[LITERATURE] Lisa See's "Snow Flower" & History
- Lisa See's 'Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel' is optioned.
The book: "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel," by Lisa See The
buyer: Florence Sloan
Lisa See is the author of Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The
Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed
memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women
named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los
By Josh Getlin, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Lisa See's Past Books: http://www.lisasee.com/Books.htm
Lisa See's Upcoming Events: http://www.lisasee.com/Events.htm
Audio Interview with Dr. Moira Gunn:
Subject:Historical - General
Publication Date:June 28, 2005
Dimensions:9.76x6.58x1.06 in. 1.13 lbs.
Lisa See is an American author. Her books include Snow Flower and the
Secret Fan (2005), Dragon Bones, On Gold Mountain, and Peony in Love.
She was named the 2001 National Woman of the Year, by the
Organization of Chinese American Women. She lives in Los Angeles.
Her latest book entitled Snow Flower and the Secret Fan features
reference to the ancient Chinese practice of female foot binding, the
secret language of Nü Shu and the treatment of women in the 19th
The book traces the journey of Lisa's great-grandfather, Fong See,
who overcame obstacles at every step to become the 100-year-old
godfather of Los Angeles's Chinatown and the patriarch of a sprawling
It (On Gold Mountain) tells the story of how her great-grandfather
Fong See emigrated from China to the place known as "Gold Mountain"
(the U.S.), how he married a white woman, and of his rise to become
one of the most prominent Chinese in the country.
See learned that her great-grandfather Fong See was not the first
person from her family to come to the U.S. from China; rather, it was
her great-great-grandfather who first came to work on the
Transcontinental Railroad as an herbalist.
Several years later, in what was labeled as dangerous and illegal,
Fong See married a Caucasian woman, Letticie Pruett, or Ticie, as she
is known. Before 1948, no Chinese person could marry a Caucasian
woman; nor could they own any kind of property. The couple later
moved to Los Angeles, staying in the underwear industry for several
more years before settling down in the antiques business.
By 1919, Fong See was one few Chinese men who conducted business with
the Caucasian community on a daily basis.
Fong See did very well in America. He had four wives, was the first
Chinese to own an automobile, and lived to be 100. He made his
fortune not in underwear but in curios and antiques and moved down to
Chinatown in Los Angeles where he settled, making frequent trips back
to China. In 1982 the antique store moved to Pasadena where it
remains today selling and renting out Chinese furniture for movie
"My great-grandfather manufactured crotchless underwear for brothels -
that was our family's glorious beginning in America," said See.
Fong See, the family patriarch, immigrated to the United States just
after the completion of the railroad around 1870. The fourth son in a
family of five, his name means fourth son of Fong, well those
immigration officials didn't get it, and so his family name became
See. He had two wives in the US, one a white woman, and two in China.
In 1871 my great-grandfather Fong See, an illiterate peasant, left
his village in southern China for Sacramento, California, in search
of his father, who had disappeared during the building of the
Fong See became the patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. He was the
first Chinese in the U.S. to own an automobile and was one of the few
Chinese to do business with the white community by selling props to
the nascent film industry and antiques to customers like Frank Lloyd
Wright. Despite these successes, Fong See's four sons�all American-
born citizens�had to go to Mexico to marry their Caucasian fianc�s.
On book tours, Caucasians will often ask point-blank, "Why would you
choose to be Chinese when you have all the privileges of being
white?" Given my family and the era in which I grew up, I don't know
that I had a choice.
In 1871, 14-year-old Fong see came from China to "Gold Mountain"- the
United States. Fong see stayed, worked at menial jobs, and saved
enough money to buy a business. Despite widespread restrictions
against the Chinese, he became a very successful importer and was
able to sponsor many other Chinese who wanted to enter the United
States. Fong See had achieved the American dream.
According to the 1872 California Antimiscegenation Act, it was
against the law for a Chinese person to marry a Caucasian. In 1897,
they (Fong See & Lettice Pruett) went to alawyer to have a marriage
contract drawn up. This was recognized by the state notas a marriage,
but as a contract between two people. Shortly after their
marriagecontract, they moved to Los Angeles and raised a family
It was actually my great-great-grandfather Fong Dun Shung, who came
to work on the transcontinental railroad as an herbalist.
By 1870 Fong Dun Shung had left the railroad camps and opened an
herbal shop, Kwong Tsui Chang (Success Peacefully) on I Street in
Sacramento. He practiced Chinese herbal medicine, administering to
men who were sick or seeking sexual prowess, and women, mostly
prostitutes, who fought venereal disease, tuberculosis and pregnancy.
Unlike many immigrants, Fong Dun Shung did not send money back home
to China. His family became so desperate that they sent fourteen-year-
old Fong See to find his father. Fong Dun Shung returned home to
China in 1871, leaving Fong See to run the Sacramento business with
his two brothers.
Sojourners Journeyed to Gum Saan (Gold Mountain)
Most Chinese immigrants coming to America during the California Gold
Rush arrived in San Francisco, which they called Gum Saan - Gold
Mountain - a place of freedom and prosperity. Gold Mountain Travelers
were part of an overwhelmingly male exodus from Southeast China. One
of the many sojourners to Gold Mountain was Fong Dun Shung from the
village of Dimtao in Guangdong Province. Like most immigrants, he
fled poverty. He traveled with his second and third sons, leaving
behind in China his wife, an eldest son addicted to opium, a young
son and a daughter. A typical immigrant, Fong Dun Shung carried with
him simple belongings, but unlike many immigrants, he had a special
skill. Fong Dun Shung was a practitioner of traditional Chinese
Early Immigrants Came from South China
About 322,000 Chinese came to the United States between 1850 and
1882. Most nineteenth-century Chinese sojourners came from the
provinces of Guangdong and Fujian in South China. Many Chinese
Americans today trace their roots to the Pearl River Delta in
Guangdong Province. This region consists of eight districts, each
roughly the size of an American county. Early immigrants to the
continental United States were predominantly from the Sze Yup
District, while Hawaii attracted people from Zhongshan.
Florence Sloan (Bigfeet Productions) options Lisa See's "Snow Flower
and the Secret Fan: A Novel," an international bestseller about women
who rebel against rigid restrictions in 19th century China and
communicate in an ancient secret code.
