Eighth Promise: An American Son's Tribute to His Toisanese Mother

Eighth Promise: An American Son's Tribute to His Toisanese Mother

by William Poy Lee

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In the tradition of the bestseller The Color of Water by James McBride and the classic In My Mother's House by Kim Chernin comes a beautifully written, evocative memoir of the relationship between a mother and son-and of the Chinese American immigrant experience. Author William Poy Lee's moving story spans from the ancient Chinese farming village of his mother's youth to the housing projects of San Francisco's Chinatown during the civil rights era, the Vietnam War, end the countercultural 1960s and 1970s of his coming-of-age. Told in two voices-the author's and that of his mother-it is a stunning tale of violence, injustice, fortitude, survival, and triumph.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594868115
Publisher: Rodale Press, Inc.
Publication date: 11/27/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.93(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.89(d)

About the Author

WILLIAM POY LEE, formerly an architect and now a lawyer, lives in Berkeley, California. This is his first book.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Prologue: A Return to the Village     viii
Source (1930-1950)
One Story, Two Voices     3
Ancestral Home     6
The Butterflies of Death     9
The Clan Sisterhood     13
Go-Between Man     19
Lucky Day     32
Poy Jen Makes Eight Promises     38
Crossing Three Rivers     46
The New Land (1951-1963)
Red Egg Day     52
Mrs. Ransom's Forty-Eight Steaks     62
The Soup Du Jour is Ch'i     77
Ragtag Boy Scouts     81
The Toisan Rules for Husbands     93
Bogie's Man     102
Two Buses Daily     114
Visitors Wear Masks     116
Right Feeling     124
Initiations (1964-1972)
Speaking in Tongues     183
Benevolent and Protective     144
New Yellow Peril     151
The Troubles     170
All-American High School     173
Grandmother Smiles     180
Tremors     185
First Son Goes to University     189
Clouds     192
Chaos Under Heaven (1972-1978)
Speaking in Circles     207
Wailing Wall     210
Rub the Hard-Boiled Egg     222
Healing Rites     226
Talking About Bad Things Being's Them Back     239
The Season of Ten Thousand Sorrows     241
Mothering All the Children     256
Inside Moves     259
Dead Stop     268
Blues Spiral     270
Renewal (1979-1983)
Rage Under a Mother's Gaze     281
Angels of Light and Slam Dancers     284
Quilt     293
A Private Victory     296
Author: A Millennial Chinese New Year in Toisan     303
Poy Jen: Choosing America     312
Author: An American Promise     315

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Discussion Guide for The Eighth Promise: An American Son’s Tribute to His Toisanese Mother by William Poi Lee



1. Did you agree with the author’s choice to alternate chapters between his mother’s voice and his own? Or was it confusing?
2. Were the two voices clearly differentiable?
3. Did you notice the shift as the narrative continued, the Mother’s voice starting to shift more into observer and commentator rather than as the main character and as a teacher? In contrast, the author grows more-and-more into his own voice as his own story comes into the foreground?
4. Did the shift work as a writing device?
5. The author recorded over thirty hours of interviews with his mother -- all in original Toisanese dialect. It’s one skill to translate words, but what do you think are the writing challenges involved in conveying the personality, the speaking cadences, and the cultural reference points of Toisanese into American?

1. What is the connection between old-world ancestry and being an American?
2. What do we gain if we explore the connection?
3. What do we lose, if anything, if we don’t?
4. Is being American merely a matter of gaining citizenship, or do you truly become one only after several generations of your family living here?
5. Are you less an American if you reconnect with your old-world ancestry - or are you in some way, more of one? Are you less patriotic?
6. Are you more of an American if you completely assimilate and forget everything about your family’s old world culture and language? Are you more patriotic?
7. In a globalizing age, how does knowing one’s own ancestry, or retaining or relearning the language of your parents or grandparents, help you?
8. How might it hinder you?

1. What did you learn about pregnancy and childbirth that is different from American conventional wisdom?
2. Do you think there is merit in the approach to soups and food, i.e., to enhance the chi body and inner fires of each family member? Or is this an old wives’ tale?
3. Can the Clan system of family take firmer root in America? Would it be a better familial model than the nuclear family model? Or is it unrealistic given the pace of our lives and the demands of our careers?

1. In the face of official wrongdoing, corruption, or organized crime in your community, when is it right to take a personal stand?
2. When might it be foolish to take a stand?
3. Or to continue a stand?
4. Is a personal stand ever worth risking the possibility of death for?


1. Is parental influence more powerful when it is unspoken and subtle or when it is overtly imposed by rules, rewards and punishments, and verbal repetition?
2. Which parent has had the deeper influence on your character, life outlook, and values?
3. What makes you say that? And in what ways? How did that parent influence you?
4. Would you like to interview your mother? Or father?
5. If your mother consented to be interviewed, what would you like to know?
6. How would you ask her about sensitive areas without her withdrawing into silence or vagaries?

In the book, each family member had a job: the father to provide food, roof, and clothing; the mother to take care of the home and shop; and the children to study well with the goal of winning scholarships to attend college. Each night after the evening meal, the parents ceased their own activities for several hours so the children could study in quiet. The father made it gently but very clear that his sons needed higher education to avoid being trapped, as he was, in low paying labor jobs, but that the family was too poor to pay for their college education.

1. What is the purpose of higher education?
2. To gain skills to earn the best living possible?
3. To gain a better understanding of our society, the world, of culture and arts, and of political and economic systems?
4. To understand yourself better psychologically and emotionally so you can function better in life in love, community, and work.
5. To improve yourself -- morally, spiritually, and/or religiously?

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Eighth Promise: An American Son's Tribute to His Toisanese Mother 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
markleon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This memoir traced the history of a Chinese-American man growing up in Chinatown in San Francisco. The memoir purported to be a tribute to his mother. However, the best parts of the book were when the author related his experiences during the '60s and '70s when there was social upheaval in Chinatown. The parts about his mother were less interesting and less convincing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book deeply moved me. My parents are also Toisanese. My mother¿s roots are from Hoisin. My father¿s roots are deep in the Chung-lau village nearby. William Lee's stories of Chinatown San Francisco spoke to me. They are so much like how I saw things growing up in New York City, with its own variations. I lived through the times of some of the worst effects of the changes, with the Wah Ching, the gang killings, and the associations and all that. William Lee's mother 'Poy Jen's' stories, her voice, her accents and how she phrased things, are just remarkable as they are so vivid to me as I talked to my paternal grandmother when she was alive, and as I talk to my grandfather now. The threads of the author's voice and his mother's voice intertwine towards a resolution that is both deeply personal and at the same time compassionate and universally human. I look forward to more stories from this fine writer.