Years ago an NPR segment about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake peaked my interest in the lives of Chinese people, particularly those who immigrated to the United States. The interview revealed that San Francisco’s city fathers decided to deceive the rest of the country about the extent of the death and destruction caused by the 7.8 magnitude quake. In addition to doctoring photographs of the remaining city structures, they deliberately under-reported the death toll. The deaths in Chinatown were not even counted. This deception was designed to encourage investors “back East” to help rebuild the city. But it also reflected another reality of the time: Chinese immigrants, the dead and the living, didn’t merit an accurate headcount.
I began reading novels by Amy Tan and Lisa See to better understand the difficult and often perilous lives of the Chinese people. War, poverty, famine, political changes and social upheaval have sometimes led them to immigrate to America for a better life. I quickly became a fan of both authors and have read all of Lisa See’s novels: six of historical fiction, one non-fiction and a three-part mystery series. Each work illuminates the strong bonds between women, romantic love and love of country, often both China and the United States. See’s books have been published in 39 languages, and she has garnered international acclaim for her great skill at rendering the intricate relationships of women and the complex meeting of history and fate.
See’s bi-racial and bi-cultural background led her to research and write about stories that have been lost, forgotten or deliberately covered up. Born in Paris, she grew up in Los Angeles living with her mother but spending a lot of time with her father’s family 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 an extensive family.
See’s New York Times historical fiction bestsellers include Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy and China Dolls. 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. In China Dolls, she journeyed into the glittering golden age (1930s and 40s) of Chinese nightclubs. All of See’s novels, including a mystery series featuring Liu Hulan, an agent for China’s Ministry of Public Security, are available through the SaddleBrooke Libraries. Her latest novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, will be released on March 21. Booklist has said of the new novel, “See’s focus on the unbreakable bonds between mothers and daughters, by birth and by circumstance, becomes an extraordinary homage to unconditional love.”
Lisa See will be the featured speaker at the Friends of SaddleBrooke Libraries Spring Author’s Luncheon on March 13, 2017. Tickets to this event, which cost $29 each, are available at the SaddleBrooke HOA2 administrative office.