Falling Leaves


Born in 1937 in a port city a thousand miles north of Shanghai, Adeline Yen Mah was the youngest child of an affluent Chinese family who enjoyed rare privileges during a time of political and cultural upheaval. But wealth and position could not shield Adeline from a childhood of appalling emotional abuse at the hands of a cruel and manipulative Eurasian stepmother. Determined to survive through her enduring faith in family unity, Adeline struggled for independence as she moved from Hong Kong to England and ...

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Born in 1937 in a port city a thousand miles north of Shanghai, Adeline Yen Mah was the youngest child of an affluent Chinese family who enjoyed rare privileges during a time of political and cultural upheaval. But wealth and position could not shield Adeline from a childhood of appalling emotional abuse at the hands of a cruel and manipulative Eurasian stepmother. Determined to survive through her enduring faith in family unity, Adeline struggled for independence as she moved from Hong Kong to England and eventually to the United States to become a physician and writer.

A compelling, painful, and ultimately triumphant story of a girl's journey into adulthood, Adeline's story is a testament to the most basic of human needs: acceptance, love, and understanding. With a powerful voice that speaks of the harsh realities of growing up female in a family and society that kept girls in emotional chains, Falling Leaves is a work of heartfelt intimacy and a rare authentic portrait of twentieth-century China.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
"Riveting. I read for two nights, sleepless, my heart pierced by Adeline Yen Mah's account of her terrible childhood. Poignant proof of the human will to endure."
Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club

There is a Chinese proverb that says, "Falling leaves return to their roots." For Adeline Yen Mah, this return to her roots brought her back through five decades of China's history to produce a truly moving modern-day Cinderella story, in her extraordinary and internationally bestselling memoir,Falling Leaves.

Unfolding against a turbulent backdrop of social, political, and cultural upheaval, Falling Leaves is the moving and unforgettable story of a courageous woman's triumph over despair in a lifelong search for acceptance, love, and understanding.

Born in 1937 in Tianjin, a port city 1,000 miles north of Shanghai, Adeline Yen Mah was the fifth and youngest child of an affluent family. Her great-aunt — in an unprecedented achievement — had founded the Shanghai Women's Bank in 1924, and her father was a revered businessman whose reputation for turning iron into gold began when he started his own firm at the age of 19. Yet wealth and position could not shield young Adeline from a childhood of appalling emotional abuse at the hands of her own family.

Adeline's mother died giving birth to her. As a result she was deemed bad luck and considered inferior and insignificant by her older siblings, who bullied her relentlessly. When her father took a beautiful Eurasian, Niang, as his new wife — at a time when everything Western was covetedassuperior to Chinese — Adeline found herself in the thick of an almost-fairy-tale, before the happy ending, that is, living at the mercy of a cold and cruelly manipulative stepmother. While Niang treated all of her stepchildren as second-class citizens, the full power of her wrath was unleashed on Adeline. Her only refuge was in the arms of her beloved Aunt Baba, who lavished affection and encouragement on the child. Despite her unhappiness, Adeline excelled at school and became a top student.

As the Red Army approached in 1949, the family moved to Hong Kong, and Adeline was shuttled off to boarding school in virtual isolation, forbidden visitors, mail, and all contact with her family. Burying herself in books, she dreamed of freedom and a new life. Armed only with the memory of the love of her Aunt Baba, and a driving determination to achieve unlimited success — to prove herself worthy of her family's love — Adeline Yen Mah survived her life of loneliness and rejection to build a successful medical career in the United States.

Told in her own words, the story of Adeline's valiant, painful, and ultimately triumphant struggle toward adulthood and independence unfolds with stunning emotional power. Falling Leaves is a haunting and unforgettable tale of people caught in the swirl of events beyond their control, buoyed by the indomitability of the human spirit.

San Francisco Chronicle
Poignant...affecting. An example of how...survival can be found in scholarshiplove and forgiveness.
USA Today
Falling Leaves is a moving autobiography of a Chinese woman's ultimately triumphant struggle to overcome rejection by her family as a child.
Washington Post
Painful and lovely, at once heartbreaking and heartening.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Although the focus of this memoir is the author's struggle to be loved by a family that treated her cruelly, it is more notable for its portrait of the domestic affairs of an immensely wealthy, Westernized Chinese family in Shanghai as the city evolved under the harsh strictures of Mao and Deng.

Yen Mah's father knew how to make money and survive, regardless of the regime in power. In addition to an assortment of profitable enterprises, he stashed away two tons of gold in a Swiss bank, and eventually the family fled to Hong Kong. But he was indifferent to his seven children and in the thrall of a second wife who makes Cinderella's stepmother seem angelic. His first wife, Yen Mah's mother, died at her birth, and the child, considered an ill omen, was treated with crushing severity. But she was encouraged by the love of an aunt and eventually made her way to the U.S., where she became a doctor, married happily and, ironically, was the one her father and stepmother turned to in their old age.

In recounting this painful tale, Yen Mah's unadorned prose is powerful, her insights keen and her portrait of her family devastating.