Sloan and Wendi Murdoch producing; See represented by the Sandra
Dijkstra Literary Agency and on film rights by Michael Cendejas with
the Lynn Pleshette Literary Agency. The book is published by Random
House Trade Paperbacks.
The back story
When writers sell the film rights to their books, many worry about
the original story and how it will fare on the screen. But See is
more concerned about culture. "I don't want to see actors stirring
the rice as they cook it," she said. The Los Angeles writer has
reason to be concerned: Two of her previous books were optioned, and
while neither became a film, she was irked by insensitivity in both
treatments. (In one, she said, a script written with Mel Gibson in
mind had a scene in which he beat up several Chinese men, then
asked: "Got milk?")
The author, who has written vividly about her own Chinese American
lineage, insisted on the right to have cultural input into any
adaptation of "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." The women who
optioned her 2005 novel are both Chinese merican and they could not
have been more sympathetic. The proposed movie is the debut project
for Sloan, who is married to MGM Chairman and CEO Harry Sloan, and
for Murdoch, whose husband, Rupert, runs News Corp. They were smitten
with See's absorbing story and quickly sensed its cinematic potential.
"Both of us being Chinese played a part in the optioning of the
rights, and we felt a connection to it because of the Chinese history
and culture that is the driving force of the story," said Sloan in an
e-mail. "Wendi and I are very close friends (and) she approached me
about forming a company and being partners."
See is also hopeful about an option deal for her latest novel, "Peony
in Love," which is being negotiated with Ridley Scott's production
company. "The timing for all this seems perfect, with all the
interest in China," she said. "But I remember the old saying about
books into films: Many are chosen, few are made."
Lisa See, author of the critically-acclaimed international
bestseller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), has always been
intrigued by stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately
covered up, whether in the past or happening right now in the world
today. For Snow Flower, she traveled to a remote area of China
where she was told she was only the second foreigner ever to visit
to research the secret writing invented, used, and kept a secret by
women for over a thousand years. Amy Tan called the novel "achingly
beautiful, a marvel of imagination." Others agreed, and foreign-
language rights for Snow Flower were sold to 36 countries. The novel
also became a New York Times bestseller, a Booksense Number One Pick,
and has won numerous awards domestically and internationally.
Ms. See's new novel once again delves into forgotten history. Peony
in Love takes place in 17th-century China in the Yangzi River delta.
It's based on the true story of three "lovesick maidens," who were
married to the same man one right after the other, not one reaching
age twenty. Together they wrote the first book of its kind to have
been written and published anywhere in the world by women. (The
lovesick maidens were part of a much larger phenomenon. In the 17th
century, there were more women writers in China who were being
published than altogether in the rest of the world at that time.)
Ultimately, Peony in Love about the bonds of female friendship, the
power of words, the desire that all women have to be heard, and
finally those emotions that are so strong that they transcend time,
place, and perhaps even death.
Ms. See was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles, spending much
of her time in Chinatown. Her first book, On Gold Mountain: The One
Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995), was a
national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book. The book
traces the journey of Lisa's great-grandfather, Fong See, who
overcame obstacles at every step to become the 100-year-old godfather
of Los Angeles's Chinatown and the patriarch of a sprawling family.
While collecting the details for On Gold Mountain, she developed the
idea for her first novel, Flower Net (1997), which was a national
bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and on the Los Angeles
Times Best Books List for 1997. Flower Net was also nominated for an
Edgar award for best first novel. This was followed by two more
mystery-thrillers, The Interior (2000) and Dragon Bones (2003), which
once again featured the characters of Liu Hulan and David Stark. This
series inspired critics to compare Ms. See to Upton Sinclair,
Dashiell Hammett, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In addition to writing books, Ms. See was the Publishers Weekly West
Coast Correspondent for thirteen years. As a freelance journalist,
her articles have appeared in Vogue, Self, and More, as well as in
numerous book reviews around the country.
She wrote the libretto for Los Angeles Opera based on On Gold
Mountain, which premiered in June 2000 at the Japan American Theatre
followed by the Irvine Barclay Theatre. She also served as guest
curator for an exhibit on the Chinese-American experience for the
Autry Museum of Western Heritage, which then traveled to the
Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in 2001. Ms. See then
helped develop and curate the Family Discovery Gallery at the Autry
Museum, an interactive space for children and their families that
focuses on Lisa's bi-racial, bi-cultural family as seen through the
eyes of her father as a seven-year-old boy living in 1930s Los
In addition, she recently designed a walking tour of Los Angeles
Chinatown and wrote the companion guidebook for Angels Walk L.A. to
celebrate the opening of the MTA's new Chinatown metro station. She
also curated the inaugural exhibition a retrospective of artist
Tyrus Wong for the grand opening of the Chinese American Museum in
Ms. See serves as a Los Angeles City Commissioner on the El Pueblo de
Los Angeles Monument Authority. She was honored as National Woman of
the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women in 2001 and
was the recipient of the Chinese American Museum's History Makers
Award in Fall 2003.
Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
WaterBridge Review: In your latest novel, Snow Flower and the Secret
Fan, you've written about little known nu shu, a phonetic code used
between women in Hunan Province in China. How did you become aware of
Lisa See: I first heard about nu shu when I reviewed a book for the
Los Angeles Times on the history of footbinding. It was just a short
three- or four- page mention, but I thought, how could this exist and
I didn't know about it? Then I thought, how could this exist and we
all didn't know about it? Because so often we hear that in the past
there were no women writers, artists, historians, chefs, and the list
goes on and on. Of course women did these things, but that work has
been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. Nu shu, on the
other hand, was an example of something that women had invented,
used, and kept a secret themselves for a thousand years. That amazed
me, and I became totally obsessed.
WBR: You've written three mysteries taking place in China before your
latest novel. What is it about China that brings you back book after
LS: I'm part Chinese. My great-great-grandfather came here to work on
the building of the transcontinental railroad. My great-grandfather
was the patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. I don't look at all
Chinese, but I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family. I
have about four hundred relatives in Los Angeles, of which there are
about a dozen who look like me. All writers are told to write what
they know, and this is what I know. And when I don't know something
nu shu, for exampleI love to find out whatever I can about it and
then bring my sensibility to the subject. I guess what I'm trying to
say is that in many ways I straddle two cultures. I try to bring what
I know from both cultures into my work. I have no way of knowing if
this is true or not, but perhaps the American side of me is able to
open a window into China and things Chinese for non-Chinese, while
the Chinese side of me makes sure that what I'm writing is true to
the Chinese culture without making it seem too "exotic" or "foreign."
