Monday, January 31, 2011

199 (2011 #4). On Gold Mountain

by Lisa See

This was Lisa See's first book back in 1995, back when she'd been the West Coast correspondent for Publisher's Weekly for twelve years and wasn't known as the novelist she is today.

Subtitled "The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family," it's an account of the See family history, starting with her great-great-grandfather, Fong Dun Shung.  He left China for the Gold Mountain - the United States - in 1866, working on the transcontinental railroad as a herbalist, and returned to China five years later a rich man.  Meanwhile, his son Fong See comes to America looking for his dad, starts selling crotchless underwear to brothels, and ends up marrying a Caucasian woman.  Lisa's grandfather and father also married Caucasians, making Lisa only 1/8 Chinese, with red hair and freckles.

Fong See becomes a very successful merchant in Chinatown in Los Angeles, lives to around 100, and has four wives (some concurrently, three married to him in China and one of those brought back to America) and twelve children.  Lisa tells the stories of all of them, Fong See's brother and his three wives and twelve children, the family her great aunt marries into, and the families of her Caucasian ancestors as well.  The result is a warts-and-all saga of a family that is also representative of the entire Chinese-American immigrant experience.  It's especially interesting to read how they got around the various laws designed to discourage their immigration and living in the United States.

There is an extensive list of sources (including  interviews with nearly 100 relatives and others), broken down by chapter, but unfortunately no index.  There are also maps and a rough family tree at the beginning of the book.  I found myself referring to the latter often to figure out who was connected, and how. See has also included black-and-white photographs of many of the people and places discussed in her book.  Her five years of research are obvious, and it's understandable after reading this book why her historical fiction (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, Peony in  Love) is so good.  I admire See for writing her family's history - I hope I can do the same some day.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]


  1. This is truly a beautiful book. Ms. See has an obvious talent for research and her efforts were rather astonishing when one reads the history of her ancestors. Not only does she historically account for chinese immigration to the states, but details the events and cultures of life in China. Tracing back to the time of her grandfather See-Bok's early years, Ms See writes about her family that turns out to be more than a page turner.

    The family is entertaining, intelligent, strong and industrious. Her grandmother is the star of the novel. A pioneer white christian woman, she is abused by her own family and escapes a life of servitude forced on her by them. In a central californian town, she talks herself into a job at a chinese underwear factory that caters to prostitutes. The chinese owner eventually proposes to her despite significant social complications. This is the beginning of one of the most important chinese families in America and their contributions to the art world and their personal tales of challenge and love in the early Los Angeles years.

    1. Completely agree with you, Netherland. Thank you for commenting!