Library Journal
This dramatic autobiography by a writer and doctor begins with the reading of a will that mystifies, then flashes back to recount events in a truly unpleasant family of seven brothers and sisters, a cruel French-Chinese stepmother, and a rich, uncaring father. In 1937, Adeline's mother died giving birth to her in Tienjin, marking her forever as bad luck. The family moved to Shanghai, then Hong Kong, with trips to Monte Carlo, London, and, finally, California for Adeline. In the meantime, with World War II, the Communist takeover in 1949, Maoism, the Cultural Revolution, and the return of Hong Kong to mainland China. Mostly, however, rivalries, jealousies, injustice, neglect, conniving, backbiting, and betrayal dominate this family. An intriguing tale, though it says less about China than about one particular Chinese family.
--Kitty Chen Dean, Nassau College, Garden City, N.Y.
Library Journal
This dramatic autobiography by a writer and doctor begins with the reading of a will that mystifies, then flashes back to recount events in a truly unpleasant family of seven brothers and sisters, a cruel French-Chinese stepmother, and a rich, uncaring father. In 1937, Adeline's mother died giving birth to her in Tienjin, marking her forever as bad luck. The family moved to Shanghai, then Hong Kong, with trips to Monte Carlo, London, and, finally, California for Adeline. In the meantime, with World War II, the Communist takeover in 1949, Maoism, the Cultural Revolution, and the return of Hong Kong to mainland China. Mostly, however, rivalries, jealousies, injustice, neglect, conniving, backbiting, and betrayal dominate this family. An intriguing tale, though it says less about China than about one particular Chinese family.
--Kitty Chen Dean, Nassau College, Garden City, N.Y.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Another hot-selling, sad autobiography from China. Everyone in China has a story and Adeline Yen Mah's is a profoundly sad and harrowing one.
Kate Gilbert
Falling Leaves...is the tale of a child, told by a woman who in many ways remains that child for her entire life....Gathered in Hong Kong to hear the reading of their wealthy father's will, Adeline and her five siblings are blandly informed by their stepmother that their father died "penniless" and that there is no need for them to read his final instructions....[T]his becomes the central question around which she builds the book....
The Women's Revew of Books
San Francisco Chronicle
Poignant...affecting. An example of how...survival can be found in scholarship, love and forgiveness.
Sunday Oregonian
Falling Leaves, Yen Mah's first book, reads as a fresh and haunting account of a childhood that nearly paralyzed its author for life.
Kirkus Reviews
A well-told "wicked stepmother" story, with the vicious backdrop of racial inequality. Growing up in a wealthy Chinese family (first in Tianjin, then in Shanghai), Mah, born in 1937, is considered unlucky because her mother died giving birth to her. Her father marries a beautiful Eurasian woman, Jeanne, whom the children call Niang. Niang begrudges her stepchildren train fare to school while her own children are served tea in their rooms and are treated to beautiful new clothes. Mah's father, Joseph, too, mistreats his first wife's children. The family has a racial hierarchy; in marrying a partly French woman, Joseph hoped to improve his social status, his full-blooded Chinese children probably reminded him that he, too, was Chinese. But Mah, more willing than the others to defy Niang, is singled out for cruelty. The other six children, following Niang's lead, pick on her, too. She is physically beaten and constantly insulted; she isn't allowed to have friends; her beloved pet duckling is fed to her parents' dog, deliberately and for sport. Her childhood is only bearable because her aunt Baba loves her and believes she's destined for success. An exceptional student, Mah is allowed to study medicine in England, where, free of her stepmother, she is happier than she's ever been. Eventually settling in the US, she marries, divorces, and finds happiness in motherhood, her work as a doctor, and an eventual second marriage. But the Yen family drama goes on: When Joseph dies, Niang cheats all of the children out of his fortune. Then when Niang dies, Mah, who thought she was on good terms with her stepmother toward the end, finds herself completely and inexplicably disowned. The betrayalsand conspiracies surrounding that incident are nearly as chilling as those she suffered in her childhood. A compelling story of family cruelty.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780606170864
  • Publisher: San Val, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 1/1/1999

Meet the Author

Adeline Yen Mah is a physician and writer who lives in Huntington Beach, California, and spends time as well in London and Hong Kong.

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Read an Excerpt

Yi Chang Chun Meng: An Episode of a Spring Dream

My own memories of Tianjin are nebulous. Early photographs show a solemn little girl with clenched fists, pressed lips and serious eyes, dressed in pretty western frocks decorated with ribbons and bows. I enjoyed school and looked forward to going there. Lydia and I were pulled there and back daily in Grandmother's black, shiny rickshaw. It had a brass lamp on each side and a bell operable by foot. When I revisited Tianjin in 1987, I was surprised to find that it took only seven minutes to walk from our house to St Joseph's.

I remember Lydia as an imposing, rather intimidating figure. Between us there were three brothers and a gap of six and a half years. We were a world apart.

Lydia liked to exercise her authority and flex her muscles by quizzing me on my homework, especially catechism. Her favourite question was, 'Who made you?' To this, I always knew the answer. Like a parrot I would trot out the well worn phrase, 'God made met' then came the twister. A gleam came into her eyes. 'Why did God make you?' I never could answer because teacher never taught us beyond the first question. Lydia would then give me a resounding slap with her powerful right hand, and call me stupid. During our daily rickshaw rides, she liked to keep me waiting and was invariably late. On the rare occasions when I was delayed in class she simply rode the rickshaw home alone but would send the puller back to get me. She tended to be stocky, even as a child. Her physical deformity gave her a characteristic posture, with her semi-paralysed left arm hanging limply by her side and her face perpetually tilted slightly forwards and to the left. From my four-year-old perspective, she was a fearsome figure of authority.

My eldest brother Gregory had a sunny personality and the infectious ability to turn ordinary occasions into merry parties. His joie de vivre endeared him to many people. Being the eldest son in China meant that he was the favourite of Father as well as of our grandparents. I remember him, full of mischief, gazing with rapt fascination at a long, black hair blowing in and out of the right nostril of snoring Ye Ye one hot afternoon. Finally Gregory could no longer resist the temptation. Skilfully, he pinched the hair ever so tightly between his thumb and index finger during the next exhalation. There was a tantalizing pause. Ye Ye finally inhaled while Gregory doggedly hung on. The hair was wrenched from its root and Ye Ye awoke with a yell. Gregory was chased by Ye Ye brandishing a feather duster but managed, as usual, to escape.

On the whole, Gregory ignored James and me because we were too young to be interesting playmates. He was always surrounded by friends his own age. He did not enjoy studying but, like Grandmother, excelled in games of chance such as bridge. Good with numbers, he occasionally taught us younger ones neat mathematical tricks, roaring with laughter at his own cleverness.

Of all my siblings, it was Edgar I feared the most. He bullied James and me and used us as punchbags to vent his frustration. He ordered us around to perform his errands and grabbed our share of toys, candies, nuts, watermelon seeds and salted plums. He did not distinguish himself at school and was deeply insecure, though he possessed enough fortitude to maintain a passing grade.

My san ge (third elder brother) James was my hero and only friend. We used to play together for hours and developed a telepathic closeness, confiding to one another all our dreams and fears. With him, I could discard my vigilance and I needed that haven desperately. Throughout our childhood, it was immensely comforting to know that I could always turn to him for solace and understanding.