In other words, what I really want people to get from my books is
that all people on the planet share common life experiencesfalling
in love, getting married, having children, dyingand share common
emotionslove, hate, greed, jealousy. These are the universals; the
differences are in the particulars of customs and culture.
WBR: Was it a difficult transition to move from the mystery genre to
a straight fictional story?
LS: Straight fiction is much easier than mysteries or thrillers.
Writing the mysteries really helped me with Snow Flower. With
mysteries, you have to keep focused on the plot. You can't overlook a
single detail. It's a very tight form and pacing is extremely
important. Today, straight fiction, especially women's fiction, has
very little plot. It's just a slice of life with an emotional change.
I personally prefer novels that have enough plot that I will continue
to turn the pages. For Snow Flower, the plotline was, why does Lily
feel such regret and what happened between her and Snow Flower to
create their rift? You see, it's still a tiny bit of a mystery.
Writing the mysteries really helped me as I thought about the pacing,
characters, and emotional arc of this new novel.
WBR: What are you working on right now?
LS: I liken what I'm working on now to a reverse mirror image of Snow
Flower. Unfortunately, there's no short way to say thisno quick
sound bite, as it wereso I hope you'll bear with me. Snow Flower
takes place in the nineteenth century and has to do with poor,
uneducated (illiterate in standard Chinese) women, who used secret
code writing to communicate. The new novel is set in the seventeenth
century in the Yangzi Delta. The women there were from the elite
class, highly educated, but they also lived in almost utter
seclusion. More women writers in that small area were being published
than anywhere else in the world at that time.
There was a subcategory of these women writers called the "lovesick
maidens of Hangzhou": sixteen-year-old girls who were obsessed with
the opera, The Peony Pavilion, caught cases of lovesickness like the
heroine in the opera, and wrote beautiful poetry as they wasted away
and died. The new novel is based on a true story of three of those
lovesick maidens who were married to the same man, who together wrote
the first piece of literary criticism written by women ever to be
published in the world. I'm writing it as a ghost story within a
I'm also working on a young adult book on the history of the Chinese
in America. This is a completely different kind of project and lets
me look at photographs, archival materials, and other types of
ephemera to help tell the history in a way that will be captivating
to kids. Even today, there's still very little out there for adults
or kids on Chinese-American history. I hope this book will help fill
that void and still be entertaining.
WBR: How do you find peace of mind in your every day life?
LS: What peace of mind? My son is in the room and I asked him and he
answered, "You think about your wonderful children, you go to violent
movies with lots of sex in them, you try not to think about our
government, you watch The Daily Show, and you listen to The Walk on
the Moon soundtrack." Yep, I think that about sums it up. The only
other thing I would say is that I try to approach life like a
recovering alcoholic: I just do one thing at a time and cross the
bridge when I come to it.
WBR: What are some of these books waiting for you on your bedstand?
LS: Actually, I've just been on vacation and I'm caught up. I usually
don't read fiction when I'm working on a novel, because I don't want
that author's voice seeping into my work. When I'm working, I try to
immerse myself in the subject and that world. So shortly I'll be
going back to reading about women in seventeenth-century China, the
fall of the Ming Dynasty and rise of the Qing Dynasty, pieces on The
Peony Pavilion, and, of course, what the lovesick maidens themselves
WBR: If you could choose, who would be your favorite hero or heroine
LS: Oh, that's easy, but none of them are from books. Ripley in the
Alien movies, Starbuck in the new Battlestar Gallactica TV series,
Trinity in The Matrix, and Sydney Bristow in Alias, also on TV. I
really love those kick-ass women!
WBR: And what character in a book most resembles your own personality?
LS: This is an easy one too, but no one will have ever heard of the
book or the character. I had a favorite book as a little girl called
Ameliaranne and the Magic Ring. My grandmother had picked up a very
used and old copy at a garage sale. My little sister lost it and what
can I say? I held a grudge about that for about 35 years. (At least
my sister thinks I held a grudge. I thought I was just teasing her
I just turned fiftyhorrifying, I knowand my sister gave me a copy
of the book. It turns out it was part of a British series of
children's books, but that only two thousand copies had been
distributed of this particular title. What was amazing to me as I
read it again these many years later was how close my personality was
to Ameliaranne. Had I identified with her as a girl because I was
already like her in some way, or had I emulated her as I grew older?
What was really odd was that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was just
about to come out, and I hope you can see how I'd used the feel of
the title of that book in the title for my book.
WBR: While under the spell of so many different characters, is there
a specific talent you would most like to have?
LS: ESP, an awesome serve for tennis, to be able to TIVO in real
life, and to know where the commas go at all time.
WBR: Is there a particular author, past or present, who has
influenced your writing?
LS: Again, I'm sorry to say he isn't a writer of books. Bob Dylan has
been a huge influence on my writing. He knows how to tell a whole
story in just a few minutes and he has a wonderful way with words. Of
course, the guy can't sing, but you can't have everything.
WBR: Other than traveling the world through books, is there anywhere
you would like to travel to?
LS: Mongolia. I used to have terrible insomnia and so did my
grandmother. I remember one night watching a documentary on Mongolia.
The emptiness of the landscape completely entranced me. A few days
later I was with my grandmother and she had seen the same documentary
and felt the same way. We used to talk all the time about going
there, but we never had a chance. I'd also love to go to Vietnam,
Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. And I'd love to see Australia and New
Zealand one of these days. Actually, I love to travel more than just
about anything, so I'm always up to go anywhere anytime. Later this
week I'm off to The Netherlands, Germany, and Poland for a book tour.
WBR: What's the last movie you saw?
LS: Okay, so this has been a very bad year for movies, so no one
should read anything into these movies. I went to a screening of
Pride and Prejudice on Friday night. (It was nothing to write home
about.) On Saturday we saw You, Me and Everyone We Know, which was a
quirky little film with an outstanding performance by a little boy
that really made me laugh. And yesterday we saw The 40-year-old
Virgin, which was surprisingly poignant in a totally juvenile way.
WBR: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
LS: A landscape architect.
WBR: How do you spend your time when you're not writing?
