much more difficult it is for nations to act in a harmonious manner.
The particular irony is that my family had fled a land and a continent torn by violence. They were refugees from the chaos of the Chinese Revolution, which began in 1911; the horror of the Japanese invasion, which began in 1931; and the violence of banditry and warlordism, which had begun in earnest by 1912. It is estimated that these conflicts took upwards of 15 million civilian deaths and perhaps 4 million military fatalities. My great-grandparents were refugees from the Taiping Rebellion, and my ancestors before that had undergone peasant revolts and centuries of conquests by Manchus, Mongols and Muslims.
By the time my parents arrived in America, a good portion of their age peers had been violently killed, murdered, executed or slaughtered while the vast majority of Chinese in America of that period survived. My mother and sisters bathed in the peacefulness of America. There were no bombings, no invasions, no bandits, no savaging of women, no abandonment of baby girls (boys were saved whenever possible), no totalitarian government and no bloody impressments of roped-together-farm boys for military, warlord service or factory slave work. My sisters could choose their own husbands. They could receive an excellent education. They could vote. They couldn’t be sold and their daughters would be safe from abandonment or sale to cruel men in hard times.
My sisters walked to school and went to college without physical fear. I, on the other hand, got the snookers beat out of me by kids who struggled to believe that such a cowardly, sniveling, weeping, blind and physically inept kid could actually exist in the world. They kept testing me to make the boy in me come out. But it wasn’t America that was violent – it was poverty. Had I been born into poor streets in Hong Kong, Canton or Shanghai, (or Mexico City, Paris, Frankfurt, Palermo, Rio or Moscow) I would’ve been set upon by tougher street gangs and, given my vast physical gifts, probably killed.
I thought America was horribly violent. The adults in my family – who were actually responsible for the worst violence that I experienced as a kid – knew better. The truth was that my father and stepmother were violent people and cast me into the street without preparing me.
Can Chinese culture meld with American culture?
Millions of Chinese immigrants, and their children, are trying to do this as we speak. I admire Kong Fu-tzu, Confucius, but I wouldn’t want to live in a Confucian society. I, as a male, would have enormous rights, but my spouse and daughter would not. I lived in Confucian East Asia for more than a year. It was difficult for me to eat with my male host while his wife and children sat, watched and served us; they would not until the men were finished. Sons got the best food, clothing and education. Daughters were taught to be obedient and silent. There was a great deal of corporal punishment for slight disappointments and dire consequences for disobedience. Confucian men can abandon their wives and children at whim, without shame.
I admire Washington and Lincoln, while living in witness to the gaps between the dream of America and those who cannot fully participate.
Ultimately, Chinese Confucian culture (which is 2500 years older than 50-year old Chinese Communism), is about male hegemony and family authority. My mah-mee detested that central aspect of Chinese culture, and fled it. Yet she never stopped mourning for the separation from her kind and gentle father.
Ultimately, I think, American culture is not about violence (Cao Cao, the Han and Tang emperors, Genghiz Khan, Hung Chiu-chuan, Li Hung-chang, Tseng Kuo-fan, Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese warlords were famous for the slaughtering of their enemies and were far more violent than our worst military and political leaders). It’s about freedom and choice. The challenge for Chinese culture is finding freedom. The challenge for American culture is finding responsibility.
I like to think that these two notions have merged quite wonderfully in our children.
This novel ends while Kai is still a boy and, although he has had a victory on the street, he still has a long way toward assimilation. Do you plan to continue Kai’s story in future novels?
Honor and Duty (Knopf 1994) follows Kai to West Point. Tiger’s Tail (Knopf 1996) follows a Chinese-American army officer to the DMZ in Korea. No Physical Evidence (Ballantine 1998) describes the struggles of a California Chinese-American deputy district attorney in the most difficult trial of his life. Chasing Hepburn (Harmony 2002) is the real-life memoir of the Lee family, which was related to me by my 91-year old father before he passed away. The novels tell my story while the memoir focuses on the lives of my parents.
I’m considering a flashback, non-fictional retelling of China Boy. This is because Diane and I have taken guardianship of an at-risk 15-year old lad from a Korean immigrant family, and his struggles are haunting reminders of my own. I’m now seeking to be Coach Tony to him, but instead of visiting Tony in his hotel room, our long-neglected, underfed, uncared-for lad is living with us.
Were there other writings that inspired this novel? Are there other authors that particularly inspire you to write?
To Kill a Mockingbird was required reading in my first year at West Point. Harper Lee then came to the Academy to speak to us. Her appearance and her talk were inspirational, magical and chimerical. Inspirational because she wrote of moral courage possessed by the most common of people – the social subgroup with which I identified. Magical because she transformed a thousand hard-bitten and fatigued West Point Plebes into a group of young readers who suddenly loved novels with renewed depth and passion. Chimerical because her presence that night in 1965 changed something organic inside of me, preparing me for my own writing, many years later.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a non-fiction book on Courage. One of the wonderful things I can do is to speak and train and even seek to educate as an ethicist. Despite my early embrace of cowardice, I’m now an advocate for moral courage and the development of character. American business isn’t intentionally adept at either, and this can be traced to the dramatic absence of the teaching of applied ethics in our colleges, universities, graduate and professional schools. We desperately require moral competence in our relationships, decision-making and family and institutional lives, which have increasingly become Hobbesian rather than Aristotelian or Mosaic.
My publisher said this is a major switch for me. In truth, I’ve been a practicing and struggling ethicist for more than twenty-five years, while I’ve only been a writer for sixteen. It was great fun to write this book, which provides guidelines for the behaviors of courage through the stories of courageous people I’ve known and worked with. Courage is an extension of China Boy and my other books, in which I tried to tell stories of people who boldly act for the right regardless of risk to self.
Posted October 20, 2011
I read China Boy when it first came and it remains one of my favorites to this day. I can still remember reading in public and laughing out loud and at times hurting for Kai, as he came of age.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 22, 2004
The Plot was Unique and interesting to see Kai's life progress. How-ever the Outline was Similar to most books I have read during my studies of Ethnic Liturature. Showing Unique personalities, yet having the same generic setting of a City. Gus Lee has great potential in writing books, the only thing from keeping him from having excelling literature is the Outline of the story. Other than that the book was 'Complelling' as most critics said. The book's Dialect was trouble-som but understanble after the second time reading it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 16, 2004
Posted March 27, 2001
Although not the best written book I've ever read, persistence did reward, the author does capture and communicate something that still resonates with me. Worth persevering with.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.