We were both Edgar's victims, though perhaps James suffered more because for many years he shared a room with our two eldest brothers. He hated to make waves. When pushed around, he endured the blows passively or hid from his tormentor. Seeing me being beaten by Edgar he would skulk quickly away in blinkered silence. Afterwards, when Edgar was gone, he would creep back and try to console me, often muttering his favorite phrase 'Suan le!' (Let it be!) . . .

Of Niang's two children, she openly favoured Franklin. In physical appearance he was the spitting image of Niang: a handsome boy with round eyes and a pert upturned nose. Susan at this stage was still a baby. But they were already special. I don't recall either Edgar or Lydia ever laying a finger on them. James and I were the ones singled out to do everyone's bidding. If we were not fast enough there was often a slap or a shove, especially from Edgar.

I always felt more comfortable with my friends at school than at home, where I was considered inferior and insignificant, partly because of the bad luck I had brought about by causing the death of my mother. I remember watching my older sister and brothers playing tag or skipping rope and longing to be included in their games. Although James and I were very dose, he went along with the others and became 'one of the boys' when they wished to preclude me.

At St Joseph's, marks were added together every Friday and the girl with the highest total received a silver medal which she could wear pinned on her breast pocket for the entire week. Father immediately noticed when I wore the medal. Those were the only times when he showed pride in me. Father would say teasingly, 'Something is so shiny on your dress. It's blinding me! Now what could it be?' or 'Isn't the left side of your chest heavier? Are you tilting?' I lapped up his words. Soon I was wearing the medal almost continuously. At prize-giving at the end of 1941 my name was mentioned for winning the scholarship medal for more weeks than any other student in the school. I remember my pride and triumph as I climbed up the steps, which were so high and steep that I had to go up on my hands and knees, to receive my award from the French monseigneur. There was warm applause and delighted laughter from the audience, but no one attended from my family, not even Father.

At the beginning of 1942 the Japanese were taking uncomfortably closer looks at Father's books, insisting on an exhaustive audit and finally demanding that his businesses be merged with a Japanese company. Father could remain nominally in charge but profits would be split 50/50. This 'offer' was, in fact, an order. Refusal would have resulted in confiscation of assets, probable jail for Father and unthinkable retaliation against the rest of the family. Acceptance meant open collaboration with the enemy, immediate loss of independence and possible reprisal from the underground resistance fighters.

After many sleepless nights, made worse by elaborate luncheons during the-day when the Japanese alternately cajoled and threatened, Father took a radical step. One cold day, he took a letter to the post office and never returned home.

Ye Ye carried on with this life-and-death charade for a few months. Those were chaotic days. Kidnappings, murders and disappearances were everyday events. He immediately went to the local police and reported his son missing. He placed advertisements in the newspapers offering a reward for knowledge of Father's whereabouts, alive or dead. It was a dramatic ruse and the price was high but ultimately it had the desired effect. Without Father at the helm, Joseph Yen & Company floundered. Many of the staff were laid off. Business dwindled. Profits plummeted. The Japanese soon lost interest.

Father, meanwhile, having managed to transfer part of his assets before his staged disappearance, made his way south to Japanese-occupied Shanghai under an assumed name, Yen Hong. He bought what was to become our family home on the Avenue Joffre. Soon afterwards he sent for Niang and Franklin, who travelled with a couple of trusted employees and joined him there.

For the rest of the family, stranded in Tianjin, life became oddly serene. Aunt Baba ran the household and encouraged us children to invite friends home to play and snack on various dim sums in a way Niang would never have tolerated. Mealtimes were informal and the adults talked and played mah-jong late into the evening. Ye Ye kept a skeleton staff in the office. By and large the Japanese left us alone. A chauffeur was hired and on Sundays we were driven to various restaurants to try out different cuisines, including Russian, French, and German. I remember drinking hot chocolate and eating pastries at the sparkling Kiessling Restaurant while a music trio played Strauss waltzes and Beethoven romances. Sometimes we were even taken to see suitable movies.

Father was keen that the rest of his family should join him in Shanghai. In the summer of 1942, Grandmother was persuaded to visit for two months but returned saying that Tianjin was now her home. She stubbornly refused to move and told Aunt Baba that the essence of life was not which city one lived in, but with whom one lived.

After dinner one stiflingly hot day, 2 July 1943, we were planning next day's menu with Cook. Aunt Baba suggested that we have Tianjin dumplings instead of rice. Freshly made with chives, ground pork and spring onions, these dumplings were a great favourite among us children. We were all shouting out ridiculously high numbers as to how many dumplings we could eat. Grandmother developed a headache from all the commotion. She went to her own room, lit a cigarette and lay down. Aunt Baba sat by her and narrated a story from The Legend of the Monkey King. Even though Grandmother knew many tales from the well-known Chinese classic, she found it relaxing to hear them told again and again by her daughter.

She removed the shoes, stockings and bindings from her tiny damaged feet before soaking them in warm water to relieve the constant ache, giving a sigh of contentment. Aunt Baba left her and was taking her own bath when Ye Ye hammered on the door. Grandmother was twitching, frothing at the mouth. Doctors were called but it was too late. Grandmother never regained consciousness. She died of a massive stroke.

I remember waking up in the sweltering heat of a Tianjin summer morning. Aunt Baba was sitting at her dressing table and crying. She told me that Grandmother had left this world and would never come back; her life had evaporated like yi chang chun meng (an episode of a spring dream). I recall the sound of cicadas humming in the background, while street-hawkers clicked wooden clappers to announce their presence, chanting their wares melodiously on the pavement below: 'Hot beef noodles. Stinky bean curd. Fresh pot stickers.' I wondered how it was possible that life could go on being so much the same when Grandmother was no longer with us.

Grandmother's body was placed in a coffin in the living-room. Her photograph sat on top and the coffin was elaborately decorated with white flowers, candles, fruits and banners of white silk covered with elegant, brush-stroked couplets memorializing her virtues. Six Buddhist monks came to keep watch, dressed in long robes. We children were told to sleep on the floor in the same room to keep her company. We were all terrified, mesmerized by the shaven, shining heads of the monks chanting their sutras in the flickering candlelight. All night I half feared and half hoped that Grandmother would push open the lid and resume her place among us.