LS: I go for walks and play tennis. I love movies and see about a
hundred a year. But frankly, I don't have much free time. I'm a L.A.
city commissioner. I also curate the occasional museum exhibition and
do tons of speaking events each year. I'm also a freak when it comes
to letter writing. I write lots of letters. My days are
extraordinarily full with all sorts of things, and I have to say no a
lot so I can write.
WBR: And lastly, what is the bravest thing you've ever done?
LS: This is a funny question, because I'm torn about how to answer
it. For me the scariest things I've done are the times that I've had
to take care of my kids when they've been hurt or sick. I've really
had to be very brave through some of those.
The more obvious answer would be some of the travel I've done. Going
to Jiangyong County to research nu shu required a certain amount of
bravery, I suppose. I was told I was only the second foreigner to go
there. The bright side of a trip like that is that everything is
completely new. The down sides are no hot water and eating things
like pig penis. But I don't consider that to require much in the way
of bravery. They're just minor inconveniences so that I can explore a
And if I look at your question in a whole other way, I would say that
writing is the bravest thing I've done. Like all artists, writers
have to be willing to go to the bone, reveal themselves, and then be
willing for people to hate what they have to say. But I don't know if
you would call that bravery or insanity.
Lisa See Interview
K Hewitt: Your most recent novel "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" is
based around nu shu ("women's writing") which has been noted to be
the only gender-based written language to have been found in the
world. When did you first learn about this form of communication?
What led you to base a novel around it?
Lisa See: I first heard about nu shu when I reviewed a book for the
L.A. Times on the history of footbinding. It was just a short three
or four page mention, but I thought, how could this exist and I
didn't know about it? Then I thought, how could this exist and we all
didn't know about it? Because so often we hear that in the past there
were no women writers, artists, historians, chefs, and the list goes
on and on. Of course women did these things, but that work has been
lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. Nu shu, on the other
hand, was an example of something that women had invented, used, and
kept a secret themselves for a thousand years. That amazed me, and I
have to say I became totally obsessed.
But it took me a long time before I realized I would write a novel
based on nu shu. I read all this academic stuff written by scholars
and I went to southwestern Hunan province to learn what I could. What
I discovered was that the scholarsas brilliant as they arealways
seemed to leave out the emotions inherent in the secret language. It
was something used by real women who had real emotions. I thought a
novel would be the best way to explore that.
KH: I imagine that you spent quite a bit of time doing research about
your family for you first book "On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred
Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family", during that process did
you ever discover something that surprised you?
LS: I worked on On Gold Mountain for five years. I interviewed
friends, relatives, business associate, and even some enemies of my
family. I spent a lot of time in people's attics, basements, closets,
and garages looking at ephemera. I went to Waterville, Washington,
where my grandmother was from, to Central Point Oregon, where my
great-grandmother was from, to my family's home village in China, and
to a lot of national, state, and local archives of various sorts.
It's hard for me to pick one thing that surprised me, because I was
surprised so many times.
I guess the thing that really got me though had to do with my great-
grandmother. In my family, everyone always talked about my great-
grandfather, Fong See, but rarely about his wife. She was the mom, so
I guess not very interesting. I knew she'd been born in Central
Point, that her mother died when she was a baby, that her father died
when she was seven, that she was raised by brothers who were reputed
to be quite cruel to her, and that she ran away from home when she
was seventeen. That's it! I contacted the historical society in
Medford, OR, and got a very good researcher. Periodically, she would
send me things she'd found a clipping about Ticie's father's death
in a horse-racing accident, when her brother got married, the
homestead claim for the property. The researcher drove by the
homestead and saw that the barn was still there.
I decided to go up and see what I could see. I went to the property
and walked around, and then I drove to the cemetery, which was just
down the street. I knew Ticie's father's name, but not her mother's.
I walked through the cemetery until I found John Milton Pruett's
gravestone and next to it the one for his wife, Luscinda. I now knew
when she was born and when she died. About a half hour after that I
was at the historical society and I asked if it ever snowed in
Medford. (It was 120 degrees that day, no kidding, so it wasn't a
crazy question.) The researcher told me that, yes, it snowed, but
they were also known for their fog and heat. In fact, she didn't live
in Medford and kept an 1877 copy of a diary written by a man who was
a farmer by day and a preacher on horseback by night. He always made
a notation of the weather and the researcher now used it like an
almanac so she would know how to dress for work. Would I like to take
a look at it? Sure!
I had just learned that Luscinda had died on April 9, 1877. I turned
to that page in the farmer's diary and he was there with her when she
died. It turned out he was the Pruetts' next door neighbor. The whole
diary was filled with anecdotes about the Pruett familyhow they
traded butter for lard, how they traded peaches for pears, how much
the reverend paid the Pruett boys to do hauling for him. And it
tracked when Luscinda first got sick, when the Reverend Patterson's
wife made her special homemade cough syrup, that when Luscinda knew
she was going to die the Bible verse that she asked him to read at
her funeral, and, finally, what the weather was like on the day she
KH: I was fascinated to learn, when researching for this interview,
that your grandfather, Fong See, was the patriarch of Los Angeles'
Chinatown. How has your grandfather's legacy shaped your life?
My great-great-grandfather came here to work on the building of the
transcontinental railroad. My great-grandfather was the
godfather/patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. I don't look at all
Chinese, but I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family. I
have about 400 relatives in Los Angeles, of which there are about a
dozen that look like me. They were my mirror, so how could I believe
I was different than they were?
All writers are told to write what they know, and this is what I
know. And when I don't know something nu shu, for example I love
to find out whatever I can about it and then bring my sensibility to
the subject. I guess what I'm trying to say is that in many ways I
straddle two cultures. I try to bring what I know from both cultures
into my work. I have no way of knowing if this is true or not, but
perhaps the American side of me is able to open a window into China
and things Chinese for non-Chinese, while the Chinese side of me
makes sure that what I'm writing is true to the Chinese culture
without making it seem too "exotic" or "foreign."
As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and great-aunt
and great-uncles in Chinatown. As I said, we have a big family. There
were lots of Chinese weddings and one-month parties. Recently, I'm
sorry to say, there have been too many funerals. All of these things
have been very traditional Chinese. Pioneer Chinese American families
really hang on to tradition and culture in a very old-fashioned way.
In China, traditions changed and evolved over the last 100 years.
That just wasn't the case with the families who came to America. They
held on to their traditions as though they were frozen in time.
