Dynasty : Saga of colorful lives, lingerie and ‘LoSang’ : ON GOLD MOUNTAIN: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family, <i> By Lisa See (St. Martin’s Press: $24.95; 381 pp.)</i>
How does a penniless 14-year-old Chinese immigrant arriving alone in the alien and hostile world of California in the 1870s become a highly successful business man, the friend and confident of famous Hollywood personalities, and the patriarch of a large interracial family? The astonishing answer to this and other equally intriguing questions can be found in a new Asian-American history that juggles such explosive elements as race, class, tradition, prejudice, poverty and great wealth in new and relatively unexamined combinations; and is consistently as engagingly readable as any novel.
When Lisa See, at the request of her great aunt, Sissee See Leong, embarked on the task of recording her family’s history, she was facing an enormous undertaking. The West Coast columnist for Publishers Weekly, See spent five years interviewing nearly 100 relatives and studying letters and documents gleaned from family sources, as well as from newspaper and magazine files, the National Archives and the Immigration Office. Not only would it be necessary to deal with a great number of individuals, and a time span of over 100 years, but also with unique crosscurrents of cultural and ethnic diversity. It is this diversity that sets See’s saga apart from other excellent family histories of Asian immigrants.
Like other chronicles by such justly acclaimed writers as Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, See’s story deal’s with the difficult lives of her Chinese ancestors in their native country as well as the hardships, persecution and discrimination they faced on their arrival in “Gold Mountain,” the United States of America. The reader first becomes acquainted with a poor dealer in herbs and other traditional Chinese medications, who during a time of great unrest and deprivation in China, sets out for the “Gold Mountain” with two of his four sons. Fong Dun Shung, See’s great-great-grandfather arrived in California in 1867, where he continued his work as an herbalist while two of his sons joined the thousands of Chinese men who labored to build the Central Pacific railroad. But it was Fong Dun Shung’s fourth son, Fong See who, setting out from China in 1871 to find his long absent father, eventually became the patriarch of a remarkable Asian/American dynasty.
Fong See, See’s great-grandfather, must have been a man of enormous intelligence, business acumen and determination. Having arrived in Sacramento as a 14-year-old, he soon set himself up in business, at first selling merchandise from door to door and then, by the late 1870s, as a successful manufacturer of underwear for brothels. In 1894 Fong See hired an intelligent and courageous young Caucasian woman, Letticie (Ticie) Pruett, as saleswoman and bookkeeper and a few years later in defiance of law and custom they were married. Soon afterward Fong See moved his business from Sacramento to Los Angeles where he began the importation of Chinese antiques and artifacts, an enterprise that was to make him not only wealthy, but also a legendary figure in the burgeoning City of the Angels.
So the elements in See’s story that set it apart from other Asian immigrant sagas include not only very early interracial marriage and great financial success, but also a vivid depiction of the growth and development of Los Angeles (Lo Sang, as it was called by the Chinese community) during the early years of the century. Another intriguing aspect of the lives of the See family was their close connection with Hollywood, which initially developed because of their ability to supply the artifacts needed for films with a Chinese setting. Then, as the family’s business interests expanded to include restaurants, furniture factories and the first nightclub in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, members of the See family continued to be involved with famous Hollywood residents. Among their regular customers were such notables as Edward G. Robinson, Mae West and Walt Disney. Particularly intriguing and tragic was the story of the legendary Chinese film actress, Anna May Wong who, after successfully starring in many Hollywood films, was denied the one role she most desperately wanted; that of O'lan in “The Good Earth.”
In other Asian family sagas, accounts of interracial marriage are not unusual during more recent generations, but it was not only extremely rare, but also illegal, at the time when Fong and Ticie See were married. And other interracial marriages followed. Of Fong and Ticies’ five children, Milton, Ray, Bennie, Eddy and Sissee, only Sissee initially chose a Chinese spouse, and the author herself, a descendant of Fong’s youngest son, is only one-eighth Asian. Here again Lisa See’s story presents an atypical set of problems.
Although Fong and Ticie See were for many years a successful and devoted couple there were always difficulties, many of which centered around their children. The foreseeable clash of cultures that result when the children of immigrant families abandon the ways of their parents were compounded by an unusual mix of cultural pressures. Young people of later See family generations rebelled in different ways and to varying extents against the strict precepts of Chinese culture. Some abandoned all such beliefs and prescriptions, at least temporarily, in favor of wild parties, fast cars and expensive clothing. And young Asian-American girls were not inclined to abide by the “Three obediences” expected of Chinese females. (Obedience to one’s father before marriage, to one’s husband after marriage and, after widowhood, to one’s eldest son.) And even more disturbing to family tranquillity, some of the wives of See men, Chinese and Caucasian alike, were eventually faced with reconciling themselves to the ancient tradition of polygamy. Husbands were inclined to take on second or third wives and/or concubines, and to gradually accumulate sizable second or third families during extended business trips to their ancestral towns and villages.
This tendency of the See men to establish families in China, while maintaining their American relationships and businesses, sometimes had tragic consequences, as when bandits stormed the compound of Fong See’s brother, Fong Yun. Having learned of his relationship to the rich “Gold Mountain” man they carried off three of his children. During this sad episode, Thoey Lau, the one girl in the family, experienced one of the rare occasions when being a female in China was a distinct advantage. Girls were of too little importance to be held for ransom.
What emerges is a comprehensive and exhaustively researched account of a Chinese-American family as it deals with their rise and fall of several Los Angeles “Chinatowns,” with the exigencies of discrimination, fire, flood, earthquake, the Great Depression and two World Wars. As the family proliferates and the generations accumulate, the reader becomes more and more dependent on the family tree that is provided at the front of the book.
At times there are duplications of information that would seem to call for a little judicious cutting. A fascinating portrait of Fong and Ticie See and their five children appears on the book jacket, and this reader would have loved to have seen more family photographs. But such quibbles aside, “On Gold Mountain” is a noteworthy presentation of an extraordinary cast of characters. A certain amount of fictionalization--as when we become privy to the conversations and meditations of long-dead relatives is discretely done and easily believable. And throughout the lengthy and complicated account the reader is carried along effortlessly by the author’s skillful and absolutely convincing invocation of the fears, joys, loves, hatreds, strengths and weaknesses of her remarkable progenitors.