Next day, there was a grand funeral. We mourners were all dressed in white, with white headbands or pretty white ribbons. We followed the coffin on foot to the Buddhist temple, accompanied by music and chants provided by Buddhist priests. Along the way, attendants threw artificial paper money into the air to appease the spirits. My brother Gregory took the place of chief mourner in the absence of Father, who was still hiding. He walked directly behind the coffin, which was placed on a cart and pulled by four men. Every few steps he would fall on his knees and start bewailing the loss of Grandmother at the top of his voice, banging his head repeatedly on the ground to make obeisance. We followed Gregory silently, marvelling at his performance.

Finally we arrived. The coffin was placed at the centre of an altar, surrounded by white floral arrangements, more silk banners and Grandmother's favourite dinner. There were about sixteen dishes of vegetables, fruits and sweets. Incense heavily scented the air. Prayers were chanted by monks. We were instructed to kowtow, kneeling and repeatedly touching our foreheads to the ground. The monks brought paper effigies of various articles which they thought she might need in the next world. There were masses of 'gold' and 'silver' ingots, a very intricate cardboard automobile resembling Father's Buick, an assortment of furniture and appliances, even a mah-jong set. These effigies were all burnt in a large urn. This delighted us children, and we eagerly helped stoke the urn by dropping in the effigies, forgetting in the excitement the purpose of the occasion and fighting over the paper car, which was very ingeniously made and covered with bright tin foil. Years later, Aunt Baba informed me that all of it, including the eulogizing banners, monks, flowers, musicians and effigies, were chartered from a speciality shop which arranged for such 'happenings' and supplied the appropriate props.

I remember watching the various paper images burning furiously and the smoke curling up and believing it would all regroup somewhere in the sky in the form of articles for the exclusive use and pleasure of Grandmother.

Our relatives and friends then followed us home and a lengthy and elaborate meal was served. Afterwards, we children were sent out to the garden to play. Lydia set up a makeshift urn. We manufactured paper stoves, beds and tables and began our own funeral for Grandmother. Soon the urn, which was a wooden flower pot, started to burn. Ye Ye came out in a fury, turned on the faucet and drenched us and our funeral pyre. We were sent to bed, but the incident helped to dissipate the dread and gloom of the last two days, and we felt that Grandmother was going to be happy in the other world.

Far away in Shanghai, Father grieved deeply. He could not accept that his beloved mother had died when she was just fifty-five. From then on, he wore only black neckties in honour of her memory.

The funeral marked the end of an era. We did not know it, but the carefree years of childhood were over.

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Table of Contents

Men Dang Hu Dui: The Appropriate Door Fits the Frame of the Correct House.
Dian Tie Cheng Jin: Converting Iron into Gold.
Ru Ying Sui Xing: Inseparable as Each Other's Shadows.
Xiu Se Ke Can: Surpassing Loveliness Good Enough to Feast Upon.
Yi Chang Chun Meng: An Episode of a Spring Dream.
Jia Chou Bu Ke Wai Yang: Family Ugliness Should Never be Aired in Public.
Yuan Mu Qiu Yu: Climbing a Tree to Seek for Fish.
Yi Shi Tong Ren: Extend the Same Treatment to All.
Ren Jie Di Ling: Inspired Scholar in an Enchanting Land.
Du Ri Ru Nian: Each Day Passes Like a Year.
Zi Chu Ji Zhu: Original Ideas in Literary Composition.
Tong Chuang Yi Meng: Same Bed, Different Dreams.
?You He Bu Ke?: Is Anything Impossible?
Yi Qin Yi He: One Lute, One Crane.
Fu Zhong You Yu: Fish Swimming in a Cauldron.
Pi Ma Dan Qiang: One Horse, Single Spear.
Jia Ji Shui Ji: Marry a Chicken, Follow a Chicken.
Zhong Gua De Gua: You Plant Melons, You Reap Melons.
Xin Ru Si Hui: Hearts Reduced to Ashes.
Fu Zhong Lin Jia: Scales and Shells in the Belly.
Tian Zuo Zhi He: Heaven-Made Union.
Si Mian Chu Ge: Besieged by Hostile Forces on All Sides.
Cu Cha Dan Fan: Coarse Tea and Plain Rice.
Yin Shui Si Yuan: While Drinking Water, Remember the Source.
Yi Dao Liang Duan: Sever This Kinship with One Whack of the Knife.
Wu Feng Qi Lang: Creating Waves Without Wind.
Jin Zhu Zhe Chi, Jin Mo Zhe Hei: Near Vermilion, One Gets Stained Red; Near Ink, One Gets Stained Black.
Jiu Rou Peng You: Wine and Meat Friends.
Wu Tou Gong An: Headless andClueless Case.
Kai Men Yi Dao: Opened the Door to Salute the Thief.
Yan Er Dao Ling: Steal the Bell While Covering Your Ears.
Luo Ye Gui Gen: Falling Leaves Return to Their Roots.
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First Chapter


Men Dang Hu Dui The Appropriate Door Fits the Frame of the#60;br> Correct House

At the age of three my grand aunt proclaimed her independence by categorically refusing to have her feet bound, resolutely tearing off the bandages as fast as they were applied. She was born in Shanghai (city by the sea) in 1886 during the Qing dynasty when China was ruled by the child emperor Kuang Hsu, who lived far away up north in the Forbidden City. The pampered baby of the family, eight years younger than my grandfather, Ye Ye, Grand Aunt finally triumphed by rejecting all food and drink until her feet were, in her words, `rescued and set free'.

Shanghai in the late nineteenth century was unlike any other city in China. It was one of five treaty ports opened up to Britain after the First Opium War in 1842. Gradually it burgeoned into a giant intermediary between China and the rest of the world. Strategically situated on the Huangpu River seventeen miles upstream from the mighty Yangtse, the city was linked by boat to the inner western provinces. At the other end to the east, the Pacific Ocean was only fifty miles away.