Many of my memories are about food. My grandfather loved to cook.
Because our family was so big, we had lots of banquets. When my
oldest son went to college, he was very homesick. He would visit the
girls in the next room, because they had a rice steamer. The smell
reminded him of home and helped him with his homesickness.
Anyway, to answer your question, the influence has been in everything
in my life. It's in how I raise my children, in what I eat, in how I
remember the people in my family who've died. It's in what I plant in
my garden and how I decorate my house. I have a western doctor, but
my main doctor is from China and practices traditional Chinese
medicine.But because of how I look I will always be "outside." In Los
Angeles Chinatown, people know me. But when I go to other Chinese
communities or to China, people see me as an outsider because of how
I look. When I go into the larger white community here in the U.S.,
people look at me and talk to me as though I belong, but inside I
often feel very foreign. In both worlds, I'm a bit outside. I think
this has made me a better and certainly more interesting writer,
because it really makes me look and feel.
KH: Having designed a walking tour of LA's Chinatown yourself, what
places and sights would you recommend for visitors?
LS: I love the Chinese American Museum, which isn't in Chinatown
proper. It's at El Pueblo, where Olvera Street is, in one of the last
of the original buildings of the original Chinatown. They've done a
great job with their permanent and temporary exhibits. I also highly
recommend walking the length of the two walk-through streets from
Broadway up to Chungking Road. My family's storesthe F. See On
Company and Fong'sare in the block west of Hill Street. Stepping
into them is like stepping back in time. They have great antiques,
but also wonderful people, if I do say so myself. My great Uncle Kuen
is at Fong's. He's 96 years old, sharp as a tack, and filled with
Chinatown is interesting today because of the juxtaposition of the
old and then all these trendy art galleries. It's fun just to poke
around. I love Realm, which has a contemporary take on curios and
home décor. Somewhere in there, you need to eat, so I'd recommend the
Empress Pavilion for dim sum, the Mayflower Restaurant on Spring
Street for dinner, and the Phoenix Bakery for some take-home goodies,
especially the strawberry and whipped cream cake.
KH: You are a woman of many talents, involved in your writing as well
as the community. What kind of projects are you currently working on?
LS: I liken what I'm working on now to a reverse mirror image of Snow
Flower. It doesn't have a tile yet, but I'm guessing Peony might be
in it somewhere. Unfortunately there's no short way to say this, so I
hope you'll bear with me. The new novel is set in the 17th century in
the Yangzi Delta. The women there were from the elite class, highly
educated, but also lived in almost utter seclusion. More women
writers in that small area were being published than anywhere else in
the world at that time. This is another one of those things that made
me think, why didn't I know this and why doesn't everyone else know
this? It's really remarkable. No other country in the world comes
remotely close to how advanced China was in this regard.
There was a subcategory of these women writers called the lovesick
maidens: sixteen-year-old girls who were obsessed with the opera, The
Peony Pavilion, caught cases of lovesickness like the heroine in the
opera, and wrote beautiful poetry as they wasted away and died. The
new novel is based on a true story of three of those lovesick maidens
who were married to the same man, who together wrote the first piece
of literary criticism written by women ever to be published in the
world. Wu Wushan's Three Wives Commentary of Mudan Ting stayed in
print in China for 300 years, and yet almost no one knows about it
today either in China or in other parts of the world. I'm writing
it as a ghost story within a ghost story, and I'm using the richness
and magic of the Chinese afterlife to explore the different
manifestations of lovemother love, romantic love, erotic love, deep-
heart loveand how they can transcend death. Ultimately the story is
about female friendship, the cost of expressing creativity under
oppressive circumstances, and the desire and need for women to be
heardall as timely and pertinent today as they were three centuries
I'm also working on two other China-related projects. The first is a
young adult book on the history of the Chinese in America. This is a
completely different kind of project and lets me look at photographs,
archival materials, and other types of ephemera to help tell the
history in a way that will be captivating to kids. The other project
is a calendar for 2008 of photographs from beautiful places in China.
I'm writing the text.
KH: LoadedShelf.com is a site dedicated to those who can't help but
fill their shelves with books, CD, and movies. What is the one thing
that loads down the shelf of Lisa See?
LS: These days, the things that are literally loading down my shelves
are the foreign editions of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It's
being published in thirty languages, in hard and soft covers, and in
some cases large print, on CD and on tape. It's the most of any one
thing I have on any of my shelves, and it's kind of embarrassing. But
I bet that wasn't the answer you were looking for.
I've got lots of books on Chinese art, history, and culture. Most of
them have long been out of print, so I've spent a lot of time surfing
the web to find them from all over the world. It's always a treat
when a new one arrives. I've also got tons of music lots of Bob
Dylan, soundtracks, Mexican and South African music, hip hop, operas,
everything really. But I'm not a big movie collector. I love to go to
the movies and I probably see about 100 a year, but I rarely feel a
need to own them. The ones I do own are Top Hat, Aliens, The Matrix,
and Jules et Jim.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel
by Lisa See
Synopses & Reviews
Lily is haunted by memories of who she once was, and of a person,
long gone, who defined her existence. She has nothing but time now,
as she recounts the tale of Snow Flower, and asks the gods for
In nineteenth-century China, when wives and daughters were foot-bound
and lived in almost total seclusion, the women in one remote Hunan
county developed their own secret code for communication: nu shu
("women's writing"). Some girls were paired with laotongs, "old
sames," in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives. They
painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and
composed stories, thereby reaching out of their isolation to share
their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.
With the arrival of a silk fan on which Snow Flower has composed for
Lily a poem of introduction in nu shu, their friendship is sealed and
they become "old sames" at the tender age of seven. As the years
pass, through famine and rebellion, they reflect upon their arranged
marriages, loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The
two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive.
But when a misunderstanding arises, their lifelong friendship
suddenly threatens to tear apart.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brilliantly realistic journey
back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is
sorrowful. With the period detail and deep resonance of Memoirs of a
Geisha, this lyrical and emotionally charged novel delves into one of
the most mysterious of human relationships: female friendship.
"See's engrossing novel set in remote 19th-century China details the
deeply affecting story of lifelong, intimate friends (laotong,
or 'old sames') Lily and Snow Flower, their imprisonment by rigid
codes of conduct for women and their betrayal by pride and love.
