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.]