Britain, France and the United States of America staked out foreign settlements within the city. To this day, amidst the new high-rise buildings, Shanghai's architecture reflects the influence of the foreign traders. Some of the great mansions, formerly homes of diplomats and business magnates, possess the stately Edwardian grandeur of any fine house by the River Thames at Henley in England or the Gallic splendour of a villa in the Loire valley in France.

Extraterritoriality meant that within the foreign concessions, all subjects, be they foreign or Chinese, were governed by the laws of the foreigner and were exempt from the laws of China. Foreigners had their own municipal government, police force and troops. Each concession became an independent city within a city: little enclaves of foreign soil in treaty ports along China's coast line. China was governed not by written laws but by the rulings of magistrates appointed by the emperor and her citizens traditionally viewed these mandarins as demi-gods. For roughly one hundred years (between 1842 and 1941) westerners were perceived throughout China as superior beings whose wishes transcended even those of their own mandarins. The white conquerors were treated with reverence, fear and awe by the average Chinese.

Legal cases were tried before a Chinese magistrate but presided over by a foreign consular assessor whose power was absolute and whose word was final. The local populace was further humiliated by being barred from ownership of, or even free access to, many of the most desirable sections within their own city. Discrimination, segregation and abuse coloured most inter-racial dealings, with westerners viewing the Chinese as their vanquished inferiors. All this was bitterly resented.

Immediately south of the French Concession in Shanghai, my great-grandfather owned a tea-house in the old walled Chinese city of Nantao. These Chinese quarters, or the Old Town, were packed with low, dense buildings, small bustling markets and wandering alleyways overhung by colourful shop signs. Business was successful in spite of fierce competition from mobile stoves on bamboo poles, road-side stands and modest one-room cafes. When Grand Aunt was seven years old, her father relocated his tea-house to a more fashionable site in the International Settlement, formed by the merging of the former British and American Concessions. He then moved his entire family into a house a few streets away, in a quiet residential neighbourhood within the French Concession.

The French laid out gardens, apartment blocks, office buildings and tree-lined avenues which were given the names of French dignitaries. These boulevards became thick with cafe strollers and imported motor cars intermingling with wheelbarrows, rickshaws and pedicabs. Shanghai began to be known as the Paris of the Orient, though Grand Aunt always claimed that Paris should be called the Shanghai of Europe.

Grand Aunt's older siblings received little formal education, but they did learn to read and write at a private teacher's home. The youngest of five children, Grand Aunt was an afterthought. When she came of school age my great-grandfather had prospered. He enrolled her at the fashionable and expensive McTyeire Christian Girls' School, run by American Methodist missionaries. She was the first child in the Yen family to be given a foreign education.

By that time, Shanghai had become the centre of China's trade and industry. Opportunities were limitless. Grand Aunt's eldest brother had established a successful business manufacturing spare metal parts for rickshaws, pedicabs, bicycles and some of the more modern household appliances. He was to die young, probably from syphilis, for he succumbed to the three vices common to Chinese men at that time: opium, gambling and the brothels. Leisured women also gambled and took opium, but discreetly at home. Grand Aunt's second brother set up a thriving import-export tea business but he, too, became infected with venereal disease and was unable to sire children. Her sister had an arranged marriage and died from tuberculosis. Her third brother, my grandfather Ye Ye, was softspoken and gentle. A devout Buddhist, he was tall and slender, with poetic leanings and gentle ways. He disliked the required Manchu male hairstyle of shaving the brow and braiding long hair into a single queue. Even as a young man, he kept his head clean shaven (the only permitted alternative), wore a round skull cap, and sprouted a neatly trimmed moustache. Determined not to follow his brothers down the slippery path, he proved to be far more able than either of them.

While at McTyeire, Grand Aunt developed a lifelong passion for riding. She became fluent in English, was baptized as a Christian and made many western friends through her church. One of these, a fellow member of the Anti-foot-binding League, gave her a job as a clerk in the savings department of the Bank of Shanghai. During the twenty years that she worked there she learned every aspect of the banking business and was made manager of her division.

Grand Aunt never married. In those days, daughters could still be legally sold or bartered. A wife was often treated as an indentured servant in her husband's household, especially to her mother-in-law. If she failed to bear a son, one or more concubines would be brought in. Remarriage for widowers was routine but considered unchaste for widows. Most men of means routinely visited brothels but a woman who was unfaithful to her husband could be punished by death.

I remember Grand Aunt as a tall, imposing figure, treated with great esteem by every member of our family. Even Ye Ye and Father deferred to her every wish, which was remarkable in a society where women were disdained. Out of respect, we children were instructed to call her `Gong Gong', which meant Grand Uncle. It was common practice for high-achieving women within the clan to assume the male equivalent of their female titles.

At five feet seven inches she was only slightly shorter than Ye Ye. Erect, dignified, her feet unbound, she had a striking presence, in contrast to the obsequious demeanour befitting women of her time. Her black hair was cut short above her ears and combed backwards to reveal a smooth forehead above an oval face. Behind round, wire-rimmed, tinted glasses, her large eyes were penetrating. Always elegant, she favoured dark, monochrome, silk qipaos (Chinese dresses) with mandarin collars and butterfly buttons. Her complexion was fair with a tiny sprinkle of freckles across her nose. Habitually she wore face cream, a dab of rouge and a touch of lipstick, while her ears were adorned with exquisite stud earrings of pearls and jade. She moved with ease and athletic grace, riding and playing tennis into her sixties. I have a photograph of her smiling and confident astride a large black stallion, dressed in a white blouse, dark tie and well cut jodhpurs.

In 1924 Grand Aunt founded her own bank, the Shanghai Women's Bank. It is impossible to overestimate the scale of her achievement. In a feudal society where the very idea of a woman being capable of simple everyday decisions, let alone important business negotiations, was scoffed at, Grand Aunt's courage was extraordinary.