While granting immediacy to Lily's voice, See (Flower Net) adroitly
transmits historical background in graceful prose. Her in-depth
research into women's ceremonies and duties in China's rural interior
brings fascinating revelations about arranged marriages, women's
inferior status in both their natal and married homes, and the
Confucian proverbs and myriad superstitions that informed daily life.
Beginning with a detailed and heartbreaking description of Lily and
her sisters' foot binding ('Only through pain will you have beauty.
Only through suffering will you have peace'), the story widens to a
vivid portrait of family and village life. Most impressive is See's
incorporation of nu shu, a secret written phonetic code among women
here between Lily and Snow Flower that dates back 1,000 years in
the southwestern Hunan province ('My writing is soaked with the tears
of my heart,/ An invisible rebellion that no man can see'). As both a
suspenseful and poignant story and an absorbing historical chronicle,
this novel has bestseller potential and should become a reading group
favorite as well. Agent, Sandra Dijkstra. Author tour. (July)"
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business
"[A] timeless portrait of a contentious, full-blooded female
friendship, one that includes, over several decades, envy, betrayal,
erotic love, and deep-seated loyalty. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly
"Taut and vibrant, the story offers a delicately painted view of a
sequestered world and provides a richly textured account of how women
might understand their own lives. A keenly imagined journey into the
women's quarters." Kirkus Reviews
"See's meticulous research and exquisite language deliver a story
that is haunting, powerful, and, at times, almost too painful to
bear. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Lisa See has written her best book yet. Snow Flower and the Secret
Fan is achingly beautiful, a marvel of imagination of a real and
secret world that has only recently disappeared. It is a story so
mesmerizing the pages float away and the story remains clearly before
us from beginning to end." Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and
The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings
"I was mesmerized by this wondrous book the story of a secret
civilization of women, who actually lived in China not long
ago....Magical, haunting fiction. Beautiful." Maxine Hong Kingston,
author of The Fifth Book of Peace
"Only the best novelists can do what Lisa See has done, to bring to
life not only a character but an entire culture, and a sensibility so
strikingly different from our own. This is an engrossing and
completely convincing portrayal of a woman shaped by suffering forced
upon her from her earliest years, and of the friendship that helps
her to survive." Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha
This absorbing novel unlike anything Lisa See has written before
takes place in nineteenth-century China when girls had their feet
bound, then spent the rest of their lives in seclusion with only a
single window from which to see. Illiterate and isolated, they were
not expected to think, be creative, or have emotions. But in one
remote county, women developed their own secret code, nu shu
women's writing the only gender-based written language to have been
found in the world. Some girls were paired as old-same in emotional
matches that lasted throughout their lives. They painted letters on
fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories,
thereby reaching out of their windows to share their hopes and
dreams. An old woman tells of her relationship with her old-same,
their arranged marriages, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood
until a terrible misunderstanding threatens to tear them apart.Snow
Flower and the Secret Fan delves into one of the most mysterious and
treasured relationships of all time female friendship.
Tavis Smiley Interview
original airdate August 24, 2007
Lisa See has been called one of the most significant Asian American
voices in contemporary writing. Born in Paris, See grew up in Los
Angeles, where she was active in the cultural affairs of the Chinese
American community. She shares her fascination with lost stories in
her books, including the international best seller, Snow Flower and
the Secret Fan, and, her latest, the China-set fiction, Peony in
Love. See was previously Publishers Weekly's West Coast correspondent
and a freelance journalist.
Tavis: Lisa See is an acclaimed novelist whose previous books
include "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" and "On Gold Mountain." Her
latest book is once again a "New York Times" bestseller. The new book
is called "Peony in Love." Lisa See, nice to have you on the program.
Lisa See: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: We were just talking before we came on the air. There are some
people who say "Peony" and some say "Peony." What do you make of that
See: I don't know. I don't know if that's a regional thing or what,
but I go with Peony.
Tavis: I'm sure somebody is going to send me an email. Some expert on
that word will send me an email saying, "Mr. Smiley, here's exactly
what it is and why it should be called Peony."
See: And I hope you forward it to me.
Tavis: (Laughter) Well, you're the writer. If you're waiting on me to
help you, you're in a lot of trouble (laughter). But I'm glad to have
you here. Obviously, you're a great writer, but what is that thread
through these books that you write that connect to your fan base that
allow them to hit the "Times" list consistently? What's that thread
for you? I mean, if I asked John Grisham that question, I'm sure he'd
have an answer. What's your answer?
See: I think for me, I always start just from the things that I'm
most interested in. I'm really interested in these stories that
happened in the past that are lost, forgotten or sometimes
deliberately covered up. A lot of that has to do with women's history.
We think in the past there were no women writers, no women artists,
no women historians, no women chefs. You could go on and on. But, of
course, there were women who did these things, but their stories have
been lost. So for me, it's to go back and find these lost stories and
then write about them, you know, to fictionalize them.
So for "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," I was writing about women in
China who had invented and used a secret writing system. It's the
only writing system to have been found anywhere in the world to have
been used exclusively by women, but they kept it a secret for a
With "Peony in Love," I was writing about what were called lovesick
maidens in China in the mid-seventeenth century. They were part of
this much larger phenomenon of women writers. There were more women
writers in this one area of China who were being published than
altogether in the rest of the world at that time.
You know, if you think about it, in 1650 there weren't very many
women being published at that time. But there were over a thousand
women writers who were writing, being published, traveling all around
the country in the seventeenth century version of book tours. But
their stories have been lost, so this is about the true story of
three of these lovesick maidens, a particular group of these women
Tavis: I want to talk more about this text, "Peony in Love," in just
a second and the story line here. I did not realize until I started
delving into the research for this conversation about your past what
the connection was, what the interest was, in Chinese culture. I get
it now. You can explain it to those watching who don't know your
See: Well, I'm part Chinese. My great-great-grandfather came to this
country to work on the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. My
great-grandfather stayed here and became the kind of godfather-
patriarch of Los Angeles's Chinatown. He had four wives, twelve
children, he was the first Chinese in America to own an automobile.
He was really a pretty extraordinary man.
But if you come down to today in Los Angeles, there are about a dozen
people that look like me, a little bit of a spectrum in between. The
majority of the family is still full Chinese. I have about four
hundred relatives here in Los Angeles and I really don't look like I
belong with the rest of them.