The reputation she had gained was such that Grand Aunt was able to raise the financing for her bank without difficulty. Shares were issued and fully subscribed to. Her bank was staffed entirely by women and designed to meet their specific needs. In they came: spinster daughters, with their inheritance and nest eggs; first wives (called big wives), with their dowries and winnings from mah-jong; concubines (called little wives), with cash presents from their men; and professional and educated women, who were tired of being patronized at male-dominated establishments. Shanghai Women's Bank was profitable from the very beginning and remained so until Grand Aunt's resignation in 1953.

With her profits she built a six-storey bank building at 480 Nanking Road which, in the 1920s and 30s, was considered the most prestigious business address in China. Her bank was situated at the nerve centre of the International Concession, adjacent to major office blocks and department stores, less than a mile from the Bund (nicknamed Wall Street of Shanghai), the famous park-like river-front promenade which, in those days, excluded Chinese ownership. Her staff lived in comfortable dormitories on the upper floors. The best building materials were used. Lifts were installed and modern plumbing put in with flush toilets, central heating, and hot and cold running water. Grand Aunt lived in a spacious penthouse on the sixth floor with her friend Miss Guang whom she had met through church. There were rumours about their relationship. They shared a room and slept in the same bed. In China, intimate friendship between single women was sneered at but tolerated. Miss Guang, born in 1903, had money of her own and was one of Grand Aunt's first investors. She became the bank's vice president. Later on, Grand Aunt adopted a daughter. (This was a common practice among childless women of means and required little formality.) They employed three maids, a chef and a chauffeur and entertained lavishly at home. Many a transaction was negotiated over a bowl of shark's fin soup during lunch at Grand Aunt's penthouse apartment.

At the age of twenty-six, Grand Aunt's third elder brother, my Ye Ye, entered into an arranged marriage through a mei-po (professional female marriage broker). My fifteen-year-old grandmother came from an eminently suitable Shanghai family. Theirs was a men dang hu dui (as the appropriate door fits the frame of the correct house) marriage. Across the street from my great-grandfather's tea-house, her father owned a small herbal store filled with desiccated leaves, roots, powdered rhinoceros horns, deer antlers, dried snakes' gall bladders and other exotic potions. The bride and the groom saw each other for the first time on their wedding day in 1903.

On the eve of her wedding, Grandmother was summoned into her father's presence. `Tomorrow you will belong to the Yen family,' she was told. `From now on, this is no longer your home and you are not to contact us without permission from your husband. Your duty will be to please him and your in-laws. Bear them many sons. Sublimate your own desires. Become the willing piss-pot and spittoon of the Yens and we will be proud of you.'

Next day, the trembling bride, bedecked in a red silk gown and her face covered with a red silk cloth, was borne into the home of her parents-in-law in a red and gold sedan chair painted with a phoenix and dragon, rented from a store specializing in weddings and funerals. The wedding procession was a colourful, noisy affair accompanied by red lanterns, banners, trumpet blowing and the clanging of gongs. It was a point of honour for families to impoverish themselves for such occasions. However, in the case of my grandparents, friends and relatives gave many wedding presents including large cash gifts to defray the costs.

The young bride's fears were misplaced because Ye Ye proved to be loving and considerate. At her insistence, the young couple broke with tradition and moved out of the Yen family home into their own rented quarters in the French Concession. Grandmother taught herself mathematics and used it to great advantage in her daily mah-jong games. I remember her as a quick-witted and strong-willed chain-smoker with bound feet, short hair and a razor-sharp tongue.

At the age of three, Grandmother's feet had been wrapped tightly with a long, narrow cloth bandage, forcing the four lateral toes under the soles so that only the big toe protruded. This bandage was tightened daily for a number of years, squeezing the toes painfully inwards and permanently arresting the foot's growth in order to achieve the tiny feet so prized by Chinese men. Women were in effect crippled and their inability to walk with ease was a symbol both of their subservience and of their family's wealth. Grandmother's feet caused her pain throughout her life. Later, she braved social ridicule rather than inflict this suffering on her own daughter.

My grandparents grew to love each other and had seven children in quick succession. Of those, only the first two survived. Aunt Baba was born in 1905 and my father two years later.

On 10 October 1911, when Aunt Baba was six years old, the Manchu dynasty came to an end. Dr Sun Yat Sen, the leader of the Chinese revolutionaries, returned from exile to Shanghai in triumph on Christmas Day the same year. He was named President of the Republic of China. One of his first acts was to abolish the custom of foot-binding.

Ye Ye supported his family by buying and leasing out a small fleet of sampans (bum-boats) which plied the waters of Shanghai's busy Huangpu River. Goods were ferried in and out of China's interior and loaded on to giant ocean cargo steamers moored at the Bund. Ye Ye never gambled or wasted his money in brothels and opium dens. By the time he was forty, he had accumulated considerable wealth. He was approached by young K. C. Li, the dynamic proprietor of Hwa Chong Hong, a thriving import-export company, to manage their branch office in Tianjin, a port city one thousand miles north of Shanghai.

Ye Ye had a secret. He was prone to seasickness and hated to set foot on board one of his own sampans. So, though his business was profitable, he decided to sell and move up north, leaving his family behind as Aunt Baba and Father both attended local Catholic missionary schools which were considered the best in China and he did not wish to disrupt their education.

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Interviews & Essays

On Tuesday, July 7th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Adeline Yen Mah to discuss FALLING LEAVES.

Moderator: Good evening, Adeline Yen Mah, and welcome to the barnesandnoble.com live Auditorium. We are so thrilled to have you with us tonight. Do you have any opening comments before we begin?

Adeline Yen Mah: I'm privileged to be invited and very happy to be here. FALLING LEAVES is doing very well. They are holding an auction for the paperback rights tomorrow. It's very exciting. I was informed today that the Book of the Month Club has chosen FALLING LEAVES as their title for December.

Peg Wallin from Rochester, NY: Could you tell us a bit about the time period of your youth in China? It sounds like a time of great growth and change. How did your family fit into that, economically and socially?

Adeline Yen Mah: My father was born in 1907 in Shanghai. In those days, Shanghai was divided into foreign concessions. He lived in the French Concession and attended a French Missionary school. To him, the lowliest French citizen was higher than the mightiest Chinese Mandarin. That is why he was dominated by my French stepmother all his life. When I was born, in 1937, my father was already a millionaire. Throughout my childhood in China, there was great turmoil. But the abuse I experienced was mainly from members of my own family.

Maureen from Milton, MA: Had you ever spoken or written about your life before FALLING LEAVES? Why are you telling the story at this point in your life? Thank you for taking my question. I am looking forward to reading your beautiful book.

Adeline Yen Mah: Maureen, I used to write short stories as a child to escape the reality of my tormented childhood. I wanted to write this story all my life, but could not do so while my stepmother was alive.

Shawn Merwin from New York: To what extent was the editing and revising of the book a frustrating experience?

Adeline Yen Mah: Shawn, I had no trouble writing all my experiences. In fact, instead of writer's block, I suffered from verbal diarrhea. My editor at Penguin in the U.K. (where it was first published) had to cut out large chunks of material. That was a painful experience. I thought every word was a pearl, but obviously my editor did not think so.

Victoria M. from Montana: Your life now seems so entirely different from the story of your childhood. Is it? Do you ever feel as if they are two separate lives? Or do you think about your childhood closely daily?

Adeline Yen Mah: Victoria, my life is absolutely different from my childhood. Even though this is the last third of my life, this is the best third. For the first 14 years of my life, I don't recall having opened my mouth once to offer a single spontaneous remark during any of the mealtimes I shared with my parents. Everything I repressed and dared not say is in FALLING LEAVES. Writing my book was a very satisfying experience. Let's call it bibliotherapy.

velouria97 from Brooklyn, NY: Your story sounds like a fairy tale. You have cruel siblings, a ruthless stepmother, and in the end, you live happily ever after. But in many fairy tales, the father often has the child's best interests in mind. Is this true of your father?

Adeline Yen Mah: Velouria, yes -- in spite of everything -- I think my father loved. However, he was completely dominated by my stepmother. In addition, like many Chinese fathers, he was afraid to show his emotion. Looking back, I think he led a very unhappy life because there was nowhere that he could relax. Even though he was very wealthy, his money did not bring him any happiness.

Marley from Princeton, NJ: Your experience growing up in China sounds harrowing. Do you believe your upbringing was typical of women at the time? Or do you think it was unique to your situation?

Adeline Yen Mah: In general, because of the teachings of Confucius, women were very much despised in China. However, in my case, I had a cruel stepmother in addition. In that sense it was unique. If my own mother had been alive, I don't think things would have been so bad.

Betsy Anne Wilcox from Wilmington, DE: Do you have children? If so, how have they been raised? What have you or would you do differently?

Adeline Yen Mah: I have two children, a son named Roger and a daughter, Ann. Roger is married to a beautiful Brazilian girl and practices as a doctor in Santa Monica. Ann works for a publisher in Boston and is 23 years old. Because of my own upbringing, I treated them with much love and leniency. Though I very much wished that they would learn Chinese, they refused to do so and, to my regret, can speak English only. I wish that I had put my foot down and insisted that they go to Chinese school when they were young.

Devon Maston from Evanston, IL: Could you tell us about your life now?

Adeline Yen Mah: Devon, I am very lucky, because I have a wonderful husband. We spend part of the year in London and part of the year in California. I have given up my medical practice in order to write, and I am now a full-time writer -- which I enjoy very much.

Brett McCollough from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: How does China today compare with the China in which you grew up?

Adeline Yen Mah: Brett, China has changed radically since I was a child in Shanghai. Because of the one-child policy, children are very much pampered these days. Even though boys are still preferred to girls, there is equal opportunity for girls in the educational institutions as well as employment. I think things are much better today than they were when I was growing up.

Chris from Seattle, WA: What prompted you to write this book now?

Adeline Yen Mah: Even though I knew my stepmother was neither kind nor good, I yearned for her approval all my life and could not have written this book while she was alive, because I did not wish to hurt her. After her death, in 1990, I simply felt compelled to write my story. However, the response from my readers has exceeded my wildest dreams.

Paul from pac87@aol.com: What was the most painful recollection you had while writing this?

Adeline Yen Mah: Paul, writing down the suffering of my grandfather during the last years of his life in Hong Kong was the most painful aspect for me. I saw a movie called "A Clockwork Orange" many years later and had to walk out when an old man was tortured by some young thugs. I could not bear to watch it, because it reminded me of my grandfather. In fact, even talking about it now is painful to me. I knew, even as a child, that one day I would escape. But his days were numbered, and I could not bear to watch him being tormented by my half-brother Franklin. I wished I could rescue him, but there was nothing I could do.

Benni from Bronx, NYC: If your siblings had written this story, how would it differ from the way you tell it in your book?

Adeline Yen Mah: I don't know! I wish they would! I wrote the truth as I remembered it.

Richarda A. from Portland, ME: Do you think, had you grown up happy in your life in China, that your life would be very much different now? Do you think you would have struggled so hard to achieve?

Adeline Yen Mah: My husband, Bob, teases me sometimes and tells me that I should be grateful to my stepmother for giving me my drive to succeed. It is true that all my life I have tried to do my best in whatever I attempted, so that I could become worthwhile in the eyes of my parents. I did not know it was an impossible task.

JooodieB@aol.com from JooodieB@aol.com: Do you think you will write any more books after this? Have you ever written before, or is this your first attempt?

Adeline Yen Mah: Yes, I have completed a second book, which is written for children. This should be available next year. It is my wish that unwanted children should read that book and be inspired to transcend their abuse and transform it into a source of courage, creativity, and compassion.

Elizabeth Reiss from reisser96@aol.com: Your grandmother sounds like an amazing individual. What have you learned of her personality? How did the rest of her family react to her independence? Do you feel she paved a path for you?

Adeline Yen Mah: My grandmother died when I was five years old, and I did not know her very well (I don't remember her well). My grandaunt was an amazing woman. She was the founder of the Women's Bank in Shanghai, and was successful, independent, and wealthy until the communist takeover in 1949. My Aunt Baba was very important to me. She was the one who told me repeatedly that I was worthwhile, and demonstrated over and over that I mattered to her. To a child, this concern on the part of an adult is of supreme importance. She was my savior.