Tavis: At the family reunion, you kind of stand out (laughter).
See: I do (laughter).
Tavis: In these stories, these pieces that you've pulled out to
create these stories around, about these particular pieces of Chinese
culture, as I said earlier, they obviously work as a book. What was
it that interested you, that fascinated you, that made you believe
that there was something in this culture that could be turned into a
novel, but that would also be instructive and informative?
See: Well, I think that you can always go back to the kind of
emotions and human relationships that we all have, that we all want.
These lovesick maidens, one of the things they wanted most of all was
love. Well, of course, that's something we all want today. What they
also wanted was to be heard. Well, I think we all want that today. We
all want to be heard for who we are and some of us struggle a lot to
be able to find that in ourselves, to be heard by outside people.
So to try to find those universal elements in stories from the past
that still pertain to today, I think that's what people connect to.
Of course, that's what I connect to when I'm writing. What I hope
happens to me as a writer as I'm going through the process will also
happen to the readers.
Tavis: Tell me more about this particular story line for "Peony in
Love." I'm really fascinated by this sixteenth century opera that
made people lovesick literally.
See: Right. These young women aged thirteen to sixteen loved an opera
called "The Peony Pavilion." It's China's greatest love story. It's
their "Romeo and Juliet." These young women were never allowed to see
the opera. They could only read it. And when they read it, they would
catch cases of lovesickness and waste away and die, like the main
character in the opera.
This opera tells the story of a young girl who's so protected, so
cloistered, that she doesn't even know her family owns a garden. One
day she goes out into the garden, she's so overwhelmed by what she
sees. She falls asleep, dreams of a young man and, when she wakes up,
she's in love with him, has a case of lovesickness, wastes away and
But she comes back to earth as a ghost and, in her wanderings, she
meets that young man she dreamed about and, through true love, he
brings her back to life. Now in real life, when these girls read this
story, something did start to happen in their minds.
These girls, from the moment they were born, were told things
like, "It's better to have a dog than a daughter," "You're a
worthless branch on the family tree." They had their feet bound when
they were five years old, their toes broken, their mid-foot broken,
their foot really crushed and reshaped until it was about the size of
your thumb, one inch wide and about three inches long.
Then they were set up into these arranged marriages at sixteen years
old where they went sight unseen into their husband's homes where
they were told, "Have a son, have a son, have a son" and, if they
didn't have a son, they could be discarded out into the street or
they could be sold away.
These young women, when they looked forward into their lives, they
had no hope that they would ever receive love or that they would ever
be able to give it. So when they read this opera, they thought
perhaps in death, maybe only in death, will I find this one emotion,
this love, will I be able to experience it. This one emotion, again,
that all of us want even today.
Tavis: You just hit on it now just briefly, but I want to probe a
little further. As a writer, why do you find that that L-O-V-E
subject matter is, by my read, inexhaustible certainly for writers? I
mean, not just for writes, but for artists, for musicians. It is an
inexhaustible well of possibility.
See: Right. Well, you know, it's interesting. In English, we have one
word to describe this emotion. In Chinese, there are many different
words to describe the different aspects of love; gratitude love,
respectful love, pity love, mother love. Mother love is a written
character composed of two elements. One part means love, the other
part means pain, but that's a mother's love.
Of course, there are the kinds of love that we experience when you
fall in love for the first time and you're infatuated and you're a
teenager. That's very different than when you decide to get married
or when you've had children or when you've been married for thirty,
forty or fifty years. So we have all of these different kinds of love.
What I think is why we struggle with this a little bit, this idea of
love, is because it's so full and yet we have just one word. It does
impact on every part of our lives. I think going back to that idea of
pity love, respectful love, gratitude love, I can say that and I hope
you know exactly what I'm talking about. Yet we don't have a word for
those different kinds of love in the English language.
Tavis: Although the older I get, the more I realize, at least for me,
I'm not sure there is a word or words for love. The older I get, at
least for me, it becomes something that is almost impossible to talk
about, to write about, and much easier to express. As people, I think
oftentimes we'd rather do the former than the latter. Write about it,
talk about it, but not do what it really means to express love to
everyday people, to other people.
See: That's right. I think that's true. But again, I think we sort of
struggle with that as individual people. How do you express it? What
happens when you're hurt and what happens when you've lost love? Now
you have to go forward, so I think that's why you find love in books
and music and theater and movies because we all are looking at it,
again, inside ourselves.
Tavis: Let me ask you two quick personal questions before we leave.
You referenced earlier at least by hand design. You did something
like this. Do you write in Chinese? Can you write in Chinese?
See: I can do some characters, not too many.
Tavis: I was just curious about that. Finally, I want to go back to
something you said earlier. I suspect there are people watching right
now who, in all sorts of ethnicities and nationalities and races,
find themselves the odd person out physically when they gather with
their families, whether you're Black at a white family reunion or
whatever the case may be.
How have you processed that over the years, looking a little
different than most of the four hundred relatives you have here in
See: For me, I think so much of my writing - and this doesn't really
make it into the books, but just the process of writing for me - is
about looking at that. You know, where do I fit in when I don't look
like I belong in my family? Do I belong, you know, here? Do I belong
there? Do I belong anywhere? Do I belong nowhere?
I actually think that most of us do feel that and it doesn't
necessarily have to be a racial thing. It can be do you have curly
hair or straight hair? You're too tall or you're too short? All of us
sort of struggle with that, I think. So, again, that sense of where
do I belong and not necessarily belonging, looking like I belong in
the larger American culture and yet sometimes I don't get it. I just
don't get what's going on.
Tavis: Between the two of us, that sounds like a good book idea. I'll
give my address to you and Random House to send me a check (laughter).
See: Okay (laughter).
Tavis: You heard it here first. That's Lisa See's next book. You
heard the suggestion on the Tavis Smiley Show. Anyway, Lisa See's new
book on "The New York Times" bestseller list as we speak, "Peony in
Love," or Peony if you prefer, a novel by Lisa See. Lisa, nice to
have you on the program. All the best to you.
See: Thanks so much for having me.
A perfect example of how a family history should be written
By Julee Rudolf "book snob"
Genealogy buffs would do well to read this "One-Hundred-Year Odyssey
of [Lisa See's] Chinese-American History" as an excellent example of
how to write their own family histories. See, one-eighth Chinese,
interviewed "close to one hundred people" and with help, found
historical information from the late 1880s about her great-great
grandfather's generation on up to her own children by perusing
documents such as immigration records, photographs, letters, diaries,
etc., that is, in the usual way. The result, On Gold Mountain "the
Chinese name for the United States," almost 400 pages in length, is
an in-depth, well-written account of the happenings in the lives of
her ancestors, cousins, aunts and uncles. But anyone who knows
anything about genealogy will agree that while a person's own
genealogical information is, or can be, quite thrilling, another's is
usually significantly less so.
The main "character" of the family history, Fong See, was a
polygamist. His second marriage, to a white woman (his first,
unconsummated, was to a young girl in China) created the line from
which the author descended. He was a merchant by trade who sold
undergarments to prostitutes (during which he met his Lisa See's
great-grandmother). Later, he dealt in antiques and other
merchandise, creating a name for himself both in the Chinatown area
of Los Angeles and in Dimtao, his home village in China, to which he
provided monetary assistance.
While the information on the lives of Chinese immigrants in general
(including the ever-changing, often discriminatory immigration
policies) and Fong See in particular, were great reading, the book
was exceedingly long and overly detailed. I, for one, am not really
interested in the names and occupations of Ms. See's first cousins.
And less annoying but worth mentioning is the fact that the book's
standard format, consistent and chronological, changes dramatically
at Chapter 11.
Tyrus Tells His Story reads like a taped interview might sound.
In Chapter 14, Anna May Speaks (from the Grave) - visit
http://us_asians.tripod.com/features.-am-wong.html for more info), a
film star, unrelated to the Sees except as a family friend, complains
about her mistreatment by the film industry, the Americans, and the
Chapter 15, which I like to call The Improperly Edited Chapter,
contains nine paragraphs beginning with a single word or short phrase
(Pp 247-250), "Wives," "Children," "Grandchildren," "Business," "More
business," "Business and family," "The Japanese crisis," "Partners,"
and "Life story." Lastly, the inclusion of a reference to
California's Prop 187 (p 355) "Through Proposition 187, illegal
immigrants would be barred from receiving any state funds; this meant
no education, no welfare, and no medical care, except in dire
emergencies," seems a bit unfair. China's policies concerning illegal
immigrants are certainly much stricter than the USA's.
In summary, Lisa See is a very good storyteller, has produced a great
example of a family history and a tribute to her ancestors, but the
audience of interest for the overly long overly detailed On Gold
Mountain is likely limited to Fong Dun Shung's descendants, fans of
the historical aspects of Chinese immigration to America (or their
life in America) during the late 1880s and early 1900s, and genealogy
buffs. And if I weren't part of the last category, I'd have either
quit the book or slogged through and given it only two stars. Better:
The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan, the Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy
Tan, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.
On Gold Mountain
When she was a girl, Lisa See spent summers in the cool, dark
recesses of her family's antiques store in Los Angeles Chinatown.
There, her grandmother and great-aunt told her intriguing, colorful
stories about their family's past- stories of missionaries,
concubines, tong wars, glamorous nightclubs, and the determined
struggle to triumph over racist laws and discrimination. They spoke
of how Lisa's great-great-grandfather emigrated from his Chinese
village to the United States to work on the building of the
transcontinental railroad as an herbalist; how his son followed him,
married a Caucasian woman, and despite great odds, went on to become
one of the most prominent Chinese on "Gold Mountain" (the Chinese
name for the United States).
As an adult, See spent five years collecting the details of her
family's remarkable history. She interviewed nearly one hundred
relatives- both Chinese and Caucasian, rich and poor- and pored over
documents at the National Archives and several historical societies,
and searched in countless attics, basements, and closets for the
intimate nuances of her ancestors' lives.
The result is a vivid, sweeping family portrait in the tradition of
Alex Haley's Roots that is at once particular and universal, telling
the story not only of one family, but of the Chinese people in
America itself, a country that both welcomes and reviles immigrants
like no other culture in the world.
On Gold Mountain was a national bestseller and a New York Times
Notable Book. It is the inspiration for an exhibition at the Autry
Museum of Western Heritage, which will run from August 2000 to
January 2001. Lisa See is also writing a libretto based on the book
for the Los Angeles Opera, which will premiere as a community opera
in May 2000.
A Century of Untold Tales
Author Lisa See visits GCC with family history's `Gold' as part of
the Lang Lecture Series.
Michael J. Arvizu
A great-grandfather's journey to the Gold Mountain
A white woman and a Chinese man in a forbidden love.
A successful business venture in the underwear industry.
And a deadbeat great-great-grandfather.
Lisa See, author of "Flower Net" (Harper Collins, 1995)
and "Interior" (Harper Collins, 1997), spoke about these family
events and others to a capacity crowd in Kreider Hall on Feb. 28. Her
"On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-
American Family" (St. Martin's Press, 1995), chronicles the last 100
years of See's family
"On Gold Mountain" is a collection of five years' worth of interviews
See conducted with at least 100 members of her family, both Caucasian
and Chinese, that allowed her to piece together her family's past. It
tells the story of how her great-grandfather Fong See emigrated from
China to the place known as "Gold Mountain" (the U.S.), how he
married a white woman, and of his rise to become one of the most
prominent Chinese in the country.
In interviews with her family, See learned that getting them to talk
about the past is difficult. The excuse that she heard most from her
family was that it was boring to talk about the past. However, See
was on to them. Some parts of the past are just too painful to
For example, the way her family immigrated to the U.S. was
sometimes, "all-out illegal," said See.
"They had a lot of shame and embarrassment about things that had
happened," said See. This was the case for at least 100 years. It
wasn't until 13 years ago that a friend wanted to include See's
family in a book she was writing about prominent Chinese American
families in that would send See on a quest back in time.
See contacted her great-aunt to whom she explained the project. She
refused See's invitation to talk "We don't participate in things like
that," her great-aunt said.
See, therefore, didn't think much of it after that. It wasn't until
the book came out two years later on the eve of her great-aunt's 80th
birthday that this woman realized that she had made a mistake in
refusing to talk. The day after, See received a call from her great-
aunt's daughter with an invitation.
On the day of her visit, she learned things about her family that she
had never heard before. She learned about things she thought she had
understood, only to find otherwise, as in learning that her
grandfather had not had two wi<br/><br/>(Message over 64 KB, truncated)