Halley S. from Saranac Lake, NY: How have your siblings reacted to your book? What are their lives like now?

Adeline Yen Mah: I knew when I wrote the book that my siblings would not be pleased. Since the publication of FALLING LEAVES, I have been ostracized. However, I expected this and accept it. I don't know what my siblings' lives are like now. They are all very wealthy, and none of them have kept in touch with me.

Iris from Michigan: Did you write FALLING LEAVES for an American or a Chinese audience? Was it originally written in Chinese or English? Is there a difference in how it was received in different countries?

Adeline Yen Mah: Iris, it was originally written in English and published in England by Penguin. To everyone's surprise, it became a bestseller in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, and now the USA. I have translated it into Chinese myself. It has also been translated into Japanese and Dutch, and we have sold translation rights to Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Greece, and Spain. There are pending offers from Germany, Portugal, and France. It has not been distributed in China yet, so there is no word on the reaction.

Mary Alice from Great River, NY: How do you think Chinese women your own age would react to your book? Do you think they would be sympathetic?

Adeline Yen Mah: Mary Alice, I have had wonderful letters of support from women of all ages and all nationalities. The response has been overwhelming, and I'm very grateful to my readers. I feel I'm the luckiest woman in the world.

Mark-o from marco1@prodigy.net: This book sounds like it would make an incredible movie -- it just feels like an epic story. Has Hollywood shown any interest?

Adeline Yen Mah: Mark, I'm not at liberty to discuss the details, but yes, Hollywood has shown a strong interest in the book.

Joshua from NYC: Do you think the way you were treated would have happened in any family as a result of the culture at the time? Or do you think the cruelty was unique to your own family?

Adeline Yen Mah: Both. I think women were definitely second-class citizens in China, but in my case it was unique because of the death of my mother and the presence of a powerful, dominating, French stepmother.

Oren M. from Middlebury College: What do you think most helped you survive in the face of such a hard life?

Adeline Yen Mah: It was the love and care shown by my Aunt Baba. She told me I had to study hard because my life depended on it. Whenever I had a good report card, she locked the card in her safe deposit box and wore the key around her neck, as if my grades were so many precious jewels, impossible to replace. I could never let her down. And I will be grateful to her forever.

Johannes P. from Lincoln, Nebraska: What was it like to write about subject matter that is so close to you? Do you have any advice for writers who would like to tell similar and difficult family stories?

Adeline Yen Mah: They should write their story, and put all their emotions into their writing without any fear. Readers will know whether the writing is true or false. In addition, she will feel freer and happier just by writing it down, even if nobody reads it but her.

Naomi from Weston, CT: What would you like your readers to learn from reading your book?

Adeline Yen Mah: I would like them to persist in doing what they feel in their heart is right, because one day they will triumph over their adversities.

Moderator: Thank you for joining us tonight, Adeline Yen Mah, and for answering all of our questions about FALLING LEAVES. It has been a pleasure, and we wish you the best of luck. Before you go, do you have any closing comments for your online audience?

Adeline Yen Mah: I feel much honored that so many of my readers have joined me tonight, and if anybody should still have questions, I will gladly respond to them if they write to me in care of my publisher, John Wiley and Sons, 605 Third Ave., New York, NY 10158. And to all would-be writers, good luck. My best wishes are with you.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The basis for the book's title is the Chinese aphorism "falling leaves return to their roots." Why do you think Adeline Yen Mah chose this title? What does it mean in the context of her story?

2. Adeline Yen Mah begins her story with the reading of her father's will. Why do you think she chose this point in time to start her story? How does it set the tone for the book?

3. The author consistently gives the Chinese character, the phonetic spelling, and the English translation when using Chinese phrases. Why do you think she does this? What does it say about her, and how does it affect you?

4. Overall how would you characterize the author's life in China? Was there any happiness for her? What strategies does she use to cope with the situation and who aided her in those efforts? How would you have reacted in similar circumstances?

5. Discuss the social hierarchy of the Yen household. How did Adeline fit in? How about Ye Ye and Aunt Baba?

6. Of the many instances of cruelty that Adeline faced as a child, which ones affected you most strongly? Why?

7. How would you characterize the author's relationship with her Aunt Baba? How about with her grandfather Ye Ye?

8. How did the author's life change once she moved to England? What factors motivated this change? Why was medical school such an appropriate place for her? How did the author change during her stay in Britain? How is she different? How is she the same? How does this affect her career path? How does it affect her relationship with her father and stepmother?

9. During her time in America the author's relationship with her parents and her siblings changes. Discuss thesechanges and what brought them about.

10. Why do you think the author became involved with Karl and Byron? Why do these relationships turn out the way they do? What about her relationship with Bob? Compare and contrast them.

11. Throughout the story Adeline comes across as a remarkable individual. She is possessed of remarkable strength, resilience, and compassion. Is there any precedent for this in her family?

12. There are a number of funerals in the book, notably Ye Ye's, Father's, and Niang's. Discuss how the members of the family react to them. How are they different? How are they similar?

13. In the end, everyone becomes powerless in the face of Niang: the children, Aunt Baba, Ye Ye, even the author's father. Why is this? Even after her death she still is trying to manipulate the children. To what degree is she victorious? To what degree does she fail and why? What does the author learn after Niang's death: about her stepmother, about her siblings (particularly Lydia and James), and about herself? What is your final impression of Niang and of her children? How do you think they came to be this way?

14. The author subtitles the book, "The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter." How are the events portrayed influenced by Chinese society and customs? To what degree is this account of an abusive childhood universal? Would the events be different if they were to occur in another society? If so, how?

15. What is the significance of the fairy tale told to the author by Aunt Baba on the aunt's deathbed? Compare the story to Cinderella. In the end, what do we learn about Aunt Baba's role in Adeline's life and about her attitudes toward her niece?

16. The author has said, "I read somewhere that an unhappy childhood is a writer's whole capital. If that is so, then I am rich indeed." Memoirs such as Angela's Ashes and The Liar's Club have centered on unhappy childhoods. In your opinion, what is the reason for this genre's recent popularity with readers? How have these memoirs influenced modern storytelling? In what ways do these stories inspire writers and readers alike?

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